Saturday, May 16, 2009

Boa Noite

We are back in Lisbon.
Valença, Portugal on right; Spain on left & Minho River in between
Valença was delightful. Our hotel was located within the walls of the 12thC (or thereabout) fortress on a hilltop overlooking the Minho River and surrounding valley, which was...well, breathtaking comes to mind. Green, rolling hills, mountains, vineyards and the fortress itself, complete with cannons (pointed towards Spain).
Fortress walls: Valença, Portugal

Within the fortress walls were many shops which, curiously, all seemed to sell linens. There were also a couple of cafes and Portuguese restaurants. (If i never see another olive again, it may be too soon.) And of course there were a few small churches. On our first day there we explored this area. On the second day we went to Spain.
Eiffel Bridge between Spain & Portugal


Spain lies just across the river and is accessible by means of a bridge built in 1886 and designed by Gustave Eiffel himself. It took us just less than 15 minutes to make the journey. The town on the other side is Tui. Don´t ask me how to pronounce it. At first glance it is a depressing roadside town, best glimpsed from a passing car, but if one heads towards the river there is a beautiful little town, 5 or 6 hundred years old and centred around a large cathedral. We walked through the steeply winding streets and had a coffee. (You can smoke inside there, something that is not possible in Portugal.) After about 5 hours of blind exploration, we returned home, had dinner and watched the sky darken from our hotel room.
Today we took the train back to Lisbon; a pleasant journey that took about 6 hours. We spent out last evening having dinner and taking one final walk around the castle.
Dale smoking in Lisbon

Betty Lou in Lisbon

We have an early and long trip home tomorrow via Frankfurt and Calgary (two cities not often mentioned together).
We will be in Vancouver Sunday evening.
d & b

Friday, May 15, 2009

Buenos Dias

We are in Spain for the day. We walked here over a bridge from Valença. 
We are using a computer in a library and i am not sure if we are supposed to so we will just say hello and will write again soon.
d & b

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Rio Douro

Riverfront buildings: Porto

Let us assure you that we are not suffering when it comes to breakfast. All of our hotels have had excellent breakfast offerings (complete with dessert), and the hotel in Porto has been no exception. Oh yeah, and the food is free, which is quite remarkable, when you consider how inexpensive these lodgings are (relative to North America).
So, after eating, we went walking in the sunshine, which was lovely - particularly considering we awoke to rain. We visited the imposing Se Cathedral and numerous other churches, which are always wonderful. We never tire of them, and apparently nor do the Portuguese, as there always seems to be a mass underway. We are not yet converts.
me (Dale) map reading in Porto
We strolled across the impressive bridge spanning the Douro - i forget the name of the bridge, there are 5 of them, but only one is impressive. The bridge was designed by an unnamed assistant to Gustave Eiffel.
Having worked up an appetite, we had the most glorious long lunch on the river front, sitting in the sunshine, snacking on olives, and seafood (Betty Lou) and smoking a cigar (me) all the while being serenaded by a lively duo on the accordion & guitar. It was perfect.
Market Olives: Porto
Not wanting to leave the river, we took an hour long cruise down the river.
We capped off the evening with hot chocolate and truffles at a super stylish and beautiful hotel, like something out of Wallpaper magazine. Very glamorous.
Today we were sort of out of things to do. We visited a few more churches and took a tour of the Palacio de Bolsa, which was once the stock exchange and commercial centre. It was very beautiful.
After a decadent afternoon nap we were on our way to tea when we stumbled across a group of university students dressed in their black suits & capes playing Portuguese music on the street (accordions, various stringed instruments, drums, etc). Very delightful. Even without anything planned we always manage to find entertainment and delights.
We will be catching an early morning train to Valença do Minho, the last stop as we wander north.
d & b
Window: Porto


Greetings from Oporto (or Porto, if you prefer).
We arrived at our hotel, the Grande Hotel de Paris, yesterday afternoon. It is a lovely old hotel, charming in its faded elegance, decorated with antiques and delicate staircases. We just had the breakfast this morning, which was fantastic.
Yesterday we visited the beautiful sao Fransisco church, museum and catacombs. We stopped for lunch and Betty Lou decided to sample the grilled sardines. There were four large fish on a plate, complete with their tails and tragic faces, which i covered with leaves of lettuce out of respect (and disgust). She reports that they were tasty, but difficult to eat. 
Buildings: Porto
We then walked along the banks of the Rio Douro, and looked across to the south bank where all of the port is made. This inspired us, so we paid a visit to Vinologia, a cozy & rustic drinking establishment that describes itself as a ´Port School`, as it provides education with each glass. Betty Lou and & i did a beginner´s tasting of three ports each. (That´s right, Betty Lou was drinking again!)
Port in Porto
We spent the rest of our evening walking through the city and stopped for a coffee at the Majestic Cafe, which certainly lives up to its name.
The weather again today is grey and a bit drizzly, but we hold out hope for sunshine.
That is all for now. More to come later. We are off to a market and, what else, more cathedrals.
d & b
Graffiti (1000 cranes): Porto

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Boa Morte

Sunday in Coimbra is a quiet day, unless you are a church goer. All of the shops and most of the cafes & restaurants are closed. Thankfully, we completed the majority of our site seeing yesterday, so today we really didn´t have anything planned except continued exploration of the city. It was again a bit chilly and drizzly today, so after an excellent breakfast at our B&B we walked around for several hours before returning ´home´ for a nap.
view from Coimbra University
We were awakened by the sound of a marching band parading through the streets. They were very near to us but from our window we couldn´t see them, even though we saw people from a street over looking down on the random parade.
At about 4pm we went out and one of the small pedestrian, residential streets that we have passed frequently was suddenly enlivened by a path of carefully arranged flowers and leaves leading down the winding road. We saw a couple of elderly women laying out the flowers. We discovered that this was in honor of an old ritual, the Festa Na. Sa. Boa Morte, which is an annual procession from a cathedral in honor of the virgin Mary. We went to the church and sat for about 45 minutes of the mass before the procession started. (this is by far the longest time that i have spent in church as an adult) The procession was led by a priest and assorted church officials carrying banners, then a group of scouts carrying a life size figures of Mary, lying in repose among flowers and gilded angels. A marching band followed, playing sober music, and behind the band, was a group of people. Rose petals marked the path of the procession around the city. Along the route, people hung colorful fabric from their windows and watched the pious parade. It was quite a wonderful scene.
Coimbra has been a delight, full of unexpected events. Tomorrow after breakfast we catch a train north to Oporto.
Boa Noite.
Boa Morte viewers: Coimbra

Boa Morte procession: Coimbra

Bats in the Bibliotheque

Greetings from Coimbra!
run down buildings in Coimbra
We arrived here Saturday morning after a short & lovely trains ride (first class) through pastoral environs. Coimbra is a town dating back about nearly 1000 years. It was originally the capital of Portugal and presently is best know for being home to one of the oldest universities in Europe. There is a a winding, walled historic centre on a hilltop surrounding the university (the area where we are staying).
Coimbra Graffiti
We are staying at a small bed & breakfast, Casa Pombal. It has ten tiny rooms surrounding a precarious flight of stairs up four stories. (Dawn & Ron: the climb is like the Biscuit Palace in New Orleans.) Everything is bright and cheerful, including the small courtyard patio, filled with flowers. Our room is in the attic with excellent views of the city & river.
We first visited the university, which is from the 1500s. It was quite impressive. There were ceremonial halls and classrooms that looked like they belongs at Hogwarts, and a lovely church, but the best thing of all was the library, the Biblioteca Joanina. It was the most beautiful library i have ever seen. It was built in the early 1700s and houses 300,000 ancient books in ornate black & gold bookcases inlaid with chinoiserie designs. the ceilings and archways look like something out of a baroque church and there are huge reading tables and ladders to reach the uppermost volumes. The extra cool thing is that it is also home to a flock of bats that that sleep in hidden crevices and come out at night to eat insects that may otherwise destroy the books, so every evening, the floors and tables are covered by the caretaker, who let us in with the use of a giant skeleton key. Very cool.
After the university we meandered along and stumbled across a wonderful street party\market where crafts people sold their wares and other people cooked up tasty treats, which we sampled. There was a DJ and giant cushions on the step on which to relax.
postboxes: Coimbra
We visited so many churches, that i shall not name them all, but they were all beautiful. (At one we even saw people singing and taking communion.)
One thing that bears mentioning is that at the moment it is the Quiemba das Fitas, the festival that marks the end of the university year. There is the usual student revelry (drunkenness), but here the students also have a ritual in which they burn ribbons of the color that represents their faculty (red for law, yellow for medicine, etc). The students are everywhere dressed in formal costume: Long black capes, black suits and many also wear black hats. It is very dramatic, seeing groups of them walking to various parties with their capes flowing behind them.
Coimbra buskers
It was a wonderful day. It is a bit cooler here than it has been in the past week or so, and it even rained a bit last night.
Today we shall explore a bit more and tomorrow we catch a train to Porto.
d & b

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Children of the Corn Meets the Shining

Well, we made it to Fatima. The bus ride was very pleasant; about an hour and a half through rolling pastures and vineyards. That ends the pleasant part of the day.
We checked into our hotel, which was basic, as we expected (there are not any charming accommodations in Fatima). Our hotel is very 1970s, but very clean and walking distance to everything we wanted to see. The only thing is, what we wanted to see was a bit of a disappointment.
Fatima signs
The story about Fatima is that 1917 three little kids saw the virgin Mary in a tree and over time the spot has become one of the most important holy sights for Catholics. There is a large and lovely, albeit rather sterile church, overlooking an immense square where crowds gather for festivals and Pope sightings. Some people, apparently so overcome with religious devotion (i.e. insanity) approach the church on their knees from hundreds of feet away. It is interesting, but not really moving, as i have found other religious sites to be. We saw three women on their knees, making their way awkwardly towards the church. It just looked silly.
Fatima: square outside church
The square outside the church is just a concrete expanse that looked more like a skateboard park than a shrine. The only thing that i enjoyed was the opportunity to buy large candles, wax body parts and wax children and burn them in what we can only assume is some sort of offering to god. (They even had wax breasts!)
Fatima souvenirs
The rest of the town is just a collection of gaudy religious souvenir shops, which we did enjoy, but you can only look at so many 4 foot tall glow-in-the-dark Virgin Marys before it becomes tedious.

There we a few unappealing restaurants and several uninspiring 1960s hotels, but that is about it. The really odd thing is that there were very few people. Outside of the church, the town was somewhat deserted. It was like Children of the Corn.
This sign was in a Catholic Church. Apparently it indicates  Confession, but i see a different meaning
This morning we got up early to catch a bus and when we descended into the hotel lobby, we could find no one. No one at the desk, no one in the restaurant, no one in the halls. We tried to exit, but found much to our horror, that we were locked in!! I was about to climb out a window when the desk clerk found us and set us free.  
Today has been a vast improvement. We are presently in Tomar, a charming Medieval era town on a river about an hour from Fatima. The streets are delightful, there are numerous churches and sites of historical interest. This morning we strolled through an outdoor market, sampling fresh bread, cheese and strawberries. We then visited the Convent of Christ, a 12thC convent & castle on a hill and had lunch off the town square. There are a few more places we plan to check out before catching a bus back to Fatima.
river in Tomar
 Tomorrow we catch a train north to Coimbra. 
view of Tomar

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Under the Sintra Sun

view over Sintra
Sintra is amazing! As we expected, it has the quaint cobblestone streets & charming alley ways leading to artisan shops and eateries, what we did not expect was just how magical it would be.
We arrived by train and walked to `"Cinco", the B&B where we are staying. Through an unassuming green door we entered a beautiful garden where our host lives in her house, behind which is our cottage. We have full amenities, including a living room that opens up onto our own private garden courtyard with a table & chairs overlooking a picturesque valley. We were both delighted, but Betty Lou in particular is in heaven.
view from Cinco, Sintra
Upon getting settled, we decided to walk to the Palacio da Pena, Sintra´s star attraction. It is a beautiful palace, exuberant and romantic in its color & design, perched on a lushly forested mountain top. We decided to walk, but after an hour in the heat we flagged down a bus (we discovered later that we had accidentally opted for the long road). I must mention how beautiful the forest is and that it smelled like flowers and herbs and was filled with exotic birdsong.
Palacia da Pena - Sintra
The palace really was spectacular - it almost seemed like it ought to have been at Disneyworld and the views from it into the town and surrounding valley were beautiful.
From the palace we walked to another peak on the mountain where there sits an 11th Century Moorish castle. The castle is so cool. ("This is so cool!" being the phrase i exclaimed repeatedly while there.) The castle walls are precariously built atop the mountain and walking the ramparts takes you up and down along cliffs. It was like being in a medieval book or movie.
Moorish Castle - Sintra
At the end of all this hiking, we were drenched with sweat and satisfaction. We had a wonderful lunch in the village, followed by a nap and decadent desserts before returning to our courtyard to watch the sun set.
Today we went to the Quinta de Regaleira, a palace dating back centuries, but redesigned in the 1800s by an eccentric Brazillian coffee baron, known as Monteiro dos Milhoes ("Moneybags Montiero"). He hired a designer of Italian opera sets to create a lavish and magical garden setting for the palace, as well as the interior which was full of symbolic elements of alchemy, religion, and free masonry. The palace is interesting, but the real treasure is the grounds surrounding it. They are filled with turrets and walls, pools, grottos, flora, and fountains and, best of all in my opinion, super cool underground tunnels leading to different parts of the park! Some of these tunnels were lit and others were pitch black, making us wish we had brought lights. It was just amazing. I felt like Alice in Wonderland.
We just had a delicious lunch and the rest of the day is free. Tomorrow morning we catch the train back to Lisbon and then take a bus to Fatima.
We are both extremely happy.
me on the Moorish castle

Monday, May 4, 2009

Of All the Gin Joints...

We started our morning with yet another fabulous breakfast at our hotel followed by a morning stroll and...liquor! That's right it was not yet 11am when Betty Lou and i had our first drink! We walked back down to the Rossio Square to see what it was like on a non-Sunday (lively and bustling) and we happened by this little hole in the wall bar. I use the word 'bar' loosely however, as all it is is an opening the size of a small walk-in closet with a bar, a bartender and several bottles of red liquid. The place is called Ginjinha and it has been there for about 150 years serving only one drink to locals buy single shots of this boozy concoction and drink it standing outside. We had to indulge. I heard it called gin, but it is sort of a cherry brandy; not offensive, but far too sweet for my liking. Betty Lou thought it pleasant and clinked glasses with the local men. I know it was early for drinking, but it had to be 5:00 somewhere, right?
BL drinking with the locals
After that, much of the rest of the day was spent exploring. We went to the ruins of a medieval church and had lunch on a cafe patio on the square, but mostly we just walked.
I really can't explain how fascinating the streets are. These super narrow alleys, lined with buildings that were once brightly painted, but are now mostly faded and peeling, while others are tiled in exuberant colors and patterns. Many of the street are quite shabby looking and seem almost desolate, but then you turn a corner and there is a charming and unexpected hole in the wall restaurant or vegetable market. And have we mentioned the laundry? Strings of drying clothes hang from every window like streamers for a parade. Simply delightful.
Anyway, we are basically done with Lisbon and are ready to head to Sintra, which we will do in the morning.
me: map reading in Lisbon

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Vasco de Gama

Today we ventured out of our neighborhood, down several steep flights of stairs to the Baixa & Avenida districts. These areas are much more conventionally European looking, compared to the pseudo medieval Alfama. We meandered around grand squares featuring fountains and tall statues of men on horseback serving as impressive perches for flocks of pigeons.
The squares were lined by cafes and shops, however, as it is Sunday, all of the shops were closed (except curiously for the stores selling underpants).
We took a bright yellow funicular up to the Barrio Alto district where we went to the Sao Roque church as a service was getting underway. We went back down by taking the 100 year old Elevator de Santa Justica, a frilly, metal sort-of free standing elevator.
We had coffee on Rua Augusta, which is a wide, pedestrian street with outdoor cafes running down the centre. (Sort of like South Beach´s Lincoln Road.) After that we perused some artwork being sort on the street and Betty Lou picked up a splendid watercolor painting.
me in Rossio Sq (Lisbon)
We took a tram to another area - Belem - which was extremely lively with restaurants, a great antique flea market and lots of pedestrians and tourists roaming around in the nearly 30 degree sunshine. The reason for going to this area was to visit the Mosterio dos Jeronimos, a stunning monatstery\cloisters and church where Vasco de Gama is entombed. (Betty Lou and i must admit that Vasco de Gama is pretty much the only famous Portugese person we could name prior to coming here.) The courtyard in the cloisters was lovely and we laid on the grass in the sunshine until the heat became too much for us.

The ride back was less pleasant as it was a tram crammed with hot, sweaty bodies, but it got us back to Rua Augusta where we had a great meal. Now we are both exhausted. It will be an early night.
Time is running short on the internet, so i will just say Good Night.

Saturday, May 2, 2009


Alfama (Lisbon) view

Ola! Our first full day in Lisbon has been a full one indeed.
First of all, let us say that the weather is perfect. Ever so slightly cool in the morning & evening and perfectly warm in the afternoon with a wonderful breeze.
Today we explored our neighborhood thoroughly. After a terrific breakfast at our hotel we meandered over the Feira da Ladra (the thieves market), which sold everything from antiques to junk. We didn´t buy anything, but it was fun to look around. We then went to two lovely churches, the Sao Vicente de Fora & the Santa Engracia. We then wanked south to the Cathedral called Se and popped in a few other churches that shall remain nameless (because i can't remember what they are called). We had a small lunch on a patio by a church overlooking the water (with a cigar & a mojito) before retiring for a short nap, after which we walked the ramparts at the Castelo de Sao Jorge.

We have just returned to the hotel after watching the sun set over city from a terrific little bar\cafe.
On a side note: my Portuguese is progressing very poorly indeed. I blame exams...and the fact that most people in Lisbon speak perfect English.
Dawn, if you are reading this, the newly sprouted leaves shimmered brightly in the sunshine!
d & b

Portugal: Arrival

Bom Dia from Lisboa!
We arrived yesterday in the late afternoon. We are staying at a lovely (fancy) hotel in the Alfama district, which is a tangle of hilly, cobblestones streets winding up steep hills to a Castle and to our hotel which is just outside the castle walls. We have spectacular views.
Last night we went for a walk and had dinner at a little outdoor eatery where we listened to Fado. We shared wine - Vinho Verde - with a table of drunken Japanese girls from Spain. It was a perfect evening.
Now a new day and adventures to come.