Driving Home for Christmas. Eastern Algarve and Ria Formosa

I’m never keen to leave Figueira as you may have guessed. It’s draw is a combination of the warm hearted, fun, friends we have made here over the years and the stunning walks and beaches. Every December we are torn between sticking around here for Christmas or moving on. There’s plenty to do with it being on a good bus route and only a short taxi ride away from the restaurants etc in Luz and Burgau. It does tend to be a wee bit chillier though at this end of the Algarve in December. Not by much but when it’s wet, the track to the beach can be a bit of a pain with the dog’s feet as it’s sticky red clay. Normally, we opt for a bit more life and go to Albufeira for Christmas and New Year. There’s always lots of festive stuff going on around there and we know loads of people now. Some of our friends are staying at Camping Albufeira and others are on the Aire down in town. Decisions decisions.

As my regular readers and those close to me will know, I lost my younger sister earlier this year. Her illness advanced and became life threatening very quickly and we couldn’t have made it back to UK in time to be with her before she died. We were in our favourite Portuguese town, Manta Rota, when it happened. I spent many hours on the phone with her, walking up and down the beach, normally at sunrise and sunset, describing my surroundings so she could listen to the sea and imagine herself there. We talked about anything and everything, past regrets and issues were put to bed, she was very frank about her situation and incredibly brave towards the end. She was in so much pain. It was quite heartbreaking and I felt very helpless and indeed useless at the end of a phone. I couldn’t think about this wonderful place after her death without a pain in my heart. I felt I needed to come back here as soon as possible and lay my ghosts to rest. I was actually dreading coming back to Portugal altogether for that same reason so it needed to be done. With that in mind we decided to get it over with and drive back up here to Manta. It’s about a hundred miles to this end of the Algarve and the stunning Ria Formosa National Park which starts at Faro.

Manta Rota is a tiny, whitewashed town, a short distance from the Spanish Border. In Summer it’s a buzzing little resort but during Winter months it’s reclaimed by the locals and clam fishermen. The Aire here attracts many French, Dutch and German Motorhomers. There are very few English vans around. It sits in the sand dunes, just about on an endless, white, sandy beach. We simply adore it. The orange groves and almond orchards line the lane leading up to the quaint, historic village known as Cacela Velha. Loaded lemon trees grow in the cobbled streets. You can literally pick your own. There are one or two bars, a handful of shops and restaurants and a small, well stocked Supermarket with its own bakery. Also a brilliant Farm Shop/Butcher run by a delightful local family. The larger, modern, town of Vila Nova de Cacela is a short walk or cycle ride away and from there you can hop on a train or bus. It’s ideal for visiting the other market towns along the Ria Formosa. Olhao, Tavira, Fuseta. All are beautiful in their own right. You can take a ride right into Faro for a nominal fare or Castro Marim with its castle and Vila Real de Santo António right on the Spanish Border in the opposite direction. This whole area has an awful lot to offer. We plan to stick around for a couple of months at least and will hire a car. This will be home now for a while. I could put permanent roots down here for sure. Seville is only a couple of hours drive away. It’s an excellent base.

It’s nice to see a few familiar faces over our first few days. Some are regular annual Motorhomers on the Aire, others are local people we’ve met previously, Marian, Avi and Jonny up at Mar’s bar and many Brits who have bought property and settled here. It’s good to be back. We are given a very warm welcome by all. It was definitely the right decision.

It can be a struggle to get on this Aire, it’s a popular one. You have to be prepared to arrive early and wait at the gate for someone to leave. Once you’re on. you can flit around pitches as people move on until you are happy. Some spaces are a fair distance from the electric hook up boxes. This time we have been found wanting so we have had to order another extension cable. It only took a couple of days, great service from Amazon.de. , the German site. UK don’t deliver here. We have a lovely big, sunny plot now with a ready made Christmas tree in situ. I can trim up for Christmas and start building my little garden. I’ve brought pots for herbs and packets of seeds so I’m all prepared! More importantly though, I have a washing line!!

It’s so easy with the dog here too. It’s lovely and clean. No red clay. Just a few strides put the van door and we’re on the beach. Dylan loves it as much as we do, he gets a lot of freedom and his daily sea bath. The land around is covered in prickly pear cacti and Mimosa trees. They’ll soon be in glorious, bright yellow blossom and will fill the air with their amazing fragrance. Gypsy children wander through daily selling bags of oranges, avocados and strawberries for next to nothing. There’s a lovely lady collects laundry each morning and brings it back crisp and pressed in the afternoon, again charging only a pittance. What’s not to like?

I spend a golden sunset one evening on my own by the waters edge chatting to my sister and getting my head around things. I’m very glad we came back. I feel she’s at peace now and pain free.

Sometimes you have to say goodbye in your own way. This was mine. I needed to let go of the guilt of not being able to at least hug her before we lost her.

Our first weekend was all about markets. On Saturday we took the train to Olhao. It cost around €12 return for both of us. The two red brick market buildings at the side of the river are absolutely buzzing. It’s a colourful riot of flowers, food, live birds and a million other things. There’s music everywhere you turn and the cafes and bars along the waterfront are absolutely packed. One building sells fresh fish direct from the local boats and meat, the other, fruit, veg and an array of local produce, honey, chillies, preserves etc. This has got to be the best food market on the Algarve. It’s a wonderful experience, my bags are soon full to bursting! (There’s a separate heading on Olhao if you would like any more info). On the Sunday, it’s the monthly Gypsy Market up in the new town. This is another good one. It attracts more handicraft sellers, pottery, leatherware and the likes as well as local cheese makers, pastries, olive oil etc. As the stalls start to pack away, coal grills are set up along with lots of trestle tables and chairs and just about the whole town sits down to eat Piri piri chicken and drink wine. It’s a great atmosphere. I bought a beautiful big Poinsettia and a chilli plant. Next we did a super Christmas Market up in the old town, it was such a cheery event and the views from up there are incredible. The lady at the cafe up there bakes my favourite sticky orange cake, it’s delicious. I bought chilli jam in two different strengths and some locally made goats cheese which you eat with walnuts and honey.

Our pals, Debs and Rob, Ian and Brigit are on site so we reacquainted ourselves with Mar’s Bar then put the world to rights over far too many bottles of wine. It was fun. We also caught up with Jo and Kev our friends who have a seasonal caravan pitch at Roundhill over the Summer. They are on holiday in Portugal, it was good to catch up with them again.

Well we have blinked and two weeks seem to have slipped by already. We are all trimmed up for the festive season. More tinsel and lights on the tree outside than you can shake a stick at. We’ve done our big food shop and our friendly butcher, Erik, has ordered us a juicy turkey crown dressed Portuguese style. The mince pies are going down very well indeed. Santa has delivered a big fat parcel from our folks which cheered us both up massively so we now have cards and stuff from the fam back home. Hey, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!!

I bet those of you back in Blighty are running around like headless chickens writing cards, shopping til you’re dropping and dressing up for office parties and the likes. It’s much more laid back here. We’ll be barbecuing on the beach on Christmas Eve and will cook a traditional lunch on the 25th. I do miss a Christmas ‘do’ though! Hopefully we’ll find a few to tag along to locally.

Hope you’re all full of festive cheer wherever you are and enjoying the run up to the big day. I shall raise a glass or two of fizz to your good health! On that jolly note my lovelies I shall leave you. I’m baking Christmas brownies, same as normal ones only with added cranberries, raisins and nuts and sprinkled with a bit of cinnamon and icing sugar!

Feliz Natal 🎄🍾🎁 Lots of love

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