MadeIra: Pirates, Wine & Flowers or Everywhere There’s a Miradouro!

“Could you recommend any restaurants for lunch?” The young car rental agent seemed surprised, at first, that we asking her opinion. “Where are you staying. What do you like?” “In the center of Funchal. Meat, fish, we enjoy everything,” I replied. “Hah, most places in Funchal will be closed for the mid-afternoon break by the time you reach town, but nearby, though it’s in the opposite direction, there is Restaurante Snack-bar Frente Ao, one of my favorite places.” And so, our Madeira adventure began with a delicious lunch in a no-frills local place. Tasty grilled limpets in a buttery garlic sauce started our meal. A traditional Polvo a Lagareio, baked octopus with potatoes, and scabbardfish served with fried bananas followed. It was scrumptious, heavenly, you get my point, it was really GOOD!  Outside, planes flew close to the water on their final approach to FNC, across a panorama of the coast that stretched all the way to the headland of Ponta de São Lourenço.

Our first short drive to the restaurant revealed a verdant, lush tropical island bursting with flowering plants, and mountainous with steep ravines that descended into the ocean, like the radial arms of a spider’s web, from a central ridge that runs the length of the island. Colorfully painted homes with red tiled roofs dotted the countryside like swathes of pigment in an impressionist painting. There are few direct, only circuitous routes, where even the bridges and tunnels, some almost 2 miles long, curve to follow the contour of the land. Banana groves large and small dotted every plot of land between the homes that covered the hillsides. Three vintage cars zoomed by.

Portuguese sailors blown 300 miles off course by a violent storm as they explored the west coast of Africa in 1418 discovered a small uninhabited island, with a sheltered anchorage, where they rode out the storm. In thanks they christened the island Porto Santo, Holy Harbor. They noted in a ship’s log that on the western horizon a “dark monstrous shape loomed.” A year later they returned. Wood, madeira, from its virgin forests was the island’s first exports. The trees were so tall and straight that they allowed the Portuguese to design larger, sturdier ships, which Vasco da Gama’s fleet used to sail to India in 1497.

Felling trees for export opened the hillsides for extensive terracing of the lower slopes in the mid-1500s, when sugar cane became the prized export. Later grapes were introduced, and Madeira wine was born. Both crops thrived with irrigation provided by an extensive series of arduously cut, narrow channels called levadas, which traverse the rugged terrain and divert water from mountain streams to the agricultural terraces across the island. Their water was also used to turn the waterwheels of the first mills on the island. Close to five-hundred miles of levadas cover this mountainous island that is roughly thirty-four miles long and fourteen miles wide.

With Madeira wine came the English, who believed that fortified wines improved with age on long ocean voyages. Sailing to their various colonies in the Americas, English naval and merchant ships would sail south from England to catch the trade winds blowing west off Morocco. Fortuitously, Madeira was a well-placed port of call to resupply. With full sails and barrels of Madeira wine in the ship’s hold, they’d reach the Caribbean in a month’s time. Farther on, in their New England colonies, members of the Continental Congress toasted the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 with Madeira wine. While being notoriously at odds with Spain for centuries, the Brits and the Portuguese have the world’s oldest alliance which stems from the Treaty of Windsor in 1386 and was fortified, port glasses raised, with the marriage of King John I of Portugal to a daughter of John of Gaunt, Philippa of Lancaster. This treaty of mutual support has lasted over 630 years. Cheers!

Captain Cook and Charles Darwin both visited at the beginning of their explorations. Napoleon in 1815 stopped for a final supply of Madeira wine while enroute to his permanent exile on St Helena. With the advent of steamships, Madeira became a destination for the well to do of Europe. Before the quay was constructed, historical photos show merchants rowing long boats laden with supplies out to ships anchored in the harbor, and returning with visitors to disembark on Funchal’s rocky beach. Doctors recommended its good fresh air for patients convalescing from tuberculosis. Winston Churchill visited in 1950, painted seascapes and stayed at Reid’s Palace, a Madeira institution since 1891 that still serves afternoon high tea.  He left the island with a reputation that it was for stogey old folks, that remained for decades.

But with Portugal joining the European Union in 1986, it enabled a massive investment in infrastructure that united all parts of the island that were previously inaccessible by overland routes. The small island now has over 100 tunnels and bridges, along with seven cable car routes scattered around the island. Across from the cruise terminal at the base of Santa Catarina Park, there is a relief statue set into a granite embankment that commemorates the men who toiled to build the island’s tunnels and terraces.

Flat land is a rarity on Madeira, as is landfill, the lack of which required the airport runway extension in 2000 to be uniquely expanded over the ocean on 180 concrete columns, each of which are 230-foot-tall, for a total length of 9,000 feet. It felt like we were going to land on an aircraft carrier. Fifty-eight cities in twenty-one countries now have direct flights to the island. Cruises to the island continue to be popular and in 2022 Madeira was voted by the World Cruise Awards the Best Cruise Destination in Europe. Madeira has now reinvented itself into a destination packed with outdoor activities that include sailing, whale watching, surfing, paragliding, scuba diving, and mountain hikes for all levels of fitness.

Our hotel, São Francisco Accommodation, was a modest three-star hotel centrally located in Funchal’s historic old town. The big pluses for us were its elevator, underground parking lot across the street, and its location. The most interesting parts of Madeira’s capital city were within walking distance of our lodging. We were set for the week!  We chose to stay in Funchal because it is the island’s largest city, with enough things to do locally so we wouldn’t feel the need to go elsewhere. The car was for day trips to explore the rest of the island.

One afternoon we were drawn down the street by the sound of classical music flowing from the park around the corner from the hotel. Folks casually filled a small amphitheater in the midst of a manicured garden. Next to the bandstand a small kiosk offered a table.  We ordered drinks and enjoyed the afternoon entertainment. At the bottom of the park people mingled around a line of classic cars parked along the street.

Delightfully, Madeirans out of necessity have inadvertently created a sub-culture of serious vintage car enthusiasts. Importing cars to the island has always been very expensive. Consequently, automobiles have become family heirlooms. Many of them are passionately maintained or restored and passed down through the generations. So common is the practice that over 800 vintage cars are registered on this small island. Their enthusiasm is celebrated each year with the Madeira Classic Car Revival, a three day event that culminates with a race along the Praça do Povo waterfront every May.

Several mornings we were up before dawn to walk along the waterfront in search of the ultimate sunrise shots with the unpopulated islands Selvagens and Desertas silhouetted on the horizon. We were not disappointed.

There were numerous interesting photo opportunities from the marina to Forte de São Tiago, which was built in the early 1600s in response to two brutal attacks by pirates. French pirate Bertrand de Montluc assaulted the town in 1566 with three ships. Mayhem ensued as his cut-throats   rampaged and plundered the streets for fifteen days. Then Barbary pirates with eight ships ransacked Funchal in 1617 and took 1200 people back to Algiers as slaves. Now, under the ramparts of the fort, pensioners enjoyed ritualistic morning swims along a peaceful, pebbly Praia de São Tiago.

Around the corner from the fortress at the Miradouro do Socorro, a pretty arbor frames the view of the sea and the Complexo Balnear da Barreirinha, a waterfront day resort where you can rent a lounger and swim in their pool or the sea. Across the street the Igreja de Santa Maria Maior, a small parish church, serenely graces the neighborhood.

Heading back into town we walked along the Rua de Santa Maria, a narrow alley known for the uniquely painted doors on homes, galleries and restaurants that line the street.  To see many of the doors you have to visit the street early before the shops open them for the business day.

In front of the Mercado dos Lavradores, the town’s old central market, there is a bronze statue depicting a merchant driving a team of oxen pulling a flat wooden pallet loaded with barrels of wine. Versions of these toboggans fitted with wicker chairs were called Carro de Cesto. Until roads were introduced in 1904 to accommodate the first cars brought to the island, this was the preferred downhill method of public transport, as a wheeled cart might run away uncontrollably if there was a mishap.

Today, at the steps before the Nossa Senhora do Monte Church, toboggans filled with tourists are pushed downhill by two men, Carreiros, donning wicker hats and traditional white outfits. Hold on, the steep serpentine course is over a mile long and the sleds can go almost 25 miles an hour! There are no brakes, only the special, rubber-soled shoes the carreiros wear, and stopping is accomplished by dragging their feet along the road to slow the toboggan. It’s a popular activity easily combined with a cable car ride from the Funchal waterfront to the Monte Palace Tropical Garden.

Though when we visited we chose to use our car instead of taking the cable car to Monte. We didn’t realize when we started but the google map route we followed to the garden was up one of Funchal’s steepest streets. The Caminho de Ferro takes its name from the old funicular train tracks upon which the road was paved. It runs for two miles straight up a hill with a twenty-five-degree slope and gains nearly 2000ft in altitude. I was doing fine driving uphill in second gear until we encountered a semi-blind cross street that did not have a stop sign, only a large traffic mirror. This was something I hadn’t encountered before, so I came to a complete stop. The incline of the road was very steep at this point, and I had difficulty getting the car moving again without rolling back too far. Ultimately after several frustrating minutes I rolled the car back perpendicularly to the road, got the car in gear and powered slowly through the intersection. Fortunately, there is very little car traffic on the side roads in Funchal and we lucked out in finding a parking space near the garden. The return route into the city center, down streets so narrow it required pulling the mirrors in, was equally challenging.

In the 1700s the hillside that the garden covers was a private estate with a small chateau. Later it functioned as a grand luxury hotel. In 1987 the entrepreneur Jose Manuel Rodrigues Berardo acquired it and transformed it into a serene Japanese themed botanical garden and opened it to the public. It’s a beautiful tranquil landscape, but it’s best to arrive early or late to avoid a crowd. There is also collection of contemporary Zimbabwean stone sculptures from the 1960s and a cave created to display a spectacular mineral collection gathered from around the world.

Slightly smaller and lower on the slope the Jardim Botânico da Madeira is also worth a visit to experience its stunning formal garden with a view of the Funchal coastline, and paths that weave through various plantings. There is also a nice cafe with a terrace that has one of the best views of Funchal.

However, if you enjoy orchids the place to head is the Quinta da Boa Vista. It’s a quirky plant nursery that has been operated by several generations of the Garton family and has hundreds of different orchids. As we entered the first greenhouse, an eager attendant waved us over and encouraged us to smell a delicate plant she was holding. An Oncidium Sharry Baby, it had a delicate chocolate aroma. It was delightful. With two stunning botanical gardens in Funchal and smaller ones seeded around the island, Madeira justly earns its nickname as “The Floating Garden of the Atlantic.”

Earlier we had spotted the hulking edifice of the Fortaleza de São João Baptista do Pico. A 17th century stronghold, it was built high on a hill, 350 feet above Funchal’s waterfront to deter pirate attacks. It’s a wonderful destination within town, with a nice children’s playground and café outside the fortress battlements. The view out over the city and ocean was spectacular.

Other mornings we explored closer to home heading to the Igreja de São João Evangelista, on Funchal’s central plaza. Built by Jesuits in 1629, it is known for the fusion of its Mannerist exterior with a lavish Baroque interior.

We climbed to the church’s roof for an exceptional view of the old town. Funchal’s City Hall is adjacent to the church and has a stately courtyard centered around a unique fountain depicting Leda and the Swan. An odd choice we thought for decorating a municipal building.

But Funchal is very supportive of public art and we passed many interesting sculptures along our walks. The historic old town with its cobbled lanes lined with centuries old buildings and churches was a delight to explore.

One morning we photographed small boats leaving the port at sunrise from Parque de Santa Catarina, which commands a bluff across from the cruise terminal.

From the park we walked along Rua Carvalho Araujo up into São Martinho, an upscale area anchored by Reid’s Palace. Occasionally we popped into the hotels that faced the water to check out their views.

But there is more to this island than just Funchal, so we hopped in the car for farther explorations west along the coast. Our first day trip was on a Saturday afternoon to Câmara de Lobos, famous as a favorite spot for Winston Churchill to paint. A newly married couple was taking wedding photos amid the colorful small boats pulled ashore as young children splashed and played with their dog in the shallow surf  that splashed against the boat ramp.

Parallel parking on a steep incline was challenging, but it’s a skill that’s required on Madeira, and came in handy when we reached the Cabo Girão Skywalk, one of the highest cliffs in Europe. Relatively close to Funchal, this is a popular destination and there was actually a traffic jam as cars and buses creatively parked. This glass bottomed miradouro seems to hover miraculously over fertile fields that grow grapes and tomatoes nineteen-hundred feet below. Nearby the Cabo Girão cable car, originally built to help farmers bring their crops up from the fields, can whisk you down to a secluded beach. We have a healthy fear of heights and instead continued on.

I wasn’t fast enough with my camera to grab a photo of a paraglider swooping low over our car as he landed along the stoney beach at Cais da Fajã do Mar. High above us a group of paragliders swirled on warm thermals and we waited for them to descend, but they kept floating back over the ridge.

We meandered farther west to the beach and harbor, dramatically wedged between ocean and mountain, in Estreito da Calheta.  This is a largely human-altered section of the coast with a breakwater protecting Praia da Calheta, created with imported sand, and harbor next to it. We ate lunch on the promenade across from the marina.

Heading back to Funchal later that afternoon we made a final stop in Ponta do Sol, and were able to find sanctioned parking in one of Madeira’s older, now decommissioned traffic tunnels. Walking out to a small headland we had late afternoon refreshments on a terrace with a brilliant view of the coastal village.

“Roll up your window.” “Wait, you’re not going to…” Yee haw! I yelled and we laughed while a thunderous cascade of water splashed off the roof of our car as we drove under the Cascade of Angels waterfall.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Along the Algarve Coast – Lagos, Carvoeiro & the End of the World

Finally, the weather was improving as we headed south from Evora to the Algarve coast. We had hit an unusual week of rain in “sunny Portugal,” but the whole Iberian Peninsula had been experiencing a multi-year drought. So, it was good to know that some relief was in sight.

The sky was a refreshingly brilliant blue by the time we drove down palm-lined Av. dos Descobrimentos, along the Lagos riverfront, towards the ocean. On our left, Forte da Ponta da Bandeira stood, a silent sentinel still guarding Lagos’ fine harbor since the days of Henry the Navigator and the beginning of Portugal’s Age of Discoveries in the 1400s, when Lagos shipbuilders supplied fleets of caravels to explore the African coast, and later the Indian Ocean and beyond. In 1580,the fortress repelled the English privateer Sir Francis Drake, only to see him sail farther down the Algarve coast and sack Faro instead. Since antiquity Lagos has been an important trading port; Phoenicians established a settlement on the shore of the bay. Later Greek and Carthaginian seafarers visited and traded with the port.

The Romans came, conquered, and left the first defensive walls and a fortress along the cliff. Over the centuries its ruins have slowly fallen into the sea as the cliff face erodes. The only remnant of its existence is an arched bridge, too dangerous to cross, connecting the mainland to a rock pinnacle. Later Visigoths were succeeded by Moors until the Portuguese reconquest in 1241 permanently secured the port for Portugal. The road curved and climbed to the Miradouro Praia da Batata, where we parked and reveled in our first glimpse of the dramatically sculpted Algarve coast and its turquoise waters.

To our delight our accommodation at VI MAR – GUEST HOUSE was located within old town Lagos, just inside the massive defensive wall, which was expanded by the Moors in the tenth century and still encircles the town.

Our room was small, but it had a compact balcony that compensated for the lack of space and was the perfect spot for a morning coffee or evening glass of wine. The big plus was the location, only five minutes from the center of Lagos and just around the corner from MiMar, a great tapas restaurant, Padaria Centrala fabulous bakery, and MarLe Café for excellent coffees and a quiet place to chill. Our host recommended Casinha do Petisco, a small friendly and lively, family run restaurant famous for its cataplana de marisco (a traditional Portuguese seafood stew). We were not disappointed. Arrive right when it opens at 5:30pm if you’d like to be seated without making a reservation; after 7:00pm they are must.

One of our main reasons for choosing Lagos as a base for our five nights’ stay was the size of the town. Small enough to be manageable, yet large enough to be interesting. A walker’s and photographer’s delight within the old town. Plus the fascinating coastal rock formations of Ponta da Piedade and Praia dos Pinheiros were an easy twenty-minute walk away. We planned day trips to explore the coast, east to Carvoeiro and west to Sagres and Cabo de São Vicente.

At the end of October Lagos was quiet and beautiful, with daytime temperatures in the 70sF. With “walk a little then café” as our mindset we explored the old walled town, riverfront and on multiple occasions the trails and boardwalks along the ocean. The coastal rock formations were fascinating and kept revealing different fissures and crevices as the light kept changing throughout the day, though we thought the afternoon light was the nicest for photography.

The cobbled lanes of the historic district were uncrowded during the shoulder season and the ambience was wonderful amidst the palm trees and tiled facades of the buildings.

At the old Mercado Municipal de Lagos we were tempted by the bounty on display to buy “the catch of the day,” beautiful tuna from the fish mongers. On the top level a quaint small café overlooks the waterfront.

Farther along excellent street art decorated a store front awaiting reincarnation near a laundromat we were happy to use after washing clothes in various sinks for two weeks. It wasn’t Portuguese, but Poké Lagos served a delicious bowl of food as we waited for our laundry to finish.

In the evenings buskers performed in several plazas. One misty night a guitarist enthusiastically worked an appreciative crowd that kept growing and tossing coins into his guitar case. He must have sung for 90 minutes, breaking only to quench his thirst with a beer offered by a local waiter. Several times he announced it would be his last song. But the night was electrifying, and he played on. He proudly acknowledged his wife and young child in the crowd, playing for them as much as he was for us. He was, I imagine, in the ultimate musician’s groove, giving one of his best performances, and the folks who circled around watching and listening loved it as much as he did.

After several days of rough water, the wind and ocean finally calmed, and we spontaneously opted for a boat tour along the cliffs. Expertly timing the surge of the waves, our boatsman safely navigated us through tunnels and between rock formations.

At one point he looked high up the cliff face, waved and then yelled “hey Antonio!” to a lone fisherman wedged precariously on a ledge very high above the water. When asked why folks fish from the dangerous cliffs, our boatsman explained that only certain species of fish inhabit the zone where the bluffs meet the sea and that “Antonio, my cousin, thinks they taste better.” We saw this activity in several other places along the coast. Antonio wasn’t the only loco, maluco, fisherman.

The seaside town of Carvoeiro, with its homes built on cliffs encirling a small crescent beach and a boardwalk which follows the rugged coastline, was a destination one morning. One of the things we appreciate about Portugal is that, while gasoline is expensive, parking is free in most places. Even along the beautiful coast.

Parking near the Forte de Nossa Senhora da Encarnação we followed the Passadiços do Carvoeiro boardwalk atop the cliffs and back into town, stopping often along the way to take photos of the seascape before lunch at a shaded café. Although the temperature was comfortably cool, the sun was strong and frequent escapes to shady spots were required.

Afterwards we headed to Ferragudo, a small town, across from the busy port of Portimão, where the Arade River widens and meets the Atlantic Ocean. Two beautiful, wide sandy beaches with calm waters, the Praia Grande and the Praia da Angrinha front the tidal Arade River here. There are three relaxing restaurants along this stretch of sand to grab a beer and find some shade. The dividing point between the two beaches is the Castelo de São João do Arade. The castle was built in the 1500s to protect the important inland city of Silves from pirates, as the upper reaches of the Arade River were still navigable at the time. Over the centuries the fortress lost its relevance and was eventually abandoned and later auctioned off in 1896 to the Portuguese writer Joaquim José Coelho de Carvalho (1855-1934), who restored the cool digs into his summer residence. Years later the town of Ferragudo was unable to fund its transformation into a cultural center. Since 1998, the unique summer home has been owned by the Portuguese businessman Vasco Pereira Coutinho, who continues to use it as a private residence.

Just beyond the castle and the Praia da Angrinha the river juts to the right into a small, sheltered cove that fishermen have used for safe anchor since the Phoenicians. The harborside village, with whitewashed homes and narrow alleys that gently follow the contour of the hill, first appears on a Portuguese map of the Algarve coast in 1560.

It’s a picturesque harbor with boats bobbing softly on wind-blown waves. Quayside fishermen still piled their nets and pots, reminding us of its roots as a working village, but gentrification is slowly happening.

Driving home later that day we were delighted to spot storks resting in their nests before migrating further south to winter over on the African continent. Spontaneously we turned down a country road in search of more birds. We didn’t find any, but we happened across a historic moinho de vento, windmill, in Odiáxere. A nice surprise and something we would have missed if we had stayed on the main road.

Only an endless sky and sea filled the western horizon as we stood on the cliffs next to the Lighthouse of Cabo de São Vicente. The Atlantic Ocean stretched infinitely before us. In the time of Prince Henry the Navigator, this was the last frontier and filled with legendary monsters. Knowing the coast of North Africa can be seen from southern Spain, Henry sent his explorers south to follow the west coast of the African continent in the early 1400s, and later, when blown off course during a storm, Brazil. There was a high mortality rate amongst the sailors who ventured into the unknown. Fewer ships returned than set out.

But there was always the promise of riches and fame to be found. In 1484, in a plea to the Portuguese crown, Christopher Columbus pitched his idea of sailing due west, but maritime officials rejected it because they thought his estimate of distance to India was incorrect. In 1492 Spain was eager to match Portugal’s discoveries and accepted Columbus’ idea. One hundred and fifty miles east along the Algarve coast, just across the border with Spain, Columbus set sail from the river port of Palos de la Frontera.  For many millennia this barren land’s end, where the horizon swallowed the sun, was considered sacred. Today, near the lighthouse, a witty food truck vendor markets the “last hotdog before America.”

Fifteenth century fortresses dot the Algarve coast at every seaside port. While the Moors retreated from Portugal after their defeat during the Reconquista, Barbary pirates from Morocco, Algiers, Tunisia and Tripoli often raided ships and towns along the coast, taking mercantile goods and hostages. As a defense, Prince Henry ordered the unique Fortaleza de Sagres be constructed upon a narrow cliff-faced peninsula that protrudes like an index finger from the coast. From here you can look west and see the lighthouse of Cabo de São Vicente. The peninsula is flanked on both sides by two sandy beaches, Prainha das Poças and popular with surfers, Praia do Tonel. Only the entrance to the fort that divides the peninsula from the mainland is fortified across the narrow width of this windswept headland. The unscalable cliffs provided the bulk of the fort’s defense, or so it was thought. Though some how that thorn in every sailor’s side (if you weren’t English), Sir Francis Drake, returned to the Algarve Coast in 1587 when Portugal was under Spanish rule and raided the fort!

Without any natural harbor, the fishermen in the old village of Salema used to push their boats across the beach and launch their sturdy craft into the crashing surf, hop aboard and row further out into smoother waters.

Fortunately, lifting glasses of sangria to our lips was the only exertion required to enjoy the beach today. The once sleepy whitewashed village has transformed itself into popular tourist destination with many new villas built along the coast that take advantage of the gorgeous seascape.

Trails going east and west from the town’s central Praia da Salema lead to small isolated beaches. From the top of an actively eroding cliff face the ruins of Forte de Almádena loom over the crescent shaped Praia da Boca do Rio below. We freely roamed the ancient ruins, but well away from the roped off precipice that had already swallowed parts of the castle into the ocean. 

The weather along the Algarve coast changes quickly and our sunny day was cut short as we were mesmerized by a fog bank that slowly blanketed the coast. We took this as our  signal to return to Lagos and back our bags for the next part of our journey to Maderia Island.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

Portugal Road Trip – Part 4: North to Amarante (They’re Obsessed), Guimares & Soajo

Cresting the ridgeline that overlooks Mesão Frio, we left the vineyard-covered slopes of the Douro Valley behind us and headed to Armarante on roads lined with forests and fields. Crossing the bridge over the Tâmega River we viewed a beautiful scene reminiscent of a Romanesque cityscape painted by a 16th century Dutch master, uniquely different from the other Portuguese towns we had visited so far, the ambiance and architecture more northern European than Iberian. Surprisingly for Portugal, this historic town, one of the oldest in the north of the country was never centered around a castle, even though the site has been continually inhabited since its founding in the 4th century BC.

Colorful, whimsical pedal boats were beached on the riverbank, waiting for customers, as we walked along the path that followed the river into town. It ended in a parking lot full of craft vendors, at the foot of a grand triple-arched stone bridge that spanned the river. Here in 1809 the brave citizenry barricaded the bridge and repelled Napoleon’s Army for fourteen days during the Peninsular War, before their village was looted and razed. With a bag of freshly roasted chestnuts in hand, we strolled through the craft fair and came upon a grandmotherly woman with a table full of doces fálicos (literally “phallic sweets”) for sale. Bolos de São Gonçalo, Saint Gonçalo cakes were created and named after a beloved 13th century hermit, and the town’s patron saint, who slept in a forest cave for many years. Yep, boldly-sized penis-shaped baked goods! Best to just allow your imagination to run wild here and you’ll visualize them perfectly. It’s thought that this tradition originated from a pagan fertility ritual and was syncretized by the church to encourage more folks to follow Christianity. It’s nice to think some early church leaders had a good sense of humor.

I digress here, but it’s my blog and I’m occasionally irreverent. What’s the back story for such cherished tradition? While he bathed in a stream, was he happened upon by a group of women foraging for firewood? His manhood was suddenly legendary, the talk of the village. “I hear the hermit has a pretty good package.” “Yes, I saw him. He’s hung like a horse.” “Someone else said it hung to his knees!” And so, legends begin and grow. Did mothers, aunts and neighbors make idols of his manhood to encourage young newlyweds who couldn’t conceive quickly? Perhaps some women made a pilgrimage to his cave in the middle of the night in the face of their husbands’ inadequacy, thus ensuring the birth of an heir. What tales do mothers tell their daughters as they stand at their kitchen tables kneading the balls of dough? Could Amarante have been the inspiration for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales?

At the foot of the bridge stands the grand Igreja de São Gonçalo. Yes, as if naming a pastry after him wasn’t enough, he’s also celebrated on January 10th, plus there’s a June festival in his honor. Will the sacrilege ever stop, we wondered with a smile.  Unfortunately, a military dictatorship came to rule Portugal in 1926. Not nearly as liberal as the early church leaders in Amarante, and definitely insecure in their masculinity, they outlawed the pastries and festival as “obscene and against public morals.” Like resistance fighters, the practice went underground and Bolos de São Gonçalo were made and exchanged behind bolted doors, in order to hide from the dreaded pastry police! Wait, I just make that up! The tradition was allowed again after the last dictatorship fell during the Carnation Revolution in 1974, which eventually led to Portugal becoming a democracy again. The June São Gonçalo Festival is now one of the most popular events in Portugal.

Dating from the mid-1500s, the interior of the church is known for its gilded pulpits and baroque altar. It also features an amazing organ held aloft by sculptures of fish-tailed giants. São Gonçalo’s tomb stands in a side chapel. His stone features have been rubbed smooth over the centuries by folks hopeful for love and marriage. The cloisters attached to the church have been renovated into the Museu Municipal Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso, which is dedicated to the works of many famous artists and writers born in Amarante.

Included amidst the artworks on exhibit are the “The Devils of Amarante,” two near life size, carved wooden statues of he and she devils, with exaggerated sexual features. They are thought to be of Nubian or Far East origin and gifted to the monks of the convent by a sailor or merchant returning from a Portuguese colony sometime in the 1600s. These beloved mafarricos, tricksters, were used by the monks to frighten their congregation before confession. To the horror of the monks, French soldiers dressed the devils in religious vestments and paraded them through the streets before putting the statues and the town to the torch in 1809.  The distraught friars quickly tasked a local craftsman to replace them. This troubled pair was then later ordered expelled from the walls of such a sacred institution by King D. Pedro V, The Hopeful, when he visited sometime in the mid-1800s. They were hidden away until 1870, when the Archbishop of Braga, José Joaquim de Moura, who thoroughly lacked a sense of humor, ordered them burned again! The Prior of the Convent didn’t have the heart to destroy this cherished pair, but ordered the male statue be castrated. A local wood sculptor was tasked with reshaping the she-devil to be less offensive. Somehow Alberto Sandeman, of port wine fame, discovered them and shipped them to London to promote his business. Outraged that their mafarricos were sold and their culture misappropriated, the citizens of Amarante waged a decades long campaign to have them returned. Finally, after much public anguish and through the intercession of the Portuguese Minister of Foreign Affairs, their return was celebrated with a parade through the streets and the crowd singing “Aí vem os Diabos!”, “Here come the Devils!” They are still celebrated every August 24th.

Crossing the narrow bridge, we were surprised that cars are still allowed to use it. We were in search of a café with tables overlooking the river. The cobbled lane seemed to be lined with every other shop window displaying various sizes of doces fálicos. Cocks, dicks, peckers, peters, schlongs, willies and weinies, from three feet long to bags of full of thumb sized ones for wedding shower gifts, and every size in between were proudly displayed, front and center. Does size really matter? Seems this quaint village is possessed and has been wrestling with this archaic question for centuries. Why is this religious monk associated with having a big one? Really, there must be something in the drinking water.

After our adventurous morning in Amarante, the afternoon in Guimarães seemed tame by comparison. The day was still mild, but the sky had greyed by the time we reached the Castelo de Guimarães. An impressive shield-shaped castle with eight towers and a massive keep at its center, it crowns a small hill. It was built in the mid-900s on the orders of Countess D. Mumadona Dias to protect the nearby town and monastery from Viking raids, which did torment northern Portugal in the 10th century, and Moors who were contesting the area. In 1095, when Portugal was still part of Spain, the King of León and Castile gave his daughter D. Teresa in marriage to the French nobleman, Henry of Burgundy, as a reward for his heroic efforts to drive the Moors from Northern Spain. The castle and lands extending to Porto were part of her wedding dowry. It is believed Teresa gave birth to Afonso Henriques in the castle. An advocate for Portuguese independence, he would later crown himself the first King of Portugal in 1139, establishing Guimarães as Portugal’s first capital, after defeating his mother who allied herself with the King of León and Castile, her father.

The Igreja de São Miguel do Castelo is set a short walk down the hill from the castle’s entrance. A rather austere medieval church, its floor is created of gravestones of ancient nobility. Their carved stone features have slowly been worn away over centuries by the feet of the faithful. It is also believed that Afonso Henriques was baptized here.

Farther down the hill stands the 15th century Paço dos Duques, Ducal Palace, with an exquisitely crafted cathedral ship’s hull ceiling. The former royal residence is full of exquisite renaissance era artworks, castle furnishings, and priceless items from the Far East. Large Flemish tapestries celebrating military victories hang on the walls. The collection represents the vast wealth flowing into the country from its far-flung colonies during the age of exploration. Portugal was at the time a superpower.

The Trovador City Guest House was our home for the next two nights. Set on a small square across from the historic district, it occupies three historic buildings which have been keenly modernized. For €43 a night in October it was a tremendous value, and we were able to use one of the hotel’s parking spaces on the square for free.

After dropping our bags in the room, we walked along cobbled lanes that twisted about through the old town. Narrow centuries-old buildings, many three or four stories tall with colorful Azulejo tile facades and shallow wrought iron balconies, lined our way. Our destination was the Padrão do Salado, a 14th century monument, then on to Largo da Oliveira in the Centro Histórico. It commemorates the Battle of Salado in 1340, when combined Spanish and Portuguese armies defeated a larger Muslim force in southern Spain. It’s an arched rectangular structure open on four sides. A stone roof shelters a tall cross with the Portuguese Coat of Arms at the base. 

Adjacent to it stands the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Oliveira. In 949, the church was built as part of a Benedictine monastery financed by Mumadona Dias, the same Countess responsible for Guimarães Castle. She’s an interesting character in her own right. Refusing to remarry after her husband Count Hermenegildo González died, she ruled alone an area from the Minho River to Coimbra, which would eventually become the foundation of Portugal. Suddenly the square erupted into a cacophony of music, when a group of folk singers joined a group of accordion players and burst forth with song. We grabbed an open table on the plaza, ordered beers, and tapped along.

The next morning, we headed to see the espigueiros, stone granaries, of Soajo and Lindoso. These really are off the beaten track destinations in the far north of Portugal near the border with Spain. It’s a remote mountainous region that includes the Parque Nacional Peneda-Gerês, an area where wolves still roam. The sunny days we had at the start of our trip slowly evolved into rain showers, and then downpours. I hesitate to say unfortunately because we’ve been quite lucky over the years concerning adverse weather. It did slow us down a bit, and I do prefer blue skies in my photos, but moody works too. Oh, and there was that funky windshield wiper on our rent-a-wreck!

The vineyards that we became so accustomed to earlier in our trip disappeared in this corner of the Minho region. Thick forests that grew to the road’s edge were occasionally interrupted by verdant pasture lands. Turning off the N203 we followed the sign for Soajo down a narrow road that crossed the Limia River. Three loose horses grazed along the road’s edge, oblivious to our passing, their pasture and owner out of sight. Farther along, a large bull eyed us from his enclosure. Signs for hiking trails to two still-standing, ancient stone bridges, the Ponte Medieval de Ermelo and Ponte Romana, attest to the long history of the area. We parked in the municipal lot.

The unique stone granaries are perched dramatically atop a rocky outcrop behind the village’s school. From a distance the twenty-four stately stone structures, elevated several feet off the ground, could be confused for ancient sarcophagi of long dead Kings and Queens. The unique structures, now textured with lichen, were built to keep vermin away from farmers’ harvested crops. Evidently effective, several were still being used. Though they appear much older, the espigueiros were constructed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The rain came down harder as we sought warmth and hot coffee at Seara Nova, the only café open mid-week during the slow season. “Ah, he’d like an Americano,” my request broadcast across the café with a smile to her pal stationed at the espresso machine. “As much as I try to convince him otherwise, he always does,” my wife apologized as she ordered a cappuccino. It’s not that I don’t enjoy an espresso, all the coffees in Portugal have been great, but they just don’t have enough liquid in them to satisfy my java cravings. And like the Brits with a proper cup of tea, I’m inspiring the uninitiated in how to serve a good cup of joe. Just top that cup of espresso off with hot water to the rim of the cup and its perfect. Smiles all around. I was not disappointed. Our two cafes and pastries came to less than €4. 

Warm again and relieved that the rain had stopped, we drove to Lindoso to see their espigueiros and adjacent castle. Here, about fifty granaries sit on a gentle slope that leads to the town’s castle. The castle’s proximity was an added bonus and we quickly scampered up the hill to investigate. It was built in the 13th century during the reign of Afonso III to defend Portugal’s northern frontier from Spanish invasion.

The border in fact is just a catapult shot away. It was renovated in the 1600s to include an outer star-shaped bastion defensive wall, with a moat and drawbridge, along with watchtowers and machicolations for pouring hot oil on any besiegers. Despite all those impressive defensive features, Spaniards captured it for a brief time. From its walls we watched a moody mist begin to fill the valley below.

We heard Braga calling.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

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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Seville Part 2 – Walking Through History Under the Orange Trees

One of the tenets of slow travel is the ability to revisit a place many times to savor the changes in its ambience. The Plaza de España in Parque de María Luisa was one such lively spot that we enjoyed and returned to several times. 

It is an iconic landmark for Seville with its eclectic mix of Baroque, Renaissance and Moorish architectural styles embellished with hand painted Mudéjar tiles created across the Guadalquivir River, in the Triana barrio.

Along with an expansive plaza, signature horseshoe colonnade, and boating moat, it has been a popular destination since it was constructed for the Ibero-American Exposition of 1929.  It, along with the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, and the Archeological Museum of Seville in Parque de María Luisa, are hubs of activity on the weekends when they fill with friends and families looking for more elbow room.

Several other architecturally interesting buildings were constructed in the park and along Paseo de la Delicias at this time to host exhibitions from countries that were formerly part of the Spanish Empire and which would later be used as consulate building. 

On the way to the park one morning, we stopped for café along the edge of Jardines de Murillo and unsuccessfully tried to order cappuccinos from a brusque waiter who replied, “No,” just no and without any further explanation turned and walked away. Confounded, we left.  This happened again several days later when we were early for a dermatologist appointment, for an overdue skin cancer screening at Hospital Fátima, a private hospital in Seville that facilitates multi-lingual medical tourism services for travelers. We used TripMedic to arrange our appointments.

We found the small café, Bar Puerto Chico, on the block behind the hospital. It was full of folks on the way to work, having the traditional Andalusian breakfast that consists of tostada, soft Mollette bread, perfectly toasted to a golden brown and drizzled with olive oil, a smear of crushed tomatoes and maybe a slice of jamon, along with coffee and zumo natural, fresh squeezed Spanish oranges.  “Dos capuchinos por favor.” The barman smiled this time when he responded with a “No,” but seemed to be delighted that two foreigners had found his establishment, when he explained that they only serve espresso or café con leche. In some local bars cappuccinos just aren’t done. Mystery solved.

Heading back into the city center, the sidewalk along Paseo de la Delicias eventually dips down, near the Escuela de Mareantes (School of Navigation) and widens to a scenic esplanade for bicyclists and walkers, that parallels the Guadalquivir River through Seville for several miles.

Speckled with buskers, sculptures, and benches, there are plenty of excuses to saunter slowly and savour the view. The river is popular with numerous kayaking and sculling clubs that launch miles upstream and then race down the river. 

The waterway on the weekends was always bustling, but even during the week there were a good number of paddlers and rowers on the water, from sunrise to sunset.

It’s also an historic stretch of river that was the Port of Seville, where galleons returning from the Spanish colonies in the Americas during the 16th and 17th centuries unloaded cargo and registered their treasure of gold and silver bullion at the Torre del Oro, tower of gold bullion.  The 118 ft tall tower dates from the 1100s and was part of the Moorish defensive wall that once encircled the entirety of ancient Seville and was the anchor point for a heavy chain that was stretched across to the Triana side of the river to control shipping.

Ferdinand Magellan launched the first circumnavigation of the world from this quay in 1519. For the 500th anniversary of this tremendous feat the city commissioned a full-size replica of his ship, the Nao Victoria, to be moored on the river.  A small vessel by today’s standards, it made us wonder how they ever succeeded in sailing around the world. 

Nearing sundown, the quay along the river fills with folks waiting to watch the sky erupt with color as the sun sets behind the bridge and Triana.

At the base of the bridge stands the lofty, wrought-iron and glass Mercado Lonja del Barranco, designed by Gustave Eiffel in 1883. It functioned as the city’s fish market for several decades before it was re-envisioned in 2014 as an upscale food hall with a contemporary, architecturally beautiful interior.  It’s definitely a fun foodie destination; it is a savory gauntlet of display cases offering the full spectrum of Spanish cuisine prepared by twenty different restautrants.  There is something delicous for everyone available here.

Aside from the completion of the Puente de Triana bridge in 1852, which replaced a well maintained 700 hundred year old Arab-designed pontoon bridge, it’s alleged that the Triana riverfront looks unchanged since Columbus recruited his sailors from the barrio.

While it still retains its authentic character, some wonderful alterations have been implemented, starting with the pedestrian only Calle San Jacinto that starts at the foot of the bridge on the Triana side. It is a lively stretch of outdoor cafes that offer an array of different cuisines.

The ruined dungeons of Castillo de San Jorge castle, located under the Mercado de Triana, are now a museum and Interpretation Center for the 300 year terror known as the Spanish Inquisition.  Nearby a short alley leading up from the river, the “Paseo de la Inquisición,” was the last walk of freedom for many before the prison door slammed behind them.

The mercado is a thriving, lively spot that draws locals for the seafood, meat, cheese and vegetable vendors, along with a slew of always busy restaurants.  We caught a lesson in buying fresh fish while waiting in line at a fish monger’s stand. “Always look at the inside color of the gills, they should be very bright,” is what we gathered as he showed several large whole fish to the customer in front of us as we waited to purchase a filet of tuna to cook back at our apartment.

One stall, which we dubbed the olive porn store, only sold decadent large olives garnished with all sorts of delicious extras.  Another booth offered artfully decorated puff pastries, which were as tasty as they were visually stunning. The mercado was a long walk from our apartment, but one of our favorite traditional markets to shop at, which we returned to several times during our six-week immersion in Seville.

We were on the Triana side of the river one late February morning and came across a crew of city workers with ladders and buckets harvesting all the softball size Seville oranges from the trees that were lining the street. The fruit was brought to the city by the Arabs in the 9th century and Seville now, unbelievably, has 46,000 bitter orange trees that produce close to six million tons of fruit annually. Most of it is sold to be used to make marmalade, but it is also an ingredient in Cointreau, Curacao, Grand Marnier and Triple Sec liquors. Oil from the bitter orange skin is used for cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and soaps. Recently the city started using the unsold oranges in an innovative Biogas program, where the methane gas created by the decomposing oranges is used to make “clean electricity” to run a water purification plant.

Before continuing our day, we stopped for coffee at one of the cafes that line the riverfront on Calle Betis. From our previous experiences we believed it was impossible to get a bad cup of coffee in Europe. All of it is usually made to order on one of those fancy deluxe espresso machines that you see behind the bars. My wife is more the coffee connoisseur than me as I’ve been known to make a mug of coffee last all day. But that day we both had the worst cup of coffee ever and couldn’t drink it beyond our first sips. It must have been the last pot of drip coffee from the day before that was left on the burner overnight. It’s amazing how waiters can vanish; perhaps ours did from embarrassment, but this could explain the beginning of the inquisition. Bad coffee leading to misplaced aggression, we all know what happens without that caffeine.  Sympathetically the second waiter understood when we explained the situation and he didn’t request payment.

Triana was also famous for the ceramic workshops that painted and then fired in massive kilns the Azulejo and colorful Mudéjar style tiles that adorn many of the historic buildings in Seville.  Along with sailors, Triana has cultivated many famous flamenco dancers, guitarists and bullfighters. The most admired matador was Juan Belmonte who stood famously close to the bulls and was gored several times over a career that spanned 109 bullfights. His statue stands in the plaza across from the Triana Mercado and if you follow his gaze you’ll see Seville’s beloved bullring, Plaza de toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla, often simply called the Maestranza, across the river. It has been holding corridas in the same ring since 1761. 

Many of the taverns surrounding the bullring are full of corrida memorabilia. Our favorite was Bar Baratillo on Calle Adriano which is also full of shops catering to the Andalusian equestrian tradition.  La Feria de Abril is a colorful weeklong festival that celebrates this Andalusian equestrian tradition with the women wearing traditional traje de gitana or faralaes (flamenco style dress), while the men wear a cordobes hat along with a fitted short jacket, riding trousers and riding boots, refered to as traje corto. Every midday during the festival a parade of carriages and riders, called the paseo de caballos, heads to the bullring to watch the best matadores on Seville’s bullfighting calendar perform. Bullfighting season in Seville starts at the end of Semana Santa, Holy Week, on Easter Day.

Farther behind the bullring the Hospital de la Caridad, founded by the Holy Charity brotherhood in the 1600s, still follows its mission to help the poor and infirm. Its beautiful baroque chapel is now a museum filled with art.

Also, in this neighborhood in Casa Morales, we found one of Seville’s oldest abacerías, a small grocery store with a small tavern in the back, on the corner of Garcia de Vinuesa and Castillejo that is still run by the same family since its opening in 1850. The bodeguita retains its original atmosphere with antique cabinetry in the store and tall, large earthen wine vats lining tavern’s walls. It’s definitely worth a stop here to try their traditional tapas or montaditos, small sandwiches.

Just off Calle Adriano one Saturday in the weeks prior to Semana Santa we came upon a Christian brotherhood training to carry their float for the holy week processional. With military marching precision, the muscular team turned the weighted float around a tight corner and continued down the block in synchronized step. 

We followed the marching band that accompanied them to a fundraiser for the brotherhood.  Very much like a church bake sale, the only difference was they surprisingly sold bottles of various liquors.

We smiled, bought one and saluted Seville’s spirit later that evening.

Salud! – Till next, Craig & Donna 

Belize – When Iguanas Fall from Trees, Head South

“Welcome aboard, folks. Our flight time to Belize is two hours and ten minutes. The weather is expected to be a balmy 80 degrees Fahrenheit today when we land,” the pilot announced as we were buckling in. Then continued with “As you know the National Weather Service has issued the very rare ‘Beware of Falling Iguanas Weather Alert’ for Miami and South Florida this morning.”  As funny as this sounds, it actually happens when the temperature dips into the thirties in Florida.  Cold blooded animals, the iguanas slowly stiffen as the temperature drops and eventually lose their grip on the tree branches they have been sleeping on and fall to the ground, stunned, where they lay immobile until the temperature rises.  Iguanas can grow quite large and may cause serious injury or death if you are unlucky enough to get struck by one of the falling frozen reptiles. It sounds like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie – be careful out there. We were delighted to be heading south again to a warmer climate after a cold and rainy November and December in Italy, which was followed by a warm-hearted, but very frigid Christmas with our kids in New Jersey.

On our final approach for landing the wing of the plane dipped to reveal a beautiful azure sea outlined with dense green jungle and brilliantly white sand beaches – and not much else – as far as the eye could see.  It was still much like it was several millennium ago when a prosperous Mayan civilization flourished, supporting an estimated population of 500,000 – 1,000,000 in the region. Columbus sailed by without stopping and landed in Honduras during his last voyage to the Americas in 1502.  Navigator Juan Diaz de Solis did not mention a landfall or discovery during his expedition in 1507 sailing from Panama to the Yucatan. Several theories suggest that the 190-mile-long Belize Barrier Reef, the largest in the northern hemisphere, was too difficult to navigate through so the Spanish fleets sailed past. We witnessed this difficulty once from the deck of a cruise ship as the captain left a snaking wake as he steered a serpentine route through the underwater obstacle course.

The first European to arrive in Corozal literally washed ashore as a survivor of a 1511 Spanish shipwreck. To stay alive, conquistador Gonzalo Guerrero offered his skills as a soldier to Mayan Chief Na Chan Kan at Chactemal, (now Santa-Rita, Corozal Town). He proved his skill as a warrior and married the chief’s daughter, Princess Zazil Há. The children from their union are recognized as the first Mestizos of Central America; theirs was the first Mayan liaison recorded by Bernal Diaz de Castillo in his memoir “The True History of the Conquest of New Spain,” written in 1568.

Guerrero defended his adopted homeland against conquest in 1531 when he helped Chief Na Chan Kan defeat the Spanish army in a battle near the Rio Hondo. Today the river is still Belize’s northern border with Mexico.  Spain never established any permanent settlements in Belize.  Gold and silver were discovered next door in Guatemala and Honduras. Belize was absorbed into the Spanish empire of Central America by its proximity to its larger neighbors, but was never colonized until the British subversively entered the territory.

The riches of the new world didn’t go unnoticed for long, but by the time English and Scottish pirates arrived on the scene in the mid-1600s, the treasure-laden flotillas destined for the Spanish crown from central America had been replaced by shipments of logwood.  Native to northern Central America, logwood or bloodwood was used by the indigenous tribes of the region to produce a vibrant red-orange dye. Mixed with other ingredients, a full spectrum of colors was possible. It grew abundantly and was exported to Spain where the cheap natural resource revolutionized the textile industry and afforded commoners a chance to have colorful wardrobes, which before was only afforded by the nobility. Gone were the days of fabrics dyed gray with soot. 

Gold or wood – it didn’t matter. Pirates were pirates and willing to steal your cargo regardless of its content, as long as there was a profit to be made, and the English textile mills were demanding logwood.  After plundering large Spanish merchant ships that sailed across the Gulf of Honduras, the pirates found safe refuge for their smaller vessels in the shallow waters behind the Belize Barrier Reef amidst its 450 cays and atolls, where they could hunt for food, get fresh water, and repair their boats.  In 1670 England and Spain signed a treaty banning piracy in the Caribbean.  The days of the infamous pirates of Belize, Edward Lowe, Captain Charles Johnson, Bartholomew Sharp, Captain Henry Morgan, and Blackbeard, were waning.  By this time English pirates had discovered Belize was full of logwood and many ex-privateers became legitimate and wealthy logwood cutters and exporters after buying African slaves to work in the miserable conditions of the mosquito-infested jungles.  Though Spain considered all of Central America as part of their empire and occasionally harassed the British logwood camps trying to evict them, the Spanish crown never established any settlements in Belize. 

In 1763 Spain signed another treaty allowing English subjects the “privilege of wood-cutting,” but still retained sovereignty over the region. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and Belize finally became the English colony of British Honduras in 1862. Mahogany had replaced logwood as the major export. Conflict with the Mayans escalated as settlers moved farther into the interior exploiting the regions mahogany forests, and forced the indigenous population from their lands by burning their villages and crops. The giant cut logs were floated down the country’s rivers to the coast and where rivers didn’t exist, small logging railroads were built to satisfy the European demand for this beautiful hardwood that was favored for fine cabinetry, furniture and shipbuilding.

Disenfranchised and oppressed, the Mayan revolted in what is called the Caste War against their colonizers. Led by Marcus Canul, a Mayan chief,  his people demanded the British pay for the crops they burnt and for the land they occupied.  In northern Belize, Canul’s freedom fighters attacked and occupied the garrison town of Corozal. The movement lost its momentum when Canul was killed during an unsuccessful assault on Orange Walk in 1872.  Long considered a rebel and criminal, he is now regarded as a Belizean hero who fought against ethnic cleansing. The deforested jungles were replaced by sugar cane, ranching and agriculture plantations.