Portugal–the Algarve

So there we were, heading down the tollway in our rental car.

The tolls weren’t a problem, we’d filled in the paperwork for electronic tolling and agreed to settle the bill with the rental company when we brought the car back, but cars do need petrol and it’s a reasonable distance from Lisbon to Tavira, our first stop.

Being seasoned travellers, we picked a quiet looking servo on the tollway for our first adventure of putting petrol in the car – which side is the filler cap on, does the hose reach, and how do you open the damn thing etc.

Well. we’d had a Renault before, we guessed correctly the side the filler cap was on, found the cap release lever easily enough, and the we came across the dread Portuguese self service petrol pump.

Basically, you can pay in advance, or you put your card in a cardreader in the pump to preauthorize it – and yes the instructions are in one language only.

As well as our usual cards we had a Travel Card from our bank – basically it functions as a multi currency debit card and it’s nicely integrated with our bank’s online banking solution so you can track your spending.

The only tricky bit is that you occasionally come across machines that recognise the card as an Australian card and helpfully offer to bill you in Australian dollars rather than Euros, Pounds, Singapore Dollars or what have you. When this happens you need to go through the rigmarole of declining this option (usually twice) to get them to bill you in local currency.

So anyway, in with our card. Enter the pin. Card declined. Catch card as it’s spat out and clean it on shorts and try again. Same result.

Reverse out of bay and try a different pump. Card, Pin, and this time it works. Card authorized. Fill car, card returned, only for the printer in the pump to jam. No receipt. Well we can live with that.

And on to Tavira.

While a lot of the Algarve is spoiled by mass tourism, Tavira, retains much of its pre-tourism charm. There are the ruins of the old castle, the old convent where we stayed, which is nowa ‘Pousada’, and the general ambience and charm of what is still fundamentally a fishing town.

There’s a nice old bridge in the town centre, which still has Roman stonework in the piers even though it has been rebuilt several times over the centuries, firstly by the Arabs and lastly after the great earthquake, which not only flattened Lisbon but did terrible damage to the coastal towns of the Algarve.

It wasn’t all pousadas, ruins and churches – there’s a major wetland reserve and one morning we took a boat trip through the wetlands out through the oyster beds to the Ilha de Tavira, and saw flamingos taking off from a roosting site across a lagoon


Next stop, a week in Monchique, in the hills behind the Western Algarve, staying at a property with spectacular views of the coast, owned by a German couple.

Our original plan had been to do some walking, but the weather was unseasonably hot for the end of September, so mostly we explored the rocky and beautiful western Algarve coast by car. Our favourite spot here for swim and lunch was Salema, a relatively quiet fishing village with a good swimming beach and only a few tourists. We visited the stunning west coast at Odaceixe, a wide sweeping bay with a river, a bit of a mecca for surfers.

I also did some totally unsuccessful hunting for Roman ruins. I did find the fishponds in Luz, but they were behind a locked steel gate next to the Euromoney cash machine on the sea front and there is an ongoing German Portuguese excavation at Boca dos Rios – a surf beach not far from Salema.


The day we were there they were pulling bits of amphora out of one of the excavation pits.

The other great thing we did, at the suggestion of our hosts, was go to the local bar restaurant – something which involved a walk down lanes through oak forest. When we got there, the place was heaving, not surprisingly because, apart from quarry workers and local farmers stopping by for a drink they served the best piri piri chicken, chips and salad we had – big old charcoal grill out the back and the food just kept coming. Cash only of course, and what they had is what they had as far as wine went, but excellent value, and fun.

On the way back we realised that the sun had set, and it was getting dark, and perhaps not time for wandering about rural Portugal, especially given the habit of some of the locals to hurtle down the back roads in old Renault 4’s and Peugeot 205’s without headlights.

Fortunately, for all it’s old world charm, the bar had wifi, and I downloaded a flashlight app for my phone which was surprisingly effective, even if it drained the battery. A nice unintentional plus in the app I chose was that it didn’t darken the screen while it was running, meaning you could hold the phone out to see the way ahead but anyone coming behind could see the glow of the phone.

And then we were done.

Not quite. We’d planned a few days in Lisbon before going home via Singapore, and I was feeling Roman ruin deprived so we decided on a loop with an overnight in Evora to see the temple of Diana.

So off to Evora it was …

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England and Portugal part 2: Porto

So, on to Porto.

We skipped breakfast, checked out and caught the Gatwick Express, as irritatingly that’s where TAP flights to Porto go from.

Actually the whole business was pretty slick and seamless leaving us plenty of time for a late breakfast and cause total confusion when we tried to get rid of the last of our old style pound coins, didn’t have quite enough to avoid breaking another note, which led me to ferret round my backpack and come up with what I thought were a couple of new style pound coins, but were in fact the new style bi metallic Singapore dollars which, apart from looking a bit more glossy, are almost the same size and thickness as a new style pound, and even though they’re round, have an octagonal ridge on the rim that makes them look as if they’re not.

Confusion over we boarded our flight, where the promised in flight catering turned out to consist of weird plum drink, a strange fish paste sandwich and a glass of red, and we were on our way to Porto.

Everything continued to go smoothly, our Mozio driver met us at the airport, took us to our hotel on the river.

The hotel was slightly odd – touted as an aparthotel where you get a studio apartment with a basic kitchen so you can self cater if you want, this one was more like a sparsely furnished (ikea bed, sofa, dining table) single bedroom apartment. Our Mozio driver had said there were a number of failed apartment redevelopment projects in old warehouses along the river, and I’m guessing someone decided to turn the failed apartment project into a riverfront hotel.

That evening, we had an excellent meal in a riverfront restaurant that seemed cheap after London, but in retrospect was overpriced for Portugal, and then sat in a bar on the quay with a glass of port watching the sun go down.

The next day we did tourist things – walked over the two level bridge one way and back on the higher level, a lunch of fresh sardines in a city centre bar while listening to a student group sing medieval folk songs with great style and verve.

Later we walked up to the totally underwhelming National Photographic Centre – there’s a reason it’s free, but you do get an excellent view out across the city from the car park of Ministry of Justice building opposite – and being Saturday no one seemed worry about tourists traipsing round the car park.

The other good thing is that you end up in the university area surrounded by student bars and cafes plus some pretty good restaurants – cheaper and more lively than the tourist area down by the river.

Sunday we took a tourist boat cruise down the river – and staying in a riverfront hotel that meant we could grab the first boat of the morning before the tour buses started bringing the hoards in, and then watched the last stages of the Porto half marathon, and then a glass of port or two as the day wound down.

The next morning we were off to Lisbon on the AlfaPendular high speed tilt train. I’d managed to snag a couple of discounted first class tourist tickets by booking online the day bookings opened.

We’d booked an Uber which didn’t turn up in time so we ended up flagging down a regular taxi who got us to the station with minutes to spare. Fortunately the AlfaPendular was late so we made the train.

What I hadn’t bargained on was the train being packed with people from Lisbon who had made the weekend trip north, just as trains in and out of London used to be packed on Sunday evenings.

But we had our seats, and our luggage was stowed. I’d expected something sleek, smooth and elegant like the Virgin Pendolino, but this train was distinctly tatty, with peeling exterior paintwork, battered though clean toilets, scuffed upholstery, and a row of old style glass tv screens in the ceiling – like you used to see on old Qantas Boeings in the outback – which played a bizarre selection of Portuguese cooking shows.

The train itself started smoothly enough but as it picked up speed lurched and swung and tilted with gusto rattling along at over 200km/h through the Portuguese countryside. That said it got us there exactly on time and the whole experience was comfortable enough – more comfortable than many discount airlines, even if a little odd.

Our plan was to overnight in Lisbon and pick up a rental car the next day to drive south. We’d judged there wasn’t quite enough time to do it all in a single day.

So a night in an excellent boutique hotel converted from an old convent and a walk round the old town and our day was complete.

The next day we picked up a Renault Clio which came with a truly amazing number of parking scuffs and scratches, but drove well enough. Just as years ago in Crete we’d ended up with a battered Fiat like all the locals drove, and got better treatment (including free parking at a bar next to Knossos in exchange for lunch), this car looked like almost every other small car in Lisbon – it didn’t scream ‘rental’, and you could probably park it just about anywhere without fear of being broken into.

And then we were off down the tollway to the Algarve, crossing the incredibly impressive Vasco da Gama bridge…

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Travels in England and Portugal: part 1–England

This is a somewhat belated post, really to explain the lack of blogging over the last few weeks

We spent the best part of six weeks in Europe, leaving in early September, so early that the day we left there were snow flurries, and when we got back in October everything was in leaf, the street trees covered in blossom and the back lawn was higher than the cat’s navel.

Our first port of call was Manchester, where J wanted to catch up with her cousin to discuss family history and old documents.

When we booked the flight, we’d originally planned to have a few days in London to ourselves, and then loop through Manchester and go on to Portugal, possibly on the train.

Well, we had to change that. J’s cousin had to be in Austria the week we’d originally planned to be in Manchester, so we decided to swap things around and go to Manchester first. We’d got one of these no changes whatsoever tickets to London, so we bought ourselves a BA flight from London to Manchester that afternoon, because (a) Singapore Airlines is almost never late, and (b) if we gave ourselves a generous margin stuffing around in Heathrow we should be able to cope with any minor delays.

Of course, and you guessed it, our flight from Melbourne was late into Singapore, we missed our connection to London, and the next available option meant we’d miss our BA flight to Manchester.

Now, strictly speaking, Singapore could have said that, as the Manchester booking was a separate ticket, it was our problem not theirs, but we whinged, and argued, and they got us onto a flight to Frankfurt and a connecting Lufthansa flight to Manchester at no extra cost to us.

Yes, it did mean we arrived six or seven hours later than planned, but we were there on the day we intended. All good (or so we thought).

So after a night in an airport hotel, we picked up our rental car which handily had a GPS, and set off to the Trafford centre to buy supplies for our stay in Hebden Bridge – we’d booked a cosy little AirBnB stay for a few days.

I couldn’t (after 15 years) remember the way to the Trafford Centre – so I flipped on the GPS, typed in Trafford Centre, hit the Go icon and set off, only to be rewarded by a stream of instructions SwissGerman. Fortunately with J looking at the map on the screen for me and listening to the road numbers -’jetzt an die aa funf zero sechs’ – we got there.

So after a quick language reset we did our shopping and set off to Hebden Bridge. J did her family history thing, but we didn’t get all the planned site visits done – the weather was bloody awful and not ideal for trekking over the moors to search for the location of eighteenth century farmsteads, so we did a few tourist things instead – like visiting the Bronte museum in Haworth in a deluge more reminiscent of the wet season in Queensland than an English autumn.

But we had fun, and J even found a few family graves to add to the story. All good.

And then it was back to London.

Which wasn’t as easy as we thought. When we went to check in online BA told us our booking was canceled. We’d asked Singapore to ask BA to hold our return Manchester London leg, but the message had obviously never got there, and we’d been bumped off the flight as ‘no shows’.

It was absolutely no use being upset about things, so we took the mature view, we had travel insurance, we had credit cards, we could claim a refund later, but for the moment we needed to get to London.

Ten minutes later I’d got us a pair of last minute first class train tickets to London. Despite my egalitarian urges it had to be first class as all the standard class tickets at times you actually wanted to travel had gone, so it was a case of suck it up and do it.

The cost wasn’t that eye watering – a 120 pounds or something like 200 dollars for the two of us for a fast, smooth journey on one of the Virgin pendolino tilt trains, free and fast wifi, complimentary tea and biscuits, a glass of wine if we wanted it. A flight would have been more, and not as much fun or as comfortable.

And I was quietly amazed at how good the journey was, I remember travelling the same journey on British Rail at the end of the seventies when it was ok, and in the early days of post privatisation rail travel when it was bloody awful – dirty overbooked trains, chronically late, and rolling stock that was as battered and antiquated as V/Line’s country services.

And then we were in London.

The weather was still terrible, cold, wet and generally off putting but we did have good day visiting the Alma Tadema exhibition at Leighton House – which is worth a visit for the building itself.

Lord Leighton was connected with the pre Raphaelites and various of their associates and furnished much of the downstairs in a manner reminiscent of a Moroccan riad from Marrakesh, even though the stunning blue tiles were acquired from Syria and points east to create a bit of exoticism in suburban Kensington.

One pleasant surprise was that our Oyster cards from 2010 still worked, still had credit on them, though not enough to be useful, and after topping up let us ride tube and the buses.

The other fund discovery was a wonderful food court in the hulk of old Barker’s department store on Kensington high street – excellent food at a decent price.

But despite these pluses, and the weather helped reinforce this, London felt like increasingly like an old museum stuffed with past glories and statues of unremembered generals and long forgotten conquests – like Vienna, living on past glories.

And then, we were off to Porto …

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Lady Macbeth of the Western district

Earlier this week I was on a plane, and given that flying is a fundamentally boring experience I whiled away the time watching a movie.

The art house movie on offer was the wonderful, spare elegaic Lady Macbeth, beautifully photographed and incredibly dark.

I won’t rehearse the plot, but one device that the director had used was to have all the servants and socially inferior characters as persons of AfroCarribean or mixed heritage, and the property owners as most definitely white north of England characters.

The film was filmed on a property strangely reminiscent of how we found Hume’s cottage in Yass  when we visited on a winter’s day some years ago.

And that got me to thinking that you could have made an equally powerful version set in one of the squatocracy properties in the Western District, and where the socially inferior characters could be aboriginal, or part aboriginal, which would certainly have given it some edge.

And from there it was a short step to wondering what could be done with the stories of Henry Lawson and Barbara Baynton who wrote equally harsh stories of life among the farmers and miners of colonial Australia ….



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Madeleine ! You didn’t, did you?

One of the aspects of the Madeleine Smith case that so titillated the mid Victorian audience was that not only did she have sex with her lover, but that she wrote gushingly about the experience.

Probably neither the first, or the last young woman to do so, but middle class young women in Victorian times were not supposed to have sex until they were married, and even once married were not supposed to write about it. In a world without reliable contraception it was safer to keep your virginity intact, although human nature being human nature Madeleine Smith probably wasn’t the only person to have sex before marriage.

There’s a couple of interesting aspects of the case. In the letters, Madeleine refers to Emile as her husband. I’ve always wondered, and there is probably no way to prove this, whether Madeleine, perhaps under the influence of romantic novels, believed herself to be handfasted, and in a form of trial marriage that made everything legitimate.

And when one looks at the home lives of some near contemporary and eminent Victorians such as the authors Wilkie Collins and Mary Braddon, one wonders just how much fluidity behind closed doors there actually was in social relationships, despite official prurience about such matters.

The other thing I’ve wondered about is Madeleine’s purchase of arsenic. The idea of consuming small quantities of arsenic to improve the complexion was fairly common in 1857, having been publicised two years earlier on the back of medical work on the voluntary consumption of arsenic  in Styria, now part of Austria, and indeed Madeleine claimed that she had bought the arsenic for her complexion, even though the quantity was far in excess of that required.

However, in the 1850’s arsenic was sometimes used as an abortifacient, although sometimes with fatal consequences. One has to wonder if Madeleine thought herself pregnant, or just wanted to make sure she wasn’t prior to her engagement to Walter Minnoch …

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These damn kiwis – they got me !

A few days ago I read an article as to reasons why New Zealand really hadn’t produced any significant writers before the twentieth century.

I was reading the article as I’ve taken to reading nineteenth century novels as part of trying to understand the Madeleine Smith trial in context – Wilkie Collins was certainly influenced by the trial, as evidenced by the character of Lydia Gwilt in Armadale, and as the past is another country where they did things differently, and also trying to understand the colonial view.

While the Madeleine Smith trial was news in Australia and New Zealand it seems to have been less of a sensation in the United States.

New Zealand I can see – until gold was disovered in the 1860’s the non Maori population was both small – around 50,000, and recently arrived from the UK with organised settlement only starting some twenty years before.

And of course this could explain the lack of literary output – too small a talent pool and a population of hardworking farmers do not a literary scene make, despite the obvious parallels with the vernacular kailyaird writers of North East Scotland.

The authors of the article were clearly thinking literary here, Fergus Hume, even though he ran away from Dunedin to Melbourne wasn’t mentioned despite his importance to the development of the English crime novel

Anyway in the article the authors mention a fictional author, Willie Hollins, who wrote a mystery novel called ‘Greenstone’ about an ethnographer who purloined a sacred Maori carved chunk of greenstone.

I got the reference to Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, but just for a moment thought that there might actually have been a Kiwi reworking of the Moonstone …

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Madeleine Smith in New Zealand

Well, I though I would do the obvious and repeat my investigation of the distribution of the trial reports in New Zealand.

Well that turned out not to be sensible – the non-Maori population in 1857 was only around 50,000, most of whom were homesteaders, and consequently there were relatively few newspapers publishing then in New Zealand (14 in fact), which makes any attempt to follow the flow of information impossible.

What we can say is that the New Zealand papers that reported on the conclusion of the trial were a month and a bit behind the Melbourne and Sydney papers, perhaps reflecting the time the mail took to get from Australia on to New Zealand, with the news reaching the north island via Auckland …

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