Bulgaria: Rustic Villages, a Dragon’s Tail, and a UFO

Discussing our plans at breakfast, our host suggested we stop at the Alba Grups Rose Plantation, a rose oil distillery near Kazanluk.  “It’s interesting and it’s on your way to that monstrosity on the mountain,” he said, referring to the Buzludzha Monument, the abandoned Soviet era conference center built to celebrate the achievements of communism.  It was too early for roses to be in bloom, but we had visited the Alba Grups store in Sofia and the idea of everything roses was tempting, so we added it to our itinerary.  At the end of the day we would spend the night in the historic village of Tryavna.IMG_1128Heading north on Routes 64 and 6 we drove past fallow farmlands waiting for their Spring tilling, and forgotten industrial sites as we worked our way north towards Stara Planina, the Balkans Mountain range that runs east to west for 348 miles and divides Bulgarian into northern and southern regions.

Soon the 7,795 ft summit of snowcapped Botev Peak was visible behind the quiet villages we passed.  The region seemed to be sparsely populated.  On an isolated backroad we stopped across from a rusted Mig jet set high on a plinth in front of what appeared to be an abandoned military site.  I was only able to take one photo before a lone guard emerged from a derelict watch post and waved us away.  Further on there were many larger than life sculptures championing the communal worker.

The area around Kazanluk, south of the Balkan Mountains, is considered Bulgaria’s rose valley and Rosa Damascena, chosen for the quality of oil and high yield, have been planted in Bulgaria for oil distillation since the 1400’s, when the Ottomans introduced the plant to the region from Syria.  Today Bulgaria is the largest producer of rose oils in the world.IMG_1157Turning down the long driveway of the Alba plantation, we spotted the silhouette of what looked like the Statue of Liberty.  This is great we thought, new entrepreneurs celebrating a free market economy, that was long denied them under communism.  But first impressions can be deceiving; more detail was revealed the closer we got.  We were dismayed to see that it was indeed Lady Liberty with a dragon tail, standing atop a sphere of the world covered with chains and pierced by arrows.  We asked one of the guides the significance of this and he offered that it was the owner’s interpretation of the negative influences of Western/American culture on the rest of the world.  Ironically, the young restaurant staff was loudly playing a soundtrack of American music from the 90’s. We smiled.  World vision aside, they make wonderful products that are very reasonably priced. IMG_1232On a wintry, cloudy afternoon the silhouette of Buzludzha Monument loomed like an inter-stellar space craft wrecked on an inhospitable planet, as threatening clouds built behind it.  Its deteriorating hulk was majestic in its isolation on the 4700 ft mountain ridge. We’ve known about Buzludzha Monument for years, having seen it mentioned in various media as a fascinating abandoned place, but never thought we would get to see it up close.

In 1891 a group of radicals met on the peak of Buzludzha Mountain, where the monument now stands, and formed the Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers Party.  In 1971 the Bulgarian Communist Party wanted to pat itself on the back and celebrate the success of communism.  Others who drank the Kool-Aid hoped it would be a “monument of the people.” Not wanting to put a financial strain on the country’s budget, Bulgarians were encouraged to “willingly donate” money and labor to the project. Georgi Stoilov, a young partisan in WWII, who received his degree from the Moscow Architectural Institute, was chosen to design a timeless memorial.  He cites the Roman Pantheon, 1950’s science fiction movies and the works of western architects Gropius, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe as inspiration for Buzludzha.  It was completed in 1981 after seven years of construction by crews working around the clock in shifts, from May to September every year to avoid the sub-zero temperatures and    fierce winter winds of the mountaintop. Inside the sphere, glass and stone mosaics lining the walls celebrated the communal worker and communist party leaders.  The communist red stars in the 230-foot-tall tower were reported to be the largest in the world at 39 feet across and were visible from the Romanian border in the north and the border with Greece in the south.IMG_1219At the opening ceremony in 1981, tribute was paid to those who had gathered there ninety years earlier. “Let the work of sacred and pure love that was started by those before us never fall into disrepair.”  Buzludzha was a huge success and a point of national pride for eight years, hosting communist party congresses and educational events.  Schools and businesses booked tours for their students and employees.  Foreign delegations were paraded through to witness socialism’s success.  But then in 1989 the Berlin Wall fell and communism collapsed like a fighter jet breaking through the sound barrier.  The monument to socialism was suddenly ironic, irrelevant and abandoned.  In 1999 the security guards protecting it were removed and the building was left open to the public and it was looted. Anything of value quickly disappeared, and the rest was left to vandals and frustrated citizens who were known to take their anger out on the building with sledgehammers or spray paint.  The red stars in the tower were shattered by gun shots.  Soon the glass skylights broke and water damage from rain and the winter elements hastened its structural decline, and the building was eventually shut tight to protect folks from injury.  The day we visited there was a lone security guard, suffering as he made his rounds in the bitter wind, protecting this crumbling modern ruin from a handful of visitors.

The Balkan Mountains, naturally dividing the country into northern and southern regions, have been pivotal throughout Bulgaria’s history.  Not far from Buzludzha during the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878) a combined Russian/Bulgarian force seized control of Shipka Pass from the Ottomans.  This victory was a significant milestone towards liberating Bulgaria from Ottoman rule and monuments attesting to that triumph now mark the battlefield.IMG_1385As we continued our journey north through the mountains on Route E85, the picturesque Etar Ethnographic Outdoor Museum and Sokolski Monastery called for brief detours.  Set along the banks of the Yantra River, the ethnographic museum recreated a working mountain village from the mid-1800s with water-powered workshops and colorful timber and stone homes in the Bulgarian Revival style of the time.IMG_1567 Woodcarvers, weavers and other craftspeople dressed in period outfits helped further to transport us to a simpler era at the beginning of the Bulgarian industrial revolution.  We visited on a quiet day, but the museum has an extensive twelve-month calendar of events with many festivals listed that would have been nice to observe. IMG_1457Traveling along an isolated background road we worked our way towards Sokolski Monastery, known for its cliffside chapel overlooking the northern slope of the Balkan Mountain range.  We weren’t disappointed; the church is stunning with its colorful exterior frescoes contrasting with the natural environment surrounding it.IMG_1405 Built in 1833, the monastery has played an important role in Bulgarian history.  During the April Uprising of 1876 eight freedom fighters took sanctuary there.  Later captured by the Ottoman army, they were thrown to their deaths from the cliff behind the chapel.  The short-lived April Rebellion was brutally repressed, but a year later Russia would help the Bulgarian rebels defeat the Turks at Shipka Pass and begin the march towards freedom.  In the courtyard of the monastery an octagon-shaped water fountain was built with eight spouts to commemorate those fallen heroes.  Legend states the fountain has never run dry and its cool water holds healing powers. IMG_1437We made it to Tryavna just in time to have dinner at the restaurant next to our hotel. Enjoying a hot meal after a long chilly day, we were entertained by the waitress trying to keep a determined stray cat from entering the restaurant every time the front door was opened.IMG_1744Generations of skilled woodworkers have lived in the Tryavna River Valley, turning trees harvested from the deciduous forests on the slopes of the Balkan Mountains into furniture and ornate wood carvings.

Abundant sheep farms provided wool to the water-powered textile mills along the banks of the river at the beginning of the industrial age.  While other villages in rural Bulgaria have suffered a population exodus, Tryavna has embraced tourism, providing employment for the town.  As one of Bulgaria’s prettiest villages, it is a picturesque escape from city life, with shops, museums and outdoor recreational opportunities nearby. History is literally underfoot in the area, since part of a trail leading to the mountain village of Bozhentsi follows the remnants of an old Roman road.IMG_1522Crossing the footbridge over the Tryavna River at the clock-tower, the pleasant whiff of wood smoke came to us on a chilly Spring morning.  Large woodpiles are essential in this region and we saw plenty of homes with the winter’s firewood neatly stacked, as we wandered around the village, with its parks filled with sculpture and tulips in bloom.

People have inhabited Tryavna since millennia past, but the first record of it dates to the 12th century when Saint Archangel Michael Church was built by in the village by Bulgarian Tzar Asen in tribute to his victory over Byzantine Emperor Isaac II at Tryavna pass. At the battle of Tryavna Pass, Bulgarian troops ambushed and routed the Byzantines, capturing Imperial treasure that included the golden helmet of the Byzantine Emperors, the crown and the Imperial Cross which was the most valuable possession of the Byzantine rulers – containing a piece of the Holy Cross.IMG_1710Over the centuries Saint Archangel Michael Church has been reconstructed several times. Its most recent incarnation dates from 1853 when the tall wooden belfry was added. Inside, the interior is richly ornamented with elaborate 19th century woodcarvings and iconography created by members of the Vitan family, famous throughout Bulgaria for generations of skilled artisans.  The carved bishop’s throne is an exquisite masterpiece.IMG_1712The safest way to order your cup of java in parts of Bulgaria is to ask for a traditional coffee, not wanting to offend anyone by calling it Turkish.  The fact is Greek, Albanian, Bosnian, Persian, Turkish andthe same, plus or minus cardamom or a local spice.  But here in Tryavna at the Renaissance Café the coffee was brewed on a very traditional sand stove.  A shallow pan filled with sand was heated over an open flame, and a long handled, brass cezve was filled with coffee and water, then partially buried in the hot sand to brew.  With diligent attendance our coffee was brought to a frothy boil three times before being moved to the top of the sand where it stayed warm while the grounds settled.  The ritual of the event definitely enhanced our enjoyment of the brew.IMG_1656We only just scratched the surface of this lovely country.  There’s so much to see here, especially in its vast countryside.  Hopefully one day we’ll get a chance to return.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Bulgaria: Plovdiv – Minarets and Roman Ruins

The fertile, rolling hills between Sofia and Plovdiv have been traversed by migrating populations and numerous invading armies over the millennia. Today the A1 highway whisks an ever-increasing number of tourists between these historic cities, only two hours apart.  We were heading to Plovdiv, voted a 2019 European Capital of Culture, at the suggestion of one of our Instagram followers to “go see more of Bulgaria.”  It is the oldest city in Europe, having been continuously inhabited since 6000 BCE, three-thousand years older than Athens.  Two nights in Plovdiv then a drive over Stara Planina, the Balkan Mountains range that runs east to west for 348 miles and divides Bulgarian into northern and southern regions, to the beautiful village of Tryavna.IMG_0331Just outside Old Town Plovdiv, Roots Hotel and Wine Bar was ideally located to explore the heights of the historic district and the newer, yet still old, city built below it.  Our host Mitko, an expat who returned from Canada, was an enthusiastic promoter of all things Bulgarian, especially its undiscovered wines.  Under his tutelage we enjoyed some excellent wines.  “We have a wine making tradition in Bulgaria that goes back thousands of years, but because of our recent history no-one knows of it. All the wine was sent to Russia to balance our trade deficit with them. Folks in Sofia only drink Italian wine, thinking it’s better. But ages ago even the Roman Emperors preferred wine from Bulgaria.”

Remnants of Plovdiv’s glorious past are clearly visible in the magnificent ruins of the Ancient Theater of Philippopolis which sits high on the slope of Nebet Tepe and overlooks the newer part of the city below.  Built in the first century, this Roman Amphitheatre could hold 6,000 people.  Today it is still used to host concerts and other cultural events.

Strolling uphill to the summit of Nebet Tepe, we saw fine examples of Bulgarian Revival Architecture lining both sides of the cobbled lanes.  Sometimes the upper floors of the homes jutted out so far, they almost kissed the dwellings across the street.

Just shy of the summit, the Regional Ethnographic Museum and Saints Konstantin and Elena Church offered windows into a past way of life.IMG_0676

The ruins on the summit date to the reign of the Roman Emperor Justinian in the 6th century CE, but traces of earlier civilizations have also been found that date back to 6000 BCE.  The site offered a great panoramic view of Plovdiv.  Returning from the summit we were able to enjoy a late lunch outside, on the terrace, at Rahat Tepe, and sample some traditional Bulgarian dishes and cold drafts as reward for our steep hike on a warm Spring day. IMG_0543At just over a mile long the pedestrian mall in the center of Plovdiv is the longest in Europe, running from the Stefan Stambolov Square along Knyaz Alexander I, and Rayko Daskalov Street before ending at the footbridge lined with shopping stalls that crosses the Maritza River.

History erupted along its length, and at times, it felt as if we were traveling back through antiquity.  At the south end of the mall near the Garden of Tsar Simeon park the ruins of a Roman Forum and Odeon from the second century CE can be observed.  Discovered in 1988, its been determined that this central shopping and administrative area of ancient Plovdiv covered a vast twenty acres.IMG_0749 But the jewel of the mall area was the curved ruins of the Ancient Stadium of Philipopolis, with its fourteen tier seating area, unearthed in 1923. Situated below street level and surrounded by modern buildings at Dzhumaya Square, the ruins provided a dramatic juxtaposition of the ancient and contemporary, where you can actually see the layering of history and how the city was built over earlier civilizations.  From this excavated section, archeologists have determined that the stadium was a huge 790 feet long and 165 feet wide and could seat nearly 30,000 spectators.IMG_0758Across the square the Dzhumaya Mosque is the main Friday Mosque for Muslims in Plovdiv.  Constructed in 1421, it replaced an earlier mosque built in 1363 on the foundations of a Bulgarian Church destroyed during the Ottoman conquest.  It is one of the oldest and largest Muslim religious buildings in the Balkans. At the café in front of it we enjoyed some sweet Turkish tea and pastries in the warm afternoon sun.

Veering off Rayko Daskalov Street we wandered through the Kapana Creative District.  The area had fallen on hard times and was almost demolished to become a modern trade zone before local architects and historians lobbied to protect its Bulgarian Revival architecture.  Now it’s a destination “go to place.”  The whole neighborhood has been pedestrianized with cafes, hip shops, artist galleries, wine bars, craft beer brewers and small restaurants now filling once vacant storefronts.

The distinctive twisted minaret of the Imaret Mosque towered above the treelined streets on the north side of the Kapana  District as we wandered back to the pedestrian mall and the Maritza River. The unplastered, red brick building and minaret were constructed in 1444 during the Ottoman reign.  Many fine gravestones with Islamic inscriptions were scattered around the yard which once served as a Muslim cemetery.

Under the peaked arches of the mosque’s portico hundreds of chairs were stacked high, waiting to be used for a future event.  The mosque took its name Imaret from the Turkish word used for soup kitchens. For four hundred years, every day hot meals and bread were handed out there for the poor people, regardless of their faith.

The pedestrian only shopping bridge over the Maritsa River will take you to the Karshiaka district, a newer neighborhood on the northern bank of the river.  The bridge itself was disappointing, being a totally enclosed, elevated tunnel with no views of the river, but the bike path along the riverfront offered a nice shady stroll along the water’s edge.

Heading back to our hotel we took our host’s advice and stopped to sample wines at his friend’s shop called Vino Culture.  It’s an intimate gastropub and wine bar with a knowledgeable staff dedicated to promoting small Bulgarian wineries from different regions of the country.  Since we like red wine, Boris, our viniculture expert for the evening, suggested we try a wine made with the Mavrud grape.  It’s an ancient grape that has been cultivated in Bulgaria thousands of years.  Late ripening with a thick and almost black colored skin, the grape produces a strong, full of character wine that is a deep ruby shade.  We loved it.

Tomorrow we look for a UFO.  Really – that’s not the wine talking.

Till later, Craig & Donna

Bulgaria: Living in Sofia

When we departed the states nine months prior, Bulgaria was not part of our travel plans, not even a bleep on our radar. But what a wonderful spontaneous decision it turned out to be.  IMG_2496From Portugal we were to go to England for three months of pet sitting in various locales to save some funds for our push into Africa later in the year.  But just short of heading to the U.K. our first pet sit canceled!  Even though the dollar exchange rate against the pound was the best in decades, it wasn’t favorable enough for an extended stay.  So, we needed a plan B immediately.  It was just the beginning of Spring and we had been spoiled by the pleasant weather in Portugal, so that eliminated going North.  After a couple of quick online searches for weather conditions in various cities and inexpensive flights out of Lisbon, bang – we chose Sofia!IMG_2015 The city was a magnificent surprise with its cosmopolitan vibe and café scene along pedestrian only Vitosha Boulevard.  And hundreds of thousands of yellow tulips, planted in the city parks, were blossoming!IMG_2106Sunny days meant coffee on our balcony and a direct line of sight into the baklava bakery on the corner, across the street. The calories accrued from the sweet creations purchased from that den of temptation were only kept in check by long walks throughout the city.  IMG_8013.jpgExploring the neighborhoods surrounding our apartment, we quickly found delightful, small restaurants like Colibri Kitchen, Edgy Veggy, and Made in Home, which offered new interpretations of Bulgarian classics, while Moma Bulgarian served authentic dinners.  Several gourmet food shops, like Bread and Cheese for Friends and Sun Moon Store, specializing in Bulgarian made products, were also nearby as was a butcher’s shop and innumerable bakeries, each with different offerings.  (But for the whole week before Orthodox Easter all they baked was Kozunak, an incredibly delicious, rich and fragrant type of Stollen.)

At the Chili Hills Farm Store we found a line of Balkan Hot Sauces created from fifty different types of chili peppers collected from around the world, but locally grown in the Vitosha Mountains. Farther afield we’d walk across town to Sofia’s Central Market Hall for prepared foods to take-away or to the Lidl supermarket for basics.  Sofia as it turned out was a foodie’s haven!

In the mornings we would arbitrarily wander about the city, continuing our tradition of “walk a bit then café – walk a little more….” or pick a destination in a far-off area, determined to immerse ourselves into Sofia’s life and explore every quadrant of the city.  These walks revealed off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods, reminiscent of Paris or London, full of architectural gems built during the Bulgarian Renaissance.

Bulgarian culture re-asserted itself and blossomed during this short-lived renaissance which coincided with the country’s sixty-seven-years of freedom between the end of Ottoman occupation in 1878 and the beginning of communist rule in 1945.

Many other neighborhoods reflected the brutal designs of communist block housing which were brightened only by some colorful street art.  Knowledge of the city’s layout often led to frustrating experiences with taxi drivers who were intent on building their fares by taking us on roundabout routes. IMG_2334Weekends were especially rewarding when it was more likely we’d come across a street market or dance class in a park.

Intense chess matches were played out on park benches and always drew an audience of curious onlookers. Pensioners playing cards was also a daily ritual in the parks.

Most afternoons we headed over to Vitosha Boulevard to sit at a café and people-watch, or walked along the rows of fountains, surrounded by yellow tulips, in front of the National Palace of Culture, with a still snowcapped Vitosha Mountain rising behind it.

IMG_1991The cost of living in Bulgaria was very favorable with most items in the bakeries costing just one dollar and a nice dinner for two with wine, dessert and coffee costing under $40.00.  A visit to a local dentist, recommended by our Airbnb host, to have a cavity filled cost $20.00.  The x-ray needed cost $5.00 from a different facility around the corner. IMG_4282[36950]-2Our lovely, large one-bedroom apartment with living room, dining table and small balcony, just two blocks away from the popular pedestrian mall, cost less than $800.00 for the month.  (We found it amusing that the two-burner electric cook top was kept in a drawer in the kitchen, but we made it work for us.)  A 90¢ USD subway fare got us to the airport for our $10.00 per day car rental, with unlimited miles, for our road trips.  There were some oddities though.

Cut flowers were extremely expensive, so much so, that they we sold by the individual stem.  In many grocery stores butter was so highly priced it had those plastic anti-theft tags attached to it.

We enjoyed our time in Sofia and found it to be a very interesting and diverse city, full of history. And it was a great low budget destination that kept us fully engaged for a month.  Bulgaria should be on everyone’s radar as a place to head for a fascinating experience.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Bulgarian: Back Roads, Monasteries and Junkyards

We hadn’t done much research on Bulgaria before we arrived, so we asked one of our Bulgarian Instagram followers for tips.  “The monasteries and small villages are a must; the countryside is beautiful,” and our first Bulgarian road trip was born.  Our three-day excursion would take us first to Rila Monastery, then further south near the border with Greece to visit several rustic villages in the mountains and other points of interest along the way. IMG_9484After you crouch to enter through a low door and then look up in this intimate space, the WOW element of Boyana Church Museum can’t be emphasized enough!  It was such a mesmerizing experience we wished we could have stayed longer. But, a maximum of eight people at a time are permitted to enter the church and stay for only ten minutes.

This small, unassuming medieval church, built in the 900s, preserves large fragments of the most amazing Christian frescoes from the 11th, 12th, 14th, and 16th centuries. The murals from 1259 are the most famous and are recognized for their skilled, realistic portrayal of the saints’ faces.  Though still within the city limits of Sofia, it’s located in an area far from the city center on the lower slope of Vitosha Mountain.  Fortunately, we arrived early before the bus tours of the day started.IMG_9625Our main destination was Rila Monastery, still seventy-one miles away.  We made good time on the A3, which had recently undergone improvements, before exiting onto Rt 1005 for a drive through pastoral countryside, shadowed by the snowcapped Musala Peak (9,596 ft) in the Rila mountain range.

Following the Rilska river, through a steep, heavily-treed gorge, Rt. 107 wove past blossoming fruit orchards, abandoned campsites, roadside shrines and rockslides the rest of the way to the monastery.

Rila was the first Orthodox monastery built in Bulgaria in the tenth century, by students of beloved St. Ivan of Rila who lived in solitude for twenty years, in a cave not far away. IMG_8586 This is the only monastery to survive during the centuries of Ottoman domination over Bulgaria, when it was rebuilt in defiance of the Turks.  The Bulgarian people have great affection for this monastery, as a symbol of their religion and culture during those turbulent centuries.IMG_8559-2The distinctive architectural style of the monastery, with its arched black and white portico filled with religious murals offset against red brick domes, dates to the 1830’s when it was rebuilt again after a fire destroyed the entire complex except for the stone bell tower.  It is considered to be the finest example of Bulgarian National Revival architecture.IMG_8539

It was a cold afternoon in the mountains, and we were happy to find a restaurant with a roaring fire in its fireplace to help warm our chilled bones before we started the drive back.IMG_8926Thirteen miles from the monastery, on a side street in the town of Rila, we spotted a church with three small cupolas, that called for a quick stop.  The church “St. Nicholas the Wonderworker Mirikliyski” was a surprising find with its cracked bell tower and muraled covered entrance porch, complete with woodpile.IMG_8851 The painter of these hell fire and brimstone murals might have gotten his inspiration from the tortured works of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch.  Unfortunately, the church was closed and we haven’t been able to find any other information about this off-the beaten-path treasure.

With the Rila mountains in our rearview mirror, we set off again for Blagoevgrad, where we would spend the night.  Twilight was beginning to descend when we caught a glimpse of the Unofficial Junk Museum as we sped past.  It had cars piled high on its roof. “Let’s stop.” “It’s getting late.” “Just for a few quick photos.” Faster than a quick genuflect, the car was parked and we were inside.IMG_8967 The Unofficial Junk Museum is a vast, rusty and dusty collection of whatever the owner deemed representative of Bulgarian culture under communism. Radios, tv’s, typewriters, farming equipment, cars, motorcycles, household items and busts of Stalin are stacked everywhere.  It’s fascinating!  And of all the places to buy a bottle of homemade Rakia from – we did not go blind.

The Diva Hotel, for $22.00 a night was a tremendous bargain and very comfortable.  Always a good sign, its restaurant was lively with local families.IMG_9062In the morning we followed Rt. 1 south for a while as it hugged the Struma River, which would eventually reach the Aegean Sea, before we turned off and headed in to the Pirin Mountains.

Our destination the village of Melnik, known for its long history of winemaking.  We hadn’t expected the Bulgarian countryside to be as beautiful as it was, and it just kept getting better the farther south we went.  As we passed through a landscape of verdant rolling hills alive with sheep and cattle, distant snowcapped mountains occasionally broke the horizon.  Vineyards soon dominated the terrain.IMG_9144Melnik is situated in a wide gorge under striking sandstone rock formations, called hoodoos, that tower hundreds of feet high, created from millennia of erosion.  Locals refer to these geological phenomena as Melnik Earth Pyramids.  The village has been renown for making strong wine since 1346 from a regional red grape varietal, Shiroka Melnishka, and wine cellars still line its main street. IMG_9221 Once a thriving village with one thousand residents, today it is now home to fewer than three hundred.  The village was a delight to explore with its cobbled streets meandering between the whitewashed stone and timber homes built in the Bulgarian Revival style. Ninety-six of the village’s houses are historically protected.  Any new construction in town adhered to that aesthetic. IMG_9237From the ruins of Bolyarska kŭshta, high on a hill above the Church of St. Anthony, we spotted the dome of what looked like a hammam, a Turkish bath, nestled between the traditional homes below, and went to explore. IMG_9321 With the help of a kind woman, who somehow knew what we were looking for, we found the ruins of a small Roman era spa in a small side alley.  Its dome was fully intact and the substructure of its once heated floor remained.  There is also a single arched old roman bridge, near the parking lot, that you can still walk across. Before continuing to Kovachevitsa, we relaxed at one of the sunny cafes in the center of the village.IMG_9504Kovachevitsa, an isolated, rustic stone village in the Rhodope mountains, was only 52 miles away near the border with Greece. However, it took us the bulk of the afternoon to reach because “someone stops every hundred yards to take a photo.”  And stop we did as we were awed by the beauty of the border region as we drove through the mountains.  So close were we to the border that our phones binged with a “Welcome to Greece” message from our cell phone carrier.IMG_9544At one point we stopped to photograph a complete section of an iron truss bridge, just rusting away on the side of the road, only to have our car suddenly surrounded by a flock of bah-ing sheep.

It was slow going into Kovachevitsa as the guard rails along the sinuous route disappeared and the road deteriorated.  Night fell as we followed our GPS to the intersection of three dirt tracks in the village. Where to now? Not a soul was around, but smoke was rising from several chimneys. IMG_9769So, we knocked on the ancient door of the closest building only to be greeted by loud barking.  Retreating back to the car we pondered what to do when a voice behind us said “hello.” That was the only word of English our host spoke until he said “goodbye” two days later.  The barking dog turned out to be a gentle giant, who welcomed us to the inn. In fact, all the dogs of the village were St. Bernard-size, and they must all have been related, because they closely resembled one another. Fortunately, they were good-natured.

On our way into the village we had passed many homes with exceedingly large wood piles. We understood their importance as the heat from the crackling fire allowed us to take off our multiple outer layers and sit comfortably in the stone cellar of our inn, the Basoteva House, a renovated stone home, with huge wooden beams built in 1861.  In the past, this lower level served as the barn area for farm animals; now it’s the kitchen, bar, and dining area.  Rakia was offered and accepted. Cheers! IMG_9765Bulgarians fleeing religious persecution and the forced conversion policies of the Ottoman Empire sought refuge in the rugged Rhodope mountains and established Kovachevitsa in 1656.  Agriculture and stockbreeding in the area thrived during the 1800s and the homes still standing in the village date from that time.  The tall stone homes of Kovachevitsa are stunning and unique in an organic way.

The three- and four-story homes are built from locally quarried stone using no mortar.  Even, layered flat stones are used for the roofs.  The natural construction materials blended the village almost seamlessly into the mountainous surrounding environment.  With alleys so narrow and the homes so close together, it’s said you can walk the entire length of the village along the rooftops.IMG_9851At breakfast the next morning Google Translate nicely bridged our communications barrier with the innkeeper’s wife.  Loading the Cyrillic keyboard into the app for our hostess to use, Donna’s phone was passed back and forth repeatedly during a lively conversation about family, each other’s lives, the village and our travels.  Our hosts’ children live with their grandparents in one of the larger towns off the mountain as there isn’t a school in the village anymore.  IMG_9966Most of the young families have moved away to find work, leaving only 28 year-round residents looking after the village till the tourist season starts.   Strolling under blossoming elderberry trees, we had the narrow lanes to ourselves as we worked our way towards St. Nikolas Church.

Built in 1847, the interior of this Bulgarian Orthodox country church was beautiful with its ornate altar, detailed columns and painted ceiling. It too had a large woodpile to feed the woodstove in the sanctuary. IMG_9879On the way back to our inn we stopped to admire the woolen creations knitted by a lone street vendor with a toothless smile who was bundled under layers of clothing to ward off the mountain chill.  Her prospects for a profitable day seemed slim as the street was nearly deserted.  When we expressed interest in only one pair of socks, she assertively pantomimed that we needed more.  Looking up from readying our payment we could only smile and chuckle when we found she had filled our bag with two extra pairs of socks. They were well made and a bargain, so we caved to her sales pressure. I’m wearing a pair now as I write this, and my toes are happy we she insisted. I wouldn’t have been surprised if we were her only sale of the day.

The next morning our hostess with smiles and hugs gifted us a jar of homemade elderberry jam to enjoy back in Sofia.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

 

Bulgaria: Beautiful and Mysterious

The lyrics to the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR “played through my mind as the wing of our plane dipped to reveal an early Spring landscape blanketing the countryside, with fresh shades of vibrant greens, as we were about to land in Sofia.  The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989 and Bulgaria, a Soviet satellite country, ousted their communist party at the same time. But I’m a child of the cold war and Eastern Europe seemed as exotic and as full of mystery as the lost kingdom of Tibet, and the Beatles’ tune stuck.IMG_5115-2In the airport, at the tourist information kiosk, multiple large screen tv’s played flashy videos promoting Bulgaria’s culture, tourism, and natural beauty.  We asked the woman staffing the desk for a map of Sofia and directions on how to transfer into the city.  “Follow the line,” she snapped. Not fully understanding I asked again. “Follow the line!” she barked firmly a second time. She scowled in the direction of the arrows painted on the floor and turned away. Her previous career, I’m speculating, was a prison guard in the now closed gulags.  She was obviously better suited commanding prisoners to “assume the position” than to being the first friendly face welcoming visitors to her country.  I’m sure she was hiding handcuffs and would have used them if I asked another question.  But that’s how it was, one day you’re communist and the next day you’re taking customer service courses and trying to embrace a free market economy.  And for some the promise of a better life hasn’t been realized.  Later, one of our hosts would express, “some folks prefer the old way, they’re still communists.” “Come and keep your comrade warm,” another refrain from the Beatles song, didn’t ring true.  We weren’t feeling the love just yet.  Aside from that rocky start, we had very enjoyable time in Bulgaria. IMG_0200The line led to a modern subway station adjacent to the airport terminal and for 1.60 BGN, about 90¢ USD, we rode theM2 line past sad remnants of soviet era block housing, before it descended deeply underground, for a twenty minute ride to the National Palace of Culture station.  IMG_1974We emerged onto the pedestrian only Vitosha Boulevard filled with folks enjoying a warm Spring day and an incredible vista of Vitosha Mountain towering over the city.  Inviting outdoor cafes lined the street and we quickly chose which one we’d return to after meeting our Airbnb host.  We stayed on Knyaz Boris just two blocks parallel to Vitosha Boulevard and as majestic as the pedestrian mall was, the side streets, though tree lined and harboring small shops and restaurants, were slightly dismaying with wanton graffiti tags on every apartment building door and utility box.  There was a lack of pride in ownership. IMG_5982 The idea that’s it’s not my responsibility is a leftover from the communist era, when the government owned and was responsible for everything.  The front door to our building was no different, but our third-floor walkup apartment was an oasis with a sun-drenched living room and tiny balcony that we would call home for a month.  And to our delight, but to our waistlines’ detriment, there was a baklava bakery across the street! img_428236950-2.jpgLong at the crossroads of expanding empires, Bulgaria has had a contentious past with Thracian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and communist influences.  The First Bulgarian Empire, 681-1018, has been deemed the Golden Age of Bulgarian Culture, with the adoption of Christianity as the official religion in 865 and the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet.  Independent for only short periods of time during the medieval age, the National Revival period between 1762-1878 brought Bulgaria to finally throw off the yoke of Ottoman domination that had lasted from 1396.  Sadly, there were only six decades of self-government before the proud people of Bulgaria became a satellite regime of communist Russia at the end of WWII and fell behind the Iron Curtain.IMG_2015Today Sofia is transforming itself into one of the most beautiful, cosmopolitan cites in Europe with its pedestrian malls, extensive park system and tram lines that weave throughout the city.  But the past is always present and just around the corner in Sofia.  Walking north along Vitosha past the end of the pedestrian mall there is a three block stretch that displays a vast stretch of that history on the way to the Central Market Hall, where we were headed to stock our pantry.  We got sidetracked.IMG_5796Seven millennia ago, put down the first foundations of what we now call Sofia. The construction of Sofia’s modern subway system in the 1990’s revealed multiple layers of antiquity and many of the amazing artifacts unearthed are displayed, in museum cases, on the subway platforms in the Serdika station and National Archeology Museum nearby.

This is ground zero for history in Sofia as so many interesting sites are nearby.  Some larger stone columns and decorative capitals discovered have been placed in the Doctors’ Garden near Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski.IMG_6334A tram passed by quietly as we approached St Nedelya Church, surrounded by trees in a small plaza.  The 19th century structure in front of us replaced a wooden structure that dated to the 10th century.  The inside of the domed church is spectacular with religious murals covering every surface. IMG_5757 Tragically in a 1925 bombing, the Bulgarian Communist Party attempted to kill the King of Bulgaria and other members of the government who were attending a funeral at this church – one hundred-fifty people died, and the cathedral’s dome was razed.  Excavations behind the church in 2015 uncovered early ruins and a treasure of 3,000 Roman silver coins from the 2nd century AD. IMG_2811

The Church of St. Petka stands in the center of Sofia adjacent to the Serdika Metro Station.  Built during Ottoman rule in the 14th century, its entrance was placed below ground level, so that the church’s total height did not exceed that of a cavalry soldier on horseback.  This was an odd condition the Ottomans had imposed on the construction of churches at the time.   From the entrance of the church you can see the archeological excavation of an old Roman road and the buildings that lined it, complete with mosaic floors and plumbing.IMG_5930 It ends just short of Banya Bashi, an Ottoman mosque built in the 16th century.  The towering statue of St. Sofia is also visible just beyond the subway station.  Ancient walls found during the renovation of the Central Market Hall can also be seen in the lower level of that building.IMG_5763Nearby the oldest building in Sofia, the Church of Saint George, built by the Romans in the 4th century, has early Christian frescoes which were painted over by the Ottomans when it was used as a mosque, but they were rediscovered in the 1900s and restored.   It stands surrounded by modern buildings in a courtyard behind the President of the Republic of Bulgaria building, within earshot of the Changing of the Guard.

Across town, our journey back through history continued at St. Sophia Church.  During the reign of Emperor Justinian, when Bulgaria was part of the Byzantine Empire, the cathedral we see today was built atop the ruins of a smaller 4th century church that was centered in an ancient necropolis. Many of Sofia’s elite found their final resting place in the church’s crypt.  Early Christian frescoes gracing the interior were destroyed and minarets were added when the Ottomans converted it to a mosque in the 16th century.  The minarets and some walls collapsed during the 1858 earthquake and the mosque was abandoned due to the extensive damage, left to be used as a warehouse until the early 1900s when restoration began.  Today its cavernous interior, revealing its amazing brick construction and catacombs with ancient mosaic floors and tombs can be toured.  In the park in front of the cathedral The Sveta Sofia Underground Museum Necropolis has a fascinating display of discoveries from the area surrounding the church.

More recently the Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski, standing adjacent to St. Sofia, was designed in 1884 to commemorate all the brave Bulgarian and Russian soldiers that died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and freed Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. However, the building was delayed repeatedly due to regional conflicts and not finished until 1924.  Its magnificent interior features gilded domes, chandeliers from Munich, Brazilian onyx, Indian alabaster, Italian marble and walls covered with beautiful iconography. It is the most important orthodox church in Bulgaria. IMG_1957 IMG_7803In the crypt of the cathedral a small, state of the art museum showcases the development of Bulgarian orthodox iconography over the centuries. img_7836.jpgNearby, the five gilded spires of the Russian Church, officially known as the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker, can be seen from the steps of Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski.  Built in 1914 on the site of a mosque that was torn down after the liberation of Bulgaria, it served has the official church for the Russian Embassy and the Russian community in Sofia.  The religious murals that cover the interior of the church were created by Vasily Perminov’s team of talented icon painters, who were also responsible for the iconography in Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski.  Darkened by decades of candle smoke, the fresco paintings in the dome were restored in 2014.

In an outlying area, far from the city center, the Museum of Socialist Art displays forty-five years (1944-1989) of socialist themed art from the former People’s Republic of Bulgaria, a not too distant communist past that has been collected from every town across the country.  Most impressive is the statue park with monumental sculptures of Lenin, Stalin, Che Guevara, along with statues of farm workers and industrial laborers celebrating the communal.  At the time of its inauguration Georgi Lozanov, a noted Bulgarian educator, said, “Bulgaria must have a museum of communism that will tell new generations the story of a period that should never again become reality.”

Closer in town, the National Museum of Military History displays an array of deadly modern weaponry, jets, tanks and missile launchers that are slowly rusting away. Also included is a noble little Trabant 601 automobile, the Soviet equivalent to the Volkswagen Beetle, the significance of which we’re not sure.IMG_1866In 2001 an early Christian mausoleum was unearthed near the American Embassy and it’s fantastic that things are still being discovered in 2019.

It seems you can’t build or conduct any street repairs in Sofia without uncovering an ancient layer of history.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

 

365 Days on The Road – Our First Year as Nomads

“It’s hell, I tell you!” My heart sank. I only regained my composure and burst into laughter when I turned to see a wry smile across Donna’s face and heard, “I only have three pairs of shoes with me.” Dusty after a full day of game drives, we were sitting on the porch of a small cottage sipping wine in the middle of Schotia, a 1600 hectare (4000 acre) private game reserve, just outside of Port Elizabeth on the Eastern Cape of South Africa, reminiscing about our first nomadic year.  Darkness covered the countryside early in June, the beginning of South Africa’s winter season.  Our guide had just lit the oil lamps a few minutes earlier, handed us a walkie-talkie and said, “Use this to call the owner if there’s an emergency, you’re the only folks here tonight.’’ There were no other lights around except for the moon.  The bush has a life of its own and sounded totally different in the darkness. The owner lived somewhere on the other side of this vast reserve.

We’ve had a great year, but there have been some challenges along the way:  An extremely close encounter with an aggressive bull sea lion and seas rough enough to shake a martini in the Galapagos Islands; playing chicken with chicken-buses in the Ecuadorian Andes on serpentine roads, without guard rails, more suitable for Humvees than tiny sedans. Running into the courtyard of our Airbnb in Cuenca half naked when we felt our first earthquake.  Watching a major eruption of Volcan Fuego, only 9 miles away, from our rooftop in Antigua, Guatemala, and surviving the city’s pyrotechnic Christmas season, which at times can resemble a war zone.  Endured an open coconut-taxi ride during a torrential rain in Cuba while searching for Cuban cigars; pickpockets in Lisbon; tourist information officials in Bulgaria who were better suited to working in a gulag – “FOLLOW THE LINE!!” – than greeting visitors to their beautiful country.  Plus, a husband who snores.

And through all that my gal only wants an extra pair of shoes!  I’ve married the right woman.

We didn’t plan on being the only folks at the game reserve during the middle of the week, but that’s one of the benefits of off-season travel.  Following spring-like conditions around the globe, we’ve been able to avoid hot, humid weather and the crowds.  Plus, the prices are lower for hotels and Airbnb’s. Our traveling budget is intact, so we haven’t had to resort to smuggling, selling blood or that extra kidney.IMG_7406When we retired early, a year ago, we had to choose health insurance or travel.  We made the decision to go without U.S. health insurance, because it’s too damn unaffordable and wouldn’t cover us outside the U.S. anyway.  We chose travel insurance instead, with medical evacuation, and we pay out of pocket for wellness care and dentistry.  Our two years on the road will bridge us until age 65 when we qualify for Medicare.  And it’s surprising how affordable excellent healthcare is in other countries.  We’ve paid $25.00 for an emergency room visit to a private hospital and $5.00 for the prescriptions in Ecuador to treat high altitude sickness.  Our travel insurance paid fully for a visit to an ENT specialist in Lisbon to treat a persistent sinus infection.  I’ve visited dentists in Cuenca, Ecuador for a tooth extraction and bridge; Sofia, Bulgaria for a broken filling; and Cape Town, South Africa for a root canal.  The care has been excellent and extremely inexpensive compared to pricing in the United States.  Though when we are in the United States travel insurance only covers us if we are one hundred miles away from our previous home in Pennsylvania.IMG_0594We plan on purchasing a home when we return to the United States. Right now, though, our budget is plus/minus $1000.00 per month for an apartment.  One thousand per month for housing goes much further overseas than in the states and allows us to live in unique and interesting locales.

The regional cuisine everywhere has been wonderful.  Food is a large part of any travel budget and to keep our expenses down we cook in quite a bit.  We enjoy the experience of shopping like a local and buying different fruits, vegetables and “oh, the breads.”  We’ve purchased meat and chicken from street vendors and learned to arrive early in the morning while the day is still cool to avoid the flies.  Our dieting regime of walk a little then café, walk a little more then café, seems to be working.  We monitor our physical activity with our phone’s health app. Though after a day bouncing through the bush in a Land Rover it credited us with climbing 170 flights of stairs.  No fools we – we ordered two desserts that night.IMG_3737[35074]Restaurants have been refreshingly inexpensive with most meals costing half or less for what you would pay in the states for something similar.   In 99% of the places we’ve dined we haven’t experienced tourist pricing and it’s wonderful.  We did get extremely gouged at a historic café in Porto, Portugal, which wouldn’t have been so bad, but the coffees and pastries were tasteless.  Lamb, fish, oysters and ostrich, pricey things at home, are now on our shopping list.  The wines in Portugal and South Africa are very good.IMG_7034We’ve rented cars in Ecuador, Guatemala, Portugal, Bulgaria and South Africa. Near the Schist villages in the mountains of central Portugal we gave a lift to two hikers, who were exhausted from a long trek without water.  We ended up having a delightful afternoon and lunch with them.  Aside from the deeply rutted dirt roads of the Andes Mountain range in Ecuador, South Africa with its driving on the left has proven to be the most difficult.  We find that a pilot plus navigator system works well, with the latter reminding the pilot to stay left and make very wide right-hand turns.  Interesting traffic signs dot the roads here: Caution Tortoise and Baboons Share this Road Too, Watch for Stray Cattle.  I chuckled to myself when I passed a sign that I thought said Zebras Humping, only to realize a moment later it was a speed bump when I hit it at a pretty good clip.  Caution High Winds – Parents Hold Your Children Firmly by the Hand as there is Mortal Danger of Them Blowing Off, greeted us in the parking lot of a scenic and windy overlook.  South Africa has a well deployed and concealed electronic camera system and we’ve received our first notice of a traffic violation from the rental car company. 

Originally, we were going to spent April and May pet sitting in England, then June, July and August doing two different Workaway assignments, in exchange for free housing in France, in order to budget some extra funds for our push into Africa.  On short notice our first pet sit in England fell through. Next, Donna was sick for several weeks and I fell three times on the same arm, severely bruising it.  With deep introspection we realized we’re not as young as we wish anymore and cancelled our working assignments.  Gardning at a 14th century chateau sounded wonderful, but not in the record 114F heat that France recently experienced.So, we quickly reworked our plans and ended up in of all places Bulgaria, (more on that in future blogs,) for a month, before flying down to Cape Town.  At the end of August, we head to Victoria Falls, bordering Zimbabwe and Botswana, for a few days before flying to Ethiopia to visit the indigenous tribes of the Southern Omo Valley, and the Rock Churches of Lalibela.  Montenegro and Italy will host us until Christmas when we’ll return to the states to celebrate it with our family.  Our route for 2020 hasn’t been determined yet.

When shopping for souvenirs we try to buy directly from local craftspeople and have learned that if an item is very inexpensive it was probably made in China.  Cheap Chinese imports are undercutting the livelihoods of many local craftspeople around the world.  I don’t want my tourist dollars inadvertently supporting rich Chinese businessmen who purchase poached rhino horn for use in folk remedies.  China’s traditional medicine practitioners are the only market for poached rhino horn.  Three rhinos are killed every day to support this illicit trade and China needs to stop turning a blind eye to it.  In Cuba we witnessed widespread poverty, the effects of a failed communist state.  Tourists dollars greatly help aspiring entrepreneurs and local economies grow.  Why the U.S. is restricting travel again to Cuba is beyond me.  We conduct business with China, forgetting its reprehensible human rights record, but not Cuba only ninety miles from Miami. Go figure.

Many of our most memorable moments have been conversations around communal dining tables sharing stories, adventures and tips with inn keepers, guides and fellow travelers.  In many of the places we’ve been “we don’t get many Americans here” is a common refrain. Travel – it’s good for the soul and opens a window of empathy that you can’t find sitting in an armchair watching the nightly news.

Till next time,

Craig – Suitcase #2

Now for a different perspective on our nomadic year check out Suitcase #1, Donna’s blog at: https://bornwithgypsyshoes.com/2019/07/02/a-look-back-one-year-of-being-homeless-jobless-and-uninsured/

P.S. The 2suitcasesfor2years blogs run about 8 weeks behind our actual travel dates.  You can also follow 2suitcasesfor2years on Instagram for more great photography.

Back Roads – Marvão to Monsanto – Discovering the Portuguese Frontier

Watching a dreamy sunrise cast the day’s first light on the castle walls, we descended into a misty valley just awakening.  Sheep filled the road as a shepherd led his flock through a gate onto the steep slope below Castelo Marvão.  For how many centuries has this daily ritual been happening?  Layers of history abound along the remote Portuguese frontier with Spain, and visual remnants of it are around every twist in the lane.  At the foot of Marvão, the village of Portagem takes its name from an old toll bridge over the River Sever that was the entry point into Portugal for Jews expelled from Spain at the start of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. If they couldn’t pay the toll they stayed in a refugee camp along the border.IMG_8356Monsanto, a village where the homes are built under, between or above gigantic boulders was our day’s main destination, 134 km (83 miles) away, leaving us plenty of time for whims.  And if we still had energy and gas, we’d do a quick border crossing into Spain, just because we were so close and have never been, before backtracking to spend the night in Castelo Branco.  Because it looked so beautiful and intriguing, we made a brief detour into the small town of Castelo de Vide, just a few miles from Marvão.IMG_8264This quaint village sits on a gently sloping hill with ancient lanes worthy of exploration that will have to wait until our return to the Alentejo region. It too has a castle, built in 1310 by the order of King Dom Dinis, but the city itself was not walled.  Just outside Castelo de Vide we spotted a small chapel sitting high on a ridge. “Oh, let’s go.” Seeing a small sign, we braked and did a quick U-turn which led us up a sharp set of switch backs through a forested landscape.  Parking under a canopy of old growth cork trees, we climbed a steep staircase to Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Penha and were rewarded with a spectacular view of Castelo de Vide and the surrounding countryside below as hawks soared above us. Far away to the southeast the silhouette of Castelo Marvão rode the horizon..We learned that the chapel was built in the early 16th century in commemoration of a miracle: Our Lady protected a shepherd from robbery by turning day into night on the mountain, thus foiling the plot. This miracle was witnessed by the villagers of Castelo de Vide far below, who then constructed this chapel upon the mountain.

A little farther down the road an ancient, intricately paved pathway called the Calçada Medieval crosses the way.  This footpath dates to the 12th century and is believed to follow an older Roman road that was the shortest walking distance between Castelo de Vide and Portalegre, 17.2km or 10.5 miles away.IMG_8299Huge rocks piled on top of each other resembled man-made megalithic monuments at the entrance to a quarry along our route.  The owner perhaps got his inspiration from the numerous megalithic sites in the Alentejo area.IMG_8434Monsanto rises abruptly from the surrounding plains like a newly emerging volcano breaking through the crust of the earth and spewing huge boulders the size of small cottages atop one another in its tumultuous birth.  This unique and dramatic landscape has provided shelter since the Early Stone Age, and inhabitants incorporated these huge rocks into their dwellings and animal shelters.  In 1165 King Afonso gave the pile of rocks to the Knights Templar with the decree to keep the reconquered city in Christian hands.  As the Templars did wherever they went, they quickly set about building a castle at the summit.  Today, like so many other small villages in Portugal the place is nearly deserted, its youth moving to Lisbon or across the European Union for better opportunities.  Restaurants, small inns, day trippers and retirees from the cold of northern Europe now fill the void.  We paced ourselves for the steep climb to the castle, stopping often to take photos or investigate a narrower lane that veered off to one side or the other.  Oddly, some brave locals would drive their cars up the exceedingly narrow, cobbled lane to get as close to their homes as possible, drop off their parcels and then back-up all the way downhill as there wasn’t any room to turn around. Amazingly, it appears they never scratched their cars.

Just before reaching the castle the ruins of Capela de São Miguel can be seen jutting above a low ridge.  This small chapel is surrounded by graves, all facing east, chiseled into the granite rock.  The lids to the tombs and the bodies inside are long gone, but the clearly human shape of these stone coffins is still visible.  There are many hiking options available at this point, so be sure to bring plenty of water.  Watching our footsteps, we slowly descended the hill back into town.  Returning to the village it was easier to spot a number of abandoned, dilapidated dwellings with collapsed roofs.  These are the remnants of Portugal’s antiquated inheritance laws, where nothing can be done with a property until all the beneficiaries agree. This results in homes slowly deteriorating until the roofs and walls collapse.  It’s sad to see a once charming stone home in ruins.

With the sun still high in the sky we decided to make our run to the border and set our feet in Spain, if only for a few minutes.  Set back from the main road, the spire of Idanha-a-Velha’s cathedral caught our attention.  The cathedral has been converted into a museum containing a large collection of Roman epigraphs, inscriptions in stone, found in the area, but unfortunately it was closed mid-week in March.  One of the oldest villages in Portugal with a recorded history that is dated to 16 AD, it has been occupied by Celts, Romans, Visigoths, and Arabs. In contrast with most other early towns in the region Idanha-a-Velha does not occupy any high ground for defense; its walls rise suddenly from flat terrain. Remnants of its wide defensive wall and a roman era bridge across the Rio Ponsul can still be walked on. The mortar-less stonework of the buildings here is admirable for its precision and beauty. Today it’s a charming backwater with the feel of a large fortified villa instead of a small town that once had a population in the thousands. The day we stopped, a woman hanging laundry to dry, an elderly gentleman sleeping on some stairs in the sun, taking his siesta, and storks building their nests were the only signs of life.

The hills flanking the road to Segura were covered with olive groves, their silver green leaves twirling in a light breeze, creating multiple shades of green undulating across the countryside like waves rushing onto a beach.  The modern Ponte Romana de Segura now crosses the Rio Erges, a tributary of the Tagus River, where a Roman bridge once stood.  We made it to Spain! And nobody gave a hoot, but us. As part of the European Union there was no border control post between the two countries. Hey, we’re old school and like those passport stamps.  We parked in Spain and walked back to the center of the span for photos by the plaque demarcating the border between the two countries with Segura sitting atop its hill in the background.

A bell tower and a small park with a panoramic view of the border now dominates the high ground in Segura, its castle battlements dismantled long ago and used to build other structures.  Only a pensioner with his dogs shared the view with us.  Twelve hundred people once called Segura home in its heyday in the 1950’s. Today, because it is so far away from everything, the village has a population that hovers around 100 souls.IMG_8675We arrived in Castelo Branco just in time to watch the sunset from the miradouro above the city.  Located just below the overlook, TRYP Colina Do Castelo Hotel was our home for two nights.  https://www.trypcolinacastelo.com/  Business style hotels aren’t our first choice for accommodations, but with its free parking and excellent location we were sold on it.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

Back Roads – Lisbon to Marvão

“Set it to avoid toll roads?” “Yep.” And with that our mapping app committed us to back roads for our journey to the Portuguese frontier. The medieval hilltop citadel of Marvão,  located along the border with Spain, was our day’s destination.  We had just wrapped up a splendid month in Lisbon, but were looking forward to a fifteen-day road trip exploring the smaller villages of the Portuguese countryside, between Marvão to the east of Lisbon and Porto to the north.IMG_7889Leaving Lisbon behind, we crossed the graceful Vasco da Gama suspension bridge spanning the Tagus River.  Within minutes we entered a gently rolling landscape of cork, olive and chestnut orchards dotted with sheep grazing in the shade beneath the trees.  Along the roads, storks were building their nests atop powerline towers or the chimneys of abandoned houses.  These stunning birds, having just completed their seasonal migration north from Africa, are always a joy to watch and we interpreted their sighting as a sign of good fortune ahead.  Heads turned as we passed through small farming towns more used to seeing the twice daily bus or farm tractors rumbling along than unfamiliar tourists cruising through.  Each village, regardless of how small, had a café, which was the center of activity.  Short on atmosphere, they offered espresso or cappuccino, just as good as in Lisbon, along with a limited selection of sandwiches and pastries. 

Crossing the Ribeira de Seda on a high modern overpass, we spotted a large old stone bridge below.  The next exit led us down to Ponte de Vila Formosa, an impressive 2,000-year-old Roman bridge with six arches dating to the 1st century CE.  This 330-foot span was once a vital crossing on the Roman road linking Lisbon to Mérida, Spain.  Today it’s one of the best-preserved examples of Roman engineering remaining in Portugal.  Closer to Marvão is a one arch bridge built in 1494, and not nearly as elegant or substantial as the Ponte de Vila Formosa. We wondered how a royal carriage ever crossed it safely.IMG_6849Typically, we double the amount of time it’s suggested to get to our destination to account for coffee, lunch breaks and photo ops.  We drive, we stop, jump out for snaps, make U-turns and so on.  As the sun lowers in the afternoon sky, “We’ll never get there if you stop every 100 yards to take pictures!” is often voiced from the navigator’s seat.

A serpentine road twisted up the side of the 3,000-foot-tall butte, occasionally offering a glimpse of our formidable destination high above.  Driving through the slender entrance gate, the portal narrowed to the point where we had to pull the mirrors in.  It seemed the further we drove uphill the farther time receded. By the time we reached the summit of the walled village and checked in at Dom Dinis, a small boutique hotel, the golden hour was in full glory and bathed the countryside in a warm glow.IMG_8053The cold wind chilled us to our bones, but we found warmth by the fireplace in the tavern across from our inn.  After dinner, as we stood on the ramparts behind our hotel, the darkness offered us a view of the stunning star-filled sky above and the twinkle of village lights far below.  With a stiff breeze in our faces, we felt like we were flying. The glorious sunrise the next morning cast a beautiful light on the panoramic view of the flat plains that run all the way into Spain, while the rugged mountains and valleys to the west stayed covered in an early morning mist. 

Marvão was important as a strategic stronghold since the ninth century, when the Moors first possessed it, and subsequently improved and expanded upon it over the centuries when the Kings of Portugal controlled it.  The fortress was sacked and retaken many times over the years. Today after extensive restoration it’s possible to walk all the way around the lower town atop the ramparts that encircle it. The castle walls jut from the steep sides of this granite monolith, like the bow of a ship breaking a huge wave.  Within its battlements, storage rooms and an impressively large rainwater cistern helped sustain the town folks when under siege.  As the last line of defense, the entrance to the castle’s tall keep was high above the courtyard and accessible only by crossing a gang plank which was drawn inside for security. 

Outside the castle, the hilltop village is wonderful to wander around. It reveals formal garden, narrow lanes and arched passageways that lead to whitewashed houses with decorative, Manueline windows, wrought iron balconies, ancient doors and red tiled roofs. 

One of the town’s old churches, Igreja de Santa Maria, has been converted into a civic museum with interesting displays explaining the history of the area. 

Fortunately, in 2017 Marvão requested to be removed from the UNESCO tentative site list, so it isn’t on the bucket list of busloads of day tourists from Lisbon.  At one time Marvão was home to 3,000 residents, but today there are fewer than one hundred full time residents living within its walls. We had the village practically to ourselves in mid-March.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

Obidos: A Walled Village and Drive-Through Chapels

IMG_4743We had spent a wonderful day cruising from Aveiro to Nazare, but now twilight was fast turning to darkness as we drove along an extremely narrow lane at the base of the formidable fortress wall that encircled Obidos.  We had arrived at our hotel Casa das Senhoras Rainhas according to our GPS, but we hadn’t.  We were on the outside of the walls, wondering like ancient invaders how to get in.IMG_4603Admittingly Donna is the more accomplished linguist of the two of us.  I according to my loved one have been known to torture a language.  So, she eagerly sought advice from the only person we had passed.  From a short distance away, I watched the conversation unfold with the gentleman flailing his arms every which way for what seemed an inordinate amount of time. IMG_4760 Smiling, Donna returned to the car.  “About the only thing I got from that was we should continue following the lane until the next hole in the wall. He was very insistent about that.” “Did he know the hotel?” I asked.  “Never heard of it, but I think he was intoxicated! My luck,” she laughed.  The lane narrowed even more as we drove forward.  Finally, there was an ancient portal, the size of a single door, through the wall that led to a short set of steps.  Abandoning our car for few minutes we climbed the stairs to an inner lane in search of our hotel.  After we finally found the place, the receptionist explained to continue driving along the wall until you reach an old city gate, enter there and follow the inner lane back to us and park anywhere you can.  OK, piece of cake now, we thought. IMG_4822Inhabited since the 4th century BC by the Lusitanos, then the Romans and Visigoths, the city wasn’t fortified until the 8th century by the Moors.  Bent entrances, with a quick turn and an additional, heavy inner gate were used in many Arab fortifications.  In peacetime they were easy to navigate with pack animals, and during sieges provided a killing zone for the defenders of the city.  Remember, these bent gates were built long before cars were envisioned.  Obidos had two of them and tonight we had to navigate through one.  Porta do Vale ou Senhora da Graça was a drive through chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Grace.  In 1727 the old gate was renovated into an oratory chapel with sacristy, altarpiece, gallery, choir, and chancel by a local magistrate to commemorate his daughter’s death.   You actually transit through the nave to reach the interior street.  The gate was narrow, and it required a sharp k-turn just to line the car up to approach it correctly.  Donna was driving and I hopped out to judge just how much room we had around the car.  Driving up a slight slope on flagstones worn smooth from centuries of travelers, the tires spun with no traction as the car got halfway through the gate.  Backing-up and then gunning the car forward through the gate Donna only had the length of our Fiat 500 to turn sharply right and exit the inner gate.  It was do-able but nerve-wracking.

A few minutes later our bags were in our lovely room.  As in Aveiro “Parking Available” on the hotel website translated to driver be wary, or creativity needed to park.  We thought we had the perfect spot right in front of the hotel, but the receptionist insisted we were pinching the road too much and would be sorry.  Reversing down a narrow, dimly lit lane is never a good idea, so we thought a quick trip around the block was a better idea. I waved as Donna roared away into the darkness, gone.  Minutes passed, finally headlights gleamed off the flagstones.  “That was fun!” she grinned as she pulled the mirrors in and parked one side of the car as close to a building as possible, one block shy of our hotel. IMG_4847With only two main lanes that ran the length of village, interconnected by a labyrinth of stairs and smaller alleys, Obidos was the perfect size, only slightly larger than Marvao, to explore for two days and relax before driving back to the airport in Lisbon for our flight to Sofia, Bulgaria. IMG_5245The next morning, enjoying deserted lanes lined with flowering wisteria, calla lilies, and other interesting details we weaved our way to the Castelo de Óbidos  to enjoy views of the village and surrounding landscape from its strategic position.  This once formidable, medieval castle was transformed into Portugal’s first upscale, tourist pousada in 1953 and has been attracting discerning travelers ever since.  Whitewashed homes with brightly painted doors and window trim held up the ubiquitous red tiled roofs that appeared to fill the village below us. Mostly gentrified now, there are still a spackling of ancient dwellings waiting for TLC that give Obidos a wonderful character.

After scampering about on the ramparts for a while we headed back into the village.  The wonderful aroma of fresh baked bread drifted from Capinha d’Óbidos, as we walked along Rua Direita, and drew us right into a small storefront where the baker was grating lemon zest into a bowl of dough. She kneaded it and then put it aside to rise.  Behind her another baker slid fresh loaves of bread from a wood-fired brick oven to cool.  The breads and coffees here were divine!

Continuing along we explored the few shops that were open this early in March and encountered one of the best street performers we’ve seen so far.  A woman posing as a statue in silver makeup, sitting atop a stone wall, daintily holding a silver umbrella as a sunshade, looked like a perfectly cast statue placed in an ideal setting.  Her performance was sublime. IMG_4928We eventually made our way through the main gate of the walled city.  Porta da Vila de Óbidos is another bent entrance that did double duty as a chapel to Nossa Senhora da Piedade, the Virgin Mary, patron of the village.  Be sure to look up as you walk through, as Azulejos tiles from the 1700’s line the interior balcony.IMG_5419Across the street we walked below remnants of a three-kilometer-long aqueduct built in the 16th century to supply water to the fortress. IMG_5427Dinner that night was a simple meal of bread, cheese and local sausages cooked uniquely on a ceramic hibachi, fueled with grappa, placed on our table at Bar Ibn Errik Rex.  As flames danced from our mini grill, the waiter would return to our table occasionally and turn the sausages to ensure their perfection.  It was an entertaining evening.  A few good Portuguese beers helped.img_5313.jpgWith our GPS App still set to avoid toll roads, we drove through the Porta da Vila de Óbidos and headed towards Lisbon, less than two hours away if we didn’t stop.  But, if you’ve been following our blog you’ll know that’s nearly impossible, there is always a quick glimpse of something that calls for a detour.IMG_5449Torres Vedras with its aptly named citadel caught our eye.  With a historical time-line similar to Obidos, the hilltop in the old historic district was continually fortified against waves of early invaders.  Knowing a good piece of real estate when they saw it, the castle was seized during the Christian reconquest in 1148 and used by a succession of Portuguese Kings until it was heavily damaged in the catastrophic 1755 earthquake that hit central Portugal and Lisbon.  Built just after the reconquest, Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo stands just below the castle walls.  The church’s bell cast in the 16th century continues to ring today.

On a ridge above the city several ancient windmills sat amidst a new residential neighborhood.  It was an interesting vantage point from which to witness the new suburban sprawl radiating from the old historic district into the surrounding countryside.img_5564.jpgAlong the Sizandro River on the outskirts of town, an impressive two-kilometer stretch of a 16th century aqueduct with double arches still stands.  Driving under the aqueduct we followed the river south along the R374.  The high-density new developments around Torres Vedras quickly gave way to a landscape of vineyards and pastures.  Finding a restaurant for a late lunch, though, didn’t seem promising along this rural stretch of road, dotted with the occasional roadside café with a farm tractor parked out front, until we caught a quick peripheral glimpse of a larger establishment, across a small bridge, down a side lane.  It would take another mile before we could find a suitable place to perform a U-turn.  With nothing else around for miles Churrasqueira do Oeste is definitely a destination restaurant.  This rustic, family run restaurant with its friendly staff served a wonderful variety of fresh seafood and meat dishes at amazingly affordable prices.  (Having a restaurant do both well is not uncommon here, considering the close proximity of the ocean.) Mixed grilled seafood and grilled meats along with a good local wine, dessert and of course café sated our appetites.  It seemed fitting that we unexpectantly lucked upon this great find far off the beaten path on our last day.  Portugal was a fantastic country to explore.  We will miss it but hope to return in the future to breath its air and enjoy its wine again.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Porto – Part 3: Following a Gilded Path to Foz

All week long the gate to Capela dos Alfaiates had been locked with no sign of activity, whenever we passed.  This morning as I headed to our favorite pastelaria to secure breakfast, the gate and the doors of the church were opened wide.  Nothing unusual, just limited hours, I thought. As I opened the inner door to the sanctuary and turned, the sweet aroma of lilies was in the air.  And as my eyes adjusted to the light I suddenly faced a delicately shrouded open casket, by itself in a small elegant chapel.  I quickly left, embarrassed for intruding.  Outside the church nothing indicated that a funeral would begin.  It was not how I expected to start the day.IMG_2161Later that morning the courtyard of the church was filled with mourners as we walked to the Porto Cathedral, Sé do Porto.  Not far from the old towers and ramparts of Muralha Fernandina, the cathedral commands the highest point in Porto.  The building outwardly reflects Porto’s turbulent past, with crenels capping its massive shape, when it was the last point of refuge while the city was under siege.IMG_2235Building started in the 1100s, then continued over the centuries. The cathedral combines Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque features, like so many of the other churches in Porto.

It has a beautiful sanctuary and magnificent colonnaded cloisters lined with the blue and white Azulejo tiles along its walls.  The cathedral’s museum complex next door displays a fascinating wealth of ancient religious items.  IMG_2175Exiting the museum, the Pillory of Porto centers the vast plaza in front of the Cathedral.  Criminals once hung from hooks, still visible, on this graceful Manueline column.  It struck us as such a disturbing juxtaposition, this instrument of punishment and humiliation, prominent in front of the cathedral, constantly reminding the good citizens of Porto not to stray from a righteous path. Today tourists lounge on its steps and soak in the surrounding views of Porto.

Following steps, we descended towards the river to Chafariz do Pelicano, an elegant old 16th century public fountain built into one of the supporting walls of the cathedral’s plaza above.  Flanked by sculpted female figures, water pours from a hole in the pelican’s chest into a lower reservoir before flowing out of the mouths of carved faces. IMG_3737Narrow alleys spurred left and right off the steep stairways.  Taking one we came across a lavadouro público (communal laundry) that appeared to be recently rebuilt with new wash basins and roof.

No one was using it when we walked by, but drying laundry hung from the rafters.  The alley was a contrast of old and new.  At the street level modern galleries, boutiques and restaurants sporadically lined the flagstone lane, while above neighbors chatted effortlessly across its narrow width.  IMG_2955Eventually our route merged onto the quay near Fonte do Cubo, a modern sculpture installed upon the ruins of a 17th fountain by the late José Rodrigues, who made his home in Porto.  Behind the square a three-story high fountain covers one wall.  At its center is a 21st century statue of St John the Baptist, done in a primitive style, by João Cutileiro, another famous Portuguese sculptor.  Surrounded by lively, outdoor cafes and throngs of tourists, this is ground zero for the Ribeira waterfront.IMG_3716Walking past the Museu do Vinho do Porto on Rua da Reboleira, we headed to Igreja Monumento de São Francisco, also known as the gold church, to check out its ornate, gilded interior and crypt.

The church sits atop a steep set of stairs that rise from Rua Nova da Alfândega, giving it a commanding view of the river.  Started by the Franciscans in the 13th century, what was once a small church to support their attached convent was expanded and reconfigured over time into the magnificent monument you see today.  Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical styles blend harmoniously to create an awe-inspiring sanctuary.  There is so much going on inside it’s difficult to decide where to look.  It was not always this overly ornate.

The Portuguese woodcarvers covered every inch of the interior with exuberant sculptures in the early 1700s and then an estimated 400 kilos, 880 pounds, of Brazilian gold dust was used to cover them.  The “Tree of Jesse,” a polychrome sculpture depicting the family tree of Jesus, is a notable example of the technique that is also widely used to decorate the walls. The extravagant display of wealth was too much for the poverty-stricken neighborhood surrounding the church and in protest it was closed for several years.  IMG_3189The church was plundered during the Napoleonic Invasions and used as a stable by French occupying forces.  Then later that century during the Portuguese Civil War the city was bombarded and the cloisters burnt to the ground, never to be rebuilt.  The large crypt under the church was the final resting spot for many of Porto’s famous and wealthy citizens and, as catacombs go, is worth a short visit.IMG_3645It was time for a change of pace. Being so close to the Atlantic Ocean we decided to take Tram Line 1, which conveniently had a stop in front of the cathedral, all the way out to the Foz district, where the mouth of the Douro River empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  There was a short queue waiting for the tram, but fortunately with the arrival of a second tram we able to snag a seat for the journey.

This is the longest tram route in the city and follows the serpentine riverfront for a rattling twenty minutes past a scenic array of Port warehouses, churches, shops, museums and discotheques, before traveling under the Ponte da Arrábida bridge and ending near the Felgueiras Lighthouse at Jardim do Passeio Alegre. IMG_3249 Just shy of our destination the route was blocked by a disabled truck on the tracks.  With no quick remedy in sight we decided to jump ship and head to lunch at the nearest restaurant, which happened to be in Jardim de Sobreiras, right next to our roadblockFuga Restaurante & BarFuga Restaurante & Bar with its outside deck was a perfect spot to enjoy some seafood and wine for lunch.

This part of Porto has a more relaxed atmosphere, without the multi-storied buildings of the historic center and significantly fewer tourists, which made it a nice reprieve.  After lunch we followed the pedestrian bike and footpath along the river into Jardim do Passeio Alegre and walked around its fountains before continuing to Felgueiras Lighthouse.  For thousands of years what lay beyond the western horizon was unknown and the curiosity about it would spur Portugal’s Age of Discovery.IMG_3325We used an Uber ride to head back to our apartment.  It was only slightly more expensive than our tram tickets would have been.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Portugal Road Trip – Along the Coast: Porto to Aveiro and Nazarene

We were just about to head out for afternoon to celebrate our last day in Porto at one of the seafood restaurants along the Foz oceanfront when there was a knock on the door. “Ola. Housekeeping.” “@#%&!”  With that abrupt surprise, we realized that we had misread our calendar.  Apologizing, we told the housekeeper we’d be packed in thirty minutes. IMG_3939And that’s how we started our drive to Aveiro, a revitalized old fishing port set back from the ocean on a lagoon with canals – a half day behind schedule.  Fortunately, Aveiro was only an hour’s drive away and we’d still have time to visit the Capela do Senhor da Pedra, a chapel built on an outcropping of rocks, at the surf’s edge in Miramar, just south of Porto.  Pagan rituals were once performed on these rocks, now a popular destination for romantic weddings.  Our timing was perfect for a walk along the beach at sunset.IMG_3920Night fully enveloped the streets by the time we arrived in Aveiro.  We always try to get to our hotels before dark, it’s just much easier finding hotels and street signs down dimly lit lanes.  We scored on our third loop around the block and found the obscure sign to our wonderful boutique hotel, high above us on the street corner.  Histórias Por Metro Quadrado, is an uniquely designed compact hotel, with refreshing contemporary rooms that are perfect for a short stay in the center of the city and very budget friendly.  We’ve found that “Parking Available” on hotel websites often means there is parking somewhere in the city – you must find it on your own.  After quizzing the receptionist, she assured us that the city of Aveiro was very tolerant of creative, overnight parking and our car would be ticket free until 9:00am, when we’d have to find a legal parking space. Reasonable enough.

By the time we re-parked the monthly Aveiro Antiques/Flea Market was in full swing.  Held every fourth Sunday, vendors set up along the canal by Praça do Peixe. It’s a pretty location, with a waterfront and colorful buildings reminiscent of Burano, Italy. IMG_3959Skippers readied their brightly painted Moliceiros boats for the day’s first tourists on Aveiro’s Central Canal as we sampled a variety of ovos moles, a traditional sweet pastry shaped as shells, fish or small boats at Padaria Ria Pão, across the street.  This recipe, developed centuries ago in the local convents, was the first Portuguese pastry to receive the coveted Protected Geographical Indication, awarded to recognize uniquely regional items, by the European Union.  IMG_4206

Tonight, we would lay our heads down inside the old walled city of Obidos. But first we’d have stops in Costa Nova and Nazaré, both on the coast.

Costa Nova is only minutes away from Aveiro, but what a world of difference.  City to beach, it’s surprising that the two co-exist in such close proximity.  Old traditional fishermen’s cottages brightly painted in varying striped patterns, to distinguish them easily in a fog, now share the dunes with large, contemporary beach homes that echo their designs. IMG_4343While the Algarve coast in southern Portugal gets the most hype with its azure waters and rock formations,  Portugal’s Silver Coast, the Costa de Prata, starting near Lisbon, runs north for nearly 150 uninterrupted miles to the Douro River in Porto.  Lightly developed, it’s a majestic stretch of wild, wide and flat sandy beaches and dunes that feels undiscovered and is worthy of further exploration.IMG_4458It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at Miradouro do Suberco towering 350 feet above Nazare’s beautiful, crescent shaped Praia da Nazaré beach.  Surprisingly, for such a beautiful spot we were able to find free parking nearby above the Nazare lighthouse.  The only caveat, an ominous sign warning that if our car some how managed to go over the cliff edge we would still be liable for the €25,000 wreckage removal.  You definitely need to know where reverse is on the stick shift here!  Some of the world’s tallest waves crash onto the rocks in front of the Nazare lighthouse between October and March.  Every year in November the Nazare Challenge attracts suicidal, thrill seeking surfers looking to ride the biggest waves. Thousands of onlookers line the hill above the action to watch their death-defying feats.  A record 80-foot wave was ridden in 2017 by Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa and outside the competition, in December 2018, a 100-foot tall monster was surfed by Tom Butler of the United Kingdom.  We can’t imagine the raw fury of those size waves. Unfortunately, the day we arrived the ocean was calm.

The intimate Ermida da Memória or Chapel of Our Lady of Nazaré stands next to the Miradouro do Suberco and as local legend goes was built by a thankful knight in 1182 after he was saved by Our Lady from following a fleeing buck over the cliff edge on a foggy day, while he was chasing it horseback.  Adding to the story the chapel is built above a cave, where in 711 a sacred statue of Mary carved by her husband Joseph was hidden away from the Moors for several centuries.  The interior of the church is lined with azulejo tiles illustrating the legend. IMG_4364Not far away, just above the Nazare lighthouse, Portuguese artist Adalia Alberto has created a whimsical, deer-headed surfer sculpture called Veado that pays tribute to Nazare’s old legend and today’s legendary wave riders.  This contemporary piece has to be one of the most unusual sculptures in Portugal and is worth finding when visiting Nazare.

Again, it would be dark by the time we arrived in Obidos.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Porto Part II: High Church to Ancient Alleys

The next morning we savored pastries from our three favorite pastelarias: Padeirinha Doce, Café Sagres, Neta 3 – Padaria e Confeitaria, all of which were conveniently too close and way too detrimental to our waistlines. As a mild penance, we walked into central Porto. IMG_1269Set back on Batalha Square, at the top of a wide set of stairs, the beautiful Church of Saint Ildefonso with its Azulejo tile covered exterior and twin bell towers commands attention.  Built in the early 1700’s on the site of an older church, the building has gone through many alterations after suffering severe storm damage one year, then cannon fire from Napoleon’s troops during the siege of Porto in 1833.  Eleven thousand Azulejo tiles depicting stories from the Gospels and the life of Saint Ildefonso were a late addition to the façade in 1932.

Rua Praça da Batalha turns into Rua de Santa Catarina, where two figureheads on the corners of opposite buildings mark the beginning of Porto’s pedestrian-only shopping street.  Several blocks down the Majestic Café, with its 1920’s art nouveau interior of polished wood and etched mirrors, is a window into an earlier era.IMG_1212The blue-tiled Chapel of Souls can be found a little further along.  Added in 1929, the two-story high Azulejo tile mural covering the front and side dramatically depicts scenes from the life of Saint Catherine and Saint Francis of Assisi.IMG_1295Back tracking, we turned down Rua de 31 de Janereio which would take us to Porto São Bento, the inter-city train station, then Clérigos Church & Clérigos Tower.  This beautiful French Beaux-Arts styled station was constructed in 1900.  Between 1905 and 1916, artist Jorge Colaço designed and installed 20,000 Azujelo tiles in this lobby, which illustrate significant moments in Portugal’s history. It is a dramatic, cavernous space especially when sunlight pours through its tall windows across the tiles.  Jorge Colaço also designed the tiles on the exterior of the Church of Saint Ildefonso.IMG_1702Just past the train station is Praça da Liberdade with its grand sculptures.  There are also many fine architectural details on the surrounding buildings, so look up! 

Clérigos Church & Clérigos Tower is a must stop if only to climb the tower which offers spectacular panoramic views of Porto.  If it’s a really nice day, you might be tempted to stay all day just to soak in the views of the city and life on the streets below.

The Brotherhood of the Clerics was established in the 13th century to assist sick or destitute clergy in their time of need.  The present-day church, infirmary (now a museum) and tower were constructed in the early 1700’s.  The 246 ft tower and its 225 steps to the top quickly established itself as the landmark of central Porto.  The infirmary functioned until the late 1800’s.  A 2014 renovation transformed the former hospital space into a modern museum featuring an extremely interesting collection of religious artifacts spanning from the 13th to 20th century.

From Clérigos Tower we walked along Rua das Carmelitas, stopping to snack at a sidewalk café next to Livraria Lello.  Since 1906 this charming bookstore with its beautiful façade and unique interior has been a magnet for literary types.  The Studio 54 of its day for aspiring novelists and bookworms, it is now an iconic photo op with its magnificently curved, polished wood and crimson carpeted stairway.  And remember to look up and check out the ornate ceiling.  What looks like carved wood detailing is actually painted plaster, a technique popular at the time. And they are capitalizing on this by charging admission. Fortunately, the purchase price of the ticket, €5.00, does get credited to a book purchase.  They limit the number of people entering at one time, but even in March when we visited it was packed with tourists and there was a queue outside.IMG_1749At the top of the street in a small plaza with palm trees we found Fonte dos Leões, with its four lion statues.IMG_1378Behind it the cathedrals Igreja dos Carmelitas and Igreja do Carmo stand next to each other.IMG_1478.jpgThey are only separated by the width of a discreet door to an extremely narrow house which was the home of church workers until the 1980s. Recently it was opened as a museum.  Igreja do Carmo was built for the people and has an ornate exterior with sculpted statues of Santa Ana and the prophets Elijah and Elisha alongside sculptures of the four evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John on its front façade and a large tile mural portraying the churches founding on the side wall.

Igreja dos Carmelitas was built as part of a convent and solely for the use of the cloistered nuns to keep them apart from the monks of Igreja do Carmo.  Both are magnificent showcases of Portugal’s wealth from when it was an empire, featuring exquisite, gilded wedding cake altars and lavish Baroque interiors.

Tram lines 22 and 18 converge conveniently in the plaza across the street from the cathedral.  Tram 22 gives you the option to journey down to the waterfront while Tram 18 loops back into the shopping district. IMG_1920.jpgIt was a brilliant, warm day and Jardins do Palácio de Cristal wasn’t too far away, so we continued our walk.  This spacious park offered a wonderful respite from city life with formal flower gardens, fountains and woodland trails that led to several scenic overlooks of the Douro River and Ponte da Arrábida. 

We savored the views of the river as we worked our way down the shaded trails which led us past Museu Romântico da Quinta da Macieirinha and Casa Tait, an estate home with formal gardens which is now a museum, to one of the oldest remnants of early Porto.

Rua de Entre-Quintas and Rua das Macieirinhas are rustic, ancient high walled, stone alleys where it’s easy to image how life was centuries ago, when this was a farming district on the outskirts of the city. At every corner we expected to encounter oxcarts, throngs of medieval merchants or a small herd of goats, but we had this journey to the past to ourselves.  We followed our Rua de Entre-Quintas to its end on Rua da Restauracao where we crossed over and then zig-zagged our way down to the Ribeira riverfront in search of a restaurant along the water. IMG_2033Along the quay the umbrella-ed tables of Monchique Bar Restaurant called us to rest.  Predictably we ordered grilled fish, as one does when so close to the ocean, but we started with an appetizer of the most amazing chicken gizzards!  Donna loves them, but I’ve always had an unfounded aversion to them until the wonderful aroma of them from the table next to us wafted our way.  They were surprisingly delicious, sautéed in wine with spices and herbs, and I’ve been a convert ever since.  The grilled fish was excellent as was the vino verde and café afterwards.  Savoring “la dolce vita” we whiled away the afternoon watching the tourist Rabelos, traditional cargo boats once used to transport wine, pass on the river.IMG_2107Tram 1 runs along the waterfront here, so we followed the tracks past Igreja do Corpo Santo de Massarelos, Church of the Brotherhood of the Holy Souls and Bodies, looking for the next station.  The original church was founded in 1394 by a brotherhood of seamen to honor those lost at sea.  Hometown hero Prince Henry the Navigator was a member of this fraternity in the 1400’s and the large azulejo tile mural on a wall of the church facing the river features him.IMG_2139Just around the corner from the church Trams 1 and 22 shared a stop and we hopped aboard the #22, to save our legs from a long uphill walk, to start our journey home for the day.

Till next time, Craig & Donna