Saturday, May 11, 2013

Portugal: Alcobaca, Tomar, Nazare, Obidos

Today it was a tour of the Monastery of Alcobaça (pronounced Alco-basa). The outside was architecturally similar in Gothic style to many we have seen on previous days so I decided to skip the guided tour and find a lovely courtyard on the inside and sit and enjoy the quietness and the birds chirping.

When the rest of the group arrived where I was sitting, they asked if I got lost. I said that I was not lost; I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. Several said that they wished they had done the same. I think most of the group is tired from rushing from place to place without sufficient time to enjoy any one place. One of the group members started the tour with a bad cold and it's now 11 days and more than half the people are sick. I bought some Vitamin C when I was in Spain and I've been taking 2000 mgs each day but I am beginning to feel like I am getting the cold too. I don't want to be sick but with so many of us in a confined space of the bus for so many hours of the day, it was bound to happen.
We drove off to Tomar and again, I skipped the guided tour and wandered around a market. Guess what I saw? Besides the vendors selling cakes, breads, fruits and veggies, there were some vendors selling live chickens, rabbits and guinea pigs. Very reminiscent of Kitty or Bourda Market in Georgetown back in the day. Maybe they still do that! 
The town I liked best was Nazare (pronounced Naz-a-ray) where we stopped for lunch. It is a fishing town right on the ocean and it was quite quaint and pretty. As soon as I came out of the bus I smelled grilled sardines so Rosa, Augusta and I hunted around by basically following our noses to a side street cafe where we had fresh grilled sardines for lunch. I know some people don't like sardines but I happen to love them and fresh is best. The first time I had fresh ones was at Rosa's place many years ago and the next time was about 3 years ago when I went to Santorini. Those were the very best I have ever eaten and I hoped that this cafe would replicate.
We got a plate of 9 medium sized sardines about 8 inches long and really good Portuguese bread with a nice fish pate and of course potatoes and veggies. It was quite good although Augusta was not happy with hers so she complained about them. The owners apologised profusely and before we knew it, they brought us another 4. Augusta left to go shopping and Rosa kept hurrying me to leave but  I just kept right on eating mine and told her that if she wanted to leave, she could but I was going to enjoy every morsel of my lunch. And that I did. Satiated, I went off to walk along the boardwalk and take some pictures before the bus arrived for us. We headed up to the top of the town to the Sitio viewpoint and to see the fishermens' wives who wear a multi-layered (I think 7) petticoat.  

The other charmingly adorable little town was Obidos. The story goes that this town is  known as the "Wedding Present Town." King Dinis gave to Queen Isabel on their wedding day in 1282 so it is almost 1000 years old!

The streets are narrow and certainly not good for anyone who has difficulty walking. Not a wheelchair friendly town but I suppose when it was built, access was not a priority. Expect for about 3 streets that can support vehicular traffic, this enchanting village has a medieval feel to it. All the streets are cobblestone and the walls that divide the houses are at least 6 feet high and made of stone with overhanging flowering vines and shrubs. Truly romantic. Some of the streets are so narrow, that three people walking side by side touching shoulders is about as wide as they are.

At the end of the village is a splendid 12th century castle. One of the people in our group suggested that I skip that part because there was nothing to see but I can't imagine how she didn't think the stone wall (must have been about 50 feet high) encircling the village was amazing to see. And the best part? There were steps going up and down at particular points so that if you wanted to walk the entire wall, you could. I walked a part of it but there was not enough time to walk the whole thing and still have time to explore so I compromised and did a bit of both.

While walking back to the bus, I wanted to stop and sample the liqueur they are famous for "Ginja." What' s special about this is that you can drink the liqueur and eat the container. The tiny cups are casted out of chocolate and the liqueur is served in the chocolate cup like a shooter. You can sip from your cup but if you have hot hands, your container may melt before you're done drinking. So you have to be quick. I didn't try it because with anything alcoholic or that might cause drowsiness (cough syrup, motion sickness pills, antihistamines), I will be fast asleep before I can get the last drop in my mouth.

Dinner was another disappointment with overcooked food but I don't care. My sardines in Nazare and my walk through Obidos was satisfying.  Good day for me. Not so sure about the rest of the group.


Friday, May 10, 2013

Portugal: Porto, Coimbra, Batalha, Fatima

This was a crazy busy day and not one I would like to repeat except for the Porto part. We arrived at Porto sometime around 11am and I decided that I was not liking being so rushed all the time so I broke away from the group and did my own thing. And was I ever glad I did.
The rest of the group went to a winery to see how wine is made but that held no interest for me because I am not a wine drinker and Porto which was across the river by bridge was beckoning me. It was such a lovely city with fantastic architecture and all kinds of statues paying tribute to religious figures and political leaders. There must have been hundreds of sidewalk cafes so what did I do? I walked across the bridge, wandered around until I found a perfect side walk cafe to have lunch (yes, yes, 3 saltfish cakes in a bun) and a good hot cup of coffee with hot milk. It was entirely too yummy. 

I sat and listened to street musicians, watched lovers walking hand in hand, serious cyclists parking and having a cup of espresso and loved the water taxis hauling passengers up and down the river. What did the others do? They had a wine tour that lasted for almost an hour and then it was another 30 minutes being sold wine and then a hurried trip to Subway - you're reading right - to grab a sandwich to take to the bus leaving for the next destination.

Everyone was telling me how I missed being in the group photo which the winery was selling for 5 Euros each. I told them to draw me as a stick person if they want me to be in the picture but I don't think anyone cared that much. Really, 5 Euros for a picture. They must have sold about 40 of them so that was a worthwhile stop for the winery. 200 Euros in photo sales and then another 500-600 Euros in wine and port sales. That's the conspiracy about taking advantage of tour groups that I really dislike. Between buying pineapple liqueur and chutney and green and black tea in the Azores, the Portuguese economy must be flourishing just from our group.  I could only smile to myself as the taste of the saltfish lingered in my mouth. It was a great lunch in Porto for me! I decided that for the rest of the trip, I would go rogue if I didn't like what was on the itinerary.

We were expected to go to Coimbra which is famous for its academic programs but except for a short stop to another convent, it really was just a drive through the town. That was a disappointment as I thought we would spend more time there. It was off to Batalha to another monastery - this one for Santa Maria da Vitória. I did not go inside but decided to wander around the grounds admiring the church itself. It is most amazing if you stop to see the details in the building, how much work must have gone into constructing it. See for yourself.

We arrived at Fatima which is another religious site for Catholics. I'll write more about that tomorrow since we are spending a few nights here but for now the biggest event was my elevator incident at the hostel. I was told that we'd be staying at really nice hotels that were at least 3 or more stars but this is a hostel. For a hostel it is good enough but the rooms are quite dated and the bathroom has absolutely no ventilation. At least there was a balcony with a view of the road. Others in the group had no such luck.

I have to tell about the elevator. 43 of us arrived and we are all trying to get our luggage into a very small lobby and an even smaller elevator which can accommodate two people and two pieces of luggage at a time and it takes longer to go up to the third floor than it would to walk up slowly and walk back down equally as slowly. I am somewhat claustrophobic so I took a look at the elevator and decided that maybe I would just walk up the three floors with my suitcase. But I also had a backpack and a messenger bag and with a 40 lb suitcase, it would be a trip. Reluctantly I entered the elevator with another woman from the group. The elevator operator (which ordinarily is not required) stood outside with a walkie-talkie and said something in Portuguese when I entered the elevator. I didn't know what he said but from his not, I was not assured that it was safe to be inside. I put aside my anxiety and the elevator started ascending to the 3rd floor. Next thing I know, the elevator stops in mid-floor and shakes. No movement so I push the button (ye, just like in the movies when you think that if you push the up or down button on a stuck elevator, it will move. It doesn't.) Then it starts to move after a few seconds and I can hear someone on the floor above on a walkie-talkie saying something that I can't understand. Then it stops and starts going down. Then it stops. Then the lights go out. Panic is setting in for me but for the other woman, panic has already set in and she is squeezing my hand and telling me to make it move. Like I am God or something.

I don't want to show any fear but in the dark, who would see it anyway? Then I hear more talking and shouting and the elevator starts to ascend. It shakes again and slows down and finally comes to a stop where the woman on the 3rd floor with the walkie-talkie pries the door open and I get out as fast as I can. I vowed at that moment that I was not going to get back into that elevator for any reason. I had to go back to the lobby a couple of times and then down for dinner and then to my room for a shawl and each time I walked up and down the 54 stairs. I am NOT using that elevator again. Is that a -5 star? The dinner was mediocre at best. The only thing that made up for any of this was the friendliness of the owner Cecelia. That was the only thing. No elevators for me in this building.


Thursday, May 09, 2013

Spain: Santiago de Compostela 

I got up and from the balcony of my bedroom it was a foggy morning in Braga with the mist seeming to roll up from the valley way below us. A good way to start the day. It was so quiet except for the songbirds outside my window. The room had windows on three sides so where ever I looked, it was a priceless view. The picture below was just one of them.

We had a good breakfast and headed off for the two hour drive to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The good thing about the European Union is that we do not have to do the passport check every time we enter and leave one or the other of the EU countries and rather than having to carry multiple currencies, the Euro is accepted in all the EU countries.
Some pilgrims do the 780 kilometre "Way of Saint James" walk to arrive at the destination but fortunately for us, we had a bus and didn't have to go as many kilometres. It would have been worth it though, just for the architecture inside and outside of the church.


The more important reason that Catholics do the pilgrimage though is St James the apostle to Christ is buried here.
There was a 12pm mass at the church which was supposed to be an auspicious occasion.After that, we had some time to walk around and then it was off to go back to Braga for the night. The church without the shroud of fog looked quite pretty by night all lit up with flood lights. 
It was another long but fruitful day but I am tired so off to bed.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Portugal: Guimaraes, Braga

We left San Miguel this morning for Porto but we didn't actually see any of Porto as our schedule indicated. We went to Guimarães which is considered "The Cradle of Portugal" and had a quick lunch at one of the sidewalk cafes. There was quite a beautiful church (as there are in almost every corner of Portugal) with an equally beautiful park in front of it that was several blocks long.  

After my quick salted codfish cake lunch, we visited the castle where the first king of Portugal was born. While walking to get there, I saw some cute home with lots of flower baskets decorating the balconies; no laundry only flowers.  

There were many university students celebrating the end of their studies but they have an interesting tradition where they celebrate their success in May and write their exams in June; so technically, they have not yet passed their courses. In the picture below, the students are dressed in outfits reminiscent of Harry Potter - for those Potter fans. Apparently that's no coincidence because JK Rowlings who is the author of the books was married to a Portuguese man and spent some time in Portugal so she took her inspiration for the outfits from the students there. If you look closely, you'll see a ribbon on the girl's arm. The colour of the ribbon represents the faculty that the student is in. Quite interesting. The whole place could have been Hogsmeade Village for all I knew.

Later in the afternoon we headed for our final destination of the day - Braga. Except for Fatima perhaps, Braga is known for its religious significance and with all the baroque churhces. We arrived at our hotel which was a converted monastery called Bom Jesus do Monte. We had to go up a winding mountain road to get to it but once there, it was an amazing site. Set high in the mountains, my room had a lovely view of the valley and the church across the courtyard (pictures below).

There was a church service at 6pm but I chose to use the time to walk down the 600 steps of a stunning zigzag baroque staircase to the bottom of the hill we drove earlier in the afternoon to get to the top. Just in case no one believed that I walked down and up the 600 steps, I took pictures along the way of stations that represent the Passion of Christ. Traditionally, pilgrims used to climb the stairs on their knees and would arrive at the church at the top. They would stop to pray at the stations so that's what I took pictures of. There are about 15 of them - just to say that I did it. If you look carefully, you'll see that although some of them look the same, they are different.

  About half way up, the beauty of the zigzag baroque staircases is breathtaking. See for yourself.
We had dinner at the restaurant across the courtyard and as usual, I had fish. The fish and seafood is quite good here and mostly fresh (not frozen). During dinner, a heavy fog rolled in so that by the time we walked across the courtyard back to the hotel, the church was shrouded in an etherial fog that made me feel like something divine was about to happen. I am going to bed feeling tired but happy for no particular reason.