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Portugal I

Portimao

It is a little before 7am and Madam is poking me awake.

“Come on, wake up and go and make some tea! It’s packing day!”

“Packing day?” I say.

“Yes, get a move on, we are going to Portugal tomorrow.”

‘We are? Oh.’ I say.

There isn’t anything useful I can add to that statement.

I do have time to download a few books to my iPad in between packing. One if them is “Why Does E=mc2?” by Brian Cox, a man so smart his brain crosses entire time zones. The aim of the book is to describe Einstein’s theories on space and time in the simplest way. The book is 218 pages long so it may take some explaining.

I did try to read Einstein’s original paper on special relativity while I was at university and thought I was smart enough to understand it.  I wasn’t.  I got to page two and realised I was way out of my depth.

I’ve always had an interest in science. When I was nine years old I received a chemistry set which sticks in my memory as the best birthday present ever. I started with the included book of experiments which involved things like dropping sodium bicarbonate into a weak acid to produce a few innocuous carbon dioxide bubbles and testing different compounds with litmus paper. This wasn’t what small boys craved. What I wanted was small explosions or an invisibility elixir so that I could hide and didn’t have to go to school.

After a few days plodding through the listed experiments, I got bored and tried mixing a few random chemicals into a flask.  I gave it a good shake and stood back to admire the results.  

There were no explosions thankfully, but I did manage to produce a large and fast spreading cloud of hydrogen sulphide. This is the gas that used to power stink bombs before they banned such things. It spread rapidly to every corner of the house. There was a howl of rage from my father. He picked up the cat and ejected the poor thing with some force through the back door, followed by a string of choice expletives. The cat, claws extended, climbed over the six foot high back fence and disappeared from sight. We didn’t see him for three days.  The poor cat always got the blame for bad smells.  To be fair, he was often the cause.   I sat quietly in the corner, the incriminating flask still in my hand, awaiting the inevitable while my mother ran from room to room opening windows.

The cat never worked out that I was to blame but thereafter kept some distance from my father.

The remains of my chemistry set were confiscated and I was told to find a new hobby. I settled on electronics. I made a few crystal sets then progressed to transistor radios and light operated switches. I suppose I was about twelve years old when I came across instructions in a book to build a shocking coil. 

A shocking coil, or to give it its proper name induction coil, is an electrical transformer designed to deliver a high voltage electric shock but with a very low current. It’s harmless. Unless you have a heart condition. Or a pacemaker. Or are elderly. Or in poor health. Or happen to be standing in a pool of water. They were marketed as a practical joke in the 1960’s.

The instructions involved winding one primary coil of about 100 turns and a secondary coil of 2,000 turns of thin wire. I wound and wound and finally reached two thousand turns. I had a load of wire left on the reel. It seemed silly to stop there, so I wound some more. I guess I had three thousand or so turns in the end. Maybe a few more.

I connected an old 1.5 volt battery and touched the terminal. It gave me an oddly pleasing tingle and made several arm hairs stand on end. I knew the 1.5 battery was almost dead, so I replaced it with a new 4.5 volt dry cell.

I figured I would try it out on my long suffering mother. She was sitting at the table, enjoying a well earned break with a cup of coffee. 

“Touch this,” I said.

They heard her scream three doors away. The coffee stain was still on the ceiling when we moved out two years later.

I had to promise to build nothing more dangerous than a radio in the future.

There is a taxi driver waiting for us when we reach Faro airport. All arranged by Tui. I’m sure we are paying for it all somewhere but it all seems very organised. The taxi driver, who speaks excellent English, tells us that the hotel is very nice and has been newly converted from an old fish canning factory. I immediately have a vision that there will be a smell of fifty year old fish wafting up through cracks in the warped wooden floorboards. We arrive at the hotel and wave goodbye to the driver.

‘No, sorry we don’t have any reservation under your name,’ says Luis, the receptionist.

‘But we have the confirmation email from Tui,’ says Madam.

He poked at his computer screen with a stylus and pressed a few keys. He frowned. ‘No we definitely don’t have your booking. Did they bring you to the wrong hotel?’  

Madam fumbles on her phone. ‘Here, here,’ she says, poking at her phone, ‘look, we definitely booked!  I have an email!’. A note of desperation was creeping into her voice.

Luis and Madam continue poking and mumbling for several minutes while I look at the sofas in reception and wonder if they will let us sleep there. Eventually Luis calls his manager and after a long conversation in Portuguese accompanied by much shaking of heads and poking at computer screens, he says ‘We don’t have a booking for you but we have one room available, out by the dustbins.’

He doesn’t really say by the dustbins but Madam isn’t happy with location of the room and he promises to move us to another as soon as they talk to Tui tomorrow.

The room was fine with a great view of the car park. It turned out that they had demolished the canning factory and built the hotel on the same site and the only smell is new carpet.

They move us to a new room in the morning and Madam is happy.

After breakfast the next day, we head along the river front into Portimao. The hotel is halfway between the old port and the beach at Praia da Rocha (Rock Beach). An easy fifteen minute walk in either direction. Portimao was a fishing port until the fish stocks dwindled and tourists discovered the Algarve. Now, the fish processing plants and canning factories have been replaced with hotels and ten storey apartment blocks. There are still remnants of the old lifestyle dotted around the town, kept as tourist attractions. Cranes and baskets for unloading the fishing boats are along the harbour front. Giant chimneys remain from part demolished factories, each topped with a giant nest and resident pair of storks. One former canning factory has been converted into a museum.

We wander around the town somewhat aimlessly, with no particular destination in mind. We stop for a smoothie in a harbour side cafe and look in a few shop windows. Soon enough, it is lunch time and Madam looks on her phone for the top rated restaurants. I peer over her shoulder and point out the cheapest.  We compromise and find the two budget top-rated but there are no tables free and a queue outside of both. It starts to rain, a few drops at first but soon gets heavier. We run into a random restaurant with a free table, dripping water.  

‘Its review is only three and a half stars!’ says Madam.

I had a piece of salmon that almost filled the plate for twelve Euros. It was very nice.  I’m never sure about these reviews.  I suspect half of the good reviews are from friends of the owner and half the bad reviews are from the competing restaurant next door.  

We were back in the hotel by 3.30pm. We had walked over five miles around Portimao but it is one of those hotels that is just hotel. There wasn’t anywhere comfortable indoors to sit apart from our room so, after a brief rest, we head down to Praia da Rocha.  

There is a wide sandy beach with sun loungers and umbrellas set up in neat rows along the foreshore. All are deserted. It is late in the season and the daytime temperature only reaches 20C.  

The town is mostly tourist bars, gift shops and restaurants. Madam heads into the nearest gift shop.  

‘We said no gift shops this trip,’ I say.

‘It doesn’t count,’ she calls over her shoulder, ‘it says souvenir shop above the door.’

We walk along the main street and stop for a drink in a empty bar above the beach and look out over the sea.

‘It’s not very blue,’ says Madam.

The hotel runs a shuttle service between the beach and hotel every two hours.  The next shuttle back is in twenty five minutes.  We look up the hill towards the hotel.  It is a fifteen minute walk.  We look down at a nearby low wall and back up at the hill.

‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ I ask Madam.

Without replying she sits on the wall and rubs her feet.

A welcome bowl of fruit and a coupon for a free session in the spa appears in our room while we are at the beach which hints that the lack of a booking may have been a hotel screw up. 

We see the Tui rep and she assures us it is recorded on their computer. The rep asks us several times if we are happy with the resolution which may indicate that it was their screw up.

I blame it all on the computers.  

I ask the rep about local buses. It soon becomes clear that she has never been on a bus but tries to be helpful.

‘There’s a bus stop down the road,’ she says, ‘sometimes the buses stop and sometimes they don’t…’

‘Is it a flat fare?’ I ask.

‘Oh the driver will tell you the fare,’ she replies.

If he happens to speak English I think.

‘They stop at a big roundabout outside of Alvor…’ she volunteers, ‘but sometimes they don’t stop. Alvor is really nice.’

‘They do have Uber,’ she adds.

We go up to the rooftop bar in the evening. There are views across the river to Pateiro on the opposite bank and we sit drinking wine and watch the town and harbour lights come on one-by-one. They are playing traditional Portuguese music. It is so loud we cannot hold a conversation, so we head back downstairs for an early night.

The next morning Madam announces that we are going to spend the day lying by the rooftop pool. She spreads out her towel on a lounger and lays down. Two storks are nesting on a tall chimney next to the pool. They make a loud clacking sound anytime somebody moves. I lay there for a while but get bored and stand up thinking I will go for a walk.

‘You can fetch me a drink if you are up,’ says Madam, ‘a Mojito would be nice.’

I fetch her a drink and try to leave.

‘Put some sun block on my back please,’ says Madam, ‘did you get me a bottle of water?’

I apply sun block and fetch water.

‘See if you can put up the sun umbrella before you go,’ says Madam.

I pull on cords and push on umbrella spokes without any results. I stick my head inside and tug on anything that looks like it might move. I twist on anything that looks like it might turn. It stays down.

‘We couldn’t do it either,’ says a man on the neighbouring sun bed, ‘you have to get someone from the bar to help you.’

I fetch the barman who reaches up inside and pulls on a lever and it goes up effortlessly.

I start to leave.  

‘I need my hat. I left it the room,’ says Madam, ‘can you get it for me if you happen to be passing the room in the next few minutes… but only if you are passing.’

I fetch her hat.

‘I seem to have finished my drink…’

I get her another drink.

‘Before you go, can you turn the page on my book please…’

And so passes the day. I never get my walk.

‘What are we doing today?’ asks Madam the next morning.

‘How about going to Alvor?’ I reply quickly, hoping to avoid a repeat of yesterday.

I look on the internet for information on local buses but I cannot make sense of anything even though the sites are in English. The best I can work out is that we walk ten minutes along the main road towards Portimao, catch a bus to Praia da Rocha, then another to Alvor, where it may, or may not, stop.  

I call an Uber which arrives in three minutes and costs less than nine Euros.

The town of Alvor lies on the banks of the river Alvor estuary, about six kilometres from the hotel.  It is a small town and retains narrow cobbled streets and white-washed houses. It has a wide, palm tree lined riverfront with small fishing boats moored along the bank. At the edge of the town are extensive dunes, threaded with elevated wooden boardwalks. We head out on the boardwalk which Madam informs me is the top rated attraction.

‘We might see flamingoes,’ she says.

We walk a mile or so along the boardwalk over salt marshes and sand dunes. We see lots of walkers and cyclists but no flamingoes. We take a side boardwalk which splits off to the left and it leads us to a wide sandy beach. It is almost deserted. Madam immediately takes off her sandals and wades into the water. We walk along the beach to Torralto, Madam wades through ankle-deep water and I stay on the sand. It is hard to persuade her to leave the water. 

We head inland back to Alvor and stop on the harbour front for a coffee.  I order a cappuccino.  I figure this is a standard drink the same the world over.  ‘Would you like cream with that?’ asks the waiter.

I’m not sure how to respond, so I just nod.  Cream with cappuccino?

It comes in a small cup with a large mountain of cream on top.  It looks like, and probably has been, squirted from a can. I eat the cream with a spoon and reach something brown underneath.  It is the colour of watery mud.  If colour can have a taste, I found it.  It tastes of brown.

‘How is your coffee?’ asks Madam.

‘Different,’ I reply.

I later learn to ask for a coffee with milk.  No cream.

We walk back into the town and through the tourist areas of bars and restaurants. A bar is playing Pink Floyd, so we stop for a drink. The barman brings me a beer and the music changes to a style which I believe is called Thump Thump Disco. We leave and walk up the hill to the 16th century Igreja do Divino Salvador (Church of the Divine Saviour), then down to the remains of a 13th century Moorish castle. Much of the castle was destroyed in an earthquake in 1755 and the stone was used to help rebuild the village. Today all that remains are a few walls which are are now home to a children’s play area.

It’s time for a late lunch, so we head back down to the harbour to find a restaurant. Madam looks on the internets and we find one with a good rating. We take a seat at a table outside, overlooking the water.  Madam orders sardines and I order golden bream from the daily specials board.

‘Would you like that filleted?’ asks the waitress.

‘Umm, yes I guess so,’ I reply.

I’m not sure I have ever been asked that question before. The guy in the chippie just dunks the fish in batter then throws it into hot oil before licking his fingers. Isn’t it delivered filleted?

I imagine they will do something mysterious with sharp knives in the kitchen before cooking, but no. The waitress brings the whole cooked bream on a plate and presents it to me. She then takes a fork and spoon and removes bones and other bits that I assume are inedible. She does it so methodically, occasionally glancing in my direction, that for a minute I think she is going to put a bib around my neck and feed it to me one piece at a time. Another waiter brings a bowl of salad and another of potatoes before they both leave us to eat.  

After lunch we head towards the bus stop. I look at the crowd of bored people waiting and order an Uber back to the hotel.

The next day we are up early and eating breakfast by 7:30.

‘There are caves along the coast,’ says Madam, ‘we need to book a boat trip to see them.’

There is a line of kiosks along the harbour front offering tours varying in length and destination. Touts stand outside of each trying to convince you why their tour is better than all the others. Madam is convinced that we need to be there early to get a seat. She wanted to book a week ago but I want to wait and see the weather forecast.  We get to the line of kiosks a little before 9am. They are all closed so we walk to a supermarket to get bottles of water for the room. The hotel is, of course, happy to supply bottles for two Euros each but I quite like the taste of the supermarket fifteen cent bottles.

We are back in the hotel by 10am and Madam looks on the internet at local boat tours. 

‘They leave at 11:30am most days,’ she says.

‘Why don’t we walk down and see if we can get one directly from the boat?’ I ask.

‘No chance, they will be sold out,’ she says.

‘It’s the off season, we can always book for tomorrow if they are full,’ I say.

By the time Madam has tried on seven different outfits and rearranged her handbag it is 11am.

“This is pointless,’ says Madam, ‘we needed to book last week.’

We rush down to the boat dock and find the Barca Arade waiting, half full with passengers. We take two seats. Vera, the guide, doesn’t seem bothered about us paying. 

The Barca Arade was built with the collaboration of the Maritime Museum and is a replica of the vessels that sailed the river in the 15th century. They have added a pair of outboard motors at the stern as a nod to the modern preference of not having to row everywhere. I am glad this boat is here as the other tours have you strapped into a hard plastic seat in a rubber inflatable boat which bounces alarmingly from wave to wave. The Barca Arade isn’t large, but there is room to move about and change position. They even have a hobbit-sized toilet in the bow. The door to the toilets is three feet high.

Vera comes round to each family individually and tells us it will be a two and a half hour trip and that there are toilets at the front. She is carrying a bunch of plastic bags and tells us to ask for one if we feel ill. I look around at the other passengers. They all look fine but we are still tied up at the dock.  

We travel down the river and out into the sea. The sea isn’t rough but there is a noticeable swell and we hang onto the sides to steady ourselves.

We head out to the coast at Benagil, stopping in the entrance of the larger caves. The boat bobs up an down with the larger waves near the cave entrances. The promotional photos made the caves look massive but most were shallow impressions ten or twenty yards deep. The last cave, Algar de Benagil, is known as Benagil Cathedral due to the arches it formed which give it the appearance of a cathedral. There is a round hole in the ceiling that shows the blue sky from inside. The Michelin guide describes it as one of the most beautiful caves in the world. I agree with them. There is a sandy beach inside the cave and people are sitting on the sand watching the constant procession of boats visiting the cave. We don’t stay long and I wonder how we could reach it by land for a proper look.

We leave the caves and head back towards the port.

‘He looks green,’ says Madam.

She is looking at the young man sitting opposite. He is very still and staring at the floor. He does look green. His wife was holding his hand, looking concerned. 

I try to judge the distance between us. Five feet? How far can projectile vomit travel? Just as I am thinking of moving, or maybe jumping over the side and swimming to shore, a young woman comes to sit next to me. She has a grim expression and is noticeably pregnant. She motions to Vera for a bag. Would it be impolite to move to a different seat I wonder.  Just as my feet are stirring, she grabs the plastic bag and rushed back to the front of the boat. I still keep an eye on the man opposite but he seems to recover. Maybe he is always green.

Vera hands us an invoice as we pull into the dock but doesn’t seem much bothered to collect the money. I have to wait on the dock for everybody to leave before handing her the cash.