Portugal Road Trip – Part 2: For the Love of Guardrails

To misquote RWE, “It’s the journey, but an interesting destination helps.” We left Tomar, destined for Piodão, one of the 27 Aldeias do Xisto, Schist villages, in the mountainous central part of Portugal. Only two and a half hours from Tomar, we rarely passed another car as we drove. Our route quickly transitioned to serpentine roads traversing rolling hills covered in eucalyptus and pine forest. Then the higher above the tree line we drove, an expansive vista of shrublands fielding heather, broom, carqueja and rosemary were revealed. Hair raising, twisting and turning roads would truthfully be a better description, made all the more unsettling because there seemed to have been a transportation department budget crisis, as in, they forgot to install guardrails on most of those mountainous roads! My wife’s knuckles were white from tightly grasping the “Oh Jesus” handle above her door. With all the gorgeous panoramas, they could have planned more miradouros for folks to safely enjoy the views from.

We are not novice mountain drivers, having taken many switchback roads to remote places on several continents, which has reinforced or belief in and appreciation for a nice sturdy guardrail when we see one.

This was also the day our moody rent-a-wreck of a car went psychotic, every warning light on the dashboard blinking violently in Portuguese, requiring us to pull over to check the vehicle. Reluctant to turn off the engine in such a remote area, we listened closely for any sounds of motor distress. The car sounded fine. We drove on. With a quick, blind left turn and an “Oh God!” we descended a steep single lane road on the far side of the village that eventually led us across terraced slopes to Casa da Padaria for the night.

With warm greetings and help with our bags Gorete, the innkeeper, showed us to our room. For many years, decades before its renovation, the inn served as the town’s bakery run by Gorete’s father in-law. She and her husband returned to the village and remodeled the original building into a small four-bedroom guesthouse. The bakery’s large brick oven still takes up one whole wall of the breakfast room, which also displays a huge dough trough and long wooden bread peels used to take the loaves out of the wood fired oven.

Schist, schist, schist, everywhere schist! Walls, roofs, cobbled lanes, terraces, everything in the village is built with this durable brown and grayish stone, from a distance giving it the appearance that it has grown organically from the earth of the box canyon that shelters cradles it.  Everyone’s blue doors and window frames are not the result of superstition to ward off demons or to bring good fortune, but a shop keeper buying many years’ worth of paint in only one color. It became tradition.  

Channeled narrow rivulets of cold mountain water run quickly between homes, under doorsteps and along the edges of walkways before cascading downhill into irrigation trenches for the terraced crops below the village.  Small fountains throughout the hamlet offer spring water for drinking and washing for some of the older homes that still might not have plumbing.   

Slowly exploring the village, we made our way to its central plaza for dinner at O Solar dos Pachecos and enjoyed delicious bowls of Moelas Guisadas a Portuguesa, stewed chicken gizzards. This dish might not be for everyone, but it is truly one of Portugal’s culinary treasures. The owner enthusiastically shared tidbits of information and pointed across the way to the only mailbox in this unique village for the 120 full-time residents left here. Pity the poor postman otherwise trying to figure out the twist, turns and stairways of the hamlet’s ancient lanes. Surely everyone gets to know one another this way with the mailbox strapped to a tree on the main square in front of the village’s only white-washed building, the church.  Before leaving he suggested we enjoy some of the hiking trails the area is known for with a short trek through the valley to Praia Fluvial de Foz d’Égua, a scenic spot with a suspension bridge over a stream that widens into a natural swimming hole. Later for coffee and dessert we watched part of a soccer game on the TV above the bar at O Fontinha.

Piodão owes its unadulterated charm to the fact that it was pretty much forgotten and slowly abandoned until the 1970’s when the donkey and horse trails leading to the village were replaced with roads carved into the isolating mountains of the Serra do Açor that surround it. It is located not far from Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela and continental Portugal’s highest peak, Torre at 6,539ft. Difficult terrain lured fugitives, seeking to escape justice, to the isolated villages of the area. Allegedly one of the assassins of D. Inês de Castro, the mistress of Pedro l, sought refuge here in the late 1300s. Other than that interesting historical footnote and mention in a 1529 census, folks got by on a subsistence economy of farming, grazing sheep and goats, along with wood and stone cutting for centuries.

Its rediscovery and revitalization in the 1980’s brought the isolated village built with the abundant local schist stone recognition as one of the “most Portuguese villages of Portugal,” with a Galo de Prata “silver rooster” award.  

Waking during the night to close the window against the mountain chill, I observed a full moon illuminating a single arched stone bridge over a babbling brook at the bottom of the valley. The mountain songbirds were loud enough to encourage an early wakening as the sun rose over the ridge behind the village. The next morning Gorete’s homemade jams, pastries and a neighbor’s artisanal cheese nourished us before we explored the village and moved on.

The drive to Praia Fluvial de Foz d’Égua was through forest thick with oak, chestnut and laurel cherry and arbutus trees. Arriving, we understood immediately why this beautiful area is such an out of the way tourist magnet. Traveling during the fall shoulder season, we were fortunate to experience the tranquility of this serene spot in solitude.

Continuing the next day, we headed north to Ucanha for its old Roman bridge with fortified tower that spans the Rio Varosa. In the off-season not as many restaurants are open, but we were fortunate to find Casa da Eira near the bridge still welcoming folks for a splendid meal.

The walk to it was down a lane bounded with high walls draped with bunches of grapes dangling beneath, the vines sporting brilliant fall foliage. Just before reaching the restaurant, we peeked through the broken shutters of a long-abandoned church, its wedding cake altar and walls stripped of any religious embellishments.

After lunch we strolled across the bridge and under its tower which served as a toll booth for travelers crossing the river and gateway to the vast land holdings of the Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Salzedas in the 1400s, and further on to the Portuguese frontier.  

The bridge we crossed is thought to have replaced an earlier Roman structure from the first century AD. Through the tower’s archway we followed the lane up to the village’s parish church, Igreja de S. João Evangelist, that dates from 17th century.

It was surprising to learn about the ancient Roman presence here in central Portugal, but we had already noticed signs for the old Roman route as we drove through the area and tried to find two ancient bridges nearby, the Ponte Românica de Vila Pouca de Salzedas and Ponte Romana without any success while on our way to Salzedas. In searching for them, we did however thoroughly enjoy an afternoon ride through tiny hamlets, vineyards, olive groves, and apple orchards, where the tastiest apples were plucked from a tree within reach of our car window.

Reaching Salzedas we parked and walked towards the monastery across a small bridge over a dry riverbed. Stopping across from the monastery to take a photo, we spotted the most unusual statue along the watercourse’s retaining wall: a carved stone sculpture of a naked man sitting with a huge serpent-head phallus bursting forth from between his legs. Its location across from the monastery was all the more bewildering, but we had to laugh. Odd, just really odd, some of the things you discover when you travel.

Shorter opening hours are one of the disadvantages of travel during the shoulder season as by the time we were done exploring the Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Salzedas the small cathedral next to it was closed. Having paid fully for our entry tickets, we were startled by the guard’s request request for coins. “Do you have any foreign coins? I don’t travel, it’s my hobby and I ask all the foreign visitors if they don’t mind sharing.”  Having collected foreign money ourselves we could relate to this desire to touch something of the outside world. “We have some somewhere in our suitcase. I’ll check before we go,” I replied. The attendant replied with a subtly disappointed, “okay.” We were sure he thought we were just giving an excuse as we climbed the stairs to the exhibition.

From its placement in 1155 near the Torno River, in keeping with the sect’s requirements that its buildings be near watercourses, this was one of the largest and wealthiest Cistercian monasteries in Portugal, having been gifted extensive land holdings, by a royal patron, with the express duty of exploiting the land for profit. A century later it was consecrated after the monastic complex was finished. Over the centuries it continued to be financed by various members of succeeding royal dynasties, perhaps seeking divine intervention or to influence the politics of the almighty Catholic church. Like all things old, it underwent several significant renovations during the 16th and 17th centuries. The addition of a second larger cloister in the 18th century left the façade of the monastery we saw today.

“Enough is enough, we’ve had enough,” could have been the chant of the Liberal government after their victory over the Absolutists at the end of the Portuguese Civil War, 1828 -1834, a war fought for basic human rights and to reverse centuries of disenfranchisement from autocratic monarchies and their allies, namely the Catholic church. Reforms started by the enlightened Marquês de Pombal in the mid-1700s to restrict the powers of old aristocratic families and the church with the expulsion of the Jesuits from the Portuguese Empire had stalled. In 1834 the new minister of justice, Joaquim António de Aguiar, enacted a law, The Extinction of the Religious Orders, requiring the dissolution of “all monasteries, convents, colleges, hospices and any other houses of the regular religious orders.” Their properties and moveable assets were to be nationalized and sold, the profits to be entered into the National Exchequer. Convents were allowed to stay open until the last nun died. Joaquim António de Aguiar earned the nickname, O Mata-Frades, “The Friar-Killer,” because of the anti-ecclesiastical spirit of this law. Over 500 monasteries were closed. Urban buildings were easily sold and repurposed, but many monasteries and convents in the rural areas were abandoned. Their religious art and iconography was redistributed to local parish churches, sold into private collections or “lost.” The Santa Maria de Salezadas Monastery sat abandoned and left to ruin for over 160 years until renovation work started in 2002 and culminated in the reopening of the cloisters in 2011 as a museum with displays of the monastery’s medieval and renaissance religious art and treasures recollected from afar.

With a wave and “thank you,” we left the monastery and headed to our car. “Wait, I’ve got to find those coins for you to take him.” Returning to the car with a smile on her face, Donna relayed that he was delighted that we remembered. A small connection.

It’s the journey. We headed to the Douro Valley. 

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Portugal Road Trip – Part 1: Searching for Templar Castles

“It’s okay, you can just ignore that caution light on the dashboard. It never goes off.” “Do you have another car?” “No.” All rental cars appear equally perfect when you are making comparisons and a final selection from a website. Staying within our budget, we chose an off-airport car rental agency with good reviews, that picked us up at the arrivals terminal and sped us away to our awaiting wheels, for €12.50 a day.  The Fiat Panda assigned to us had been driven hard and put away wet, you might say. Reviewing the preexisting body blemishes with the rental agent resulted in a cartoon of the car that looked like it had been ambushed in a gangster movie and sprayed with machine-gun fire, including the roof. Nevertheless, the engine sounded fine, and our twelve-day journey began, driving in a large figure-eight, north to south route, around Portugal. Our first destination – Castelo de Almourol, before arriving in Tomar. But by the afternoon of day three we were referring to our car as the Portuguese version of the American rent-a-wreck concept. When driving through the mountains, on the way to a schist village, every warning light on the dashboard started blinking violently in Portuguese. If we had been flying an airplane, we would have donned parachutes and bailed out.  The engine sounded fine, so we flew on.

Not being sure what is open during the week in the off season, we headed for the Miradouro do Almourol, an overlook above the island that the castle commands. Located on the south side of the Tagus River, it’s not particularly easy to get to. But my wife and I enjoy the off the beaten track routes that take us through less traveled countryside. Crossing the Tagus River, we followed the N118 north into the Alentejo (beyond the Tagus) Region through flat farmlands and wine estates dating back to the 1700’s. The red wines of the area vinted with the Portuguese varietals Castelão, Trincadeira, and Touriga Nacional are acquiring international recognition now, as are the regions white wines made with Antão Vaz, Arinto, and Fernão Pires grapes.

The drive was slowed occasionally by tremendously large John Deere combines, the width of the entire road, as farmers drove them between different fields waiting to be harvested. Seasonal spring floods that replenish the soil have made this river plain an important area for cereal crops and wheat since the Roman times. Our walk a little then café philosophy quickly transformed into drive a little then café when we did our first U-turn of the trip as we passed a small place that had a tractor parked in front. Our espressos only €.70 each. It was nice to be back in Portugal.

The wetlands of the Tagus River valley are ideal for bird watchers looking for black-winged stilt, marsh harrier, purple heron, pratincole and Kentish plover. Occasionally we spotted storks atop centuries-old chimneys of abandoned homes, resting in new nests that were stacked like pancakes atop older ones before continuing their winter migration south to Africa. Quiet lanes, faded sun-bleached pastels, and centuries old weather-worn buildings dotted the landscape. Bullrings, Praça de Touros, still stand in Chamusca and Salvaterra de Magos, and the latter’s traffic circle has a large sculpture of a cavaleiro and bull to celebrate the tradition. Though interest in bullfighting has been waning since Queen Maria II of Portugal banned the spectacle in 1836 with the argument that it was “unbefitting for a civilised nation,” it regained popularity in the Alentejo region after the fights were reinstated in 1921, and the climatic killing of the bull was outlawed in 1928.

Before we reached the castle, we stopped for lunch along the riverfront in Arripiado at the ABC Bar Café. It was a tranquil spot with a boardwalk that had a view of the Tagus River and the small village of Tancos across the water. Small boats offer rides to Almourol Castle from the Arripiado riverbank here.

With its striking island location, just below the junction of the Zezere and Tagus rivers at Constância, Almourol Castle is one of the most picturesque medieval fortresses in Portugal.

Constância was once an important fishing village during the Middle Ages where it was said the rivers there were “two-thirds fish and one-third water.”

As with most things ancient on the Iberia Peninsula, the castle’s history started with an early tribe. The Lusitanians built a small fortress on the island as protection against the Romans in the first century B.C.E. Visgoths, Vandals, Alans and Moors followed until it was captured by the Portuguese during the Reconquista in 1129 and subsequently entrusted to the Knights Templar to rebuild for defense of the frontier border at the time.  It eventually lost its strategic relevance and was consequently abandoned. Various phases of reconstruction began in the mid-1900s. 

Train service to Tancos, Castelo de Almourol and the hilltop village of Constância is available from the Santa Apolónia Station in Lisbon. The trip takes about an hour and a half.   

We arrived in Tomar just as the late autumn sun was low in the sky and beginning to cast lengthening shadows on the forested slope that led to the jewel that crowns this quaint village.  We followed the winding cobbled lane to Castelo de Tomar and only got a brief glimpse of the castle through its outer gate as the heavy wooden door was closed for the day with an echoing clang. The castle combined seamlessly with the Convento de Cristo next to it and creates an immense structure that’s best observed from a distance to appreciate its scale. Admiring the expansive view from the miradouro in front of the castle, we made plans to return the next day via a tuk-tuk taxi, from the town square.

This beguiling medieval village with its narrow lanes and tranquil riverside location discreetly hides its outsized contribution to the history of Portugal.

It starts with those mysterious Knights Templar when in 1159 the first King of Portugal, D. Afonso Henriques, granted land to Gualdim Pais, the fourth Grand Master of the Knights Templar in Portugal as reward for their military prowess and religious zeal during the Portuguese wars for independence and the subsequent Reconquista. When the town was first founded, the population was so minuscule, most of the villagers lived behind the castle’s defensive walls.

In 1160 Gualdim Pais order the construction of a monastery and fortified citadel that would be known as the Convent of Christ, a combination of a fortress and a monastery, that is sometimes referred to as the Convent of Christ Castle. The convent’s most interesting feature is a round sanctuary with an ornate ceiling soaring over a central altar, its design said to be influenced by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem.  Legend states that the knights attended mass on horseback here, the open circular design facilitating the horse’s easy entrance and exit. Famously in 1190, outnumbered Templars defeated a larger Muslim army after their six day siege of Castelo Tomar failed.

Founded in 1118 and slowly gaining recognition from their vowed mission to protect pilgrims journeying to the Holy Lands, the Knights received Papal endorsement in 1139. Pope Innocent II’s Papal Bull sanctioned the Templars as “an army of God,” and provided them special rights that included exemption from paying taxes, allowed them to build their own oratories, immunity from local laws, freedom to cross borders, and obedience only to the Pope. With this blessing Pope Innocent ll made the first papal monetary gift to the Templars. Now a church-endorsed charity, they began receiving land, money, businesses and young nobles from wealthy families who were enthusiastic to find glory in the crusades and willingly donated their assets in order to take the vows of poverty, chastity, piety, and obedience.

Today the Templars most likely would have been charged with running a racketeering enterprise which forced pilgrims and others to pay for protection services they have not requested. This protection was usually from the very people who were demanding the money in the first place.

Things were going well for the Templars across Europe until 1307 when King Philip lV, heavily indebted to the Templars from a war against England, lobbied the Holy Church to disband the Knights Templar as it was a state within a state with its own military, preached heresy and practiced idolatry.

The Templars’ fatal day (eerie music, please) was Friday, the 13th of October 1307. Early that morning all the Templars in France were arrested as enemies of God. Upon torture many falsely confessed and were burned at the stake.  A month later Pope Clement V, a relative of King Philip, decreed that the rest of the Catholic kingdoms in Europe should arrest the remaining Templars and seize their properties. All complied except Portugal!

King Dinis of Portugal did not believe the charges leveled against the Templars, remembering instead their service to a fledging country, and offered sanctuary to knights that had escaped capture.  He then persuaded Pope Clement to support the creation of a new organization, the Order of Christ, into which he transferred all the Templars’ wealth and holdings. The new Order’s mission was now the liberation of the Iberian Peninsular from the Moors and wars against Islam in Africa.

Same group with a new name, but to ensure that the deception of the Pope succeeded, the headquarters of the new order were established, almost in exile, 210 miles away in Castro Marim, a frontier town on the Guadiana River, that serves as the border with Spain.

One hundred years later Dom Henrique of Portugal, Duke of Viseu, better known as Prince Henry the Navigator, allowed the Templars/Order of Christ to return to their former seat of influence in Tomar.  Here they now helped Prince Henry the Navigator establish a medieval think tank: a research institute dedicated to developing navigational tools for a ship to determine its accurate position at sea, relying on the Arabic studies of astronomy, mathematics, trigonometry, which were farther advanced than European knowledge at the time.

The Order of Christ succeeded the Knights Templars as the country’s banker and financed building the fleets of ships needed at the beginning of Portugal’s nautical age of discovery. As rewards, fleets of caravels with white billowing sails boldly embellished with the distinctive red cross of the Order (perhaps the first attempt at global branding) carried explorers down the west coast of Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope into the Indian Ocean in 1487. Portugal’s age as an expanding empire had begun!

Wandering the cobbled lanes of the old town in mid-October, we seemed to have the whole village to ourselves. Later, as the day was perfect, we walked along the Nabao River, crossing a small footbridge in Parque do Mouchão. The view back toward the village was sublime with ducks slowly trailing ripples through the mirrored reflections of the buildings in the water.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Lodging: Casa dos Ofícios Hotel

Dining: Restaurant Beira Rio and Sabores ao Rubro

Seville Part 4 – Road trip to Olvera & Setenil de las Bodegas

The countryside on the way to Olvera was more verdant than the earth toned landscape we traversed on our way to Zahara de la Sierra at the beginning of our road trip.  Now the hillsides were a mosaic of greens, light and soft, dark and vibrant, signaling the arrival of spring. 

As the road curved, Olvera’s Castle and the belltowers of the town’s church broke the horizon. We are never quite sure where to park in small villages.  Worried about getting fined for a parking violation, we always opt to play it safe and find a car lot.  But the parking in Olvera was at the bottom of a steep incline below the historic castle and we just didn’t have the oomph that morning to walk from there uphill and then continue higher to the top of the tower.  With some persistence we navigated the town’s labyrinth of narrow one-way lanes into the Plaza de la Iglesia. At the apex of the village, the plaza straddles the area between Olvera’s citadel and the town’s majestic church, Our Lady of the Incarnation Parish.  Since it was still the off-season, we were in luck and found the last, barely viable parking spot on the plaza. It was a narrow space that required the driver’s side door to be parked tightly against a wall. Fortunately, I’m still limber enough to climb over the car’s center console and stick shift, with a limited amount of grunting and moaning.

The view from the mirador at the edge of the plaza was wonderful.  Incredibly, the views across the village continued to get better and better as we climbed the different levels to the top of the Castillo de Olvera, perched atop a rocky outcrop at an altitude of 2000 feet. The climax was a spectacular view of the cathedral and panorama of whitewashed homes with red tiled roofs backed by a shimmering sea of silver green foiliage. Outside the village, the surrounding olive groves harbor nearly two million trees.

Constructed in the 12th century, the castle was part of a line of signal towers along the Moorish frontier in southern Spain. The castle was expanded in the 14th century when it was captured by King Alfonso XI during the Reconquista. The castilo is one of five in proximity to each other on The Castles Route, Witnesses of the Spanish Reconquest through the Moorish Strip, a no-man’s land that separated the ancient Christian Andalusia frontier from the Arab Kingdom of Granada. The other castles on the circuit are Castillo de las Aguzaderas, Castillo de Cote, Castillo de Morón de la Frontera, and the Castillo del Hierro.

With its size and architectural presence, Our Lady of the Incarnation Parish looks more like a cathedral than just a church. The neoclassical church was started in 1823 on the foundation of an earlier dismantled, gothic- mudéjar style church and dramatically counterbalances the castle on ridge above the village.  Ordered built by The Dukes of Osuna, the feudal lords over Olvera, the vaulted interior is lined with marble imported from Italy and has many interesting religious icons. To fulfill this extravagance the Dukes diverted the town’s taxes, away from improving the village, to pay for it.  They were the last feudal lords over Olvera and declared bankruptcy in 1843 when the church was completed. Then fled, never to be seen again.

A cloudless morning in Olvera turned overcast by the time we arrived in Setenil de las Bodegas only thirty minutes later. While considered a pueblo blanco, it’s totally different from Olvera and Zahara de la Sierra where the homes ascend the steep slopes under their town’s hilltop fortress.  In Setenil de las Bodegas, whitewashed homes front caves under large stone overhangs which line both sides of a gorge, created eons ago from the erosion caused by the swift moving water.

The homes along the gorge use the mammoth natural stone ledge as their roofs. The once raging Rio Trejo is now a quiet stream in the narrow gorge, which widens into a shallow ravine where an ancient Moorish castle still guards the approach to the village.  When the Romans colonized the area two thousand years ago folks had already been dwelling in the natural caves along the gorge for several millennia. Over the centuries the cave fronts were enclosed to create the unique village that still survives.

Before touring the village, we checked into the Hotel El Almendra to drop our bags, just oustside the historic district, with the intent of driving back and finding parking closer to the gorge.  We were just about to pull out of the hotel parking lot when a group of police cars with lights flashing and sirens wailing roared past. A slower patrol car parked and blocked the hotel driveway. Folks were beginning to gather on the sidewalk. We had no idea why until a motorcycle carrying a cameraman facing backward led the first wave of bicycle racers that were a blur of pedaling color as they sped by. A continual surge of racers crested the knoll of the road and coursed downhill towards the village. The race was one leg of the annual Vuelta a Andalucia – Ruta del Sol. A five-day, 500 mile cross-country cycling event that summits 17 mountain passes in the region and attracts 600 riders. Leaving the car at the hotel, we decided to walk the half mile into the village.

By the time we reached Cuevas del Sol, Caves of the Sun, the narrow one-way road through the gorge lined with small taverns and inns, the sun was brightly shining again.  Even though the road is open to cars, it was filled with folks walking and was almost pinched closed by tables from the restaurants narrowing its width.  We found a table and enjoyed both the lunch and the warmth of the February sun.

Afterwards we walked the length of the lane through the deep chasm until a set of stairs led to the Mirador del Carmen and the small 18th century chapel Ermita de Ntra. Sra. Del Carmen.  The view from the overlook encompassed a sweeping vista of the valley filled with whitewashed pueblos stacked atop one another filling the valley to its rim. 

The Nazari Castle, the town’s 12th century Moorish fortress, still stands vigilantly on the edge of the valley, the invaders now camera-wielding tourists.  Across from it the Gothic style Church of Our Lady of the Incarnation, itself an imposing fortress-like structure, was ordered built by the Spanish Crown. It was constructed in 1505, above the town’s previous mosque, to celebrate the liberation of the village from centuries of Arab rule.  We walked back to our hotel along a lane above the gorge lined with newer buildings. 

Heading back to Seville before sunrise the next morning we stopped high above the village on the road that followed the ridge opposite the Cuevas del Sol, in one last attempt to capture the iconic pueblos of the village as dawn cast its first rays of light across the gorge.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

PS. Our 226-mile weekend roundtrip from Seville only used slightly more than a half tank of gasoline.

Seville Part 4 – The Pueblos Blancos – Olvera & Setenil de las Bodegas

The countryside on the way to Olvera was more verdant than the earth toned landscape we traversed on our way to Zahara de la Sierra at the beginning of our road trip.  Now the hillsides were a mosaic of greens, light and soft, dark and vibrant, signaling the arrival of spring. 

As the road curved, Olvera’s Castle and the belltowers of the town’s church broke the horizon. We are never quite sure where to park in small villages.  Worried about getting fined for a parking violation, we always opt to play it safe and find a car lot.  But the parking in Olvera was at the bottom of a steep incline below the historic castle and we just didn’t have the oomph that morning to walk from there uphill and then continue higher to the top of the tower.  With some persistence we navigated the town’s labyrinth of narrow one-way lanes into the Plaza de la Iglesia. At the apex of the village, the plaza straddles the area between Olvera’s citadel and the town’s majestic church, Our Lady of the Incarnation Parish.  Since it was still the off-season, we were in luck and found the last, barely viable parking spot on the plaza. It was a narrow space that required the driver’s side door to be parked tightly against a wall. Fortunately, I’m still limber enough to climb over the car’s center console and stick shift, with a limited amount of grunting and moaning.

The view from the mirador at the edge of the plaza was wonderful.  Incredibly, the views across the village continued to get better and better as we climbed the different levels to the top of the Castillo de Olvera, perched atop a rocky outcrop at an altitude of 2000 feet. The climax was a spectacular view of the cathedral and panorama of whitewashed homes with red tiled roofs backed by a shimmering sea of silver green foiliage. Outside the village, the surrounding olive groves harbor nearly two million trees.

Constructed in the 12th century, the castle was part of a line of signal towers along the Moorish frontier in southern Spain. The castle was expanded in the 14th century when it was captured by King Alfonso XI during the Reconquista. The castilo is one of five in proximity to each other on The Castles Route, Witnesses of the Spanish Reconquest through the Moorish Strip, a no-man’s land that separated the ancient Christian Andalusia frontier from the Arab Kingdom of Granada. The other castles on the circuit are Castillo de las Aguzaderas, Castillo de Cote, Castillo de Morón de la Frontera, and the Castillo del Hierro.

With its size and architectural presence, Our Lady of the Incarnation Parish looks more like a cathedral than just a church. The neoclassical church was started in 1823 on the foundation of an earlier dismantled, gothic- mudéjar style church and dramatically counterbalances the castle on ridge above the village.  Ordered built by The Dukes of Osuna, the feudal lords over Olvera, the vaulted interior is lined with marble imported from Italy and has many interesting religious icons. To fulfill this extravagance the Dukes diverted the town’s taxes, away from improving the village, to pay for it.  They were the last feudal lords over Olvera and declared bankruptcy in 1843 when the church was completed. Then fled, never to be seen again.

A cloudless morning in Olvera turned overcast by the time we arrived in Setenil de las Bodegas only thirty minutes later. While considered a pueblo blanco, it’s totally different from Olvera and Zahara de la Sierra where the homes ascend the steep slopes under their town’s hilltop fortress.  In Setenil de las Bodegas, whitewashed homes front caves under large stone overhangs which line both sides of a gorge, created eons ago from the erosion caused by the swift moving water.

The homes along the gorge use the mammoth natural stone ledge as their roofs. The once raging Rio Trejo is now a quiet stream in the narrow gorge, which widens into a shallow ravine where an ancient Moorish castle still guards the approach to the village.  When the Romans colonized the area two thousand years ago folks had already been dwelling in the natural caves along the gorge for several millennia. Over the centuries the cave fronts were enclosed to create the unique village that still survives.

Before touring the village, we checked into the Hotel El Almendra to drop our bags, just oustside the historic district, with the intent of driving back and finding parking closer to the gorge.  We were just about to pull out of the hotel parking lot when a group of police cars with lights flashing and sirens wailing roared past. A slower patrol car parked and blocked the hotel driveway. Folks were beginning to gather on the sidewalk. We had no idea why until a motorcycle carrying a cameraman facing backward led the first wave of bicycle racers that were a blur of pedaling color as they sped by. A continual surge of racers crested the knoll of the road and coursed downhill towards the village. The race was one leg of the annual Vuelta a Andalucia – Ruta del Sol. A five-day, 500 mile cross-country cycling event that summits 17 mountain passes in the region and attracts 600 riders. Leaving the car at the hotel, we decided to walk the half mile into the village.

By the time we reached Cuevas del Sol, Caves of the Sun, the narrow one-way road through the gorge lined with small taverns and inns, the sun was brightly shining again.  Even though the road is open to cars, it was filled with folks walking and was almost pinched closed by tables from the restaurants narrowing its width.  We found a table and enjoyed both the lunch and the warmth of the February sun.

Afterwards we walked the length of the lane through the deep chasm until a set of stairs led to the Mirador del Carmen and the small 18th century chapel Ermita de Ntra. Sra. Del Carmen.  The view from the overlook encompassed a sweeping vista of the valley filled with whitewashed pueblos stacked atop one another filling the valley to its rim. 

The Nazari Castle, the town’s 12th century Moorish fortress, still stands vigilantly on the edge of the valley, the invaders now camera-wielding tourists.  Across from it the Gothic style Church of Our Lady of the Incarnation, itself an imposing fortress-like structure, was ordered built by the Spanish Crown. It was constructed in 1505, above the town’s previous mosque, to celebrate the liberation of the village from centuries of Arab rule.  We walked back to our hotel along a lane above the gorge lined with newer buildings. 

Heading back to Seville before sunrise the next morning we stopped high above the village on the road that followed the ridge opposite the Cuevas del Sol, in one last attempt to capture the iconic pueblos of the village as dawn cast its first rays of light across the gorge.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

PS. Our 226-mile weekend roundtrip from Seville only used slightly more than a half tank of gasoline.

Ronda Road Trip – The Pueblos Blancos or Blinded by the Light

Needing a break from city life we rented a car at the Santa Justa train station and within minutes we were out of Seville heading south to Ronda, one of Andalucia’s many “Pueblos Blancos,” the white villages, so called because of their uniformly whitewashed houses.  Although it was less than two hours from Seville, it took us all day due to the number of planned stops and spontaneous detours we made.

Lime paint was introduced to the region when Rome controlled the Iberian peninsular. Its use was greatly expanded during the mid-1300’s when a bubonic plague pandemic swept through the Mediterranean countries.  Residents of villages were required yearly to cover the outside and the interiors of their homes and churches with a limewash, known for its natural anti-bacterial and insecticidal properties, in an effort to reduce the spread of disease. Community inspections were done, and folks were fined for noncompliance. This mandated conformity was eventually appreciated as an aesthetically pleasing look and a symbol of meticulous tidiness. Fortunately, the custom stayed and has become an iconic signature of southern Andalusia.

Cresting a low hill on the A-375, we spotted a small castle with crenellated walls and towers in a shallow valley not far from the road. Turning towards it we followed a dirt track through farmland not yet ploughed for the Spring planting to a small intersection where the castle stood next to a narrow, babbling brook.  The history of the Castillo de Las Aguzaderas isn’t really known, but it is thought to have been built in the 1300’s by the Moors as they retreated from advancing territorial gains made by the Spanish during the Reconquista. 

Of Spain’s 2500 castles this is the only one that does not sit atop the high ground of a hill or mountain to command the surrounding terrain, but according to its historical placard, stands in a hollow to protect the spring that emerges from the earth outside its wall. With no attendant and an open gate, we were free to scramble around the walls and climb stairs in a terrible state of disrepair to the top of the castle keep for views all around. In the distance an ancient stone watchtower, Torre del Bollo, dominated a hill.

From afar the whitewashed casas of Zahara de la Sierra brilliantly reflected the sunlight like polished marble.  The homes, stacked like building blocks, rose up the hillside until they met a sheer butte. A square tower crowned the butte’s summit.

We followed the long ring road that circles the mount through the village and decided to have lunch at Meson Oñate where we were drawn to the outdoor patio that overlooks the Zahara-El Gastor Reservoir and the rolling farmland that surrounds it. 

After lunch, to work off our delicous meal, we hiked to the Castillo de Zahara, which crowns the mountaintop above the village. It was a well paved steep path at the start, but soon the slope decreased to a manageable incline that zigzagged up the mountain.  For our effort we were rewarded with stunning bird’s eye views over the red tiled roofs of the village and to the distant lake below. A tower is all that is left of a larger Moorish castle from the 13th century that was built over the ruins of a small Roman settlement that once called the mountaintop home. Barely accessible, it provided a safe haven during times of trouble. The castle had a turbulent history with its control passing back and forth several times between the Moors and Spanish. Even French troops once commanded its summit through Napoleon’s conquest of Spain during the Peninsular War that raged in the early 1800’s.

With a last-minute decision to take a longer route to Ronda, we headed into the mountains outside of Zahara de la Sierra on CA-9104, a serpentine road with steep slopes that took us into the Sendero La Garganta Verde, a rugged and wild scenic area that is known for its population of Griffon vultures, and Monte Prieto.  The wind was insanely whipping around us when we parked the car at the Puerto de las Palomas (4500ft above sea level) mountain pass and walked to an observation deck in hope of viewing some vultures.  Griffons are large birds of prey that have wing spans up to nine feet across. We were fortunate to spot some, far off in the distance before we ran back to the car, chilled to the bone.

The sun sets early when you are on the eastern side of the steep Sierra del Pinar mountain range.  The last rays of sunlight still illuminated Grazalema as we drove into the village, but the temperature dropped along with the vanishing light of a February afternoon.

We sat in the plaza and had café across the sidewalk from an interesting statue of a bull being roped.  The statue commemorates the ancient practice of hunting wild bulls. The tradition continued through the Romans and Arabs and was Christianized by the church into the feast of the bull to celebrate the Virgen del Carmen. During the festival, three times a day, a bull is released to run through the village for an hour with the men chasing after, in hopes of roping it. The beginning and end of each bull’s run is announced with fireworks throughout the day.  Sections of an old Roman road that led up into the village are still visible from the mirador on the edge of town.

Enjoying the freedom and spontaneity a rental car offers is a big plus when developing itineraries. Finding convenient and affordable hotels that have free or inexpensive onsite parking was another whole issue.  It was dark by the time we reached Ronda and we were having difficulty finding the hotel’s parking. With one last call to the hotel receptionist the garage door to their secret lair, that was our parking space, was magically revealed to us on a back alley, under the Hotel Plaza de Toros. Only big enough for six cars, our tiny Fiat 500 easily fit in its tight confines.

The next morning revealed that the hotel was in an excellent location, just a block from the town’s famous bullring, Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda, built in 1784. Aside from bullfights it has been used as an armory and calvary training grounds by the Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda, a noble order of horsemen in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The promenade next to bullring is dedicated to famous literary talents who were enamored with the “Ciudad Sońada” or “Dreamed City,” as Ronda is also called. While Don Quixote didn’t tilt at any windmills in Ronda, his creator Miguel de Cervantes certainly drew inspiration from the area as he traveled between villages for his day job as Royal Tax Collector. Washington Irving found inspiration in the rugged landscape of southern Spain when he traveled through Ronda in 1828 prompting him to write, “There is something in the austere presence of this Spanish landscape that wounds the soul with a feeling close to the sublime.” He also romanticized the brigands, who some saw as Robin Hood figures that lived in the mountainous terrain surrounding Ronda, and Irving was disappointed in not encountering any on his journey through Andalusia, ignoring the poverty and repressive feudal system that forced many into a life of crime. Ernst Hemingway was drawn to the machismo and pageantry of bullfighting in Ronda, where the sword and red muleta cape were first introduced into the ring by the legendary matador Francisco Romero in 1726.  Orson Welles explained bullfighting as “an unjustifiable yet irresistible, three-act tragedy.” Wells was so fascinated with this quintessential Andalusian village that he chose to be buried here on the hacienda of a bullfighter friend – “A man does not belong to the place he was born in, but to the place he chooses to die.” Spanish poet, José Agustín Goytisolo summed it up best for us with, “We sighted Ronda. It was raised up in the mountains, like a natural extension of the landscape, and in the sunlight it seemed to me to be the most beautiful city in the world.”

The mirador beyond the park overlooked olive groves and spring fields still dormant.  Past them distant mountains faded into the horizon.  The path through the mirador led to the Puente Nuevo bridge that connects the younger old town to the ancient village across the steep sided El Tajo (The Deep Cut) gorge, carved out eons ago by the rushing waters of the Rio Guadalevín.  Finished in 1793 after 34 years of construction, the new bridge isn’t so new anymore, but it was an engineering feat when it was constructed across the shear 390ft deep chasm that divided the village. It replaced a poorly built 1735 bridge that tragically collapsed after only six years’ use, killing fifty people.

Ronda is a fabulous city for walking and as we continued across the bridge into La Ciudad, Ronda’s old-town quarter, we stopped in awe, to photograph the iconic whitewashed houses that are tenuously perched atop the walls of the gorge. Precarious to the point that if their front door slammed too hard the back of the house might fall into the gorge! 

We worked our way to Plaza Duquesa de Parcent in the center of the historic district for lunch. Passing architectural details from Ronda’s Moorish and Spanish past still evident on some of the ancient buildings.

In the off-season not all of the restaurants were open, but it was a beautiful day and we didn’t mind waiting for a table in the fascinating historical surroundings. A few minutes later we were seated at a table in the sun, caddy corner between the Convento de Clarisas de Santa Isabel de los Ángeles and the Convento De La Caridad, both built in the 16th century. The classic symmetry of Ronda’s Town Hall with its two-tier colonnade anchored the far side of the plaza.  

Adjacent to the town hall the Iglesia de Santa María la Mayor is the real draw to this side of the historic district.  With two rows of covered balconies next to an adjoining former minaret turned belltower, it’s a unique façade for a church and it’s built on the foundation of a 14th century mosque. Ronda and Granada were the last Moorish strongholds in Andalusia, and the mosque was ordered destroyed after Ronda surrendered in 1485. King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel immediately ordered that a Gothic church be built upon the spot. 

The balconies on the front were added during the reign of King Felipe II in the 1500s for the well-to-do and nobles of the city to watch maestranza tournaments in the plaza, before the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda was built. A century later the church was partially destroyed in an earthquake and the rebuilding over the next two centuries embraced a mishmash of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles that sends architectural purists into a frenzy of “how could they.” Though smaller than the churches in Seville, we found the Iglesia very refreshing with its lofty interior and fabulous religious art.

Just inside one of the side entrances, a worn stone stairwell led up to a walled catwalk that wrapped around the side and back of the building. The views from it over the red tiled roofs of the old quarter seemed not to have changed for centuries.

Later that evening we explored the new town and found Grabados Somera, Shallow Engravings, a wonderful workshop and gallery filled with etchings of matadors, senoritas and Ronda, all the creations of master printmaker engraver Pedro Somera Abad. Writing this now we regret not purchasing a print as a souvenir of our time in Spain.

We eventually came across La Casa de Jamon, a gourmet store and Iberian Ham bar that will leave any carnivorous epicure salivating. Here a leg of the best jamon to take back to your casa will dent your wallet an extravagant 600€.  We never realized those acorn fed porkers could command such a price. Along with jamon, they have locally sourced sausages, wine and cheese from the Andalusia region. We decided to order a charcuterie board for dinner and we were not dissappointed with the tasty assortment presented.

The next morning we walked through the Jardines De Cuenca along a walled path that traced the course of the Rio Guadalevín through El Tajo gorge far below. Across the chasm the hanging gardens of the old palatial homes that lined the cliff edge were redolent with color. The path through the park slowly descended to the Puente Viejo; built in 1616, it is the oldest stone bridge over the river.

Across the bridge the route split to go back into La Ciudad, the old town, through the Renaissance era Puerta de Carlos V, where taxes were once levied on the wares merchants brought into the city.  Or we could go downhill to the impressive arched ruins of the Baños Arabes, a 13th century Moorish bathhouse on the outskirts of the city, that provided heated water, an impressive feat 800 years ago.

Along the river that supplied water to the Arab baths, grist mills once stood just inside Ronda’s double ring of fortress walls that protected this side of La Ciudad.  The mills ground wheat harvested from the surrounding countryside. The stones of the outer wall were repurposed long ago. Now only remnants of the massive inner wall, the last line of defense before entering the city still stands, causing us to pause and imagine its former glory. Walking under the last vestiges of Ronda’s mighty defenses, we headed back.

It was lightly raining as we strolled along Carrera Espinel in search of an interesting place for dinner.  Most of the inside tables at the restaurants we passed were taken with diners escaping the damp evening chill.  But the aroma of savory clams drew us to an outside table at Restaurante Las Maravillas, where the waiter was attentive and refueled the tower heater next to our table to help keep us warm. The dinner and wine were delicious.

Plans to visit Olvera and Setenil de las Bodegas the next day were made over dessert and coffee. It had been a long satisfying day, our “walk a little then café” evolved to “walk a little more, then bed.”

Till next time, Craig & Donna

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Christmas in Milan – A Monumental Cathedral, Cemetery and Horse

Snow started falling as we brewed the morning’s first cups of coffee on the stove using a traditional Italian Moka coffee pot.  Invented by Alfonso Bialetti in 1933, Italians readily accepted it as an easy way to make espresso at home, and it quickly became symbolic of “la dolce vita,” the sweet life and for us a pleasant morning ritual. The day before had been warmer, and bundled up we were able to take our coffee outside on the balcony of our fourth-floor Airbnb rental and enjoy a great sunset view.  This morning though, the tracks of the tram line melted through the thin blanket of freshly fallen snow and left two parallel lines, as if someone had drawn them on this new white canvas with a pencil.

Continuing with our philosophy of slow, immersive travel, we had opted for an apartment in the Isola neighborhood.  Though far away from Milan’s city center, it was situated near the Porta Garibaldi train station and the recently built modern skyscraper complex that surrounds Piazza Gae Aulenti. The illy Caffè here was a frequent stop for comsmopolitan people-watching and excellent coffee.

Nearby were the twin apartment towers of Boeri’s Bosco Verticale, Vertical Forest, famous for their lush foliage-covered balconies, and the Isola and Zara subway stations. The latter was only seven quick stops from the Milan Duomo.

The neighborhood also had numerous tram lines traversing it, but it was impossible to find a hardcopy map of this very extensive system while we were in Milan, though we were able to find this online map of the Milan Tram System while writing this. Ultimately, we relied on our phone’s mapping App to view our tram trips in real time and determine where to change lines to continue our journeys across the city.

Two blocks away, the bi-weekly outdoor food market closed the streets around Piazza Tito Minniti for the bulk of the day while families shopped the stalls for fresh vegetables, cheese, meat and seafood along with socks, pants, dresses and blouses. We enjoyed this aspect of Italian life after learning its subtle nuances – for example, only the vendor touches the fruits and vegetables. There is also a protocol of queueing. Sometimes though our schedule required us to shop around the corner at La Pastaia for fresh pasta or the Penny Market grocery store, where we signed up again for another shopper club card.  We’ve done this in every city where we have stayed long term – Cuenca, Antigua, Lisbon, Cape Town and Kotor. It seems silly, but those small savings do add up and jokingly it helps us feel more like a local.

Emerging from the darkness of the subway station onto the Piazza del Duomo, we were momentarily blinded by the bright sun reflecting off the monumental cathedral that towered before us. Breathtaking in its size and capable of holding 40,000 worshippers, the cathedral is the second largest in Europe, following Saint Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, and the third largest in the world.  Designed in 1386, the ornate and dramatic Gothic façade of the cathedral is covered with 3,400 statues and spires, which required the recruitment of hundreds of stone masons and artisans from across Europe. 

The opulent exterior belies the cathedral’s spartan interior.  While massive in scale, the interior’s gray stone walls and towering columns are cold and austere even with the soft, filtered light of beautiful stained-glass windows illuminating the space. Most moving was a ghastly sculpture by 16th century Italian sculptor Marco d’Agrate of Saint Bartholomew holding his flayed skin, depicting how he was punished for converting an Armenian King to Christianity in the first century AD.

Wandering around the flying buttresses and sculpted spires on the roof of the church was the highlight of our visit to the Duomo. The day was crystal clear, and the panoramic view stretched from the Milanese skyline to the snowcapped Italian Alps. It was spectactular.

Across the plaza the Museum of the Milan Cathedral has an extensive and interesting collection of art and sculpture that at one time or another was part of the Duomo.

On the other side of the plaza stood Milan’s official Christmas tree, a modern conically shaped metal structure covered with thousands of multi-colored changing lights. Beyond the tree was the famous Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, where four-story tall buildings and the promenade between them are covered with a spectacular vaulted glass ceiling.  It is considered the world’s first indoor shopping mall, built shortly after the unification of the Italian peninsular into the Kingdom of Italy in the 1860s when Vittorio Emanuele II was named king.  Lovingly nicknamed “il Salotto di Milano,” or “the living room of Milan” by the Milanese, the phrase acknowledges it’s the place to meet friends and be seen.

Wanting to stay in the city center till night fell, so that we could fully appreciated the Christmas lights on the tree in front of the Duomo, we wandered farther afield until we found the Chiesa di Santa Maria presso San Satiro. First built in the 9th century, the present church dates to the Italian Renaissance and  features a gilded interior and a rare example of Trompe-l’œil in a church. This painter’s effect utilizes a forced perspective to create an illusion of depth behind the altar.

After dark the plaza in front of the Duomo continued to fill with people eager to enjoy the festive mood of the Christmas season.  The Christmas tree was stunning, and its modernity nicely complimented the historic buildings surrounding the piazza.

From our balcony we could see the silhouette of Tomba di Manzoni, the grand entranceway and “Hall of Fame” mausoleum for the noteworthy, though not as wealthy, Milanese who are interned at the Cimitero Monumentale. 

As we wandered farther into the cemetery, we realized that monumental might be an understatement. It was difficult not to confuse this extraordinarily extravagant place of entombment for an outdoor sculpture garden with memorials created by a who’s who list of famous 19th and 20th century Italian artists and architects for prominent Milanese families. 

The family names on the mausoleums also adorn roads, parks, tram and subway stations across the city. There seemed to be an afterlife version of one upmanship in play here with each monument more grandiose than the last.  As if competition or success in life was not enough and had to continue till your final committal.  It was a fascinating place to explore. Plan on spending most of the day.

Donna’s mom had passed away the year before and one of our reasons for staying in Milan was to revisit a project her mother was instrumental in as a member of the United State’s Italian American Heritage Foundation and Leonardo da Vinci’s Horse Foundation. She helped for fifteen years in the 1980s and 90s to raise 2.5 million dollars to the see Leonardo da Vinci’s 24ft tall Il Cavallo recreated. The sculpture was finally realized by American sculptor Nina Akamu

Da Vinci was commissioned by the Duke of Milan in 1482 to create, at the time, what was the largest equestrian statue in the world, as tribute to his late father, Francesco Sforza.  The full-size clay sculpture was completed in 1491 and was waiting for its terracotta mold to be made and enough bronze amassed for its casting when the French invaded in 1499. Subsequentially, the clay model was totally destroyed by French crossbowmen who used it for target practice.

On its 500th anniversary, da Vinci’s Il Cavallo was unveiled outside the Ippodromo Snai San Siro, Milan’s famous horse racing track. Smaller artistic interpretations of Il Cavallo stand in the plaza behind it. This being modern Italy though a horse just can’t be a horse, and many were psychedelically painted and wore tutus or unicorn horns. Wonderfully whimsical, they definitely made us smile. 

One rainy afternoon we took the tram to the 15th century Sforzesco Castle, seat of power for the Sforza dynasty that lasted only 100 years. But in that time the fortress/palace was expanded to be one of the largest citadels in Europe and filled with works of art by numerous Italian Renaissance artists.  Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Bramante, Correggio, Bernardino Zenale and Bernardino Butinone were commissioned to adorn the walls and ceilings and sculpt pieces to fill the vast space. Today the castle houses several of the city’s museums and art collections where the artists’ contributions to the palace can still be seen. A heavy fog had blanketed the citadel by closing time and was evocative of the moods cast in the historical fiction novels set in Renaissance Italy by Sarah Dunant. Later that evening we attended an Anglican Lessons and Carols service as a prelude to Christmas, then headed back to our apartment humming Christmas tunes as we window shopped.

Signs for Artigiano in Fiera, the Fair, dotted our route into Milan when we first arrived from Bergamo and piqued our interest.  We hadn’t heard of it before, but with a quick internet search realized it was the shopping event of the Christmas season in Milan. While in line to enter the center we noticed many people pulling large suitcases. Toward the end of our shopping spree, laden with purchases, we realized the bags on wheels were pure genius, and allowed the seasoned pros to carry their holiday shopping with ease. The Fiera is a tremendously popular annual, nine-day event that draws over one million visitors to the Fiera Milano, Europe’s largest exhibition center, located in Rho, just outside Milan. Folks shop for home furnishings, fashion, jewelry, arts and crafts, along with artisanal foods, wines and liquor. The sites’ nine cavernous exhibition halls were filled with vendors from 100 countries, though displays from the twenty regions of Italy occupied ninety percent of the space. Plan on spending the whole day if you hope to see everything. It was all very interesting and entertaining and truly a marathon event. From Milan it’s an easy trip on the M1 subway, which stops right at the venue.

Wanting to make our last night in Milan special, we made dinner reservations at a highly reviewed restaurant, only to be turned away into a rainy night because we arrived early as the staff was enjoying their pre-work communal meal together. (The later you dine out in Italy the more you’ll feel like a local. Though this does take some getting used to and we haven’t mastered this yet.) “Okay, we will have a drink at the corner bar and return,” we agreed.

To our delight, our aperitives were accompanied by small sandwiches with chips and olives.  We had every intention of heading back to the restaurant, but our waiter was engaging, and the Aperol spritzes were very good. We spent the time watching folks fight the wind with their umbrellas through the bar’s rain-pelted window. The specular highlights from the streetlights added magic to the scene. Occasionally some groups popped inside seeking a warm reprieve from the downpour outside, shook out their umbrellas and found a seat.  Recapping our adventures, tentatively planning the next six months, and talking about Christmas with our kids back in the states, the evening flew by until the waiter said they were closing. Umbrellas up! We headed home.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

PS – The Artigiano was canceled in 2020 due to the Corona virus lock down in Italy. Hopefully, it will be allowed 2021.

Bergamo – Cathedrals, a Flat Tire and a Bell Tower

Somewhere along our route on the A4 motorway to Bergamo the tire blew. It wasn’t an obvious blowout, the car still handled well, but the car felt different.  Our dilemma was, if we stop on the shoulder of the highway to call for assistance how do we explain our location in our non-existent Italian, or do we keep driving to the next exit. We kept going. In the time it took to stop and pay the toll the tire totally deflated, and we limped off the highway on three wheels. Luck was with us we when we rolled into the gas station at the top of the exit ramp.  They didn’t offer any repair services, but did have a small café, and it being Italy, they served excellent cappuccino and pistacchio pasticcino.  With the barista’s help our exact location was given to the roadside assistance agent, and we settled in for what we thought would be a very long wait. Surprisingly, we were back on the road again in less than one hour.

Bergamo was a well-established ancient village before it became a Roman town in 49 BC and today is a hub of industrialization in the Lombardy region.  The newer portion of the city, Citta Bassa, or lower city, is a smart looking collection of contemporary buildings along tree-lined boulevards and pedestrian malls worthy of exploration. Though we were here to wander around the narrow lanes and ancient churches within the 16th century Venetian defensive walls of the Città Alta, the high city. The historic upper center of Bergamo was strategically located on a rock promontory with commanding views of the surrounding region.

Completely pedestrian only, the old town is connected to the new town by a funicular  that runs up the side of a steep hill through an ivy-covered channel. We knew the old town would be full of history, but soon realized it was an unexpected foodie’s delight when we were faced with a gauntlet of gourmet food stores that started as soon as we got off the funicular.

With each shop window more tempting than the previous, it was a challenging task walking along Via Gombito to Piazza Vecchia, the historic center of Bergamo.  It was the last week of November now and even though the days were sunny there was a definite chill to the air. Fortunately, the cafes on the piazza were still in full swing with outdoor dining and had heavy lap blankets available to ward off the chill.  The ambiance of the old town is wonderful and there’s plenty to absorb just by wandering around, but if you are short on time concentrating on the historic buildings that line Piazza Vecchia is rewarding.

Dominating the piazza is the Campanone, the town’s clock and bell tower. When it was built in the 12th century it was the private residence of the wealthy and influential Suardi family.  With admission there is an elevator that will take you most of the way to the top.  Interestingly at ten o’clock every evening the town keeps an ancient Venetian tradition alive by chiming the bells of the clock tower 100 times to signal the closing of the city gates. It was cloudy after lunch so we decided to delay our tower visit till later, hoping that the weather would change, and the sun would come out. Next to the tower stands the Palazzo del Podestà e Museo del Cinquecento a wonderful, high-tech, multimedia and interactive museum housed in a Renaissance era palazzo that highlights Bergamo’s history.

The Cattedrale (duomo) di Sant’Alessandro, the Bergamo Cathedral, is almost hidden away behind the arched portico that separates the Piazza Vecchia from the Piazza Duomo.  Majestic in scale, the duomo dates from the 1400s and has undergone many alterations over the centuries that has evolved the church into a treasured, religious art-filled sanctuary that is the Bishop of Bergamo’s seat.  An important center for Christianity since the religion was accepted by the Roman Empire in the third century, Bergamo has had a bishop since the fourth century. Underneath the Presbytery the Bishops’ Crypt of The Cathedral Of Bergamo holds, in a semi-circle, twelve tombs of bishops who guided the See in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.  Strikingly, the façade of the crypt, in my opinion, could pass as the entrance to a retro café; it just had that feel.

The highlight for us on Piazza Duomo was the Romanesque Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore with its intricately designed marble façade and ornate gilded interior, and the Cappella Colleoni, a separate 15th century funerary chapel with a frescoed ceiling that seamlessly stands next to it. Founded in 1137, like so many other churches in Italy, it was built over the ruins of an earlier 8th century church and an older Roman temple. 

To our delight the church organist was practicing during our visit, and we stayed for twenty minutes and enjoyed this impromptu concert.

Just wandering around, we eventually arrived at the Torre della Campanella, the bell tower and arched gate entrance to Piazza Mascheroni and the Visconti Citadel which guarded the western entrance of the city from invasion, and protected the Visconti family from civil rebellion. The citadel is now home to the Civic Archaeological Museum and the Bergamo Science Museum. 

Remarkably, the buildings adjacent to the gateway still have faded remnants of renaissance era frescoes adorning their exterior walls.

Outside the city walls, the landscape opened to vistas of rolling hills, still holding the fading colors of fall.

Back at Piazza Vecchia the afternoon sun was beginning to break through the clouds when we decided to head to the top of the Campanone. 

The elevator stopped short of the top and we had to navigate a narrow passage to reach the highest level.

Each corner of the tower offered an amazing bird’s eye perspective of the ancient city, from soaring above the cathedrals on Piazza Duomo, to cityscapes of red tiled rooftops with smoke wafting from their chimneys, to distant still green hills.

The city is full of potential, and you won’t be disappointed if you spend two nights here to fully explore the Città Alta. But Old Town Bergamo is the perfect size to entertain you for four or five hours, on your way to or from Milan or Verona, either by train or car, without feeling you might have missed something.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Verona – Courtesans, Hermits and Grappa

Occasionally, I will suggest we return to a place we have visited before, to relive that good time and explore the things we missed previously, or if it was a super affordable destination.  “The world is so big. I’d rather go someplace new,” is often Donna’s response, said with a sweet smile.  But “the rule” doesn’t apply to Italy! – the land of her people.  I’ve lost count of the number of times Donna has been there, but I maintain I’ve followed along often enough to receive honorary citizenship. Let’s face it, Italy is a great place to explore, which led us to Verona, again, for a night. Anyway, it was sort of on our roundabout way to Milan.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at the budget friendly Accommodation Verona, (yes, that is the correct name) on the edge of the historic district. We double parked while the proprietor took our bags upstairs. He then hopped in the passenger seat to show the way to the underground car park and the hotel’s newly purchased garage spaces, with overhead doors to totally secure your wheels, which he was immensely proud of. It was a bit of a hike from the hotel, but the car was safe in the parking garage equivalent of Fort Knox.

The sun was brilliant on Verona’s ancient colosseum while we sipped Aperol spritzes and shared a pizza at an outdoor restaurant on Piazza Bra, as shoppers strolled amidst the nearby Christmas market. Gone were the fake gladiators and other street entertainers who left when the weather turned colder.

It was a vastly different dining experience compared to our first dinner in Verona years ago.  Travel novices then, we were constantly referencing a travel guide by an American, that recommended sights, hotels and restaurants. With book in hand that suggested the restauranteur would treat us well and offer special prices to loyal readers of said guide, we found a delightful place on a quiet lane lined with outdoor tables and twinkling lights.  “Who?” was the response when we mentioned the guidebook. A large antipasto, charcuterie board, wine and “special price” were all agreed upon. Or so we thought.

It was one of those long, delightful European dining experiences, where the table was ours for the evening. The dinner and ambiance were great! Eventually our amiable host, carrying the largest bottle of grappa we’ve ever seen, presented a small wooden box containing the bill. “Please enjoy as much of the grappa as you like.” Drink this to ease the shock of the bill, would have been a more accurate invitation.  Grappa is a regional pomace brandy, distilled from the seeds, stems and skins left over from the winemaking process. Production is centered nearby around the aptly named village of Bassano del Grappa. This is strong stuff that, in a pinch, Italian farmers have used to fuel their tractors. A good dent was put into that bottle of grappa, as we were eventually the last to leave. Fortunately, our hotel was a short, though not very straight, giggly walk away.  Sleep was unjustly cut short the next morning when at sunrise, the glass recycling truck in the alley under our hotel window loudly emptied a dumpster of wine bottles to haul away.  The brash rattling sound of glass bottles crashing was excruciating and reverberated off the narrow alleyway’s walls for what seemed an eternity.  Thank God for espresso and Saint Drogo, the patron saint of coffee baristas. (I do not make these things up!)    

Normally hidden in deep shadows, Renaissance era wall paintings decorating ancient buildings were now revealed in the last of the afternoon’s light. Likewise, the lowering sun highlighted the fine relief sculptures adorning many of the city’s ancient buildings.

By dusk we were standing along the Adige riverfront watching the last rays of the day’s sun color the sky above the arched 14th century Castelvecchio Bridge.  Attached to the Castelvecchio fortress, the bridge was intended as an escape route for the feudal lords to flee across in case of a popular uprising or coup d’état to seek safety in the Tyrol mountains, north of the city, and for the prince’s courtesans to discreetly exit the castle.

The lights of the city’s Christmas tree shined brightly through the twin arches of the Porta Borsari; built by the Romans in the 1st century AD, it was the main entrance to this once walled city. Nearby, Caffè Borsari beckoned, with its extensive list of creative coffee beverages. Maestros of the espresso machine, the baristas here are artists.

The next morning was overcast as we drove across the Adige River and made our way up a serpentine road through a forested hillside, to the esplanade in front of Castel San Pietro for the panoramic view of Verona, and its iconic Ponte Pietra bridge below.  A wonderful feat of ancient engineering first crossed in 100 BC, it has had a troubled existence, with multiple collapses caused by flooding over the centuries, and intentional destruction by the retreating Germany army in WWII. Through the various reconstructions, the builders have remained faithful to the original Roman design of five different sized arches with apertures above the pilings. The present castle on the hill was built by the Austrians in 1851 as a barracks, replacing a 400-year-old fortress blown up by Napoleon’s army in 1801. For the hearty, there are stairs from the bridge that lead to the mirador, or the Funicolare di Castel San Pietro that will whisk you to the top of the hill, should you wish to avoid the muscle aches.

The dull sun barely broke through the clouds, but the filtered light created a serene scene reminiscent of an impressionist painter’s pastel hued landscape, soft and atmospheric.

Rounding a curve on the SS12, as we headed north, we caught our first glimpse of a snow-capped Mt. Baldo, brilliantly white against a clear blue sky. Our destination was the remote and isolated Santuario Madonna della Corona.  A pilgrimage site since 1522, legend holds that on the eve of the Ottoman invasion of Rhodes, with 400 warships and 100,00 troops, the sanctuary’s statue of the Madonna was carried miraculously by an angel from the Mediterranean island to a shallow cave on a Mount Baldo cliff edge, home to a hermitage for holy men, for safe keeping.

Spiazzi, the village above the sanctuary, was nearly a ghost town when we arrived mid-week in November. We found the empty parking lot for the church and high-season shuttle bus that was not running, but aside from that there was no other signage pointing the way. Taking a guess, we turned down a very narrow country lane and headed down hill, stopping when we reached a farm stand where a stoic woman, bundled up against the cold, was selling alpaca wool, sheared and spun from her flock which was corralled nearby.  Stopping, we asked if we were headed the right way and how long she would be open. A little farther on we came to the first Passion of Christ station on the Sentiero del Pellegrino, the Pilgrim’s Path.  The series of life-sized bronze sculptures depicting the stations of the cross took the devoted Italian sculptor Raffaele Bonente thirty years to create.  Whether you walk along or drive the paved road or hike the steep staired path, the stations are positioned where the routes intersect. 

In the off-season, without any other vehicles on the road, it was easy to stop and take photos of the church that tenaciously clings to the cliffside, between heaven and earth, 2539ft above the Adige Valley. In high season the turn-around at the church is reserved for the shuttle bus, but off season we parked next to one other visitor.

The original dangerous path along the cliff edge has been obscured over time through multiple improvements and the approach to the terrace in front of the church is now through a rough-hewn tunnel carved into the cliff. Tranquility reigns here. The views across the valley were phenomenal and accompanied only by the sound of a gentle wind rustling through the forest below.  The spiritual devotion and shear physical effort to build a church in such a difficult spot attests to the deep faith and dedication of the builders. For hikers, the Sentiero del Pellegrino continues down the slope, through the valley to the village of Brentino.

Following the same route back to Spiazzi, we stopped at the alpaca farm and purchased some much-needed heavy weight alpaca wool socks, to help keep our feet warm.  Early on in our two-year journey Donna decided to start crocheting in the evenings. Wool has been purchased for various projects, mostly gifts, in Ecuador, Guatemala, Portugal, South Africa and now Italy, from an off-the beaten-path farm stand on a remote mountainside.  It was late afternoon now, but fortunately the Albergo Trattoria Speranza, located at the crossroads of Spiazzi was still serving food and has rooms if you want to stay overnight in the hamlet.  A good meal restored us for the drive to Lake Garda.

With night drawing in earlier now we reached the lakeside village of Garda at twilight.  Sunset colors lingered in the sky as we walked along the marina. A few fishermen were still casting, hoping for that last bite, and small boats gently rocked on the ripples of Lake Garda. 

The lights of a Christmas market set up along the lakefront drew us further down the promenade.  Wonderful aromas drifted from the various food stalls, making what to choose for dinner even more difficult. Mulled wine and porchetta sandwiches capped the evening.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Reggio Emilia – Fine Food and Ancient Alleys

Seemingly never-ending waves of softly rolling hills that we viewed from the towers of San Marino, up-close now, were verdant with the new growth of winter cover crops and persimmon orchards, heavy with their delectable late-ripening orange fruit. The landscape, a patchwork quilt of autumn colors and earth tones, dotted the countryside enroute to Reggio Emilia, like the brush strokes of an impressionist painting.

Still elegant nineteenth century villas now stand where Reggio Emilia’s ancient defensive walls once rose, until a surging population demanded city expansion in the late 1800s.  A wide boulevard lined with trees and a well-used bike path now follow its original hexagonal footprint around the bike friendly city.  Bicycling across the flat terrain of Reggio Emilia is a popular way to commute to the train station or work in the pedestrian-only historic center from outlying neighborhoods, and is supported with 125 miles of well-marked urban bike lanes.  Emilia-Romagna has set a regional goal of getting 20% of all commuters to bike to work and funding 2300 miles of dedicated bike lanes.

The Reggiani’s enthusiasm for bicycling dates back to the 1870s, when a hippodrome was part of Parco del Popolo, and continues today with fierce loyalty to area road-bicycling racing teams that compete in the historic Giro dell’Emilia that has coursed through Emilia-Romagna since the race was first held in 1909. Currently it’s an a 1.HC event on the UCI Europe Tour.

With the assistance of the receptionist at Hotel Posta we were able to park on the street, just outside the historic center, without a fee for a week. This is unheard of during high season, but it was a great savings for us that we fully appreciated.  Located in the center of the city on Piazza del Monte, across from city hall, the hotel is in the Palazzo del Capitano del Popolo, a historic building which was originally constructed in 1280 as a governor’s palace. For over 500 years, since 1472, the rooms under its crenelated roof have been used as a hotel.

It has been renovated numerous times during the centuries, but still retains the old-world charm. The room rate was quite affordable in late November and we practically had the place to ourselves. From our window overlooking the piazza we watched the ebb and flow of Reggio Emilia pass below, highlighted by a teachers’ protest, a Christmas parade, and nightly buskers who took excellent advantage of the wonderful acoustics that the small plaza offered.

The city’s three large piazzas, Camillo Prampolini, Di Prospero, and Della Vittoria, are lined with historic buildings, churches and restaurants. During high season they would have been bustling with tourists and cafes tables would have nearly filled the squares.

Now in late November, city workers were hanging Christmas lights from the lamp poles throughout the city and erecting a Christmas tree in Piazza Prampolini, while a large temporary ice-skating rink was under construction near the Romolo Valli Opera House. 

Bundled up against the chill now, only the hearty sat at the few tables left outside, though inside the cafes was not really much warmer. Good coffee and locally produced Lambrusco helped ward off the chill as we expanded our concept of “walk a little, then café,” during our wanderings between churches in this pleasant city. 

Cheese is our weakness and we delighted in every opportunity to try different aged Parmigiano Reggianos. (Longer aging produces a stronger or more flavorful cheese, with some cheeses aged up to 36 months for that intense flavoring.) Paired with a locally produced aged balsamic vinegar, it is a surprisingly tasteful combination.

Oh, let’s just face it – Italian food is our weakness and we thoroughly enjoyed discovering the city’s cafes, bakeries, and restaurants as much as we enjoyed the city’s churches and museums.  Charcuterie boards, pastries and pasta tempted us repeatedly in this culinary temple of gastromic delights.  Here are some of our favorite places: Antica Salumeria Giorgio Pancaldi – always worth the wait for a table. Terme del Colesterolo – you have to love the name and their porchetta sandwiches. La Casalinga – a fresh homemade pasta store with super nice ladies who will stop what they are doing and make any tortellini or ravioli you request if the case is empty. Yes, we did buy some to take to our apartment stay in Milan. Dolce Charlottefor their savory and sweet baked goods. And Tabarin Osteria Popolare – even though they confused our order with the table adjacent to us it was still a wonderful dining experience.