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Friday, March 16, 2012

Adeus a Portugal; Bonjour encore, la France

Our six weeks in the western end of the Algarve in Portugal just flew by, one glorious day after another where I more often than not sat inside working instead of enjoying the sun but was still happy to be there. We did take the occasional walks together on the beach, my friend and I and our brother-and-sister dogs. The promised heated pool never materialized, sadly, as there had been a cold spell when we first arrived and they just couldn’t get it up to temperature fast enough to make it cost-effective—we were only paying to heat it once it got up to the promised temp, which it never did, despite trying for about 10 days. Still, that didn't stop us from sitting around it, soaking up the sun during the warm afternoons.

Although a beautiful place, which we rebooked before we left for next year, upping our commitment from six to nine weeks—I must have had Innis drunk on caipirinhas when she agreed to put up with me for that long a period—there was little of consequence to blog about. One can only talk about so many glorious beaches for so long.

The adventures didn’t start until it was time to head back. We typically take a leisurely drive, stopping in several places along the 1600-kilometer drive down and this was no different.  In fact, Innis, having done truly the lion’s share of the cooking the entire six weeks while I pecked away at my laptop, had booked our stops at places where she felt we would have a decent meal and was quite looking forward to enjoying some good food and wine without having to provide it herself.

We spent our first night in Portugal at a nice enough place (especially after the disaster we’d encountered on our way down when we stopped at what we thought would be a charming B&B, Casa do Brigadeiro and has now become our conversational point of comparison: “Well, at least it’s not a Casa do Brigadeiro!”), however the restaurant was a considerable disappointment. The breakfast was equally dismal, with unarguably the worst coffee I have ever had since I arrived in Europe (not including in Austria and the Czech Republic), and, well, the rest doesn’t even merit recounting. Still, we really liked the front desk staff.

We brushed that letdown off the next morning and headed into Spain. A rustic place out in the country while still being literally a stone’s throw from the motorway, the staff were lovely. We were quite tired so we decided to just order a platter of cold meats and cheeses with a bottle of cold white wine and watch a movie in our room. However, we arose late the next morning, getting down to breakfast only at 10am. Despite promising a buffet until 10:30, the bartender (the same man who’d delivered our fare the night before) apologized profusely and tried to explain in Spanish what the items were that we could choose from that he would bring us instead. We ended up with a relatively traditional if spare European breakfast of rolls, cold meats and cheese, but, oh, the most heavenly coffee. Even Innis, not a coffee drinker, had two cups. Without question, I believe Spain has the best coffee in Europe.

After breakfast we whisked the dogs and bags into the car and headed for France. We have had reasonably good experiences stopping at various motorway places for lunch but this trip would not provide a single one, as we were discovering. Still, the place we stopped at in Spain had one thing going for it, as it turned out.

After quite an unimpressive lunch which we were happy to rush, something we don't typically do, and hit the road, we headed to our next stop: two nights in Saint Jean de Luz near Biarritz, reaching the hotel just minutes before six o’clock in the evening. No sooner did we get out of the car when my heart nearly stopped. I had no purse. Innis reassured me it had to be in the car somewhere but I knew right away I had left it on the back of my chair at the rest stop in Spain. I felt sick. It contained my camera, complete with photos yet to be downloaded, my Irish passport, my wallet with credit and bank cards, and no less than two hundred and fifty euros that I had only just withdrawn.

I had had an excruciatingly unpleasant experience on March 3rd of 2007 when I was robbed at a motorway stop and my tire slashed and it had left me with an uneasy feel about Spain, despite other delightful experiences. But, despite those horrible memories, something inside me was convinced that, if I returned, I’d get it all intact except maybe the cash. That, I reasoned, would be an undeserved miracle.

Innis was justifiably irritated at my stupidity. Still, we were lucky enough to have our receipt so, even though it didn’t have a phone number, Innis suggested we have the hotel clerk try to reach the motorway stop so I wouldn’t have to drive down and back in the dark. The clerk was charming and, as luck would have it, since we were right on the Spanish border, she spoke sufficient Spanish to be able to call. It took a bit of researching on her part and several calls but Amandine persevered and was finally connected to the motorway café. Lo and behold, they had the purse. Yes, they assured Amandine, it had contents; it wasn’t empty. (The purse was a gift from a very dear friend so even that was precious to me.)

The following morning Innis insisted on coming with me so I wouldn't have to undergo it all alone so, after breakfast, we packed the poor dogs back in the car to make the 90-minute drive back south. We reached the stop at lunchtime (but both agreed it wasn’t worth eating there!) and were fairly confident that we’d communicated who we were and why we were there. The staff spoke no English but one waitress waved at us to sit down and wait. And wait we did. For half an hour, completely disconcerted because we had no idea what was taking so long or whether we’d in fact been as successful as we’d first thought in conveying that we were there to pick up a handbag that had been left behind the previous day.

Finally, a young man, the manager, rushed in from the back room, holding my handbag. He had been the one to find it, fortunately. We barely had time to thank him before he disappeared again with a brief smile. I checked the contents. Everything was there. Even the cash. I was so grateful.

Still, less than two hours later, it felt good to be back in France.

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