Fishermen’s Trail day 4: Zambujeira do Mar to Odeiceixe (Alentejo, Portugal)

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I feel a bit sad to be waking on the final day of my hike. This happens every time I go on through walks. I want to keep walking forever. I slip out of the hostel around 9am, leaving the other walkers who stayed there to their breakfasts and warm beds. I want to savour this final leg.

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The tiny church atop the cliffs marks the start of today’s hike. I’m sure many sailors and fishermen have come here to pray for a safe journey over the centuries. Not to mention their wives and girlfriends who prayed for their safe return. The sky is overcast but that will change as I make my way ever towards the south.

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There’s a fantastic view out over the beach from here. Yesterday I took a photo of the same beach at low tide while this morning the tide is high. The contrast is stark. The low tide shows a lovely place to sunbathe and play. At hight it’s a more menacing prospect.

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The trail follows a road out of town. Looking back I take one last glimpse of the church and the village beyond.

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The path today will be totally different to the previous three. It’s less sandy and more exposed with narrow cliff side trails and steep muddy sections. We’re now in the place where a serra (mountain range) meets the sea. It will make for an interesting few hours in nature.

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I follow the footpads as they wind around the cliffs and steep sloes leading to the sea. I am used to this now and the increasingly gusty wind doesn’t phase me anymore.

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With every step I am one step further immersed into this meditative state that is my hike.

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I enjoy it all. Close up perspectives of tree bark and other small details engross me.

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And epic views of a seascape that fills my imagination with life’s possibilities.

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I allow my mind to wander and dream. Dream of possibilities that travel has made possile. Dream of opportunities I need only dare follow. Dream of chances to take and leaps worth making.

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I pass an isolated hut. It takes me by surprise and wakes me from my reverie for a moment. It’s cute nestled there on the grass and sheltered by the trees. It’s proof you can find comfort anywhere; even on the road less traveled and with choices less often pursued.

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The trail becomes overgrown. I almost have to crawl when I pass under a tunnel of shrubs and weeds. It’s muddy here and keeping my feet is a priority. And then am through back on the cliffs. The path extends before me like a mountain goat’s track.

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All morning I’ve been crossing streams that then plummet down the cliffs. At times I see them in the distance, many kilometers before I reach the water. This one rolls almost gently down a slope onto a beach where the water from the waves competes with the waterfall’s efforts to churn up the sand. It must be lovely to stand under when the weather is warmer and the tide a little father out. A natural shower to wash off the abrasive reality of salt and sand.

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Rocks form bridges with themselves. The water so powerful that it burrows through over the years. One day each will crumble and all we will see are two rocks standing proud. Time changes everything and nothing is permanent. Cliches made true but the nature around me.

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I stop for lunch on the final patch of gold-red sand before the end of the trail. It’s bitter sweet to know that around the next bend I will come to the river that marks the end of the hike. I feel a modest sense of achievement for completing the trail but also a deep desire to keep walking. My mind turns to other hikes I want to complete in 2016. Perhaps it will happen for me.

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The river marks the start of the final 4km of the hike. All I need to do now is follow the road to the village further upstream. I stand while looking down at the ocean and cliffs for the final time.

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A farm track leads me down to the road.

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And then I see Odeceixe across river. I find myself walking more slowly, trying to resist the reality of the finish. It’s always like this at the end of a through-hike. I never want it to end. But, naturally, it has to end somewhere. I cross the river and wait at the entrance to the village where my aunt picks me up ten minutes later to drive me home. It’s been a wonderful four days.

Fishermen’s Trail day 3: Almograve to Zambujeira do Mar (Alentejo, Portugal)

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I wake early. Today will be a 22km hike and I want to have the time to enjoy it. There are seven of us hiking the same sections of the trail. A group of three university students who picked up a fourth the second day. They had difficulty finding the start of the trail the first day so I helped them. But they made it clear they were a trio and didn’t even want passing conversation with me, so I just leave them to their own company. There’s a guy a few years younger than me who is walking a long way behind everyone. We shared a dorm last night and he is walking to clear his head of personal matters and leaves late every day, arriving at his destination just before dark. And there’s a woman a few years older than me who I bump into in the early afternoon every day, either because she passes me at lunch or I pass her. She’s walking a seven day trail down to the south of Portugal. We say hello but when we pass each other one of us is generally a ways off the trail eating or taking photos while the other is on the trail. Oddly enough, later today I will take a photo and won’t notice until later in the evening that she is in my photo. I was so engrossed in the nature that surrounded me.

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Today will turn out to be my favourite section of the trail. I am in a rhythm and want the hiking to go on forever. The endless sea views, the soft red sand, the rugged green shrubs, the sound of the waves crashing constantly against the shores and the sight of birds has already become my world, even after just a few short days.

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The trail meanders through a pine forest. It’s a massive change of scenery after walking so far along the beach. It feels almost warm to be in the embrace of the trees rather than exposed to the elements. It’s not a big forest but still it encloses me. Pine cones dot the ground and hang from the trees at awkward angles. There’s no wind today so it’s quiet in the forest. The trees almost even block out the ocean’s roar. Not quite but almost.

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Sand dunes greet me as I leave the forest and make my way back to the cliffs. The landscape in this part of Portugal most reminds me of home. It feels comfortable and familiar. The warm winter days. The soft sand with grains that are a rainbow of colours when you look at them up close. Pine trees and wattle flowers in bloom.

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The trail again leaves the sea to take me through a tiny village. Houses are scattered around in the fields around the village. As always, washing flaps in the breeze in front of the houses. I love the white walls and the way they make all the other colours in the landscape pop.

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I walk past a pig pen. The pigs are at the back of the large open air pen. They hear me and come running. It’s very cute. I guess someone walks here and feeds the pigs because there’s no way they are this excited to see me, a random stranger. They snuffle and snort around the fence. I find them as cute as buttons.

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Leaving the village I pass some run down shacks and walk towards the light house. Once back at the cliff-tops I notice this area is being developed with boardwalks and look out platforms. The platforms are situated well back from the cliffs in anticipation of further erosion. This whole region is currently being renovated. The streets of many of the villages are being dug up. New carparks and boardwalks have been constructed at many of the view points along the way. Always there’s the EU FEDER sign nearby so money must have recently been injected into this area.

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The cliffs start to grow higher and steeper again. You can see how tall they are in this photo because that speck on the edge of the cliff is a man. He is like a speck compared to the power and enormity of nature.

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This is spectacular country. The sea has carved the rocks into teeth and blades. A fisherman sits half-way down one of the cliffs. I cannot work out how he got there. But he’s there waiting for a bite. In my experience, men and women of the sea are like this. They are comfortable in this landscape just as I am comfortable in the bush (and definitely wouldn’t find my way down to the ledge he’s sitting on).

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Storks make their nests on the tops of the rocks and in the cliffs. Apparently, this is one of the few places in the world where the storks build nests by the sea. There aren’t many nests here though compared with the land where we drove a few days ago. Perhaps it’s too windy this year. I’m not sure why not. But the storks that do live here seem quite happy to drift around in the air seeking food or inspecting walkers passing by. It’s just a pity that I only have an iPhone camera and not something with a good quality zoom lens or I could have taken a better photo of this red beaked specimen.

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Coming to the end of the day I drop down a steep path into a small fishing village. It’s barely a few shacks that look quite rough and ready. The fishing boast are all pulled up on the shore out of reach of the waves crashing into the small harbour.

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A lazy dog watches as I pass, barely lifting his head to consider my presence. There’s no wag of the tail or bark or whine. The dog just looks up briefly and goes back to sleep. From the look of the shacks, life here is rudimentary and focused on the fishing season. The shacks are tiny, there’s fishing equipment everywhere, water containers stand on tall racks next to the houses and there are no streets, just a collection of shacks cluttered around in the dirt.

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From here it’s a short 3km (2 mile) walk along the road to Zambujeira do Mar. I arrive around 2:30pm so have to wait for my hostel to open. A patch of warm yellow sand in the sunshine atop a cliff with a view over the ocean below makes a fantastic place to relax and wait. I take off my shoes and tip the beach load of sand out of them. This is living.

Fishermen’s Trail day 2: Vila Nova de Milfontes to Almograve (Alentejo, Portugal)

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I wake to a bright and sunny day. The wind has died down and the sea is much calmer. It promises to be a wonderful day hiking. Today the trail is only 15km and I have nothing to race to the other end for. So I take my time. I’m barely 3km from Vila Nova de Milfontes when I reach a white sandy beach. It’s too good to resist and I spend about half an hour just sitting there enjoying the warm sunshine.

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Behind me are the first of the cliffs that I will walk across today.

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I climb to the top of the cliffs and the trail turns east through farmland. Today I will spend most of my time walking through and past farmland. The farms come right to the tops of the cliffs today in some places. There’s a turf farm and a carrot farm and a cattle farm and some market gardens.

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But don’t think that walking through farmland is dull. There’s still plenty to see. Like this moss covered rock.

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And this insect covered in pollen.

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And lots of pretty flowers.

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The trail is varied and at times heads back through the dunes to the top of the cliffs. It’s fascinating to walk in such deep sand at the top of such tall cliffs. I have always associated sand dunes with being at beach level, not tens of meters up like this.

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There are even sea shells up here.

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And plenty of signs of life. There’s plenty of bird foot prints, small animal tracks and even some deer hoof prints. It’s so thoroughly enjoyable that it takes me over six hours to walk just 15km. That’s slow for me. But I’m distracted by the beauty and have nowhere to be.

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I stop often just to sit and admire the ocean views. It’s just a lovely day to relax and walk a bit in between the relaxing. This is why I love hiking so much. You go at your pace in harmony with nature. You can’t fight it. When it’s windy like yesterday you move on a bit and when it’s glorious like today, you take it easy.

I arrive in Almograve late in the afternoon. I stay at an old-school youth hostel where the best thing is the 10 euro price tag and the kitchen that allows me to self-cater. There’s no wifi in my room so I fall asleep early for once (I usually stay up late to catch Paul with the time difference and to work / blog). It was another fantastic day today.

Fishermen’s Trail day 1: Porto Covo to Vila Nova de Milfontes (Alentejo, Portugal)

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The Fishermen’s Trail is a four day hike along Portugal’s south-west coast. Starting at Porto Covo, just south of Sines it follows the rugged wave battered and sun bleached coastline south to Odeceixe. The walk is broken into four neat village-to-village sections that make it possible to take on this adventure on the spur of the moment. And that’s pretty much what I’m doing. I read about this hike while we were in Granada and decided to incorporate it into my trip.

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The sun might be shining but the wind is blowing a gale as I set off from Porto Covo around 10am. The weather report says that the winds are blowing at 60kph from the north-west with gusts in excess of 90kph. The waves in the Atlantic Ocean are massive; probably bigger than any I’ve seen before. Handfuls of foam blow up off the sea and float through the air like a cross between a snow flake and the bubbles a child blows using washing detergent. Meanwhile, sand flicks up against my neck. Yes, that’s right, there is so much sand whipping up that it hits my neck. By day’s end what little hair I have will be filled with sand as though I had been rolling around in it.

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The first section of today’s walk takes me along a long wide beach. It’s an introduction to the reality of the Trail: you will walk in sand. A lot. Fortunately, I love the beach and hiking along oceans’ shores. There’s always so much to see and feel and experience. Like these huge blue bottles. We have blue bottles at home too but usually they are much smaller than this.

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It’s been raining for a week but today it is not. There were some spatters of rain as we drove to Porto Covo but nothing now. Back to the north (for you must remember to look back every now and then when you hike) there’s a full rainbow arching over an island that is home to a ruined defensive fort.

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The sand here is soft and yellow. I imagine this walk gets stinking hot in the summer months with the sun reflecting off the grains. It feels good to be out in nature. While I enjoy cities, towns and villages, it is here in nature that I feel most at ease.

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This is not a hike for anyone with vertigo or a fear of heights. The path often follows just meters from the edge of the cliffs, which drop tens of meters into the foaming ocean below. This is especially hairy in the gale force winds we are experiencing today because all my senses are filled with a roar. There’s the roar of the wind and the pounding of the waves and the constant barrage of sand crystals against the back of my arm and neck. This is nature at her best.

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I take shelter behind a rock near the trail for lunch. The view is amazing. Water and foam spray through the air as massive waves crash onto the rocks and cliffs. Papillion and his seventh wave theory spring to mind as I watch the pattern. Some waves crash low. Then every so often a wave crashes higher than the rest. I try to capture it on my camera but fail to do so.

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The cliffs are precipitous here. They’ve crumbled and cracked over time, leaving mementos on the ocean floor. It reminds me of the Great Ocean Road at home.

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I take my time, enjoying the 20km hike through the sand. My fitness has improved these past six months since I made a commitment to this aspect of my life. I’m unfazed by the constant trekking through the soft sand with a pack on my back. Rather, it’s the small things I notice. Like this portulaka plant that looks like a dragon crossing the rocks.

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And the pretty wild flowers growing in the sand. Some no bigger than the nail on my little finger.

I arrive at Vila Nova de Milfontes in the mid-afternoon. The town is similar to the others I’ve been to over the past week in Portugal. All white washed walls and blue borders. I find my hostel and take advantage of having the whole house to myself; catching up on my blog and chatting with loved ones at home. This is ‘me’ time. Time to recharge my introverted batteries and enjoy some quiet.

Rural ramblings (Alentejo, Portugal)

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We head out for a drive. My aunt has devised another fabulous route to show off the best of the Alentejo region. It’s so diverse that we can go for a fourth drive and have a totally different day to the previous three. And a different day it will be. Not far from my aunt’s house we turn down a random road. A sign indicates that there’s a church down there. My aunt hasn’t been here before so off we go. We drive and drive through paddocks where cattle are grazing. It’s a gravel road so well off the beaten track.

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We cross the swollen Sado River and watch in amazement as a big cow (or maybe a bull) swims it’s way across. It’s obviously done this many times before because it seems to know exactly where to go to make the trip as short as possible.

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We do eventually reach the church. It’s an old ruin dating back centuries. The structure is interesting and old. I imagine it’s a good half dozen centuries since it was built.

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We continue our drive. The next village is small. In the main square there’s a pattern of tiling that makes it look like the ground is ribbed but it’s actually flat.

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We meander some more through the rural landscape. Goats graze by the road, their bells clinking as they move. It’s a quiet slow paced landscape that is easy to move through.

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There are plenty of ruined old buildings that are falling down like drunks who have been out on a big night. Their whitewashed walls slowly fading and being covered in the colours of ruin.

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A village that doesn’t even appear on Google Maps boasts a glaringly white church. The church’s crucifix is pretty much sitting in the front yard of a woman who is hanging her washing out the front of her house. This is a thing here in Portugal; washing is not hidden out the back or indoors. It’s hung right out the front of the house. A strange sight for someone who comes from a country where the saying “don’t air your laundry in public” makes sense. I guess that saying wouldn’t mean much here.

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We stop in Cuba for lunch. The Cuba Cafe is lovely. We eat a salad of chopped squid and another salad that combines chicken and fish eggs. It’s tasty. Each dish sets us back 3.50 Euros. It’s a crazy low price but if it were higher the locals might not be able to afford to eat here. But there’s no way old mate in the bar can be making money either. He is proud of his bar and describes the many historic photos. There’s a cycling club photo from 1912 and a photo of a theatre group with program dating to a similar time. Naturally, there are also old photos of the bull fighting. It’s not the same here as in Spain. Here in Portugal the bull isn’t killed. Rather, eight men try to tackle the mountain of muscle and meat that charges them. The bar owner points us in the direction of the plaza do Toro (bull fighting ring). It’s closed now but there are enough gaps in the fence for us to get some photos away.

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We leave Cuba and are once again driving through green fields under a blue sky with Simpson-esque clouds. It’s a stark contrast to the red soil and rocks of the area around Mertola.

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There’s a castle in Alvito. It’s a pousada (state-run hotel) that has a cafe in it. We have plans to take a coffee there in the gardens but it’s closed for the winter. So we stop at a cute cafe where I drink lemon rind tea (hot water and fresh lemon rind). It’s 60 Euro cents per cup so, again, there’s not much money to be made running a cafe here.

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We walk through Alvito. There’s a church and some official buildings. The village is quaint and makes a good place to explore. I can’t help myself and have to take a photo of the man standing in the street. This is such a common sight here in Portugal. Men just stand around in the street. I don’t know what they are doing. Maybe they are talking. They’re not drinking tea or coffee, and they’re not smoking cigarettes. They just stand and watch the world go by.

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Speaking of standing and watching the world go by. I guess that’s what castles do too. They stand the test of time and the world just moves on around them. Here in Portugal they do anyway; the castles I have seen here have been in quite good condition compared with those I’ve encountered in other places. This is the castle at Viana do Alentejo.

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The castle is unique because it has five towers instead of the usual four or eight towers. Four of the five towers have smooth conical turrets. It’s quite pretty and from some angles might appear to be like in a fairy tale.

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At first we think the castle is closed but then we walk around to discover another entry. We have half an hour before closing but the man who works here doesn’t not seem to be concerned with rushing us. Inside there’s a church that has a famous entrance door. There’s a story to it but I have forgotten and going to search on Wikipedia would slow the flow of my thoughts. So you’ll just have to trust me that the door is impressive. haha.

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My favourite thing about the castle is that you can walk around the tops of the walls. Unlike in some castles, these are relatively narrow walls and the remaining buildings inside butt up against the walls, making it even more intriguing as I walk down narrow wobbly sections like moody corridors without a roof.

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The path around the walls actually leads to the roof of the church. It’s high up here and today the winds are gusting around 55mph (90kph/48 knots). I cannot hear myself think as the wind howls in my ears and all I manage is to blindly snap this photo of the church bell before quickly retreating; a little wobbly on the legs after the experience.

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It’s just after 5:30pm when we leave the castle. The man tells us we should go to the sanctuary just 2km away. If it’s closed we are to knock on the door of the first house opposite. The lady there will let us in, he says. We drive to the sanctuary and enjoy the visual spectacle of it glowing in the setting sun. Inside the sanctuary is an impressive array of religious motifs and a massive display that is a cross between a statue and an altar. But this isn’t the really interesting thing are the photos of the people in the rooms behind the statue/alter arrangement. They date back a long way; probably to when photography first became common because some are in sepia. We believe they are probably local people who have passed away for whom prayers are now said. Many are soldiers wearing khaki and holding rifles while smiling. Other photos are of young men in battle. And still others are of babies and children. It’s kind of sad but also a fascinating look at the town’s history. And, I guess, it’s pride in it’s people.

It’s dark when we exit the sanctuary. All that’s left to do is drive home to my aunt’s place down country roads about which I know nothing but the white line I stayed right of and the pot holes I dodged.

Mertola (Alentejo, Portugal)

Mertola is a couple of hours drive from my aunt’s house so we make it our destination for today.

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Along the way we see many many storks nesting on top of everything they can find. The storks do not leave this area to migrate anywhere for the winter. Rather, they stay all year round, making their huge nests year round.

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The landscape on the drive to Mertola is different to what we drove through yesterday. It’s drier and more rugged. There are gum trees and red soil farms that remind me of home. I can’t help but feel a little homesick.

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Mertola is a wonderful historic village on the banks of the Guadiana River. The river cuts a deep valley through the hills and the villages just perches on the banks like it is clinging in fear of slipping away. The village has been here since the Phoenicians settled it. At various times it’s been an important river port for the district of Beja but today only 2,800 people live in the district, making it the second least populated area in Portugal.

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The village is rich in history. It has a castle on top of the hill. The castle is now little more than a shell but the shell is still impressive to look at. Along the river are the ruins of the old river tower. This was used as a defensive post for the old port that once stood here.

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The Moors were here too, as you can see from the shapes in the church. And there are Roman ruins below the village’s current buildings. A museum in the basement of the town hall shows the archaeological findings that were dug up right in that very spot and all over the village. It’s proof of the impermanence of all human social existence. And a reminder that it’s important to live a good life because the riches and power will simply become dust but the energy we put into the world create everyone’s tomorrow.

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The village has many pretty elements, such as flowers and lemon trees. It’s obvious that it has set itself up effectively as a tourist destination because you can tell there’s some money here. A car park on the banks of the river is overflowing with campervans and there are many restaurants (though almost all are closed for the winter).

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There’s even a small free museum dedicated to the artisans of today and the past. Here you can see how wool is spun and woven. These balls of scrap fabric will later be transformed into brightly coloured scrap cloth towels. Apparently it’s a thing here; my aunt has a few such towels at home.

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As we walk around a dog barks at us from his porch. I stop and let him sniff my fingers. He seems happy now and grabs a sponge that is obviously his toy. He plays with it and drops it near me. I flick the sponge with my umbrella (I’m not touching the slobber). He chases it and we play a while until he decides he wants a pat. But pats aren’t enough … he sticks his nose under my arm and settles in for a bit. It’s kind of cute. Funny thing is that dogs almost always like me. But not usually this much. Haha.

Small towns and fishing village (Alentejo, Portugal)

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It’s my final morning with Mum. She’s heading back to Madrid after lunch and then flying home to Australia. We spend the morning out walking together in Grandola. It’s a small town that doesn’t have much to see, but that’s partly what makes it so nice here. We’re just in a random town in rural Portugal taking a walk.

I’ve enjoyed traveling with Mum and will miss her company once she goes home. We always have a great time together because we like the same things.

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After Mum and my grandmother leave, my aunt takes me out for a drive around the Alentejo. She has lived here for twenty years and is married to a Portugese man so can tell me about the things I see. I am not stuck trying to work out what things are. Like this ruined old house. Before the Carnation Revolution of 1974 this house was a nobleman’s (for want of a better title) farm. Like all these places, it was pretty much a village unto itself. The main house was the home of the farmer and his family. Small outlying houses were homes to the workers. There would have been a barn, a chapel and storage sheds. Today, structures like this are falling into ruins all over the Alentejo (and probably all over Portugal). They make fantastic photographic subjects though.

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My aunt takes me to Alcacer do Sol. It’s an old village on the banks of the now swollen River Sado. On a sunny day it must be absolutely gorgeous to sit at one of the cafes drinking coffee or lemon peel tea (made here from fresh lemon peel and water, and costing just 60 Euro Cents). Today it is overcast and cold so we take a walk through the village instead.

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Stories of the sea are immortalised in a tiled image behind this crucifix. perhaps there was once a church here. Or maybe the crucifix has always stood alone. It’s impossible to tell because there is said to have been human occupation in this area for over 40,000 years. The Romans, the Moors, the Crusaders, the slave traders and later residents will all have left their marks on this place.

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There’s even still an old outdoor laundry that looks like it is still in use. The water is murky from laundry detergent and the ribbed edges are worn from the washing of clothes. It’s not just a look into Portugal’s history but also the relative poverty of it’s people today, where the average household income is about 15,000 Euros a year including tax credits and allowances. To put that into context, the average household income in the US is 37,000 Euros, the Netherlands is 36,000 Euros, Spain is 22,000 Euros, Greece is 17,000 Euros and Poland is 8,000 Euros (but Poland still operates on the Zloty so costs are slightly less inflated there than in Portugal, which uses the Euro).

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There are some pretty houses in the town too though. Places that are cared for and freshly painted. They would look amazing if the sun was reflected off them.

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Our next stop is the fishing village of Comporta. This tiny village is famous for its fresh seafood and, my aunt tells me, for the fact that fishing is not only the realm of men here. Women take boats onto the sea too.

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The tiny fishing harbour makes me think of Indonesia. There are tiny brightly coloured boats, may with long sweeping curves in the bow. The timber walkways that lead to the boats is rickety and I tread very carefully. The water looks cold and deep. I realise just how brave fishermen and fisherwomen are as a breed. They rely on the sea and risk their safety to catch their income. The sea can be warm and delightful in summer but also cold, grey and immense.

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To my eye as a visitor it’s a pretty place vastly removed from my own home, despite the similarities of being by the sea. My aunt tells me that it’s crowded here in the summer when people come from all over to eat seafood in the little local restaurants. But today we have it all to ourselves.

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Our final stop for the day is a nearby beach where I watch a lone fisherman casting his line as heavy clouds loom out to sea.