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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till next time, Craig & DonnaUF

Bulgaria: Plovdiv – Minarets and Roman Ruins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till later, Craig & Donna

Bulgaria: Beautiful and Mysterious

The lyrics to the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR “played through my mind as the wing of our plane dipped to reveal an early Spring landscape blanketing the countryside, with fresh shades of vibrant greens, as we were about to land in Sofia.  The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989 and Bulgaria, a Soviet satellite country, ousted their communist party at the same time. But I’m a child of the cold war and Eastern Europe seemed as exotic and as full of mystery as the lost kingdom of Tibet, and the Beatles’ tune stuck.IMG_5115-2In the airport, at the tourist information kiosk, multiple large screen tv’s played flashy videos promoting Bulgaria’s culture, tourism, and natural beauty.  We asked the woman staffing the desk for a map of Sofia and directions on how to transfer into the city.  “Follow the line,” she snapped. Not fully understanding I asked again. “Follow the line!” she barked firmly a second time. She scowled in the direction of the arrows painted on the floor and turned away. Her previous career, I’m speculating, was a prison guard in the now closed gulags.  She was obviously better suited commanding prisoners to “assume the position” than to being the first friendly face welcoming visitors to her country.  I’m sure she was hiding handcuffs and would have used them if I asked another question.  But that’s how it was, one day you’re communist and the next day you’re taking customer service courses and trying to embrace a free market economy.  And for some the promise of a better life hasn’t been realized.  Later, one of our hosts would express, “some folks prefer the old way, they’re still communists.” “Come and keep your comrade warm,” another refrain from the Beatles song, didn’t ring true.  We weren’t feeling the love just yet.  Aside from that rocky start, we had very enjoyable time in Bulgaria. IMG_0200The line led to a modern subway station adjacent to the airport terminal and for 1.60 BGN, about 90¢ USD, we rode theM2 line past sad remnants of soviet era block housing, before it descended deeply underground, for a twenty minute ride to the National Palace of Culture station.  IMG_1974We emerged onto the pedestrian only Vitosha Boulevard filled with folks enjoying a warm Spring day and an incredible vista of Vitosha Mountain towering over the city.  Inviting outdoor cafes lined the street and we quickly chose which one we’d return to after meeting our Airbnb host.  We stayed on Knyaz Boris just two blocks parallel to Vitosha Boulevard and as majestic as the pedestrian mall was, the side streets, though tree lined and harboring small shops and restaurants, were slightly dismaying with wanton graffiti tags on every apartment building door and utility box.  There was a lack of pride in ownership. IMG_5982 The idea that’s it’s not my responsibility is a leftover from the communist era, when the government owned and was responsible for everything.  The front door to our building was no different, but our third-floor walkup apartment was an oasis with a sun-drenched living room and tiny balcony that we would call home for a month.  And to our delight, but to our waistlines’ detriment, there was a baklava bakery across the street! img_428236950-2.jpgLong at the crossroads of expanding empires, Bulgaria has had a contentious past with Thracian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman and communist influences.  The First Bulgarian Empire, 681-1018, has been deemed the Golden Age of Bulgarian Culture, with the adoption of Christianity as the official religion in 865 and the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet.  Independent for only short periods of time during the medieval age, the National Revival period between 1762-1878 brought Bulgaria to finally throw off the yoke of Ottoman domination that had lasted from 1396.  Sadly, there were only six decades of self-government before the proud people of Bulgaria became a satellite regime of communist Russia at the end of WWII and fell behind the Iron Curtain.IMG_2015Today Sofia is transforming itself into one of the most beautiful, cosmopolitan cites in Europe with its pedestrian malls, extensive park system and tram lines that weave throughout the city.  But the past is always present and just around the corner in Sofia.  Walking north along Vitosha past the end of the pedestrian mall there is a three block stretch that displays a vast stretch of that history on the way to the Central Market Hall, where we were headed to stock our pantry.  We got sidetracked.IMG_5796Seven millennia ago, put down the first foundations of what we now call Sofia. The construction of Sofia’s modern subway system in the 1990’s revealed multiple layers of antiquity and many of the amazing artifacts unearthed are displayed, in museum cases, on the subway platforms in the Serdika station and National Archeology Museum nearby.

This is ground zero for history in Sofia as so many interesting sites are nearby.  Some larger stone columns and decorative capitals discovered have been placed in the Doctors’ Garden near Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski.IMG_6334A tram passed by quietly as we approached St Nedelya Church, surrounded by trees in a small plaza.  The 19th century structure in front of us replaced a wooden structure that dated to the 10th century.  The inside of the domed church is spectacular with religious murals covering every surface. IMG_5757 Tragically in a 1925 bombing, the Bulgarian Communist Party attempted to kill the King of Bulgaria and other members of the government who were attending a funeral at this church – one hundred-fifty people died, and the cathedral’s dome was razed.  Excavations behind the church in 2015 uncovered early ruins and a treasure of 3,000 Roman silver coins from the 2nd century AD. IMG_2811

The Church of St. Petka stands in the center of Sofia adjacent to the Serdika Metro Station.  Built during Ottoman rule in the 14th century, its entrance was placed below ground level, so that the church’s total height did not exceed that of a cavalry soldier on horseback.  This was an odd condition the Ottomans had imposed on the construction of churches at the time.   From the entrance of the church you can see the archeological excavation of an old Roman road and the buildings that lined it, complete with mosaic floors and plumbing.IMG_5930 It ends just short of Banya Bashi, an Ottoman mosque built in the 16th century.  The towering statue of St. Sofia is also visible just beyond the subway station.  Ancient walls found during the renovation of the Central Market Hall can also be seen in the lower level of that building.IMG_5763Nearby the oldest building in Sofia, the Church of Saint George, built by the Romans in the 4th century, has early Christian frescoes which were painted over by the Ottomans when it was used as a mosque, but they were rediscovered in the 1900s and restored.   It stands surrounded by modern buildings in a courtyard behind the President of the Republic of Bulgaria building, within earshot of the Changing of the Guard.

Across town, our journey back through history continued at St. Sophia Church.  During the reign of Emperor Justinian, when Bulgaria was part of the Byzantine Empire, the cathedral we see today was built atop the ruins of a smaller 4th century church that was centered in an ancient necropolis. Many of Sofia’s elite found their final resting place in the church’s crypt.  Early Christian frescoes gracing the interior were destroyed and minarets were added when the Ottomans converted it to a mosque in the 16th century.  The minarets and some walls collapsed during the 1858 earthquake and the mosque was abandoned due to the extensive damage, left to be used as a warehouse until the early 1900s when restoration began.  Today its cavernous interior, revealing its amazing brick construction and catacombs with ancient mosaic floors and tombs can be toured.  In the park in front of the cathedral The Sveta Sofia Underground Museum Necropolis has a fascinating display of discoveries from the area surrounding the church.

More recently the Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski, standing adjacent to St. Sofia, was designed in 1884 to commemorate all the brave Bulgarian and Russian soldiers that died during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 and freed Bulgaria from Ottoman rule. However, the building was delayed repeatedly due to regional conflicts and not finished until 1924.  Its magnificent interior features gilded domes, chandeliers from Munich, Brazilian onyx, Indian alabaster, Italian marble and walls covered with beautiful iconography. It is the most important orthodox church in Bulgaria. IMG_1957 IMG_7803In the crypt of the cathedral a small, state of the art museum showcases the development of Bulgarian orthodox iconography over the centuries. img_7836.jpgNearby, the five gilded spires of the Russian Church, officially known as the Church of St Nicholas the Miracle-Maker, can be seen from the steps of Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski.  Built in 1914 on the site of a mosque that was torn down after the liberation of Bulgaria, it served has the official church for the Russian Embassy and the Russian community in Sofia.  The religious murals that cover the interior of the church were created by Vasily Perminov’s team of talented icon painters, who were also responsible for the iconography in Cathedral Saint Aleksandar Nevski.  Darkened by decades of candle smoke, the fresco paintings in the dome were restored in 2014.

In an outlying area, far from the city center, the Museum of Socialist Art displays forty-five years (1944-1989) of socialist themed art from the former People’s Republic of Bulgaria, a not too distant communist past that has been collected from every town across the country.  Most impressive is the statue park with monumental sculptures of Lenin, Stalin, Che Guevara, along with statues of farm workers and industrial laborers celebrating the communal.  At the time of its inauguration Georgi Lozanov, a noted Bulgarian educator, said, “Bulgaria must have a museum of communism that will tell new generations the story of a period that should never again become reality.”

Closer in town, the National Museum of Military History displays an array of deadly modern weaponry, jets, tanks and missile launchers that are slowly rusting away. Also included is a noble little Trabant 601 automobile, the Soviet equivalent to the Volkswagen Beetle, the significance of which we’re not sure.IMG_1866In 2001 an early Christian mausoleum was unearthed near the American Embassy and it’s fantastic that things are still being discovered in 2019.

It seems you can’t build or conduct any street repairs in Sofia without uncovering an ancient layer of history.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

 

Obidos: A Walled Village and Drive-Through Chapels

IMG_4743We had spent a wonderful day cruising from Aveiro to Nazare, but now twilight was fast turning to darkness as we drove along an extremely narrow lane at the base of the formidable fortress wall that encircled Obidos.  We had arrived at our hotel Casa das Senhoras Rainhas according to our GPS, but we hadn’t.  We were on the outside of the walls, wondering like ancient invaders how to get in.IMG_4603Admittingly Donna is the more accomplished linguist of the two of us.  I according to my loved one have been known to torture a language.  So, she eagerly sought advice from the only person we had passed.  From a short distance away, I watched the conversation unfold with the gentleman flailing his arms every which way for what seemed an inordinate amount of time. IMG_4760 Smiling, Donna returned to the car.  “About the only thing I got from that was we should continue following the lane until the next hole in the wall. He was very insistent about that.” “Did he know the hotel?” I asked.  “Never heard of it, but I think he was intoxicated! My luck,” she laughed.  The lane narrowed even more as we drove forward.  Finally, there was an ancient portal, the size of a single door, through the wall that led to a short set of steps.  Abandoning our car for few minutes we climbed the stairs to an inner lane in search of our hotel.  After we finally found the place, the receptionist explained to continue driving along the wall until you reach an old city gate, enter there and follow the inner lane back to us and park anywhere you can.  OK, piece of cake now, we thought. IMG_4822Inhabited since the 4th century BC by the Lusitanos, then the Romans and Visigoths, the city wasn’t fortified until the 8th century by the Moors.  Bent entrances, with a quick turn and an additional, heavy inner gate were used in many Arab fortifications.  In peacetime they were easy to navigate with pack animals, and during sieges provided a killing zone for the defenders of the city.  Remember, these bent gates were built long before cars were envisioned.  Obidos had two of them and tonight we had to navigate through one.  Porta do Vale ou Senhora da Graça was a drive through chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Grace.  In 1727 the old gate was renovated into an oratory chapel with sacristy, altarpiece, gallery, choir, and chancel by a local magistrate to commemorate his daughter’s death.   You actually transit through the nave to reach the interior street.  The gate was narrow, and it required a sharp k-turn just to line the car up to approach it correctly.  Donna was driving and I hopped out to judge just how much room we had around the car.  Driving up a slight slope on flagstones worn smooth from centuries of travelers, the tires spun with no traction as the car got halfway through the gate.  Backing-up and then gunning the car forward through the gate Donna only had the length of our Fiat 500 to turn sharply right and exit the inner gate.  It was do-able but nerve-wracking.

A few minutes later our bags were in our lovely room.  As in Aveiro “Parking Available” on the hotel website translated to driver be wary, or creativity needed to park.  We thought we had the perfect spot right in front of the hotel, but the receptionist insisted we were pinching the road too much and would be sorry.  Reversing down a narrow, dimly lit lane is never a good idea, so we thought a quick trip around the block was a better idea. I waved as Donna roared away into the darkness, gone.  Minutes passed, finally headlights gleamed off the flagstones.  “That was fun!” she grinned as she pulled the mirrors in and parked one side of the car as close to a building as possible, one block shy of our hotel. IMG_4847With only two main lanes that ran the length of village, interconnected by a labyrinth of stairs and smaller alleys, Obidos was the perfect size, only slightly larger than Marvao, to explore for two days and relax before driving back to the airport in Lisbon for our flight to Sofia, Bulgaria. IMG_5245The next morning, enjoying deserted lanes lined with flowering wisteria, calla lilies, and other interesting details we weaved our way to the Castelo de Óbidos  to enjoy views of the village and surrounding landscape from its strategic position.  This once formidable, medieval castle was transformed into Portugal’s first upscale, tourist pousada in 1953 and has been attracting discerning travelers ever since.  Whitewashed homes with brightly painted doors and window trim held up the ubiquitous red tiled roofs that appeared to fill the village below us. Mostly gentrified now, there are still a spackling of ancient dwellings waiting for TLC that give Obidos a wonderful character.

After scampering about on the ramparts for a while we headed back into the village.  The wonderful aroma of fresh baked bread drifted from Capinha d’Óbidos, as we walked along Rua Direita, and drew us right into a small storefront where the baker was grating lemon zest into a bowl of dough. She kneaded it and then put it aside to rise.  Behind her another baker slid fresh loaves of bread from a wood-fired brick oven to cool.  The breads and coffees here were divine!

Continuing along we explored the few shops that were open this early in March and encountered one of the best street performers we’ve seen so far.  A woman posing as a statue in silver makeup, sitting atop a stone wall, daintily holding a silver umbrella as a sunshade, looked like a perfectly cast statue placed in an ideal setting.  Her performance was sublime. IMG_4928We eventually made our way through the main gate of the walled city.  Porta da Vila de Óbidos is another bent entrance that did double duty as a chapel to Nossa Senhora da Piedade, the Virgin Mary, patron of the village.  Be sure to look up as you walk through, as Azulejos tiles from the 1700’s line the interior balcony.IMG_5419Across the street we walked below remnants of a three-kilometer-long aqueduct built in the 16th century to supply water to the fortress. IMG_5427Dinner that night was a simple meal of bread, cheese and local sausages cooked uniquely on a ceramic hibachi, fueled with grappa, placed on our table at Bar Ibn Errik Rex.  As flames danced from our mini grill, the waiter would return to our table occasionally and turn the sausages to ensure their perfection.  It was an entertaining evening.  A few good Portuguese beers helped.img_5313.jpgWith our GPS App still set to avoid toll roads, we drove through the Porta da Vila de Óbidos and headed towards Lisbon, less than two hours away if we didn’t stop.  But, if you’ve been following our blog you’ll know that’s nearly impossible, there is always a quick glimpse of something that calls for a detour.IMG_5449Torres Vedras with its aptly named citadel caught our eye.  With a historical time-line similar to Obidos, the hilltop in the old historic district was continually fortified against waves of early invaders.  Knowing a good piece of real estate when they saw it, the castle was seized during the Christian reconquest in 1148 and used by a succession of Portuguese Kings until it was heavily damaged in the catastrophic 1755 earthquake that hit central Portugal and Lisbon.  Built just after the reconquest, Igreja de Santa Maria do Castelo stands just below the castle walls.  The church’s bell cast in the 16th century continues to ring today.

On a ridge above the city several ancient windmills sat amidst a new residential neighborhood.  It was an interesting vantage point from which to witness the new suburban sprawl radiating from the old historic district into the surrounding countryside.img_5564.jpgAlong the Sizandro River on the outskirts of town, an impressive two-kilometer stretch of a 16th century aqueduct with double arches still stands.  Driving under the aqueduct we followed the river south along the R374.  The high-density new developments around Torres Vedras quickly gave way to a landscape of vineyards and pastures.  Finding a restaurant for a late lunch, though, didn’t seem promising along this rural stretch of road, dotted with the occasional roadside café with a farm tractor parked out front, until we caught a quick peripheral glimpse of a larger establishment, across a small bridge, down a side lane.  It would take another mile before we could find a suitable place to perform a U-turn.  With nothing else around for miles Churrasqueira do Oeste is definitely a destination restaurant.  This rustic, family run restaurant with its friendly staff served a wonderful variety of fresh seafood and meat dishes at amazingly affordable prices.  (Having a restaurant do both well is not uncommon here, considering the close proximity of the ocean.) Mixed grilled seafood and grilled meats along with a good local wine, dessert and of course café sated our appetites.  It seemed fitting that we unexpectantly lucked upon this great find far off the beaten path on our last day.  Portugal was a fantastic country to explore.  We will miss it but hope to return in the future to breath its air and enjoy its wine again.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Portugal Road Trip – Along the Coast: Porto to Aveiro and Nazarene

We were just about to head out for afternoon to celebrate our last day in Porto at one of the seafood restaurants along the Foz oceanfront when there was a knock on the door. “Ola. Housekeeping.” “@#%&!”  With that abrupt surprise, we realized that we had misread our calendar.  Apologizing, we told the housekeeper we’d be packed in thirty minutes. IMG_3939And that’s how we started our drive to Aveiro, a revitalized old fishing port set back from the ocean on a lagoon with canals – a half day behind schedule.  Fortunately, Aveiro was only an hour’s drive away and we’d still have time to visit the Capela do Senhor da Pedra, a chapel built on an outcropping of rocks, at the surf’s edge in Miramar, just south of Porto.  Pagan rituals were once performed on these rocks, now a popular destination for romantic weddings.  Our timing was perfect for a walk along the beach at sunset.IMG_3920Night fully enveloped the streets by the time we arrived in Aveiro.  We always try to get to our hotels before dark, it’s just much easier finding hotels and street signs down dimly lit lanes.  We scored on our third loop around the block and found the obscure sign to our wonderful boutique hotel, high above us on the street corner.  Histórias Por Metro Quadrado, is an uniquely designed compact hotel, with refreshing contemporary rooms that are perfect for a short stay in the center of the city and very budget friendly.  We’ve found that “Parking Available” on hotel websites often means there is parking somewhere in the city – you must find it on your own.  After quizzing the receptionist, she assured us that the city of Aveiro was very tolerant of creative, overnight parking and our car would be ticket free until 9:00am, when we’d have to find a legal parking space. Reasonable enough.

By the time we re-parked the monthly Aveiro Antiques/Flea Market was in full swing.  Held every fourth Sunday, vendors set up along the canal by Praça do Peixe. It’s a pretty location, with a waterfront and colorful buildings reminiscent of Burano, Italy. IMG_3959Skippers readied their brightly painted Moliceiros boats for the day’s first tourists on Aveiro’s Central Canal as we sampled a variety of ovos moles, a traditional sweet pastry shaped as shells, fish or small boats at Padaria Ria Pão, across the street.  This recipe, developed centuries ago in the local convents, was the first Portuguese pastry to receive the coveted Protected Geographical Indication, awarded to recognize uniquely regional items, by the European Union.  IMG_4206

Tonight, we would lay our heads down inside the old walled city of Obidos. But first we’d have stops in Costa Nova and Nazaré, both on the coast.

Costa Nova is only minutes away from Aveiro, but what a world of difference.  City to beach, it’s surprising that the two co-exist in such close proximity.  Old traditional fishermen’s cottages brightly painted in varying striped patterns, to distinguish them easily in a fog, now share the dunes with large, contemporary beach homes that echo their designs. IMG_4343While the Algarve coast in southern Portugal gets the most hype with its azure waters and rock formations,  Portugal’s Silver Coast, the Costa de Prata, starting near Lisbon, runs north for nearly 150 uninterrupted miles to the Douro River in Porto.  Lightly developed, it’s a majestic stretch of wild, wide and flat sandy beaches and dunes that feels undiscovered and is worthy of further exploration.IMG_4458It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at Miradouro do Suberco towering 350 feet above Nazare’s beautiful, crescent shaped Praia da Nazaré beach.  Surprisingly, for such a beautiful spot we were able to find free parking nearby above the Nazare lighthouse.  The only caveat, an ominous sign warning that if our car some how managed to go over the cliff edge we would still be liable for the €25,000 wreckage removal.  You definitely need to know where reverse is on the stick shift here!  Some of the world’s tallest waves crash onto the rocks in front of the Nazare lighthouse between October and March.  Every year in November the Nazare Challenge attracts suicidal, thrill seeking surfers looking to ride the biggest waves. Thousands of onlookers line the hill above the action to watch their death-defying feats.  A record 80-foot wave was ridden in 2017 by Brazilian Rodrigo Koxa and outside the competition, in December 2018, a 100-foot tall monster was surfed by Tom Butler of the United Kingdom.  We can’t imagine the raw fury of those size waves. Unfortunately, the day we arrived the ocean was calm.

The intimate Ermida da Memória or Chapel of Our Lady of Nazaré stands next to the Miradouro do Suberco and as local legend goes was built by a thankful knight in 1182 after he was saved by Our Lady from following a fleeing buck over the cliff edge on a foggy day, while he was chasing it horseback.  Adding to the story the chapel is built above a cave, where in 711 a sacred statue of Mary carved by her husband Joseph was hidden away from the Moors for several centuries.  The interior of the church is lined with azulejo tiles illustrating the legend. IMG_4364Not far away, just above the Nazare lighthouse, Portuguese artist Adalia Alberto has created a whimsical, deer-headed surfer sculpture called Veado that pays tribute to Nazare’s old legend and today’s legendary wave riders.  This contemporary piece has to be one of the most unusual sculptures in Portugal and is worth finding when visiting Nazare.

Again, it would be dark by the time we arrived in Obidos.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Porto Part II: High Church to Ancient Alleys

The next morning we savored pastries from our three favorite pastelarias: Padeirinha Doce, Café Sagres, Neta 3 – Padaria e Confeitaria, all of which were conveniently too close and way too detrimental to our waistlines. As a mild penance, we walked into central Porto. IMG_1269Set back on Batalha Square, at the top of a wide set of stairs, the beautiful Church of Saint Ildefonso with its Azulejo tile covered exterior and twin bell towers commands attention.  Built in the early 1700’s on the site of an older church, the building has gone through many alterations after suffering severe storm damage one year, then cannon fire from Napoleon’s troops during the siege of Porto in 1833.  Eleven thousand Azulejo tiles depicting stories from the Gospels and the life of Saint Ildefonso were a late addition to the façade in 1932.

Rua Praça da Batalha turns into Rua de Santa Catarina, where two figureheads on the corners of opposite buildings mark the beginning of Porto’s pedestrian-only shopping street.  Several blocks down the Majestic Café, with its 1920’s art nouveau interior of polished wood and etched mirrors, is a window into an earlier era.IMG_1212The blue-tiled Chapel of Souls can be found a little further along.  Added in 1929, the two-story high Azulejo tile mural covering the front and side dramatically depicts scenes from the life of Saint Catherine and Saint Francis of Assisi.IMG_1295Back tracking, we turned down Rua de 31 de Janereio which would take us to Porto São Bento, the inter-city train station, then Clérigos Church & Clérigos Tower.  This beautiful French Beaux-Arts styled station was constructed in 1900.  Between 1905 and 1916, artist Jorge Colaço designed and installed 20,000 Azujelo tiles in this lobby, which illustrate significant moments in Portugal’s history. It is a dramatic, cavernous space especially when sunlight pours through its tall windows across the tiles.  Jorge Colaço also designed the tiles on the exterior of the Church of Saint Ildefonso.IMG_1702Just past the train station is Praça da Liberdade with its grand sculptures.  There are also many fine architectural details on the surrounding buildings, so look up! 

Clérigos Church & Clérigos Tower is a must stop if only to climb the tower which offers spectacular panoramic views of Porto.  If it’s a really nice day, you might be tempted to stay all day just to soak in the views of the city and life on the streets below.

The Brotherhood of the Clerics was established in the 13th century to assist sick or destitute clergy in their time of need.  The present-day church, infirmary (now a museum) and tower were constructed in the early 1700’s.  The 246 ft tower and its 225 steps to the top quickly established itself as the landmark of central Porto.  The infirmary functioned until the late 1800’s.  A 2014 renovation transformed the former hospital space into a modern museum featuring an extremely interesting collection of religious artifacts spanning from the 13th to 20th century.

From Clérigos Tower we walked along Rua das Carmelitas, stopping to snack at a sidewalk café next to Livraria Lello.  Since 1906 this charming bookstore with its beautiful façade and unique interior has been a magnet for literary types.  The Studio 54 of its day for aspiring novelists and bookworms, it is now an iconic photo op with its magnificently curved, polished wood and crimson carpeted stairway.  And remember to look up and check out the ornate ceiling.  What looks like carved wood detailing is actually painted plaster, a technique popular at the time. And they are capitalizing on this by charging admission. Fortunately, the purchase price of the ticket, €5.00, does get credited to a book purchase.  They limit the number of people entering at one time, but even in March when we visited it was packed with tourists and there was a queue outside.IMG_1749At the top of the street in a small plaza with palm trees we found Fonte dos Leões, with its four lion statues.IMG_1378Behind it the cathedrals Igreja dos Carmelitas and Igreja do Carmo stand next to each other.IMG_1478.jpgThey are only separated by the width of a discreet door to an extremely narrow house which was the home of church workers until the 1980s. Recently it was opened as a museum.  Igreja do Carmo was built for the people and has an ornate exterior with sculpted statues of Santa Ana and the prophets Elijah and Elisha alongside sculptures of the four evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke and John on its front façade and a large tile mural portraying the churches founding on the side wall.

Igreja dos Carmelitas was built as part of a convent and solely for the use of the cloistered nuns to keep them apart from the monks of Igreja do Carmo.  Both are magnificent showcases of Portugal’s wealth from when it was an empire, featuring exquisite, gilded wedding cake altars and lavish Baroque interiors.

Tram lines 22 and 18 converge conveniently in the plaza across the street from the cathedral.  Tram 22 gives you the option to journey down to the waterfront while Tram 18 loops back into the shopping district. IMG_1920.jpgIt was a brilliant, warm day and Jardins do Palácio de Cristal wasn’t too far away, so we continued our walk.  This spacious park offered a wonderful respite from city life with formal flower gardens, fountains and woodland trails that led to several scenic overlooks of the Douro River and Ponte da Arrábida. 

We savored the views of the river as we worked our way down the shaded trails which led us past Museu Romântico da Quinta da Macieirinha and Casa Tait, an estate home with formal gardens which is now a museum, to one of the oldest remnants of early Porto.

Rua de Entre-Quintas and Rua das Macieirinhas are rustic, ancient high walled, stone alleys where it’s easy to image how life was centuries ago, when this was a farming district on the outskirts of the city. At every corner we expected to encounter oxcarts, throngs of medieval merchants or a small herd of goats, but we had this journey to the past to ourselves.  We followed our Rua de Entre-Quintas to its end on Rua da Restauracao where we crossed over and then zig-zagged our way down to the Ribeira riverfront in search of a restaurant along the water. IMG_2033Along the quay the umbrella-ed tables of Monchique Bar Restaurant called us to rest.  Predictably we ordered grilled fish, as one does when so close to the ocean, but we started with an appetizer of the most amazing chicken gizzards!  Donna loves them, but I’ve always had an unfounded aversion to them until the wonderful aroma of them from the table next to us wafted our way.  They were surprisingly delicious, sautéed in wine with spices and herbs, and I’ve been a convert ever since.  The grilled fish was excellent as was the vino verde and café afterwards.  Savoring “la dolce vita” we whiled away the afternoon watching the tourist Rabelos, traditional cargo boats once used to transport wine, pass on the river.IMG_2107Tram 1 runs along the waterfront here, so we followed the tracks past Igreja do Corpo Santo de Massarelos, Church of the Brotherhood of the Holy Souls and Bodies, looking for the next station.  The original church was founded in 1394 by a brotherhood of seamen to honor those lost at sea.  Hometown hero Prince Henry the Navigator was a member of this fraternity in the 1400’s and the large azulejo tile mural on a wall of the church facing the river features him.IMG_2139Just around the corner from the church Trams 1 and 22 shared a stop and we hopped aboard the #22, to save our legs from a long uphill walk, to start our journey home for the day.

Till next time, Craig & Donna