Tram 28 – Part II: Chiado/Bairro Alto to Campo de Ourique

Starting the second part of this magical ride through Lisbon, tram 28 leaves the Praça do Comércio area from two nearby stops on Rua da Conceição, and climbs steeply around a huge curve into the Chiado and Bairro Alto districts before traveling to its terminus at Jardim dos Prazeres in Campo de Ourique.  Rebuilt after the devastating earthquake of 1755, both these districts have a totally different atmosphere than Alfama’s time capsule, reflecting a vibrant, more cosmopolitan Lisbon with fine upscale shopping, nightlife and historical monuments that often reminded us of Paris.  Praça Luís de Camões is the center of all this activity and tram 28 will drop you off amidst all the fun. There are so many things to do from this location that you might want to consider coming back here more than once. IMG_1626As if guarding the plaza, Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Loreto / Igreja dos Italianos, known as “the Italian Church” and Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Encarnação face each other with refined, simple exteriors.   The Italian Church was built in 1518 by King John V to celebrate Lisbon’s Italian community of Genoese and Venetian merchants.  The interior is lined with marble imported from Italy.

Exiting the Italian Church, you can walk right across the street into Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Encarnação to view spectacular ceiling paintings by Simon Caetano Nunes.  After the 1755 disaster, reconstruction of this cathedral lasted until 1873.  The cathedral also features several contemporary religious relief sculptures and a ceiling mural in a side chamber.

Once you’re back on the sidewalk, follow the sound of music to a small plaza. Here street musicians, performance artists and dance teams entertain crowds of tourists.   Outdoor cafes edge the plaza, which is centered by a statue commemorating António Ribeiro, a Catholic cardinal who supported the democratic movement that lead to the toppling of the military regime in 1974.  Pop into Café A Brasileira,  Lisbon’s first coffee house in 1908, with its Art Deco style interior of sculpted wood, polished brass and mirrored walls.  Many famous Portuguese writers and artists nutured their caffeine addiction here.  Poet Fernando Pessoa visited so often, he is immortalized here with a bronze statue depicting him seated at “his” table.  Immortalized in bronze, poet Fernando Pessoa sits permanently outside at “his” table.

Casa do Ferreira das Tabuletas with its ornate tile facade illustrating the sciences can be seen as you work your way to the Carmo Archaeological Museum. Set in the ruins of Lisbon’s largest cathedral before the 1755 earthquake, this small museum has a diverse collection of tombs, ceramics and mosaics along with other ancient artifacts. A few steps from its door, the viewing platform of Elevador de Santa Justa offers beautiful views of Lisbon.  Walking back to Praça Luís de Camões, pass the Guarda Nacional Republicana to watch Lisbon’s less elaborate version of the changing of the guard.

From Praça Luís de Camões you can also walk or take tram 24 up Rua da Misericordia deeper into Bairro Alto.  There is so much to do on this one street, you will want to return several times.  If you are looking to be selective about the churches you visit in Lisbon, Igreja de São Roque and its Museu de São Roque should be at the top of the list. The highly carved gilded interior was the first Jesuit Church in Portugal.  The museum exhibits an intriguing, world-class collection of Italian religious art in a contemporary setting. 

Riding a funicular tram in Lisbon is a must and the street-art covered walls of the Ascensor da Glória route are just a block from Igreja de São Roque.  It’s a pop culture experience to board the graffiti-painted tram and descend to Praça dos Restauradores.  The walls along the route have been given to the artists of Lisbon and are covered with spectacular street murals.  Older murals are painted over on a regular basis and replaced with new inspirations.IMG_5455Shady Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara overlooks this colorful chaos and has splendid views of Lisbon below.  From the miradouro it’s a gentle uphill walk into Bairro Alto. Fortunately, there’s no lack of places to rejuvenate yourself along the way.  For lunch we found A Padaria Portuguesa an artisanal bakery and restaurant that we would return to several times during our stay in Alfama just to buy their delicous bread.  This was especially rewarding if we combined it with buying cheese at Queijaria Cheese Shop just a few blocks away.  Listening to the proprietor describe the nuances of each Portuguese variety and offering samples to tweak our palette, we usually left with the makings for a nice picnic under the towering specimen trees of Jardim Botânico da Universidade de Lisboa, just across the boulevard.  Jardim do Príncipe Real, with its iconic trimmed cypress tree shaped to look like giant shitake mushrooms, was always a good alternative destination. 

For dessert and coffee, we’d indulge ourselves with a sumptuous visit to Bettina & Niccolo Corallo, a wonderful artisanal chocolate and coffee shop with seating for only 6-8 people.  Just down the street, in what was once an ornate, private residence, the Ribeiro da Cunha Palace has been subdivided into unique boutique stores.  The lavish, original architectural detailing can still be seen in all the shops as you wander through. If you are staying late in the area, Tapas Bar 52 is a popular place for sharing delicous, small plate creations. 

One stop away from Praça Luís de Camões, you can climb aboard funicular Bica and descend the steep hill into its gated ticket terminal on Rua de S. Paulo.  On your way down you might catch a glimpse of a middle-aged man walking along the tracks, his pot-bellied pig on a leash.  Outside the terminal you’re back on flat terrain again and only a short walk away from the Time Out Market.IMG_5363Set in a historic 1890s building in Cais do Sodré, this is a huge, lively food court with numerous restaurant choices that is very popular with Lisboans. Whatever you are craving at the time, you’ll find something satisfying here.  Next door, during the week, Mercado da Ribeira operates a central market with fish, meat and produce vendors offering Portugal’s finest products.  Brightly painted Pink Street, popular for its club scene, is nearby.IMG_3326Take funicular Bica back uphill, and around the corner you find tranquil Miradouro de Santa Catarina,  with views of the Tagus River and Ponte 25 de Abril Bridge in the distance.  The Museu da Farmácia is also located here. Also, nearby along Calcada do Combro, or just off it, are several landmarks worth quick visits.

Unimpressive from the outside, Igreja de Santa Catarina, built in 1647, has a rich, baroque style, gilded interior and impressive pipe organ.  The buildings along Rua Vale frame Igreja Paroquial das Mercês sitting prominently atop a small hill at the end of the street. First constructed in 1615, a masterpiece of tile work created in 1715 and installed on a vaulted ceiling in a small room survived the 1755 earthquake. This is one of Lisbon’s hidden treasures.  Credited to tile master Antonio de Oliveira Bernardes, the mural illustrates the Litanies of the Virgin Mary.  Ask the church attendants to open the room for you. The rest of the church is an eighteen-century reconstruction.  Down Rua Vale from the cathedral, Atelier-Museu Júlio Pomar, a small contemporary art museum, has rotating exhibits and a permanent collection of works by Júlio Pomar (1926-2018.) Some consider him to be the most influential Portuguese painter of his generation. 

A mass of sun worshippers greeted us a we stepped off the elevator at Park Bar.  Every chair in this oasis of lush greenery, hidden above Lisbon, was turned towards the sun to take advantage of the view on this early spring day.  With a quick look at the name, you think the bar is in a park, but instead it’s on the sixth-floor rooftop of a parking garage next to Igreja de Santa Catarina.  Finding the entrance was a bit challenging, since there was no signage, but once you locate the elevator or stairs inside the garage you’re set.  The place gets packed at sunset and the party grows into the night with DJ’s providing the soundtrack.IMG_6126 Heading west, tram 28 weaves through a very narrow section similar to parts of its route in Alfama, before reaching the open area around Assembleia da República. The parliament of Portugal is headquartered in a neoclassical building that was first used as a convent in the sixteenth century.  Formal gardens behind the parliament building, hidden by an imposing wall, can be seen from tram 28 or if you stand on your tip-toes and peer over.  Never immune from criticism, the politicians must endure a large satirical wall mural, painted on a nearby building, as they head to work each day.

Past the Assembleia da República the character of the city changes.  The streets widen and some multi-storied apartment buildings dot the cityscape between historical buildings.  If you are ready to picnic, Jardim da Estrela is a wonderfully landscaped park with ponds and sculptures of historic figures scattered along the walking paths. Across the boulevard, one of Lisbon’s lesser visited cathedrals, eighteen-century Basílica da Estrelaor, safeguards the tomb of Queen Mary I.  She was the first monarch to rule over a united Portugal that included Brazil.  She ordered the construction of the cathedral in 1761, as a religious obligation, after the birth of a male heir to the throne.  Unfortunately, Queen Mary outlived her son (José – Prince of Brazil) who died of small pox at the age of 27.  The cathedral also has a 500-piece nativity scene, made of cork, on permanent display.

Tram 28 ends its charming journey in the Campo de Ourique neighborhood at Jardim dos Prazeres, a small park with two cafes, in front of Cemitério dos Prazeres.  Here the tram waits for several minutes before following its route all the way back to its starting point in the center of Lisbon at Martim Moniz.   This tranquil cemetery is the final resting place for many of Portugal’s most notable citizens.  Tombs of famous fado singers, artists, architects, doctors, writers and poets share the cypress lined lanes with politicians, nobility and a variety of songbirds.  Many of the mausoleums are ornately decorated with artistic sculptures that represent the deceased’s career.  Stop in the office to get a map outlining several different self-guided tours. There are numbers on the curbs in front of some of the tombs to help cross-reference the person’s contribution to Portuguese society.  The far side of the cemetery offers views of the Tagus river and Ponte 25 de Abril bridge.

A few blocks away Mercado de Campo de Ourique has been revamped into a trendy food hall where organic and artisanal food purveyors share the space with small bars and restaurants.  It’s a great place to rejuvenate before heading home.

Lisbon is an intriguing city with an amazing variety of activities in which to immerse yourself.  There is no one “correct” way to see the city, but tram 28 offers a splendid six-mile route through this charming capitol that passes many of the top attractions.  Multiple sites are close together so it’s easy to walk from one to the other and then just hop back on the tram to cover greater distances.  Don’t expect to see everything along this famous route in one day; there’s just so much to explore and many wonderful diversions!

We loved Lisbon and can’t wait to return one day.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Tram 28 – Exploring Alfama – Part I

We relied heavily on the Lisbon tram system, especially tram 28 which ran very close to our Airbnb, to navigate our way around this beautiful and very hilly city.  Unlike San Francisco, the trams in Lisbon are affordable if you purchase a Viva Viagem transit card from an agent at a Metro station.  With a Viva Viagem card your fare on the trams and funiculars is 1.40€, but without it the price rockets up to 3.00€ per ride.  As you exit the arrivals terminal at Lisbon airport look to the right and you will see the sign for the Metro. Just down the escalator there is a ticket office where you can purchase your transit card and be set for your time in Lisbon.IMG_0845All the tram lines in Lisbon travel through wonderful areas, but tram 28 has become famous because it is the longest line in the city and runs near many of the tourist highlights in romantic Alfama, namely Castelo de Sao Jorge and the miradouros (overlooks) Portas do Sol and Santa Luzia.  Before heading back into the city center, it climbs into the Chiado district and ends in Campo de Ourique by the historic Dos Prazeres Cemetery.  Nearly every stop along this splendid route offers a worthy point of interest.  Being this popular, it is often difficult to get a seat on tram 28, especially if you choose to board it where it begins at plaza Martim Moniz in the center of Lisbon.  After 10AM the line of folks waiting here can be daunting and you might have to wait for several trams to fill and go before you have a chance to board.  But if you must stand, head for the back of the car – the rear of the tram offers the best views. If you can, we suggest boarding at one of the miradouros where usually many people exit the tram.  Tram 12 has a stop behind tram 28’s starting point on Martm Moniz. It will also take you to the miradouros by a slightly different route.  There is not a “correct way” to explore the diverse things along the tram 28 route.  Each stop offers multiple destinations to explore. Just pick out what you are interested in and have fun.  Walk a little then café, then repeat as many times as necessary! That’s how we do it. 

Leaving Martim Moniz, tram 28 travels up the steep, narrow and serpentine streets behind Castelo de Sao Jorge to the Graça neighborhood, often delayed by delivery trucks and double-parked cars. Normally the tram will wait patiently as this is an everyday occurrence, but occasionally the tram driver will sound his horn until the offender moves their vehicle, if he feels they are taking to long.  Reaching the top of the hill, keep an eye out for a large wall mural, Revolutionary Woman, created by the American artist Shepard Fairey, who is most renowned for his famous Barack Obama poster.

A little further along, Plaza Graça, with its everyday shops, bakeries and small outdoor cafes, offers a chance to explore a non-touristy spot for a very local experience.  From here it is a short, level walk to Jardim da Graça, Miradouro Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen and Igreja e Convento da Graça. The convent has an interesting collection of azulejos tiles depicting 16th, 17th and 18th century missionary journeys across Portugal’s colonies that ended tragically with the martyrdom of the priests involved.  This area is a wonderful spot that is slightly off the beaten track.  The miradouro offers a great view across Lisbon that includes Castelo de Sao Jorge and the Ponte 25 de Abril bridge. The panorama is reminiscent of San Francisco.  The small café here fills toward sunset.

The next stop downhill brings you to Igreja de São Vicente de Fora and its convent. Started in 1147, just after the liberation of Lisbon from the Moors, the cathedral was finished in 1629.  It is one of the most important church complexes in Portugal. The attached museum displays a collection of religious artifacts, paintings, sculptures and Baroque azulejo tiles. If you plan a visit for a Saturday or Tuesday, just uphill through the Grand Arch connected to the convent you will find Lisbon’s best flea market, Feira da Ladra or as it was long known “the Thieves Market” spread out around Campo de Santa Clara. Our neighbor in Alfama described it as a place where you used to be able to “buy back the things that were stolen out of your car during the week.”  Today the market is very gentrified with vendors of antiques, books, CDs, toys, ceramics, clothing and handmade artisanal crafts sharing the street.  On Saturdays during the summer there is also a farmer’s market in Park Jardim Botto Machado that features organically grown food.  And of course, there are cafes around the fringes of the market. Nearby the Pantheon is visible through the shade trees and further along as you work your way towards the Tagus River, the Museu Militar de Lisboa displays a surprisingly interesting collection of military memorabilia in a wonderful mansion.

Back aboard the tram, it now continues downhill into Alfama along the narrowest part of the route, for a short distance.  The street is so narrow here you can reach out and touch the walls of the buildings as you pass through.  And if you are on the sidewalk at the time, suck it in and pin yourself against the side of the buildings.  As soon as the street widens out again you will be by Café Do Eléctrico run by a nice woman named Sandra.  This is very much a local’s place, where folks get their morning espresso before hopping on the tram and heading to work.  The coffee, food and prices here are all good, and compensate for its lack of décor.  Situated a couple of steps below street level, it’s a great place to experience the sensation that you are about to be run over by an approaching tram as it fills the doorway before suddenly turning sharply.

From this stop you can wander downhill through the maze of crazy alleys that make up Alfama. Spared the devastation from the 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the rest of Lisbon, Alfama hasn’t changed much since the times of the Moors. Head to Santo Estêvão Belvedere church, and its lesser known miradouro that you will have all to yourself; it’s a nice spot for a picnic. From here you’ll have a choice of stairways or alleys to follow deeper into the charm of Alfama. Folks still hang laundry from their windows and shout down to their neighbors below. And elderly women sell shots of Ginja, a cherry liqueur, from their doorsteps as a way to supplement their pensions. There are numerous small restaurants spread about that fill the air with the wonderful aroma of Portuguese cooking. 

Around the corner from Café Do Eléctrico, stairs will lead you up to Igreja do Menino Deus, the Church of the Child God, which was built in 1711 by king Dom João V to commemorate the birth of a male heir. In striking contrast to Lisbon’s large cathedrals, this is a very small intimate church. It’s only open on Tuesdays.  From the church you can also walk up to Miradouro Sophia de Mello Breyner Andresen or through a mural-covered alley to Castelo de Sao Jorge.

After Café Do Eléctrico, tram 28 turns sharply and climbs before leveling off and making two stops at miradouros Portas Do Sol and Santa Luzia.  You can also walk to Castelo de Sao Jorge from both stops. Many people get off the tram at these popular miradouros, so it’s a good place to board tram 28 to continue your journey across Lisbon.

While both miradouros have awesome views of Alfama and the Tagus River, only Portas Do Sol offers outside cafes.  Just sitting here sipping wine and listening to the street musicians is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, soaking up the experience of Lisbon. What’s really nice is that the cafes never pressure you to vacate your table; it’s yours for however long you want to sit.  Amazingly there is no price gouging either, as there easily could be at such a popular location. This seems to be true all over Lisbon. Miradouro Santa Luzia features azulejo tile murals depicting the liberation of Lisbon and a lovely vine covered arbor with azulejo tiled benches.  When you are done soaking up the sun, follow the alley next to the huge stone wall built during the time of the Visigoths, in the sixth century, down to the plaza around Igreja de São Miguel for a different bit of Alfama.

Across the tram tracks from the miradorouros is Museu da Fundação Ricardo Espírito Santo e Silva, a decorative arts museum. The museum showcases what was once the private collection of Ricardo Espirito Santo, unique pieces created in Portugal and its colonies, in an elegant eighteenth-century nobleman’s home.

Or psyche yourself up for the hike to Castelo de Sao Jorge, a medieval Moorish castle that crowns the highest point in Lisbon and offers sweeping 360-degree panoramic views from various points along its fortress walls.  Besides scrambling along the ramparts and posing with the flock of peacocks that roams freely, there is a small museum that displays archeological items found during various excavations at the site.  The miradouro at the castle is stunning and unfortunately is only accessible with a 10€ entrance ticket to the whole site.  Viewing the setting sun from here is enchanting so time your visit accordingly.  There is a nice restaurant and a wine kiosk to help set the mood as you while away the afternoon.  Walking back to the tram line, you’ll pass ruins of a Roman amphitheater at Museu de Lisboa – Teatro Romano that you can visit.

A gentle, downhill walk from the miradouros will bring you to Sé de Lisboa, the Catherdral of Lisbon. The oldest church in the city, construction was started on the foundations of a mosque in 1147.  Surviving earthquake damage over the centuries, it features a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles.  Next to the choir loft the Treasury museum displays a wealth of religious items that includes vestments richly embroidered with gold, ornate silver objects set with jewels and relics of various saints. Two ornately carved Gothic tombs from the 1300s can be seen in the ambulatory of the church.  The tomb of knight Lopo Fernandes Pacheco features an intricately carved beard, decorated sword and his dog by his feet.  The other tomb, that of his wife Maria de Vilalobos, features her in a finely detailed headdress reading the Book of Hours as one would before going to sleep each evening.  Excavations in the courtyard of the cloister show Roman, Visigoth and Moorish ruins.  The street Cruzes da Se next to the cathedral offers a nice level route back into the heart of Alfama.

Continuing downhill you’ll come to Igreja da Madalena which was started in 1164 and rebuilt several times over the centuries due to fires and natural disasters.  Diagonally across from the church is Queijaria Nacional, a gourmet cheese shop that features only Portuguese products.  If you are a cheese connoisseur this store is a must, and you’ll find it’s difficult to pull yourself away from the counter to continue your journey.

The next two stops bring us back to the city center near Praça do Comércio and the waterfront.  As you walk there be sure to check out the intriguing, decorative detailing on some of the buildings.

Here you can catch tram 15, usually a modern tram, to Belem to view the monuments along the river, or you can walk over to Elevador de Santa Justa, built in 1902, for a view of central Lisbon featuring Praça Dom Pedro IV with its wavy tile pattern and Castelo de Sao Jorge guarding the city.

Leaving the elevator from the viewing platform, you can walk across the ramp into the Chiado district.

We’ll continue on tram 28 through Chiado to the end of the line in Part Two.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

Charmed by Alfama

Our driver hurried to unload our bags to the sidewalk as the famous Tram 28 waited patiently behind us, its tracks blocked by our taxi.  That’s the way it’s done on Lisbon’s narrow streets. Never the sound of frustrated drivers impatiently honking their horns, just folks courteously understanding the limitations of their intriguing city, built before anyone dreamed of modern transportation.IMG_9659The winding alleys and stairways of Alfama still retain their ancient charm as they work their way steeply uphill from the bank of the Tagus River to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, the highest point in Lisbon. Spared the devastation of the 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the bulk of Lisbon, the meandering lanes and plazas of medieval Alfama haven’t changed in a thousand years. Alfama is the second oldest neighborhood in Europe, after one in Cadiz, Spain. Archeological excavations next to the Castelo de Sao Jorge have revealed evidence of a Phoenician settlement that dated to 1200 BC, a Roman amphitheater, and walls built by the Visigoths before the Moors arrived.  Today the rumbling sound of wheeled suitcases on the cobble stone alleys echoes, almost continuously, off these walls weathered by time. Tourists make their way to newly renovated Airbnb’s, as we did, much to the concern of older residents of Alfama who worry about being gentrified out of their homes.“This part of Alfama is restricted to residents’ cars only. Your street is just two blocks down that lane,” our driver said as he pointed across the tracks. We sighed in relief, as the street to our right was very steep and we weren’t sufficiently caffeinated yet to attempt an ascent, without sherpas, of what seemed liked the foothills of the Himalayas.IMG_7194The winding alleys and stairways of Alfama still retain their ancient charm as they work their way steeply uphill from the bank of the Tagus River to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, the highest point in Lisbon. Spared the devastation of the 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the bulk of Lisbon, the meandering lanes and plazas of medieval Alfama haven’t changed in a thousand years. Alfama is the second oldest neighborhood in Europe, after one in Cadiz, Spain.IMG_7680 Archeological excavations next to the Castelo de Sao Jorge have revealed evidence of a Phoenician settlement that dated to 1200 BC, a Roman amphitheater, and walls built by the Visigoths before the Moors arrived.  Today the rumbling sound of wheeled suitcases on the cobble stone alleys echoes, almost continuously, off these walls weathered by time. Tourists make their way to newly renovated Airbnb’s, as we did, much to the concern of older residents of Alfama who worry about being gentrified out of their homes. 

Our home for the month of February was a small, one-bedroom apartment, with a college dorm sized refrigerator above a Fado restaurant, just a few guitar chords away from Miradouro Santo Estêvão Belvedere that offered views of Alfama and the Tagus river below. IMG_6896 Like our neighbors, we hung our laundry from our windows to dry.  Most evenings the melancholic melodies of traditional Fado music drifted softly down Alfama’s alleys from several restaurants nearby.IMG_7935While walking downhill was initially a good thing, it eventually led to us walking uphill and in Alfama it’s impossible to avoid.  Older folks walking with canes was a common site, since the cobblestones are so uneven and treacherous to walk on.  Choosing a career as an orthopedist almost guarantees success in Lisbon!  Fortunately, around every corner there seemed to be a mercado that carried basic items and catered to residents who didn’t want to leave their block.  We preferred to walk to the Graça district to shop at Pingo Doce, a terrific small supermarket chain, which was half a mile away.  It’s good we walked so much, as there wasn’t a bakery or pasteleria we couldn’t resist trying. They were so affordable, with prices at least seventy-five percent less than back in the States. We had a favorite butcher’s shop and seafood store.  An amazing variety of seafood was available, but our tiny kitchen barely had any prep room. One night as we prepared fish, we were surprised learn that our stove would trip the circuit breaker and plunge us into darkness if the electric heater was also on.  “Oops!” was not the word that we uttered that night as we fumbled for the circuit box in the dark.IMG_3463[31065]The wine and cheese produced in Portugal are exceptional, and an extremely good value, with each region renowned for a specialty. A very good wine can be purchased in the 10€ range, and a delicous bottle of Vino Verde, a young green wine, can be bought for less than 5€. We made destinations of recommended cheese shops, Queijaria Naçional and Queijaria Cheese Shop, and made a day out of the shopping expedition.  For chocolate lovers, a visit to the tiny shop of Bettina & Niccolo Corallo for a sweet treat and coffee is a must. Lisbon scored very high on our cappuccino, beer and wine test. The former were in the 1.50€ range, and the latter a reasonable 3.50€ a glass.  This was much more affordable than Antigua, Guatemala.  We found meals and drinks to be fairly priced all over Lisbon, even at the miradouros, the scenic overlooks.  At the famous Pastéis de Belém, where tourists would have willingly paid three times as much, the sweet pastry was less than 1.25€.

Wonderfully, tourist trap pricing seemed to be unheard of.  (We experienced only one incident of price gouging while in Portugal,  in Porto at the highly over-rated Café Majestic.) For dining in our Alfama neighborhood we tried Beco a Serio, Taberna dos Clerigos (Tavern of the Clergy), and Alfama Cellar, which was our favorite. Lisbon was culinary heaven and extremely gentle to our food budge with comparable lunches and dinners costing 50 – 60 percent less than in the States.

Considering we’ve been on the road over 250 days we have been relatively healthy.  But for Donna, a persistent sinus infection led to an ear infection and the challenges navigating the Portuguese medical system.  New to Lisbon and not knowing where to go for treatment we asked our host for recommendations.  “It will take longer to get treated at public clinic, but there is one nearby in Graça, or a private hospital.”  Arriving at Unidade de Cuidados de Saúde Personalizados (Mónicas) to a full waiting room at the clinic, the receptionist told us it would be better to come tomorrow at 8:00 in the morning to get in queue, as the day’s schedule was full already.   By chance as we were walking home, we noticed a doctor’s plaque on a door, walked in and waited patiently for the receptionist to address us.  Luckily, the doctor could see Donna later that day.  The office visit cost 65€, with a free follow-up visit, and the prescriptions only 20€.  Unfortunately, the ear infection did not clear up after the first round of antibiotics and we were advised to go to the walk-in nurse practioner clinic Centro de Enfermagem da Graça, nearby on the plaza to have the blockage evacuated.  With still no relief, the doctor sent us to an ENT, an ear, nose and throat specialist, at CUF Descobertas Hospital, a private hospital in Braco De Prata.  Outpatients enter through the emergency room and are directed to take a ticket, like in a bakery, and watch for the number to appear on the large overhead monitors in the waiting area.  Initially, we were called to the bursar’s counter to give all our information and passport number, plus a 500€ credit card deposit to secure services.  Back to the waiting area to be called to the triage room to be assessed correctly and then sent to a different waiting room, deeper in the hospital, before being called by a nurse and led through many corridors and elevators to the ENT waiting area.  A short time later we met the ENT specialist who provided a thorough ear exam, diagnosis and treatment plan.  Total – a whopping 140€ for a visit to a specialist!  This could not happen in the States even with health insurance.  Finally, back to the bursar’s counter where our credit card was refunded the unused balance.  Note: keep all your medical invoices. Our travel insurance provider World Nomads reimbursed the hospital and doctors’ visits along with all prescriptions.  Processing the claim went flawlessly online and our refund was electronically deposited. 

Exploring the different areas of Lisbon was a breeze using the tram and subway system.  Tram 28, famous only because it is the longest line in the city and hits most of the top tourist sites along its route, had several stops close to our apartment.

Purchasing a Viva Viagem transit card allowed us to pay the same rate for a ride as Lisboans.  A single use ticket on the tram was 3.60€, with the Viva Viagem card it dropped to 1.40€.  It also reduced the fare on the funiculars and Elevador de Santa Justa.  You can purchase the Viva Viagem at most subway stations that have a staffed ticket office.  We also used Uber and the local taxis; both were very reasonably priced with a trip into the city from the airport costing under 10€.  IMG_7493Residents told us this past February was unseasonably mild.  We enjoyed eating outside in the warm Spring sun as did many other tourists.  The streets seemed very busy for the “off season,” not overly so, but we couldn’t imagine what it would be like during the summer crush. 

We will share our day explorations around Lisbon in several future blogs.

Till then, safe travels.  Craig & Donna

Two Hundred Fifty-Three Days on the Road

cropped-img_4837The good news is we haven’t killed each other, though there have been times that I’ve dreamt a pillow was hovering over my head. Just kidding.  We have gone from the two of us working six days a week while living in an eight-room house, to being together 24/7 with only a suitcase each.  Boy did we downsize! It was challenging: what not to bring, considering all the seasonal changes we have encountered.  Don’t laugh, but I have thermals, wool hats and gloves packed, just on the off chance we get snowed in on a mountain pass in the French Alps, this July.  Yes, there’s also a flask of medicinal whisky packed in the bags for emergencies.  And to my wife’s amusement, a cheap plastic fly swatter.  Tragically the backup swatter was left behind in Antigua.  In Lisbon I finally caved in and bought a pair of slippers because the floors of the stone buildings just don’t retain any heat in the winter.  The comfort of a pair of slippers in the evening, after a long day of walking, can’t be underestimated.IMG_8406It’s been a huge but surprisingly easy transition for us. 253 days ago (I thought I was writing this at around day 200, it’s easy to lose track of time on the road) we slammed the door shut on our storage pod, locked it, and popped open a bottle of champagne to celebrate our impending journey. We haven’t looked back.  Ecuador, Guatemala, Cuba and now Portugal; I can’t imagine undertaking this adventure with anyone else.

The Airbnb revolution has greatly contributed to our concept of slow travel, allowing us to immerse ourselves in a location for an extended period of time and to enjoy a community to its fullest. Experiencing a festive Christmas season and an explosive New Year’s celebration in Antigua, Guatemala, was extraordinary and something we wouldn’t have appreciated as much if we were just passing through.

We felt a little blue being away from our kids and their families during Christmas. The irony that we, and not the children, broke with the family tradition first was not lost on us.  A three week visit back to the States in mid-January to see everyone helped tremendously.img_0864 This visit also gave us an opportunity to jettison the wonderful textiles and ceramics we had purchased along the way for a home we don’t have yet.  Imagine this scene from our last stop in San Pedro – the backseat of a tuk-tuk overflowing with Donna and all our suitcases, while I’m sharing the driver’s seat with the driver, one cheek on, one cheek off and a foot dangling outside the cab as we speedily snaked through the steep narrow alleys of the village. 

Shopping in the central markets and street markets of each city has been wonderful as cooking is essential to keeping within our budget, though the size of some of our kitchens have tested our creative culinary abilities.  The exotic fruits available to us in Ecuador were amazing and we tried many that we were unfamiliar with.

In Olon we bought the catch of the day from the fish monger as be pushed his cart through town. Guatemala yielded remarkably flavorful vegetables.  We had a memorable culinary carrot experience there, go figure. This from a home gardener is quite a statement. Like our neighbors in the Alfama district, we are hanging our laundry out the windows to dry in the Lisbon fresh air. Our stays in each place have ranged from four to ten weeks.  I favor the longer stays whereas Donna prefers a shorter visit. 

There have been challenges negotiating the medical systems in Ecuador and Portugal only because we haven’t known the protocol of the local doctors.  We have been extremely impressed by the care we have received from the medical professionals in these countries for altitude sickness and a persistent upper respiratory infection.  The out of pocket costs have been remarkably inexpensive in comparison to the U.S. medical system.IMG_8692 Not everything has gone smoothly.  A rental car agency did not honor a reservation and we had to scramble to find another one late one night in the airport.  We have felt very safe during our travels, but there are unfortunately some extremely talented pickpockets out there. May the curse of arthritis shorten their careers!  Filing a stolen property report in Lisbon with the tourist police turned out to be an enjoyable experience due to the officer assigned to us.  Luckily, within 24-hours they called us with the good news that our wallet had been recovered, minus the cash of course, but that our passport and credit cards were all there.  Honestly, we weren’t following our own advice: only carry in your pockets what you are willing to lose.  Everything else of value needs to be carried under your clothing.IMG_8596After Lisbon it’s a two-week road trip through Portugal. Then we are off to, of all places, Sofia, Bulgaria for a month, (the Beatles song “Back in the USSR” keeps coming to mind) in order to reset our Schengen union days for later in the summer.  After that, two dog sits in England and two Workaway experiences in France at a 14th century chateau await us before we resume our life of leisure in Kotor, Montenegro, in September.img_0669We have shared meals and stories with so many wonderful and interesting people along the way.  These friends have made this journey what it is – fantastic! 

Kindness and a smile go a long way in this world.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

 

San Pedro la Laguna on Lake Atitlan – The Road Was Un-named

img_1653The scenery along the drive to Lake Atitlan, along roads that continued to climb higher, was spectacular with verdant greenery and distant volcanos appearing then disappearing again with each twist of the serpentine route. img_1668Arriving in San Pedro we thought we were on a movie set for a sequel to Mad Max or Water World.  Down by the Panajachel dock dreadlocked travelers, wearing eccentric attire, filled the streets along the lakeshore.  Feeling as if we had time traveled, we were relieved to find our Airbnb far out of town on a dead-end road that ran along the lake.  According to Google maps the road was unnamed.  Our host said “tell the tuktuk drivers you are staying on Calle Finca,” which referred to a distant and abandoned coffee farm, about an hour’s walk from the trail head at the end of the road.img_0540-2Our new home for our last week in Guatemala had a wonderful porch with great view of Lake Atitlan and tranquility.  A relaxing change of pace was called for after the Christmas and New Year’s Day celebrations in Antigua.  Bird calls or the soft Mayan chatter of coffee pickers, harvesting ripe beans right outside our door, were the only sounds that filled the air.  Fortunately, we were much closer to town than the abandoned coffee finca and were able to walk to the daily outdoor market, along streets where we could see women washing clothing in the distant lake, and make-shift scales were set up to buy coffee beans hauled down from the slopes of Volcan San Pedro.

As we neared the market the streets became steeper than those in San Francisco, CA.  Every morning vendors set up vegetable, poultry, meat, flower and used clothing stands.  The fish monger displayed freshly caught fish, pulled from Lake Atitlan earlier in the morning, still flapping in baskets along the edge of the road.  And multiple varieties of avocadoes were available to satisfy our cravings for them.  San Pedro lacked a proper super market, so if we wanted meat or chicken, we had to purchase it here.  The key to buying meat or poultry was to go first thing in the morning, before the heat of the day and most importantly before the flies started to stir.  Shopping this way, we did not have any issues with the meat, poultry or vegetables we bought.  There were several small panaderias in the blocks around the market that had great baked goods. We rounded out our pantry with fresh eggs, yogurt and coffee from the farmer next door to us.  Large numbers of tourists didn’t seem to venture up the steep streets of San Pedro away from the waterfront, which was filled with coffee cafes, art galleries, hostels, restaurants, and bars.

Aside from researching an affordable and charming place to stay on Lake Atitlan we didn’t know much about San Pedro La Laguna itself.  Fortunately, we were able to reach out to one of our Instagram followers who does medical missions to the area several times a year. Cathy was right on with her coffee and dining recommendations.  Straight uphill from the Panajachel ferry dock, Luis at Cafe Las Cristalinas brewed a great cup of coffee and served wonderful empanadas, among other delights as promised.  On the street that follows the shoreline, La Terraza Coffee Shop & Kitchen offered a quiet respite and a wonderful view of Indian Nose mountain towering over the village of San Juan, just across the lake.  Closer to the Santiago Atitlan ferry dock at Restaurant Idea Connection we enjoyed their Italian menu and coconut macaroons, outside in the garden. The brunch offered on Saturdays and Sundays at El Barrio can’t be missed if you are in San Pedro over a weekend.  Plan on eating only one meal the day you choose to go, so that you can fully enjoy their incredible and very affordable four course brunch.  Smokin Joe’s BBQ has a store on this side of town which sells local and imported meats, all vacuum sealed and frozen.  We were impressed with their selection.img_0767A short ferry ride took us to San Juan La Laguna, a weavers and artists village that visually celebrates its Mayan heritage with colorful street murals.  The steep walk uphill from the boat dock to the center of town was lined with art galleries.

The streets at the top of the hill of were full of various weaver’s cooperatives that use locally grown cotton, wool or bamboo and only natural dyes.  Here we serendipitously stumbled across the Casa Flor Ixcaco, the first weaver’s cooperative in San Juan, founded in 1996 with only five members.  Today more than 100 women support their families through this weaving cooperative.  The variety of designs created on backstrap looms and the color range they created from natural dyes was amazing.   The question here was “what not to buy?” because everything was so beautiful.img_0864Six years ago, when we first visited the lake, we stayed at Posada de Santiago in Santiago de Atitlan and met Carolina, an American expat who has been in Guatemala going on thirty years now.  We’ve stayed in touch over the years.  Being so close by, a reunion was in order.IMG_1019It’s a long ferry ride to Santiago de Atitlan and even longer when the wind churns up whitecaps on the water, and the small boat we were in rocked side-to-side for the duration of the crossing.  We silently said our prayers when the local folks stated to reach for the life preservers.  Fortunately, we were never too far from shore and know how to swim.  It is a breathtaking view coming into the boat dock at Santiago with its namesake volcano towering over the town and Volcan San Pedro just an avocado toss away, across the water.

The waterfront seemed the same with kids swimming and women doing laundry in the lake, but the walk up to the tuktuks overwhelmed with craft stands and vendors calling out their sales pitch.  Lunch was as delicous as we remembered at Posada de Atitlan and as wonderfully lively as we anticipated with Carolina.  Very interesting embroidery art by the late artist Antonio Ramirez Sosóf hung on display in the restaurant. These are truly amazing pieces of cultural art that were all delicately hand stitched and depicted indigenous and Mayan culture around the lake.img_0669Enjoying the stars from our porch we were surprised when fireworks celebrating Epiphany lit up the night sky above villages across the lake, their colorful bursts reflected brilliantly on the water.  With magical moments like this, still fresh in our memories, Guatemala tugged at our hearts as we packed for our next adventure.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

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Antigua – Snow Birds in Paradise

img_0920Paradise is such a subjective feeling and if you don’t require a turquoise blue sea and white sand beaches, Antigua, Guatemala just might fit the bill.  This charming colonial city with its ever spring-like weather was perfect for our two-month stay. img_6117We arrived in Antigua at the end of October so that we could attend the Sumpango Giant Kite Festival held every year on November 1st, All Saints Day.  That spectacularly colorful event and a religious procession that burst forward from La Merced Church on October 28th would prove to be representative of the people and life in Guatemala we experienced.

Settling into our spacious two-bedroom Airbnb on Alameda Santa Lucia, with views of the three volcanos surrounding Antigua, was a breeze after living in two studio apartments and a boat cabin in Ecuador. At first, we thought the cost of living in Guatemala was going to be considerably higher than that of Ecuador, but that was due to eating dinner out the first couple of days before we got fully settled.  The dinner restaurants in Ecuador are considerably less expensive than those in Guatemala, but once we started shopping in the central market our food expenses dropped dramatically. We were delighted with the freshness and quality of the local produce. img_9629On Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays the market tripled in size when the outdoor portion was open, and farmers brought in truckloads of fruits and vegetables from the surrounding villages. There we experienced one of the best markets going, set in a bustling, dusty lot with Volcans Agua, Fuego and Acatenango touching the sky in the background.  Most produce was sold in quantities of 5 quetzals (60 cents) so bring lots of small bills, as vendors didn’t usually have change for anything larger than 10Q.  The flavor of the locally grown vegetables was amazing. Being backyard gardeners ourselves, we were duly impressed.  Twenty quetzals would buy enough vegetables for a week.

On Sundays we would walk to Caoba Farm, just on the outskirts of town, for their organic produce and stay for their brunch, which featured live music in a beautiful outdoor setting.  They have mastered the farm-to-table restaurant concept.img_8874Shopping at the local supermarket, La Bodegona, was a wonderfully hectic experience.  At times it could feel like you were shopping from a conga line, weaving up and down aisles, afraid to leave the line for fear of not being able to enter it again and being stuck in dairy for eternity.  Numerous store employees lined the aisles offering samples of cookies, deli meats, drinks and other temptations to keep the energy level of the beast alive. It was a hoot! We had to psych ourselves up, like players before the big game, to shop there because it was so hectic and required a certain mental and physical stamina.  I will confess though to dancing in the checkout line to blaring Latino Christmas music – the mood was contagious. img_0714 On the same block D&C Cremas, a Walmart affiliate, offered a more sedate shopping experience. Both supermarkets had excellent poultry, which was more tender and tastier than back in Pennsylvania.  We were also fortunate that a pork butcher opened a new shop a half block away and offered fresh meat and sausage daily.  We enjoyed all the different varieties of Guatemalan sausage he made and found them to be very flavorful and lean, with almost no fat.

Antigua was a delight to explore on foot.  Charm, color and textures greeted us around every corner.  Every open doorway revealed something of interest.  Old colonial doorknockers featuring various faces, animals or hands graced many of the doors and we became intrigued by their artistry.  There are still several metalsmiths in town that cast and forge these works of art.

Most folks greeted us with a “Buena Dia” as they passed us on the sidewalk, though navigating the sidewalk hazards could be challenging at times.  Our early weeks were spent exploring the ruins of convents and cathedrals destroyed in a 1773 earthquake. This cataclysmic event led to Antigua being abandoned as Guatemala’s capital and left as a forgotten backwater to evolve unchanged into a charming UNESCO heritage site. Today Antigua is a very cosmopolitan, old colonial city with sophisticated dining and museums, yet still retains a quaint authenticity with its Spanish architecture and cobblestone streets which haven’t changed for centuries.  Many local women still wear traditional, locally woven blouses – guipils, created from the textiles for which Guatemala is renowned, which adds tremendously to the cultural atmosphere of the community.  Antigua had a genuine character that we hadn’t experienced to this extent before.

Finding our new favorite spots was a fun quest we eagerly embarked upon. There were many choices: our favorite coffee café is Fernando’s; a roof-top bar with the best view is Café Sky; there were five wonderful panaderias, bakeries, among which we rotated.  Six years ago, when we first visited Guatemala and Antigua, it was difficult to find a good cup of coffee. Instant coffee was served nearly everywhere, since the good beans were saved to be exported, and cappuccinos were unheard of.  Now the barista culture is firmly embraced, and cappuccinos have become a competitive art form.

Our calendar for November and December filled quickly with fun and interesting activities to attend.  The city sponsors many free events such as concerts on the central plaza; an annual Flower Festival, November 17th, which runs along the same street as the iconic arch; and the annual Waiters Race (Carrera de las Charolas) that starts early in the morning, so no one misses work. On November 14th. hundreds of waiters and waitresses filled the starting lines at the central plaza and, for cash prizes, zoomed around several city blocks to the cheers from a mostly local crowd.  Saturday afternoons found us heading to the Santa Catalina Arch to watch wedding parties pose for photographs amidst admiring spectators under the iconic symbol of Antigua.

December 1st brought the first music concert of the Christmas season. It was held in the ruins of Antigua’s first cathedral, behind Iglesia de la Escuela de Cristo, just off the central plaza. The musicians and audience sat under arches now open to the stars.  Christmas carols reverberated off the ancient walls which provided amazing acoustics.  The concert ended with fireworks bursting over the open domes. And then the spectacular and noisy religious festivals and processions of December began.  Guatemalans love their FIREWORKS!! And I swear every family has an arsenal of them at home, under the beds.  Some peaceful religious events resembled imagery seen on the nightly news, of war-torn streets filled with smoke and the sound of large explosions.  The smell of gunpowder was ever present and filled the air.  It was difficult to find a comprehensive list of local events, but InGuat, the Guatemalan tourism agency, compiles a list of events that changes every day and it is available on their Facebook page.  OkAntigua.com proved to be a good resource for upcoming events, also.  Around town shops and restaurants hung posters announcing activities too.

For a change of pace, we rented a car from Renta Autos de Guatemala, that went very well.  The cobblestoned streets of Antigua quickly changed to smooth pavement as we headed to Santa Maria de Jesus which is high up on the slope of Volcan Agua. In the evenings we could see the lights of this village from our rooftop.  They don’t get many visitors up there, so this village was a wonderful destination for a very authentic market day. After getting directions at the communal laundry basin we found everything you could imagine on sale in front of the church: hand crafted guipils, cooking utensils, fruit, fresh fish from the Pacific and Lake Atitlan, and rabbit hutches to name a few. Fried iguana was available for the willing.  Horses carried jugs of water for home delivery and hay for animals out in distant fields down the streets around the market.  And women carried those rabbit hutches home on top of their heads.

Lower on the slope of Volcan Agua, San Juan del Obispo offered the colonial era Bishop’s Palace and a chance to taste some wine made from locally grown nispero fruit, for which the town is famous.  Knock loudly on the door so the nuns can hear you and usher you inside for a tour.  The plaza behind the former bishops’ residence has a beautiful church and a nice view of Antigua.  Just uphill and around a corner from the palace is Casa Museo Luis De Lion.  This is a small family-run museum dedicated to the Guatemalan poet who celebrated his country in verse.  Today it doubles as a child care center for children displaced from their homes by the frequent eruptions of Volcan Fuego.  Musicians travel from as far as Guatemala City to give these young children free music lessons. It’s a wonderful program run by dedicated staff.

Most of the beautiful textiles you see for purchase in Antigua are crafted in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, so we decided to check out the source.  At Mercado de la Artesanía, we watched women create intricate weavings on their back-strap looms as they sat on the floor in front of their stalls.  Upstairs the sales pressure was less intense, and we found Anna, a delightful weaver who pleasantly shared her life with us.  I turned away for moment only to find Donna fully clad in traditional clothing when I turned backed.

Pastores offered handmade leather boots and shoes, for unbelievable prices, in shops that lined both sides of the road.  A week later we returned, via Uber, to pick up our custom fitted boots. Cost $40.00 per pair. On our way back, we diverted to Finca Filadelfia, a quiet coffee plantation, to review our shopping expedition and plan further adventures with our wheels.img_1797The next day we a followed a serpentine mountain road, second gear all the way, up to Santo Domingo del Cerro, a beautiful sculpture and art park with museums, walking trails and a restaurant that overlooks Antigua.  Plan on spending at least a half day there, because it is a beautiful setting for a restful day or afternoon. Casa Santo Domingo offers a free hourly shuttle to the park from the hotel in town.

For the nine days before Christmas, Las Posadas de Navidads proceeded through the neighborhoods of Antigua. Each evening smaller processions, led by fireworks and accompanied by a band and carolers bearing torches, carried a small float of the Holy Family door to door to a different home, re-enacting their search for shelter as they traveled to Bethlehem. Arriving at the predetermined host for the night they sing, “In the name of God, we ask for shelter, for my beloved wife cannot walk.” (En el hombre del cielo, os pido posada, pues no puede andar mi esposa amada.)  It is considered a great honor and blessing to be a host, and the family provides the participants in the procession with traditional food and drink after the statues are brought into the home.  Home town Saint Hermano Pedro started this tradition in 1663.

On Christmas Eve we watched from our rooftop as the surrounding countryside exploded in a spectacular display of fireworks.  All around us our neighbors and families near and far, lit the night sky for at least two hours.  The night’s fireworks displays rivaled July 4th celebrations in the states.  Instead of our usual cold northeast weather and a large family gathering, our first Christmas away from home was celebrated with weather in the high 70’s, blue skies and shirtsleeves.  It was odd because we had broken a tradition and we were a little blue because of it.  Then again it was warm and sunny, Feliz Navidad!! I think we have quickly become snowbirds. img_2637Antigua filled early with people in all their finery on New Year’s. Vendors selling textiles the day before were now offering party hats and all sort of 2019 memorabilia. Concerts were held in Plaza Mayor and under El Arco.  Firework launchers were being setup amidst the crowds in the streets. Families were picnicking in the park and folks were staking their spots early to watch the fireworks later.  At midnight a loud and colorful display filled the night sky. We could hear the roar of an appreciative crowd from our rooftop.  We heard random explosions throughout the night to sunrise.  Guatemalans love their fireworks!

Two days later we boarded a tourist shuttle to San Pedro La Laguna for our last week in Guatemala.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

 

 

Olon – A Beach Paradise – Head Here Before it’s too Late!

IMG_0157Our quest for eternal Spring-like weather has brought us to Olon, a rustic beach town on Ecuador’s southern Pacific coast with a wide, flat sandy beach that stretches for nearly five miles without a high-rise to been seen. Think San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua fifteen years ago, before it was discovered, or Costa Rica thirty years before it became a top tourist destination.

It’s ideal for long solitary walks along the beach collecting shells, especially near the Mirador del Olon cliffs that rise dramatically from the ocean.  On the other end of town, the Rio Olon runs through a nature preserve, where we have entertained ourselves photographing various birds and listening to their calls. It’s amazing how small birds seem to have such loud songs that carry for a long distance.  The river doesn’t have enough flow to reach the sea this time of year and is separated from it by a berm of sand, but one night after a heavy rain the river breached the sand dune and carved its way into the sea.

Change is coming slowly to Olon. The roads in town were only bricked three years ago. So, there is still a wonderful, authentic undeveloped rawness to the town, with a small number of hotels and surf schools mixed in amongst local homes, many in an unfinished state.

It’s off season now in October, mostly cloudy with a light mist every morning, but the water is still warm, perfect conditions for the handful of surfers and us. Although the waves can reach 12ft at times, beginning surfers prefer the less crowded, smaller wave conditions in Olon over those of Montañita, which can be more treacherous.

The seafood cabanas along the beach are only open on the weekend this time of year, when it seems to get slightly busier. Our favorite is the last one down by the fishing boats, Mar del Sol, run by Rosa.  You can’t beat her stuffed calamari, ceviche or various seafood salads.

At times teams of fishermen can still be seen setting seine nets from the shore and hauling their catch in by hand. Other fishermen fight the waves to launch skiffs through the rough surf from the beach.

Sometimes the beach is a corridor of commerce with freshly caught fish being delivered by motorcycle from small villages further up the coast. Fathers can be seen taking their kids to school on the handlebars of their motorcycles, gently splashing through the incoming tide, hurrying to get there.  Outside of the small school every morning it’s like New York’s Times Square for ten minutes, with all the coming and going of motorbikes.  One morning a parade of open bed, stake trucks carrying school children dressed in different team colors honked and cheered its way, through town, to the school for a day of field activities.  Every evening there is a well-attended, robust soccer game on the beach. Just imagine the memories these kids will have!  Outside our hotel, a group of young men play marbles in the dirt road under a dim streetlight, using the light from their cell phones to help find stray ones hidden in the foliage along the road. In the morning we passed our neighbor, singing softly to herself as she gardened.

Our budget friendly and relaxing short-term rental at Rincon d’Olon included a very nice breakfast on the rooftop terrace prepared by the gregarious innkeeper, Chris.  He emigrated from the Netherlands to Ecuador six years ago after volunteering in the Andes and vacationing on the coast.  He is a great source of information for all things local and arranged several transfers and an excursion for us.

By ten o’clock each evening the streets are empty.  From our apartment at night we can hear the waves crashing onto the beach, along with roosters crowing – they start at one in the morning, seemingly on a campaign to discourage tourism – and dogs barking to each other. There is no traffic in this tiny four block square village.  Everyone walks in the middle of the road, roosters, dogs and cats included.  Restaurant owners and musicians will wave to you if they remember your visit from the day before.  Every day pushcart vendors wheel their offerings of fruit, eggs, cheese, clothing, kitchen supplies, etc. through town, each peddler singing out a different sales pitch. Sometimes the loudspeakers around the usually sleepy plaza blare: community news, music or appeals for donations to help a family pay funeral expenses.  One Saturday, families gathered to pay their respects at a memorial service on the plaza.  Later, the pallbearers hoisted the casket onto their shoulders, and solemnly carried it through town to the cemetery. A small marching band followed the coffin, playing El Condor Pasa, If I Could, by Simon and Garfunkle.

For a change of scenery, we took a day cruise out of Puerto Lopez to Isla de la Plata, an uninhabited island twenty-three miles off the coast, which is part of Machalilla National Park.  It is also referred to as the “budget Galapagos,” where we had a chance to see nesting blue-footed boobies and frigate birds.   Fifty dollars per person included shuttle transportation, boat ride, snorkeling gear, lunch, a three-hour hike with a licensed guide, and most importantly, the chance to see humpback whales. IMG_7650 Puerto Lopez hosts the largest fishing fleet on this part of the Ecuadorian coast.  Lacking a protected harbor, all the fishing boats beach on the shoreline to unload their fresh catch.  It is a hectic scene of never-ending activity that is reminiscent of an earlier era.

At Olon’s outdoor fish market, vendors sell a wonderful selection of fresh seafood caught locally at stalls set up along Ruta del Spondylus, named after a thorny shell used by the Incas in religious ceremonies.  The stalls are closed by noon, so we try to get there early for the best choices.  Two kilos of fresh large shrimp set us back six dollars.  After dark small tiendas fire up their street-side charcoal grills, offering chicken, pork or sausage shish-kababs to go, or you can stay and eat at tables set up in the street.  Several doors down from our hotel, at a little house with a barbeque made from an old fifty-gallon oil drum, two plates of fresh grilled fish with a beer cost five dollars for dinner.

For a tiny place, this village also has a surprising number of refined, small niche eateries, most of them created by foreign surfers, (Swedish, Dutch, Brazilian, Argentinian, Venezuelan, Austrian, Russian) who fell in love with the waves here and never left. Wonderful and inexpensive empanadas ($1.00) along with the best papas fritas (French fries) can be consumed at Bahio which offers Argentinian fast food.  Next door, La Churreria has good coffee and desserts which rival any French bakery in Paris.  For more refined though still very casual dining, try the eclectic menus at Momo or Cotinga’s across the main road.  Cotinga’s might be the only restaurant in Ecuador where you can get home-made borscht accompanied by a shot of vodka, prepared by Olga, a Russian expat.

The only thing Olon really needs is a French inspired chef whose specialty is Coq au Vin.  Roosters, you’ve been warned!

Till later,

Craig & Donna

Vilcabamba – “My friend is really good at colonics, she’ll be here soon”

IMG_4211A vacation from vacation? Yes, its’s tiring work having fun every day!  Where to? Vilcabamba had been on our radar for a while, having read about its reputation as the “Valley of Longevity,” with mineral rich spring water and crisp mountain air.  That along with its location in Ecuador’s Southern Andes Mountains at an elevation of 5000ft, a setting which provides continuous spring-like conditions, has attracted a growing expat population of greying hippies, new agers, and backpackers seeking the fountain of youth and inexpensive housing.  We had to check it out!

Hostal Izhcayluma was recommended as the place to stay. Their $15.00 per person shuttle from their sister hostal, La Cigale, which was only a block from our apartment, as well as a line from their website (Izhcayluma is NOT a place for perpetually grouchy people) cinched the deal.  Hostal Izhcayluma, promotes itself as a “luxury resort spa priced for backpackers” and truly has to be one of the best travel values in Ecuador or all of South America.IMG_4389With a bed in the dorm room going for $9.50 and luxury private cabins starting at just $39.00, the resort has a reputation as the place to go to “relax, enjoy, forget time and stay awhile.”  Free morning yoga classes, a wonderful restaurant with some German dishes, and super affordable spa treatments (90 minute, deep tissue massages for $24.00, we both indulged) definitely promoted well-being.  Bird calls filled the air and the distinctive face of 6,000ft high Cerro Mandango, god lying down, watched over the valley.  Three thousand feet lower in altitude and much farther south, Vilcabamba was about 10 degrees warmer, which was a much-needed reprieve from the chilly days and nights we were experiencing in Cuenca.

At the reception desk are numerous brochures for off-site activities in the valley.  For reasons unknown I’ve become attracted to horseback riding later in life. With naïve enthusiasm I was immediately drawn to the five-hour ride on “galloping horses” to Cascada El Palto high in the surrounding mountains.  I’ve been riding about a dozen times, mostly on mountain trails, and the horses walked, occasionally trotted short distances, but never galloped.  Thinking this was hyperbole from the corral, I was reassured by the sign-up sheet that asked for your riding experience.  A family of five marked inexperienced. I thought this was a good sign and that the group would saunter slowly through the countryside for the novices. They must have been a family of vacationing gauchos from Argentina, because as soon as our guide shouted VAMANOS! we galloped out of Vilcabamba, into the mountains, and back.  I walked liked a saddle-sore cowboy for a week after that.

A disc-jockey blasted “You can’t always get what you want” from loud-speakers setup on the steps of the church across from the plaza as we walked along vendors’ craft tables in the street.  Trophies were visible on the DJ’s table as were bags of dog food under it.  To our delight, Vilcabamba was having its Best Dressed Dog competition today and later in the afternoon a Paso Fino, fine step, horse show.  About twenty proud and good-humored dog owners entertained a large crowd through several rounds of judging.  Several dogs had cheering sections in the crowd.  One or two ran away out of embarrassment, I think.  Trophies and bags of dog food were presented to the winners by a tiara and sash wearing Miss Vilcabamba.

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Immediately after the awards were presented the crowd rushed to the other side of the plaza where the horse show was ready to start.  Horsemen with perfect posture, dressed in immaculate white shirts, pants and hats, paraded their mounts up and down the dusty street to the sound of lively Spanish music.

The restaurant porches around the plaza were full of aging gringos, drinking beer, sipping wine, observing from afar.  Occasional a whiff of pot floated down the street.  “My friend is really good at colonics, she’ll be here soon” was an odd conversation snippet we overheard.

We were glad we visited Vilbamba for a long weekend, but were relieved we hadn’t committed to spending more time there.  Thoroughly relaxed we headed back to Cuenca.

 

 

El Barranco – Cuenca’s Most Interesting Neighborhood in Ecuador’s Renaissance City

With a vibe and cultural scene reminiscent of Florence, Italy, Cuenca continues to reap tourism awards as a hot new destination in South America. The city is investing heavily in infrastructure with a new tram line opening soon, but with all this positive press the streets are still mostly filled with Cuencanos (people of Cuenca) going about their daily lives.  Masses of flag-led tour groups are unheard of, as are masses of tourists in general.  We have been in Cuenca for five weeks and have never felt the crush of tourist season descending upon us.Parque de San Sebastian_001The city does a wonderful job supporting its craftspeople who still use traditional, made by hand, methods to create exceptional pieces in jewelry, textile, ceramic, wrought-iron, tin and copper workshops located across the city.  Toquilla straw weavers in the villages around Cuenca who carry unfinished sacks of Panama Hats into the city’s sombrero (hat) factories also need to be included into this group.  There are also several traditional felt hat tallerias (workshops) that cater to the indigenous women who live in the rural areas around Cuenca. The fine arts scene is also well represented with galleries and artists’ studios often next to traditional crafts workshops. To get the broadest experience of this vibrant arts and crafts community a tour through Cuenca’s most interesting neighborhood, El Barranco (the cliffs), and along its busiest street Calle Larga, is a must.  The colonial buildings that front Calle Larga back onto the cliff which overlooks Rio Tomebamba and the newer southern part of Cuenca. Wide stairs in several parts lead down to Paseo 3 de Noviembre, a shaded pedestrian walkway and bike path that follows the river for several miles.Coronel Guillermo Talbot Stairs_001This route actually starts several blocks west of Calle Larga at Cuenca’s Museo de Arte Moderno (Museum of Modern Art) across from Parque de San Sebastian which has a large fountain and several nice places to eat. Casa Azul, which has rare sidewalk tables that face the quiet plaza, and Tienda Café are good choices.  Most of the workshops won’t have business signs over their doors or street numbers, might open by ten, but will reliably close between one and three for lunch.

Just around the corner from the Museo Municpal de Arte Moderno at 7-49 Coronel Guillermo Talbot is the unimposing metal embossing workshop of Carlos Bustos. With his workbench by the door to take advantage of the daylight and his finished pieces hanging behind him, he works until the sun sets.  Still keeping the traditions of his family alive he offers embossed decorative pieces which can be traditional or whimsical.  At the end of the street a mural-lined staircase will take you down to the Rio Tomebamba; instead make a left onto Presidente Cordova and then veer right at the Y in the road onto Bajada del Valo. A few doors down is the felt hat Sombrereria of Camilo M.  Hanging from his walls are dozens of white felt hats in various stages of completion with name of the person who ordered it pinned into the brim.  Ask permission to take photos and you will be greeted with a smile.  Just past the hat maker,  Plazoleta Cruz del Vado merges with Mirador del Barranco.  This small plaza has several whimsical sculptures, largest of which depicts the traditional festival game Palo Ensebado (the teaching stick – climbing a greased pole) and a religious cross which celebrates the founding of Cuenca in 1557.

Walking along this scenic overlook, open doors reveal artists’ studios and Casa Museo La Condamine, a museum/antique store that houses an interesting menagerie of long forgotten Cuenca furnishings and antiquities.  Next door to them is the Prohibido Centro Cultural, an alternative museum that displays sculptures and art that could have been inspirational for your worst nightmare or an award winning sci-fi/horror film, depending on how you look at things.  It has a café. Further along the balustrade, musical chords waft from an instrument maker’s workshop, drawing you in, as the craftspeople test their work . Stairs from this scenic overlook lead down to Calle la Condamine and several coppersmiths.

Rounding the corner onto Calle Larga is like returning from the Amazon to New York City. It’s tenfold busier, with the Mercado 10 de Agosto (Cuenca’s central market) accounting for most of the activity in the first block.  This a great short detour to get some exotic fruits or fresh bread and rolls from the numerous panaderias that surround it.  Diagonally across the street is the Museum del Sombrero de Paja Toquilla (free), a still operating panama hat factory where you can watch the manufacturing process and try on the finished product.  They have a lovely rooftop café, the only one in Cuenca, that overlooks the Rio Tomebamba and park below.  They offer you a free cup of coffee when you purchase a hat.  From the rooftop here you can see the jewelry workshop and store of Andrea Tello on Av 12 de Abril across the river. One of Cuenca’s finest silversmiths, having created filigree masterpieces that are in museum collections around the world, she earned the UNESCO Award of Excellence in Handicrafts in 2010.  Just a few doors away is the wide alley Bajada del Padron where you will find the workshop of an ironsmith who makes Pucara, a symbol given as a gift to bring good fortune and prosperity. The sculpture incorporates the Christian cross with images of the Sun and Moon to honor Pachamama.

Continuing east along Calle Larga you will cross the intersection of Benigno Malo. For the next several blocks the restaurant choices are tremendous, with options for Arab and Indian cooking to gourmet Ecuadorian cuisine and everything else in between.  El Mercado and El Jardin offer fine dinning experiences that are very enjoyable. For a more casual environment try Goza Espresso Bar which has outside table facing a small park. The lower level of Museo Remigio Crespo Toral (free) offers the Café del Museo, which is truly an oasis of calm in this bustling city, has terraced outside dining that looks over the lush greenery along the Rio Tomebamba and Paseo 3 de Noviembre. The museum itself is worth exploring to see how Cuenca’s gentry lived at the end of the 19th century.  Or you can head to the Wunderbar Café on the Francisco Sojos Jaramillo stairway that leads to the Centro Interamericano de Artes Populares (CIDAP – free) which offers changing, monthly craft exhibits.

Back on Calle Larga the Museo de las Culturas Aborigenes looks unimpressive from its entrance, but the museum upstairs has an enthralling collection of 8,000 indigenous artifacts that spans 15,000 years and 20 pre-Columbian cultures, stone-age to bronze-age. Downstairs there is a very good, no-pressure gift store with excellent pricing. Next door is the fascinating studio of metal sculptor Julio Machado who creates hummingbirds and other animals in bronze and aluminum.  Stay straight on Calle Larga when you come to the fork in the road at Todos los Santos Church; this will lead you to a store front painter’s studio where his favorite subject seems to be the church you just passed.

At the end of Calle Large at what once was the Inca city of Tomebamba, its terraced gardens still home to grazing llama, now stands Museo Pumapungo (free), one of Ecuador’s finest museums. The first floor offers changing contemporary art exhibits as well as a fascinating collection of artifacts discovered on site here. Upstairs features exhibits which represent all of Ecuador’s diverse cultural groups and their historic way of life.  Topping it off, there is an unusual exhibit of shrunken heads, tzantzas, along with how-do instructions in Spanish and English from the Shuar people of the Amazon.

Across the river from the Museo Pumapungo is Las Herrerias, the street of the iron forges, where several workshops create utilitarian and decorative works; to locate the workshops, just follow the sounds of hammers striking anvils. Plaza del Herrero, at the end of the street, has a very interesting monumental sculpture dedicated to the ironworkers who helped build Cuenca.  Be sure to try Tortilla de Choclo, a scrumptious corn pancake that is pan-fried on large griddles along the street in this neighborhood.

Artisans not in the Barranco neighborhood, but definitely worth the effort to visit, are ceramicist Eduardo Vega (internationally recognized for his decorative arts.) His workshop and home are a short walk downhill from the Mirador de Turi. Located on the new tram-line that runs through the historic potters’ Barrio Convencio Del 45, at 2-90 Mariscal Lamar, is the traditional, ceramic workshop of Jose Encalada where he and his son Ivan still form every piece using a potter’s kick-wheel. A few blocks over on Vega Munoz is the contemporary, ceramic studio of Eduardo Segovia where he creates whimsical decorative pieces influenced by South American traditions. Closer to the historic central part of Cuenca is the Mama Quilla silversmith shop on Luis Cordero. Here, Harley-riding Ernesto creates fine filigree pieces that reflect the cultures of the Andes.

We enjoyed walking through El Barranco, and specifically Calle Larga.  The route we suggest here provides a wonderful overview of life and art in Cuenca.

Till later,

Craig & Donna