Location Portugal

Journal reflections: Portugal and the Rota Vicentina

Photo by the Grump. Portugal, March 2017.

Having no travels to go on other than to the dentist or the supermarket, I am occasionally flicking back through the past, jealous of the sunshine that once pinched my skin. I have kept a journal for many years and I vary in what fascinates me enough to be worth writing about. On my walk in Portugal along the Rota Vicentina with the Grump for company, it’s clear that there was one thing on my mind: food.

These extracts are taken from my journal covering March 2017. They begin early into our trip when I still had faith that the Grump knew how to navigate. He’s an excellent walking partner as he’s always willing to carry more than 50% of the weight, is willing to walk at my slow and steady plod and tolerates me even when my feet hurt and I’m blaming him for everything going wrong. He’s also much more organized than I am.

Italics are my commentary.


Breakfast was very enjoyable

… bread, ham, tomato chutney and apricot jam. I presume I didn’t consume the jam and the chutney together. The coffee machine provided a little challenge but a kindly lady provided assistance and I had both an americano and an espresso, making up for the previous day’s lack of coffee. Today I would be more adept at the coffee machine, I have learnt a few tricks over the last four years. I would also be better prepared; how did I get myself into a situation where I didn’t have coffee for a whole day?

It is wonderful to be surrounded by green

We debate the benefits of being out here in the open in contrast to the grey city and its pollution. I bite my tongue and try to say: The environment which surrounds you is your own choice. Sometimes my tongue becomes quite sore. I eye-roll too. With age, you might have thought I’d grow more tolerant of the human tendency to ‘gruntle’ along rather than act. I haven’t.

Walking along the irrigation channels. Don’t fall! Portugal, March 2017.

The evening is recorded in food

Salad, bread, olives, bread, pate. Beef, rice, grilled pineapple, black beans and homemade vegetable crisps. But the account is written as a backwards glance the next day during a breakfast of a croissant and a half, coffee and orange juice. In the village, nobody seems to have realised that it is morning. The shops have not yet opened. Time wanders free, only occasionally called to attention by the chime of the bells in the church tower. Maybe we should have asked for toast. The lady sitting near us has toast and a latte or something similar. Although the croissants were brioche, not pastry. Hopefully we’ll be able to get a proper lunch in Rogil.

Rogil doesn’t fulfil all my desires

… a long, straight and uninspiring street. We bought bread, ham, fruit and a replacement packet of biscuits since I’d almost finished the packet I’d bought in Faro. No doubt this is a true use of the singular pronoun and it was I, not we, who ate all the biscuits. Normally I’m reasonably controlled about my diet, but when I’m walking I tend to simply eat. If pudding is on offer, chances are that I’ll want it.

The way out of Rogil continues along the irrigation channel and so we stepped up from the path into a crop of pine trees and sat ourselves down on a trunk of a fallen (or felled) tree to make and eat our sandwiches. We’d upped the quantity to three each which was probably a good thing seeing as how long it was before we got to the hostel.

Cows. And what’s going on with that cloud? Portugal, March 2017.

From Rogil we walk to Aljezur

You might think that this meant that I ate nothing until I reached the hostel, but no. In Aljezur, I had a sweet potato and coconut roll. Somewhat like a jam roly-poly. And I drink coffee and we visit a supermarket. Then we took a walk up to the castle to admire the view before finally setting off to Arrifana at 4 pm.


At this point, it’s worth pausing because the map and the address for the evening’s accommodation didn’t all add up and things got a little stressful…

Portugal’s stunning coastline. March 2017

What do I want from a friendship?

Walk with friends
Exploring the Portuguese countryside with friends.
More or less near Porto, Portugal, November 2018.

Sometimes friends apologise for not staying better in touch. Perhaps this is because of some sociata idea of what it means to be friends. Sometimes, when they say this, I want to instead thank them for not being too much in touch. If every friend I had wanted to know about the minutiae of my life I’d not have any stories to tell. I’d spend my life glued to my phone and miss out on what’s in front of me. I find myself thinking, please don’t say that you’re sorry when it’s unnecessary and don’t do something because friends ‘are supposed to’. See me from time to time. Smile when you do and share some laughter. Take occasional moments to show me you love me, as I love you.

Yes, it’s true that I’m like anyone else and sometimes fear missing out. Sometimes I hear about a group of my friends meeting up and doing something together. I contemplate for a moment, how, if only I had taken a different path, I could have been there too. Nostalgia grips tight and I shake it off, like a dog shaking off the water after climbing out of a muddy lake. We can’t live all the lives laid out in front of us and I’ve chosen this travel-focused one. It’s pretty sweet. The dog still smells but you can hose it down later. Its tail is wagging.

Each friendship, of course, is different. The nature of some involves more frequent conversation than others. Some friendships work well though instant messages – the conversation is vibrant, funny and natural. Others seem to me to never quite get flowing through on a phone screen and yet, face-to-face they glide, effortless. Some in-person conversations leave me feeling rejuvenated. Some take some time to process. Most though are a mixture of both: a flood of warm feeling towards the other person, the delight of connection, followed by a readiness again for my own space.

As much as I fear missing out, I don’t need to know everything about my friends’ lives. I prefer to know what is devastating them or what they are celebrating. The extremes at both ends. And I prefer to be told direct, rather than through some other person in passing, although I’d also prefer to know than not know at all. I like long walks and conversation. I like sharing good food and bouncing thoughts and ideas back and forth. I like exploring somewhere new: a monument, a mountain, a bookshop or an idea. I like art galleries and museums and slow meanders through airy rooms where conversation flits back and forth in low voices: yes, history, politics, art, philosophy, but gently so.

I like people making me laugh. Hysterical giggling and hula hooping.

I like friendships that look forward more so that backwards. People who suggest places to visit next year and things meanwhile I could read this year, because they saw it, read it, and thought of me. I like seeing photos of job offer emails and chickens.

I love gifts, like hand-knitted socks.

But most of all I love when I can be with someone and feel comfortable being neither more nor less than me.

You all know who you are and I’m grateful for you all.

At what point do I get a spreadsheet out for my travel planning

travel planning for hiking (Rota Vicentina)
The colour of the cliff against the sea made me want to rub the dirt between my fingers. Rota Vicentina, Portugal.

When the Midget and I did a three-week train adventure in Eastern Europe I booked our flights, the first two nights’ accommodation (in a hostel dorm) and the overnight train travel that would get us to Amsterdam on the right morning to meet the Dutch Kiwi – who kindly invited us to stay for a few days.

For some people, an attitude of planning as you go along must seem abhorrent

It certainly does have its downsides. After all, you spend a significant amount of your time staring at maps and trying to get good enough wifi to make a booking for the next night (or at least you did in the past when foreign data was so expensive). This is precious time that you’d prefer to spend staring at gargoyles or petals. If your holidaying time is limited, then there’s often a feel that you need to be looking outward not down at your phone. And perhaps, particularly in busy seasons, on tight budgets or in unusual locations then there’s not all that much choice to begin with.

Even less at the last minute.

Urgency however, has a value. It forces you to make a choice. When you’re running to a deadline it’s often easier to get things done. Being able to book accommodation without excessive hesitation is a skill that has come with practice and has now saved me hours.

Sometimes, having this flexibility pays off in a big way

I went to France for two weeks and stayed for two months. I went to Spain for seven weeks and stayed for three months. Imagine if I’d had a flight booked, or accommodation booked, and had therefore turned down the opportunities that developed around me? On both occasions I could have stayed longer, I was invited to stay even longer, but I had plans made elsewhere.

On some occasions though, a solid plan makes a trip

For me, this includes almost all travel done with anyone else. I’m used to my own stress and have coping strategies in place for being lost in train stations, unable to find the right bus and sat on the doorstep waiting for someone to let me in. What I find much more difficult is having someone else there beside me, tapping their foot, rustling the papers or bemoaning the situation. When you are with someone else, you are, in part, also responsible for them.

I’m also keen on having plans when I’m hiking. It’s tiring, physical work and the truth is, I don’t want to be walking and worrying about where I’m going to be sleeping. It can be difficult enough just with the blisters between your toes.

Last year The Grump and I walked a section of the Rota Vicentina on the coast of Portugal

It’s a stunning walk down to Cape St. Vincent, and for someone like me who prefers the walking to the map reading, it’s a gift because it’s so well marked. Since we were changing accommodation almost every night, and staying in small villages, it made sense to book everything in advance. I believe that the Grump would be happier if we also had the location of the nearest market, nearest bakery and reviews of all local restaurants all researched before either of us set foot in an airport, but where we’re sleeping and how we’re getting there tends to be enough for me. When you’ve got so many nights, each in a different place, having a spreadsheet becomes invaluable. Hiking is not meant to be a stressful endeavour.

My spreadsheet looks something like this:

Location 

Address

Contact Number

Name of Host

Kitchen

Breakfast

Cost (Euro)

Cost (GBP)

Amount Paid

Who Paid?

Notes 

Location is the name of the place as we remember it. Pronounced wrong. The address is what we’re going to google when we’re lost. The contact number is rung when we discover that the address on google has failed us. And the name of the host is another way of keeping nights separate in our brains.

If we’re splitting the cost, we can need columns for settling money – sometimes multiple currencies – and a statement of whether or not we’ve actually paid. Then there’s the weird notes, like that we can get the key from the grandmother who lives two doors down.

The kitchen column exists because quite often I prefer to book somewhere that I have access to a kitchen. Eating out every day is expensive, and sometimes you’re not seeking something fancy. All you want is a bowl of soup heated up in the microwave, somewhere that you can kick off your boots and curl up on the sofa.

However, a plan is just a plan

It’s a model of the situation you expect. But during travels you are, from time to time, going to happen upon the unexpected.

Breakfast, for example, is a word with a different meaning depending on where you are. If you book somewhere in England and it includes breakfast, you probably can skip lunch. If you book somewhere in Italy or Spain, you might fine what you actually have is a mug of coffee and a biscuit. You have to be at ease with some unknowns.

Even when you think you’ve got everything organised and multiple copies of the spreadsheet printed off, it cloud-stored and emailed back to yourself, you can still find yourself wandering around the wrong village (Arrifana) at nine o’clock at night. Plans don’t always play out as smoothly as a spreadsheet suggests. Sometimes you grit your teeth, try your hardest not to say anything unkind to your normally lovable companion, and call someone for help.

Asking for help is a much more important skill in travelling than making fancy spreadsheets

If you want to get better at travelling, get better at asking for help. You might find that someone’s willing to rescue you when you’re drowning in the Yorkshire Dales or that when you’re desperate for a cup of tea, the hotel receptionist will fill your mug with boiling water, even though it’s midnight and they normally charge for hot drinks. Having a tidy spreadsheet doesn’t keep you dry or your tummy full.

There was a miscommunication at the final moment of our Rota Vicentina walk

At the point I thought I’d finished my 150km walk and sat down with my ice cream to celebrate, there was still 5km left and it needed to be done asap as otherwise we’d miss the bus. The Grump set the pace, I trudged along behind. By then, my feet really hurt. And yet, the next morning, we found a bakery where the Grump had savoury crepes which came with a huge helping of chips and I tackled the pastries and coffee. Although it was raining outside and we were both tired, we laughed at it all and appreciated what we’d achieved.

Despite this, or maybe because of it, this year the Grump and I are switching Portugal for Italy and are walking a section of the Via Francigena. Although it’s a few months away, we’ve booked our accommodation, the Grump has booked his flights and I’ve made a beautiful spreadsheet. Now I don’t have to worry about it until just before I leave when I remember I need to pack.

What is the difference between holidaying and travelling?

Jardim Botânico da Madeira
One of my many photographs from the Jardim Botânico da Madeira.

For the first time since I was a child, I have a good night’s sleep before an early flight. So good in fact that I awake to the half past four alarms (we set a few), startled. I’m genuinely unsure where I am or why I’m there.

The Mother does a passport check – yes, I have mine – and we take the shuttle to the terminal. In the queue to drop off our baggage the Father takes my passport from me. He hands all four, in a neat stack, over to the man at the counter. I’ve stuck at the back and have to pop my head up for my face to be confirmed as a match.

My seat on the plane is a window seat. I laugh at this. For almost all the flights I have ever taken on my own, and there have been many, I have been allocated a window seat. Feeling that I have had the delight of the view many times, more often than my sister for example, I offer the seat up, but nobody wants it. I don’t understand. The sky in the early hours is a beautiful thing, even if it’s chucking it down. I’d always chose the window seat.

Once landed, we pass through security. All four of us manage to negotiate the electronic passport machines. Ahead of me are the carousels, the Father and Midget look ready to pounce on our luggage. I smile, the airport signs for the toilets are a match to the ones I saw in Faro in March. I like them because someone’s dared to be creative – the women aren’t in skirts. There’s also something about a sense of familiarity.

My brain jumps, as it now always does in a language explosion, to the adverts and posters. I read every sign and spend most of my time in the terminal with a furrowed brow. I don’t speak Portuguese, but travelling, especially travelling alone has made my brain pay attention to words I don’t know. I’m beginning to believe all that science about neuro-plasticity.  I’m working not with one language, but with a weird multi-language pattern recognising zone of my brain which a few years ago barely existed. I’m still no better at speaking any of the languages I don’t speak, but I’m getting noticeably quicker at recognising patterns.

However, I spend the holiday surrounded by English. I can say ‘por favor’ and ‘obrigado’ but when I greet the man at the bread counter I’m ashamed that I can’t even count to ten – all I want to do is get four bread rolls – this ineptitude I feel is ridiculous.

But this isn’t travelling, it’s just a holiday. It’s a beautiful holiday. I swim in the pool with the Mother, play tennis with the Father and pool with the Midget. I buy and eat fruit from the market that I can’t name in English, and bathe in the gorgeous warmth of the sun. After a few days, I begin to realise that it’s been a long time since I’ve had a holiday like this. It feels deserved.

Which just goes to show how much I’ve grown in the last few months. My endeavour to have a gentler brain is working. There was a point where I criticised myself when travelling, even though I genuinely believe that’s what I want to be doing, and that it’s good for me.

The grandmother would ask, “Are you off on another holiday?”

And I’d not know what to say, other than, “Yes.”

Perhaps, at a first glance, the difference isn’t so big. When I lived in Barcelona I swam in the sea, sunbathed on the beach and, in the evenings, drank wine with a couple of American ladies. Taken at face value, it certainly looked like a holiday.

The difference however is in the mindset. On holiday, you’re getting away from it all, you’re relaxing, you’re allowing yourself to be diverted from the normal course of your life – temporarily. When travelling, (at least for me), you’re getting under the skin of something. You’re learning, listening, thinking intensely and allowing the experience to change you – permanently.

Toilet sign Faro Airport
The toilet sign that made me smile.

Perhaps time to upgrade my travel planning technique

travel planning
Photo of a wall in Warsaw, Poland. On our Eastern Europe trip, the Midget and I did a lot of making it up as we went along.

Some people are meticulous when it comes to planning a holiday.

On taking a suitable map

The first real travelling I did was driving to Sweden with a friend. It wasn’t a long trip. We were gone all in all only three weeks and we took the ferry from Kent to Denmark, so we only had to drive through two countries.

I’d never driven on the ‘wrong’ side of the road. And this was a time before blind following of the satellite navigation propped up on the dashboard. Or a phone with worthwhile mobile internet. What we had was a road map – of the whole of Europe – and a guidebook which explained speed limits, keeping your lights on and the importance of having the right number of high visibility vests.

I drove out of the ferry terminal in Denmark, turned left across four lanes of traffic, window wipers screeching, lights on.

A surprising reality of ad hoc navigation

travel planning
“Which way up?”

That first half hour of driving felt comparable to escaping Rome (which involved an emergency switching of drivers just before hitting the Rome ring road). We stopped at a McDonalds for coffee and to breathe.

A few days later, we reached Copenhagen. It felt an impressive feat, driving in, parking, going out for lunch, and then driving out, following the signs for Sweden. Copenhagen on our map was entirely contained in four inches squared. Squinting didn’t help. We drove into Malmo, circled around a bit, found the hostel we were staying at, and parked without nothing much more than an address.

And I’ve got no idea how. In hindsight, blind faith is not a navigational technique I’d advise, but it did somehow work for us.

More miraculously, on the way back, we also drove into Copenhagen, parked in exactly the same parking spot – this is without any idea of which side of the city we were on – and went out for lunch.

On itineraries and spreadsheets

Very soon, I’m going to Portugal with the Grump. I’m getting the impression that the Grump wouldn’t turn up in a foreign city without an adequate map. I’m imagining his luggage being 50% paper print outs of tickets and plans. For me, this is going to be an education.

I wrote an itinerary and made a spreadsheet. I’ve emailed booking confirmations and asked AirBnB hosts for their precise addresses more than 24 hours prior to arrival. This is all new for me. While I’m normally pretty good at booking longer trains and planes in advance, having all the information neatly arranged is somewhat foreign.

It takes some urgency to make me think, where am I going next.

I can be adaptable and accommodating though… I think…

 

[Written mid-March.]