Saturday, 25 June 2011

Rocky times in Lagos, Portugal

After almost two weeks hauling our luggage on and off Portuguese public transport, Rachael and I arrived in Lagos. Confronted with a coastal resort where you're just as likely to hear English or German on the streets as you are to catch a snippet of the native language, where happy hour cocktail signs abound and sunning yourself is one of the key preoccupations, we instantly felt 'on holiday' from what had become our daily routine. The sun had finally put in more than a teasingly cruel appearance after a week of grey skies, drizzle and the odd storm. There was no denying it: Lagos was looking good.

Lagos marina

In the western Algarve, this popular holiday destination has more appeal than the nearby overdeveloped resort towns of Portimao and Praia da Rocha. The walled old town has a choice of pretty squares, perfect for relaxing with a drink; there's a modern yacht-filled marina and a selection of beaches, from cosy coves to the larger sweep of surfers' favourite Meia Praia. Now that we were in holiday mode, surfing sounded far too energetic, so we opted instead for a boat trip down the Lagos coastline. A stunning series of rocky outcrops and caves, some of the curious formations are named after the shapes they represent: the camel proved a fairly accurate description, but I was unconvinced by the idea of a grotto resembling a living room. That's certainly not an idea my mother would be on board with, anyway.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Reading slowly at Lisbon's LX Factory

On the site of a former factory in western Lisbon, there's a quiet revolution against the advent of e-books. Hip bookshop Ler Devagar (Read Slowly) encourages customers to put aside technology for long enough to enjoy the pleasures of the printed word on the page.

Occupying a multi-storey space in LX Factory, Lisbon's newest creative space, Ler Devagar is a work of art in itself. Piles of Portuguese and international paperbacks on subjects from architecture to politics to travel line artistically laid-out shelves, a bicycle with wings takes flight in the centre of the shop and a retired printing press has found new life as a cocktail bar. Selling both new and secondhand works, Ler Devagar features a cafe where customers can linger, enjoying a good read in a light, airy space. The calm atmosphere encourages you to linger and wander, perusing the shelves and flicking through tomes in tongues you don't understand. At Ler Devagar, the book is celebrated as an object, attaining a beauty and tangibility that words on a screen will never have.

Sit down, sip a cup of tea, stay a while.

You may be interested to read my other posts on Portugal here.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Across the cafe table #1: My secret travel indulgence

Once a month, The Travel Belles founder Margo and the site's contributors will be pulling up a pew around a virtual cafe table to discuss a travel-related question, with the answers displayed both on the site and on our own blogs. Starting proceedings with a confession, this month's question is what's your secret travel indulgence?

A cashmere blanket on the plane perhaps? Very Victoria Beckham. Or a silk pillowcase I take everywhere with me? Oh no. My secret travel indulgence is nothing so glamorous. For here I must hold my hand up and confess to buying trashy gossip magazines.

My in-flight reading material of choice, from a recent trip to Barcelona

Some people find airports stressful: not me. Once I arrive, my holiday has begun. I browse the duty free section unhurriedly, try on sunglasses, perhaps treat myself to a new lipstick, people watch over a coffee. I also indulge in behaviour I wouldn't necessarily risk at home: I go into WH Smith and stock up on a few issues of such quality publications as Heat, Now and Closer. There's something about a holiday - or even just a plane journey, as a recent business trip proved no exception - that makes me want to leave my novel in my carry-on and pore over the lives of the rich and 'famous' instead. Jennifer Aniston has yet another new haircut that looks pretty much the same as the last one? Fascinating! A former Big Brother contestant was in a nightclub brawl? Terrible. One of the girls from The Only Way is Essex bought a new handbag? OK, I'll skip that story until at least half an hour into the flight.

You can see why I kept this indulgence a secret until now, can't you? But hey, my reading taste deserves a little holiday too... doesn't it?

You can find the other Belles' secret indulgences here. Many are no doubt more glamorous than my guilty gossip magazine pleasure.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

The convent that disappeared from Coimbra, Portugal

If you'd have looked for the convent of Santa Clara a Velha in Coimbra fifty years ago, you might have glimpsed the tip of its roof poking through the mud on the banks of the River Mondego. Now, thanks to a lengthy and expensive restoration process, visitors can explore the interior of a building that once seemed destined to remain submerged.

Built during the thirteenth century on the bank of the river, the convent gradually began to suffer from the rising tide of the Mondego. The nuns who lived there moved to higher floors (and no doubt fashioned some early wellington boots ) until the situation finally became untenable in 1677, and they high-tailed it up the hill to the new convent of Santa Clara a Nova, leaving their former home to the mercy of nature. Whenever the river burst its banks, the convent would be almost totally submerged.

Despite this, it was classified as a national monument in 1930. However, nothing was done in the way of restoration until 1990, when work began to drain the site, restore the church and save it from any further damage. Millions of euros and lots of hard graft later, the church and what was left of the main cloister were liberated from their watery prison, and the church was slowly restored to the beautifully simple Romanesque building which stands on the site today. Visitors to the site can watch the restoration process captured on film: a truly extraordinary feat which has brought a monument back to light and back to life.

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