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

 

Porto Part 1:  A Cathedral a Day Keeps Lightning and Thunder Away

We arrived in Porto late in the afternoon, only to find the full length of street where we were staying, Rua do Sol, under a tumultuous state of construction.  Heavy equipment had deeply excavated the street and workers were laying new water lines.  Temporarily parking at the end of street, in front of a small chapel – Capela dos Alfaiates – we dragged our suitcases down a sidewalk so narrow that we had to step into the doorframes of buildings to let oncoming folks pass.  Having read too many mystery novels, I found myself thinking it would be the perfect spot to set a crime scene as we walked along the deep trench to our apartment.  Maybe the fictional Inspector Ze Coelho would be called in after two American tourists see fingertips protruding from the dirt early one morning as they set out to explore Porto. That imaginary detour aside, we had a great time during our stay in Porto.IMG_2391There’s just so much to do and see here, where do you start?  Our location was ideal, just around the corner from three pastelarias, bakeries, that were only doors apart and across the way from Batalha, the funicular station that could take us down the steep slope to the Douro River waterfront by the Ponte Luís I bridge.  Tram 22 also starts from this plaza and follows a route past the Azulejo tile fronted Church of Saint Ildefonso, São Bento Station, to Igreja do Carmo where you can transfer to the Tram 18 line.  A third route with Tram 1 Unfortunately, the trams are not as inexpensive Lisbon’s.  We thought the two-day pass available, for ten euros, was too restrictive as it could only be used on back-to-back days and only on the historic trams.  A single tram ride costs three euros.  Many times, the trams are seriously delayed by congestion or improperly parked automobiles.follows the riverside to Foz at the mouth of the Douro River.IMG_1162Unfortunately, the trams are not as inexpensive Lisbon’s.  We thought the two-day pass available, for ten euros, was too restrictive as it could only be used on back-to-back days and only on the historic trams.  A single tram ride costs three euros.  Many times, the trams are seriously delayed by congestion or improperly parked automobiles. IMG_1120But the city really needs to be explored on foot to truly savor its charm and intrigue.  Porto escaped the massive 1755 earthquake and tsunami that devasted Lisbon.  Consequently, the city’s historic architectural gems, many dating as far back as the thirteenth century, still stand unscathed, and its ancient cobbled lanes still meander every which way, untouched by urban planning.  With this in mind we decided to weave our way over to the Ponte Luís I bridge and eventually make our way down to the picturesque south bank of the Douro River as our destination for the day, stopping to explore what interested us along the way.IMG_2743Set at the far end of the plaza Largo Primeiro de Dezembro, next to a police station housed in an old monastery building, Igreja de Santa Clara is easy to miss. From a distance all you see is a nondescript archway framing an ancient door on the other side of a small courtyard.  With one step over the high threshold we were transported back in time to another era.  Sun light cascaded through high windows illuminating a cavernous sanctuary.IMG_2690Almost every surface was covered with highly carved wood sculptures, gilded with gold-leaf or polychromed.  The cathedral sparkled! The church dates to the 1400s, while the gilded Baroque interior was an 18th century renovation.  Volunteers offered tours in return for donations to support restoration efforts. The wow factor was amazing.IMG_2691We soon learned that the wealth of Porto rivaled that of Lisbon and the cathedrals spread across the city were the showcases of it.  This might be the locale where you can experience a cathedral overdose, but you would be amiss to bypass such beauty.  Maybe one cathedral a day, more like two, to keep lightning and thunder away?IMG_1060The armour-clad equestrian statue of Vímara Peres guards the approach to the Ponte Luis I bridge across the River Douro and some contemporary street art, that we’re not sure he would appreciate.

In the ninth century he led the armies that liberated northern Portugal, and it was the beginning of the end for the Moorish control of the country. This part of Porto was once encircled by fortress walls that extended all the way down to the river.  From the bridge, we had a clear view of two watch towers and a small section of ramparts, which are all that remain of Muralha Fernandina, a medieval castle built by King D. Afonso IV in the early 1300s.IMG_1182For nine-hundred years pontoon bridges and small boats were the major ways to cross the breath of the Douro River before the advent of iron construction. Designed by Théophile Seyrig, a former colleague of Eiffel, Ponte Luiz I opened in 1886 connecting both the upper and lower levels of the Ribeira area of Porto with Gaia. Today the graceful arch, with modern trams and pedestrians sharing its upper deck, is an iconic symbol for the integration of Porto’s history with the future. IMG_1040Across the bridge we worked our way up to Mosteiro da Serra do Pilar for the views.  This spot and Jardim do Morro, the park at its base, are popular places to watch the sunset from.IMG_1105We opted not to take the aerial tram down to the Gaia riverfront and continued our walk, looking for the right restaurant set amidst the fifty port cellars that line the waterfront.  Perched atop the port cellar Espaço Porto Cruz, the Terrace Lounge 360º fit the bill.IMG_2560 The day was beautiful, lunch was delightfully slow paced and of course we enjoyed some wine.  We’ve found the restaurants in Portugal never rush you to leave.  The table is yours for however long you wish to stay.  We soaked in the warm sun, breathed in the crisp Spring air and absorbed the good life surrounding us.

On our leisurely stroll back along the waterfront, we admired the colorful rabelo boats anchored along the quay and Porto’s profile reflecting in the river to the lower deck of the Ponte Luiz I bridge. Here we crossed to take the Funicular dos Guindais, €2.50, back up the steep embankment to the Batalha district.  The route of the funicular passes some of the oldest homes and alleys in Porto which we continued to explore for a while before heading back to our lodging for the evening.

Till next time, Craig & Donna.

 

 

 

Coimbra – There was Sense of Arrival

It was late in the afternoon when we drove across the Ponte de Santa Clara into Coimbra with the reflection of the old city brightly shining on the water of the Mondego River below.  A wonderful sense of anticipation built as we crossed the bridge, seeing layers of history climb from the riverbank to the crest of this ancient city.  Unlike Lisbon or Porto where you are suddenly there, here we glimpsed how history progressed. Crossing the river and entering the city after a long journey, there was a sense of arrival.  We were traveling back in time.  Fortunately, today there new conveniences and we ditched our car in the underground parking at our hotel, Tivoli Coimbra.  It’s a nice, reasonably priced, business class hotel only a short walk from the historic district. IMG_0400Coimbra is a city for walkers.  Ancient lanes crisscross the historic district, weaving their way steeply up the hillside until you eventually reach the University of Coimbra, which crowns this charming city.  But the journey there is so rewarding, with arched alleys, cathedrals and numerous shops and restaurants all vying for exploration.img_9666.jpgEvery day is a good day in Portugal when it starts with café and a Portuguese pastry.  We started ours next to Igreja de Santa Cruz at, of course, Café Santa Cruz This pleasant cafe is in an old parish church that dates to 1530. After its desecration, the space was used as a funeral home, fire station, hardware and plumbing store before becoming a café in 1923 and the beloved Coimbra institution it is today.  Outside, as we left, street musicians were just beginning to tune up as we entered the cathedral and its monastery next door.

Coimbra was the capital of Portugal when construction of Igreja de Santa Cruz was started in 1136.  The importance of the cathedral and monastery in Portugal’s early years was such that the first kings of the country, Afonso Henriques (the conquerer, 1109-1185) and his heir to the throne Sancho I (the populator, 1154-1211) were entombed on opposite sides of the altar.  Usually the altar is off-limits in churches, but here we were able to closely examine the tombs and inspect their intricately carved features. IMG_9733 Deceptively, many of the marble columns and surrounds of the altar are actually wood, painted to imitate marble.  The cathedral aged poorly in its early centuries as the result of repeated Spring flooding from the Mondego River.  In the 1700s Azulejos tiles were added to the walls to cover severely water-damaged early fresco paintings.  A spectacular and huge four thousand pipe organ hangs precariously from the wall of the sanctuary.  Apparently, it’s so difficult to play only three people know how.  The monastery is huge with many interesting rooms and intriguing details to explore.

Outside the wide pedestrian-only avenue Praca 8 de Maio runs flatly through the historic district.  It will change its name to Rua Visc. Da Luz and eventually Rua Ferreirra Borges before ending near the river.  Eateries with outside dining, shops and street performers line this mall, which is Coimbra’s equivalent to New York’s Fifth Avenue, with a little bit of Canal Street thrown in.  It’s the place to walk, to see and be seen.  In the evenings fado, rock and jazz bars enliven the strip. Many small alleys veer off this main street to zigzag their way uphill through ancient, arched city gates to old neighborhoods.

We passed folks calling down to their neighbors from above and others using a rope and bucket to lift groceries up to their fourth or fifth floor apartments.  Groups of jovial students in their traditional capa e batina, black capes, rushed by on the way to or from their Republics (small frat houses) before we reached the prestigious University of Coimbra that crowns the city, occupying what was once an old medieval palace.

Dom João III brought the university here in 1537, after the institution spent its first two-hundred fifty years in Lisbon.  The school is one of the oldest universities in Europe.  While Dom João III’s statue centers the courtyard around which the university is built, the grand façade of the Via Latina with twin staircase and bell tower anchors the square.img_0038.jpgNext to it, inside Sala dos Exames, the walls and ceilings of the lecture halls and dissertation exam rooms are ornately decorated to the point of distraction! The hallways were lined with beautiful Azulejo tiles.  The extravagance continued in Chapel of São Miguel with gold leaf and a majestic organ that nearly takes up the entire space.

The highlight of our visit to the university was our ten minutes in the Biblioteca Joanina.  That’s all the time they allowed, and my wife swears they encouraged us to hold our breaths for the duration of it so as not to introduce excessive humidity to the climate-controlled environment. 200,000 ancient texts are kept in three, two-storied rooms, richly decorated with exotic woods, muraled ceilings and gilded carvings.  In the evenings, after closing, the reading credenzas are covered with sheets of leather to shield them from bat droppings.   A colony of bats is used to protect the books from insect destruction.  The bat guano is swept away in the mornings.  Under the library is the Prisão Académica, academic prison.  It was allegedly used for bad fado singers, plagiarists, late book offenders and dueling academics.IMG_0186From the university we followed the twenty-one arches of Aqueduct of San Sebastian – Garden Arches, constructed in the late 1500s on the ruins of an old roman aqueduct that dated to the first century, along Barrio Sousa Pinto to Jardim Botânico da Universidade de Coimbra.

Constructed in 1772, this wonderful thirty-two acre park covers the slope under the university.  The upper third of the botanical garden features terraced, formal gardens with fountains, a large conservatory with a waterfall and stream running through it, and a medicinal plant garden.  The remainder is now wild, old growth woodland that was originally populated with exotic specimen trees collected from different regions of the world.  The park is very popular spot to have wedding photos taken.

Coimbra does outdoor spaces very well. We ended our day strolling along the riverbanks in Park Verde do Mondego, which was full of families seeking open spaces, before crossing the colorful Pedro e Inês footbridge.  The sides of the bridge are colored glass panels that shine like a rainbow, creating a very dramatic effect.  Below us rowers in scull boats cut through the mirror surface of the water, distorting the reflection of the city in their ripples.IMG_0835The next morning as we looked for a café at which to have breakfast, we walked along Rua Olimpio Nicolau Rui Fernandes past Jardim da Manga, which was once part of the Santa Cruz Monastery next to it. A unique renaissance structure with Moorish water garden influence, it has a large, open-sided cupola at its center, surrounded by four small chapels, set above large garden ponds.  King John III of Portugal is said to have designed the structure on the sleeve (manga) of his jerkin when he visited the monastery in 1528, and thus it was built. IMG_0605Further along Jardim da Avenida Sá da Bandeira divides the boulevard into a lovely, treelined public space that runs for several long blocks through a neighborhood, before it ends just shy of Jardim da Sereia (mermaid.)  The older buildings edging the park are full of character with interesting architectural details. The area was reminiscent of Paris. 

Three statues representing faith, hope, and charity top a ceremonial arch flanked by twin gatehouses and greeted us at the main entrance on Praca Republica; they perfectly framed the ornate manmade waterfall fountain at the end of a long promenade.IMG_0659Azulejo tile murals edged with religious statues framed the sculpted fountain.  At the top of the fountain water gurgled from under a statue of the Virgin Mary, symbolically giving life to the waterfall.  Symmetrical stairways on either side led deeper into the heavily shaded park.

Reluctantly we ended our wanderings in Coimbra and headed to Porto.

We, like other visitors, didn’t budget enough time to fully explore Coimbra as it is viewed as only a short stop between Lisbon and Porto.  This ancient city needs at least two full days to enjoy its charms and a third if you want to explore the surrounding countryside and nearby Schist villages.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

Castelo Branco to Castelo da Lousa – Driving Through the Serra da Estrela Mountains

Yesterday, from the tower of Castelo e Muralhas Castelo Branco we saw a distant line of snowcapped mountains glistening under a brilliant Spring sun. Tonight, we’d rest our heads in Coimbra, noted for its historic university and preserved medieval old town.  Though only one and half hours from Castelo Branco by highway, it would take us all day as we decided to take the back roads through the Serra da Estrela mountains to Castelo da Lousa and Talasnal, one of the abandoned Schist villages.  Schist is a shiny, earth-toned local stone that is very durable and was used extensively in the region for building.

Below Torre, mainland Portugal’s highest peak at 1,993m (6,539 ft), the headwaters of three rivers, the Zezere, the Mondego and the Alva, emerge from the range and flow to the Atlantic coast. IMG_9293 We crisscrossed these serpentine estuaries multiple times during the day as we drove through verdant pine forests along roads that hugged the curves of the land.  Isolated, whitewashed villages dotted the mountainside.

Heads turned in Foz Giraldo, Oleiros, Alvaro, Maria Gomes, Alvares and Lousa when we parked to wander around.  Early birds, we were way ahead of the summer crowds that rush to these mountains to escape the heat of the city and urban life.

Foresters, shepherds and cheesemakers squeeze a livelihood from the land in this sparsely inhabited region. Queijo Serra da Estrela is Portugal’s most unique cheese. It’s a strong flavored, soft, raw sheep’s milk cheese still made by hand from a 2,000-year-old traditional recipe.  Firm on the outside, the wheels of cheese are lusciously creamy on the inside when young; as the cheese matures the center firms to a sliceable semi-soft texture.

We arrived at Castelo da Lousa around noon, hoping to explore the castle and nearby chapels after lunch at a restaurant adjacent to it.  Midweek and off-season, unfortunately both were closed, but we enjoyed our time walking around the base of the castle.  This small castle, dwarfed by surrounding mountains, was once a strategic stronghold along the Mondego line, a series of defensive fortresses along Portugal’s 11th century border south of Coimbra after it was captured from the Moors, deterring them from retaking that city.  The knights Templar are credited with constructing its Keep and Glacis, a ramped lower wall, along the base of the castle, designed to impede scaling ladders and ramming.  By the early fourteenth century, as the Portuguese border expanded south, the castle lost its importance and was forgotten.IMG_9452As Donna was waiting for me at the foot of the castle while I went to get the car, she was approached by two weary trekkers, without water, who had just hiked down from a mountain hamlet above the castle and were expecting to lunch and relax at the closed restaurant before hiking back up the steep trail.  As crows fly, the distance from the village to the castle wasn’t far, but the return hike looked daunting without water or food.  We quickly agreed to give them a lift back when they asked if we could help them.  Our compact rental car was packed pretty full, but we pulled the seats forward and piled some bags on Donna’s lap to make room for Catia, Alain and his large backpack. ( Always wildy speculating, I wondered if they found the lost treasure of a local legend: King Arounce, who fled ancient Coimbra with his daughter and hid his riches in the mountains above the castle.) A Portuguese/ French couple, they were on a weekend getaway from Lisbon and his backpack was full of photography gear.

As it turned out they were staying where we were headed, in Talasnal, one of the three Schist villages above the castle. The four of us spent the rest of the afternoon at Ti Lena chatting away; their English was much better than our non-existent Portuguese.  This rustic tavern served wonderful, traditional Portuguese cuisine typical of the region, and good local wine.  This delightful, serendipitous encounter was one of the highlights of our road trip.IMG_9560Along with Catarredor and Casal Novo, Talasnal was slowly abandoned over the years as younger generations moved away to find work.  With the rise of ecotourism these rustic villages, with their beautiful stonework, have been rediscovered by folks who want to reconnect with nature and a simpler pastoral life, if even for short periods of time.IMG_9535With the help of government grants, many of the near-collapsing structures are in the process of being updated and authentically restored, using traditional building materials and techniques, into restaurants, small inns, workshops, galleries and private homes to support a growing tourist infrastructure and revitalize the area.  Across the mountainous central region of Portugal there are twenty-seven Aldeias do Xisto (Schist Villages) that can be explored.

Till nex time,

Craig & Donna

 

Back Roads – Castelo Branco – Jewel of the Portuguese Frontier

The long, curved road to the top of Colina da Cardosa in Castelo Branco was lined with olive trees.  In this small city of 56,000 it seemed that every available piece of land that didn’t have a building on it was planted with olive trees – even in the median strip!  Being olive aficionados, we were impressed with this urban landscaping that was both functional and edible.  We parked adjacent to Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo and the ruins of the old castle that dominate the hilltop.  A pathway led us to benches that overlooked the prosperous expanse of the modern city.  The golden hour lit the trees around us with warmth.  As the sky deepened, city lights slowly filled the void. Behind us, on the slope below the castle, the old historic district was already cloaked in night.   Tomorrow we’d spend the day wandering its ancient alleys. 

Located just a short walk from the crest of the hill TRYP Colina Do Castelo Hotel, with its free parking, turned out to be the perfect place to base our wandering of the historic district from.  Better for us to walk downhill than uphill.  From our balcony the next morning, we watched a brilliant sunrise.IMG_8704Fortifying the high ground was the rule centuries ago and the last remnant of Castelo e Muralhas Castelo Branco, the white castle, still commands the skyline above the old historic district of the town.  Much isn’t known of the history of Castelo Branco before 1182, when it is first mentioned in a royal document decreeing land to who else, but those prolific castle builders the Knights Templar.  Only 18km (11 miles) from the Spanish border, the fortified village quickly grew into an important center of commerce and line of defense to protect the Portuguese frontier.  Today only two towers and a wide section of the ramparts are all that remained to remind us of this once mighty fortress and walled city.  Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo is thought to be the first church built in the village, when it was constructed within the castle walls on the foundations of a ruined Roman temple.  The church had a turbulent history: destroyed in 1640 during the Portuguese Castile war, burnt down in 1704 and then used by the French as a stable when they invaded. It was left in ruins until it was rebuilt in the 19th century. It now sits peacefully in the park, atop the hill, with a view of the surrounding countryside.

From the castle towers we plotted our walk down through the ancient quarter to Jardim do Paço, the Bishop’s Palace Garden, then ending our day at Sé Catedral de Castelo Branco.  From the hilltop we descended a long flight of shaded stairs to the Miradouro de São Gens.  This is a lovely, quiet spot with a water garden and benches.  During its construction in 1940s evidence of earlier civilizations living on the hill were unearthed and placards describing the finds are featured along the pathway.

We exited the park onto Rua do Mercado, the old merchant street that runs flatly across the midsection of the hill.  Unlike Alfama in Lisbon, there are no boutique shops or galleries along the lane; the area is strictly residential now.  The names of the narrow, cobbled lanes reflect the shops that once lined them: Rua dos Oleiros (potters,) Rua dos Peleteiros (pelters,) and Rua dos Lagares (wineries,) and they run steeply down the slope from Rua do Mercado to flatter ground around the Bishop’s Palace Garden and the newer 17th century part of town.  Wonderful examples of 15th century homes with carved stone door and window frames can be found in this area. But like Alfama, Albicastrenses still gather to talk to their neighbors in the streets and hang laundry from their windows.

Fine examples of Portuguese Calcada, mosaic stone sidewalks, can be seen in front of the Bishop’s Palace, now the Museu Francisco Tavares Proença Jr., which is famous for its collection of highly embroidered, ornate colcha, bedspreads, from the Castelo Branco area.  This traditional art has been unique to the region for over three-hundred years.  It is thought that the inspiration for these was brought back from the orient by Portuguese traders and that the local women self-taught themselves the technique. Needing to rest, we headed into a municipal park across from the Bishop’s Garden, where there was a small café that served good coffee and tasty sandwiches.

The Bishop’s Palace Garden is the crown jewel of Castelo Branco and even in mid-March when we visited was green and spectacular. Commissioned in the early 1700s by the Bishop of Guarda, D. João de Mendonça, it is one of Portugal’s best examples of baroque formal gardens.  The garden is divided into four distinct sections containing fragrant orange trees, azulejos tile murals, boxwood hedges, staircases, statuary, pools, and fountains all inter-connected via pathways. Of particular interest were the staircase of the Kings of Portugal that depicted in miniature the hated Monarchs of Spain, who for short periods ruled Portugal, and the delicate sprinkler fountains found in the pools that were unique to Portuguese formal gardens at the time.

Continuing our walk to the Sé Catedral de Castelo Branco we passed a tall, richly carved, stone road marker.  The Cross of Sao Joao, its fine Manueline details now heavily eroded by time, was sculpted in the 1500s to mark that there was a chapel devoted to Sao Joao nearby. Further along we passed an old defense tower that was renovated centuries earlier to become the town’s clock tower, Torre do Relógio, with its signature finely, pointed conical roof.

Just off the old square, Praça do Camões, we passed through an archway that was once one of the gates to the walled lower part of the town.  Above it was the first residence of the Guarda Bishops before their luxurious palace was built. Those versatile Templars, fortress and cathedral builders extrordinaire, are also credited with the construction the of Sé Catedral de Castelo Branco in the early 13th century.  The cathedral’s original footprint has been lost under centuries of expansion.  Today its simple exterior belies a richly decorated interior that features a gold-leaf altar and a beautiful baptismal font.

Exhausted after a long day of discovery, we took a taxi back uphill to our hotel for the evening. 

When we visited in early Spring, we had the town mostly to ourselves. There were only a handful of other tourists wandering the alleys and gardens with us.  As inexpensive as Lisbon was, meals are even more budget friendly in the countryside.  We highly recommend touring through the small villages and towns along the Portuguese frontier with Spain as a reprieve from the big cities of Lisbon, Coimbra and Porto. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna