Portugal – A timeless country boasting beaches, sweet wines, picturesque cities and excellent shopping

Take a litre of sunshine, stir in jutting cliffs smeared with peanut butter-coloured sand, sprinkle with ancient villages and towns, top up with plenty of hospitality and decorate with a splash of port and a pastel de nata and, voila! Portugal. Oh, and did I mention that this dish is extremely good value? As in stunning value for Europe.

Three separate trips saw me visiting Portugal. Firstly the azul skies and soft sands of the Algarve on the southern coast – perfect for families, flying and flopping and, if you’re that way inclined, golf.

Secondly, it was a day’s stop over in Lisbon and, thirdly, a city break to Porto.

First off, Lisbon. There be hills in these parts; seven if the legend is to be believed. My advice is to look very carefully at which one has the sight you wish to see perched at the top. I wanted the castle, misjudged which hillock it perched upon, and ended up spotting it from the hill next door. Cue cursing and another sweaty ascent (although the thigh burn allowed for extra custard tart…) The view from the citadel was gratifying with a mishmash of terracotta roofs pouring down the hills before settling around beautifully laid out plazas. Of course the backdrop of the glittering sea and a gentle onshore breeze made walking the city even sweeter with its cobbled streets, ornate balcony-infused edifices and plethora of cafes on every corner.

One attribute that both Lisbon and Porto share is a sense that time has stood still; a rather wonderful feature not often found in the modern world and especially not in bustling cities. Peeking into dark shops I would see shoemakers hammering nails into boots, wooden boxes overflowing with fresh fruit and vegetables in the grocers, or long counters where reels of material or paper were measured out, by hand, for customers.

Frankly anywhere that still uses antique weighing scales without irony (I’m looking at you, East London) is a place I want to be.

Porto also has its hills which plummet dramatically into the Douro River. One one side of the river, which is criss-crossed by iron bridges designed by the likes of Gustav Eiffel, you have the UNESCO old town; another jumble of burnished buildings tumbling down the hill where children play in the streets, washing is strung between balconies and cats leap from bin to bin gnawing on scraps. This is a city that actually feels lived in and not just a showhome for tourists.

The other river bank is flanked by warehouses full of port and ye olde vessels ply the water transporting barrels of this sweet nectar. I highly recommend indulging in a port tasting session and then heading to one of the back streets and into a local restaurant for a delicious lunch before heading back up the hill to the main town.

At this point the shopping in Porto deserves an honorable mention. Stylish boutiques, gift shops and delis line the winding streets and, as I keep harping on about, everything is so cheap! And individual! My God, if you’re the type to stress about what to get that friend or family member for birthday or Christmas then I implore you to fly to Porto and do all your present shopping in one go. The cost of the flight will pay for itself a thousand times over in the bargains you secure and peace of mind you will achieve knowing that everyone will be delighted with their presents and there’s no fear of Auntie Liz getting three of the same pairs of earrings.

Another honourable mention goes to the people. The lovely, lovely people who are endlessly welcoming and helpful and don’t seem to have that weary we’re-dealing-with-another-tourist’s-asinine-questions air that sometimes pervades other visitor-saturated towns. So go. Enjoy it all before Portugal suddenly stops, realises that perhaps it should try and be a bit more woke and loses its wonderful charm.

Advertisements

Dominica – hurricanes, waterfalls, shipping containers and a red kingdom guarded by an imp

If there is one thing guaranteed to elicit an exaggerated eye roll from a person living in Dominica, then it’s getting the island confused with the Dominican Republic. “Do your homework, people!” the charismatic taxi driver yelled when explaining her frustration about this prickly geographic point. “It’s not hard! We’re a small, green island and the Dominican Republic shares its space with Haiti. We are not the same!”

I was nodding along furiously praying I wouldn’t start mixing up the two when I knew full well which was which. Employing a diversionary tactic was necessary. I asked about the famed category 5 hurricane Maria which hit the island in 2017, devastating everything in its path and considered the worst natural disaster on record to hit that part of the Caribbean.

I was visiting the island two years after Maria with my toddler daughter in tow, still unsure of what was going to greet us. I needn’t have worried. There were still bridges being constructed and the odd wind-ravaged and now abandoned house but aside from that the clean-up job had been thorough and very well executed. The only slightly jarring note were a number of battered cars parked neatly along the edge of the roads. I assumed there’d been an unfortunate pile up at some point until it was explained to me that the cars had been retrieved from sodden fields, plucked from atop palm trees, removed from gardens and hauled from rivers and were now waiting to end their days at the dump.

The night of the hurricane sounded truly terrifying, made all the more haunting by the excellent story-telling abilities of my taxi driver friend. She knows how to employ dramatic pauses when required. But hers was also a cautionary tale of cover ups and misinformation spread by the Government.

“We were never told it was a category 5 by the government,” she explained. “We only found out when relatives in other countries called us before it hit saying, “they’re forecasting a cat 5. Be prepared”. We all thought it would be a cat 2 or 3 so people were still driving around in their cars when it hit”.

As with all natural disasters, there were incredible survival stories. For instance the elderly man who clung to his mattress as it was torn from his house, and who was found – still holding on – hours later in the middle of the road.

Miraculously the airport’s runway avoided being flooded which, thankfully, meant aid could be flown in almost immediately. “So many countries helped us,” explained the taxi driver. “We were so thankful”.

I like to think this generosity was a result of people realising just how wonderful this island is. Covered in peaks of thick rainforest, my daughter and I started off at the Emerald Pool located Morne Trois Pitons National Park. A cascade of glittering water surrounded by plumes of butterflies feeds a blissfully clear pool the colour of a Morpho butterfly’s wings. Then on to the extraordinarily British-sounding Trafalgar Falls (the island has a wonderful mix of Anglo and Gallic names owing to its battles between the English and French over the territory throughout history). A short walk through the forest and you can hear the spattering of water on rocks long before you see the thin strands of H20 landing on the floor below. Swimming is recommended.

A further drive saw us pass through the capital, Roseau, and along the coast towards the north. I emailed the owner of the guesthouse where we were staying the night in advance asking about dining options. “Red Rocks is great!” the reply. No address, just a name. The taxi driver appeared to know where I was talking about.

This is where things began to get delightfully weird. We suddenly turned off the road and bumped across a stubbly field where an old shipping container had been converted into a bar of sorts. There was no one about and a few plastic chairs scattered about. The taxi drove off. I cleared my throat. Suddenly a beaming lady appeared asking what I would like to eat. And then a man – no larger than a woodland sprite – emerged from a path with long, grey dreadlocks and enormous, kind eyes. He spoke in an extraordinarily sing-song tone and talked about us walking with him to his ‘red kingdom’. Reader, I fully understand if you think my brain has leaked out of my ears but, I swear, this is all true.

Whenever I tell my friends this tale, they ask in astonishment what I thought I was doing walking with my daughter and this strange little imp down wooded paths as twilight fell. I can only say that something in my gut felt the situation was safe and, thankfully, I was right.

We finally emerged on a Mars-like surface (hence the reference to the ‘red kingdom’) where the crimson-coloured rocks had been smoothed into an undulating landscape that dropped away into the azure sea. A slither of a moon hung in the fast-darkening firmament. Our guide explained his family had lived there for years and now he was guardian of this sacred place.

We made our way back to the shipping container and gorged ourselves on fried plantain and salad. Just as I was pondering how to get to our guesthouse, headlights came bursting over the horizon and a car screeched to a halt in front of us. “Darlings!” bellowed a Canadian accent. “I’m SO glad I found you. How were you going to get to my guesthouse? Let me have a beer before I take you back. How OLD is your darling baby? Those eyes! Beautiful! Now, have you eaten enough? STOP. Actually, don’t answer that. I’ve made cake. Us girls will go back and have tea and cake. Wonderful!”

And with that the three of us piled into the car and spent the rest of our one night in Dominica devouring chocolate sponge and talking about the marvellous randomness of life on an island like the Dominican Republic. JOKE. Dominica.

Ecuador – Quito, hot springs, critters resembling dead comedians and straddling the Equator

“…and there was this creature at the end of the tunnel which looked exactly like RONNIE CORBETT,” shrieked my travel companion having burst through our hotel room door all sweat, adrenaline and pumped from his cycle ride and terrifying encounter with this beasty.

For the uninitiated, Ronnie Corbett was a popular British comedian known for his rubbery facial features and diminutive stature. He was not known for resembling any type of animal. I had absolutely no idea who or what my companion had just spotted.

I had given up on the bike ride just before the tunnel-with-no-pavements-or-streetlights. We flagged down a bus, the driver threw my bike on the roof – clearly having picked up exhausted and perspiring tourists many, many tedious times – before trundling back to the hot-spring town of Banos. My travelling companion was far fitter and hardier than myself and had gone on to complete the ride although possibly suffering from hallucinations by the end of it.

Ecuador, Ecuador, Ecuador. You shall always have a place in my heart as you were the first country we travelled to on the great South America trip of 2004; the same trip which ignited the obsessive and fast-burning passion for travel.

Quito was surprisingly lovely (surprising because we had done zero research on the destination and were still convinced the continent was infested with drug cartels). That said, anywhere was going to rank highly when the cafes insisted on serving thick pools of hot chocolate for breakfast. Plus the menu always contained some exotic-sounding foodstuff, our favourite being a ‘giant lima bean’ which turned out, rather disappointingly, to be corn on the cob.

The first day we sat at a cafe straddling the equator and congratulating ourselves on avoiding altitude sickness (something which has, alas, crept on with age).

One coach ride – which saw us careering around corners plunging into great crevasses whilst Madonna blared out of the radio and the driver repeatedly honked the horn which made a wolf-whistle sound at every human lucky enough to be in possession of a vagina – deposited us in Banos. We sank into the sulpherous pools and got chatting to an enormously handsome American chap who said he attended Greek school every Sunday. “I can speak Greek”, my travel buddy piped up. “Taramasalata!” There was a long silence. The handsome stranger rolled his eyes and left the pool. I laughed like a drain for approximately 45 mins and it was then I knew I’d found my lifetime travel companion. Oh, and we think it was a coati that was moonlighting as a UK entertainer in that dark tunnel…

China – on being given CPR, ticking off tourist spots and overindulging on rice wine

There is nothing more discombobulating than coming around from a faint with your brother giving you mouth-to-mouth. On a packed plane. Whilst shouting: “I THINK SHE’S DEAD!”

This was the situation in which I found myself somewhere over a ‘jan or a ‘stan on China Southern Airlines. I’m one of life’s fainters in general and do so quite spectacularly; none of this gentle swooning onto a handy chaise longue for me. I like to choose a spot where maximum embarrassment and logistical carnage will ensue and the front row in economy lent itself quite nicely to this. I also go for the full poisoned corpse look – a ghastly grey pallor blanches my usually pink-tinged face, charcoal-coloured circles ring my eyes and my lips go a rather fetching shade of vervet monkey balls (or at least that’s what the lipstick would be called should it ever go on sale. Google it. They are very blue).

A doctor was summoned, vital signs checked (a somewhat pointless exercise given that I was now wide awake, wiping my mouth down and demanding we never speak of this again) and blood pressure assessed. We (my brother, the doctor and myself) were then ushered into the empty back seats of business class, told in no uncertain terms that this was to ensure other passengers weren’t made anxious by our extraordinary behaviour, and that we weren’t going to get any business class food or drink as a result. I glanced back and saw people scrambling to fill our empty seats. They didn’t seemed overly concerned.

By the time we landed in Shanghai, the nauseousness you feel after a faint was slowly wearing off which was handy given we were then stuffed into a waiting bus on exiting the aircraft and driven what felt like 600 miles back the wrong way. We could have just flown to Tehran instead and saved some cash.

However, moods were improving and upon installing ourselves in a pirate-themed hostel just off The Bund (as you do), we set off exploring whilst the skyline slowly flickered like technicolour fireflies as twilight broke.

Let’s not pretend – we were here as tourists to do all things tourist. No off-the-beaten track surprises or finding those one-of-a-kind eating establishments that a magazine with just a logo for a name has recommended. No, sir. Shanghai Museum? Tick. Oriental Pearl Tower? Tick. The aforementioned Bund promenade? Tick. It’s a slick, shiny and neon-studded city and we thoroughly enjoyed it for the short time we were there.

Then onto a train via a station whose architecture looked like a large hair-and-fluff ball that you find under the bed, to Hangzhou. West Lake was our destination, islands and waterways beloved of artists and poets since time immemorial and now beloved of people like us and day travellers gasping at the enormous lily pads squatting on quietly reflective water.

A flight to Beijing saw us clambering about on The Great Wall (naturally), snapping pics of the not-so Forbidden City and snapping up fabulous fakes at the Beijing Silk Market where diplomats sent their assistants scurrying from chauffeured cars to retrieve Burberry, Mulberry, Gucci, and Prada goods at a fraction of the price of the originals to take back to fawning spouses and teenage children.

The last night I had booked us a hostel room in a hutong – an area which originally housed narrow alleys packed with dwellings (many, sadly, razored to make way for more modern developments). I was exhausted and after dinner packed and went to bed. My brother had struck up a friendship with some other Brits and was having drinks with them.

I woke up at 6am to catch our flight back home. I glanced over at the other bed. No sign of my brother. The bathroom was also empty and he wasn’t in the breakfast room. We had a taxi booked for 6.30am and at 6.27am I was planning the conversation I was going to have with my parents on my return when only I arrived at Heathrow. At 6.29am the door crashed open and he appeared, wide-eyed, wild-haired, disheveled in appearance and reeking of eau de rice wine.

He explained that his new friends had taken him on a rice wine tour of the district and he’d only just found the hotel again after wondering about, drunk as a badger on fermented apples, for the whole night.

He threw up five times in the security queue and once at passport control. Couldn’t really say anything though as he just kept reminding me he’d ‘saved my life’ on the journey over. We didn’t travel together again for a while.

Syria – mouthwatering cuisine, crusader castles, water wheels and roman ruins; a pre-war tribute

To write about visiting Syria before the war is a little like writing a eulogy for a funeral.

Trite sentences are trotted out to describe what a lovely place the country once was, how much the past will be missed and how hard the future now seems.

I visited a year or so before the start of the war. I flew to Damascus alone in preparation to meet my friend who had travelled up from Lebanon and I could see him waving at me as I retrieved my dust-soaked luggage from the carousel.

“There are some incredible restaurants here,” were his first words to me. “And the people! They are so friendly!”

I need to be honest now. I was slightly apprehensive about the welcome I would receive. If someone said the words “pasty”, “freckled” and “has an almost translucent skin tone but at times goes an alarming shade of red much like a blood clot” my face would immediately appear in one’s mind. My friend, however, could pass for Syrian and I wasn’t sure if people would assume we were a couple and, if so, how they would take it.

In the event, I didn’t have to worry. Tourists – particularly blonde ones – were few and far between but didn’t elicit any hostile glances; just the occasional inquisitive stare.

We headed immediately for the ancient souk where stallholders have proclaimed their wares from ancient alcoves and customers have sipped sweet tea perched on splintered chairs for millennia. Nothing appeared to have changed. I spotted an ice cream shop and the proprietor gave me a wink and an extra scoop of the cold stuff before sprinkling pistachio nuts over the top. A good start in my books.

Actually, food seemed to be a theme of the trip. The scent of freshly baked croissants hung heavy in the humid air as each twist in the souk would reveal the rather incongruous sight of neatly twisted dough – so often associated with French boulangeries – laid out under the Middle Eastern sun.

Food also features as one of my fondest memories of the country. We were taking a taxi from the train station in Aleppo to the town centre. The taxi driver informed us that we would be passing his cousin’s sweet shop and could we please say hello? We agreed and, as we pulled up to the shop, a man emerged staggering with the weight of sweets he’d just scooped up into his arms. He gesticulated that we should open the window and then he poured the golden-wrapped chocolates, toffees and boiled sugar sweets into the car so they cascaded into our laps and down our legs into the foot well before shouting a greeting and disappearing again.

But I digress. Back in Damascus I was decked out in a brown hooded cloak to visit the sacred Umayyad Mosque (required clothing for a non-Muslim woman) and slunk about in the shadows trying to avoid the oppressive heat. As I stepped out of the doorway, I enjoyed my first (and, I suspect, last) taste of fame as a crowd of women holding their phones towards me snapped pics of the rapidly-reddening tourist dressed as a low-rent monk.

From Damascus we caught an extremely slick and modern train to Aleppo (top tip: never get off the train to buy food. Aforementioned train will suddenly start off without you and one will be required to run down the platform shouting and swearing before grabbing on to the door and swinging oneself inside in front of a gaggle of bemused families).

In Aleppo we visited the mighty citadel – one of the largest and oldest in the world and now, unfortunately, severely damaged – and bought scarves the colour of a summer’s dawn in the souk. The next day we drove to Homs to see the famous creaking water wheels or ‘norias’ before scrambling over the formidable ruins of the Crusaders castle Krak de Chevaliers. There are no barriers, ‘keep off the grass’ signs or stern attendants here; we could wander as we pleased gulping in the magnificent views.

I’ve left the most breath-taking monument until last. On our last day we took a taxi deep into the desert and were chatting amiably as we approached a ridge in the car. We were both silenced as we drew up and spotted the most perfect Roman city squatting in the sand. It was as though the ruins had been placed there from outer space such was the lack of modern development or people around. The place was utterly deserted on first glance although one or two guides soon emerged from behind bleached corinithian columns offering their services.

We agreed a price with one of them and then sped about the site on the back of his motorbike as he told us about each extraordinary building, water pipe (so intact! So straight!) and mosaic that we passed. With our minds leaking from our ears at the incredible place we had just witnessed, we took tea resting on ornately-woven carpets in the shade of an olive tree. A diminutive young man came over to greet us. “Top camel jockey,” explained our guide. He then asked where we were from and spoke rapturously about Shakespeare, correcting me when I confused character-names in Othello.

I wonder where our guide and the camel jockey is now. I wonder what is left of the truly wonderful Palmyra.

Listen, Syria is far from extinct and the essence of the country is still there. It will take time to be rebuilt but I am confident it will happen. In the meantime, let’s keep the pre-war memories alive. As Anthony Dowson so succinctly says: “Speak of me as you have always done/ Remember the good times, laughter, and fun.”

Czech Republic – Cars, handcuffs, strippers and campsites; one night in Prague

I was dressed as a policewoman and handcuffed to a stripper who was leading me down a darkened corridor to her pimp who would, with any luck, give us back our liberty and cut the damn things off our wrists.

I’ll be honest with you; being the much fuglier half in a semi-naked conjoined twin scenario wasn’t how I’d envisaged spending my last night in the Czech Republic.

It was the culmination of a riotous rally across Europe that I’d undertaken with three of my male friends. The aim was to purchase a old banger for under £250, decorate the paintwork (I think you’ll agree that an American police car design was the most obvious choice for tarting up a Vauxhall Omega), wear the appropriate uniforms, join 100+ other entrants and drive across Europe and back – only discovering the destination we needed to make my nightfall each morning – all in the name of charity.

An overnight ferry to France spat us out, all fumes and bravado, at Calais where we raced to Champagne and then onto Strasbourg. Here we would spend the night at a campsite in the drizzling rain quaffing cheap plonk and desperately trying to fry a steak over a tin foil BBQ containing two chunks of barely-warm charcoal. It was served with a packet of crisps and a dipping sauce flavoured with E. Coli.

From Strasbourg it was on to Nuremberg for a quick pit stop at the Nazi Party rally grounds before heading to the furthest point on the trip; Prague.

We arrived at our designated campsite just before dusk, threw up our tents (and the boys the last of the steak from the night before – how I congratulated myself for being a vegetarian) before setting off into Prague proper. I had celebrated a birthday there some years before where we had admired the sights, congratulated the Charles Bridge on being a handsome fellow and visited some educational and fascinating historical edifices.

Not so this time. One of the boys suggested a strip bar. I protested. Loudly. And lost. I didn’t fancy staying at the freezing campsite alone or traipsing about the city until dawn waiting for the boys to emerge so one of them was assigned to ‘babysit’ me (he was getting married the week after the trip and so was deemed responsible enough to not want a dance…) This essentially meant we sat together awkwardly giving a running commentary of the live sex show on stage whilst I got a crash course in gynecology from various skimpily-dressed young ladies.

At this point one of the boys thought it would be hilarious if he bought me a dance. Mercedes (I kid you not) did her best but in the end I forced her to sit down and chat to me about her family and friends. She revealed she spoke five languages fluently and was paying her way through university with this gig. At this point my new friend remembered I was a ‘paying’ customer so, in what I can only imagine was a move to seem seductive, she took the toy metal handcuffs hanging from my wrist (we had to remain in our police uniforms throughout the duration of the trip), snapped one half onto her wrist and then jiggled about the place.

Enough was enough. “Right. Time to stop this I think,” I said in a suitably school-marmish manner. “Keys please”. There was a silence. “KEYS PLEASE,” I repeated. I glanced at the boys. They were looking confused…and then panicked. “Can’t seem to find them,”one stuttered. “I think they must have fallen on the floor during the dance and it’s so dark I can’t see them,” muttered another.

I was sweating anger. Fifteen minutes of scrabbling about on a stripclub floor (God knows what was under my nails after that) and still no sign of the keys. I had begun to construct the conversation I was going to have with my boss on Monday morning when I walked in handcuffed to Mercedes. “Do you have a spare laptop?” I would begin. “Mercedes is going to be an intern with us for a while and sit very, very closely next to me.”

In the end we admitted defeat and I was told to follow Mercedes (like I had a choice) to the inner sanctum where her ‘manager’ would release us. We wondered down dark corridors past beautiful girls with painted faces until we reached a velvet-upholstered living room where goddesses lounged in various states of undress. The manager, a striking Israeli lady who laughed like a drain when she saw us, neatly cut off the offending items with a bolt cutter she just happened to have sitting about in a drawer.

Not a word was spoken on the way back to the camp site. In fact the next time we had a conversation was when we were escorted out of Bruges city centre by the actual police on the way home. But that’s a story for another evening…

Albania – Tirana, tourism and the tyranny of language

“Excuse me. Are you…er…open?” The cafe’s proprietor furiously shook his head.

We were getting suspicious. This was the fourth rejection we had received having tentatively asked if they were serving customers.

Yes, it was early but they certainly looked open. Old men were huddled around mirror-topped tables speaking in furtive whispers whilst entrails of steam from their coffee cups coiled towards the nicotine-stained ceiling.

A tray of freshly baked Shendetlie, a delicious nut and honey concoction oozing with sugar, sat winking at us from the side. We were hungry and thirsty, dammit, and apparently no one wanted our custom.

And then the proverbial lek dropped. In Albania, you shake your head for yes and nod for no. Of course you do! What idiots were were and how we laughed when we finally secured breakfast after muttering scandalously – and incorrectly – about Albanian hospitality.

To be perfectly honest, everything seems a little back-to-front in Albania. It’s Europe, and yet feels as though it isn’t. It has a fabulous coastline but this has been visually destroyed by the vagaries of developers. The throaty roar of a V12 engine belonging to a sparkling supercar roars past you at 80mph on an unmade and pothole-pocked country road, leaving men on mules spluttering dust.

Tirana, the capital, is one of the least friendly on-the-eye I have ever had the pleasure of casting my retina across and yet the people are wonderfully friendly. Well, to me at least. The building next door to our hotel had a whacking great hole in the side, apparently a vengeful attack executed by a wrecking ball when the developer fell out with the customer.

Once in the countryside, tiny churches nestle in nooks on stoney hills and birds of prey skim the clouds. The views are spectacular but risk being ruined by plastic bags, fly tipping and other human detritus. It’s a country that has so much potential and, if it chooses to capitalise on tourism, could go far with its hikes, homestays and hospitality.

The nation, and its people, deserve a little TLC and I hope the government decides to provide it.