25.10.2010 - 28.11.2010
I begin this blog entry with a couple of observations about our trip.
Firstly - the fellow campers we meet. Most are ‘grey nomads’, those folks over fifty but more usually over sixty. They are for the most part retired and therefore free to travel for months at a time around Europe. Their children have long since left home, and they’ve probably done the mandatory first few years of babysitting their grandkids.
They are the sector of the population with the most money and they no longer have the financial burden of bringing up their children. They're not as athletic as they once were, but I’m impressed by the enthusiasm with which they haul their caravans and motorhomes around the continent.
Now, the female half of these stalwart adventurers always seem to be the grounded ones, amiable and cheerful and, as no doubt they were when they were keeping house, ever busy cooking, washing and maintaining a clean mobile home. They act as navigators when hubby is driving, and they guide the vans into narrow camping plots, like those chaps at airports with their large luminous table-tennis bats guiding jumbos into their parking bays – you know what I mean!
It’s just as well that the women are so level-headed because their men are generally a bit, well, odd. Now I said ‘generally’ because I don’t mean all of them. The men at Arc-en-Ciel in Aix-en-Provence for instance were down-to-earth, friendly, and seemingly quite normal. I'm talking about a particular brand of traveller. The campers at Aix tend to be those who just take a yearly vacation away from home – they’re not ‘travellers’ as such. It seems that the strange ones tend to be 'wanderers', those who travel all over Europe for months at a time every year.
Take for instance a couple we met in Sagres in southern Portugal. They seemed nice enough, until ‘he’ started talking. He harped on endlessly about himself, his travelling, his work history and his hobbies. And he wouldn’t SHUT UP! He hadn’t the slightest interest in anything we had to say. His wife seemed oblivious to her husband’s self-obsession – I guess that’s what thirty years of marriage does to a person! Needless to say I quickly lost the will to live listening to his tedious self-inflation. God, what a bore!
Another chap, a very odd Welshman, bailed us up at our van as we were preparing to go into town. He was very pleasant and friendly, but extremely strange. I could attribute his oddness to being a god-botherer (which I’m sure had a lot to do with it), but I don’t think religion is a prerequisite for what I’m penning ‘travelling man’s syndrome’ or TMS.
Yet another chap was a bit of a bully with his wife, swatting away her comments like one might an annoying fly – not an attractive attribute.
I’m not cherry-picking these examples either. I’m honestly starting to believe that the men who live an itinerant or gypsy lifestyle in motorhomes go a bit bonkers. Perhaps retirement doesn’t agree with them (though they will all tell you that getting off the treadmill was the best thing they ever did). Hmm, I doubt that.
The second observation on this trip concerns food. We’ve been in Portugal for three weeks now and it’s become noticeable that everywhere you go, no matter how small the village, there are cafés and small restaurants everywhere. I mention it because in France it’s the complete opposite. The number of times Ann and I would be driving promising ourselves a coffee at half-time, only to find out that the next village had nowhere to stop.
France has boulangeries and patisseries everywhere, and of course they are excellent. But try and get a coffee or a cheap lunch and you might as well be looking for a spare part for a space shuttle. In Portugal you can go anywhere and stop for an authentic lunch. For example, we drove through a typical small village two days ago. It was just one road in and one road out. But in it there were no less than eight eating establishments, all providing cheap authentic Portuguese cuisine!
Don’t the French eat? When you do find somewhere in France it’s usually a pizzeria or kebab shop – there seemed to be nowhere where you can buy a real French meal. Perhaps the French only do haute cuisine in big cities where you pay thirty euros for a bouillabaisse (that’s a fancy name for fish stew). Very disappointing!
It’s curious really because the French have done such a marvellous job of promoting their country by building a very professional infrastructure for travellers. There are campsites everywhere, and more publications advertising camping than you can poke a stick at. So why then is the cuisine, which has achieved almost legendary status in the world, so inaccessible to the average traveller?
OK, back to the trip itself. The day before we left Lisbon, we met a very friendly chap, a typical Aussie bloke at the campsite – the type who could have been an extra on ‘Crocodile Dundee’. He’d had a tough upbringing but had managed to make a bit of money doing this and that, dragging himself up by his bootstraps. All very admirable, although he too seemed to find it necessary to remind us often about how he’d turned adversity into advantage. For all his worldly-wiseness (or should that be wise-worldliness?), he seemed quite a lonely character. Quite genuine though.
We took two days to get down to the Algarve, stopping overnight at a very attractive little village on the coast called Vila Nove de Milfontes. Its architecture seemed to typify what is so common in the south of Portugal – whitewashed houses with terracotta roofs, and window frames attractively painted in blues or pinks or mustards.
We stopped only overnight at Sagres, right on the corner of the country (and almost about as far as you can get to the south-west corner of the European continent). It was a sleepy village (that is until the high season) with a sun-bleached look about it. We stayed long enough to have a coffee and custard tart at a café, then we headed east, heading for Lagos.