April 26, 2011



The second Monday in April, we dragged ourselves out of our budget hotel, grabbed a cab and headed to the airport. The Lisbon airport is thankfully small, so finding our gate and getting set up was relatively simple, despite the fact that functioning early in the morning is a serious challenge for me.

The Madeira Archipelago  is a small series of islands in the Atlantic ocean 1000 km to the southwest of Portugal and 500 km west of Africa. Although geographically part of the African continental plate, as is still an autonomous Portuguese region and has never been populated by anyone but Europeans (there were no native occupants when the Portuguese happened upon the islands in the 1400s), it is considered to officially be part of Europe. Madeira, the largest island, makes up something like 90% of the landmass.

A terraced valley
Our first impression of the island of Madeira was of the mountains. You see them as you approach by plane, shrouded in mist and covered in forest and lush greenery. The formerly volcanic peaks parade across the length of the island, sliced at intervals by massive gorges and valleys, each formed by a now teensy river that crashes down waterfalls to pour into the sea. The orange, terracotta shingled houses are clustered in the valleys and along the coast. They cling with determination to the cliffs and to the thousands of terraces that the Madeiran people have carved up and down the hills so that they can live and farm.

We found our hotel without much difficulty and spent our first day wandering the capital city of Funchal in search of a Vodafone (to add money to our data card) and sunscreen (which I left in my day pack like a genius and which was consequently chucked at the airport.) Needless to say, before we found the sunscreen, we were both nicely burned up by the ultra strong sun.

We managed to find a guidebook that both gave us play-by-plays of the trails that follow the levadas, which are long, narrow aqueducts that thread around the mountains all over the island. On the following day, we set off on our first choice.

Focused. So, so focused.
Our bus dropped us at the top of one of the peaks behind Funchal at a town called Monte. We trekked out of the town and immediately found ourselves at the side of a massive gorge, with one of the aforementioned waterfalls at its base. The drop below us was fairly shallow until we crossed underneath the waterfall (protected by a stone barrier) and then were suddenly on top of the Levada Tornes, clinging to the cliff wall on one side and looking down several hundred feet to the river below on the other. There were safety precautions, of course, if you consider slender metal poles with thin wire strung between them to be something that would save you from plummeting to your doom... but only for the first hundred metres. Then it was balls-out, no guide wire as we walked (ever so carefully!) along our two foot strip of damp cement.

The view over the gorge was, obviously, phenomenal, once I had the nerve to look. The walk wasn't difficult and varied between those vertiginous drops, as our trusty guidebook called them, and shorter drops cushioned by shrubbery.  So that you get horribly scratched up when you fall to your death.

(Sorry, Mom.)

The path eventually parted from the levada and descended down the mountain by way of dirt and rock steps, reinforced by disintegrating logs, through a gorgeous forest. As we clumped down the steps, the little tiny lizards that are all over Portugal and Madeira darted from under our feet - these lizards seem to be so terrified of getting stepped on or eaten that although they might be several feet from you, they will scramble for cover, even if it involves chucking themselves three feet down into the levada. Lizards are hilarious.

Wednesday, we took the bus a little farther from Funchal and hiked most of the rest of the length of the Levada Tornes that we had been using as our guide the day before. It was a gentle hike - no major climbs, no scrambles down, but this time we got to stoop through some of the small, damp tunnels cut into the mountain to accommodate the levada. Well. Dan stooped. I inclined my head slightly. I am much closer than he is to average Portuguese height.

Just to his left is a heck of a drop.
Yet again, on emerging from a tunnel, we found ourselves faced with massive cliffs off the side of our levada. This time the cliff upwards was full of vines and flowers hanging down over the levada path (two feet wide still) dripping mountain water to soak it... occasionally we had to scurry through a cascading waterfall as well. And we did not even fall... take that, gravity!

Drain lizard
Our third trek was shorter. We took a bus across the centre of the island through the mountain passes because we wanted to see the view - which is incredible. There are valleys so narrow and stuffed with trees that I don't think they ever see sunlight - just a hint of it as the mist floats over the top of the peaks. If we had had more time we would have hiked up here, through the chilly forests on the paths between the two tallest peaks, but instead we continued along to the Northern coast to Porto do Moniz, on the very northeast tip of the island.

This little place feels like the absolute end of the world, as the Atlantic slams uninhibited against its rocky cliffs. It was a cloudy day when we went, and the wind whipped the sea into a turmoil. Needless to say there was no swimming in the tidal pools on the seaside.

On the mountain behind Porto do Moniz
We took the bus up to the town on the cliff above Porto do Moniz and hiked down a small trail to get there - looking down on another beautiful valley and at the town clutching at the shore and defying the ocean´s advances. Once we got to the bottom, the scene of primal energy was somewhat spoiled by the busloads and busloads of seniors' tours that had driven in from Funchal and by the many tourist shops that have sprung up to take advantage of those buses. But we went for lunch at a seaside restaurant, ate some Espada, and all was right with the world. Espada, by the way, is the ugliest fish out there - but the tastiest. Wikipedia Black Scabbard for yourself. Mmmm.
Espada with bananas

Our Madeira adventured ended the next day, far too early. I wish we`d had at least two or three more days to really explore the place - but our budget flight was set and so we will continue our wanderings elsewhere.


April 9, 2011

Portuguese Mountain Cows and Tosta Misto

As of today it has been a week since we left Ottawa. So far, no homesickness, although we have called both our sets of parents while trying to clear up my banking problems with ING this week.

We landed in Portugal and spent our first three days in Porto. The city runs over the hills on the North side of the Douro River and then up along the ocean coast for a few kilometres. Mostly, for three days, we walked and walked and walked. On our last day we took the metro out to the ocean beaches - which are actually pretty ugly, but I loved them anyway because it was our first ocean encounter so far - and we walked allllllll the way back to the hotel. It took six hours. And it was so HOT. Which I know everyone back in Canada hates me for complaining about, but yeeesh what a walk.

The thing I found the most interesting about Porto was the dichotomy of old and new, and rich and poor. The ancient city wall, dating back to the twelfth century, is right next to the metro system´s fancy new funicular. The biggest, oldest, most beautiful cathedral was flanked by a broken down (although colourful and still lived in) set of apartment buildings. The monuments are all preserved and beautiful, but they are also integrated into the real city of Porto.

As far as food goes, we tried a few exciting new things. We had francesinhas, a sandwich with a bunch of different meats (including hot dogs, seriously) topped with egg, tons of cheese and smothered in gravy. Then when we went out for our nice meal in Porto, we had my favourite meal so far, bacahlau. Bacahlau means salted cod, and can be prepared hundreds of different ways. We took the one our waiter recommended - baked with bread crumbs, sausage bits and a LOT of garlic. It was amaaaaazing. I´m drooling a little right now just thinking about it.

On Wednesday, we grabbed a train out of Porto to Braga, where after some effort we found the bus station to catch a bus into the mountains. We spent the afternoon in Braga, which looked nice. It´s the most religious city in a rather Roman Catholic country, so it there were quite a few beautiful old churches. I was glad to spend the afternoon, but I think we managed to see most of what the old city section had to offer.

We spent Wednesday and Thursday nights camping near the town of Geres in northern Portugal. We used our brand new ultra-light MSR backpacker tent. It was fantastic. It was easy to set up (I think, anyway, I opened the wine and Dan really did most of the tent setting up. We like to split up the important tasks. But it looked easy.) It's a two-person, which is tiny, but we managed to make it work. It was much colder than we thought it would be so we had to pull out the emergency blanket (basically wrapping ourselves in tinfoil), wear lots of layers and snuggle up. But for camping in April, it was pretty decent.

This is how we camp!
We got to the campground too late on Wednesday to do any hiking, so after we set up the tent and polished off our wine (two bottles...) we wandered to the campground bar (Yes, there was a bar. I am now of the opinion that every campground should have a bar.) where we got into the beer and our new favourite food - tosta mistos. (Pronounced "toshta mishto." Everything has a shhhh sound in Portugese.) They´re ham and cheese sandwiches thrown in a sandwich press. We are basically eating them for every meal because they are delicious and only cost a euro or so.

Thursday, after a chilly sleep, we got up for our big hike. With a map from the campground and a bit of advice, we ventured out to the longest of the five recommended trails.

At first we wandered along near a lake, then onto an old Roman road through a lush forest. Then, as the trail broke away from the water and up into the mountains, we began to climb.

And climb.
And climb.

I cannot belive I was bitching about the walk along the flat seaside in Porto.

We got lost at one point while descending a part of one of the peaks and we were so excited about the fact that we were going down instead of up that we missed the stone markers for our turnoff to go up some more and we went all the way down to the road, where we realized our mistake. So we climbed back up. Sigh.

We climbed all over several of the peaks, following the stone piles that laid out our trail. Eventually, we lost the stone markers entirely (I think some jerk laid out some extras, actually. But maybe we were just dumb and exhausted... this is near hour six and a half) and wandered around freestyle climbing boulders to try to get a view of the mountain to find the damn trail. Also we were running out of water and had forgotten our trusty steri-pen.

Eventually, after scrutinizing the contour map and squinting at the landscape to find our elusive rock piles, we managed to relocate the trail, and so we soldiered on (hoping desperately that it was the correct trail and would take us home.)

It did turn out to be the right trail, and we descended the mountain a final time through a massive valley. As we´d been walking all day, we had seen hundreds of cow patties littering the mountainside, and we´d been pretty confused as to how the cows managed to get up there.

Don´t underestimate a Portuguese Mountain Cow!

As we walked around a corner in our final valley, we heard a bell. We were both grumpy and thirsty and tired, so we ignored it until we looked down and saw a cow, perched on a tiny ledge on the side of what was pretty much a cliff. And then I turned around and saw another, not twenty feet from us, and a few more below us. Turns out cows are graceful, mountain-climbing machines, which made us feel like sissies. We were incredible happy to have finally found them, after avoiding their dung all day, and it lifted our spirits for our push home. Where we lifted our spirits some more with tosta mistos and beer. In all, our hike took 8 hours.

We packed up and caught the early bus back to Braga on Friday morning, and from there got a train to Coimbra, home of one of Europe´s earliest universities. Or THE oldest university if you listen to the old man Dan sat next to on the plane. I keep forgetting to look it up. Anyway, it is very old and very beautiful, although starting to crumble, so there are a few reconstruction projects on the go. The old section of Coimbra has the narrow cobblestone streets and high, straight walls that disorient you and let you lose yourself among the ancient buildings. Our hotel is just outside the old section.

Last night we went for dinner. Dan had goat meat stewed in wine ( a regional specialty) and I had bacahlau again, this time a very greasy version that was apparently the house specialty. Again, delicious, as was the goat.

Today we wandered a little through the university but we will probably just have a slow night - we got pretty sloppy last night on house wine and beers. And then tried to order Irish carbombs (why wouldn't you?!) and ended up with a triple shot monstrosity. Oops.

Tomorrow we head to Lisbon for a night, and Monday morning we fly out to Madeira, where we will be hiking some more, and hopefully not getting lost.

Hope everyone back home is well and that the weather is getting warmer.



April 2, 2011

It's A New Adventure!

Hello friends,

Welcome back to the Redhead on the Run blog! It's been a year and a half since I last updated this website, but as it's time for a new trip, I've decided it's time to begin blogging again.

On my last trip I spent five weeks in South America - this time it's a whole year. My boyfriend Dan and I will be making our way through Europe (6-7 months) to Africa (1-2 months), ending in Southeast Asia (3-4 months). We start in Porto, Portugal - flying out of Toronto on April 2nd. Which is tomorrow.

We've spent roughly 14 months saving for and 8 months researching and planning for the trip of a lifetime. We have a rough itinerary, to be posted later, but we've decided to be as flexible as we can be.

As of right now, ie one am the night before our flight, we are packed and nearly ready to roll.... you wouldn't believe the preparation it takes to leave your whole life and wander around the world for a year! All our belongings are in storage (except the dresser and some clothes - thanks, Val and John!). The cat is now at my parents' house (thank you Mom and Dad!) and finally our remaining belongings are in our packs. Sometime soon I'll be sure to go into further detail on what we've packed and how it's all working out for us.

It's been a while since I did any serious writing, so I'm hoping that through the next few months, the blogging and the time off to write in my journal will help me claw back the writing skills I'm sure I've lost over the past two years.

Anyway, it's time for us to get some rest before the drive to Toronto in the morning. I'll update as soon as I can when we land, hopefully with some pictures as well!

Thank you to our friends and family for the goodbye parties this past week and the week before. It's amazing to start off a trip with so much love and support!!

Missing you all already,