Christmas in the Algarve

Sounds like a Hallmark movie. Yeah, maybe but not on this streaming platform!

We flew to Seville first. Stayed 2 nights and took a bus to Albufeira to join friends from back home.

Sevilla!! Oh what a beautiful city! Our taxi from the airport took us along flat fast highways and into grey pavement and nondescript modern “could be anywhere” buildings. Dropped us off at our street, in the historic area called los Curtidores; the leather tanners. He explained that there were 18 gates (gates, what gates!) and that 4 still exist. The influence of Roman building, Moorish expansion, the military function of the church during the Crusades, to the dismantling afterwards has lead to a city with modern, medieval, Moorish and delicious patina. In the fading light our nondescript accommodation gave us no clue as to the advantageous locale we had been dropped of in. After accessing and getting settled in our spacious bachelor suite (albeit, pungent with musty aromas, no doubt the result of a recent heavy rain event). We ventured out into our new neighborhood to explore. It turned out that, from this excellent proximity, we were quite content to stay put in the old town for the two full nights and day between, of our stay.

Orange trees dripping with bitter oranges line every wide street and plaza. OF COURSE!! Seville oranges make the best marmalade!! So now they were shade trees and orange spotted greenery. The winding, old and cobbled narrow streets were often just wide enough for two people to pass uncomfortably. In the chilly evening, simply walking this mysterious labyrinth was entertainment enough. But there were layers of history (approx. 2200 years of it) and, like other old cities we had visited, a spirit to the place that made the whole experience memorable.

The first night there, we knew that Spain wakes up at about 5 and that dinner is rarely consumed before 8pm. So we headed out to see her night time mood. The final two weeks before Christmas showed evidence of lights and brights, Santa and Elves, gifts and bells. We noticed many families strolling the decoration lined shopping areas. Around the corner and into a large square with a light show, chestnuts roasting and music blaring, my nostalgia kicked in and the suppressed tears welled. It was glorious for sure. And there were angels on high. We strolled and eventually (with very little difficulty) found some tapas and Rioja.

On the way back to our abode, we stopped for a few breakfast provisions including milk for the daily cafe con leche. However, we accidentally bought pourable sweetened yogurt. It was delicious on our fruit with black coffee on the side. Sigh. Too much Rioja? And speaking of Rioja!! We also needed to provision for wine. So, at the till Al noticed the wine section behind the counter. The store clerk noticed Al glancing up to the wine shelves and quickly gesticulated and remarked that it was 2 mins. to 10PM and if we didn’t decide on one quickly we would be out of luck because as we rapidly connected the urgent signals (our Spanish not being 100%) he couldn’t sell any because of the hour of the day. Well quick action in pointing to a bottle indicating “Rioja” saved a crisis of unknown proportion. LOL!!

Our full day in Sevilla brought us to the tourist info to get the low down on what not to miss in 24 hours. The cathedral and Real Alcazar were suggested with a package deal including two tours. So we put that into our vault of knowledge (saving about $190 EU in the process) and took a leisurely stroll to the Plaza de Espana. Through the enormous Maria Luisa park garden and around the corner to a semicircular structure made of brick and azuleja decoration. It has many styles from Art Deco to various revival architectures including Renaissance, Baroque and Moorish.

This massive free public space was designed and built for the Ibero-American World Fair in 1929. Surrounded by the park, it has a moat with rowboats that can be rented. Each Spanish province with coat of arms and capital city are depicted at every column around the building. The Azulejo artwork illustrating local scenes continue into benches with mini libraries at each junction between the provinces. We spotted many visitors having their photos taken at their respective locale.

The gardens in Sevilla have some of the largest trees in Spain (apparently) with gigantic Australian Banyon or Morton Bay Fig trees spotted through a few locations. We indulged in the offerings of vendors selling fresh roasted chestnuts conveniently situated along our walk from the plaza to the lovely pedestrian pathway beside the Rio Guadalquivir which is the only navigable river in Spain.

The weather was sunny and warm which came as a welcome change to the increasing winter weather we left in the Garfagnana. Turning back towards the old town center we admired the monuments (churches, city buildings, statues and sculptures) from the middle ages. Walking through the winding streets (they are laid out in concentric circles so getting lost is a cinche) we happened on the famous Seville Bull Fighting arena or Plaza de Torros and hammed it up in make-beleive style, as matadors. What next!?

There was an attraction called the Mushroom Plaza that caught our curiosity so we meandered the streets following googles advice to this spectacle. Located at Plaza de Encarnacion officially titled Las Setas de Seville. The area is a public square with a massive overhead lattice cover made of Birch from Finland by German architect Jurgen Mayer. Completed in 2011 it took six years to build. An impressive work that covers a large multi level area. Underneath it is a good place for a shopping destination with food markets, restaurants and shops. We took it all in, which, by the way, is hungry work. Ah! that’s why all the restaurants!! So we indulged in that too. The following picture is the best way to explain.

We finished off our walking day with a fantastic tapas find. Casa Al Viuda. Sitting at the bar we could watch all the food and the people devouring it. We tasted 100% acorn fed Iberian ham from the “Black Pig”, fried anchovies to pop and eat, braised beef oxtail with a lovely Ribero del Duero wine. Next to us we saw eyes rolling back and asked what they had. Bacalau with a creamy gratin sauce. We were too full to order it, well overfed and left there spending about 30 Euros. We will be back…

Next morning we headed to the bus terminal. En route we found an artisan market and bought vacuum packed 100% Acorn fed ham and some that was grain fed. We wanted to taste the difference when we landed back in Portugal. We also saw a kiosk selling Christmas ornaments. In a previous conversation with a fan of these figurines from back home they described a certain character distinct in the Catalan area, we asked the proprietor of the kiosk if they had any “Caganers” a defecating figurine (yes, that’s the right word!) not easily found in North American Nativity scenes. Yup, and check that off our list of souvenirs! LOL!!

When the time came to pack up and get the bus to Portugal we realized that the two days allocated was too short a time for a city like Seville. The promise to return is not just “another one” but resolved in our memories as a must do of the future. Here are a few more pictures from those short but impactful meanderings in Sevilla.

We were off to Albufeira, the Vegas of the Algarve, where our bus would drop us. Our Parksville friends, Danielle and Butch, picked us up, and took us to our next 3 week villa accommodation in an outskirt suburb called Olhos de Agua.

First off, visit! Eat! Drink! Catch up! Then we had to make the summer accommodation look Christmassy festive before their kids arrived. Well located was the community market and the fully stocked IntraMarche grocery store. A five minute drive away was the Pingo Doce and Continente stores which also had excellent food and prices. By the end of the stay, eating well and drinking plenty, we figured out that our average cost per person per day cooking our own meals, was 9 Euros, truly sparing no expense.

We explored along the coast just a 10 minute walk from our door. The coastline changes at Olhos de Agua. To the east it boasts long sandy beaches that continue into south Atlantic Spain. To the west the craggy cliffs that wrap around to the west coast and up north to northern Spain. When we were in the Algarve in October we experienced the Fishermans trail along the cliffsides. But our first long walk from Olhos de Agua going east towards Vilamoura was a mix of crumbling sandy cliffs transitioning to long sandy beach called Praia de Falesia. We walked about 5 k of it, 10 out and back. Most of the time this beach had very few people on it, but during the Christmas week, it was much more populated. Christmastime was warm and people braved swimming in the cool ocean temperatures. Probably because it was warmer than most unheated pools in December and many of these indulgers were probably from home climates where the breaking of surface ice was a common preparation for open water swimming. This photo shows Olhos de Agua in the center and to the right the clifftops and beach of Praia de Falesia.

We missed our family and friends during the Christmas season but sharing Christmas with the Gaytons was a great event in lieu of having our own immediate family (sisters, nephews and nieces), Eric, Elly and Deb’s folks around. We managed to have cheery conversations over Whatsapp with most and connected via long distance video call satisfied that this was the next best thing. We have resolved to amend this by building in plans for Christmas 2023 that see us with family or others travelling to wherever we are. That said, we felt happy and fortunate for the family Gayton love and camaraderie.

Upon renting bikes we found the fishing village proper of Olhos de Agua. We locked up the bikes explored some of the interpretive signs sprinkled throughout and found the reason for the name. Years ago a shepherd was grazing his sheep on the bluff above the ocean. The sheep headed into the low tide, onto a rocky outcrop and started drinking the water in the tidal pools. He was shocked, worried for his sheep, and tasted the water. It was not salty. Natural springs at low tide provide fresh water. Ha! We called Butch and Danielle, and met them for some Vinho Verde and a tapas over the water. We returned a few times as it is a sleepy little borough with few people. New Years Eve however was raccous and had a fireworks lightshow that lasted at least half an hour. We were able to watch it from our second floor bedroom balcony outside of the coastal center.

Our second day on our bikes we rode to Vilamoura and Quarteira. We rode through the park above Praia de Falesia and dropped down to the road through a massive campground full of French and German campers. We wound up on a flat road that went right into the towns. There were lots of people on bikes that we assumed were camping. Vilamoura is a new resort-like town built around a chichi marina. As we circumnavigated the marina we wound up in the older beach town of Quarteira. With a table full of elderly men solving the worlds problems over a 10am beer, we took it all in. There was an old fish market, sculptures of ocean gods, Santa Claus, a skating rink with inline skate rentals, and cafes and bars. Very cool little waterfront.

Albufeira also had a huge New Years Eve show with a massive stage on the beach. The stage was being built for at least a week before the event. We avoided it. We met a couple from England who said they were at an all inclusive there because Grande Canary was too expensive this year. They were looking forward to the NYE craziness and festivities.

In October we visited the local government office to see about an extended stay visa. We had had no luck in Canada getting an appointment so decided to pursue it in Portugal. In October they told us to come back at the end of December as no decision regarding long or short term stays had been finalized since COVID and Brexit. In December they told us the same and to call back in January. In the mean time we said yes to a housesit near Cadiz, Spain on January 10. January 3rd we found out that we could stay in Portugal but not leave the country until we flew back to Canada. More on that in our sneaky next post.

Here are a finally few random shots from our adventures over Christmas in Albufeira.