But what else is new?
On this trip, I did something I’d never done before: I went to a beach and I enjoyed it. Even if I’d accomplished nothing else in 2018 (and really, I need to tell you all about my latest novel update) the fact that I went to a beach (in a bathing suit and everything!) and my legs and arms did not retract into my body like a turtle has to be some sort of personal growth worthy of bragging about.
Tavira was the second-largest town we visited, after Faro, but was still endlessly quaint and delightful despite its relative notoriety amongst tourists. It was a little more ramshackle than the upscale town of Loulé, and less commercial than Faro, but
if when we go back, Tavira will be high on the list of places to stay for longer than an afternoon. As it was, an afternoon was just enough time to fall in love with its windy streets and chippy shutters, and eat some of the best octopus of my life in nearby St. Lucia, the self-proclaimed octopus capital of the world.
After a week in Almancil, we drove north to Evora, a town once inhabited by the Romans and an entirely different experience after the sun-drenched coast. Oddly, though, it was somehow hotter in Evora than it had been in the Algarve. We stayed in a converted convent for the night and drove into town for yet more octopus and sightseeing. I’ll never get over seeing 2,000+ year old Roman ruins standing in the middle of a mostly-modernized city. After 24 hours, it was time to head to Lisbon.
We may have overdone it one day: we hit Loulé, Alte, Silar, Querença, in one swoop. The latter is the size of a postage stamp, with a church, two restaurants, and a museum about the history of water and irrigation (?! Portugal, I love you). Loulé was perhaps more upscale than the other towns, though located right in the center of the finely manicured center is an ancient castle (admission was €1,60; I couldn’t get over the relative affordability of almost everything in Portugal in comparison to other Western European countries, but the museums and castles were particularly inexpensive). We drove through Silar without really getting out of the car, but the village of Alte was absolutely adorable. Again, it maybe had twenty year-round residents, but it featured a charming canal, a few cafes, and the birthplace of the poet Cândido Guerreiro. It also featured several very territorial geese who did not like it when you tried to get near the very scenic canal. I always forget Jamal dislikes water fowl (also peacocks) but I was reminded when, after cautiously approaching the water’s edge, I turned and saw him walking back to the car with a bellowed “NOPE.”
As happens on vacations, you arrive in a picturesque and thoroughly charming locale and think, “Oh, yes, I could live here.” There’s lots of peering in real estate windows, mentally calculating the cost of an apartment or house, ignoring the logistics of picking up & packing up your entire life and depositing it halfway across the world because, really, did you not see the precious storefronts? The locals who could have walked out of central casting and wave to you from their doorways and ask, “How are you enjoying your time here?” so earnestly? The lack of gun violence and presence of socialized medicine? All of this played out within the first few minutes of arriving in Monchique, settled high up in the hills of the Algarve. What a delight. It’s such a different landscape from the rest of the beach towns and lower-altitude spots in the Algarve. The town is famous for Medronho, a liqueur from a fruit tree of the same name, native to the area and not produced commercially (or anywhere else, for that matter); a kindly Welsh expat shop owner let us sample some. We left town and drove to the scenic overlook at the highest point in the Algarve, before returning to the resort and falling asleep by the pool (I told you there was a lot of that).
We flew to Portugal for two weeks on the last day of September. (And yes, it’s taken me this long to get a post together. A brief, yet valid, excuse: five days after we got home, we bought a house, and the movers came the next day. This sale season at work has been long and exhausting, to say nothing of the fact that I also spent the entirety of the month of November editing my novel–more on that later!)
Despite a bumpy start to the trip–a four-hour delay out of Philadelphia, a missed connection in Madrid, luggage that was lost somewhere in Spain even though we were in Portugal, and accidentally leaving my glasses on the plane–Portugal wowed me from the moment I exited the airport. We picked up a rental car and drove three hours down the western coast to Aljezur, to spend one night in a nature reserve bed and breakfast. Much of that first day was spent sitting by the pool we couldn’t swim in because our bathing suits were in another country, on the phone with American Airlines. We made the quick trip into the tiny cluster of streets that constitute Aljezur’s ‘downtown’ for dinner, which consisted of grilled octopus (my favorite meat) and crisp, cheap vinho verde (my favorite wine), a meal I would end up replicating nearly every single day of the trip, much to my joy.
The next morning, we drove along the southern coast to Almancil, to check into a resort that would act as our home base over the first week. On the way, we stopped at Praia do Amado, a beach popular with surfers, and Cabo de São Vicente, which is the most western tip of the European continent. Standing on the rocky crop of cliffs, it felt like standing at the end of the world. You can imagine how people 500 years ago could think so; the horizon was nearly impossible to locate in the endless expanse of blue. I just stood there, my jaw slack, trying to take it all in and failing. It’s like my brain couldn’t comprehend it. We stopped for lunch in Portimão (more octopus and vinho verde), and arrived in Almancil in the late afternoon, where our luggage was blessedly waiting for us. You’ve never seen someone so happy to be reunited with underwear.
There was a lot of laying by the pool (in the shade), reading, swimming, lazing about in the afternoons, while the mornings were spent exploring the towns nearby. Faro was by far the largest and most touristed of the ones we visited, but for good reason; it’s a gem.
A highlight of the trip–perhaps all of my dozen trips combined–was finally getting to go inside the Grand Palais. Entry was free the weekend I was there, and I’d been longing to stand inside the massive hall, with its iron lattice ceiling, ever since I saw this photo from the turn of the century years ago. It did not disappoint. I spent close to an hour and a half, just wandering from one end to the other, marveling at the vastness of the space. I can’t begin to describe the scale of it. It felt like stepping back in time, and if there’s ever an excuse for me to start fantasizing about life in Belle Époque Paris, this one was as good as any.
Other highlights: buying a 3€ used copy of Daphne du Maurier’s “The Scapegoat” at my new favorite English bookshop in the city, and sitting en terrasse at Place Dauphine with a glass (or two) of rosé and reading. It had been almost four years that I took this photo, and there I was, sitting in that exact spot:
Everything comes full circle.
This trip was a true vacation, and I fully realize how spoiled that sounds, given that I was just there in February. But that was a work trip; I wrote the entire time. The time before that, in September, I had class three days a week. This trip, I had absolutely no plans. It was a week to clear my head, relax, and, thrillingly, get to know my new camera. I’d bought a secondhand Fuji, lured by its compact size and weight and its true optical viewfinder (I’m a purist). It’s definitely not in the same league as my Canon 6D full-frame, but my shoulder aches after carrying that beast around all day. My 12th trip to Paris seemed like as good a time as any to test it out; it’s not like I haven’t taken these exact photos before, so if the quality was terrible or I couldn’t find my way around the settings as comfortably as with my Canon–I’ve had it for about five years, I could work it in my sleep–it wouldn’t be a total waste.
Thankfully, I think it worked out pretty well! I barely noticed the weight of it in my bag each day, and its discreet size meant I didn’t feel quite as awkward with it slung over my shoulder, or when I pulled it out at a restaurant to snap a photo of my meal. The auto-focus isn’t as fast as my Canon, and sometimes it searches and misses, especially in low light, but it’s a fantastic, true ‘walk around’ camera and I don’t regret buying it (especially since I got it for a third of what it would have cost new). Pas mal, non?
I hadn’t been back to Paris in June since 2014, and while you’ll never hear me complain about Paris in the winter (the dark and moody weather makes a perfect contrast against the orange glow of cafe lights) there is something undeniably alluring about the summer there. The sun doesn’t set until close to 11pm, the weather is comfortable (though I had to buy a sweatshirt my first day there. In June.), and I forgot what it was like to not have to regularly duck into a restaurant or shop to thaw out. I guess what this proves is that there really are no bad seasons to visit Paris, and that’s what I tell people then they ask me when they should go. Just go. It rained my whole first day and I had an embarrassing incident on the bus with the RATP transit police (a scam! It’s such a long story, but one which ends with me going to the US Embassy and then giving a police statement at the préfecture in the 8ème, and being reimbursed by my credit card company without question, and all three entities had heard my exact story before from other targeted tourists that same day.) but still, it was home. It is home.
Sun-soaked photos to come, je te jure.
That Paris exists, and anyone could choose to live anywhere else in the world will always be a mystery to me.
I am so lucky to have Paris. France, more generally, because I can’t forget about La Ciotat. This trip was unlike any other for me, a combination of the weather and the time of year and the foliage and the southern coast and my 18-hour French immersion course. All of it was so good. I stepped out of my comfort zone in a big way this trip, and was rewarded for it. There were so many highlights it’s hard to pick a single thing, but the memory I keep coming back to over and over is sitting in the Jardin du Luxembourg, on a bench in the early afternoon, with the leaves crunching underfoot and rustling overhead, doing my French homework. (once a nerd, always a nerd)
So it goes without saying: I really miss Paris. When I’m not there, the distance feels insufferable, insurmountable, like I’m chasing a forgotten dream that’s somehow always just outside my grasp. Could it have all been real? The air, the sounds, the light, the steady calm that settles over me the moment my feet touch French soil? It’s not just that I’ve fallen in love with Paris–that happened a long time ago–it’s that I’ve now fallen in with Paris, matched its step, its rhythm, its secrets. Instead of being consumed by longing when I’m away, I’ve turned instead to gratitude. How lucky am I, to love Paris this much? To love the city so much it’s changed the fundamental makeup of my DNA, altered me irrevocably? Paris will always be there, and it will always be there for me. Everyone has their own Paris, if they’re lucky enough. I’m lucky enough to have mine.