Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Christmas Adventures -- Casais & Alvor, Portugal

Shortly after our arrival in the UK we decided we would need something to keep us busy over the long Christmas break.  Immediately crazy plans began circulating, not that it takes much to get us started.  Somewhere very awesome and preferably warm to distract us from our family-less Christmas.  First thoughts, Morocco!  That would be fun!  Then take a boat to Spain?  What about Portugal, could we bus to Portugal?  Croatia instead?  Maybe we want to go to an island like Malta?  Or Tenerife?  Or Mallorca? Skiing in Switzerland? ...

This went on for a while.  Finally the plan settled on Portugal, Spain, and Rome.  But Rome looked kind of expensive, especially given the flight dates around Christmas.  Fine.  We'll just go to Portugal and Spain.  It was all settled when we realized that we had already booked plane tickets to get to Rome and forgotten about them.  Oops. (Don't laugh too hard, its easy to do when flying Ryanair.... so cheap)  So we hastily figured out how to swim back to England from Rome.  

This is how we found ourselves walking to the train station across town at 8:30am on a VERY cold and frosty morning in Durham.  We caught our train without a hitch and found ourselves in Edinburgh ("Ed-in-burra") Scotland.  With an afternoon to kill before the plane took off we wandered about the city and made our way to Arthur's Seat.  We hiked to the top of this beautiful, but miserably cold, snow-covered peak and looked out at the scenery.  The friendliness of the people, and the views in Scotland (They have mountains!  Baby mountains!) have us already planning our return trip.  Easy to do when we practically already live in Scotland.  

After a very smooth and uneventful flight we landed in Faro, Portugal and found the shuttle.  We soon found that we were taking the longest ride of anyone on the bus, and that the driver wasn't too pleased about it. "Have you ever been to Casais before?" he asked.  "No" we replied.  "You know its a long ride?  At least 2 hours?" He asked this in a way that sounded as if he wasn't too terribly excited about the drive and was not-so-secretly hoping we would change our mind about our destination.  I can hardly blame him, it was already 9pm by this time.  Poor fellow probably didn't get home and into bed until 2am.  After all the other passengers had been let off at their respective destinations the bus turned toward Casais ("Ka-sysh").  Pretty quickly all signs of civilization disappeared.  Ascending windy roads, few lights, no signs of houses.  We were truly headed to the middle of nowhere, which is exactly what we wanted. 

When we finally arrived, our very gracious hostess, Anabela, met us at the door  --It was pretty clear that we were her visitors.  Who else would be driving around sleepy Casias at nearly midnight?  Despite the late hour, Anabela and her very friendly black lab Cuca were ready and waiting with bread, cheese, olives, and guacamole.  When we had eaten our fill we told her we were headed for bed.  She replied that she was headed to bed "early" too (at midnight!).  We found out later that it is just part of life to stay up late in Portugal.  On subsequent nights we could hear Anabela making calls and writing into the wee hours of the morning. 

Since we had arrived in the dark, the next morning we were stunned by the fabulous panoramic view of the hills and mountains surrounding the house.   We were awake long before Anabela, so we served ourselves some of the famous regional bread (homemade in a wood fire oven), goat cheese, and bananas.  The morning began with lofty plans of hiking over the mountain to Monchique ("Mon-shiek").  We left with a camera and a very rudimentary map of the area.  No surprise, we were pretty quickly guessing our route.  As it turned out, even with a better map, we would still have had to guess.  No street signs marked the route, only the occasional sign for a bed and breakfast graced our path.  No sign of people, hardly a car, and no real idea of where we were going.  Thankfully for us (and our lack of snack planning) around noon we started passing little restaurants.  We ducked into one, and were immediately welcomed and seated.   No one else was in the restaurant at 12:30, but we dined on piri piri chicken and halibut steak with gusto.  Just as we were about the leave crowds came swarming into the popular little diner, so we must have been just a little early for Portuguese lunch time.  Sheepishly at the end of our meal we asked our waitress "Can you tell us where we are?" and pointed to our little map.  Surprisingly we were actually on the appropriate path to Monchique.

Shortly thereafter, we arrived in what Anabela had described as sprawling metropolis.  If I were to guess by appearance, there seemed to be about 1,500 residents (though Wikipedia claims it's larger).  Since we were already in Monchique, we decided to find the grocery store with the goat cheese I had taken a fancy for.  This was more difficult than I thought it would be.  It seems that locals in Portugal are generally pretty bad at giving directions (we found this later in the trip too).  After three tries and wandering in circles around the sleepy village, we found the store, secured some of the precious cheese and  took a cheap cab ride home as we had already spent more than 5 hours of the day walking. 

On the way to Monchique
The next day and a half we spent meandering about the cork trees and taking pictures of the tropical plants of Casais.  We also picked and ate oranges from Anabela's tree before she escorted us to the one and only unmarked bus stop for the one and only bus that travels through Casais each day.  With Anabela's help, we made it aboard the short bus and on our way to Alvor.

Bruno's apartment
Our next host, Bruno, an enthusiastic, friendly goofball who seems to have learned his English from a letter writing manual, had nonetheless a spotlessly clean and very modern apartment for us to stay in.  After finishing his long and exuberant speech a few times, which was punctuated at regular intervals with "Dear friends" and "WOOOWW" and "I make this offer for you" (Bruno, you know we already paid, haha) we settled into the lovely apartment and spent the next two days wandering Alvor.  Highlights included walking out on one of the LONGEST boardwalks I have ever been on, easily more than a mile long, and walking along a remote beach with millions of perfectly intact and vibrantly colored shells.  I'll let the pictures below vouch for Portugal's charm and magnificence. In the words of the ever wise Arnold Schwarzenegger, "I'll be back."

Check back in a few days for Part Two  -Spain!


Lots of tile work in Portgaul

Harvested cork waiting to be made into humble corkboards

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


So first off, yes I know Thanksgiving was a while ago.  But this needs to come before Christmas posts, and we've been off travelling to Portugal, Spain, and Rome for the last two weeks--More than that in these next few days. 

Hall dinners are excellent here.  Just saying.  It started early this year when introductions were being made.  Jenny and Zoe, my two wonderful Chinese hallmates each independently offered to make dinner for the hall.  When they realized that great minds think alike and that they had both offered to make dinner, they joined forces to make the best Chinese dinner I have ever (and probably will ever) have.   Here's a few pictures of the amazing-ness.  I'm afraid the pictures do no justice to the wonders of this Chinese dinner.

The best Chinese EVER

Dessert: British sticky toffee pudding by Lauren

This of course left the Brits and the Americans to reciprocate.  Nothing is more American than Thanksgiving, but due to class schedules everyone scattered by Christmas.  This resulted in the best possible plan --combine American Thanksgiving foods with British Christmas foods to make the best ever Thankmas.  Both have meat, potatoes, veggies, dessert.   Practically the same meal anyway.

Or maybe not... Many conversations leading up to the biggest most epic dinner ever went along these lines.

Me: "So.  I just realized we might have different ideas of potatoes."
Representative of Britain: "Yah, like what?  Don't you roast them?"
Me:  "For Thanksgiving?  Nope.  Definitely mashed."
RofB: "Hmm.  They are definitely roasted at Christmas."
Me:  "Two kinds of potatoes it is, then."

Not nearly as many things crossed over as we originally thought they would.  This resulted in making two different versions of roughly similar things, which in turn resulted in about 4 meals worth of food.

The resulting bellyache and lack of appetite for two days afterward were so worth it.  Check out what we had for dinner....
Photo by Jenny
Rosie made these paper chains, its British tradition!

Specifically American  (Sam and I were in charge of procuring these)
Turkey breast --which I roasted with apples, and covered in foil to keep it from drying out
Mashed yukon gold potatoes
Biscuits  --the American kind, not British cookies
Pumpkin pie and whipped cream --neither is typically eaten here
Eggnog --Homemade, couldn't find any in the store, also rather unheard of here
Olives --The big black ones I always stuck on my finger as a kid
Corn --my family always serves this at Thanksgiving.... so it must be traditional, right?

Both British and American
Cranberry Sauce, Gravy, and Advent Calendar

Specifically British (Rosie & Jack, Lauren & Nick in charge of these)
Ham --which was done in the most fantastic way, with honey and chili flakes/paste/something spicy
Roast potatoes --these are cut into large cubes and roasted to have a tough/crunchy/amazing exterior
Brussel Sprout --You have to have one on your plate at Christmas, even if no one likes them
Peas and Carrots --Self explanatory.  Peas. And. Carrots.  Nothing too fancy. (Very good though!)
Yorkshire Pudding --not a pudding.  See previous post.  Kind of like a biscuit??
Pigs & Blankets --These are the epitome of Christmas dinner.  It simply isn't Christmas without them.  Lest you think they are sausages wrapped in dough, these are tiny little sausages wrapped in BACON.

Also we enjoyed our Christmas crackers, Har-de-harded at our awful puns included in the crackers, and wore our lovely paper crowns as if they were made of gold and sapphires.

Needless to say, much fun was had.  Are you jealous yet?  Good.  You should be.

Photo by Jenny

Thanks Garvins for the CUTE Indian & Pilgrim finger puppets