Thursday, April 26, 2007

The worthwhile Algarve

Portugal is not España, but we share the peninsula with her. And it was about the only place on the peninsula that didn't receive rain during this year's Semana Santa. The Easter holidays were a real washout for those who had gone to Spanish coast to lie on the beach or to Sevilla to watch the processions.

Alex and I spent the long weekend meandering through the (rainless!) Algarve, the southern coast of Portugal (map), in search of the less-beaten path through the region. We fell in love with some places and others made us cringe and get in the car and keep driving. The area is popular with good reason, but, as we found, there's a lot more to see beyond the big overdeveloped and tourist-ridden cities like Faro, Albufeira, and Lagos.

So, if you, like us, prefer to experience a more authentic Algarve and find secluded beaches and so forth, I have two main recommendations.

1. Just east of Faro you'll find the largest fishing port in the Algarve. It's called Olhão and it's not a prettified place. It's real and gritty, and full of Portuguese who make their living fishing in the Atlantic Ocean. There are two pensão in town, and the very helpful owner of ours gave us the ferry schedule to the islands just off the coast of Olhão. The ferry cost about 3 euros round trip, and was filled with Portuguese heading home to the island with their dogs and shopping bags.
We spent an idyllic afternoon on the Ilha da Culatra, where the fishing community is alive and well, sidewalks are the only streets, and the beaches are pristine. Having not eaten lunch, we headed for the first restaurant we saw after getting off the ferry. The waitress there didn't speak English or German, and there was no menu. She asked, in Portuguese, if we wanted fish or meat (how could we even think of eating meat on this island?)--I chose tuna and Alex swordfish. She brought out an appetizer of some of the most delicious steamed clams I'd ever eaten (above). The fish was grilled with green peppers and onion and very tasty. She also brought out a fresh green salad and crusty bread. We washed it all down with cerveja Sagres, which is remarkably good. She charged us 20 euros for everything.
We then wandered out to the beach, which we had to ourselves. After sitting in the sun for a while, we set off down the beach for Farol, another cluster of houses at the other end of the island, where we'd be getting the ferry back to Olhão. Farol, home to a lighthouse, was just as charming, but clearly more of a weekend house-type place, without the fishing business of Culatra.In Farol, the ferry unloaded what seemed like hordes of people, equipped with food and supplies for Easter weekend on the island, and we boarded the noticeably lighter ferry to ride back to Olhão, the setting sun and a trail of seagulls behind us.
2. Go west! After Olhão, the farther west you can get, the better. The highway ends, the hillsides covered with high rises cease, and there is generally more vegetation and fewer people as you head towards Sagres, the closest town to Cabo de São Vicente, or the southwestern most point in Europe. The coastline between the two places, about six kilometers long, is composed of stunningly high cliffs and the waves that batter them. The landscape is fantastic. A highly recommended beach is Praia da Beliche, about halfway between Sagres and the Cape, full of surfers and people enjoying its beautiful, wind-protected cove (below).We stayed in Salema, on a recommendation from a friend who had been and described it as "two streets with one hippie bar." When the highway ends soon after Lagos, you must take a national road to get any further. Salema is off this two-lane road: you drive several curvy kilometers towards the coast until the road ends and you're in Salema, which sits right on the beach. It's a tiny little town that's getting bigger thanks to construction of apartments up the hillside opposite the town proper. But it's not spoiled (yet) and there are so many fewer people than at other spots, that even if everyone is English or German, it just doesn't matter because the beach is so lovely and it's so peaceful.

Alex and I went to the Algarve with no reservations anywhere. We found a place to stay by wandering Salema's only street until a sign offering an apartment for rental caught my eye. We ended up renting a room in a two-bedroom apartment with a terrace, a well-equipped kitchen, and spacious living room for only 35 euros a night. (The man rents the place in August for significantly more.)We spent our last day in the Algarve in our own little cove in Salema, shielded by rocks on either side, until the tide got high enough that we knew it was time to leave.

"English for all"

I found the above clipping in yesterday's El País. Elections in Madrid (for mayor and president of the Comunidad) are in just over a month, on May 27. I was most interested in a promise made by Rafael Simancas, the socialist candidate for president of the Comunidad (region), that "100% of young madrileños will speak English" thanks to the implementation of the bilingual program in public and concertado (parochial schools that receive some funding from the state) schools until the year 2015. In order to achieve this promise, Simancas proposes investing 320 million euros during the next two legislatures. As an auxiliar de conversación in a public school, I'm part of that goal already (and some of that money goes to people like me!).

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Road safety

April 23 through 29 is United Nations Global Road Safety Week. I discovered this when passing my local government offices in Moncloa and seeing the above life-size model outside. People stopped to check it out, and I'm sure it made all of them think, just a little bit. I hope you do too.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007


I spent last weekend in a beautiful snowy place just two hours from Madrid: the Sierra de Gredos. A friend invited me on an expedition to Almanzor, the highest peak in the Sistema Central, or the chain of mountains that crosses the Iberian peninsula from Lisboa to Valencia. Almanzor is 2592 meters tall, or 8501 feet, and my friend had been wanting to climb it for some time.

I knew nothing about the peak before he mentioned the trip, and I read a bit about it in the links he included in his emails. But for whatever reason, I didn't fully digest the information. When, on our first day out, we arrived at Los Barrerones, a flat spot high above the Circo de Gredos (the Gredos Cirque), and my companions pointed out Almanzor -- an amazingly beautiful peak, a rocky horn rising from the cirque -- I thought, "How the hell are we going to get up that?"

It looked, for all means and purposes, like the Matterhorn. You know, one of those breathtakingly high peaks that you can't even fathom how people climb. Much less you.

None of this is to say I am inexperienced in the mountains. I have spent plenty of time in the hills but, above all, climbing the 4,000 footers of the Adirondacks and completing long circuit hikes, like the Alps Haute Route and a circuit of the Torres del Paine in Chile. Ascending peaks in the winter is very different, especially when you have to use an ice ax and crampons and the vertical drops are enough to make your stomach flip.

We got a bit of a late start on Saturday morning from the Plataforma de Gredos, the parking lot that gives good access to the area. The original idea had been to walk to the refugio (about two and a half hours), drop off our heavier material (sleeping bags, extra clothes, etc.) and then continue up to the summit of Almanzor (another couple hours) before descending to a hot meal and bed at the refugio.

We arrived at the refugio sometime around three o'clock. After eating something and getting our gear ready to ascend, it was nearly four. Dinner would be served at eight. On the advice of several people sitting outside the refugio we decided to postpone our summit attempt to Sunday morning. We'd start early, the snow would still be hard, and we'd be well-rested. So we spent Saturday afternoon heading up the trail to Almanzor to practice with our crampons and ice axes.

But on Sunday the group was ready to give up: one member had awoken with a sore throat and another's boots were completely soaked through. I couldn't help thinking that it would be a real shame to not even give it a try. So I said that. The sore throater said he had no problem waiting several hours for us, so the remaining three departed uphill, over the snow-covered rocks, under a cerulean blue sky.

The landscape of this area is just fantastic. The refugio is situated at the southeastern end of the Laguna Grande, a beautiful lake (above) surrounded by the peaks of the cirque. It had been snowing the week before, so everything was covered in snow. But since the sun was shining all weekend, the snow got soft during the day and hundreds of little streams began running. One of the benefits of going in the winter is that there's tons of water--and the sounds of it--everywhere. There are several waterfalls en route to the summit. In summer, apparently, it's a bit of a rocky wasteland with not a drop of water in sight (except for what's in the lake) and quite hot.

Shortly we were far beyond where we'd reached the previous afternoon, moving slowly and making sure that with each step the crampons and ice ax were in place. The trail just keep getting steeper and if I looked back, I started to fear the way down. One of my companions had commented on Saturday that she thought we had gotten quite far in our practice session. This was an illusion--it's not much distance to the summit (a kilometer or two) but, from the refugio, you have to climb nearly 600 meters up in that distance.

Pretty soon we could see the Portilla del Crampón, the tiny pass one has to cross to reach the last pull to the summit. But there were still a hundred meters or more to that point. The vertical drop was making me really nervous, and I decided I'd had enough. Luckily, there was someone coming down and he didn't mind at all having a little company on his descent. He calmed my nerves quite a bit and admitted that the mountain "está empinado" (is steep). The descent wasn't nearly as harrowing as I imagined.

An hour after I returned to the refugio, the two who had headed on to the summit returned. They hadn't summited, in part because one had lost feeling in his feet and also because they would have needed a rope to do the last bit. By the time we made it back to the car, we were exhausted and sunburned, but totally happy.

We'll be back for you, Almanzor.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

I'm published!

Somehow, the piece I wrote on Extremadura a year ago caught a travel editor's attention nearly a year later. Here it is.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Semana Santa on the highway

For the past several years the Spanish government has mounted a huge traffic safety campaign for the Easter holidays. Between Miércoles y Jueves Santo (the Wednesday and Thursday before Easter Sunday) there are more cars on the road than at any other time of the year in Spain, which produces, as you can imagine, a good number of accidents.

I remember being completely shocked a year ago when, just starting a week-long road trip, my boyfriend and I were greeted on the highway by computerized signs reading, "Más de 100 personas morirán en la carretera durante esta Semana Santa (More than 100 people will die on the highway during this year's Holy Week)." Chills ran up my spine. Holy crap, I thought aloud, that's really morbid. My boyfriend shrugged. "That's the point," he said.

Basically, the Dirección General de Tráfico is looking to scare people into being careful on Spanish highways. This year's campaign theme was "Hay muchas razones para no matarte en Semana Santa. Elige la tuya y hazlo (There are many reasons not to kill yourself in Holy Week. Choose yours and do it)." The reasons in the ads range from "Because you dig a girl at work" to "For your mom's croquetas" and "To not break your head open on the asphalt." The signs we saw on the highway this year included "110 people dead in Semana Santa 2006," "Lo importante es volver (The important thing is to return)," "¿Tienes prisa? (In a hurry?)."

, enough to make you think a little.

But is it working? The DGT's press releases show that for the past ten years, the number of deaths caused by accidents on the highway have exceeded 100. The hope was that for this year the number would be less than 100, in part because of the implementation last summer of the carné por puntos or driver's license points. Every driver with a Spanish license is allotted 12 points, which he or she loses by committing traffic infractions. If you lose them all, you lose your license.

This year there were 106 deaths, just four less than last year.

What does this mean? That Spaniards are just dangerous drivers? I don't know. But this year, the victims came closer to home: two were the parents of a good friend. The figures may look just like numbers, but when you think that every one of those was a life, the numbers start to look a little different.

Monday, April 02, 2007


It's Semana Santa here in España (that would be Easter Week for you non-Spanish speakers) and what's on the menu? Torrijas! Torrijas are French toast, Spanish style. Meaning made with olive oil. That's right, instead of frying the milk- and egg-soaked bread in butter, you drop it into a pan of hot olive oil.

I helped my boyfriend's mother make them yesterday morning. She had three bowls: milk, egg, and cinnamon-sugar. She dipped the day-old bread into the milk bowl, then the egg, and then the oil-filled pan. When the bread had turned a lovely golden color, she dunked it into the cinnamon-sugar bowl and covered it with the stuff. I ate the leftovers this morning with bananas and strawberries on the side. ¡Qué rico!