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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till next time, Craig & DonnaUF

Bulgaria: Plovdiv – Minarets and Roman Ruins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till later, Craig & Donna

Bulgarian: Back Roads, Monasteries and Junkyards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till next time, Craig & Donna

 

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

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

 

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