The Algarve – Vacation from vacation

Praia Dona Ana in Lagos

Despite its (deserved) reputation as being infested with drunk Englishmen, we decided to spend a last, long weekend in the Algarve, the southern most region of Portugal, known for its beautiful coastline and beaches. I am really not much of a lie out on the beach kind of person, so I almost never go on beach holidays. But it would have been a shame not to see this part of the country.

We wanted to spend most of our time in the Eastern Algarve, which is much quieter and less built up than the Western Algarve. Being closer to the Mediterranean, the water is also warmer to swim in. But, since we were down there already, I wanted to make a slight detour to check out the other main towns in the Algarve.

The Algarve is the southern part of the country. We stayed in Tavira, which is very close to the Spanish border.

The Algarve is a super easy ~2.5 hr drive from Lisbon. The golden, arid, rolling slopes, with crops and cows, really reminded me of driving through the Sierra foothills in California, an area I have crossed so many times to get to/from all the climbing and skiing in the Sierra Nevadas.

The main towns of the Algarve: Lagos, Portimåo, Albufeira, Faro, Tavira.

Our first stop was the town of Lagos, the town most associated with rowdy tourists, but also some lovely beaches. One such beach is Praia Dona Ana, which I wanted to see because its ochre walls/sand looked quite distinct from the other beaches/coastline of the Algarve. The beach was crowded, but I  can see why it is regarded as one of the top beaches in the Algarve and Portugal.

Praia Dona Ana in Lagos

The other end of Praia Dona Ana

On the way out of town, we stopped at Meia Praia, perhaps the main beach in Lagos, and bloody huge. The beach is about 4 or 5km long. I can see why it is popular: light, fine sand, calm waters, wide beach, relatively close to town.

Meia Praia to my left

Meia Praia to the right of me. It stretches for miles.

We did not have any urge to stop in Portimão or Albufeira, but did make a brief stop in Faro, and the town of Santa Luzia, very close to our final destination of Tavira.

The mighty Rio Gilão and one of two small foot bridges connecting the banks in Tavira

Tavira is a very small and completely charming town which many Portuguese I spoke to said was what the rest of the Algarve was like a few decades ago. The majority of people there appeared to be Portuguese and a few Scandanavians.

Ginormous figs. Oranges and plums for scale.

A dish that was totally not on our radar when we arrived in Lisbon is Arroz de Polvo. This is our favourite traditional Portuguese dish, and the area is especially known for its polvo (octopus). We have had amazing seafood on this trip, and the restaurants in Tavira continued that streak.

Tavira is also the jumping off point to another “top 10” Portugal beach, Praia do Barril on the Ihla de Tavira. I did not take pictures of the beach, so you will have to take my word that it is an awesome beach: wide, long, super fine light coloured sand, refreshing (but not too cold) water temperature…

You can also take a miniature train to save about a mile of walking to/from Praia do Barril in the blazing sun. Which is, of course, what we did.

Train to Praia do Barril on Ilha da Tavira

Set back behind Praia do Barril is the Cemitério das Àncoras (Cemetery of Anchors), an homage to the bluefin tuna fishing industry that died out by the 1960’s.  These big anchors were used by fisherman to hold the tuna nets in place instead of mooring boats, and had to withstand the large tuna and Atlantic.

Cemitério das Àncoras (Cemetery of Anchors)

A very poor picture of the crowded part of Praia do Barril. But it captures the sandy dunes and fine, light coloured sand.

We continued our streak of excellent food and nightly delicious gelato.

Evening stroll in Tavira

On our way back to Lisbon, we decided to visit a beach on the West coast of the Setúbal Peninsula called Praia do Meco. Again, quite a different beach to the others, being right on the Atlantic, with colder water and more battered cliffs. All these places are such an easy drive from Lisbon that it would probably be a bit remiss not to visit them. On the one hand, I love the vastness and space of North America. But on the other hand, the compactness of Portugal makes it super convenient and easy to see a multitude of different geographies and locales in a short period of time.


Climbing under castles

I love revisiting a place and seeing it from a different perspective. In this case, I returned to Sintra only a few days after I first went there, to check out the climbing a bit. This was my first (and only) climbing experience in Portugal, and it was a nice introduction.

Routes right under Castelo dos Mouros

The routes were short (the longest route we did was three short pitches), and sport climbing, but thoroughly enjoyable with some pretty great views. I mean, how many crags have a view of a castle??!

View of Palácio da Pena from a belay

Being July, we only climbed for a half day before it got too hot.

View of Sintra from another belay. You can see the Quinta da Regaleira in the left foreground

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the granite here. Certainly there were some dirty parts, but the routes that were clean had great rock.

Some quality rock here

Sintra is noticeably cooler than Lisbon. So while it was a warm day, I was super glad not to be in blazing hot Lisbon. We did not see any other climbers, which made for a great climbing experience. I guess that is not too surprising given that climbing is not hugely popular in Portugal, and this area is also not super popular. I’ll certainly bring some light climbing gear with me the next time I am in Portugal.

Setúbal region

A totally chance and serendipitous encounter with an Uber driver in Lisbon led me to contact him again to hear his suggestions for excursion ideas, with him as tour guide/driver. Tiago’s very first suggestion was Sintra, but as we were already going there on Sunday, I asked him for other ideas, preferably those off the usual tourist map. He quickly responded with the Parque Natural da Arrábida and Setúbal region, and proposed a rough itinerary of Azeitão, Setúbal, Sesimbra, and Cabo Espichel. The plan appealed to me as I was keen to see places farther afield of Lisbon and different geographies. Since Scott had to work on Monday, it was just Tiago, myself, and Erich (Scott’s friend who lives in London, who hopped over to hang out with us for a few days).

Península de Setúbal

This map shows Cabo Espichel

We crossed the Tagus over the Ponte 25 Abril (the suspension bridge that makes everyone draw associations between Lisbon and San Francisco) to get to the Península Setúbal, stopping in the town of Azeitão first, to tour the Jose Maria de Fonseca winery, the oldest table wine company in Portugal. Tiago insisted we have some tortas de Azeitão beforehand, making me regret eating a few pasteis de nata for breakfast already.

Tortas de Azeitão. More flour/sugar/eggy/canela combinations

Mahogany barrels on the sides, oak barrels down the middle

Notice the heavy cobwebs. The spiders are actually welcome, to help control the bugs that would otherwise eat at the barrels.

Setúbal is actually an active port and fishing town.

A HAND-le (haha). A typical door handle in Setúbal.

Lunch in Setúbal was a large affair. The town is particularly famous for its choco frito (fried cuttlefish).

Almoço begins…

I had never seen cuttlefish so meaty and fat before. It was delicious.

Look at how FAT those cuttlefish are.

Delicious sardines to wash the cuttlefish down…

After lunch, we made our way towards the beach town of Sesimbra, with a few stops along the way.

Interestingly, the name Sesimbra is of Celtic origin (Cempsibriga). Tiago thinks Sesimbra is actually nicer than the Algarve, although less well known, even amongst the Portuguese.

View of the beach in Sesimbra from afar.

Sesimbra is pretty much your typical, local beach town. It was nice to see it untouched by foreign tourists.

Another view of Sesimbra.

We drove up to see another Moorish castle and the church Nossa Senhora do Castelo, before making our way to the final stop of the day, Cabo Espichel. The chilly, windswept plateau with its deserted church and structures and dark cliffs was quite the contrast to Sesimbra.

These used to be rooms for pilgrims

You can see the different strata in the rock

All in all, it was a long and enjoyable day seeing places not usually visited by tourists. I also got one long Portuguese language lesson out of it from Tiago, who was incredibly patient and took the time to speak slowly and correct me. He said it made him so happy that I was making the effort to learn and speak Portuguese. That kind of response is great motivation to continue to speak and learn a language that isn’t the most common/popular (okay, excluding the 208 million people in Brazil. Brazilian Portuguese sounds pretty different too).





Sintra – Disneyland for castles

Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage site located less than an hour by train away from Lisbon (trains depart from Rossio station in Lisbon). Despite its proximity to Lisbon, its noticeably cooler microclimate and lush setting make for a distinct contrast to Lisbon.

The place is quite the trip! I had seen pictures of the Palácio da Pena online, so had kind of expected the tutti-frutti exterior of the place. But I was surprised by the contrast between Palácio Pena and the other sites, namely Castelo Dos Mouros (Moorish Castle). I was also surprised that the trip occupied more of the day than I thought it would (not in a bad way).

(Source: Google Maps)

I hate lines and having to wait unnecessarily, so I was keen to get to Sintra not too late in the morning to avoid even more crowds. In opposition to Scott, I also insisted we have a rough plan for the trip. It seems that most people hit the three main sites in the following order, moving up in elevation: Palácio Nacional de Sintra, Castelo Dos Mouros, and then Palácio da Pena. Since I thought Palácio da Pena and Castelo Dos Mouros were the priorities, and I knew I probably would not have interest in seeing three palaces/castles in a day, and I prefer walking downhill, I suggested we start at the top of the hill at Palácio Pena, then head down to Castelo Dos Mouros.

First, we had to fortify ourselves with coffee and queijada, a pastry specific to Sintra. Everyone knows pasteis de nata, but I actually prefer the marzipan like filling of queijada, consisting of cheese, sugar, and eggs. The Portuguese actually use cheese in quite a lot of their pastry fillings, and I’m a fan.

Queijadas de Sintra

The day started off windy and overcast, and I think that made the colours of Palacio Pena look less vibrant than I expected. But the place was still a bit of a riot. The palace is considered a national monument in Portugal (and one of the country’s Seven Wonders), and is a pretty striking example of 19th century Romanticism, whimsy, and Moorish influence.

It was a bit windy (Photo: Erich Schlaikjer)

After touring the interior, we headed down the hill to Castelo dos Mouros.

View of Castelo dos Mouros from Palácio Pena. There are rock climbing routes on those slabs below the castle.

Lingering clouds

The walls of Castelo dos Mouros reminded me of The Great Wall

Looking up at Pena Palace from the Moorish Castle

The Quinta da Regaleira had not been on our radar at all, until our Uber driver told us it was his favourite place in Sintra. It was also a geocaching site, which was incentive enough for our friend Erich to go. Surprisingly, it was the site with by far the longest lines of the day.

The geocache is down this well. Somewhere. Or was it in the other well?

Heading down into the abyss (Photo: Erich Schlaikjer)

The main house of the Quinta da Regaleira

We were all pretty knackered by the end of the long day, but Sintra is well worth the excursion if you’re in the Lisbon area. I even ended up returning a few days later for some rock climbing on those slabs near the castles.

View of Castelo dos Mouros from town







Lisboa – initial impressions

Overlooking Lisbon from the East.

Olá, from Lisboa. I actually enjoy learning and practicing Portuguese with patient locals. After the initial phase of learning the non-intuitive pronunciation, I think I am getting the hang of the language pretty quickly.

Before arriving, I read comparisons made between Lisbon and San Francisco. Aside from the Ponte 25 Abril, hilly/steep terrain of the city, and a cool breeze, to me, Lisbon is nothing like San Francisco. I wonder how locals feel about the comparison. Do they even care?

Ponte 25 Abril.

My first impressions of Lisbon were not great. I thought, and still think, the place is very run down, especially for a Western European capital. There are so many examples of once clearly grand buildings in varying states of neglect and disrepair, which is a bit sad.

So many examples of buildings like this in Lisbon

I was surprised to see buildings located in the main commercial and tourist area of the city in such poor states.

This building is right in/near the commercial/tourist area of town.

Building facades are covered with azulejos (tiles), a result of the Moorish influence. This makes for a colourful cityscape.

Azulejos everywhere

The pavements are also covered in small tiles. On some pavements, the tiles are uneven, in others, the tiles are polished, smooth, and even. I found out that I fuckin’ hate them when it is wet. I was slipping and sliding and falling as I descended steep slopes, and felt like I was walking up scree (one step up, two steps down) when I walked up tiled slopes. Obviously my inability to have a perfect gait/left foot placement is a factor here, so something to note if I am ever in Lisbon in the winter (rainy) months.

Arco da rua augusta e statue of King San Jose I

I had/have quite a bit of time for my impressions of the place to be shaped and change. As a fish and seafood lover, the fish/marisco-heavy cuisine suits me well, as do the pastéis de nata – what we called Portuguese egg tarts in Hong Kong. And when you get tired of bacalhau and Portuguese food, there are some other kick-ass cuisines in town, like the Indian and Japanese food.

I can see how someone could like the “grittiness” of the place, and perhaps see its potential and opportunity. I do not know enough about Portuguese politics/economics/business development to know if this potential will be realised.

The enjoyment I derive from a place is never through sights, monuments, etc. etc. It is from engaging with locals, the feel of a place to me. Most Lisboans speak perfect English, but quite a few got a kick out of this Asian girl trying to practice her Portuguese with them. And a few of them have been patient enough to converse with me and correct me. One particularly patient and nice guy said it made him so happy that I was making the effort to learn/converse in Portuguese.

The  Lisbon region has some nice sights to see, of which I will write about in future posts.


Quarterly Update – Another Round of Travels Begins

It has been four months since my last post :( Even I do not let so much time pass between posts. March, April, and May were the toughest times of my life; even more so than the process of being pieced back together, and acquiring a Spinal Cord Injury. The physical/health issues I was dealing with had me house-bound for much of March; I was desperate for an answer as to what/why I was experiencing such symptoms. Ultimately it was a self-diagnosis that got treatment going, even though my condition was/is tricky to treat. This period was also a reminder of how woeful our medical system is. Call after call, email after email, going from one specialist to the next, going to alternative medicine practitioners, rinse and repeat…now I am probably as proactive a patient as you can get and familiar with dealing with our health system. But this experience totally eroded me. It is ironic how I live in the Boston area, probably the densest concentration of medical professionals and hospitals in the country, and yet, had so much difficulty trying to be seen by the people I should be seen by. Things reached a nadir in mid-May; I was just done. Fortunately, I have been on an upward trajectory since then, after finally finding some doctors who actually help me.

Given my health issues, entering climbing competitions was the last thing on my mind. Earlier on, I firmly dismissed the idea of competing at the Paraclimbing Nationals competition, held at my local climbing gym. I didn’t just want to show up, and I knew I would feel bad for not being able to climb at my best/well. But upon seeing how fun the routes looked, encouragement from many people, I altered my itinerary and registered at the last possible moment. I actually had a blast, even though the top-rope format usually does not interest me.

A super fun climb. I am actually pushing off a hold with my left arm, not humping the volume. (Source: USA Climbing)

This was actually the first climbing competition where I was not super nervous because I did not have expectations about how hard I would climb, placing, etc. And it showed in my climbing!! I climbed loose and relaxed, having to dyno for many holds (I am very short), entertaining spectators with my moves, and climbing well. In short, I climbed with style.

I ended up placing; not bad for someone in really rough physical and mental shape a month earlier, who did not train at all. Unfortunately, I had to dash off before the awards ceremony because I had a long drive ahead of me to Acadia National Park. Ironically, I am currently climbing at my very best! I am climbing routes at a grade I would usually never touch, and actually climbing – not thrutching or hang-dogging at each clip. It is rather strange. I guess not being injured from overtraining (as in the past) helps.

Tomorrow I head to Lisbon, Portugal for a fortnight. Although the city does not have a rope climbing gym (?!!), and I don’t want to regress in my climbing abilities, I predict I will dig the place. I am glad to be spending a fair bit of time in Lisbon and fully exploring the city and surrounding area. It will be interesting to see how I fare with my Portuguese. Then, at the beginning of August, I head to Chile, and then likely back to Lisbon at the end of August. Given the depths of despair I was trapped in, it feels especially good to be back on my feet, exploring and experiencing new places again.

(N.B. I am trying out using the AP style guide for my blog post title, even though unnecessary capitalization annoys me; probably more than it should :))

Last day: Sugiton and parting thoughts

(Photo: Yves)

(Photo: Yves)

After the very cold and windy experience on La Grande Candelle, I had one requirement for our last morning of climbing: sun. We had a train to catch back to Paris at 1456 hr, so there was a little bit of anxiety when we found the 30 minute approach expressed in the guidebook was really more like an hour, able-bodied or not. The climbing, views, and setting were one of the most enjoyable/spectacular of my entire trip: a fitting end.

Where we were the previous day, from a different perspective

Where we were the previous day, from a different perspective

Sugiton is a very small calanques, with incredible views of La Grande Candelle. Even more so than yesterday’s climb, the views on the approach, route, and especially the top, filled my heart in ways so beautiful and soaring, that it hurts.

Morning calm

Morning calm


I cracked up when I learned from Yves what the A.N.P.E., in Secteur A.N.P.E. (where we climbed) was: it was the Agence Nationale pour l’Emploi, or basically unemployment agency.


How can one ask for a better belay spot (Photo: Yves)

It is pretty incredible to be able to go from a proper sit-down breakfast, doing a route of this quality and in this setting in the morning, boarding the TGV train from Marseilles to Paris (in not too grubby condition!) in the afternoon, be on the Paris subway, and back at the steps of the Eiffel Tower by dinner time.

It is often hard to convey to strangers, and maybe even people closer to me, how much I felt (and sometimes still feel) I lost in my accident including climbing/skiing/mountaineering in remote places, a “simpler” life devoid of day-to-day logistics around my medical issues and more extensive planning around this, being able to pack up in an instant and travel distances to meet someone and embark on an adventure. In spite of various setbacks, I think this winter, this trip has allowed me to reclaim a little, maybe even a lot, of that part of me.

After returning from the IFSC World Championships in Paris in early October, I was admitted to the hospital for complications related to my spinal cord injury. Right after that, the following trips ensued:

  • Mid-late October: ~10 days rock climbing in Utah and City of Rocks, Idaho
  • Mid-November: Climbing in Red Rocks, NV and climbing the hardest trad route since my accident (Cloud Tower, 5.12-) and after nearly dying again in May/June from sepsis
  • 1st half of December: Visiting family in Hong Kong
  • 2nd half of December to late January: A solo road-trip across Canada and the United States to (mainly) ski
  • Late January: Warm weather sojourn in Martinique
  • Late January to mid February: 10 days of skiing and ice-climbing in Chamonix
  • Late February to early March: A little over 10 days rock climbing in the south of France in Les Callanques

Perhaps it was the breathless pace of travel and moving on from one trip to the next, which did not allow me to fully grasp how amazing doing all this is, especially given my accident and disability. Yves said a very nice thing early on in our Callanques trip: I made all this happen. I do not think that is entirely true, because Yves did so much to facilitate and arrange our Chamonix and south of France trips. But, I guess it does take an inner strength, passion, maybe even love of life (even if it is balanced with sadness and darkness) to imagine, plan, and execute the things I did.

My travels need to stop for the time-being, while I deal with practical things like work and making a living. For a number of reasons, there is sadness. But maybe, in spite of physical and emotional setbacks, the last 5 months have taught me that more wonderful things can and will await for me to seize.


(Photo: Yves)

Soaring heart after La Grande Candelle

Morning light

Morning light on the approach to the base of the route (La Grande Candelle on the left, Morgiou on the right)

My heart was soaring after our climb on Secteur du Temple up to La Grande Candelle. Again, very cold, windy conditions made for no other climbers in sight. The views on the approach to the climb continued to make me feel both so lucky to be able to experience places like this, and also sadness that I do not live closer and/or have more time to climb here more.

Continued awe of my surroundings on the approach in

Continued awe of my surroundings on the approach in

Not being able to feel my fingers for the first few pitches made things a bit challenging.

Cold. (Photo: Yves)

Cold. (Photo: Yves)

Eager to get into some sun (Photo: Yves)

Eager to get into some sun (Photo: Yves)

We also got off-route, and put up some kind of variation that made for some spicy, harder, adventure climbing, which I realize feeds my soul in ways other kinds of climbing fail to. Even after I started climbing again after my accident, I never thought that I would be doing this sort of climbing ever again: very exposed, airy, super run-out, leader cannot afford to fall-kind of climbing. Being on lead the entire time was definitely a little taxing, mentally and physically, in retrospect. But in the moment, I found myself very comfortable in this zone, and taking on an “I have a job to do to get us out of here safely” kind of attitude. Yves’ extensive military experience lets us relate a bit on things like this.

The views, the views!

The views, the views!

The last few pitches, where we were off-route, reminded me quite a bit of the high alpine routes in the Sierra Nevadas, even if the former is limestone and the latter is granite. Both are similar in the wind, cold, heights, and exposure; and in both, you have to be careful of loose rock, be extremely focused and precise in mind and movement. It was incredible.


(Photo: Yves)

Our original plan had been to climb the 16 pitches to the top of La Grande Candelle. However, because it had already been so cold and windy on the first 9 pitches on Le Temple, and we knew it would be even windier and colder on the ridge the rest of the way up, we elected to exit the route at this point. Nevertheless, I was not disappointed to finish our climb and find the reverse approach in the daylight; sun, soul and heart singing from some incredible pitches.

The ridge line we elected not to get on because of the cold and wind

The ridge line we elected not to get on because of the cold and wind

Scrambling back down to get onto the main trail again

Scrambling back down to get onto the main trail again


A parting look back

En Vau – Les Américains and a nasty surprise

We headed to another and, again, very different, calanques on the 28th Feb. And again, there were no other climbers in sight, being well in the off-season (February is considered too cold and windy), and on an overcast, bordering-on-rain (we were caught in the downpour but, fortunately, near the end of the reverse approach) day.


The calanque is quite different in character to Sugiton and Morgiou because it is narrower, and the overcast day made for a very different atmosphere and feel. The hour+ approach down/uphill was fine for me, especially since Yves was carrying both ropes, I have a tank of a right leg, and the road/trail being in good condition.


You can see how much narrower this calanque is

(Photo: Yves)

(Photo: Yves)

I was quite excited to be climbing on the Les Américains secteur, where Gary Hemming and Royal Robbins had put up a route. Due to time-constraints, we elected to run up La Révolution (6a) (with me accidentally doing the first pitch of La Si-ray, instead).

In slimming navy blue (Photo: Yves)

I feel like I am dressed more like a cyclist than a climber here (Photo: Yves)

I like the picture below because I can recall what I was thinking in that moment: and that was how amazing, how incredible the fact I was standing in that spot overlooking the azure blue waters, even alive, let alone having gone from skiing, ice-climbing, rock-climbing in the space of less than 10 days.


(Photo: Yves)


Compression moves are a common thing for me, since I often have to unweight both legs to make a move (Photo: Yves)

Les Américains

Les Américains

In continued awe of my surroundings (Photo: Yves)

In continued awe of my surroundings (Photo: Yves)

After rushing back to the car to get out of the downpour, and upon arrival at a coffee shop to attend to some affairs, I was met with an unpleasant surprise. When I opened up my wallet, I discovered all my cash, credit cards, and bank cards had been neatly taken out of my wallet. My U.S. drivers license, health insurance, and other (non-financial) cards remained; how considerate. I knew Marseilles was known for its crime, but I did not expect leaving my wallet in the glove compartment, out of sight, in a remote parking lot, was in danger. These thieves were pros; they must have been making the rounds of fairly out of the way parking lots (we were the only car there when we arrived, and not many more cars were there upon our arrival back in the late afternoon).

Of course, the first step was cancelling all my cards and disputing any transactions that might have taken place. If I had been on my own, I would have figured out a way to get some kind of cash advance or credit card mailed to me. But, having Yves there was such a tremendous help, both practically for the rest of my stay in France, and also just in terms of emotional support for these kinds of small, but really really annoying, pain-in-the-bloody-arse kinds of incidents which can really be a big blow to an experience. Now, the overwhelming majority of my travels in my teens and 20’s was solo. But as I have gotten older, I have realized the value of traveling with a friend, partner etc. and makes me feel very appreciative of being on this with Yves.

Gorge du Verdon

There were/hardly any climbers in the Verdon in February, due to the cold temperatures. But since I do not live in/near this part of France, I had to take advantage of the opportunity to climb here. We had our sights set on L’Eperon Sublime (7a), but had to bail. It was still quite the experience.


Gorge du Verdon in the setting light


Dropping into the gorge required a fair number of rappels

Dropping into the gorge required a fair number of rappels


Lots of caves and winding water

A familiar position... (Photo: Yves)

A familiar position… (Photo: Yves)

More familiar poses, leg brace and all (Photo: Yves)

More familiar poses, leg brace and all (Photo: Yves)