Back to the Algarve (again)

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I’ve written about the Algarve here, here and here, but it is worth revisiting once more to recommend a couple of beach places we’ve discovered and enjoy for long beach walks as well as cliff exploring. The cliffs of the Algarve, primarily found around Carvoeiro, are fantastic for hikes, but if you just want to walk the beach and feel the sand between your toes, the beaches here are too small and short. Great for hidden hideaways, but not if you just want to walk the shoreline for as long as you can. That said, we’re also not big fans of pure beaches that offer nothing but beach; (like around Faro) – a rocky shoreline and cliffs provides a little color and variety which we prefer. We have two beaches that have become favorites of ours.

East end of Alvor Beach with Lagos in the far, far distance

Alvor is just west of Portimao, situated on the banks of the Odiaxere estuary (excellent for kayaking and paddle boarding), and a large stretch of beach that stretches back towards Portimao in the east and Lagos in the west. There’s a network of wooden boardwalks to walk near the mouth of the estuary, but it is at its easterly end that we prefer to visit, where orange-colored cliffs can be found with all sorts of caves and arches to explore. On the shoreline you can walk from one small picturesque beach to another (if the tide isn’t too high) and also visit a bar/restaurant nestled into the hillside called Canico.

Canico Restaurant and Bar

There’s also a staircase built into the hillside that will take you up on top of the cliffs that offers panoramic views. It’s an excellent place to take in a beach day, with a couple of beachside restaurants and shade offered by the large rocks and cliffs. And then there’s the beach where you can walk westward back to the entrance of the Odiaxere estuary.

The other spot we enjoy is Salgados Beach, which farther east, in between Armacao de Pera and Albufeira. Unfortunately I don’t have photos, but it looks about the same, although the cliffs aren’t as high. It tends to be more interesting to explore at low tide. It is at the east end of the beach, similar to Alvor, and you reach it through the seaside town of Galé. Here you’ll find beach restaurants as well, along with places to rent surf and paddle boards.

A visit to the Setubal Peninsula

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Well, after a few delays caused by a couple of dreaded the “C” diseases (Cancer and Covid), we have finally been able to venture out of our apartment and do a little exploring once again. It seems that our travels for awhile will be limited to Portugal as the borders in Europe are not all open yet and flying anywhere right now is not only a little risky but downright complicated. So we’re happy to just take this time to get to know Portugal a little better.

Our first trip out from quarantine was only 40 minutes south of Lisbon to the Setubal Peninsula. This region has been formed by the shores and estuaries of the Tejo and Sado Rivers, which then juts out westwardly into the Atlantic Ocean.

This large stretch of land encompasses a number of landmarks that are worth seeing and visiting. The most impressive is the 30 km Caparica Beach that makes up most of the peninsulas’s westerly shore. It’s a long, wide sandy beach that’s perfect for walks, surfing and swimming, and is pocketed with small beach clubs and restaurants.

Lake Albufeira (foreground) and Caparica Beach

At the southern end of Caparica beach is a land-locked estuary that forms a saltwater lake, Lagoa Albufeira, with clear, shallow waters that warm up considerably during the summer months, making it much warmer than the ocean. It’s great for swimming, paddling and kite surfing.

Bicas Beach

After Albufeira lake the land begins to rise, creating striking cliffs with a few small beaches interspersed such as Meco and Bicas. Meco has a couple of restaurants while Bicas has none and provides an opportunity to escape the crowds of Caparica and Meco.

Cape Espichel

At its most south-westerly the peninsula the coastline rises into rugged cliffs that come to a point known as Cape Espichel. There’s a lighthouse here, along with a church (Nossa Senhora do Cabo) that was one frequented by pilgrims traveling the Fatima and Compostela routes. Alongside the church are rooms that once functioned as an inn for weary travelers, with even a small opera house to entertain them in the evenings. 

Nossa Senhora do Cabo Church, straddled with what were once the rooms of an Inn

Inland, amongst rolling hills of pine forest, are a few small typical Portuguese towns such as Alfarim, Fornos and Aldeia do Meco.
On the southern shore of the peninsula is the Arrabida natural park, which runs between the beach town of Sesimbra and the port of Setubal. The rolling hills of the park are covered in pine forests, vineyards, a few small villages and a number or large estate homes. The region is known for its Moscatel wines.

Sesimbra

Sesimbra is a charming seaside fishing village that has become very popular with tourists. Its beach is more protected than that of Caparica, making it even more popular for swimming. On the hillside is the Moorish castle of Sesimbra, which was once an important defensive fort for early Portugal. The castle grounds offer stunning panoramic views over Sesimbra and the surrounding coastline. Inside the castle are extensive battlements, a church but most visitors simply visit for the views. Sesimbra has unfortunately seen a lot of large hotel and condominium development on its hillside which rather dominates over the town and takes away a little from its charm.

Setubal is an industrial port but it also has an old town area worth visiting, lined with many restaurants, and a popular swimming beach is at the westerly end of the town. There’s also an old fort on the hillside behind it.

We rented a cottage just outside the village of Alfarim and used it as a base to explore the peninsula. Staying at the cottage allowed us to continue to practice social distancing while still being close to the beach and amenities. The low-traffic country roads that meander through the pines and villages are perfect for biking and Lake Albufeira proved wonderful for stand up paddle boarding.

A visit to Marrakech

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After a rather wet fall and cold winter in Lisbon, we decided to head south in search of sun. We opted for Marrakech, to enjoy the hamans and spas, as well as, of course, explore the city itself.  My earliest memories of Marrakesh come from the song Marrakesh Express by Crosby Stills & Nash. I listened to that album over and over again as a teenager, charmed by lyrics and the excitement of taking a train from Casablanca to Marrakech.
As we were landing we could see the old rampart walls of Marrakech. Above these little rose, with most buildings having only 3-4 stories, and nothing above that except for the many minarets that rise throughout the city for the calls to prayer. In Marrakech, everything is pained in a reddish-brown color, so much so that the color balance of your camera is thrown off. The only other dominant colors are the blue of the sky and the white of the Atlas mountains to the south, draped in snow.
We stayed at the Hotel Les Jardins des Koutoubia, located just a few minutes from the main plaza of Jamaa El Fna, the main attraction in the area, and quite close to the airport. The hotel is older but nice, well kept, with amazing wood ceilings, and thousands of framed historical photos of Marrakech throughout. There are three pools, one large one inside the spa, which offers numerous types of haman, scrubs and massages. 

Jamaa El Fna Plaza and Market


The market area is quite large, especially when considering how narrow all the streets are leading into it. It seems to always be full of people, although it certainly intensifies in the evenings. And there is always something going on, with people selling the most simplistic things (tissue paper) to intricate handicrafts of all ages – young boys barely four or five, to elderly men who can barely sit or stand.  In the center are numerous stands with vendors selling freshly squeezed juices and along the perimeter a multitude of restaurants and cafes. 

Anyplace there’s room, becomes someone’s marketplace…

But commerce takes place anywhere here there is space. There are no rules nor regulations, everyone seems free to sell whatever they want, as long as it’s legal. Anywhere there is room to lay down a blanket or piece of plastic, a corner or right on the sidewalk, there will be someone trying to sell something. There are so many vendors selling figs, dates, and walnuts you wonder how there can be enough demand for any of them to make a living from it. 
Numerous streets lead out from the main plaza, taking one deep within Medina, the old city. Streets are very narrow, not wide enough for vehicles, so people walk, ride motorcycles, bikes, or pull carts behind them loaded with merchandise to sell. Accidents must be frequent as motorcycles travel quite quickly, so you have to stay to the right and close to the walls. And everyone seems to be in a hurry to get somewhere. 


These streets take you to covered souks for even most shopping, to mosques, more minarets and museums. Walking them, experiencing them, I can’t help but think that things have not changed here for a very long time. The way things are done today are similar to how they were done hundreds of years ago.
On our walks we continually had young men come up to us and very politely (usually) give directions or offer to help us out when we really don’t need it, and it was nearly always a ploy to direct us to their shop, or a family member’s shop. 
Prior to our trip I hadn’t been feeling well so this trip was rather different than our usual ones where I’m up early exploring the area, looking for good photo opportunities. This time we spent a good amount of time at the pools and spa of the hotel, regenerating ourselves. 
There probably are numerous attractions that are worth taking in in Marrakech, but nothing got us too excited. We found the number of people, so many trying to sell you something, and the blandness of the landscape and cityscape rather unappealing. It was a bit of a let down after the visions I’d carried for all those years from CSN’s song! 
Perhaps if I’d been feeling better, but I think after some 25 years of living in a third world country we are ready for more 1st world discoveries. There’s only so much time we have, it’s impossible to see the whole world, so we’ll most likely be concentrating on Europe, which not only close by, but very rich in history, we speak the languages, and we love the cultures. 

Exploring Obidos, Portugal

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img_0662We were in need of a weekend getaway so we decided to head north and visit the town of Obidos that we’d been hearing so much about. And we weren’t let down!

Obidos is a captivating medieval walled town an hour or so north of Lisbon, surrounded by rolling hills covered with orchards and vineyards. It’s set on a hillside, along a narrow ridge, allowing just a couple of streets barely wide enough for a car to run its length, and which are connected by a number of steep alleys and staircases.

The town was a gift by King Afonso II to his wife Urraca of León in the 1200s, and many of the building and monuments found throughout the town were funded by her. It became a custom thereafter for the current reigning king to pass Obidos onto his wife, who became its new benefactor.

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Ginja Stand

One enters the town from the Porta da Villa, a narrow gate that immediately opens up into a Baroque chapel with a high altar decorated in blue azulejos tiles. From here you make a left turn and enter into the town, onto either an upper road (Rua Direita) or lower road (Rua Josefa de Obidos). Direita is the main street, lined with quaint shops, boutiques, cafes, restaurants. Many serve Ginja, a cherry-flavoured liquor that’s a specialty of the region, from their doorways – one euro gets you a small taste.

The town itself is very picturesque with red-tiled roofs, cobble-stoned streets, white-walled homes trimmed with blue or yellow borders, and wherever you go, plenty of creeping vines and colourful bougainvillea.

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img_0691At the end of Rua Direita is the castle mount, founded by the Moors in the 700s. Over the years it has been added onto, primarily by the queens acquired the town during their reign. The castle is now a posada/hotel and you can actually have a room inside the castle. From here you can also access the ramparts and walk a portion of the walls that at one time defended the town. The walk provides excellent views of all of Obidos and the countryside made up of vineyards and orchards.

What impressed us most is that although Obidos is certainly a tourist attraction, it hasn’t been overdone and lost its charm. The shops and boutiques offer very unique souvenirs and handicrafts, locally made, rather than the run-of-the-mill types too often found at such popular spots. There’s plenty of restaurants, so do make time to have lunch there. The town itself can be walked in less than an hour, but add to it by exploring the delightful shops along the way.

Flojohn Travel Magazine

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The above magazine is something I recently created, mostly from the content of this blog, which is about our travels and what we’ve been up to over the past year. In my previous life I was a magazine publisher and frankly, I’ve missed the process of putting a magazine together. So I decided to make one from all the photography I’ve gathered and stories I’ve posted on this blog. Thanks to short-run printing, I’ve also printed a few copies, but just for family. A version without the ads is available here: https://indd.adobe.com/view/70cfd3f5-88cb-4657-9adf-411fab1094e5

Biking Portugal

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Anyone considering biking in Portugal, there’s an essential tool you must have and that’s the National Cycling Network guidebook, which maps out nearly 5,000 km of routes and includes GPS tracks in KML and GPX file formats, so you can follow the routes on your smartphone. As well, the guide has great photography and descriptions, so you have a really good idea of what your trip will entail before you begin.

The author, Paulo Guerra dos Santos, is an engineer specializing in road project design, so this is right up his alley. This was a huge project and he undertook it basically all on his own. I was fortunate to have some participation in the guide, as after purchasing the English version I quickly realized that his text could use some copy editing. I contacted Paulo and offered my services, for free, and he took me up on it. Worked out very well for me, as it has forced me to get to know Portugal’s biking pathways from north to south, east to west. I feel I now have a good understanding of the terrain and what to expect. I’m more than ready to begin and plan to start biking Portugal sometime this fall.

The National Cycle Network Map

Cinque Terre from the Air

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Making the movie above nearly cost me my drone. On the last day of this trip to Cinque Terre I got perhaps a little too confident in my flying abilities, and that of the drone.

Although I own a drone, I don’t consider myself as one who “flies drones”. Some like to race them, performing amazing maneuvers or tricks, but that’s not why I have a drone. I see it more as a camera that has wings. Getting the camera away from me and up in the air has opened up a whole new approach to taking pictures. With the drone I can place my lens in places where previously I could only accomplish with a helicopter or plane.

A photographer is always trying to find a new angle, searching for a new way to express themselves or their subject via still images or video. It is what has driven me to climb mountains, rock faces, to go to places where if I didn’t have a camera around my neck and an idea in my head of what a great shot this could be, I would never otherwise have done it. Good photographers are always pushing the envelope.

When I got a drone, I was quite conservative with my flying as I learned how it functioned and flew. I kept close to shore and away from potential objects I could run into. But the more I used the drone, the more it opened me to new possibilities. I’d start thinking, “Well, what if I were to…” I soon learned that if you aren’t getting into a little trouble with your drone, well then, you aren’t pushing yourself to get some really great shots.

But that’s also when I started getting into trouble. Continue reading

Visit to Cinque Terre

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Corniglia

Corniglia, in the middle of Cinque Terre

The week before we were to head to Cinque Terre from Nice, the weather forecast said it would be raining the whole time we’d be there. And the day before we left it did, indeed, rain. But then the skies opened up, the weather Gods looked fondly upon us, and we ended up with clear blue skies during our whole trip, until we returned and the clouds started rolling back in. Lucky again.

We drove over, stopping for lunch in the seaside town of Alassio. The drive should have been about 2 1/2 hours, but with the collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa, traffic was so bad that it added 40 minutes to our trip. We could see the bridge as we drove through, and also see the effect it is having on the city. It is making life terrible for the residents of the town. Unfortunately there is no good alternative route, so everyone that’s traveling on the coast freeway has to detour and drive through the middle of the town. It’s a mess and it will be for awhile.

Cinque Terre is situated on the eastern shore of the Ligurian Sea, a sea which has Italy for its northern and eastern borders, France for its western, and Corsica for its southern border. We had thought it would work out best for us if we had a hotel in the middle of Cinque Terre so it would be easier to access all the villages we wanted to see. We felt somewhere up high, near the village of San Bernardino would work best, and found a wonderful B&B called Ca de Ventu just above the village. And because of the clear skies that we had, we could see basically all of the Ligurian Sea from there.

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Ca de Ventu B&B (to the left)

Continue reading

Train (and bike) Ride to Tende, France

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We’ve been wanting to venture farther from the coast with our bikes, but not having a car to take them has made that difficult. So we looked into taking a train and found one that goes leaves to Tende, a small town that sits alongside the Italian border in the national Mercantour park, and allows bikes on board. The train follows what was the old “Route de Sel” or salt route.

Salt production and trading has been carried on in the Nice-Piedmonte region for over two thousand years. It was transported by boat along the Mediterranean coast to Nice and then brought inland through the mountains by mule. Salt was an essential part of the lives of those living in the Piedmonte/Savoy region, known as “white gold,” used to preserve foods during the summer in order to last through the winter, and for nourishment.

During the Bronze Age these were simple paths that followed the Roya River into upper Italy. Later, the Romans built roads, but by the 9th century they had disappeared, mostly destroyed by locals to protect themselves against invading barbarians using them. In the 14th century trade began once again as the Count of Savoy took control of the salt trade and improved the route. By the end of the 16th century the route was a road once again, linking Nice and Turin, and upwards of 30,000 mules loaded with salt made the trip each year.  The train route followed during the 19th century.

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Nice train station

IMG_4092What a surprise was in store for us, for not only was it a comfortable train and ride, with plenty of space for our bikes and us, but there was also a guide on board who provided a running commentary, in French and English, about the history of the places the train passed through on its journey north.

The train departs the Nice station daily at 9:17, from June until the end of September, (on weekends only in May and October), arriving in Tende at around 11:30. One can go the whole distance or get off at any of the 14 stops along the way. And the tickets prices are reasonable, our one-way tickets cost us together just 13 euros.

We were in for another surprise for as soon as we got off the train it began to rain. We rode into Brei-sur-Roya, but it only started raining harder so we stopped at a cafe for strong cappuccinos. After a half-hour the rain eased up so we decided to try our luck. Continue reading

Our time in Nice has come to an end

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Nice Pano 1After six years of living in Nice for close to six months of each year, our time is coming to an end. We’ve very much enjoyed the Cote d’Azur, and are not ruling out that we could be back sometime down the line as Nice just has so much to offer. The weather may be the best in Europe. The location, just next to Italy, with the Med in front and the foothills of the French Alps behind, is exceptional. There’s Old Town, the port, and amazing markets such as Saleya. Restaurants are wonderful and plentiful. The transportation system with the buses and trams works very well. The airport has more connections to the outside world, (136 direct-by-air destinations, at usually great rates, to places throughout Europe and elsewhere), except for perhaps Paris. The promenade is superb, as is the Pavillon park that runs through the middle of the city.

Most of our outdoor activities have involved walks, hikes, and biking. We’ve walked most of the coastal “sentier” trails along the Cote d’Azure, which I covered here and here and here. Once we had done those we started hiking up into the hills, which I covered here and here and here. When we were done with that we started biking, first along the coast and then up into the hills, which I covered here and here and here and here . And there are just so many great hilltop villages to visit, such as St. Paul de Vence, Gourdon, Eze, St. Agnes and so many more. In the winter (when we were in Europe) we went skiing in Auron or Valberg.  Although we’ve done a lot, we’ve really just barely touched upon all that there is to do in and around Nice.

As our time was coming to an end, we had just started traveling outside of the Cote d’Azur by car, into Italy and Provence, short trips that that only took a few hours, and which I covered here and here and here and here.

We’ll miss our daily swims in the Med from late spring until early fall. Will definitely miss the fresh food markets and the many wonderful events held annually, such as the Nice Jazz Festival, Monaco Boat Show or Grand Prix.

But there’s a lot going on in Lisbon and we look forward to discovering all there is to do there. More of that to come…