US$1= 180 escudos
March 2, 1999 Bem Vindo a Portugal!
This morning we drove from Santiago de Compostela
to Portugal. There was no border, we just crossed a bridge over a river
and Welcome to Portugal!
The first town of any size we came to was Vila Nova de Cerveira where we went in search of the tourist office and an ATM machine since we had no Portuguese Escudos. The first three ATMs we tried were of no use, refusing to take the card all together, even though the machines had Cirrus symbols on them. We started to get worried as everything was closed for lunch and it is a bit awkward and unsettling to be in a country with no hard currency. Finally, we found a machine that would take our card and give is money with the magic PIN number!
After that we drove to the tourist office, hoping to find some information on the local area and on Pousadas, since we were interested in staying in one during our time in Portugal. Pousadas are a government owned network of historic buildings like castles and monasteries that have been converted into luxury hotels. Most were out of our price range, which we had checked on a few different sites on the internet, still, we wanted to see what was available. So, we sat in the parking lot of the tourist office, ate our usual picnic lunch out of the cooler, and waited for them to open. After the appointed opening time came and went, we had a startling realization; when we crossed the border, we suddenly gained an hour in the time change! Portugal is in the same time zone as London, one hour ahead of Spain. At this point, rather than wait another hour, we chose to move on to the next big town.
We arrived in Viana do Castelo, a town settled in the Middle Ages on the bank of a river and the edge of the Atlantic ocean, where we decided to stay for the night. The tourist office, once they opened, was immensely helpful offering all sorts of brochures on the area, on Pousadas, and a list of local Pensaos and Residencias. We went to first Residencia recommended; the Pensao Residencia Jardim ( Largo 5 de Outubro, 68 tel. 058 828915/6) where we got an excellent room, complete with view of the port, a balcony that rounded the corner of the building , a great bathroom, CNN, hard wired phone (which meant no e mail), for 6000 esc, inc. breakfast. From the list they gave us, this seemed to be the going rate in the area, 5500-8000 esc.
After we checked in, we did a little walking tour
of the town to check out the medieval architecture
and the azulejos, for which the Portuguese are famous. Azulejos
are tiles, glazed and painted, which are used as decoration on small
parts of facades, or to face an entire building. It is said that they originated
in Spain, and the concept was brought to Portugal in the 15th century by
King Manuel 1 who was impressed by the tiles he saw used to decorate the
palaces in Andalusia. There are many different styles of azulejos,
ranging from geometric patterns to large, richly detailed, scenic paintings.
They are often colored in only blue and white, but can also be found with
every color of the rainbow. The Portuguese developed a standard 5.5 inch
tile that is still in use today. We saw the azulejos used almost
everywhere, covering entire buildings, and as decoration above windows
and doors, and as large blocks of tile placed like paintings in the center
of a wall.
In the center of town sits, of course, the main town square, complete with fountain, old town hall from the 16th century, and a 14th century building that was once a private residence. The Se cathedral, only a few blocks to the south, is both Romanesque and Gothic in style. It is quite small, compared to others of its time, but what makes it interesting is the interior which was damaged by a fire in the 1800's. To cover the fire damage to the stonework, the cement was painted over and rendered to look like the old arches and decorative carving that had been there before. In the dim light, it is almost impossible to tell what is painted and what is not (see photo page for example).
Late in the afternoon, after wandering for hours,
we finally got brave, went into bar that looked friendly on a tiny back
street, and ordered our first glasses of local port. While all the local
grandmothers looked on at the obvious foreigners, we each had a wonderful
glass of Tawny Port called Reccua for a total of 240 esc.
For dinner that night, we went walking around, peering into places that were near empty, or out of budget, until we came across a place that looked like a small local diner, complete with a counter, stools, and a few small tables. As we stood outside, an older couple walked by, obviously locals, and said to us in Portuguese, something like, "Go on, go inside, it's good!" The practically pushed us inside. Well, with that recommendation, how could we refuse?
The place was called O Manel, and is located on the street directly one block behind our hotel. We were first served a basket of bread with a little pot of manna pate de sardinha which was, yes, sardine paste. It was fishy and salty, but not bad. I ordered an omolete de queijo e fiambre which turned out to be a cheese omelet with ham. It was good, just not what I expected; I thought he said salmon, not jamon, when I asked what fiambre was! I also tried the local house wine called vinho verde, literally "green wine" which is a young white wine with a slight effervescence. David had Rojoes a minhota, "Pork Minho style", which was chunks of roast pork cooked with potato, pieces of stuffed tripe and blood sausage served with rice. Needless to say, it was "flavorful", and he enjoyed it, but I think to most people, some of its components would be an acquired taste.
The next morning, before setting off for Porto, we
drove up the hill to see the Basilica de Santa Luzia on top of the mountain.
This church was built in 1926 but appears much older due to its mixed revivalist
style. It sits directly in front of the ruins of a pre-Roman settlement
and a Pousada called Monte Santa Luzia. There is a great view of
the entire area from the plaza in front of the church.
March 3-4, 1999 Porto
Of course, we arrived in the rain and wound up walking
around town in the downpour looking for hotels we could afford, until,
after 2 hours, we settled on one in a cute little square that was in our
guidebook all along! The Pensao Sao Marino, (Praca Carlos
Alberto, 59 tel. 3325499) is a nice place, very simple, but we had a room
that looked directly out onto the square, over a wonderful smelling bakery.
All the buildings in the square were either completely faced with azulejos, or each was painted a different color making our view quite colorful. Our window allowed us to look down into the square and watch the comings and goings of the various residents, tourists, and transients. It was here that we discovered a new way that some of the local homeless had come up with to "earn" money; they "helped" people park their cars. Like most cities, parking in Porto is at a premium, especially those spaces on the street, and in our square, people would often drive around in circles looking for a space. And about every 50 feet or so, is standing a man, "directing" people into spaces as they open up. Sometimes the spaces are small and people need help getting their cars in and out, but oftentimes, it is not necessary to be guided into a space. No matter though, you can count on "help" and then a hand out for money from these guys!
The first time we parked here, and were approached for money, we declined, not wanting to be bullied into giving someone money for an unasked for, and unneeded service. Then we stood in our window and watched these guys in action. We nicknamed these guys "black jacket guy" and "green sweater boy". Every single person who parked gave then money! We were appalled, until we noticed that these same people rarely paid for parking as they were supposed to (instead of meters, one goes to a ticket kiosk, puts in coins for the amount of time desired, and then places receipt in car window), they just went about their business, often not staying for more than a few minutes. Was this some sort of protection from the parking patrol, we wondered?
The following day, after returning mid afternoon with the car, we too drove around in circles for almost 15 minutes waiting for a space to open up. Then finally, when one did, there was "green sweater boy" standing in the space, refusing to move! He was "holding" it for someone else who was double parked. I swear, it was all I could do to prevent David, who was furious, from mowing him down with the car! Narrowly missing the man, and possibly an international incident, we pulled out of the space and relinquished it to the other waiting car. The owner of our pensao, who had been standing in the doorway, witnessed this entire encounter. He walked over to his own car across the square, and proceeded to wait there until we came around the circle again, and then moved his car so we could have the space. He double parked his own car in front of his front door. By the time we reached the front door "green sweater boy" was there bitterly complaining to the pensao owner. David told the owner he didn't believe anyone had the right to hold the space and the owner concurred. We went upstairs and 20 minutes later, the man was still complaining, along now with his buddy, "black jacket guy". The best part came however, when the owner's wife came out of the building, was told about what happened, and then smacked "black jacket guy" upside the head a couple of times before she went on her way across the square. End of incident.
The next day, we set off early to visit the
Museo Romantico, a little known, beautiful old house which was the residence
of the exiled king of Sardinia in the early part of the nineteenth century.
Apart from the hoards of young children who were waiting for the museum
to open, there did not appear to be any other tourists around. The
house is quite well preserved, and completely furnished with all the original
pieces from King Charles Albert's time. He passed away in the house
in 1843, and it has not been changed since.
One of our main reasons for visiting the Museo Romantico was that in addition to the museum, it houses the Solar do Vinho do Porto. Downstairs from the museum portion of the estate, in what would have been the cellars of the King's residence, is the Institute of Port Wine. It isn't much more than a glorified Port bar, but it has an amazing selection of Ports of all the different varieties. It is an attractive place, nevertheless. The patio opens up onto the garden portion of the estate, which has a fantastic view of the river mouth and the sea. Across the river, one can see the Port Lodges, where all the Port wine is fabricated. Unfortunately, the Solar do Vinho is more of a bar than a tasting museum, even though they have ports available that are older than my grandfather. I had hoped for a free sample or two, but alas, all wines are by the glass and priced accordingly. To sample a 100 year old vintage Port could set you back upwards of 50 dollars US, and a cheap ruby runs as little as a buck.
We decided on two glasses of tawny port, each different, in order to make a comparison, and perhaps learn something. We chose a glass of Wiese & Krohn 10 year old tawny, for about 2 dollars , and a glass of Taylor's 20 year old tawny for about 6 dollars. Both were quite delicious, but there was a discernible difference between the two. I'm not certain if the major difference was the Lodge it comes from or the age, but the Taylor's 20 year old tawny was just that much richer in flavor, and smoother in texture, almost velvety. The older Port had a slightly deeper color, a bit more rusty looking, or tawny, I suppose. Overall, it was better.
If it didn't come from here, it's not really Port.
By tradition and law, if it is called
Port, it comes from Porto, and is made on the south side of the river in
the area called Vila Nova de Gaia. All the lodges are located within
a couple of square miles, along the banks of the Douro river. In
addition, restrictions on where the grapes can come from limit all the
Lodges to a small region of Portugal: the Douro valley. Yes, the
name of the valley has to do with the river that runs through Porto.
They are one and the same, only the grapes come from upstream in the mountainus
regions of the upper Douro, and the production occurs next to the river
mouth by the sea.
March 5-6, 1999 Lisboa
Miracles seem to happen everywhere in Europe,
and when they happen with some regularity, a site for pilgrimage is almost
always established. We stopped in Fatima on the way down to Lisboa
from Porto. Fatima is considered a major site, where pilgrims arrive on
their knees on the 13th of October and May. In 1917, on May 13, the Virgin
appeared to three shepherds. Odd coincidence that there should be
three of them, and that they just happened to be shepherds. Legend has
it that the virgin continued to appear on the 13 of each month until October
13, where she came for the last time, before a crowd of 70,000 people who
witnessed the last miracle, the appearance of the sun on a rainy day, spinning
like a ball of fire. As far as miracles go, we saw none, but I lit
a candle for the spirits of all the little birdies who have met their untimely
demise against the front of our fast moving vehicle. One little birdie
in New Zealand, against the windshield; one in the radiator grill in France,
which kristina had to scrape out with a stick three days after the fact;
the last one against the windshield in Spain. Sorry. The good news
is that since that gesture, we have not been involved in any further road
We arrived in Lisboa shortly after a picnic lunch in Fatima, with Kristina performing a successful navigation of the city center. After the usual walking around and comparing pensions, we settled into the Residencial Florescente (Rua Portas Santo Antao, 99, tel. 3463517) one of the ones that was in the book. The room was nice, but pricey. Big cities are always more expensive. It also bore the mark of our tribulations: scaffolding. It was being erected even as we checked in, and they had covered the first three floors by sundown, our room included. It was at once reassuring and annoying, as we knew that we were clearly meant to stay there, however, the presence of construction workers outside the window is always a bit of a pain in the neck.
En route to dinner that first night, we stumbled
upon what would turn out to be the most significant discovery of our visit
to Lisboa. We noticed a tiny little bar, no wider than it's doorway,
that was doing incredible business. We try to keep our 'locals' radar
on at all times, in search of those things and
places that are popular and frequented by the natives, not the tourists,
and this place lit up all our screens. There was a theatre or music
hall directly across from the hotel, and something was on this evening.
On their way to the theatre, throngs of people were stopping into this
doorway for about 2-4 minutes each, before heading into the show.
All were dressed for an evening out, and 90% of the theatre goers appeared
to be Portuguese. It is easy to tell who is Portuguese in a crowd
simply by listening to their speech. If it sounds like Russian, it
is probably Portuguese- a theory we confirmed with many other people, in
an independent survey. With nothing to fear, we squeezed
our way into the tiny room, where the bar is only as wide as my arms stretched
out to both sides. Inside, people were chatting and laughing, an
all were drinking small glasses of some kind of alcohol. A quick
glass or two, and then onward, towards the theatre mostly. The man
behind the bar was deftly pouring out glass after glass of a dark liqueur,
from large crystal or glass carafes, and when the carafes were empty, he
would slip into the back room and refill them from huge barrels that
we could just see from the front.
Not entirely sure of what I was getting into, I waited for my turn and then simply asked for two, holding my fingers up in a peace sign. Instantly two cups were filled to the rim and he was on to the next client. Bottoms up! Kristina and I had the same immediate reaction: yum! The liqueur was made from cherries, fermented with cherries in the barrel, bottled with the cherries, and apparently served with about three or four cherries in the glass. It was delicious. It was not too strong, like eau de vie de Kirsch, or too sweet, as one would imagine cherry liqueur, nor was it syrupy. It was just right, like cherried port wine, but not quite. It is called Ginga, and seems to be one of the locally celebrated products. We began to see Ginga in all the bars, and even a few other bars similar to this one, but none with the same style and character. We even saw the same brand of Ginga in several stores, sometimes alongside other brands, but always made in Lisboa. We developed an instant loyalty to 'our guy' and his Ginga, and did not try any other brands. Besides, if I understand the label, this stuff is "sem rival" which ought to mean 'without rival', indicating that no other Ginga can touch this Ginga.
The place, as well as the Liquor, is called Ginja Sem Rival Licor, J. Manuel L. Lima (Herdeiros) and is located at Rua das Portas de Santo Antao 7, tel. 346 82 31. The bottle says they do not export out of the country and we have never seen it before in the US. We also discovered, after making a couple of stops a day part of our ritual, that the guy who works in the shop is none other than 'the man' himself: J. Manuel L Lima. We never did quite distinguish whether or not he was J Manuel or L. Lima, or if J Manuel L Lima was his entire name, but one way or the other, we understood that he was the man whose name he kept pointing at, and then to himself, engraved above the doorway. We must have consumed at least a litre in the days we were in Lisboa, but we never tired of it. It was so good that we decided to use our entire allowance for duty free importation in order to carry some home with us, and we bought two bottles to go. The hardest part about traveling with these two bottles of Ginga has been not opening them.
We spent the next morning shopping for Port, as we had bought none in Porto. After comparing prices, we settled on a bottle of recent tawny, to be consumed on the road, and a bottle of 10 year old Taylor's to bring with us to Switzerland. We figured that good Port is available at home, so why not drink this stuff in Europe, and save our two litre allowance for the Ginga.
We gave the rest of the day to climbing up
the hill to the east of the hotel to reach the big castle. The castle
sits atop the hill and looks out over the city of Lisboa and the grand
harbor which is spanned by a giant suspension bridge which is very similar
to the Golden Gate Bridge. The city has other similarities
to San Francisco, mainly in the geographic similarities such as the large
bay, and the steep hills upon which the city's roads and buildings lie.
The castle is worth the walk for the view, if nothing else, as there is
not much left of the castle beyond the old walls, on which one can walk
the circumference of the old fortification. We retreated from our
siege of the royal residence, and walked down the hill via a different
route, finding ourselves at the doors of the Se, or Cathedral. We
might have skipped the big church, because we have nearly reached that
point of cathedral overload, but the sound of organ music drew us in.
We have noticed that many of the churches and cathedrals have music playing
during the visiting hours to enhance the ambiance, but it is almost
always recorded. Not here. The organist was playing the enormous,
two sided Canadian bellows organ deftly, with both hands and both feet
March 7 and 8, 1999 Evora, Alvito and Sagres
This morning we headed out to the Pousada
at Evora. The Pousada is called dos Loios, and is in an old,
converted monastery. We got there, and what a disappointment! The front
desk staff was snotty and told us that our room wasn't ready. I got the
feeling we weren't dressed fashionably enough for their taste. So,
at this point we walked around, checking out the converted monastery, and
got a chance to peek into a couple of rooms. From what we saw, we decided
that the old monk's cells weren't worth $150 a night. There just wasn't
anything special there. So, we pressed on to the next closest Pousada to
check it out before we made a reservation.
Before we left Evora however, we thought we should check out the sights in the town that had led us there in the first place. However, since it was Sunday, everything was shuttered and the town had all the charm of ghost town at high noon. The Roman Temple of Diana sits in the square just opposite the Pousada and is impressive, though not worth more than five minutes of study. There was however, one other thing (which David will describe below) that we had to wait to reopen in the afternoon, the Capela dos Ossos in the Igreja de Sao Francisco, before going on our way. We found a cafe in the Cathedral square where it seemed most of the locals were, having Sunday lunch. We managed to squeeze into a couple of seats and had a nice meal, waiting for the Chapel to open.
If you look closely at the texture of the wall in the picture below, you will become aware that the skeleton hanging from the wall is not the most gruesome aspect of this image. The Capela Dos Ossos was created by a couple of really sick Franciscan friars in the 16th century, whose sense of the macabre is even darker than my own. Yes, those are skulls. The entire chapel is made from human skulls and bones. The wall arches and window frames are made from leg and arm bones, while all the walls and the ceiling arches are skulls. The Friars who built the chapel did so to inspire meditation amongst their fellow men, but I am forced to meditate on their methods for the construction of this chapel. The story goes that they went out at night and dug up graves in order to collect building materials for the chapel. It is not tiny, either. It took the bodies of 5000 individuals to complete this eerie chamber of pious meditation. Now, I ask you, was it really the Christian thing to do, digging up all those dead people?
A Castle for the King and Queen
After we left Evora, we wound up in the tiny town
of Alvito. Alvito is so small it doesn't even rate an entry in the Michelin
Green Guide, even though it has a 15th century castle and some beautiful
churches. The Pousada was in the castle! This is what we had been
looking for! We knew as soon as we walked in that this was the place for
us. The woman behind the front desk was charming and offered to show us
both a regular room, and their one and only "special" room, the Queen's Bedroom.
We took a look at both and came to our decision rather quickly; why stay
in a monk's cell, when you can sleep in the Queen's bedroom? So we did!
David insisted that even though the other regular rooms in the pousada
were quite nice and a bit cheaper, we had to stay in the Queen's
bedroom because it was the same price as the other Pousada we were
going to stay in, only way, way, better. Of course along with this he said
something terribly romantic like, "Only the Queen's bedroom for my Queen"
or something like that. I think he secretly wanted to play King of the
So, the Queen's bedroom, you ask? Well, it was enormous, with a twenty five foot domed ceiling with plaster crest at the top over blue and white azulejos. It had ancient arched windows, with views of the countryside in two different directions and a four poster bed. Out of one window, we looked down into the formal garden and pool area where there were at least a dozen peacocks strutting around, including a few that were completely white. Every once in a while, one of the peacocks would spread his grand plumage and strut around trying to entice one of the females; unfortunately, it never seemed to work, poor bird. The marble bathroom was in what was once the round corner tower of the castle. They sent us a complimentary bottle of Champagne and some fruit soon after we arrived. Breakfast was delivered to the door the next morning. If you look at the photo page, our room was on the top floor, the two windows on the far right, a corner room. The single window in the tower was the bathroom. Many thanks to my Mother for the gift of this wonderful experience.
It turns out we were one of only four rooms occupied out of twenty that night. They had been full the night before, but today was Sunday. We ate in the virtually empty dining room and the food was simple, but well prepared. They had great service by a well trained, and mostly female (a rarity in fine dining), staff , and good local wine.
The Pousada do Castelo de Alvito is located in the center of Alvito and impossible to miss (tel. 084 48 343). The Pousadas de Portugal have a website at http://www.pousadas.pt and there are other links for Portugal on our links page.
After Alvito, we drove to Sagres which is another
tiny town at the very southwestern most tip of Portugal- the "end of the
world". On the way there we got pulled over by the police and David
got a $50 ticket (which we had to pay on the spot) for passing another
car in an illegal place (and in front of the cop).
Sagres is where Prince Henry the Navigator had his famous School of Navigation. This is where all the explorers like Magellan, Columbus, and Diaz embarked on their adventures when the area was considered the "end of the world" when the world was "flat". It has a beautiful and dramatic coastline and we drove out the the very tip, the Ponta de Sagres. Here there are the remains of a 16th century fortress and we arrived just in time to watch the sun set over the edge os the world.
Back in town, we found yet another empty little hotel,
the Aparthotel Orquidea (8650 Vila Do Bispo, tel. 082 64257) which
was thankfully cheap, 4250 esc including breakfast, and had a wonderful
view of the port and the water. No telephone in the room, so no e mail.
It was only a little creepy however, to know that we were the only residents
in this big hotel, and the desk clerk went home at midnight. Putting our
Bates Motel fears aside, we slept well and were on our way to Spain the