By PAUL MCKAY [email protected]
Teacher, Paul McKay, left London to live a self-sufficient existence in the Monchique hills with his partner Martyn. He keeps an assortment of animals and grows a variety of crops in an eco-friendly way – all on a limited income.
Saturday August 15
It is the holiday season and in between watering vegetables, building a patio, entertaining guests and feeding farm animals, we have been trying to arrange a mini-break in Madrid.
After hours online, looking for the best deal, it is clear that surcharges and taxes make everything astronomical. Given Martyn’s dislike of flying, we have finally opted for a coach to Lisbon, an overnight train-hotel to Madrid and then the same journey in reverse some four days later.
Monday August 17
Train stations do not sell the train tickets. We have to purchase them at certain named travel agents. Bus tickets unavailable more than 14 days prior to journey. Completely wasted day.
Tuesday August 18
Named travel agent has never heard of the Lisbon-Madrid train hotel. The assistant gave a pretty good impression of someone who had never heard the term hotel before.
Wednesday August 19
Travel agent in Portimão shopping centre has heard of the Lisbon-Madrid train hotel and has booked us the tickets, all quite disconcerting in its efficiency.
Thursday August 20
Hotel booked online – all running to plan.
Monday August 24
Sometimes you know the second you walk into somewhere that things are not going to run smoothly. Something about the ambience, the vague look, the one finger tapping of computer keyboards. Nonetheless, it all helps improve my Portuguese and the bus tickets are booked and paid for.
Tuesday September 1
A friend of ours, Helder, will be holding the fort, as it were, dealing with all farm related issues. Escaping guinea fowl are a current high priority issue as they have taken to exiting their enclosure every morning (by wing we assume), travelling by foot for about half a kilometre along the track behind our house and re-appearing late afternoon.
Initially this instigated a flurry of phone calls from concerned neighbours, but now they have just become part of the scenery. The other current concern is the usual August antics of Eggs, the pig, who keeps turning on taps and generating huge electricity bills as the pump leaps into action for hours on end. Helder has full control of the situation, knows to hide all taps and pacify concerned neighbours.
Wednesday September 2
Two rabbits have escaped! Last seen charging under a fast flowing tap on the pig terrace – one day to go.
Thursday September 3
We have had a wonderful afternoon and early evening in Lisbon and looking forward to the train hotel to Madrid. The case was installed into left luggage at Santa Apolónia station and we took a leisurely walk through the Alfama district and onto Rossio and downtown Lisbon. The very chic ‘arty’ postcards I purchased in Alfama quickly turned out to be mass produced tourist fodder, but I steadfastly refused to allow that to influence me.
Being on holiday, I adventurously opted for Bife com Ovo a Cavalo (horse) at a restaurant off Praça da Figueira. Although a delicious meal, I was surprised to find horse tasted very much like beef. The restaurant owner, once she had finished laughing, explained to me that Bife com Ovo a Cavalo is beef – the fried egg riding on its back gives it the name cavalo.
Despite the horse confusion, the meal was great. There cannot be many cities in Europe where one can eat so well, be given such a warm welcome and spend less than 20 euros.
Friday September 4
I have just had a sleepless night on a sleeper train. Train hotel – a contradiction in terms if ever there was. Ten minutes sleep – max. If it wasn’t people thumping about next door (heaven knows what was going on in there), or sudden rattling noises, or dramatic acceleration followed by screeching halts, it was burning brakes setting off vivid train fire nightmares. Down below took a couple of valium and was out like a light.
Arrival in Madrid was a little fraught due to me not having made any written record of the hotel other than the booking reference number. Knowing where the hotel was situated I saw no need, until we arrived that is, and saw the hotel wasn’t where it was supposed to be.
Our first hour in Madrid was spent frantically searching out an internet café (surprisingly thin on the ground), searching the hotel (difficult as I could not remember the name), returning to Puerto del Sol and seeing the hotel had crossed to the other side of the square without anyone’s knowledge and was hiding behind some scaffolding and a huge advertising hoarding.
Martyn, whose Spanish is no better than his Portuguese, somehow managed, despite his post-valium haze, to converse with the check-in lady and confirm that the hotel had always been on this corner.
Monday September 7
We are now safely back in the Algarve, away from clanking night trains and disappearing hotels. Madrid was great, as always, the hectic 24-hour lifestyle, the busy pace of life, beautiful buildings, impressive parks and the welcoming madrilenos, rightly proud of their beautiful city.
The return to the Algarve is as comforting as ever – the coffee may take a little longer to arrive and the choice of snacks a little less extravagant but one doesn’t need to take out a mortgage to pay for it.
Here, things may be a little predictable, but buildings are less likely to jump locations and if something is called Bife com Ovo a Cavalo, that’s what it is.