Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Portugal - Part 3

Have you even read parts 1 and 2? I only ask because different people have said different things to me about each one and it seems that some of you have read one and some of you have read another and some of you have read both. I don't want to waste your time by forcing you to go over old ground or anything, I just think some of this crap might make more sense to you if you have read each of the previous two installments.

On Sunday morning a man stole our seat at the breakfast table. There were no recriminations, no whailing or gnashing of teeth as they say, it just happened and nothing was said. We'd got up at around 8 in order to get down to the restaurant for around 9. We had plans to visit the Tourist Information Centre and then leave ourselves enough time to do whatever came off the back of that. Which was nothing, but more on that later.

For now there we are in the restaurant, trying to find a free table. It's very busy so we end up somewhere near the back, but it's a table for two with not too many other seats close by so it seems like a suitable enough place. I pull the chair out of the way. I could transfer on to it from my wheelchair but I am a lazy bugger at the best of times and I didn't feel much like transferring into and out of my wheelchair every time I wanted to get up for another course, or a brew or a glass of juice or whatever. Besides, I'm already aware of the possibility that someone might steal our place if we leave nothing there to indicate that it is taken. So I move the chair and we go off to the breakfast buffet.

We only grab a bowl of cereal for now but this takes long enough in the crowds. It's very busy. We get back to our table a few minutes later to find a man sat there with a plate in front of him, about to tuck in to his breakfast. He has put the chair which I moved back at the table and is sitting on it. Clearly he has not given any thought to why it had been moved. Now, he just looks at me like a frightened deer looks up from his grazing when he hears a suspicious noise, and then goes back to his bacon and eggs. We find another table and resolve that moving a chair away is not going to be enough in future. We'll have to get our juice first and place that on the table before we go off to find our food. If that doesn't work there is always my hat, but I'm worried about it getting stolen also. It's every man for himself in this place.

This is the bit where you might need to have some knowledge of what is in the first two pieces in this surprisingly elongated series. The first thing we have to do after breakfast is get the room situation sorted out. We had been promised an opportunity to look at a room with an ocean view (which we had booked and paid for, but not got on account of some access concerns) and then decide for ourselves whether to stick or twist, as it were. However, yet more light years pass by in the reception queue before we are told that there is not a room available to view just yet but there will be by 11.00 if we would like to come back then.

We leave in search of the Tourist Information Centre. Which does not exist. We have only walked a short distance and made a couple of left turns before we find a map mounted on a small billboard. It has every single place of interest in Vilamoura marked on it. Supermarkets, mini-golf, car-parks, the beach, the marina. Everything. If there is a Tourist Information Centre it will be on this map. We walk on a little longer and pop into a shop which is advertising excursions. Glancing quickly around at what's on offer we ask about the possible whereabouts of the Tourist Information Centre and are told that it is 'in the next city'. The lady, who to be fair has better English than I have Portuguese, does not however seem to have the required vocabularly to expand on where the next city might be. Lisbon? Porto? Braga? Weston Supermare? Copenhagen? We don't know and it scarcely matters because we are likely not getting there today anyway. There is no time to go to the next city, wherever it is, before we have to get back to the hotel at the agreed time to finally sort out which room we will be spending the next six nights in.

Just after 11.00 we return to the hotel, do the queue dance (not a lot of movement but a very regular, slow tempo), and are eventually given the key to room 234. Easy to remember, not so easy to live in. As we had suspected (and so to be fair had the receptionist but that wasn't our beef with him) it has a very narrow bathroom doorway. Staying here would mean jumping out of my chair every time I wanted to pay a visit, and placing another chair in there for me to climb on in order to use the mirror to wash, brush my teeth or shave. I'm willing to give it a crack if the ocean view is that important but Emma won't hear of it. She's not happy about it but she's also insisting that we are better off where we are in the junior suite. It's hard to disgree. So we stay put, hand back the keys to 234 and pay for another six night's key rental for the safe deposit box in room 126. Another €15.

In the absence of any tourist information we go back out on to the marina to look for some other entertainment. After a long, long but highly pleasant stroll we happen across a row of stalls selling sea cruises from the marina. A greying man who speaks reasonable English if a little too quietly and creepily hands us some leaflets. We pore through them quickly and decide we might like something a bit shorter than the three hours we endured in Tenerife. The memory is still vivid of all those people vomiting into their sick bags on the choppy seas that day. I'm not normally sea sick, but after three hours of looking at other people go green and baulk you can't help but feel a little queasy yourself.

In the literature we find a two hour cruise called the Sunset Cruise. It sails in the later part of the evening, meaning it might offer a little respite from the searing heat, but the key thing is that it is only two hours in length. We think we can cope with that amount of time without being sick. Hell, we might even enjoy it. We ask the greying, quiet man about it but he informs us that the Sunset Cruise won't be sailing. Furthermore it never sails because there is never enough interest in it. He needs at least six people to make a booking to make it worth his while, he explains, but since he won't take any names or accept any money for it it is going to be incredibly difficult to reach that particular target. So in effect what he is saying is that it is a non-cruise. A mythical cruise like something out of a Sinbad movie. It's Jason And The Fecking Argonauts. Do we get a Golden Fleece as a free gift just for enquiring? No. Not even a free Parker pen. We get to make another choice or bugger off. After some more deliberation we opt for the three-hour cruise which looks as though it might provoke the least vomiting. It sails at 4.00 this afternoon and we are to return here to the marina at 3.45 when he will tell us where the boat is. As if it is a game show with clues or something. Where's Anneka Fucking Rice?

When we get back there the secret of where the boat sails from is staggeringly underwhelming. He tells us to go to the end of the marina (some 30 yards from where we are currently situated) and wait in a raised area in the shade where we will sea the boat come in. More waiting then, but mercifully the boat is on time. It is a catamaran but, having been assured by our friend that it is fully accessible we discover that this is only really a half-truth. Three-quarters, maybe. There are ramps down from the marina to where the boats are all docked but as we approach our catamaran I turn left towards it and discover a large ramp leading to it. It's a ramp, so that should be fine right? Wrong. It is a ramp with little raised grooves on each side of it, the reason for which is a mystery to me. I have to be physically lifted over these and then over the slight gap between the 'ramp' and the boat. So it's accessible if you don't mind being lifted on in your chair by two burly Portuguese men who don't speak much English. I don't, but some people might.

The cruise itself is enjoyable enough but our prediction that three hours might be a little overdoing it is not far off the mark. An hour or so in the boat stops near the rock formations and the caves at which point you can, if you are able, get off the boat and on to a small dinghy which takes you into the caves for a closer look. Emma changes her mind about whether to do this at least twice but ends up having a go anyway. She can't drink the sickly white wine they have offered us (it's free, at least) so she's sober enough to be able to step down on to the dinghy. I remember thinking that everyone else was being helped with their life jackets as they prepared to get on to the dinghy, but Emma and I seemed to be invisible. I'm pretty sure this is the curse of one who spends too much time with the likes of me. I have a level of invisibility at times that Harry Potter's cloak could not help you match. Anyway the man ignores her but she manages to sort out the life jacket herself and off they go. A small boy has a life jacket on but finally decides that he won't get in the dinghy. His parents try to coax him in and he screams the proverbial blue murder. In the end his mum goes alone while his dad waits with him. While they are away I finish Emma's wine while some of the people for whom there was no room in the dinghy (including the little boy and his dad) dive into the water for a bit of a swim. They're making two trips so they will get their turn. There's an acoustic version of Eye Of The Tiger playing on board which I quite like, but can't for the life of me fathom out why anyone would bother to have found it. It seems painfully obscure but no doubt it is on one of the many cash-cow Rocky Soundtrack albums that have been churned out down the years.

The cruise back to the marina is long and I start to feel a bit green towards the end. By the time I am hoisted off again by the burly men I am pleased to be back on land. We're off out for our first proper evening meal of the holiday this evening. Since we are so fond of Nandos, we have chosen to sample some of the chicken piri piri on offer at one of the many restaurants for which we were handed leaflets on our travels yesterday. It doesn't turn out to be quite like Nandos.......

Monday, 8 July 2013

Portugal - The Next Bit

When I left you we had finally got into room 126 at Hotel Vila Gale Ampalius in the Algarve resort of Vilamoura. Well over three hours have passed since we pulled up outside in a taxi. There's been lots of waiting around which is inconvenient, but on the positive side it allows plenty of opportunity for eating and drinking. Now we want to go out and explore, to see what is around us. But as always, the phrase 'there's a problem' is hurtling towards this tale. There's a problem.

We have lots of valuable items which we don't necessarily want to be carrying around everywhere with us, but which we also don't want to leave lying around the room for the cleaners to make off with. We have passports, flight documentation, money, house and car keys and kindles. The good news is that there is a safe deposit box in the room, but of course the bad news is that it is not working. I'd had to go back down to the reception, with it's endless queues, to rent the key. Complicating things further is the fact that we are still not sure if we will be changing rooms the next day, so I have to pay for just one night's key rental. This costs €2.50 which is much less of a concern than the further 20 minutes or so it takes to get it. Yet the real problems start when I get back to the room and find that it doesn't work. The box won't close. The instructions for use would be fairly simple for the average 8-year-old, but since there is a possibility at this point that I am losing my mind I keep trying over and over to no avail. Emma has several goes at it too, but it's not closing. I ring reception.

Having said that they would send someone up to look at it straight away it is slightly infuriating to find ourselves still idly waiting around the room 20 minutes later. I ring them back and am told again that someone will be up to look at it straight away. It's all a bit like when you ring a taxi to get you to town and it doesn't turn up, so you ring them back and they tell you it's on its way. What that means is that they have forgotten but they will do it now, thanks for the reminder. No apology. That would be an admission of responsibility. Another 20 minutes pass. Emma picks up the phone and makes what is the third call to reception to report the faulty safe deposit box. It's getting on for 5.00 in the afternoon, almost five hours after our arrival and we still haven't got out of the door.

It takes another 10 minutes for a lady to arrive with some contraption for testing the mechanics of the safe deposit box. She fiddles around with it for a minute or so and confirms that it is indeed broken. She tells us that she will need to go back to the technicians and get them to have a look at it and I resist the temptation to ask why they didn't send a bloody technician in the first place. But it will take 20 minutes for the technician to arrive and then probably another two days or so for him to diagnose the problem and either fix it or replace the box. Emma's drawing a line here and insists that the woman skips the part about finding out what is wrong with this box and just replace it now. At least half-way apologetically the woman agrees and so some time later a man comes in to replace it. It takes him roughly about the same amount of time it would take a half-wit receptionist to Instagram her dinner. An hour to organise, a matter of minutes to replace. At this point my head resides somewhere in the vicinity of the shed, but I'm just relieved that we can now get out of here and have a look around.

The marina at Vilamoura is arguably worth the wait. You'd expect the glorious weather in this part of the world but the rest of it does not disappoint. It's packed with bars, restaurants and shops and some stunning views. There's also some serious water transportation on show. Some of these boats are probably worth more than my house but it is still a nice thought to wonder what it would be like to own one and have the freedom to be able to set sail in the sunshine and forget about hotel receptionists and safe deposit boxes. We stop at a place called the '19th Hole' for a couple more beers. There are a couple of golf-themed places around the marina and it is clear that golf is a very popular activity around here. We see many large groups of men hauling their clubs on to coaches as they set off for their golf trips. I'm insanely jealous of this as I have always wanted to be able to play golf. Technically I can because they have accessible equipment for this sort of thing these days. But it is expensive and, aswell as being beyond my means financially, is beyond my level of get up and go, which regular readers will know barely exists. It would take a bit of organising and I'm normally too busy working or updating my Facebook status.

We have had the misfortune to sit next to two quite creepy forty-something men shamelessly out on the pull. Mixing in these circles was not intentional. When we sat here there were two young girls sat quietly chatting at a table nearby. We'd hardly noticed them until they were joined by two of the sleaziest, hairy-arsed letches in southern Europe. The worst thing about this is that the two impressionable girls are buying it completely and making arrangements to meet up with the men later on. I supposes you could accuse me of more jealousy in my disdain for these two reptiles, but Emma seems to find them equally repugnant. Later, we actually avoid going into an Irish bar because Emma has spotted the four of them going in there. We've had enough sleaze for one afternoon. Get a room, but if you do make sure the safe deposit box is working.

We'd been ascending a staircase when we saw them. Though Vilamoura Marina has fantastic access in the main there is an area which is only accessible via a set of stairs. But these are not just ordinary stairs. As a nod to the need to comply with the ever more complex access laws in Europe someone has had the bright idea of placing a small ramp at the end of each step. My even brighter notion that this would therefore make access possible was somewhat optimistic. We make it, but it's a deathly struggle and there is absolutely no way to go back down the way we came without utilising our health insurance. We have no choice but to go up a second set of steps with these token effort ramps at one side, and then walk all the way around on the main roads to get back on to the marina. Before we do so we take in a different Irish bar, one free of sleazy men chatting up jail-bait, but heavily populated by stray cats. What it also has is free Wi-Fi and a disabled toilet, so it gets the nod for a couple more beers.

The night ends back at the 19th but after what has been a very long day we are running out of steam. There is a live band on and just before we leave they play a Duran Duran song called 'Save A Prayer' and I can't help thinking that it might have been far more apt if they had played 'Rio' following his unexpected appearance on our flight.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Portugal - The First Bit

It's 3.30am on Saturday June 29 2013. I've only been in bed for four hours. I've been to watch another dismal Saints performance, a 24-12 loss to Hull KR, details of which will be documented elsewhere. By the time I'd had a brew and sat through half an hour of Sandra Bullock talking about being in a plane crash it was 11.30pm. Nevertheless I have to get up. I have a flight to catch. Fortunately I'm too disorientated by sleep deprivation to remember any of the details of Sandra's aeroplane experience so I'm not put off. It couldn't have been any more frightening than any of the things she went through on that bus with Keanu Reeves anyway.

We're flying to Faro, Portugal at 7.35am. Neither of us have ever been to Portugal before. It's the unknown, in that respect. So unknown is it, in fact, that Emma's completely forgotten when she's asked where she is flying to at the check-in desk at Manchester airport. She tells me later she couldn't even remember what country we were flying to at that point. Luckily I'm on hand to provide the real tricky information to the girl on the check-in desk. We'd been lucky also to reach that point much sooner than expected. When we arrived there were the usual queues, but a lady working for the Monarch airline advised us to go straight to the front. There were surprisingly few dirty looks from those who were in the queue, standing around wearily leaning on their suitcases.

So at this point things are going far too well for comfort. There is no sign of the drama that always accompanies any attempts I make to travel and which keeps this column up and running. Even the bus driver at the airport car park had seen us struggling with the luggage and pulled up to let us on, despite our not being particularly close to a designated stop. Actually let's be factual. Start as we mean to go on. He had seen Emma struggling with the luggage. Moving luggage is one of many areas in which I am totally and utterly useless. I have one pair of hands and so the choice is simple. Hold the cases and go nowhere, or propel my chair and leave the luggage-carrying to Emma. Fear not anyway, for the travel problems are coming.

The first of these is the delay of the flight. After joining an unreasonably long queue at the bar we have managed to purchase a couple of alcoholic drinks, but looking up at one of the many flight information monitors dotted around we can see that the flight will now depart at 8.00. It may or may not be coincidence that this happens just a few seconds after I remark that since we had taken so long to get served we could do with an extra 20 minutes before taking off so I could finish my pint. Be careful what you wish for, they say, although I think it's rather unfair that I've never had a wish come true that quickly in the previous 37 years of my life. These are unusual circumstances anyway. Airports are one of few places where it is perfectly acceptable to consume alcohol at 6.30 in the morning. The only other occasions I can think of are trips to see Saints at Wembley. Once I opened a bottle of whiskey at something like 5.15am. It's little wonder I'm such a picture of health. When Emma writes on her Facebook she is in a bar with a Desperado and a bacon sandwich I somehow feel compelled to point out to her friends that a Desperado is a beer, and that she is not referring to me.

The flight itself is uneventful. I sleep through most of it. The only thing of note to report is the surreal experience of being dragged backwards on an aisle chair to my seat, and looking up to see Rio Ferdinand trying to look patient as he waits for me to get my shit together and get to my seat. It's not every day you inconvenience a former England captain. I remember thinking that I had grave doubts about how flying economy class was going to help prolong his club career, not to mention the 17 rounds of golf he is no doubt going to play during his stay in the Algarve. After an uneventful taxi ride we arrive at Hotel Vila Gale Ampalius at around 12.15pm and the queuing begins. Waiting is something you need to be good at if you are going to stay at the Ampalius. It takes 35 minutes to reach the reception desk and attempt to check in. While queuing I notice the lifts are at the top of a small flight of stairs. What I can't work out is how I'm going to ascend them. But Emma's checked all this out with the usual military precision, hasn't she? She's very good at this. Organisation is another of the many things that I am totally useless at. Yet neither of us can see an obvious way of getting to the lifts. There's a ramp on the other side of the lobby leading to the bar and restaurant, so maybe I have to use that and go all the way around the back somehow? The wait gives us enough time to figure out that there is actually an opening in the corner of the room which leads to a ramp behind a wall which is not visible from the queue. First panic over, we won't have to be moved to another hotel like we did when we went to Tenerife in 2008. We got an upgrade to a lovely hotel on that occasion, but we had a very bad first day.

This particular first day isn't going all that swimmingly now. When we finally get to the desk we are told that the room will not be ready until 2.00, which is roughly an hour and ten minutes from now. We are able to use their luggage storage room, however, so with little other idea of what to do we head out to the pool bar for a drink Another beer, naturally. To be fair the pool area is beautiful. There is a rather steep ramp leading down to the pool and bar which is going to be a challenge but there seems plenty of space and therefore opportunity for lounging around. We've been to far too many hotels where securing a lounger has been impossible without staying up all night but we should be alright here, I think. Emma's fiddling with her phone because she can't get a signal.

At 2.00pm we go back to the queue. It's another 20 minutes before we get to the front. This is mesmerising to me because there are not that many people in front of us. Everyone who hits the front of the queue seems to spend endless amounts of time discussing their issues with the gormless reception staff. There are three of them, which should be enough to see everyone through quickly but this is never the case. When it's our turn we are told that the room still isn't ready and will be another half an hour. Probably because I have been up so long at such a relatively early hour of the day I am a little peeved at this, and tell them so. The girl looks at me blankly as if she has forgotten all of the English that she knew 30 seconds ago. The upshot is that it doesn't matter what I say, we're not getting in the room for at least another half an hour.

Not wanting to have to come back a fourth time we leave it an hour before our third visit to the never-ending queue. We grab a quick lunch in the bar area which is again a top notch place. There's hardly anyone around because they are all outside so it's peaceful and the food isn't bad. And there is more beer involved so what is not to like? We go back to the queue at around 3.15 and are finally granted admission to our room, whereupon there are more problems. We have booked and paid for a room with an ocean view. The view we have is of what looks like the top of the reception area. It's a giant concrete slab. Sitting out here for lunch is not going to be idyllic. Emma's particularly put out by this and, staggeringly, finds the patience to go back into the queue. She is then told that none of the disabled access rooms have an ocean view. They sell this to us by letting us know that we have been given an upgrade to a junior suite. Not unreasonably, Emma argues that we might have been told that none of the disabled rooms have an ocean view at the point of booking. If we were going to get an upgrade anyway we could have booked the cheapest room available, or else found a hotel with accessible rooms and an ocean view. We are told that we can look at a room with an ocean view tomorrow and see if it is suitable. It seems a long shot given that the receptionist's negativity but we agree anyway. We have stayed in some dodgy rooms in our time so it might just be possible.

Which brings us to Saturday evening and a chance to explore the resort, suss out the bars and restaurants and get suitably intoxicated. At which point Portugal, The Next Bit, will unfold......