Thursday, June 28, 2007

Thursday: Coimbra to Talasnal

Wait, I think THIS is our favorite day...

This morning was supposed to be a free morning, with an option to travel 45 minutes to Coimbra, birthplace of 6 kings and home to Portugal’s largest and most prestigious university. Without a second thought we all arranged to meet at 9am, piled into our bus (which by the way would sit about 20 people but there are only 7 of us) and went on our way. Coimbra definitely felt like a college town from the beginning, right down to the slogans and revolutionary statements painted on the walls which any good college town should have. We went into the amazing library built in 1713 AD, holding over 300,000 books on display (with 200,000 more packed away in storage) – beautiful Brazilian wood and gold leaf overlay and ceilings painted in a style that made the scenes appear 3 dimensional. Of course you are not allowed to touch anything or even take a photograph, but I did spend several minutes imagining what it would be like to actually browse those ancient books! Perhaps the most interesting fact here is that they allow BATS to live in the library, since they eat the bugs that would otherwise destroy the books. It requires they clean the bat poop off of the tables every morning but that is evidently a small price to pay.

There is a huge square where the students have events and gatherings, and Joana told us about their tradition of burning their ribbons at graduation, each department a different color. We wandered here, and into a beautiful church, and down through the old part of the city and into the more modern shopping area before heading back to the hotel for lunch. I did buy some postcards and did NOT have a problem at the resister, so the spell has been broken.

After another enormous lunch – duck, mashed potatoes, broccoli – we changed into hiking gear and met up with Paolo and his jeep. We went only about a kilometer, the site of an old castle where our trailhead was, and we were met by another trail guide Claudia who came upon me so quickly with a beijos (kiss) to each cheek, quite catching me by surprise. Paolo pointed up to a teeny tiny cottage waaaay up on the mountain and said ‘that is where we are going’. I don’t think any of us believed him – it did not seem humanly possible to do such a thing in one afternoon. But sure enough, we started out on a narrow and rocky path overgrown with brambles and that hallucinogenic flower they make digitalis out of (sorry, the name escapes me at the moment). We made it to the shale village where little shale buildings have been created out of the landscape. In this village, called Talasnal, (Ta-laash-nyal) there are only two year round residents, a couple in their 80’s who have lived there all their lives. We didn’t meet them, but were greeted by Mario who had a nice spread of cheese, bread, and ham for us set out in a tiny stone room where the area kittens kept rushing in hoping for a handout. We sat and rested and refueled then explored the village – a couple of the homes had been recently renovated and one just sold for about 40,000 Euros… though the guide said 10 years ago it could have been bought for 100 Euros. They now have electricity and running water in this remote area, though it was never clear what the bathroom situation is… we used the bushes. There is a restaurant open only on weekends by reservation, and other cottages that are used on occasion. I would like to spend a month there, this being about the fourth setting in this trip I have thought that about. Leo thinks he needs to take his dad here, and I agree.

Eventually we had to begin the climb down, and down is always harder than up – slippery rocky narrow paths – my right foot went off the path into oblivion on several occasions, luckily I did not follow. Somehow I never quite got this picture from Jim’s trip last year – it sounded like such a sedate hike but this was challenging! We were shocked to find it was almost 8PM by the time we got back to the jeep. We showered the sweat and sunblock off, cleaning off the scratched shins, and then walked up the block to a local restaurant for a bite of food. The local experience was great – mass quantities of good food, a large pitcher of the local red wine, and a total bill for 8 of us of $40 Euros. Life is good. And by the way, we ALL loved the hike.

Now to consider we are leaving this wonderful hotel tomorrow morning and heading to Porto. Yikes, we have to pack! Three nights here has made us feel quite at home so this will be some work…..

Wednesday June 27 - Lousa

This morning after breakfast we drove to the mountains for our kayaking trip on the Mondego River. The river was very full – because of all the rains there have been lately (though luckily not for us!) they have been dumping more water from the dam which makes the river high. The current looked fierce and the water felt icy… we went out in 4 double kayaks, each parent with their child, Joana with a river guide, and another river guide in a single tiny kayak. Not too far down the river he did a 360 degree spin – not a circle but an *underwater* spin, to cool himself. Big show off :) This was Joana’s first kayak trip and I think she was a bit nervous!

The day was beautiful and the scenery nice. With the current the paddling was easy. We saw many falcons circling overhead, on the hunt, but really no other wildlife (well, there was a water snake later on). The peace and pleasure of being on the water was fantastic. After an hour or so we stopped at a beach and all the kids went swimming. They are so brave! When we climbed back into the kayaks we had a nice thrill over a small set of rapids. I was nervous, not wanting to get dumped in the water but we all made it through so easily I felt silly for worrying - – then when we least expected it Leo and Gladys (we had traded, and I was with Gladys’s daughter Mallory) hit a log in the water and flipped out of the kayak. A real family adventure! Leo loved it and Gladys was gracious enough to not complain.

Further down the river we stopped again at a small beach and this time I went in to swim too – the nagging concern about when would I ever have the chance again to swim in a cold Portuguese river drove me in. The current was so strong you could not walk upstream, and the kids would swim as hard as they could and not go anywhere – this is where someone got the idea for the lap pool no doubt. After my legs went numb I came out and dried pretty quickly in the sun. I would not say it was a hot day, but just perfect. Because of the water coming in from the dam there was a kind of tidal thing going on, and suddenly we realized our little beach was disappearing, and all of the things we had put on the ground were sitting in water – so we packed up again. As we were setting off two sweet dogs came paddling over from the other side of the river. They looked like golden retriever / Irish setter mixes, young dogs. Michael, I swear one was young Xerxes! They almost climbed into a kayak looking for hugs and pats, and then we were on our way. The end of our ride was another beach just short of a rushing waterfall so we knew we were ready to stop, a larger beach where a picnic barbeque was being prepared for us – ribs and chicken and salad, local beer and wine, bread (ALWAYS bread at the meal!) Delicious, as all of our meals have been.

When we got back to the hotel and got out of our wet suits we all went for a walk through the village of Lousa. We stopped in the pharmacy – full of creams and lotions and makeup, and a large display of Dr Scholls! There were several fashionable styles, why don’t we have those in the USA?? We also went into the grocery store, one of my favorite places to visit in a foreign country. I wanted olive oil but it was all in glass bottles and I prefer to pack plastic in my suitcase so I will keep looking. I did buy a bottle of local red wine for 1.56 Euro, about $2 US. I am sipping it now and can say it is Interesting.

We have said it at the end of every day so for: This was our FAVORITE day!

After lazing around this evening, dozing in a lounge chair out on the patio we had a late dinner, 8-1030PM. It seems impossible to get it done any faster, and we have given up trying. The kids then went off to kick the soccer ball in the dark, and are now playing cards in one of the common rooms (at 1130PM) The adults have wandered off to bed.

My prepaid card for internet access has expired, so I will not post this until the morning when I can get another one from the front desk.

We are running out of riddles, please send new ones!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Obidos to Lousa, day 4

Today we overslept… the alarm was set for 7am so we could be showered and packed and checked out by 9am. I woke at 640am. Somehow between then and the next time I opened my eyes at 830am the travel clock died and the alarm did not go off as planned. Needless to say it was a bit of a rush, never a good way to start a day. Leo got to breakfast before me and had a cup of coffee and some smoked salmon at my place as I passed through on the way to check out. What a boy!

We took off for Obidos, about an hour’s drive. Along the way Joana began to teach us a famous Fado song. Though it is hard to imagine we will ever learn the words at the speed required, we really are better on the 4th run through than the first. The plan is to make a recording at the end of the week … we’ll see!
Obidos is fantastic - a charming village of 200 within the ancient castle wall, a town given to Queen Isabel by her husband in 1282. We explored the tiny streets, so narrow they can hardly contain the people walking never mind the occasional car driving through. The views from the top of the hill are amazing, looking over farmland and orchards. Then we try a bit of the traditional cherry liqueur made here and served in a delicate cup made of dark chocolate….oh so delicious, and a well spent Euro! (You might wonder why we were doing this at 1130am, but if the guys at the bar can have a breakfast beer, why not us a small sip of liqueur?? Besides, it was *authentic*.

Then we had 30 minutes to shop - I popped into a little shop for s few things and used my credit card. The machine didn’t work right, it ate the paper that should have rolled out, and so the two sweet little Portuguese women – whose only English was “Very sorry! Very Sorry!” – ran around, dug through files, tore apart drawers of papers, wrung their hands and finally figured out how to duplicate the sale, (hopefully without duplicating the charge). It took the whole half hour but was a most interesting experience. I was late to the bus again.

Another hour’s drive took us to Nazare. I didn’t think I could love a place more than Obidos – I had all but decided I would return there and rent a room for a few months to learn Portuguese and sip espresso while the world walked by – but then came Nazare. A beach town, a fishing village –shops and restaurants running all along the street, across from an expansive beach with a blue blue ocean reaching out to the edge of the world, with cliffs towering above and houses hanging over the edges. We had lunch in a corner restaurant, a delicious seafood stew, then bought a soccer ball which the kids kicked all over the beach. Put my feet in the icy surf, then sat and watched. We drove up to the top of the cliffs, to the square with the church that holds the statue of the Virgin Mary associated to the miracle of Nazare, a story for another time… and here are the tiny Nazare women, sitting in the square with their carts of nuts and dried fruit, in their short skirts with the 7 petticoats (traditional fisher-wife clothing, short to the knee so they can slog through the water to help haul in the fish). I could spot from a distance the same woman who Jim had his photo taken with last year. With Joana our guide translating, we told her about the photo and how Jim has never forgotten her and I was instantly sorry I did not have it with me to give to her. It never occurred to me I would find the same woman, dancing and singing in the square. We told her it is on the internet – as I think it is on our website, on the Portugal page (go to and click on Portugal!) … of course she does not understand at all what the internet is! So we bought pistachios and dried fruit and promised to get the photo to her as soon as possible. I will email it to Joana when I return, she says she is in that square once a week!

In Nazare I had another shop experience – this time the shopkeeper rang up 9.50 to show me how many Euros I owed, then forgot she had already typed in the numbers… so in the end the register showed I owed 95,0950 Euros! Oh they were very embarrassed and rushed around trying to undo it. In the end they gave me my .50 change and I left them in a tizzy. I am wondering if I need to stay clear of the shops.

It was a two hour drive to Lousa and most of us slept along the way. (I was compelled to finish a book I wasn’t much liking but needed to know the ending to…) The hotel here is an amazing manor house in a village setting with more tiny streets (how do they drive here??) The rooms are lovely shades of browns and greys, the gardens are pretty though the pool is under repair which is too bad. The hotel is arranging for us to use a nearby pool if we want, and there is also a river nearby the locals swim in so we will check that out too. Heading out to the gardens you go down a long narrow hallway from the reception area, and push through a narrow wooden door to a ramp of smooth worn cobblestone that you can just see and hear the horses trotting along… but I don’t think there are any horses here, it’s just a nice feeling.

Dinner was in the dining room, another delicious Portuguese steak that would have fed four people. There was good table conversation on everything from politics to life in Portugal vs life in the USA, and no arguing! We stayed up late playing scrabble and laughing – the group is melding nicely and the kids all get along.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Number 7 - day 3 - Lisbon

Today we explored Lisbon, the City of Seven Hills. Story goes, there was a goddess in love with Ulysses, who came to Lisbon after the battle of Troy. He tried to escape, and this goddess turned into a snake, moving underground to reach him and stop him - thus creating the 7 hills in Lisbon. Besides the hills it also has cable cars and a bridge just like the Golden Gate, though smaller. The Romans were here in 200BC, then the Barbarians, then the Muslims, then the Christians - so it looks a bit like Turkey too. Since Portugal made key maritime discoveries, sailing to North Africa in 1415, around the Cape of Good Hope in 1488 and all the way to India in 1498 this city now is full of mixed cultures, spices, and flavors brought back from around the world.

We started in a beautiful old church, partially rebuillt after the last big earthquake in 1755, when 80% of Lisbon was destroyed.

We went up to St Georges castle, with a wall enclosing a village still inhabited today. At the very top of this hill, behind the fortress walls of the last redoubt, the views are terrific. With trees of olives and cork and beautiful cobblestone paths, it has a very old and peaceful feel to it. WE climbed aboard a trolley for a tour of the Alfama, the old Moorish quarter of Lisbon where the streets are so narrow (I know I keep saying this, but these were very extreme!) that we got stuck more than once because a tiny car had parked illegally and we could not get past. Old old old, Americans do not know what old is!!It is very interesting to gaze upon something and think about how it has been there for thousands of years. All the walking today is very energizing and it feels great to be out and about.
Lunch is a traditional Portuguese meal with many salads and one meat after another brought to the table and carved onto your plate. Beef, pork, ham, beef from a different part of the cow (there is a mpa to show you which part!), more pork, more ham, another kind of beef... you get the picture. Unfortunately our lunch stop prepares us only for siesta, so the visit to the Oceanarium is difficult - though interesting and mostly liked by everyone, stepping into the dark environment made most of us want to sleep!
There is itme for a rest at the hotel before heading out at 745pm for a night of Fado - a Portuguese tradition of song. Hunkered down in a basement restaurant with low ceilings, a very old building, we had a good dinner of Portuguese steak before the singing began. The Fado singers - there were 3 of them - sang one by one, accompnaied by a guitar player and a mandolin. It was very beautiful, and we all stayed awake! We were all amused at how the singers themselves seemed to chain smoke in between their performances.

Number 9, day 1

After some sleep and a shower, at noon on Sunday, we met up with our guide Joanna in the lobby. First I should say, this was no easy feat. The hotel is several buildings with many hallways, stairways, and pathways. I got lost several times but feel determined to master it. Leo has it all figured out of course. So when we finally were all together we went to the restaurant for lunch. Or I should say Lunch. Four courses and perhaps two hours later we were stuffed and ready for a long siesta - but alas we climbed in to the bus for the ride to Sintra.

Sintra is magnificent - a little micro-climate in Portugal, protected from the winds by the mountains, and full of trees and plantings from Brazil and Africa. We tromped blissfully around the Regaliera Palace, privately owned and inhabited up until ?1940? but now owned by the town and open to the public. The kids loved climbing all the towers to the tippy top and we all loved the deep well with the 135 (equals 9) steps down the 27 (equals 9) meter deep well with the 45 (equals 9) columns and the 9 statues.... The number nine seems quite sacred! We loved this whole place, it was great. (Roman Polansky filmed The Ninth Gate here with Johnny Depp ...) Then we walked through tiny narrow streets, one car width only, where Lord Byron, Strauss and Chopin all came for inspiraton. Before heading back, as if we might be hungry, we stopped in a cafe for a Portugese delicacy called a 'pillowcase'. A light pastry in an oblong shape like a pillow, with a filling of almond, egg, and sugar, all warm and fresh from the oven. Yum! We were back at the hotel with time to unwind before a 90 minute dinner (we asked them to be quick):

-caparota fig and goat cheese in a purse (fine pastry)

-swordfish with a shrimp crust

-some cookie with cream and cocoa sorbet for dessert

-and one glass of a Portuguese white wine, nice

After dinner the kids went for a swim, discovering the outdoor pool as well as the indoor pool with jacuzzi and sauna. I'm afraid if I head in that direction I'll get lost and won't find my way back...

Sunday, June 24, 2007


We're here!
First we arrived at Logan Airport the recommended 2 hours before flight time only to discover it was deserted, and within about 7 minutes we were checked in and at the gate, twiddling our thumbs. Leo pulled out some math games which only confused me, so I reverted back to my Sudoku puzzle. After we boarded the plane we sat on the runway for an hour before finally taking off. This all made for a very long 45 minute fight to Newark...
...and then a much shorter connection time during which we had to ride the Air Train to the next terminal and slog our way through security again to get to the gate - arriving just in time to be the last on the plane. We did meet our companions Steven and Sam briefly before getting to our seats in the waaaaay back of the plane.
Leo ordered a 'bloody mary' expecting to get the spicy tomato juice he loves. They also gave him the vodka on the side in a little packet (kind of like ketchup). He is *really* liking the rules on this trip (though I drank the vodka myself).
Now we're in the hotel, literally a palace - it's not even 8am and the city is silent after the big celebration last night for St John. Though we did see a couple of people still out, looking for cab rides home. My cell phone says it's 230am... no wonder I feel like a zombie.
Time for a shower and breakfast and then we'll explore the gardens before meeting up with our guide Joana at noon.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

This is where it starts...

So much travel this summer, I have to lay it out so I can remember who is where when...
Milo is in Alaska right now, then does a 24 hour turnaround before going to Turkey, both of those for Thomson Family Adventures. Then he moves on to Italy with his girlfriend, dropping their bags in Rome and exploring the country. All I know for sure is he will be in Amsterdam July 18 for his 21st bday. Oh No!! Which is more difficult - knowing he is so grown up (and I the mother of such a grown up) - or knowing he will be in Amsterdam for a big birthday (and me jealous that I am not too!)
Mira goes to Costa Rica July 5 to work for a couple of weeks with my colleagues there. Filing, landscaping, child care - whatever pops up but with time for fun too. Kayaking in Tortuguero, night hiking to watch the green sea turtles lay their eggs... I'm envious of her too. Even though it's not the month we originally envisioned - just not enough time this summer - I will not be surprised if she returns fluent in her Spanish.
Leo and I leave for Portugal on Saturday, June 23. Then off to Morocco, with Mira too, on July 28. As I am packing I get confused about which trip I am preparing for. Is it the one with the Port wine, or the one with the couscous? Do I need to speak French or Portuguese (or even Arabic??). Isn't it impressive that I can sound like I speak any of them?