There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Turtles, Monkeys and the Penang National Park: Part 7 of the Malaysian Peninsula

This a new post though it describes the events of the 5th of  March 2017.
It will be moved to the 'right place' in a few days' time.

After breakfast a driver arrived to take us to Penang National Park, which occupies a small peninsula at the north-west extremity of the island.

The position of Penang in Malaysia
Maps, like the one below, show George Town as a dot, though its urban sprawl covers the north-east quarter of the island.  Yesterday we were in Kek Lok Si on the city’s southern edge, today we travelled along the north coast. Batu Ferringhi (Foreigner’s Rock) is George Town’s outermost suburb and the island’s major beach resort. James Lancaster (the relevant ‘Foreigner’) arrived in 1592, almost a century before Francis Light (see yesterday’s post) and stayed for four months, cheerfully pillaging passing shipping. Sir James (as he became) was an important figure in the Age of Exploration and a founder of the East India Company though, in the spirit of the times, many of his exploits are indistinguishable from piracy. Ironically Batu Ferringhi is now home to a large and officially encouraged European expatriate community.

From the dot of central George Town we drove round the north coast to Teluk Bahang, then took to our feet.

The driver dropped us outside the park office in Teluk Bahang where we met A, our guide for the day and set off along a broad concrete path. The plan was to walk across the base of the peninsula to Kerachut Beach, then take a boat around the headland to Monkey Beach for lunch and another boat back to Teluk Bahang.
Into Penang National Park
The concrete did not last long and soon we were heading into the jungle on a well-worn track. Having made an involuntary blood donation to an opportunist leach in a Sri Lankan rainforest I had wondered if leach socks might be useful but decided just to swap my sandals for socks and trainers, though ordinary socks are no defence. The day was overcast – which meant hot and sweaty - so I wore zip-off shorts which could become long trousers if the guide suggested I was underdressed. I need not have fussed; our Sri Lankan guide may have worn leach socks like chain mail but A was more laid back in his clothing choices.
A models the best dressed jungle explorer kit, Penang National Park
We climbed some steps, paused to watch a scurrying squirrel - brown with a white flash on each side – climbed more steps and then followed a rough path before halting to inspect a rengas tree. A relative of cashews and mangoes, the black patches of dried sap on its reddish bark contain an irritant which produces a severe allergic reaction. The rengas is not a tree to hugged, leant upon or sheltered under in the rain.

Rengas tree (I think)
We certainly saw one, and this is exactly the right colour, but most Rengas tees are larger and straighter than this

Some of the path was roughly flagged…
Steps and a rough flagged path, Penang National Park

…though most of it wasn’t.
Slogging up a rough path, Penang National Park

There were sunken paths lined with tree roots to trip the unwary…
A minds the tree roots, Penang National Park
…a stony area…
Lynne on a stony area, Penang National Park
…and a section known as ‘the tunnel’,…
Lynne in 'the tunnel' Penang National Park
After 50mins of hot, sweaty uphill slog we reached the rest station at the junction of the Bukit Batu Itam (Black Rock Hill) trail where a brief sit down was welcome. We had reached the ridge running down the peninsula and here the path forked, left to climb along the ridge to the top of the hill, right to descend to the coast. We turned right.
A fat bald man and a sweaty woman take  break on the trail
There are more flattering photographs of us elsewhere on this blog (though none less)

For the next 90mins our path was mainly, though not entirely, gently downhill.
The path goes gently downhill, Penang National Park

We saw two hairy caterpillars sitting on a leaf – probably best not to touch these…
Hairy caterpillars, Penang National Park
…and crossed a small stream, happily seeing no sign of leaches.
Stream in the Penang National Park
A sturdy stone bridge crossed the next stream and we leaned on the parapet and looked down on pale, almost ghostly, fish swimming just hard enough to remain stationary in the current.
The park authorities provided a boardwalk to help with the more difficult ground….
A boardwalk over the most difficult ground, Penang National Park
….after which A decided to go off-piste. Lynne declined to cross the stream, leaving me to clamber over the fallen tree and pick my way from rock to rock.
Over the log and across the stream, Penang National Park
He wanted to show me the pitcher plants on the far side….
Pitcher plants. Penang National Park
…and we also discovered a millipede. Longer and thinner than the deeply scary Malaysian cherry red centipede we found in the Cameron Highlands, this looks benign but I still prefer it climbing over A’s hand than mine.
Millipede, Penang National Park
A little further on we reached the meromictic Kerachut Lake. ‘Meromictic’ was, I confess, a new word to me and for the equally ignorant Wikipedia says ‘a meromictic lake has layers of water that do not intermix. In ordinary, "holomictic" lakes, at least once each year, there is a physical mixing of the surface and the deep waters.’ ‘Wow,’ I thought, ‘that is strange’.
Kerachut meromictic lake has a layer of salt water sitting permanently below a layer of fresh water, at least that is the theory – early March being the end of the dry season, it had little water of any salinity. Apparently 1 in a 1,000 of the world’s lake are meromictic so it is not that rare, the biggest being the Black Sea, which is not even a lake.
Kerachut meromictic lake, Penang National Park
The sea was now visible, but before we reached the beach we had to step over a tortoise bumbling through the undergrowth…
There are lots of species of tortoise, this is one the less colourful, Kerachut, Penang National Park
…and admire a Tongkat Ali tree. It is good for men, A told us, claiming an infusion of roots is a ‘power drink’. [It is, apparently, widely available in the UK and according to the ‘supplement’ industry will cure pretty well everything. Much of it is said to be fake, though there is enough  genuine stuff around for the Malaysian government to be concerned that harvesting the roots is threatening the tree with extinction.]
Tongkat Ali tree, Kerachut, Penang National Park
As Kerachut beach can only be reached by foot or boat it was relatively sparsely populated. The cloudy sky might not attract beach-goers, but the temperature was far higher than the picture makes it look.
Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
The beach is a turtle conservation area.
Turtle conservation station, Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
The sites where eggs have been laid are clearly marked and protected from predators….
Turtle egg sites, Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
…but not all the eggs have been left in situ. The gender of the hatchlings depends on temperature and there is believed to be a shortage of male turtles so by bringing them into controlled surroundings the number of males can be boosted.
Turtle eggs under controlled conditions, Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
Two infant turtles were swimming round a blue bath inside a shed. They looked uncomfortable in the constrained surroundings - I do not know why they were there, but I hope it was not just for the benefit of tourists.
Frustrated turtle, Kerachut Beach conservation station, Penang National Park
Kerachut has a substantial jetty…
Jetty, Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
…but boats taking people back round the headland did not bother with it.
Not our boat, Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
Boats came and went, and 40mins later we were still sitting in the sand. Most left less than half full, but A kept saying they were not for us. After 50mins I was becoming irritated and A seemed slightly on edge though trying to hide it. Then a boat arrived, he leapt to his feet and announced ‘This one.’ [The system, I learned, requires you to book a particular boat, not any seat on any boat, and if your boat is delayed, well so be it. I could improve their efficiency - but putting boat drivers out of work would make me unpopular.]
Leaving Kerachut Beach, Penang National Park
The sea was choppy and the boat sped along, leaping from wave crest to wave crest, sometimes not making it and plummeting into the trough with a spine jarring crash. After 5 uncomfortable minutes we reached the headland…
Towards the headland
… rounding it past crocodile rock.
Rounding the headland
Monkey beach was few minutes further.
Monkey Beach, Penang National Park
Despite the delay we arrived for lunch at 1 o’clock. The shack (pictured above) was basic, but the mee goreng (spicy stir-fried noodles) with vegetables and chicken was wholesome, filling and full of flavour. There was only lemonade to drink – until we discovered they had tender coconuts, so we drank those afterwards.

Disappointingly, the only monkeys on Monkey beach were two tied to a bed beside the shack. Leaping about, as monkeys do, they were becoming frustrated with the shortness of their tethers. Then one of them threaded himself – and the tether -  through the strings of the bed until he was upside down and trussed up like a turkey. Having no wish to be bitten by an increasingly panicky monkey, we called A over, expecting him to tell the cook, presumably their owner, but instead he squatted down, untied the end of the tether and carefully unravelled the knot. He did not expect gratitude from a monkey, but neither did he expected it to leap forward and make a grab for the headphones still stuck in his ears. He jumped back, dropping the tether and watched as the monkey climbed into a tree with part of his earphones in its mouth. I was happy to see it free, but the looped end of the tether caught among the branches and it was soon in trouble again. Eventually we coaxed it down and Lynne got hold of the tether.

Got him, Monkey Beach, Penang National Park

Having a dog on a lead is one thing, having a monkey is quite different. Dogs rarely climb their lead and try to bite your hand, but monkeys….
...but the monkey climbs the lead, Monkey Beach, Penang National Park
Lynne dropped the lead and in a flash the beast was back in the tree. I found the missing piece from A’s earphones in the sand, it had survived unscathed. The monkey had now re-tangled the tether in the branches and was in danger of strangling himself. The cook’s husband arrived with a machete and, despite being a bulky man, managed to climb the small tree far enough up to lop off the branch the monkey was entangled with - and standing on. Falling monkeys do not hit the ground, they catch a twig on the way down and swing back into the tree, but his momentary confusion allowed the tether to be grabbed. At this point our boat arrived and we said farewell, but I wished they had just let it go free - nobody should ‘own’ a wild animal.

It was a short and more gentle trip back to Teluk Bahang, passing a fish farm….
Fish farms, Teluk Bahang, Penang

….and several moored fishing boats....
Fishing boats, Teluk Bahang, Penang

Back on central George Town we walked to Armenian Street. Yesterday, E had told us that the Channel 4 series Indian Summers (shown on PBS in the US) while set Shimla, northern India in 1935/6, had been filmed in Penang with Armenian Street cast as Shimla’s Indian quarter.
Armenia Street, George Town, Penang
Some of the people looked the part, but even with all the cars, Malay and Chinese signage and assorted post 1930s paraphernalia cleared away only the magic of film making could make this place remotely like Shimla.
A most in-Indian corner of Armenia Street, George Town, Penang
We enjoyed the series, but too few others did, and it was cancelled in 2016 after only two of the projected 5 seasons.
Armenia Street, George Town, Penang
On the way back, we passed Nagore Dargha Sheriff. Built in the early 1800s it is the oldest Indian Muslim shrine in Penang.
Nagore Dargha Sheriff, George Town, Penag
In the evening we intended to seek out a Chinese restaurant but our quest failed and we found ourselves back in the Red Garden food court. Fortunately, we had far from exhausted the Red Garden’s possibilities and this time enjoyed Hainan white chicken with rice, mixed squid and prawns, vegetable spring rolls and ‘famous pork with bean sprouts.’
Despite three visits to the Red Garden Food Court we were not there on a Thursday so never saw the Ladyboy Show
Did we miss something?
It had been our last night in Penang. The diversity of the people and the food, the climate, and the relaxed atmosphere made Penang special and I would have happily stayed longer.

Friday, 29 September 2017

Mértola and Alcoutim, Strongholds by the Guadiana River


As last year, no sooner had we arrived in the Algarve than we set about leaving it. After negotiating the huge queue for car hire, we headed north from Faro airport, paused for coffee in São Brás and continued up the N2 as it rose steadily to Barranco do Velha, the road lined with stripped cork oaks. Here we turned northeast on to the N124 which twisted and dipped, but mostly climbed. The cork oaks gave way first to eucalyptus, and then, beyond Cachapo to stone (or umbrella) pines (pinus pinea).

Freshly stripped cork oaks
By Martim Longo the road had levelled out. Though still in the Algarve we had reached a southern extension of the Alentejo plain, the land scattered with newly planted pines, and every rise crowned with the stump of an old windmill. Modern windmills abounded too, far larger than the giants Don Quixote charged 400 years ago and 400 miles to the northeast, but with fewer arms, while other fields were planted with solar panels, their shiny faces staring vacantly at the blazing sun.

Faro to Mertola
Our aim had been Alcoutim for lunch, but having risen at 2am for our 6 o’clock flight we now found tiredness creeping upon us. I pulled over, we tipped back the seats and had a zizz

Partially refreshed, we decided to leave Alcoutim for tomorrow and took a short cut along country lanes to join the main road along the Guadiana valley north of Alcoutim and 30km south of our destination, Mértola.
The Algarve ends and the Alentejo starts at the gorge of the River Vascão, though in late September the Vascão is a linear arrangement of puddles rather than a river.
We reached Mértola across a narrow bridge over the River Oeiras, another small river with an impressive gorge, but at least the Oeiras (just) maintained the integrity of its stream. High to our right was the curtain wall and impressive tower of Mértola castle. The pull-off to the left of the road, I decided, would be perfect for photographing the castle on our departure. Sadly, I had not thought it through, the morning sun directly behind the tower turned it into a silhouette so no picture - though I do have one of the pull-off from the top of the tower!
The pull-off by the bridge from the top of the castle tower (it would have been better the other way round), Mértola
And also of the castle from the riverside.
Mértola Castle from the road down to the river
It was too early to check into our riverside hotel, so we parked beside it and climbed the steps to the old centre below the castle in search of R&R (rest and rehydration), quickly encountering a suitable café. I have not always been kind about Portuguese beer, but on a hot afternoon, cold Sagres hit the spot very nicely - and on this shady terrace a caneca (40cl) cost €2.50, 30% less than at the beach-side cafés of Carvoeiro.

Suitably refreshed we checked in, caught up on some sleep and took a walk round the 'newer' part of the town past the neo-Moorish cinema-theatre, built in 1917 and still in operation, before returning for a shower.
Marques Duque Cine-Teatro, Mértola 
The evening found us at Tamuje, a tiny restaurant recommended by the hotel receptionist. Eating out in the Algarve usually involves fish or seafood but meat is more important in the inland Alentejo. After bread, olives and a glass of white port Lynne chose the legendary porco negro, the Iberian black pork I waxed lyrical about last year, while I went for wild boar. That was all it said on the menu and that apart from a salad was pretty much all we got, Lynne's pork loin lay beneath a scattering of thinly sliced fried potatoes while my boar was moistened with the rich garlicky cooking broth and sprinkled with the same potatoes. Both dishes were simple, rustic and utterly delicious. Eschewing the cheap carafe wine we splashed out (though Є12.50 is a small splash) on a bottle of Touriga Nacional from the local Herdade dos Lagos; although classified only as Vinho Regional Alentejano, it was a deep, dark, brambly and tannic, a wine which made us both pause after the first sip and say 'wow'. The meat tamed the tannins while the wine spiced up the meat, a perfect combination. [Herdade dos Lagos is a German owned farm between Mértola and Beja producing organic wines, olives, carobs and honey. Winemaker Carsten Heinemeyer has adopted the best of Portuguese tradition]
Lynne, Porco Negro, Javila (wild boar) and a bottle of Herdade dos Lagos, Tamuje, Mértola  
We rolled back down the hill, took several photos of the floodlit castle and went to bed tired but satisfied.
Mértola Castle after dark - the best of several.
After breakfast we set off for Alcoutim, retracing our steps to and over the River Vascão. Near our destination we spotted a sign to the Menires do Lavajo and despite Trip Advisor suggesting they were underwhelming decided to drop in.
We followed a lane to the little village of Afonso Vicente where a further sign directed us down a narrow stony track winding through stone pines and scrub. Mostly it was in reasonable condition but on one steepish descent round a sharp bend, the lose stony surface was deeply rutted. Taking it very slowly with my foot on the brake and letting gravity provide the motive power we descended without mishap.
The stony track from Afonso Vicente
The menhirs were a short walk uphill from the parking area surrounded by a high metal fence, presumably to keep out animals as the gate had no lock. The three menhirs (only two are in situ) are territorial markers or religious structures dating from between 3,500 and 2,800BC. The smaller stone looks sad and shattered; its larger brother is allegedly covered in carvings, though we could not make them out.

Menires do Lavajo, Alcoutim
As we descended to the car park, a camper van arrived from the opposite direction. Should we go that way, we wondered, or stick to the devil we knew?

Close up of the larger Menhir. I cannot see any carvings, though they are alleged to exist
Menires do Lavajo, Alcoutim
Adhering to the familiar demon worked well until we met the rutted uphill stretch where the wheels buried themselves into the stones and forward movement ceased. I let gravity move us down and tried again gently, and then again robustly but to no avail. Reversing to a nearby turning point seemed the best (or only?) way out. The road was narrow, and with a sharp turn so Lynne got out, stood in front of me and whirled her arms round in an instructional manner. I obeyed and quickly became entangled in the trackside vegetation. 'No,' she yelled, whirling her arms around more emphatically, and again I made it worse. We were facing each other so one of us, I realised, was mirror-imaging while the other was not. After further shouting and scraping through tough, dry vegetation, we extricated ourselves without, remarkably, any damage to the paintwork, though I was glad there were no witnesses to this epic display of incompetence. Returning to the menhirs, we followed the camper down the track the other way which quickly returned us to tarmac.

Alcoutim, a pleasant little whitewashed town, sat basking in the sunshine beside the sparkling Guadiana River. The river here is 200m wide and Sanlucar de Guadiana on the other side is in Spain.
Parking at the little harbour we climbed some steps to a café. At 11 o'clock, as we sipped our coffee, the church clock in Sanlucar, 300m and one time zone away, struck 12.
Sanlucar de Guadiana from the Alcoutim café
Refreshed, we continued upwards to the hilltop castle. Visitors have complained at the €2.51 entry fee (€1.51 for us old gits), not because it is too large, but because the odd cent means the kiosk often runs out of change. Fortunately we had two 1c coins and appreciated the rare opportunity to spend them!

The site of a late Neolithic castro, Alcoutim’s hilltop has accommodated a long series of ever grander fortifications. Most of the current structure dates from the reign of Manuel I of Portugal (1469-1521) though I doubt he ever imagined the interior would one day become a garden.
The interior of Alcoutim Castle
The castle museum, built over recent excavations, traces Alcoutim's long history. Around 1000BC Phoenician traders developed a river port, transporting the produce of the interior to the outside world. A Greek settlement came and went (or assimilated) and the Romans came and stayed. The port prospered until the Alans ousted the Romans in 415AD and initiated 300 hundred years of decline. The Moors re-established civilization in 715AD but the town remained a backwater until 1240 when the Reconquista made Alcoutim castle an important statement of Portuguese sovereignty, staring across the border at the rival Kingdom of Castille.
Lynne in the castle museum, Alcoutim
The museum also contains Lavajo’s missing third menhir.
The remains of Lavajo's third menhir
Another building contains an exhibition of Islamic games, with fragmented boards and descriptions of the games. I had always idly assumed that Nine Men's Morris was of English origin, but not so. It was played here in Islamic times and similar boards of similar antiquity have been found right across Europe.
Fragment of a Nine Men's Morris board, Alcoutim Castle
Walking round the walls allowed us to look down over Alcoutim, its roofs in good repair, houses freshly whitewashed and narrow streets clean and litter-free. The Algarve was very different when we first visited 35 years ago, but this is now typical…
Looking down from the castle onto the tidy little town of Alcoutim
…and across to Sanlucar de Guadiana.
Looking across to Spain from the castle battlements
The younger Spanish town and its castle were built after the Reconquista. Relationships were not always cordial between Portugal and the Kingdom of Castile but although the castles may have looked daggers at each other across the river (there was even a brief artillery exchange during the Portuguese War of Restoration (1640-68)) the two towns have enjoyed friendly relations. Isolated settlements in their own countries and with a combined population of only 2,000, cross river trade - and marriage – have bound them together. It is still a 70km road journey from one to the other, but a water taxi will whisk you across the river in minutes. It is even possible to travel from Spain to Portugal by the world's only international zip wire - no we did not try it, we are far too sensible (for which read 'old').

From the castle we walked down to the Igreja Matriz (Mother Church) of São Salvador. In 1755 a massive earthquake and tsunami destroyed most of the Algarve’s major buildings, but Alcoutim, in the far north east was spared the worst, so its 14th century church (with extensive 16th century make over) is one of the best examples of Early Renaissance architecture in the Algarve…
São Salvador, Alcoutim

...though its interior is very plain by local standard.
Interior, São Salvador, Alcoutim

Leaving Alcoutim, we returned to Mértola.

The café where we rehydrated yesterday was overrun by a bus tour. SAS training is required to compete with the sharp elbows of Portuguese pensioners so we repaired to a tiny establishment round the corner.
Despite many visits, our Portuguese remains limited. It is difficult to speak Portuguese on the Algarve coast; anyone so addressed replies in English and as their English is invariably better than my Portuguese, I always give in. But Mértola is different and I not only ordered beer and ham and cheese sandwiches in Portuguese, but dealt effortlessly with the follow-up question - com manteiga ou sem manteiga (with or without butter). My resulting glow of satisfaction was, perhaps, out of proportion to the minimal achievement. The tiny bill caused further surprise and satisfaction -  90c for a 33cl bottle of beer!
Like Alcoutim, Mértola (pronounced MER-tuh-luh) thrived as a river port and defensive bastion, the Romans building the first city walls. Its exceptional defensive position gave it great importance and the castle was rebuilt and strengthened after Sancho II wrested it from the Moors in 1238.

Mértola city walls
However, north of Alcoutim the border zigs east while the Guadiana zags west so at Mértola both banks are in Portugal. Not being a border castle, interest in Mértola waned and it remained small and relatively isolated.

The Guadiana at Mértola
Walking up from lunch to the castle we stopped at the Church of Nossa Senhora da Anunciação. Istanbul has several churches that became mosques after the Ottomans destroyed the moribund Byzantine Empire - Haghia Sofia being the best known. By contrast very few mosques were repurposed as churches after the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula, this being one of only two in Portugal.

The remodelled south entrance, Nossa Senhora da Anunciação, Mértola
Despite the main entrance being remodelled in Renaissance style, its position at the south means the church is much wider than its long – an arrangement common in mosques but rare in churches. The niche behind the altar and statue of the Virgin and Child was once the mihrab - the directions of Mecca and Jerusalem being indistinguishable from western Europe.

Altar, Statue of Virgin and Child and Mihrab, Nossa Senhora da Anunciação,Mértola
Several side chapels entrances are also of Arabic design, but this may be a later whimsy.

Arabic styled doorway, Nossa Senhora da Anunciação, Mértola
Little remains of the Moorish castle above, though it is not always obvious who built which wall. The current structure is mainly the work of the Knights of St James of the Sword, enthusiastic participators in the Reconquista, though their existence as a heavily armed military wing of the church contradicts Jesus' message on the one occasion a sword was drawn on his behalf (Matthew Ch26 vs 50-52).

There is little inside the castle (free entry) except the sturdy tower which looks so impressive from the road into Mértola.
Castle keep, Mértola
Inside it (small fee) is an exhibition of finds from recent excavations, a display about the Knight of St James of the Sword and a brief video. Best of all you can climb to the top and look out over town, the river and the Alentejo countryside, parched at the end of a long, hot, dry summer...
Mértola from the castle keep
....and over the excavations of late/post-Roman Mértola. Mértola perhaps escaped the worst of the chaos following the Roman collapse. The partly rebuilt baptistry in the fully excavated area appears identical to the Byzantine baptistry we saw at Stobi in (the Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia. Another baptistry of similar date has been uncovered by the newer excavations, suggesting that either two distinct Christian communities lived here in the 7th century or they had separate baptistries for males and females (other imaginative solutions are welcome).
Excavations, Mértola, with the partly rebuilt Byzantine baptistery in the centre
Beside the Roman excavations is the modern cemetery.
Mértola's modern cemetery
Lynne likes a good cemetery so we walked round the very typically Portuguese necropolis, some burials in family mini-mausolea, others in niches in the wall.
The dead up the wall, Mértola
All had photographs of the deceased, but we wondered why families invariably chose such unflattering portraits of their loved ones.

The afternoon was hot and we were flagging, so this ended the sightseeing.

We spent the evening in Migas, a restaurant just below the castle, enjoying the warm evening air on a terrace overlooking the river, though it was invisible in the dark. Migas is named for the traditional Alentejo favourite of bread steeped in olive oil. I enjoyed it last year, but found it extraordinarily filling so gave it a miss this time. Lynne selecting rabbit with thyme while I chose bochachas, pigs cheeks stewed in red wine; I loved the firm, wine-dark slabs of porkiness, while Lynne suggested her bunny had reached a State of Grace, though the accompanying fries would have benefitted from hotter oil. A litre jug of tinto may have lacked the personality of yesterday's Herdade de Lagos, but it cost little and being a wine for swilling rather than sipping it was pleasurably swilled. A few more customers would have improved the atmosphere, but the bill came to €30 so it would be churlish to complain.
Rabbit and bochachas, Migas, Mértola

We had stayed at the Hotel Museu (museum), a comfortable mid-range hotel by the river housed in an ugly concrete slab of a building. Construction work uncovered the remains of buildings of the Almohad (late Moorish) river port, archaeologists were called in and the results of their labours have been preserved as a feature of the hotel.
Remains of Almohad port building, Hotel Museu, Mértola
Before checking out we climbed back up (Mértola's pedestrians climb many, many steps) to below the castle and followed the top of the city wall. Perched on the wall is a late16th/early 17th century clock tower...
Clock tower on the city wall, Mértola
...where a one-handed clock tells the correct time twice daily.
Clock Tower, city walls, Mértola
Mértola has a modern commercial centre in the north where the N124 traverses the town, an older centre below the castle and we now found ourselves heading into yet another centre, the sign suggesting this was once the heart of Moorish Mértola.
Along the wall, Mértola
A mark on the wall shows the height of the water during the great flood of 1876. It stands at a truly mind-boggling height above the river, even allowing for the current drought. 40 miles north the Alqueva Dam holds back one of Europe’s largest reservoirs, so flooding should be a problem of the past.
Municipal offices cluster round a small square studded with orange trees. Here a steep path descends towards the river giving a good view of the Roman River Tower,...
Roman river tower, Mértola
....though the trees ensured that only at river level could we see the arches that connected the tower to the main fortifications. From the shape of the bases the river was obviously expected to run much higher than it presently is. From such towers the Romans generally slung a chain across the river which the sentries lowered to permit access.
Arches by the Roman River Tower, Mértola
After our riverside stroll we set off for the holiday beaches of the Algarve.
Mértola is a fascinating little town and well worth a visit. Elaborately protected for most of its 2,000+ years’ history, it is now completely unfortified yet the residents sleep more securely in their beds than ever before. Cheer up, the world really is becoming less violent.