Saturday, 30 November 2013

Western Andalucia and Portugal

Christmas tree at Jerez de la Frontera

Western Andalucia and Algarve, Portugal

CHRISTMAS TIME IS APPROACHING and the end of the year is, as always, very busy. After a short brake we decided to set out for a new "expedition" before the holiday season truly hits us. This time the direction was towards western Andalucia (El Rocio and the Donana Nature Reserve) with a first ever visit to Algarve, Portugal. It was important for us to take our "pretend-to-be-four-wheel-drive-KIA" abroad to explore unknown paths and preserve its "identity" under a Finnish registration. With no final program in mind we gave spontaniety an opportunity and ended visiting also Isla Cristina on Spanish soil before reaching Tavira on the other side of the border. We ended up going all the way to the Atlantic coast to the Nature Park of Sao Vicente. On the return way Mrs. T wanted a sip of worlds best sherry so we decided to visit Jerez de la Frontera, too. In the main square of old town Jerez there was a christmas tree with a exciting modern design. The above picture is taken down-up so that the middle part of the picture is the top of the tree. Like it?

Sanctuario de Nuestra Senora de El Rocio

Off-road vehicle greet us welcome to Donana

Due to lack of official emblems for El Rocio (could not find any) I let the above two pictures represent both El Rocio and Donana. Having dug deeper into the existence of El Rocio I began to understand the sacred significance of the area now called El Rocio. It is a major site for pilgrimage (similar to Santiago de Compostela) for the catholic world throughout Spain, Europe, Americas and Asia. Once a year a million pilgrims gather in El Rocio to pay their respect to "Our Lady of Rocio" which makes it one of the most important centers of popular religious expression ( On other times the town is rather quiet and reminds of a typical town of the "Wild West"and is as such worth a visit. 

Sanctuario de Nuestra Senora de El Rocio

Detail from the interior of the church.

The following morning we got up early for our half-day excursions to the Donana National Park. The weather at this point was rather cold so we put on as much as was needed. The hostel receptionist was kind enough to also get up earlier in order to provide us with a breakfast. The Park is open all year but the activity this time of the year is low. We spotted mainly dear and birds. Interestingly the guide, very professional, took us through a cork wood area that was beautiful. Donana consists of a northern and a southern part. We did the tour in the northern part. South is covering the beaches and mobile dunes while the northern part is a wetland that gets flooded during rainy seasons. Below some pictures also from the summer period to give an idea what it is like. The cactus rose is from the Matalascanas area. Matalascanas is a major holiday resort for the Spaniards. More about DONANA e.g. on website

Deer was easily spotted this time.

Southern Donana in the summer.

Found in the Matalascanas area in the summer.

Isla Cristina 

Having looked at the map for our direction onwards to Portugal we noticed the town of Isla Cristina at the coast next to the Portuguese border. Visiting this small town would not be a large deviation to our route so we wanted to explore it and get some material for our annual book, calendar etc.  Fishing, besides tourism of course, is a key industrial contributor at Isla Cristina and its fishing port is the largest in the Huelva region so I could not wait to get a chance to picture the vessels and the harbor (below). Isla Cristina is popular especially among Sevillanos that come in the summer. Not many foreign tourists find their way here. On the seal of the town they display their main symbols; the fig tree, the water well and the sea. As for the weather the forecast was brilliant for the rest of the week but for this particular day in Isla Cristina we suffered from grey conditions making photographic work more challenging (but not impossible).

The touristic side of Isla Cristina.

with views that I have not photographed before.
The fishing harbor was superb!!!!!!
and it kept my Nikon busy, busy, busy…..YEAH!


Our first goal Tavira in southeastern Algarve.

After a short stop in Isla Cristina we crossed the border to Portugal aiming for the historic and romantic town of Tavira that we had read about. We knew that road taxes was an issue of some sort. This is quite normal also in Spain - you just need to get your (plastic) money ready. In Portugal we could spot several signs advising on the amount to be paid but we where puzzled by the fact that nobody ever collected any money. Everybody seemed to be driving ahead and we followed this manner only to later understand (on the way back) that you have to have some kind of a reader in the car that is automatically read as you pass payment zones. Guess we must be some kind of tax avoiders now. Anyway, we reached Tavira and eventually found the hotel having driven around the block more than once. We parked the car temporarily on the narrow road outside the hotel and where pleased to have arrived on time. TOO MUCH ON TIME…..because Portugal is behind Spain one hour. No big deal! We finished a package of crisps while waiting for the owner, lovely Paola, to arrive and let us in. Luckily Maria was in and we soon got in, talked with Paola over the phone; how to put heaters on, how to use the coffee pot, how to use the keys, how to find the parking place, what activities of choice we have, do we want her lovely breakfast or go independently, how does the toilet lighting work……be sure our suite worked 100% after this. Tavira has no large hotels but visitors book into smaller cosy guesthouses. Our Casa Beleza Do Sul is well known for its great service so of course we booked them. They only have 4 rooms and being off season we could afford the suite with bedroom, TV-room, kitchen and private bathroom. Thank you Paola for your excellent service!


The history of Tavira dates back to 2000 BC and the town is architecturally interesting. Fishing has had an important role but nowadays tourism has taken over. The Gilao river used to transport both salt and dried fish. Local fish dishes are still recommended and we tried out the local celebrity of a cataplana seafood dish. Cataplana is a simple pressure cooking pot and the dish we had was one of the best fish dishes we have ever had. This time of the year tourist volume is down so some restaurant owners prefer to close down before re-opening for christmas, as did one Dutch owner when we visited her place one evening. In Tavira we noticed that is easy to manage with English as everybody seemed to at least understand what we where lacking.

Twilight over river Gilao.
Charismatic owner in a charismatic house.
City gardens.
Roman bridge over river Gilao.
Some houses where left only with a facade.

Lagos, Aljezur and Sagres

After three nights at Paola's we decided to head further west towards the Atlantic coast, first we visited a small market town called Aljezur with almost unspoiled beaches and a decorative lava formation. Perfect location, perfect weather for photographic action…..then onwards to Arrifana and still during this very same day all the way to Cabo de Sao Vicente, the southwesternmost part of Portugal. This is going to be a demanding day for the co-pilot, Mrs. T.

Aljezur beaches in western Algarve by the Atlantic coast.
Next viewpoint; the lava formations. Beautiful isn't it?
And more Atlantic seas.
What can we do but admire!

After a refreshing drink we drove back to the main road and down to Arrifana that has a small fishing harbor and offer more extraordinary views.

Arrifana fishing harbor.
For catching the catch.
Atlantic ocean eroding the landmass.
Getting late in the evening.

Now, time to start KIA and move south to Cabo de Sao Vicente in Sagres and the sunset. Need to drive fast, very little traffic…GOOD. Nice weather and a 100% performance of the co-pilot takes us there not one minute too early. Mr. T jumps the car leaving Mrs. T to shut down and close the doors. Need to find the perfect settings for sunset Nikon. Struggle when Mrs. T arrives, picks up pocket camera and starts shooting…..great pictures!!!  Why are mine so blurry????  MORE STRUGGLE! When the end is well, all is well!

Cabo de Sao Vicente at sunset (southwestern corner of Algarve).

The day is almost over and when we need to drive the last 50 km to our hotel in Lagos. We stop by at a supermarket to replenish our exhausted stocks. It is dark when we reach Lagos and try to find our hotel. Boy! Road works and BADLY SIGNED route deviations….where now?  We follow signs (what signs), turn left, turn right and turn the wrong way until by some miracle we stumble over the hotel - tired but very satisfied over a busy days work. Next day is the final day in Portugal. The morning hours are spent photographing Lagos Costa d'Oro.

Costa d'Oro
Rather demanding this one.
This reminds me of the Seven Sisters in Sussex.
Guardian of Lagos Costa d'Oro

Before our expedition to Portugal is over a few words of Lagos that used to be an international meeting point for Portuguese discoverers since the times of Henry the Navigator. The location was perfect for the ships to depart for their long voyages. Today Lagos is an international tourist centre with a big C. They offer a variety of water sports and nautical activities besides offering the photographic scenes. Our mission to Portugal has been a success and it is with good spirits that we return back to Costa del Sol via Jerez de la Frontera to taste worlds best sherries.

Flag of Spain

Flag of Jerez de la Frontera
Seal of Jerez de la Frontera

When we earlier visited Cadiz we had not reserved enough time to also visit Jerez and it was therefore a specific wish of Mrs. T to correct this matter. Jerez is a large city with some 210 000 inhabitants and it is famous for its wineries and also e.g. the formula one races. Our intention was mainly to get to know some of the bodegas and try their products. And also, Mrs. T had a longing for good quality pasta so finding an Italian restaurant was a must. We checked in, left the KIA in an underground parking lot, went for a walk to the old centre of Jerez, noticed the christmas lights and the tree. We also found items to be sent to our children in Finland. Then we walked past the Alcazaba and the Cathedral before taking a weighted guess for the direction to the Italian restaurant. At point we had to find the Spanish words for checking directions with two ladies. We finally arrived as the only quests in the restaurant and got all the attention from the staff. Having finished the meal and after a fine glass of Solera sherry we asked for a taxi to take us back to the hotel. During our stay in Jerez there was no time for historical or cultural activities this time but we thoroughly enjoyed our short stay and want to return soon again.

The Cathedral of Jerez
The bodega of Gonzales Byass.
Where celebrities have their named casks.
Checking the air conditioning.
The tour ended at the Visitor Centre. (This reminds me that also Steven Spielberg has a named cask in the cellars of the bodega). Finally exit through the Tio Pepe shop where helpful shopkeepers help us load the bags with wine, sherry, vinegar and the lot.

Dear readers 

In short - our exploration of western Andalucia and Algarve, Portugal has been a tremendous success. We have learned about El Rocio, Tavira and Algarve coast line and Jerez de la Frontera. We have tasted the famous and delicious cataplana and the worlds finest sherry. Mrs. T has again proven herself as copilot and the KIA is still doing strong having served well for quite a distance one more time. The driver has taken hundreds of photographs that will help producing a Year Book 2013, a Calendar 2014, a post for the blog that you are now reading, another book on our Andalucian Year and a contribute towards a more professional photographic website. We will now prepare for the forthcoming holiday season and meet up with Ms. T in London and then return to F for the New Years Celebration at restaurant Valparaiso. See you there and if you cannot come - do read the next post.


Teija and Thomas

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