The Garden Route Part 1: Cape Town to Addo Elephant National Park

Between apartment rentals, we explored South Africa’s famous Garden Route which runs along the southern coast of the country. There’s actually no official route; basically it’s an area that starts at Heidelberg, four hours east of Cape Town, and follows the N2 into the Eastern Cape and ends around Stormsriver.  In between there’s roughly 200 miles of inland scenery and gorgeous coastline at the bottom of the continent.  It’s dotted with small towns and villages, and endless recreational possibilities to satisfy your interests. We mapped an elongated, seven-day road trip that started in L’Agulhas and would end with a safari on a private game reserve, followed by a visit to Addo Elephant National Park, before returning inland to Cape Town via Oudtshoorn and Montagu to satisfy our wanderlust.

The Cape of Good Hope, as some mistakenly believe, is not the farthest point south on the African continent.  That distinction goes to L’Agulhas, where a lighthouse and monument marks the collision of the cold South Atlantic and warm South Indian Oceans, creating some of the fiercest storms for sailors to navigate through.IMG_8646Here gale force winds that blow in from Antarctica and colliding warm and cold currents build ferocious waves that can tower to 100 feet high.  These seas have claimed over 140 ships since the Portuguese first sailed here in the 1500s.  Within sight of the lighthouse, the most recent wreck of a Japanese fishing trawler from 1982 lies on the beach rusting away.IMG_8709We stayed the night at the Agulhas Ocean House, a modern B&B across from the ocean run by Allan & Sheryl, a retired couple from Cape Town.  The hosts were warm and gracious and provided a wonderfully comfortable room with an ocean view and delicious breakfast the next morning.  It was a tremendous value in the off-season.  (We found this also to be true of the other hotels we booked for this trip as well.) IMG_8693The next morning we stopped at Struisbaai Harbor, to try to catch a look at the resident stingrays, the most famous of which is named Parrie . Our hosts told us it was easy to spot these monsters because they were not afraid of people and liked to hang around the shallows and snag snacks from the fishing boats. IMG_8737Afterwards we headed toward Wilderness (the town not the idea,) along a route that traversed barren farmlands and coastal pine forests before skirting the coast again at Mossel Bay. We arrived in time to watch the sunset from our balcony at Beach Villa Wilderness another contemporary inn with spacious, modern rooms set above a wide, flat sandy beach that stretched for about 5 miles. IMG_9141Our room was luxurious and larger than several of the apartments we had rented on our round-the-world journey so far. We were hoping the owners, Leane & Deon, would adopt us. On our sunrise walk the next morning we only sighted a few other folks enjoying the quiet of this vast stretch of pristine beach during the winter season. We noted the considerably warmer weather, a result of the Agulhas Current which swoops warm Indian Ocean currents along the bottom of South Africa and wonderfully moderates the temperature. IMG_9110 After breakfast we backtracked on N2 to the pullover above the Kaaimans River Railway Bridge.  For railroad enthusiasts this was a destination for many years to watch the Outeniqua Choo Tjoe, the last continually operating steam train in Africa, cross the tidal estuary which slowed settlers’ advance along the rugged coast.  The line stopped operating in 2006 when landslides destroyed an extensive stretch of track. Today it’s an interesting photo-op. IMG_9168 Further up the gorge at Map of Africa View Point, raging waters over the eons have eroded a bend in the river to resemble the African continent when viewed from the overlook on the opposite side of the chasm.  The sky was empty mid-week, but across the road hundreds of paragliders launch from the grassy slope on the weekends to catch fantastic thermals and awesome views of the coast below.

SANParks Woodville Big Tree, off the fittingly named Seven Passes Road, was our next stop, to of course visit the appropriately cited Big Tree. A shaded trail led us deep into the Knysna forest to a more than 800-year-old yellow wood that towered 108ft into the canopy, with a 10ft diameter trunk and a 115ft wide crown.  Few of these majestic giants remain, having been over-harvested in the past for their valuable hardwood which was used for ship building, furniture making and construction. IMG_9215After spending hours rattling along dusty back roads we rejoiced to be on Route 2 again. A little while later we pulled over and enjoyed a late lunch and sunny afternoon on the outdoor deck of the Cruise Café, which overlooked Knysna Bay. IMG_9274We weren’t yet synched to the rhythm of life outside of Cape Town in the off-season and were surprised to find the restaurants and grocery stores in Plettenberg Bay closed when we arrived.  Fortunately, we had a wonderful room with an ocean and lagoon view terrace, right on Lookout Beach, at Milkwood Manor.  We were in luck, we had wine and snacks with us, so we had a picnic on the balcony, watching the high tide come in and lift small boats from their sandy berth while darkness fell. IMG_9295 The sun rose quickly the next morning from behind the Tsitsikamma Mountains, across the bay, filling our room with light.  We spent the early morning slowly sipping coffee and savoring the view.  Upon checkout we were delighted to find a sparkling clean car.  This was a wonderful service the hotel provided for guests, and an easy way for the gardener to earn some extra money.IMG_9322We kept to a strict schedule, and limited our stops for photos today, because we  needed to be at Schotia Safaris Private Game Reserve just outside of Port Elizabeth after lunch for an afternoon game drive.  We chose Schotia for their proximity to Addo Elephant National Park and its herd of 600+ elephants, which is second only to Kruger for elephant viewing.  Unlike the parks in east Africa where you can drive cross country in the pursuit of wildlife, the national parks in Africa restrict all tours to the roads.  But at the Schotia reserve, with a guide, we would have the opportunity for some overlanding to get closer to the animals, during morning, afternoon and evening game drives over the next three days. IMG_0250Three guides and three open-sided 4×4 Toyota safari trucks, each capable of seating 16 people, were waiting for their respective groups at the reserve’s headquarters.  Wonderfully, it was mid-week in the off-season, and we had Edward, our guide/naturalist, and truck all to ourselves, while the other two trucks left with groups of six each.  Schotia’s 4,000 acres of gently rolling hills, bush and forest shelter approximately 2,000 animals from 40 mammal species and its’s amazing how difficult it can be to find them. IMG_0123 But that was our goal as we rattled along the rutted paths to a high vantage point within the reserve, that provided distant views of the terrain surrounding us.  Scanning the vista with binoculars, Edward was searching for elephants, giraffes, antelopes and zebra.  “The animals are constantly on the move. We’re never really sure where they will be,” Edward offered. He seconded with, “There’s clouds of dust being kicked up over there. Can’t tell from here what they are, but let’s go investigate.” And our overlanding began, chasing a cloud of dust that turned out to be a small herd of white faced Blesbok, a stunning antelope species we weren’t familiar with.IMG_9525

A few minutes later the reserve’s massive bull elephant the “Boss” rambled up the track toward us and came within touching distance as we quietly sat in awe!  IMG_9473Sightings of impala, kudu, wildebeest, warthogs, cape buffalo, zebra, hippos and crocodiles rounded out the afternoon.

After snacks and a short rest at the reserve’s traditional lapa, a thatched roof structure supported on wooden poles, we headed out into the twilight for an evening game drive to spot some lions on the prowl.  IMG_1427

Hard to spot during the day, lions are even more difficult to find at dusk.  The three teams and guides spread out in different directions while staying in touch with their walkie-talkies to share information.  The radios were quiet for quite a while until a lioness was spotted hunting in some grasslands on the other side of the reserve.  The last blue of the twilight sky was almost gone when we joined the other groups watching the lioness eat her fresh kill in the semidarkness.  IMG_1274On the way back to the lapa we encountered the hippos we had seen earlier, now grazing far from their waterhole.  Large black masses, they were barely visible when out of the headlights.IMG_1234Glasses of wine and a large, warming fire greeted us when we returned to the lapa for dinner.  Inland the temperature fell quickly, and the warmth from the flames felt good.

We hadn’t realized when we planned this road trip, but tonight was the first anniversary of a year on the road.  No home, just two suitcases and each other – oh dear.

Dusty after a full day of game drives, we were sitting on the porch of a small cottage sipping wine in the middle of a private game reserve, in South Africa, reminiscing about our first nomadic year.

“It’s hell, I tell you!” My heart sank, but I quickly burst into laughter when I saw a wry smile across Donna’s face as she finished her complaint. “I only have three pairs of shoes with me.”

IMG_1265Darkness covered the countryside early in June, the beginning of South Africa’s winter season.  Our guide had just lit the oil lamps a few minutes earlier, handed us a walkie-talkie and said, “Use this to call the owner if there’s an emergency, you’re the only folks here tonight.’’ The owner lived somewhere on the other side of this vast reserve. There were no other lights around except for the moon.  The bush has a life of its own and sounds totally different in the darkness.IMG_9793We didn’t plan on being the only folks at the game reserve during the middle of the week, but that’s one of the benefits of off-season travel.  Following spring-like conditions around the globe, we’ve been able to avoid hot, humid weather and the crowds, while managing to have some wonderful experiences along the way.  Tomorrow, Edward would guide us through Addo Elephant National Park.IMG_0358The eastern cape was once home to tremendous herds of elephant which were hunted by the Xhosa and the Khoe (Khoi) tribes for sustenance, and much like the American Plains Indians and buffalo it did not end well.  As colonization spread across the region in the 1700 and 1800s the tribes succumbed to smallpox and were pushed into different regions, and the elephants were slaughtered to near extinction for their ivory and to protect farming interests in the region. With the killing of 1400 elephants in 1919, public opinion slowly turned.  Only eleven elephants remained when Addo Park was established in 1931 with 5600 acres. IMG_0901 The park was enclosed with an elephant proof fence in 1954, to protect the surrounding citrus farms from their rampages, when the size of the herd had rebounded to 22 elephants.  Today the park is the third largest in South Africa and encompasses 1,700,000 acres.  Home to over 600 elephants now, the reserve has expanded its mission to protect a growing number of mammal species within its borders.IMG_0993We could have done a self-drive tour through Addo, but we thoroughly enjoyed Edward’s knowledge of wildlife and the region.  It was a good decision.  Sitting up high in an SUV provided better visibility into the bush, where in our small rental car we wouldn’t have been able to see much.  And his timing was perfect in getting us to a waterhole just as a very large herd with calves was creating a trail of dust as it emerged from the surrounding dry bush.IMG_0936We witnessed elephants smiling as they drank.  It was a tremendous experience.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

 

Cape Town Part 1: Vibrant, Complex & Beautiful

After spending a month in Bulgaria, we headed to South Africa at the end of May, to continue our pursuit of budget-friendly and interesting places with moderate weather to avoid the heat and humidity of a European summer.  The seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere, so we stayed for three months to take advantage of their mid 60sF (16C) winter weather, which is extremely mild in comparison to the winters of the northeast United States.  So temperate in fact that most homes and apartments are not built with central heat, relying instead on small, portable electric heaters.  Mostly, folks just layered up, and on those gale force, windy days we were amused to see people in fur-trimmed hooded parkas, more suitable for the Alaskan wilderness, than walking around Cape Town. IMG_3489This would be Donna’s fourth trip to Cape Town and my first. Back in 1993 she visited friends she had made while attending Princeton Seminary, and a year later in 1994 she volunteered to be an International Observer for the first free and fair democratic elections in South Africa.  In 2016 she returned to a city humming with positive energy and a growing economy.  Unfortunately, this situation did not continue, and by 2019 the governance and economy of South Africa and its neighboring countries had stalled.  The city was still beautiful and growing as a tourist destination, an amazing coffee culture had been born, but shuttered construction projects and an increasing homeless population were evident, and across many different socioeconomic groups, people were feeling disenfranchised. A multi-year drought exasperated many infrastructure problems that were being neglected.  Fortunately, exceptional winter rains broke the severe drought and replenished the city’s nearly depleted reservoirs.IMG_4658We immersed ourselves quickly into the neighborhood  around our first apartment on Buitenkant Street, just a few blocks away from the District Six Museum, steam punk themed Truth Coffee and the Jason Bakery.  One block over we followed Harrington Street, past some great street art, to Bootleggers for more coffee and the best peri-per chicken livers in CPT.

A little further along, Nude Foods sold everything by weight and encouraged us to reuse our bags and refill our olive oil and balsamic vinegar bottles.  Around the corner Charly’s Bakery, an institution in CPT with an interesting creation story, would make our sweet tooth ache.  We had a memorable evening beginning with dinner at Dias Tavern, a Portuguese restaurant, followed by a performance of Kinky Boots at the Fugard Theatre across the street. IMG_7384On the edge of the City Bowl and Zonnebloem districts, formerly District Six, our high-rise apartment building had a rooftop gym with fantastic views of the city, a 24hr doorman, gated parking and balconies with beautiful views of Table and Lion’s Head mountains.  But the area immediately around us was in transition, without enough residential housing to call it a neighborhood.

After work everyone vanished and the streets were nearly deserted.  The multistory construction project adjacent to our balcony was abandoned.  While this offered privacy it had an unsettling, post-apocalyptic vibe that deterred our enjoyment of an otherwise sunny space.  First world whining, we know, but we felt the Airbnb host was deceptive for several reasons regarding the apartment and surrounding area.  Around the corner folks were sleeping rough on the street.  We made a habit of carrying our loose change in our coat pockets to easily give it to the unofficial “car guards” and panhandlers. We had a nice room to enjoy nightly, and plenty to eat. How could we just pass them by?   We walked all over the city, even at night, and never felt unsafe during our time in Cape Town, but using common sense is in order.  During the weeks that we didn’t have a rental car we utilized Uber, which was very affordable, to cover greater distances around town.

We liked to joke that “you know you’re a local when you sign-up for the supermarket discount card.”  Part of our weekly ritual was walking up Buitenkant Street towards Oranjezicht, an upscale neighborhood, with many fine examples of Cape Dutch architecture, to The Gardens, a multi-story shopping and residential complex with Pick-n-Pay and Woolworths grocery stores.  On Prince Street the Hurling Swaaipomp Pump House still stands.  Slaves pumped spring water for the surrounding homes here until the mid-1800s.

The cost of groceries and dining out in Cape Town was extremely favorable.  Grocery items generally cost half of what they would typically cost in the states. A dinner for two with wine, dessert and coffee would run less than $40.00.  Seafood was abundant, as you would expect in a coastal city, and inexpensive as well.  We took full advantage of this, enjoying grilled octopus, sword fish, mussels and the best oysters on multiple occassions. Sautéed ostrich filets were a tasty meal we prepared for ourselves.  Disappointingly, wild game was only available at restaurants. The Western Cape Winelands, around Stellenbosch, just outside Cape Town, covers a vast area and produces some exceptional vintages that are budget friendly.  Winery tours of the area are a must and with over 200 vineyards the possibilities are endless.IMG_4663We had to find a dentist also, as just before our flight into Cape Town one of my crowns broke.  Fortunately, South Africa is recognized for good medical and dental care and is slowly becoming a medical tourism destination.  I found Dr. Ramjee on Google Maps, checked his reviews and made an appointment at his office which was within walking distance of our apartment.  With his jovial and comforting manner, I instantly felt at ease.  Though only a one dental chair office he had a state-of-the-art digital x-ray machine, a dental assistant and a receptionist.  Besides the broken crown, I needed a root canal as well – what fun!  My experiences with Dr. Ramjee were excellent and I raved so much about him Donna decided to use his services when the need arose for an emergency root canal and crown also.  Unexpected expenses that in the states would be costly, even with insurance, were much more affordable and payable out of pocket here.  The savings were tremendous.

Avoiding the past is difficult in Cape Town, with remnants of slavery’s legacy scattered about the city, even on the way to the dentist’s office.  Just across from his door a concrete medallion marks the spot of the Old Slave Tree, where slaves were sold until their emancipation was declared in 1834.  Around the corner the second oldest building in Cape Town – the Slave Lodge, a euphemism for a small pox-plagued, prison like structure for 500 slaves, still stands.  It was built in 1679 to house the slaves owned by the Dutch East India Company that worked in the Company’s Garden, a farm.  Today its mission as a museum is to explore the history “Slaves at the Cape: Oppression, Life and Legacy.”

IMG_8198You just can’t walk enough miles along the coast or up and down Loin’s Head to keep the calories off in this foodie-oriented city. The Saturday- and Sunday-only food markets didn’t help, but they are a treasured tradition, throughout the region, that brings family, friends and tourists together to enjoy live music and good food.

Our favorite in Cape Town was the Oranjezicht City Farm Market down by the V&A waterfront.  There’s also The Neighbourgoods Market, located at the Old Biscuit Mill in Woodstock.  The Bay Harbour Market in Hout Bay, Blue Bird Garage Food and Goods Market in Muizenberg, the Elgin Railway Market in Grabouw and the Root 44 Market in Stellenbosch. All were enjoyable destinations beyond the city.IMG_6238On the lower end of Buitenkant Street, the Castle of Good Hope, a 17th century pentagon-shaped stone bastion fortress, stands surrounded by city streets, its cannons now pointing toward skyscrapers instead of enemy ships.  It was originally built on the water’s edge of Table Bay by the Dutch to protect the harbor from the British.  After a massive waterfront reclamation project in the 1930s and 1940s reshaped Cape Town’s waterfront, the castle now stands far inland.

It houses a military and ceramic museum along with the William Fehr Collection.  This is a controversial exhibit today because the collection only depicts colonial history with no representation of the indigenous KhoiSan people who were the true first inhabitants of the western cape long before the Portuguese stepped ashore, followed later by the Dutch and British. It’s been 25 years since the first genuinely representative government of South Africa has been elected and only four statues of early indigenous leaders who fought colonization, and were imprisoned in the fortress, stand outside.  Yet the lopsided narrative of this collection has not been addressed and many wonder why.IMG_4534In early June the castle hosted the 2019 Cape Town Coffee Festival which celebrated all things caffeinated with growers from across the continent, barista workshops and pop-up coffee stands.  If you ever wanted to see thousands of folks ricocheting off the walls from too much free coffee, this was the place to be.

One of our favorites was a Senegalese coffee prepared by Khadim, a pleasant and engaging expat.  It’s a strong sweet coffee, served with a long dramatic pour.  We enjoyed it so much that we visited his shop, Khadim’s Coffee, repeatedly. So good was the java and food prepared by Khadim that his shop became our de facto rendezvous point for meeting friends in the city.IMG_6322The coffee festival coincided with the Red Bull Cape Town Circuit where their F1 Aston Martin Red Bull racing car roared down Darling Street at over 150mph, passing the spot where Nelson Mandela addressed the nation upon his release from Robben Island, and turning the stretch in front of city hall, lined with bleachers, into a high-speed drag strip.  At the intersections, souped-up street cars burned rubber and spun donuts while the Red Bull Air Force performed aerial acrobatics over the city.  It was a raucous day that we could hear from our apartment.

Closer to the city center the District Six Museum tells the story of an atrocity, an afront to dignity that should never be forgotten.  In 1867 the sixth district in Cape Town was formed as a neighborhood of immigrants, merchants, artisans, laborers and freed African and Asian slaves.  It was close to the port and provided the muscle Cape Town needed to grow.  It was home to ten percent of Cape Town’s population and thrived as a community for decades until 1966 when the apartheid government, seeing prime real estate under Table Mountain, declared it a whites only area.  The district’s 60,000 residents were forcibly relocated with superficial notice into segregated townships 15 miles away, or further, from central Cape Town. IMG_5735Families and neighbors were intentionally sent to different communities to break the spirit of the people.  The apartheid government was so vile it “regarded the district as both physically and morally tainted by miscegenation, wholly unfit for rehabilitation” and flattened every building except for Churches.  Even the original streets were destroyed, and new roadways were created so folks couldn’t find their homes, now vacant lots, that they legally owned.  Much of the area still remains abandoned. The District Six Museum commemorates this tragedy and the lasting heartbreak of this cruelty.

The Company’s Garden was only a few blocks away.  Originally a farm that supplied passing ships with food, it now is a wonderful urban park in the city center with old growth specimen trees, gardens, and café. Adjacent to the entrance of the park, Desmond Tutu used to preach from the pulpit of St. George’s Cathedral, an Anglican Church.  And across the street a section of the Berlin Wall stands in remembrance of the struggles people are willing to make for freedom around the world.

At the far end of the gardens two museums grace the grounds and are perfect for a rainy-day exploration.  The Iziko South African Museum is a natural history and science museum with a planetarium.  It has wonderful collection of early aboriginal tools and rock paintings along with a large compendium of pre-historic fossil remains.  There is something for everyone here and we found it to be fascinating.   Outside, various street performers entertained visitors to the park.

Across the way the South African National Gallery has an eclectic collection of contemporary and tribal art from South Africa and the rest of the continent.  The art scene is thriving in Cape Town with many galleries providing exhibit space to young, talented artists.  The museum’s collection reflects this vibrant art scene.IMG_3471Despite our apartment’s faults, we enjoyed our time on Buitenkant Street.  Watching the brilliant sunrises and the flat clouds – the tablecloth of Table Mountain – cover the summit and then spill down the side like a waterfall. The street life below spanned the gamut from groups of tutu-clad race walkers one day to noisily protesting sex workers or Fridays for Future demonstrators the next.

It would be superficial of us not to address the painful past of this relatively young democracy; apartheid and race are still underlying issues.  Despite this, Cape Town, South Africa, was a wonderful experience: at once contemporary and traditional; challenging, progressive, and hope-filled, it captivated us for three months.

Stay tuned for more as we work our way across the southern tip of the continent.

Till next time,

Craig & Donna

Bulgarian: Back Roads, Monasteries and Junkyards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till next time, Craig & Donna

 

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

Porto – Part 3: Following a Gilded Path to Foz

All week long the gate to Capela dos Alfaiates had been locked with no sign of activity, whenever we passed.  This morning as I headed to our favorite pastelaria to secure breakfast, the gate and the doors of the church were opened wide.  Nothing unusual, just limited hours, I thought. As I opened the inner door to the sanctuary and turned, the sweet aroma of lilies was in the air.  And as my eyes adjusted to the light I suddenly faced a delicately shrouded open casket, by itself in a small elegant chapel.  I quickly left, embarrassed for intruding.  Outside the church nothing indicated that a funeral would begin.  It was not how I expected to start the day.IMG_2161Later that morning the courtyard of the church was filled with mourners as we walked to the Porto Cathedral, Sé do Porto.  Not far from the old towers and ramparts of Muralha Fernandina, the cathedral commands the highest point in Porto.  The building outwardly reflects Porto’s turbulent past, with crenels capping its massive shape, when it was the last point of refuge while the city was under siege.IMG_2235Building started in the 1100s, then continued over the centuries. The cathedral combines Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque features, like so many of the other churches in Porto.

It has a beautiful sanctuary and magnificent colonnaded cloisters lined with the blue and white Azulejo tiles along its walls.  The cathedral’s museum complex next door displays a fascinating wealth of ancient religious items.  IMG_2175Exiting the museum, the Pillory of Porto centers the vast plaza in front of the Cathedral.  Criminals once hung from hooks, still visible, on this graceful Manueline column.  It struck us as such a disturbing juxtaposition, this instrument of punishment and humiliation, prominent in front of the cathedral, constantly reminding the good citizens of Porto not to stray from a righteous path. Today tourists lounge on its steps and soak in the surrounding views of Porto.

Following steps, we descended towards the river to Chafariz do Pelicano, an elegant old 16th century public fountain built into one of the supporting walls of the cathedral’s plaza above.  Flanked by sculpted female figures, water pours from a hole in the pelican’s chest into a lower reservoir before flowing out of the mouths of carved faces. IMG_3737Narrow alleys spurred left and right off the steep stairways.  Taking one we came across a lavadouro público (communal laundry) that appeared to be recently rebuilt with new wash basins and roof.

No one was using it when we walked by, but drying laundry hung from the rafters.  The alley was a contrast of old and new.  At the street level modern galleries, boutiques and restaurants sporadically lined the flagstone lane, while above neighbors chatted effortlessly across its narrow width.  IMG_2955Eventually our route merged onto the quay near Fonte do Cubo, a modern sculpture installed upon the ruins of a 17th fountain by the late José Rodrigues, who made his home in Porto.  Behind the square a three-story high fountain covers one wall.  At its center is a 21st century statue of St John the Baptist, done in a primitive style, by João Cutileiro, another famous Portuguese sculptor.  Surrounded by lively, outdoor cafes and throngs of tourists, this is ground zero for the Ribeira waterfront.IMG_3716Walking past the Museu do Vinho do Porto on Rua da Reboleira, we headed to Igreja Monumento de São Francisco, also known as the gold church, to check out its ornate, gilded interior and crypt.

The church sits atop a steep set of stairs that rise from Rua Nova da Alfândega, giving it a commanding view of the river.  Started by the Franciscans in the 13th century, what was once a small church to support their attached convent was expanded and reconfigured over time into the magnificent monument you see today.  Romanesque, Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical styles blend harmoniously to create an awe-inspiring sanctuary.  There is so much going on inside it’s difficult to decide where to look.  It was not always this overly ornate.

The Portuguese woodcarvers covered every inch of the interior with exuberant sculptures in the early 1700s and then an estimated 400 kilos, 880 pounds, of Brazilian gold dust was used to cover them.  The “Tree of Jesse,” a polychrome sculpture depicting the family tree of Jesus, is a notable example of the technique that is also widely used to decorate the walls. The extravagant display of wealth was too much for the poverty-stricken neighborhood surrounding the church and in protest it was closed for several years.  IMG_3189The church was plundered during the Napoleonic Invasions and used as a stable by French occupying forces.  Then later that century during the Portuguese Civil War the city was bombarded and the cloisters burnt to the ground, never to be rebuilt.  The large crypt under the church was the final resting spot for many of Porto’s famous and wealthy citizens and, as catacombs go, is worth a short visit.IMG_3645It was time for a change of pace. Being so close to the Atlantic Ocean we decided to take Tram Line 1, which conveniently had a stop in front of the cathedral, all the way out to the Foz district, where the mouth of the Douro River empties into the Atlantic Ocean.  There was a short queue waiting for the tram, but fortunately with the arrival of a second tram we able to snag a seat for the journey.

This is the longest tram route in the city and follows the serpentine riverfront for a rattling twenty minutes past a scenic array of Port warehouses, churches, shops, museums and discotheques, before traveling under the Ponte da Arrábida bridge and ending near the Felgueiras Lighthouse at Jardim do Passeio Alegre. IMG_3249 Just shy of our destination the route was blocked by a disabled truck on the tracks.  With no quick remedy in sight we decided to jump ship and head to lunch at the nearest restaurant, which happened to be in Jardim de Sobreiras, right next to our roadblockFuga Restaurante & BarFuga Restaurante & Bar with its outside deck was a perfect spot to enjoy some seafood and wine for lunch.

This part of Porto has a more relaxed atmosphere, without the multi-storied buildings of the historic center and significantly fewer tourists, which made it a nice reprieve.  After lunch we followed the pedestrian bike and footpath along the river into Jardim do Passeio Alegre and walked around its fountains before continuing to Felgueiras Lighthouse.  For thousands of years what lay beyond the western horizon was unknown and the curiosity about it would spur Portugal’s Age of Discovery.IMG_3325We used an Uber ride to head back to our apartment.  It was only slightly more expensive than our tram tickets would have been.

Till next time, Craig & Donna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till next time, Craig & Donna

Porto Part II: High Church to Ancient Alleys

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till next time, Craig & Donna

 

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

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

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

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

Till next time, Craig & Donna.