w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
Is it lame that I’m writing from an oceanside American resort, surrounded by pasty Brits in Marbella, Spain? That a Spanish singer is belting out REM’s “Losing My Religion” while I contemplate a poolside slushy drink? Will you hate me even more if I say that for the second time this week, we are on holiday from our holiday?
This is the kind of place I usually avoid like the plague. Not that I have a problem with luxury travel or fancy resorts, but I could never understand why people would travel just to recreate the experience back home. I mean, what then, is the point of getting away? For that, Marriott Marbella Beach Resort, I really, really hate you. Except I also sort of love you.
But let’s backtrack.
Back in May, when I was frantically combing AirB&B in anticipation of this trip, I stumbled upon a funky little house in the tiny white town of Cortes de la Frontera. On a whim, I booked the house for an entire month. But knowing what we do now: Our preference for faster travel and larger cities, Chris and I were less than enthusiastic about hurrying to our little village. So we decided to break up the 6.5 hr. drive from Lisbon to Spain with a 2-night stop in Lagos.
A new friend had recommended a visit to Lagos and I’m so glad we went. It redeemed Portugal for the kids – in more ways than one. We booked a two-bedroom apartment at the newish Belmar Spa & Beach Resort and spent our days alternating between the three swimming pools, jet spa and beaches. We ate dinners at the hotel buffet (yes, I said buffet) and spent the evenings playing games and watching movies. The moment we arrived, the kids recuperated from their stomach flu. Their appetites returned, their cheeks grew rosier, hair shiner, toenails more buff. In a word, they were happy and healthy and glowing. The truth was that after two months of travel we were all exhausted and needed a break from the constant stream of cultural enrichment.
WHAT WE DID:
Ponta de Piedade - Lagos, Portugal
I really, really, really wanted to kayak around these amazing sandstone cliffs, but the waters were so rocky none of the boats would go out. The walk down was just breathtaking. It's one of the few touristy spots we've visited that is absolutely worth the stop.
Btw, if you stop here, don't bother with the shops and restaurants. All crap and overpriced. If you're hungry, just go up the street to Camilo beach.
Greetings from Algarve!
The water in these pictures look deceptively serene. Trust me, it was very, very choppy.
Camilo Beach - Lagos, Portugal
This is reputed to be one of the most beautiful beaches in one of the most gorgeous countries in the world. Believe the hype. Of all the beaches I've been to, this one is truly memorable. I will say, though, that there was black stuff all over the dense, wet, sand. Animal poop? Coral? Some sort of ocean mineral? I'm not sure. It was a little unsettling and made the very narrow beach and emerald water slightly less welcoming. But, you should absolutely go. See Ponta de Piedade, walk to the bottom, then get in the car and drive up the road to O Camilo restaurant for a seaside lunch on the balcony. After that walk down to Camilo Beach, take a bunch of pictures, explore the tunnels and rock pillars and go absolutely silent in the crazy, claustrophobic rock caves. If you want to swim, surf or sunbathe head 5 minutes to Porto de Mos beach.
Scenes from Camilio Beach
Praia do Porto de Mos - Lagos, Portugal
The Belmar overlooks this beach and while it's not as "famous" as Ponta da Piedade, I later learned that it's just as popular. It's wide with beach cafes, clean, white sand and fantastic waves making it popular with locals and tourists. Chris and I ran the cliff that overlooked the beach. It was a magical run with mountains above, surfers below, the sound of birds overhead. I returned the next day for an early morning hike and then joined Chris and the kids for some surf jumping. The kids preferred this beach over Ponta da Piedade, but imagine a country with such options!
When the kids got sick of the beach, we headed to the pool. Come to think of it, this little one never got sick of either.
WHAT WE ATE:
Restaurante O Camilo - Lagos, Portugal
Considering this restaurant is the only place to eat overlooking Algarve's most popular beach, it could have been as horrible as it wanted. But it wasn't. Great views, fresh seafood, generous portions, reasonable prices, and a smart looking dining space. Afterwards, hit the snack window for some ice cream cones and head to the beach.
Levante Restaurant/Belmar - Lagos, Portugal
I don't usually do buffets, especially in a restaurant that lacks this much atmosphere, but the food was surprisingly solid, the house wine delicious and the prices were great. They offer a different theme each night and provide enough fresh, healthy options for everyone to be happy. Shame on me, but we ate here twice.
WHERE WE STAYED:
Belmar Spa and Beach Resort - Lagos Portugal
Under $200 for a big, spotless two bedroom apartment with a fully equipped kitchen, two bathrooms, three balconies, overlooking one of three pools and views of the ocean? Sign me up!
The view from the balcony. Oona exhausted from so much fun.
We rolled into Cortes late, made later by an unknown time change and several wrong turns. Google maps couldn’t find our house so poor Chris was stuck driving forwards and backwards up and down the narrow cobble streets, rearview mirrors tucked in, the overloaded car struggling to chug up the steep climb. We finally called our host for directions. “Meet me at the petrol, mate,” he said. “You can’t miss it. All roads lead here.”
“I wonder what he’s doing at the gas station,” Chris mused. “Perhaps he works there?” I suggested. Little did I realize that in this sleepy little town, the petrol station was the local hangout. We find Saul sitting in a plastic chair under the eave of the gas station knocking back a vino tinto with a handful of expats. I don’t technically know what dungarees are, but my guess is that he was wearing them, along with a tank top, long hair, braided jewelry and a silver beard.
We follow Saul to the house. The kids and I unload the car as he shows Chris the particulars of trash disposal, water heater, Internet. “I’ve never had anyone stay at the house for this long and never with kids, man. I didn’t know if I should hide the knives. I put some juice in the fridge for them, kids like juice, right? Tell them to be careful going up to the deck so they don’t fall off the roof.” He is at once friendly, eager to please, and mellow. More laid back Aussie than former Londoner. The kind of big, gregarious guy who has interesting sex. He was traveling through India for 9 months when his mother called to say she had just purchased an almond grove in Spain and needed his help. He rolls his eyes as he tells the story, but 15 years later, he is still here.
“Feel free to move things around, burn some incense, make yourselves comfortable. And here, home grown,” he says, shaking a tin can on the top shelf.
The house as promised, is charming. Red brick floors, white walls, and a plethora of arched windows and doorways. Upstairs the master bedroom windows open to a large balcony alive with plants and tiny lizards, and a double hammock, which the kids instantly co-opt. From the shady balcony a staircase leads to the roof deck aglow with chili pepper lights, a surfboard emblazoned with “Surf Naked” hangs above the bar. There’s also a covered seating area and amazing views of the Serranía de Ronda Mountains. The kids adore the house. Oona spends hours in the hammock, absent-mindedly swinging while she hums a song or chattering non-stop as I try to read in the chair next to her. Isoo takes his breakfast up to the roof, peering at buzzards through his binocs between spoonfuls of cereal. On day two, we walk through the town with its white walls, mustard trim and terra cotta roofs and we’re dismayed to find that like our neighbors, many of the buildings are in ruins, walls crumbling, missing roofs and shutters, windows pitched through with rocks. We visit all three “super” markets, hardly larger than the size of a NYC bodega. Oona emerges from each one saying, “Yep, that one sells chicken with the feathers still on it.” There are four restaurants, an ATM machine, a church and a couple dozen tiny signs advertising a bar. We later learn that the bars sell little more than bottles of soda, drafts of Campo Cruz and a selection of five or so tapas dispensed from a food warming tray (usually some meatballs in tomato sauce, a mayonnaisey Andalusian potato salad, ambrosia salad, anchovies marinated in olive oil and capers, and some pieces of stewed beef). A mustard colored bullring anchors the town, though now only unchained for the annual festival. Every day Oona walks by the same old man and as we approach his house, she whispers, “I bet he’s there” and sure enough he is, sitting in a rocking chair in his linoleum tiled living room, the doors flung open as he watches the world beneath his long, stringy eyebrows like its an episode of small town Andalusian reality TV.
Isoo observes, “Why are these ladies so dressed up?” The women wear high heels, tight pants, deep cleavage, blouses embellished with studs and fringe, sunglasses with gilded sides. They tether through the cross walk of this arid, blazing little mountain town strutting like it’s a catwalk. Even thought it’s in the 80s, we are the only ones wearing short sleeves.
We were spoiled by Lisbon where English is taught in the 3rd grade. In Cortes, no one speaks a word of it. The butcher laughs when I pantomime my request for 3 chicken thighs. On the third day Isoo asks for quesadillas so I give the kids 5Euro and send them around the corner to the supermarket for supplies. They return excited and flush as fisherman with a prize catch. During lunch, the kids practice “Buenos dias, un, dos, chocolate, por favor, and gracias” and then armed with more Euros, run to the candy lady to purchase ice cream cones.
Early on, I round the corner and an Asian woman spies me from a distance and waves asking, “Hello there! Are you the ones renting Saul’s house?” Two days later I hear a knock and open the door to find Ikuko with an English language newspaper and a cable modem. Minutes later Saul rambles by the house to check to see how we’re getting on. We run into Alex at the candy lady. And there’s Sarah at the bar having a soda. The expat community is close knit. I am reminded of the time I lived in Korea.
View of Cortes from the winding streets above.
Isoo birding at the petrol station/hangout.
Isoo, ready for some meatballs at Bar Fuentes. Chris, man about town.
We are surrounded by many run down buildings, which unfortunately, is very common in Cortes. One morning there was a very dramatic teenage lover's spat in the alley between. It was like watching a telenovela.
The TV doesn't actually work and with no friends, it means that once again, mom and dad are the kids prime source of entertainment.
How'd you guess there was going to be a beaded curtain and a buddha altar?
The double french doors to the left open to our bedroom. We spend the majority of our time on the terrace.
The roof bar and deck where we eat and homeschool.
View of the Serranía de Ronda Mountains from the roof.
The kids returning from a solo adventure to the store. I couldn't help but discretely tail them.
But mostly it’s just us, hanging around the house. The kids love the easy, lazy pace, but Chris and I climb the walls. I mean, what kind of idiots rent a house in a town they know nothing about and have never visited? So we head to Jimera de Libar to swim in the river and hike the Sierra de Grazalema Mountains. We drive into Ronda, which I haven’t been to in 13 years. It’s still breathtaking. We view Puente Nuevo from the Parador and then take the path to the bottom of the gorge, Isoo stopping along the way to spy vultures and tits. After lunch we take the kids to a playground right outside the restaurant and meet a British family on holiday. The kids had a blast running around with Lily and Nicholas, and honestly, it was really nice to talk to someone other than Chris, the kids and myself. We were so loathe to tear them away from their new friends that we didn’t see much else, except a quick dip into the Museo Taurino. Afterwards Oona ran around the bullring, snorting and stomping and pretending to charge us.
Cortes no longer has a pool, but we'd heard we could swim in the river in Jimera. We hiked forever and found the river, but no one was swimming. We finally asked an old woman who said the water was clean, but probably too cold to tolerate. That never stopped Chris. Isoo hemmed and hawed about whether he wanted to jump in. Chris made his decision for him by pushing him into the mossy river.
Ronda - view from the other side of the canyon.
Isoo didn't even notice the canyon or the bridge. He was too busy looking at birds.
While I was trailing Isoo, Chris and Oona went off-roading. They decided to take a rickety, metal staircase used by the maintenance crew to climb UNDER the bridge. As Isoo and I tried to catch up, he kept remarking, "Isn't this kind of DANGEROUS?" Isoo and I berated them when we finally caught up, but Chris and Oona just stood there grinning. #fools
Leaving our mark on the wall by the Church of Santa María la Mayor, outside the old city hall. .
Toro! In Spain's oldest bullfighting ring, Plaza de Toros de Ronda.
WHAT WE DID:
El Tajo/Puente Nuevo Bridge - Ronda
Forty two years in the making, and having taken countless lives to build, the new bridge that connects the old and new towns are a thing to behold. Parking is a bitch in Ronda, so lot it near Alameda del Tajo and walk to the Parador for great views. Then cross to the old town and snake through the center to find the path that leads down the gorge. Nice views of the vineyards and farms below.
Alameda del Tajo - Ronda
A pretty shaded park near the Parador and bullring filled with tropical plants and iron fountains. A lovely place to rest and catch a breeze in super sunny Ronda.
Museo Taurino/Plaza de Toros - Ronda
The kids deemed this museum as being "fairly painless" due to it's small, manageable collection though the emphasis is on guns and duels over bullfighting itself. I would tell you why, but in order to keep the visit "fairly painless," I was not allowed to read any of the informational placards. So there you have it. Afterwards check out the bullring where you can take turns charging each other or just sit and smell a flower like Ferdinand.
WHERE WE ATE:
Bodega San Francisco - Ronda
Located right outside the city walls, this sprawling restaurant spans two buildings, an outdoor cafe, still more seating in the playground across the street, and serves an extensive menu of tapas items. The service is slow and unfriendly, but the portions are hefty and the food is pretty good. We found it through Tripadvisor, which means it was crawling with tourists. Seated next to us was another family who kept eyeing us throughout the meal and then later, followed us to the park across the street. We ended up spending the afternoon chatting and playing with them so all in all, a pretty successful lunch.
One of the bars at Bodgea San Francisco
Wednesday morning Oona and I woke up to discover that Chris had taken Isoo out for an early birding trip. We girls lazed about, swinging in the hammock, eating a big breakfast, checking the weather report and trying to decide how to spend the day. When the boys returned we sent them packing and loaded up the car for a totally spontaneous trip to Marbella. Our little house, while wonderful, does not have air conditioning and with temps in the 80s (and soon dipping), it seemed one of the few remaining days we could get to the pool. The kids were delighted by the surprise and thrilled to find that they could have burgers for dinner. I will admit that I, too, was thrilled by the Charlie’s American Sports Bar menu, rereading and savoring it like a great Dickens novel, lingering over words like “buffalo chicken wings,” “fried calamari” and “loaded nachos”. As for Marbella, while I have no need for golf courses, yacht marinas or luxury shopping, I loved the quaint cobblestoned old town with its lush bougainvillea and orange trees. We also drove around the bazillion dollar arab mansions, which was pretty entertaining (and such a departure from Cortes!). It was a great trip, but alas, we must return “home”, wherever, whatever, for the moment, that may be.
WHAT WE DID:
No caption necessary
Isoo playing a little beach "football" at the resort beach.
Plaza De Los Naranjos/Old Town
This pretty little square filled with orange trees, cafes and churches is picturesque, never mind all the aggressive restaurant hawkers. Even Isoo, who hated the bustling, crowded city of Marbella, admitted to finding it "pretty nice."
Isoo's sightseeing face.
Avenida del Mar
A rep at the hotel cornered us and gave us a sales pitch to join the Marriott Vacation Club. Once she learned we were jobless backpackers she cut her speech short. But she did suggest we drive into town, see Plaza De Los Naranjos, and walk this sculpture filled avenue before heading to Playa de Venus. I think we got the better end of the meeting.
Playa de Venus
Better than the beach at the resort (by far!), but not nearly as nice as the ones in Portugal. For 6Euro, you can rent a lounge chair and spend all day at this city beach. Lots of topless sunbathers, though the kids didn't notice. Also a bunch of (awful looking) touristy bars and restaurants. But the big draw for our kids was the monster trampoline.
WHAT WE ATE:
Chill/ELMED/ Charlie's American Sports Bar/Marriott Resort - Marbella
We mostly ate at the resort because we are lazy like that. The food was pretty good, with the exception of Charlie's American Sports Bar, which was freaking excellent! Totally hit the spot. Unreasonably pricey, but what do you expect?
El Reloj - Marbella
This place made me so fucking cranky. I did not want to eat here, but the kids and Chris were losing their minds and acting like assholes so despite my better judgement we sat down. I opened my menu and I swear, the most rancid smell came out of my menu. MY MENU!!!! HELLO! That should have been a clue. We had to move to another table. As Chris inexplicably ordered everything on the menu, I perused the online reviews and yes, was not surprised of reports of terrible service, bad food and unclean glasses, etc. While I admit to being fairly demanding, I think if Gandhi, Mother Teresa and the Buddha met here for lunch, even they would all have taken issue with this place. When I asked for specifics about the "chicken and rice" our server looked at me and said, "What do you mean? It's chicken. And rice. You retard." (By her tone, the "retard" part was implied.) After we ordered, Chris tried to hand her our menus and she actually said, "Don't give me that. I don't want it. Just put it somewhere" (which I guess explains why the menus smell so bad). And then she brought me a broken water glass. Not a cracked glass, not a chipped glass. A BROKEN glass. Like we were going to do some West Side Story rumble. Chris, trying to stave off a tantrum, ran to replace it and came back with a dirty glass. Sigh. Then Oona's ice cream float came (aka Strawberry Nesquick in milk). I took one bite of my rancid chicken and rice and threw down my napkin. I have never before gotten up and walked away from a table full of food. And not a peep or apology from our server. The location however, is great. Primo corner in the Old Town. That explains everything.
After our lunch fiasco, we walked around town with grumbling bellies because we could not pull the trigger on another restaurant. Marbella is crawling with tourist traps and servers who accost you on the street to sit down in their pretty, poorly serviced establishments. I had read positive reviews of one place, but when we got there, it was closed. The guy across the way "invited" us into his restaurant. I bruskly asked him to "wait a moment" while I read online reviews and only then acquiesced. It was not love at first sight, but by the end of the fantastic meal, we were best of friends. I realize that Marbella is like that: a transient town that depends on the deep pockets of tourists, and from what we've seen, most of these tourists are incredibly rude and condescending. I'm not surprised that the locals find us annoying, but it makes for uneasy relations in such a beautiful place. The solution? Come here, be nice, have the steak entrecôte and everyone will be happy.
WHERE WE STAYED:
Marriott's Marbella Beach Resort
This is not my usual kind of hotel, but one of the few that offered both Costa de Sol beach and pool. The dirty, small, poorly maintained beach isn't worth a visit, but the kids loved the grounds. We booked a two bedroom/two bath apartment, used the kids club, fitness center, pools and did everything from mini golf and giant chess to shuffle board and beach football. The kids loved it and honestly, it was a great break for all of us. One note: The guests, particularly the kids, were horrible: swinging golf clubs at the hedges to destroy flowers, pouring their drinks into the hot tub, 10 boys pouncing and then throwing a smaller boy into the pool, running and pushing along the deck. In Isoo's words, "Who raised these kids?" But the staff shines above it and the place is beautiful.
Happy, healthy and rested. And ready to see more!