Respite in Portugal

I’d stopped writing in my journal because we were so busy sight-seeing. We took a half day and went to Sintra, a lovely, picturesque town near the Atlantic Ocean. We wanted to see the Moors’ castle, on top of a big hill (yes) surrounded by a huge park. We took the bus up and it was interesting how the driver went around the curves. There were many.

When the castle came into view, it was very enchanting with the many turrets, towers and arabic influence. Like Aladdin’s fairy tale. It also reminde me, in a way of King Ludwig’s castle Neuschwanstein.

You had to go up a little, steep hill to go through the gate. Some people, younger ones as well, walked slowly due to the incline. I just took off, passing them. I was in shape. Nothing to this tiny hill. I heard Cameron calling behind me, “show off! You’re such a show off.” Made me smile.  We took a tour through the inner sanctum, where the royals lived. Exquisite furniture, priceless china and the usual pomp.

When the tour was over, we went to the bus station to go back to town. It took a long time and when we found out it would be another 25 minutes, we decided to walk. We were in the walking business, after all. Long, steep hill down, no problem. We made it in record time. Took a cab to the train station as Carrie and I really wanted to see the Ocean. We’d given up Finisterre but were determined to see some water.

                          To get there, we were told to go by trolley. A real old one. It was open on the sides and the conductor and driver were up front on a small platform. A few other tourists joined us. We were so excited to have this special treat. Then, the trolley went arounda bend and the most god-awful-screeching came alive. This was the sound we heard for over 40 minutes, going perhaps 15 mph, that this ride lasted. Every bend, every applying of the brakes, it screeched.  We covered our ears but that didn’t help a whole lot. Spoiled some of the fun of seeing nature at a slower pace. We went past beautiful villas covered in vines and flowers. Tall grasses, trees and shrubs.  The view opened up and behind some tall beach hotels, shining in the sun was the Ocean. Carrie and I took our shoes and socks off and ran ‘yohoo-ing’ and laughing down to the water’s edge. Breathing deep the tangy air and watching the waves ride in.

Cameron picked a boulder and was fast asleep after a few minutes. Carrie took her already wet shorts off, and sat in the cold water. I just sat still as my eyes wanderd over the many surface miles. Watching the sea gulls and felt the warm sun on my face. I could’ve stayed there a least another day but, we had to.

I reflected on the little time we had left and what all we had done, where we had been and I felt sad that it was over. I knew when I got back, reality would set in and I would have to deal with the ‘C’ again. Needles, tests, scans and pain.

As I turned to leave, I left one more image in the sand… with some more hope of this being so.

(I’ve forgotten our opera visit in Lisbon. When I saw a poster about ‘Don Carlo’ and date and time, I was so excited and told Cameron and Carrie that I really, really wanted to go. They did, too. We purchased the tickets and asked if our ‘dress’ was acceptable and it was because it’s not all the glitz and glamour anymore. We sat in the 3rd row, right by the orchestra pit, but it was a good view.  As soon as it started my excitement deflated. It was one of these modern interpretations. Street clothing, no set to speak of and kids running around with tennis rackets. I looked at Cameron and he just nodded his head as if saying ‘ I know but it is what it is.’ We did stay the whole 4 hours. This opera had been rewritten a few times, as had the ending. This particular ending fizzled out. The love interest of the young tenor was old enough to be his grandmother and thus not believable and the chemistry was missing.

The singing was very good though as was the music.  Next morning we had to leave early to catch the bus to the airport. Long lines and security made for a fast good bye from Cameron, as his flight was several hours later. Carrie and I didn’t get to sit together and so began the slow separation and feelings of displacement. It felt as though someone plucked me off the camino  and into the plane. At one point, tears welled up at nothing in particular. It’s been continued at home as well. Although I’m glad to be home but the camino left its mark. Nothing tangible, nothing I can grasp and hold except pictures and memories. But, subtle changes and I believe this will work its way through the future.

People asked me, ‘would you go back?’ I answered, well, not right now but perhaps at some point walk certain stages again.

Meanwhile, I saw a German movie about a Pilgrimage to Padua, Italy and I’ve been researching the ‘Jakobsweg’ they just rededicated in Austria. … Beautiful, gorgeous scenery… nice places to stay… good food. Dare I call Cameron and Carrie??                                                                       

Good bye Spain and Hello to Portugal

As we left Spain, the landscape was still the same. Rolling hills and lots of green. During the ride, Carrie and I got our camera’s and looked at the digital pictures and asked each other where this or that was taken and what we did. Already memories fading a bit and the need to reconnect. It was a strange feeling not to be walking and my eyes searched for the yellow arrows. I looked for paths to walk, that were not there anymore. First impression overall was, that the buildings and everything seemed more kept up. In better condition and somehow cleaner.

The landscape flattened out and changed. Still pretty but different.

Porto was a bee-hive-busy activity. Beautiful buildings and churches. We stopped to eat and use WiFi. It was a bit of a surprise that the menu was not much different. The Portugese eggs were hidden in an omelette but same french fries.

Cameron looked up Hotel choices on his lap top, which wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. We found one, the rates seemed reasonable and breakfast, WiFi was included.

Then, like excited children went to town to shop for new clothes. At first, it was totally overwhelming. The sheer amount of people on Catarina Avenue. The throng of people, the noise, hollering, honking, music, laughter, dogs barking and activity. Like New York’s Fifth Avenue.  After the peaceful camino, quite a difference.            

But, it also meant shopping and getting out of these well worn, stained clothes. One shop after another. One cafe after another. Looking a the prices the joy faded aomewhat. One outfit was 95.00 Euro’s, calculated to 50% more into dollars was too much.

Then, I spotted C&A. The German clothing giant and I know they have reasonable prices. That’s where we went. Carrie and I, totally blissful.  We found what we wanted, except Cameron, who went to an Italian Clothier. Happy with our purchase, we hopped on a sightseeing tour bus. Churches, cathedral in various architectural design, some of the exterior, totally covered in tiles. Big buldings as well.

Several big bridges spanned the river. One, old iron bridge, designed by Gustav Eiffel.                      

We stopped by the river and got off. Picturesque, old houses lined the river promenade. We were invited to see how Port wine was made. Touring with us was a couple from Holland who joined us when the free samples came. I liked the second one best.

The bus was supposed to come back in an hour but came much earlier and then we found out, it was the last one. Left us stranded. I would’ve loved to walk this promenade but it was getting late.

We decided to spend one more night at this hotel as the others were too expensive and did not have WiFi not breakfast. Next morning, after a nice breakfast and we stuffed ourselves, we went to town. Carrie wanted to sit at a Cafe to do her school project and paint. Cameron and I went shopping. Then, we met at the pre-arranged point for lunch which was in a 1920’s style, elegant Cafe. We went window shopping some more. Later, we had dinner and it was just awful. Cameron didn’t finish his as his fish was in a sea of grease and oil.

Early next morning, we only had to go up the road to catch the bus to Lisbon.

It took us a little while to find the place Cameron had booked. We’d taken a cab. Arrived at the address, there was no sign only a tiny piece of paper over a bell. We looked at each but rang anyway. A lady opened the door and a torrent of angry words was the welcome. She pointed upstairs and after we drudged up, there was nothing to identify anything. We left.

Cameron discovered that he had left his connecting cable at the hotel, in Porto. Lap top battery dead. Got another taxi and found the ‘Apple’ Store where we were allowed to use free time for FB and he could find us a place to spend the night. Once, all this was taken care of we took a cab to the place.

In an old house, up narrow stairs and a long hallway. The manager was nice enough and very helpful. The first thing we saw, going into the room was an open area, with a sink and a Bidet. Carrie laughed histerically and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. But, he showed us the other bathroom/shower areas. We figured since we were only there to sleep and had our eyes closed, this would do. Our finances were dwindling fast. Carrie and I, both had to keep borrowing from Cameron.

The next morning, we went to see the castle and had this magnificent view. Peacocks wandered in the garden below. I was enchanted.

After a nice lunch, outside at the bottom of the castle , we took the streetcar to the famous tower. Carrie and I decided to forgo the 5.00 Euro entrance fee and just enjoy the bay and sun. Then, we went to the huge monastery, white and richly decorated with stone carvings.

We went in search for dinner and came upon a Indian restaurant. We were the only guests and had a feast. It was one of the best meals, in along time. If you go to Lisbon, look them up. Dehli Delights.

Just When You Thought It Was Over: Portugal

City of Port

If you learn nothing else from this post, you will remember that Porto, also called Oporto (“O” being the Portuguese “the”) in both English and “Portuguese” (explanation of quotes below), is the second-largest city in Portugal and the origin of Port wine.

I knew the latter even before we took a tour of an award-winning port wine maker clustered on the river with dozens of its peers. I learned, from our Botswana-born guide, that the makers prefer French and American oak for their barrels, that port is made by interrupting the fermentation process with a heavy infusion of grape alcohol, and that the ruby and tawny ports I often see are the two middle rungs of port wine, with vintage being the newest and least expensive, and reserves, running from 20 to over 40 years old, being the oldest and most expensive.

We sat down at a sawed-off barrel with a Dutch couple and began tasting. I don’t think I’d ever had white port wine before; they offered a dry one and a sweet one, both very good. I tried a 20-year-old reserve, and bought a sweet medium-red tawny.

Who will give me an excuse to open it? Please complete your application in the Comments section of the blog. Especially interesting applications may be emailed in confidence.

The drive from Galicia took about three-and-a-quarter hours, and was a continuation of the beautiful, green, hilly country we’d seen in Spain, but it looked better maintained. It was hazy all day, for the entire distance we covered.

I’m sure Porto has culture, and in the distance I’m pretty sure I saw churches and palaces and whatnot, but my interest was focused like a laser beam on (1) doing nothing and (2) finding civilian clothes. For a month I have worn two shirts, two socks, two pairs of underwear – I was like the Noah’s Ark of hiking gear. I discovered in Porto that I had an inner metrosexual, and he wanted to come out.

We pretty much accomplished all these goals on the Via Catarina, a long, narrow, pedestrian shopping street, and during a few visits to the Majestic Café, a carved-wood-and-mirror Nouveau Art creation in which I could imagine Hemingway, its contemporary when it opened in 1923, sitting down to write. They are so proud of being able to cook a proper spaghetti Bolognese – which is to say about half as good as Mom’s – that they will take from you about $17 for a bowl the size of an appetizer dish. But they will speak English to you, like many Portuguese seem to do – they even seem to prefer it to Spanish.

Portugal lives in the shadow of Spain, its much larger, more populous, less poor country, and so to carve out their own distinct identity, the Portuguese have sort of agreed they will speak Spanish with a Russian accent. This they call “Portuguese”.

Things get really confusing when you hear a Russian immigrant speak “Portuguese”, or when you ask a Portuguese if he or she would prefer that you speak English or Spanish. “English,” they always say. This is because saying “Spanish” would simply reveal their secret: they are already speaking Spanish, just with a heavy Slavic accent.

The notion of customer service was stronger in Porto than on the Camino. Our first interaction was with the proprietor of a café-bar who (it would not be too much to say) hurdled over the counter to come and translate his menu for us. Everywhere we went, people were very friendly and accommodating.

Kudos especially to the woman who harvested an entire wall of its

No dummies were hurt in this demonstration

sweaters, and even brutally amputated a mannequin, in an attempt to get me to buy a sweater; the friendly young man at Zara who worked his mic like Madonna and who professed not to believe that I had never, as I told him, been as cool as he was, and therefore could not wear some of the items he was suggesting to me; and the salesman at Massimo Dutti, which I have decided is superior to Zara for men over 35, for lightening my wallet more than all the others combined.

I took care to hold on to my receipts, though. Taxes on clothes make up a whopping 23% of the listed price, but the foreigner can get back 19% at the airport. This helps a lot when you’re contemplating a 220-Euro winter coat at Massimo Dutti. Curiously, there is a minimum purchase of about 60 Euros, as if the authorities (in Portugal and elsewhere, actually) don’t want to administrative overhead of dealing with small receipts. But this creates a disincentive to buy single articles from smaller, mom-and-pop merchants, and likely benefits mostly the department stores and expensive retailers.

Many of the churches in Porto look as if they were built from the French Country section of Pottery Barn, being faced with a combination of somewhat grimy stonework that frames large, eye-catching expanses of blue-and-white Delph tiles depicting Biblical stories.

We took a double-decker bus around town. Mom on the bus ride along the ocean reminded me of a little girl, which is another way of saying that she’s able to be open and present to things as if she’s never seen them before. Ohhh! Look at that! It’s crashing! Do you hear it! I’ve got to catch that! It was amazing. I felt so stick-in-the-mud. We got off the tour bus on the avenue of port wine makers. “When will the bus return here?” I asked. “One hour,” the woman said firmly.

Fifty minutes later it paused briefly at the bus stop, a block away from us, and left without us.

For dinner that night I decided to try bacalao, or cod, which I’d had once in Spain, but which is considered a national dish in Portugal. Probably I should have waited until we were in a finer restaurant. Though I ordered it “grilled,” there was so much oil on my plate I could have run my BMW on it. I literally spooned it like soup. The fish itself, as prepared, was nothing to write a blog home about.


In Lisbon yesterday we began with a series of small disasters. The tourist office called about five hotels but all were booked. No problem: I’d look them up on the Internet. Then I discovered that after about 30 straight days of remembering to pack all of my electronics gear every day, I’d left behind my MacBook Air’s power cord. I’d used the battery on the bus, and it was almost dead. My Vodafone USB stick has been done for since Saturday.

We dealt with these setbacks by having lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe. Carrie was in heaven. Mom loved her salad. The mac and cheese was pretty good. Afterward, we marched into a Starbucks that’s surely located in one of the most beautiful buildings for any Starbucks, and I madly tried to book a hotel on any of Priceline, Travelocity, or Venere. My power reached 2% and I booked a place called Caza Latina. We jumped in a cab and drove uptown to the address.

There was no sign. “This is a hotel?” I asked the driver. He shrugged, pointing out that he’d just brought us to the desired address. Obvious locals sat around at some tables at the joint next door. They told me, I thought, that it was a hotel. I then saw the “Latina” plate next to the buzzer marked #1. I buzzed. And buzzed. No one. I buzzed one marked “Porto” and this brought forth an angry charging dog dressed as an old Portuguese woman. By this time I was cursing with her. I established that she was not with the hotel, and though she was not done with her rant, I said goodbye to her and walked up the stairs. No sign. Nothing indicating a hotel or any commercial establishment. No open doors. Nobody.

On the sidewalk we considered our options. Finally we hailed another cab to take us to an Internet café whose address (like an Apple reseller’s) I’d looked up while in Starbucks. A miscommunication delivered us to the Apple reseller instead. He had no more power cords. But he was very generous: he said I could charge up and use the wi-fi. He also pointed out the coffee. Wow.

On Prieline, I found a two-star hotel near the Apolonia metro station. The rooms had single beds of the sort you’d see in the army, if you were in the army in one of Portugal’s former African colonies. A sign warned against “eating or drinking in the room”, but the presence of an unwalled sink and bidet added, “but do feel free, out in the open, to wash your ass”. The manager was extremely helpful in calling the hotel in Porto and having them ship my power cord.

Then we headed out for the ocean, two blocks away, but we were stymied because the ocean, it seemed, had been fenced off. For miles and miles.  Never seen anything like it.  So we went to an Indian restaurant, opened the place up (at 6:30), and had a fantastic meal. We were the only patrons, and it wasn’t just that restaurant: block after block, restaurant tables were empty.

I asked Mom and Carrie what felt different or what they missed now that the Camino was over. “I miss Julio!” Carrie said. Mom said, “I miss Julio’s encouragement, and I miss Marie Anne’s laughter. I also miss walking a little every day.”

I will write more later about our dawning realization that we have left what screenwriters call the Special World.  We bring, I suppose, the precious elixir from our journey back to the Ordinary World.  But we also know that the other reality is now imminent.