Monday, November 2, 2009

Montreal and Portugal

This was probably the longest vacation I've taken in a few years and it's taken me a while to be able to re-adjust to society. This write-up might become more about the pictures than the words as the words don't come very easily for me these days.The trip started out with a few days in Montreal. We were originally supposed to leave on the Friday, but a work trip came up so we decided to tack on a few nights in Montreal and leave from there on the Wednesday. I had meetings on the Tuesday/Wednesday, so we decided to fly on the Sunday and take a day on Monday. This worked out well until I got the phone call that the meetings were cancelled, sometime mid-morning on Monday. So I kind of had to scramble to find things to do in Montreal that were "work-related".The best thing going in Montreal these days is the Bixi. Oh my god, the Bixi. Vancouver needs a Bixi equivalent. For 5 bucks a day (there's monthly and yearly subscriptions as well) you get unlimited 1/2 hour rides. If you go over a half hour, there's a sliding scale upcharge(I think $1.50 for the next half hour, $3.00 for the next, etc.), so there's definitely motivation to keep it under a half hour. There's statioins everywhere. The bikes are mostly in good shape and run surprisingly quickly on pavement. It's a fantastic way to get around the city. There was a station across the street from the hotel and there ended up being one about a 20 second walk from the Brewery, so I was set.Montreal itself is a wonder of customer service. We decided to go to the art gallery. As we bought tickets, they explained that the ticket was half price because the permanent exhibition was closed. This was fine. We went up and the guard explained that only 2 of the 3 temporary exhibits were open, but the one that we were looking for would be open in about an hour-and-a-half. This sucked but was fine. So we went through the other two exhibits and had an hour to kill.

We thought we'd have a tea at the art gallery cafe. It took a couple of minutes to attract the attention of a waiter and he explained that it would be very difficult to serve us tea but that he'd try to find a way to accomodate us in a few minutes once he dealt with a couple of other things. So we left and walked around for a bit. We came back and made our way up to the exhibit. Still closed. We asked the guard (a different one by this time) if he knew when it would be open. He had no idea and suggested we talk to the ladies at the ticket desk. This is where it got strange.

There were 2 or 3 ladies sitting around dispensing tickets. I didn't think it would be a big deal to find out when the exhibit opened but when I asked they said "I don't know. But we're open until 9 so feel free to come back later in the day." We explained that we had a flight to catch in a few hours, that we'd only really come because we'd wanted to see this exhibit and that we'd really appreciate it if they could just tell us when it would open. They seemed completely uninterested in finding out this information for us and seemed baffled that I would ask them to phone sombebody and find out. Then we asked for our money back and they got a bit miffed. All of a sudden it became our fault because they quite clearly had two laminated sheets out on one corner of their desk for each of the two exhibits that were open and obviously since the other exhibit didn't have a sheet it was closed. At this point I asked who was in charge because they obviously didn't want to take responsibility for anything. She, honestly, she says "There's lots of people in charge here. People here, people upstairs. Lots of people." She started blaming us again for not knowing what was going on so I say "Look. Whoever sold us the tickets didn't do a very good job of explaining what exhibits were open..." Oh boy. She lost it. "I know for a fact that my colleague does an excellent job." Imagine the thick accent here and it makes it a bit more humourous, although less politically correct. Then, barely containing her rage, she asks for our tickets and gives us our money back purely to spite us. It seemed like a silly resolution to a "do you know what time your exhibits open at" sort of question.

There was another stunning display of customer service at the airport. Some poor guy was spending the last of his Canadian money on candy for his children. He had 50 dollars so he told the cashier to stop charging once she got to 50. This was fine, but then she started jamming all the candy into one bag. He asked, politely, if he could split it into two bags. She looked at him like he was some sort of war criminal and beligerently pointed out that it was all fitting into one bag. He explained that he'd like it in two bags. She paused for a moment, then sort of threw a second bag at him. Good stuff.
Off to Lisbon (via Heathrow). The only real memory I have is of barely being able to keep my eyes open from London to Lisbon. By the time we landed I felt so terrible from a lack of sleep that I was worried about the upcoming drive into the center of Lisbon that we were about to face. Luckily, we had an hour or so in an immigration line-up to rest up.

This was the main airport for Portugal and there were only two people handling all the passport checks. For about 15 minutes they had an extra person on duty, but he bailed out pretty quickly. It almost came to fisticuffs at times as the "All Other Passports" line-up jockied for position with the "Portugese Colonies" line-up. We finally got through, picked up our Fiat Panda and were on our way.
Lisbon is a beautiful city but it requires the best you can muster for navigational purposes. we had several maps and a fairly clear idea where the hotel was, but even then it took 3 or 4 times around to find the stupid thing. Once we did, we went for a good wander so that we were able to stay up late enough to sleep through the night.

There's so much going on in Lisbon. There seems to be a restaurant or bar just about every 2-3 doors. There's people wandering all over. There's guys playing amplified live music in squares. It seems like a very lively city.

And the scenery is beautiful. Everything is old and white. And hilly. Lots of hills. The next morning we wandered around for a half day and were able to find enough hills to last an entire trip. Anyhow, I'd definitely like to spend more time in Lisbon.
We left the city via the freeway to the South. I think we could have made it all the way to the Algarve in 5-6 hours, but the distances seemed longer than they are so we decided to head for Villa de Nova Milfontes (or something like that) about halfway down the coast. I'm glad we did.
Once we left the freeway, the drive became very beautiful. There's cork trees all over the place, and we were able to stop and check some of them out. A little ways down the road and we saw the stockpiles of cork from some farmer. That reminds me. I was going to look up cork in Wikipedia. As well as cork trees, we passed all sorts of nice little villages, castles, etc. It was a good introduction to Portugese scenery.
From Lisbon, it probably took about 3-4 hours to get to Milfontes (with a few stops thrown in). Milfontes is a really nice little village with beaches seemingly all around it. We ran into a couple from Winnepeg who had been doing a week long walking tour in the area, and they said it was much the same down the coast as far as they walked. We spent the next morning on the beach just south of town and then started out for the Algarve.
The area between Milfontes and the Algarve is my favourite. Part of this would be in the Alantejo, and part of it in the Algarve. Anyhow, lots of corks, narrow winding highways, enough castles to start a castle-spotting league and lots of beaches (not right on the road, but a short drive from the highway). We had heard so much about the Algarve though, that we didn't stop very much and made our way to Sagres.
Sagres itself is an ugly, ugly little village. It kind of reminds me of Oliver, but without the nice mountains in the background. Hot and dusty and ugly. A short drive from town and there's the giant fortress that sits on the cliffs, overlooking a beautiful beach down below. Off in the distance you can see the Cape of St. Vincent, the Southwest tip of Portugal. It has a neat little lighthouse that was supposedly Henry the Navigators training grounds. You can't go in, but it's pretty neat to explore the cliff bands, watch the fishermen and take some photos.
This dog was hanging out at the front gate and seemed excited that we stopped to take some photos.
Before we left, we watched some Rick Steeves and he filled me with visions of Salema. Salema this. Salema that. He couldn't stop talking about it. It sounded perfect and I was jonesing to get there.

Rick Steeves. What an asshole. Salema sucks! Honestly. The beach wasn't that nice. Everything looked a little bit rundown. Somebody must have paid him off. We hung out for 20 minutes or so, got over our disappointment and headed for the next village down the road.

The next village became the next. And the next the next. And pretty soon we were in Lagos and it was dark. Even with our handy Lonely Planet and the map it provides, we were lost. It took a while to find our way to the center of town, and from there it took a while to find the street with our hotel. I dropped Andrea off to check it out and then drove onward so I wasn't in the middle of the street, expecting to be able to pull over 50 meters ahead or so.

Dear lord, the next 15 minutes were some of the worst of my life. The hotel street quickly merged into a pedestrian boulevard. There was a laneway for cars, but the chairs from the restaurants were practically on top of it and British tourists were staggering all over. The roads were insanely narrow and everything looked the same. I drove around and around, recognizing things and adjusting my route, but everything seemed to send me back into the vortex of tourists. I had no idea where to go or how I was going to find Andrea, but then she somehow magically appeared by the side of the car. We enventually found our way out and I parked on the main drag and we hiked in.

Lagos kind of sucks. As far as tourist centers are concerned, this is a small one, but it's bad enough that I don't want to go back. Don't get me wrong, it's a beautiful place, but there's so many places in Portugal devoid of tourists you'd have to be crazy to want to spend time here. Come morning, we were ready to move on, after a quick stop at the beach.
The beaches in Lagos are picturesque and have strange sand the consistency of brown sugar. It was a bit crowded though and we quickly moved on.

We decided to head inland to Monchique, and then back towards Aljazur, which we had passed through on our way down the coast. Monchique is high in the mountains. It's famous for it's spring water and is a fairly unassuming little town without much going on. However, above and to the west is the high point of the Algarve, coupled with a nice drive through eucalyptus trees. Definitely worth the visit.

The drive from Monchique to Aljazur is a high point as well. Windy roads through mountain villages, cork trees, eucalyptus, etc. Stunningly beautiful. I think I remarked about halfway through the drive that I couldn't get much happier.
From Aljazur, we headed to a beach town about 15 minutes away. It was one of those "holy shit" moments when we rolled up that sent us into a bit of a panic. Honestly, it was just so perfect, this tiny village perched on top of a beautiful beach, that we figured a tourist bus was about to swoop in and steal our hotel room. We couldn't believe what we found. As Andrea sorted out the hotel room I stood on top of the cliffs talking to a New Zealander, busy on his life quest to find meaning. He was pointing out the cabin he had found to rent, pretty much smack dab in the middle of the hill over-looking the beach. He was explaining to me that the price was right, but he just sort of felt the place was too big for just him to rent for the month. This didn't really make much sense to me, but I saw him moving his stuff in the next day, so I guess he figured it out. Oh. Yes. The place is called Arrifana.
The next couple of days/nights were quite amazing. The beach was warm enough to surf without a wetsuit. The surf wasn't all that great, but was friendly enough that you could just sort of walk out to catch a wave. The local restaurant was tasty and cheap. It all just kind of worked out and I was sad to leave. And there's probably a good half dozen places like this within a few hours drive of where we were. Honestly, go to Portugal. Rent a car. Find your way off the beaten path.

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