Monday, April 4, 2011

In Search of the Sun

We drove from Lisbon south to the Algarve. This is the sunny south coast of Portugal where snowbirds from the north fly each year seeking the heat. We stopped for lunch in a lovely little town called Olhao. We were not disappointed by the temperature. We left Lisbon at 13 degrees and arrived in Olhao at 26 degrees. That was a 2.5 hour drive. Imagine driving through half the country and doubling your temperature in 2.5 hours! Makes one think…

From Olhao we drove on along the coast to Spain’s Costa del Sol (Sun Coast). This is an over-developed wasteland of English tourism at its worst. However, we left the coast along a torturous winding road through the hills to the tiny village of Almachar where we have rented a house for the month. The coast is about a 20 minute drive. If you are a bird it probably takes about 5 minutes because you are not slave to the scary, “we’re all going to die here” roads. Most of the towns we passed cling to the side of the hill and I was glad they weren’t Almachar because they made me quite breathless. Our village clings to the side of the hill but at least the bottom of the hill is also the bottom of the village.

We arrived in the middle of senior’s week and old men covered the village square. I don’t know where they were hiding the ladies. There was much frivolity and laughter. We stood gazing around us somewhat bemusedly until our host stumbled out of a nearby bar in jolly good humour. He described how to get to the next plaza in our car and we gamely drove forward through streets that were most likely paved goat trails. From the plaza, we unloaded the bags and followed John the Man up and down more twisty streets to our new home.

This is by far the nicest place we have stayed. There are three floors built around a central courtyard in the Moorish style. The courtyard is not open to the sky but has a large skylight covering it letting in the light. There is a terrace entry that looks out onto the street. Our front door enters into the dining room which has heavy curtains in the doorways to help keep the heat in should we need it. The courtyard is next and then a Turkish looking living room beyond. The kitchen and a small bathroom also reside on this floor. The courtyard has a large staircase that winds up to the next two floors. The middle floor has a walkway around and four bedrooms and two more bathrooms open off of this hall. At the top level there is an open foyer where we have set up the computers, another bedroom and a large rooftop terrace with a killer view.

The skylight heats the upstairs so the top floor is the warmest and the ground floor is very cool. They have English satellite television, a DVD/VCR player with movies and all of us feel as though we have fallen into the lap of luxury. Our hosts are quite funny and have oodles of information prepared for the surrounds. Judy even prepared a list of events taking place over the next month in the small villages nearby. Of course, the first three days we spent just sleeping in, lounging on the rooftop terrace and indulging ourselves. Oh, that was just Tom and I. The kids worked on schoolwork.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Post Heather Sintra

We dropped Heather off at the airport early in the morning and then headed home to gather the children for a trip to Sintra. Sintra is what must function as the Loire Valley of Portugal. The rich and famous settled themselves here, building palaces to reflect their stunning wealth. It was first founded by the Romans who called it “Cynthia” after the moon goddess. We had no idea what to expect but the lush tropical greenery was definitely a surprise. We felt like we had stepped into a jungle. Somebody back in time must have been a horticulturalist because there were trees from around the world on one of the palace properties. They even had Sequoia! It felt like we were back home in the forests of BC, although the foliage was just a bit too thick looking, with lots of vines. Vines really aren’t a BC thing.

The first castle we visited was a Moor castle ruin. It had been a fortress overlooking the town where every year, the castle occupants built a huge fire to remind the villagers the castle was here to protect them. The last occupant was a painter/king who spent quite a bit of time atop the castle’s highest point, capturing the view with his palette. For me, the best part of this castle was the thick jungle look surrounding it.

From here we hiked up to the Pena castle. This had been the site of a monastery until the big 1755 earthquake. After that, none of the monks was particularly eager to stay and the palace wasn’t restored until some years later when one of the Portuguese kings bought up the land and renovated. The result was quite stunning. The palace is painted bright colours and has a distinct Moorish flavour. It was quite different from the other castles and palaces we have visited. For one thing, the interior spaces had much lower ceilings, creating a homey feeling. The castle dining room seated about twenty rather than 144. It felt very liveable. The living quarters were built around a huge interior courtyard letting in light to all rooms. Pena has been compared to Neuchwanstein and other Bavarian castles by Mad King Ludwig but it was the final palace that we thought most reminded us of the crazy king. The whole palace was surrounded by extensive gardens with plants from around the world. We were on a bit of a tight schedule so we opted to skip the garden tour and go for lunch instead.

We had a forgettable lunch in town before walking up to the last palace of the day. This one was the best. It was Regaleira, built around the same time as Gaudi was doing his thing up in Barcelona. Gaudi didn’t participate in this estate but you could see he would have loved it. The mansion was wonderful with a library whose floor appeared to float. The room was poorly lit and when you peered through the door you could see that the floor didn’t reach to the walls and the stacks of books appeared to extend from the floor below right up past you to the ceiling above. It gave one pause. A couple of men stood in the doorway, wanting to go in but unsure how the floor was supported from below. I mean, one wrong step and down you go. What kind of tourist trap was this? We could see a door on the other side of the room and as Tom pointed out, if it was dangerous they wouldn’t have the open doorway. The men wouldn’t move out of the doorway though. They wouldn’t go in but they wouldn’t move to allow others in so I went down and around to get to the other doorway. By the time I got there, Tom was in the room with several others. The floor had mirrors all around the outside, giving one the illusion of a floating floor. Isn’t that neat? My mind is racing with ideas for my library…

There were also extensive gardens surrounding this place and it was fortunate we took the time to explore because there were more exciting mystery features throughout. The grounds were on a hill (isn’t all of Europe?) and there was a well built to take advantage of the slope. You could enter from the top or bottom. At the bottom were tunnels leading to other areas and in the middle were secret doors to get out. The doors looked like solid rock but if you pushed they would spin. We took a video so you can see the Scooby-Doo effect. The view up or down in the well was also quite striking.

When we got to the bottom of the well, we walked through the tunnel to a beautiful little lagoon. The rock had been carved out to create picturesque settings. The water was covered in algae, making it look like a green carpet. There were stepping stones across the water and a bridge over the top. Tunnels led around from one opening to the next and the whole effect was dramatic and exciting. It was like a fantasy come true. We followed the other tunnels to their end but the most interesting place was the well and lagoon. What fun they must have had designing that. In all, this was a great day.

The Lisbon Experience

Our neighbourhood was an older section of Lisbon called Alfalma. This doesn’t mean much in Lisbon because in 1755 there was a huge earthquake that leveled the city so the whole city is essentially only a few hundred years old. That’s kind of like Canada, really. After the earthquake, the city was rebuilt on a grid plan but somehow Alfalma escaped the grid. The fact that they rebuilt multi-level homes on steep, winding streets demonstrates the lack of “earthquake” awareness. You’d think them guys would not be too keen to live on slidey slopes after the one-two punch of the earthquake/tsunami…but then we have the whole “West Vancouver” phenomenon back home so I guess the killer views beat out the killer quakes.

Alfalma was the kind of area where you weren’t quite sure if the Bohemian atmosphere was ultra cool or life threatening. Do you make eye-contact with the large crowd of youths and say “Hola” or slink on by hoping they haven’t noticed your bright white tourist-type skin? The best part was the trolley cars. These yellow trams raced up and down the narrow, twisty streets forcing their passengers to hold on tight as they jerked and lurched about. The shops were fun to browse and we found several worth hanging out at for a while. One was the Port wine store. The salesclerk was quite friendly and chatted to us at length about various Port wines. Heather wanted to pick up a bottle so we had to taste a few Ports. We discovered that we all liked Port. As we chatted, he decided that to truly appreciate Port we should taste his 130 Euro bottle. We discovered that we all like expensive Port. Then we saw the Port jam. It is made from a thicker wine sludge and is eaten with cheese. It was fantastic and I wanted to get a jar but at 20 Euros we decided to pass. Instead, we crossed the street to where they sold tinned seafood products and invested 1.70 in a tin of marinated mussels.

From there we wandered about to a ceramic tile store and spent an enjoyable twenty minutes or so chatting to the owner there. He regaled us with tales of Portuguese history and encouraged us to visit various parts of the city. He insisted we visit the museum where the ancient mariner maps were housed so we could appreciate the importance of the water to Portugal. The Portuguese at one time had pretty well owned the seas. They controlled the maps of routes to India, China and islands along the south of Africa so they had the spice trade routes tied up. When Christopher Columbus came along, they turned him down; a mistake in hindsight, of course, but at the time, they were the strongest seafaring nation on the planet so his crazy “round the world” ideas weren’t necessary to fill their coffers.

They must have been a wealthy nation because it is reflected in all of the architecture and beauty of their port city. The whole city had to be rebuilt pretty much all at once and the costs must have been staggering. Therefore, every statue, monument and decoration adorning the streets is an impressive testimony to their wealth. The Port entry is magnificent. Pulling up in a tall-masted ship here, you would really feel like you had arrived.

Another sight we were encouraged to visit was the Patisserie Belem to try the famous Lisbon tart. According to our ceramic tile guide, visiting Lisbon and not trying this tart at that Patisserie is like visiting Rome and not seeing the “Papa”. Naturally, we made a special trip the next day to Belem, home of mariner maps and tarts. The tarts were a bit like a vanilla custard tart and were quite delicious. The mariner maps stayed hidden from our foreigner eyes as we opted to see other monuments that caught our interest. It was a beautiful day (unlike the monsoon weather the day prior) and we enjoyed lunch on a patio before wandering to the seaside to look at the stunning Lisbon Mariner Monument. We watched a long promotional movie inside which shared many, many repetitious facts and pictures but the one thing that we did appreciate was that the Romans had called this place, "Felicitas Julia". From the top we could see in all directions and took lots of neat pictures. The large bridge may look like the Golden Gate in San Francisco but the towering statue of Christ hovering at one end helps ground you back in Portugal. We also explored the lookout tower that had once been an integral part of the defense system for the port city. It was very picturesque with its Moorish style window frames.

For Heather’s last meal with us, we all ventured out into the dark streets of Alfalma to find a Fado bar. Fado is a type of music specific to Portugal. It doesn’t start until quite late, though, so although we were eating after 8pm, we missed the show. We did find a restaurant that had taped Fado music playing in the background. It was a little hole in the wall with about five tables. They immediately brought bread and a dish of grilled sausages to nibble on. We’d had some experience with this at a restaurant prior so we weren’t overly enthusiastic about eating it but we were hungry. The previous day’s lunch, the waiter had placed bread and a plate of cheeses on our table. When food comes without ordering, one naturally assumes it is gratis. Not so. The cheeses turned out to be 3.50 each and added up to an extra 14 Euros (about $18)! We were not pleased but assumed this was a Portugal thing.

The menu wasn’t written down and the owner described our choices: meat with rice and salad, fish with rice and salad, mixed grill with rice and salad. The adults went with the mixed grill and the children requested beef but when the meals arrived they all looked suspiciously the same. The food was very good, however, regardless of what was actually being served as meat. The wine was the real star as all Spanish/Portuguese red wines have been. I have never particularly cared for wine but I must say that the wines here are quite yummy. We asked if the children wanted to try a sip and the host ran to get more glasses and poured Julia a very generous “sip”. For Rhys, he poured a whole glass, beaming the entire time. Rhys was horrified and Julia was intrigued. They both tried a sip but declared it not as good as the water. At the end of the meal, the hostess brought us each a glass of Port (not the children as they’d had enogh to drink by then…just kidding Mom). The whole meal came to about $12 each (the grilled sausages and Port wine had been free). Rather reasonable we thought for a fun experience and a great feast.

From Madrid to Lisbon

The four of us travelled to Lisbon with my friend, Heather. Kenna and Ray had to fly home to work but Heather had a few extra days and being the risk-taker she is, she decided to spend them with us. Now the strain on our family was considerable you realize; keeping up the illusion of pleasant, cooperative and easy to get along with for longer than one week put the four of us to the test. Believe you me, after she left this morning the gloves came off. I suspect she probably noticed a few cracks in the fa├žade but I am convinced that on the whole, we managed to pull off the “happy family” routine fairly believably.

We broke up the long drive from Madrid by stopping in the small town of Evora. People stop here to see the macabre bone church. Being a macabre sort of family we had already seen a bone church in Kutna Hora, Czech Republic so we were prepared. It still didn’t stop the chill you get from seeing skulls used in a decorative pattern around the ceiling tiles. There is something quite unsettling about seeing human bones used so casually. The inscription over the door reads, "WE bones are here waiting for yours". Okay, so if that isn't the height of creepiness... Heather thought it would be a great honour to have your bones in the church, as they were closer to God. I wondered how honoured the souls would feel realizing they were part of the designer print wallpaper. It is difficult to tell from the pictures, but that wall that looks like stone is bones: skulls, etc. It was a bit confusing trying to understand which branch of Christianity saw the use of human bones as art as a viable option. The fact that there is more than one bone church in the world did not escape our notice either. Heather wondered if it was the same branch of the faith. It is more macabre to think that more than one branch thought this was cool. I think about the people who have difficulty donating their organs after they die. What would they think about this?

Evora was actually quite a charming little place, bone church aside. We had some lunch, strolled through the winding streets and discovered several other churches and a Roman temple for our efforts. Those Romans seem to have left a calling card pretty much everywhere we visit.

We arrived in Lisbon that evening, taking a bit longer than usual to get in to our place because one of us (all right it was me) had written the phone number down wrong. The apartment was a real hoot. The door was built for scrawny hobbits and it threatened to deny access to our luggage. Once in the door, the staircase was more like a ladder with walls. The people who live in this building are definitely not fighting a weight problem. Our pad was on the top floor, naturally. The apartment itself was great, with a lovely view up the street and enough space for all of us. The biggest drawback was that the promised Internet didn’t work. Oh, it SAID it was connected all right. It just wouldn’t allow us to use Internet Explorer. We tried a variety of options, none of which worked. We later decided it must be a Portugal thing as we couldn’t get the connection to work at the local McDonald’s either.