Friday, July 28, 2006

Extreme West of Europe

Figueira da Foz is two towns, a lively somewhat tacky beach resort and a charming old town with leafy, shady, cool squares. Wellington briefly made the fort here his base when he landed to retake Portugal in 1808.
We then sailed south into the Estremadura and Ribatejo region and the fishing town of Peniche. During the sail we experienced winds from all points of the compass at strengths between zero and 20knots. Never have we seen so many fishing vessels gathered together in one place. They come and go at all hours of the clock and, together with the tripper boats out to the nearby Berlenga Islands, create and uncomfortable swell for yachts on the visitors pontoon. As well as fishing Peniche is renowned for its lace making. We watched this bobbin lace making at the school of lace making in the town. The products were absolutely magnificent but we were unwilling to pay 250 euros for a 1000mm x 250mm table runner even though it apparently took months to make.

Our sail into the Lisbon Coastal region took us past Cabo da Roca, the most westerly point of the European mainland. Our destination port Cascais is a safe and modern marina with facilities that are reasonable but do not live up to the exorbitant berthing fees! This is the place, however, from which to visit Lisbon and the Sierra de Sintra rather than sail into a dirty, noisy and crowded marina closer to the city centre.

Cascais itself was the summer residence of Kings and adjoining Estoril the haunt of exiled royalty and nobility fleeing European republicanism. Both towns are now beach resorts and business convention locations. Estoril has the largest Casino in Europe.

We have befriended world-renowned classical guiarist Michael Dossow and his wife Jutta; charming Germans travelling to the Mediterranean on their custom built Faurby 42. We have spent happy hours on each other’s yachts drinking tea or supping port. They were kind enough to take us in their hire car to explore the Serra de Sintra, a rugged granite wooded range of hills of up to 500m height, The principle interests in the Serra, apart from the countryside itself, is the Vila Sintra, two Palaces of Kings and a small chapel built high on top of the hills.

Vila Sintra, the old town and a UNESCO world heritage site, with its stunning setting on the north slopes of the Serra has at its heart the huge Palacio de Nacional de Sintra, a royal palace built in the 14th century on a site once occupied by Moorish leaders. The Palacio became the favourite retreat of Portuguese court and was occupied by royalty until the 1880’s. Gradual rebuilding over the years has resulted in a fascinating amalgamation of various styles of architecture and the towering conical chimneys serving the kitchens stand high above the town.

The fairy tale Palacio de Pena, the interior of which was closed, was built by Dom Ferdinand 11 cousin to Queen Victoria’s Albert in an incredible array of architectural styles in the 19th century. The exterior is fascinating with domes, castellated turrets, arches encrusted with neo Manueline carvings and daffodil yellow and strawberry pink external wall decoration. The Palacio, occupied by royalty until the declaration of the republic in 1910, stands in the wooded hillside of the Parque de Pena planted with exotic trees and shrubs.

We took lunch at a tiny village café and ordered the most expensive item on the menu at 6 euros not knowing what we were going to eat. The dish, named Bitoque, turned out to be delicious consisting of a beautifully prepared lean and tender beef escalope topped with a fried egg and surrounded with chips!

We visited the Cabo de Roca, mentioned previously and finished by going to the 17th century Chapel de Peninha perched 490m up on a grey rocks. This tiny chapel has the most beautiful azulejo tile decoration inside and affords stunning views over the coast, Lisbon and the river Tejo.

Lisbon is an intimate city of three parts, the Alfama, the Biaxa and Avenida and the Bairro Alta and Chiado.

The Alfama was the original Moorish settlement, although no buildings of that period exist now. The Alfama now comprises compact houses with facades strung with washing which survived the 1755 earthquake lining narrow, steep streets and steps. This now humble quarter of the city was once occupied by the wealthy who moved west for fear of earthquakes leaving the area to the fishermen and paupers.

A steep and exhausting climb through the Alfama leads to the Castelo Sao Jorge crowning Lisbon’s eastern hill. From here there are spectacular views over the city, the river Tejo and the surrounding countryside.

West of Alfama stands the magnificent Cathedral of Se created in 1150 but rebuilt often over the centuries due to earthquake damage. The internal furnishings and decorations in Portuguese Cathedrals and Churches are austere compared with the overbearing richness of the decoration and the clothed statues of saints found in the Spanish and in particular the French places of worship.

A short walk down the step hill or a tram ride for the less energetic leads to the relatively modern quarter of the Biaxa and Avenida rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake with neo classical buildings and grand squares all integrated into a grid layout. This appears to be the restaurant quarter of the city and we had a great lunch here in one of the thousands of street side restaurants.

Uphill again to the Bairro quarter on Lisbon’s western hill by foot because the funicular was being repaired! This area, first settled by the wealthy from the Alfama quarter and later by prostitutes, now houses small family workshops and cheap restaurants and nightclubs. Finally the elegant commercial district of the Chiado where the affluent Lisboetas do their shopping. We bought nothing but had coffee in the Café Brasileira, once popular with writers and intellectuals. A must for those visiting Lisbon!

Lisbon is a lovely city of great character but the graffiti capital of the world.

We are sitting here on our berth in Cascais marina now on the 27th of July under a cloudless sky and 26º C in the shade (lower than the recent spell in UK we are told) waiting for a replacement battery charger to be fitted and for the wind and waves to calm down.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Arrival in Portugal

The sail down the Minho region coast of Portugal to Viana da Castelo was very enjoyable with a poled out genoa and full main in anything between 10 and 20 knots of wind. Miggy had her second catch of the trip with three mackerel on the line which she gutted and filleted there and then ready for supper that same evening. They taste so good and so different when very fresh.
There are three elements of the weather that one must take into account when sailing down the west coast of Portugal. Firstly and perhaps most importantly the Atlantic swell. It emanates from storms well offshore and is present to some degree most of the time. It becomes critical at about 2.0m to 3.0 metres when some ports may close because it is so dangerous to get in over the sand bar at the entrance. Secondly the wind. The north-easterly Portuguese trade winds are reinforced by local sea breezes to reach Force 6 or 7 by evening time. Most people therefore set sail in the early morning so as to arrive at their destination before the onset of the worst of the wind but having to cope with the third element, the fog. This can take the form of sea fog 4% to 10% of days which lingers throughout the day or coastal mist which burns off around midday.
Viana da Castelo where we stayed for two days is a 13th century town that prospered from fishing. Wealth derived from trade with Europe and Brazil funded the many opulent mansions built in the Renaissance and Baroque styles. The town’s interest today lies in its winding streets and intimate squares.

From Viana we sailed down the coast of the Douro and Tras-os-Montes region to Leixoes, pronounced Layshoesh, the port serving Porto. The Portuguese language is so difficult particularly in its pronunciation. Every Portuguese that we have met to date speaks some, if not near perfect, English. When we asked the boatman in the marina at Viana why he spoke such good English he said that he had been all over the world with the Portuguese Navy and that, if he had not spoken English, he would never have made contact or spoken with another soul.

We caught the metro, built for the European Championships in 2004, into Porto. What an amazing city with its fabulous Cathedral Se at the top of the hill and the riverside district of Ribeira at the bottom full of narrow cobbled streets and tile clad or pastel colour painted balconied buildings. Ever since the Romans built a fort here the city has prospered from commerce. Its wealth was generated from Portugal’s maritime discoveries in the 15th and 16th centuries. Later the loss of the lucrative spice trade was compensated for by the wine trade with Britain.
In the 17th century British traders, cut off from their supplies of Bordeaux by frequent wars with France, took a liking to the full flavoured robust wines of Portugal. But these wines did not travel well so the Traders added Brandy to ‘fortify’ them against the rigours of the Atlantic sea voyage. Before long pure grape spirit was added during fermentation and Port, as we drink it today, was created.
We had a guided tour around the Taylor’s Lodge, one of the oldest having been established in 1692. It is still owned and managed by the founding family descendants. We learned about the vineyards, which are situated about a 150 miles from Porto up the Douro River, the fermenting, blending and ageing and about the styles and vintage. All so very interesting but too long a story to tell here. Taste it as we did at the Lodge and all will be revealed!
Having caught up with the mundane chores of yacht maintenance, cleaning, and the like, including Miggy successfully cutting her own hair!! tomorrow, the 15th of July, we leave Leixoes for the 70 mile sail to Fiqueira de Foz, a lively resort in the Bieras region. We will be glad to be at sea again because it has become so hot – 30 deg in the shade.
Those of you in the BBC Radio Solent region who rise early may have heard Miggy’s regular broadcast on the morning show with Julian Clegg at 0630 on the 3rd of July. Her next scheduled broadcast is on the 26th of July at 0630 or thereabouts.

Our Portuguese telephone number is +351 936 338 049.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Goodbye to Spain

And so we leave Spain bound for Portugal. This country has a refined culture based upon its rich history and people who are friendly and relaxed, yet efficient.

The north coast of Galicia is beautiful with the Rias Altas surrounded by high hills with their slopes covered with pine and eucalyptus reaching down to the water’s edge. The west coast is more populated with great cities such as A Coruna, Villagarcia and Vigo. Consequently the Rias Bajas on which these cities lie, south of the Ria Muros, have significant development along their shores and are thus less interesting.

We have passed two significant landmarks in our journey or, should I say one seamark, the Bay of Biscay, and one landmark, the Cape of Finisterre. The legend that the weather patterns change for the better south of Finisterre appear to be founded in fact.

A word or two about Baiona where we have spent our last few days in Spain. It is a delightful town with a wealth of history. Perhaps most notable is the fact that it was the port of arrival for the Caravel ‘Pinta’ in 1493 after accompanying Columbus in the ‘Santa Maria’ in the discovery of the Americas. The Spanish have it that Pinzon, the Master of the Pinta, discovered America rather than Columbus who was Italian!

During our stay in Baiona we have visited the ‘Virgin of the Roca’, walked the castle ramparts and the narrow streets of the old town and have taken lunch at the Monterreal Yacht Club of Baiona, an institution known by all sailors who pass this way.

Those of you who listen to BBC Radio Solent early in the morning will have heard Miggy on the Julian Clegg show on the 3rd July. Her next scheduled broadcast is at 0630 or so on 26th July.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Costa de Morte and Finisterre

Captain Richard Wilson, Miggy’s great great great Grandfather was stationed with General Sir John Moore at Castle San Anton in A Coruna in the early 1800’s. We viewed memorabilia of that period in the castle and may even have seen a the likeness of Captain Wilson in a painting that depicted General Moore’s death at the battle of Elvina in 1809. The British forces were helping the Spanish defend A Coruna from the invading French army.

Roger and Sue Breese joined us in A Coruna for a week and helped us sail along the Costa del Morte (the coast of death), named such because of the great loss of life in numerous shipwrecks along the rugged, rocky coastline open to the wild Atlantic storms. We had a good fresh sailing wind with a moderate Atlantic swell for our trip to the small town of Camarinas.
It was Midsummer Day and, as is the tradition in this part of Spain, the local population celebrated in the evening with a Sardine supper and fireworks lasting well into the night.

Talking of fish it is interesting to know that, second to the Portuguese, the Spanish eat more seafood per head than any other European nation. Half of this is caught by the Galicians who have 20,000 boats, 90,000 fishermen and a catch of over a million tons. Much of this is Tuna, Sardine, Lobster and Clam caught offshore. In recent years the stocks around the Spanish shores have become depleted due to overfishing forcing deep sea trawlers to travel as far as Iceland and Canada.

Shops here have a wide variety of excellent fresh fish and also of vegetables and fruit. We are at last unable to buy fresh milk however and fresh meat is somewhat limited. We believe that the further south we go and the hotter it becomes the storage of fresh meat becomes more difficult. Hence the preponderance of cured and processed meats. Whatever food we buy is about 40% cheaper than in the UK.

Our next sail south involved the rounding of the infamous Cape Finisterre, the finish of the earth. The sea area Finisterre is, of course, familiar to all of us who listened to the BBC Radio 4 Shipping Forecast. Sadly they have now dropped Finisterre for a curious area called Fitzroy.

Finisterre held no horrors for us and was so calm that we hoisted our colourful cruising chute and later enjoyed an anchorage for the night just round the corner at the Ensenada de Sardineiro, a wonderful quiet, scenic bay with golden sand and stunning wild flowers in the dunes. On then to the Rias Bajas, a series of five large inlets to explore before reaching the Spanish/Portuguese border. The first of these, the Ria Muros was, like the Rias Altas in the north, surrounded by high hills with their steep sides mainly covered in pine forest.

During the sail to Muros Miggy caught four good sized mackerel on one cast from the stern of the boat – her first catch in three months of trying!! They tasted great as a starter to supper that day along with two more that Roger Breese caught at anchor the previous day.

Muros town, where we anchored for a night, was typical of a 16th century fortified Galician fishing port with colonnaded stone buildings, narrow streets and a massive church on the hill above. We called it ‘windy city’ because of the ferocious local winds coming down off the hills overnight and causing us to go gently and not worryingly aground. Our next stop, Portosin, gave us shelter in a new Marina in a pleasant town.

The next and largest of the Rias Bajas, the Ria Arosa, was, in stark contrast to the beauty of the Ria Muros and the Rias Altas on the north coast, surrounded by low hills whose slopes are lined with buildings rather than trees and the lovely smell of pine and eucalyptus. We dropped the Roger and Sue Breese off at Villagarcia where there are good train connections to A Coruna and their Airport. A two-hour train journey costs 6 euros (about £4.50)!! We could not wait to leave this crowded smelly, industrial place. The town of Caraminal on the north bank of the Ria is very pleasant and much undervalued by the pilot books.

Fish farms comprising floating platforms from which ropes dangle in the water on which mussels grow and mature dominate the Rias Bajas. They limit the free sailing in the waters of the Rias.

The beginning of July, our fourth month at sea, finds us in a modern exclusive holiday resort called San Vincente do Mar. The Marina at Porto Pedras Negras on the southern tip of the entrance to Ria Arose is very small and delightful and the staff are friendly and attentive. The facilities are so well maintained that the pontoons have recently been painted with preservative. The conurbation is totally without interest but a ‘boardwalk’ has been built linking sheltered sandy beaches in coves between rocky promontories. The granite rocks, weathered to odd shapes by the wind and waves and pinkish in colour are reminiscent of those on the ‘Granite Rose’ coast of north Brittany.
We are the only visiting yacht in the Marina. As we go south the incidence of foreign flagged yachts is decreasing although we are meeting long term cruisers including a Norwegian and a Finn.

Our next destination was going to be the Ria Pontevedre but the built up nature of this Ria and that of Ria Vigo and the presence of raw sewage not only in the marinas but offshore put us off and we made the decision to sail to Bayona directly where we are now on the 4th of July. It is lovely here and we have finally met up with our friends from Lymington, Peter and Ruth Austin on their yacht 'Jasmone'