Sunday, July 29, 2007

A Pleasant 39 degrees Centigrade

It's a long road to Marrakech.

Our 1120PM flight from Boston to Paris - 6 hours - was not quite long enough for a good sleep and not only arrived late into CDG but at a different terminal than expected. So instead of being able to walk to our connecting flight we had to wait with the masses for the shuttle bus. And we all know how the French are not particularly interested in helping non-French speaking tourists. This was no exception so we resorted to pushing to the front of the lines, and running to our gate. We weren't the last to board, but we sat down 3 minutes before take off.

Three hours to Casablanca and boy did we know we had arrived in Africa. Starting with the look of the land below as we flew over a patchwork of greens, purples and desert brown, and then the announcement from the pilot as we were landing: "Welcome to Casablanca, the temperature is a comfortable 39 degrees". The airport is a desert, though the runway is paved...the building is low and narrow and since our layover is 3 hours we wander some of the 'duty free' shops where sunglasses are 150Euros and chocolate is 5Euros. The 'cafeteria' is smoky and smells terrible; the food is scary looking. Mira wants an espresso and I am relieved when the woman says 'No Coffee!" and I am spared having to sit. Finally we head to the gate, 2 hours before our flight. Mind you, this means moving just 100 feet back down the long hallway and passing through a small security check. They do scan our carry-on bags though they do not want my laptop out for inspection. Mira sets off the alarm when she walks through, but the guard smiles and smiles and waves her on. I had to look to be certain the Xray machine was really working, and yes something was up on the screen. But it didn't feel very secure! The waiting area at our gate (9A, B, C) was two connecting rooms, and about 7 bathrooms which were quite clean. One room seemed to be the smokng room, the other not. No signs as to which flights might be leaving from the A, B, or C gates. There was a small concession with drinks and snacks, but the prices - 3Euros for a small bag of chips - were intimidating. We waited and waited. At about the time we were supposed to board there was a flurry of activity, crowds gathering, rapid fire announcements over a loud speaker, so fast I couldn't even tell what language was being spoken never mind what they were saying. Finally we are befriended by a Moroccan man who speaks some English and he explains that though they are boarding a flight to Marrakech it is not *our* flight to Marrakech - our flight has been delayed for 20 minutes. Then it's 45 minutes. Then an hour. Then the officials disappear and I am beginning to remember my time in the Nairobi airport when the airline staff closed up shop and left the passengers stranded without a single thought. We stuck close to the man who had translated for us - he was scheduled on the same flight as us - and Mira was befriended by a Brit who came over to her on frequent intervals to check in - but it was hard to relax wondering if the plane might leave without us. Finally after 7 - more two hours late, and more than 5 hours after we landed in Casablanca - we got in line, went down some stairs and onto a bus which drove about 25 feet then dropped us at the plane. We boarded, took off, had a glass of water, and then had to get ready for the landing. I think the flight time was about 30 minutes, and it occurred to us it might have been quicker to drive from Casablanca to Marrakech than wait for the plane.

Never mind, the landing was smooth and we stepped out of the plane, down the steps to the tarmac with an almost full moon rising overhead, the air hot hot hot even though the sun was down. We made it through the passport check and our bags were right there, all three! Mohamed met us and though he did not speak much if any English, he was pleasant and got us to the bus, a clean and comfortabe van but with no a/c which we might have liked. We are beginning to contemplate how the locals are used to the heat and probably feel this evening air as refreshing rather than stifling.

It is only 10 minutes to the hotel. The streets are crowded with cars, bicycles and lots of motorcycles too. There are several park areas full of families out in the cooler night air; dress varies from full burkas to shorts and dresses. After we check in we go the the bar area for something to eat - the menu there is simpler than the ectravagent dining room. We have salade nicoise, carpaccio, chicken kebab along with Casablanca beer, and it is all delicious.

Though there is a/c in the hotel it is much warmer than we would ever have in the USA. The beds are so comfortable and we sleep pretty well even though it is warm. We have little balconies overlooking the beautiful pool. This morning we have a fantastic breakfast in the garden with great coffee, then Moroccan mint tea and a wide variety of breads, eggs, meats, cheeses and olives. Then we browse the little shops here and walk to the casino (closed until 2PM!) and through the gardens. The heat is amazing, and we slink back to our rooms for relief and sunblock. Now I hope we'll next head to the pool for shade and swimming. We're just relaxing today, and waiting for our friends to arrive.

So far I think we are the only Americans - there are a lot of French here, and some Brits and Germans. We can feel the similarities, the crossover between Morocco, Portugal and Turkey - the European, the Muslim, the African, the Asian. It's in the air, the smells, the food, the architecture and the faces of everyone around us. We're having a great time!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Sunday July 1, Homeward Bound

Since last night I accidentally deleted a group of photos so I am distressed, and trying to duplicate the ones from around the hotel. Mallory and Gladys departed at 3am for the airport - they are flying to London to attend the Concert for Diana which I might consider feeling jealous about, but the logistics seem daunting at the end of a trip.

The rest of us leave at a more respectable 8am; Sam Steven Leo and I are all on the same flight to Newark so we do not yet have to cope with saying goodbye. At the counter Leo and I are scolded for not having our e-ticket receipt, and we hold our breath as the 3 bags are weighed. Believe it or not, we are under the limit. Steven and Sam - with a different airline rep - are not reprimanded for not haivng a ticket receipt, given a form to fill out, made to check the bags they wanted to carry on, and given tags for the packpacks they are carrying on. We are amused and confused by the different procedures.
Security is higher than usual because of recent events, and so the process is more lengthy and everyone is carefully checked out. ONce we are though the check point I buy a bottle of water - but then as we get to the gate there is ANOTHER security check with frisking and shoe inspections and bag searching. They take away my water, but it doesn't seem to be smart to question that. The flight is supposed to depart at 1115AM, and at 1130 people are still arriving at the gate. We're very curious about that. About an hour later - and still people ariving at the gate! - we board, only to sit on the tarmac for awhile longer. Leo and I know we have missed our connection in Newark. It's going to be a long day.
On the plane Leo and Sam sit together playing cards and listening to iPods; Steven and I sleep and watch the movies. I don't have a book or a magazine (the only English magazines available in the airport were Playboy and a couple of fashion mags) so it is a *boring* 7.5 hours.
In Newark Leo and I collect our bags - We make it through customs without being charged or penalized for the suitcase full of wine (it's really not that much, I just could never figure out what I am legally allowed to bring back) - and lug them to the Continental terminal to confirm our flight to Boston. We have 90 minutes to kill so we scoot over to Steven and Sam's terminal to wave to them from behind the security line they had already passed through, before riding the AirTrain back to our terminal and settling in at the gate.
For a trip that only requires 35 minutes in flight, the journey from Newark to Boston took forever. Waiting to board, waiting on the tarmac, waiting to take off.... Where I once envisioned being home by 4pm now I see it will be almost 8. Returnign to reality and everyday life is never easy!
We land in Boston and our bags are among the first off the plane. Unfortunately the new suitcase is wet and smells suspiciously of white port... sure enough a litre has broken and flooded the case.

Since that's the worst thing that's happened to us in this whole wonderful adventure there's not much to complain about.

Now it's on to camp for Leo; Costa Rica for Mira; work time for me. Milo is still in Turkey, and I will have the chance to see him briefly before Mira, Leo and I head to Morocco July 27... stay tuned!

Saturday June 30, Amarante, Last Day!

How do you get teenagers out of bed before 8am on vacation? Take them on a Thomson Family Adventure and leave them alone to bond with the other kids. The group dynamic takes over; no one wants to miss anything and so they are front and center every morning. It’s a wonderful thing!

Last night everyone had agreed there would be no sleeping in. Four our last day we wanted as much time as possible. We met for a quick breakfast at 830 (challenging when you see the array of breads, fruits, cheeses, meats, cereals, yogurts and juices you could spend hours consuming) then walked down the steep drive of our hotel, across the bridge, and into a beautiful church. Have I mentioned all the beautiful churches in Portugal? This one is particularly focused on a saint named Goncalo who is know for helping women get pregnant. There is a long line of devotees kissing the hands of his statue, the elderly in thanks for past abundance, the younger ones perhaps working on current wants. We warn our kids to step away from St Goncalo.

Exiting the church we wander just around the corner to the local Saturday market. Wow! Everything from touristy souvenirs to music cds, to fruit and vegetables, to kitchen wares, to socks, dresses, and suits, to roosters, bunnies, and baby chicks all spread out over a vast area. We wound through the maze of vendors taking in the slice of local life. Leo and I found a small black rolling suitcase for 15Euros, an almost exact replica of the red one Mira and I bought in China for about $3 – both required to return home with the souvenirs. In this case it means the port wine we cannot carry onto the plane, and Leo is carefully considering how to wrap and pad the bottles to survive the baggage handling. I am envisioning the line of small rolling suitcases I might accumulate over years of traveling if I don’t start planning better.

After market Leo Mallory and Sam want to go bike riding, and Joana the guide and Steven (Sam’s dad) go along with them; Gladys and I opt to wander another street of shops and small markets. We also enjoy a nice espresso in a café on the square and do a bit of people watching before meeting the rest of the group back at the hotel. It seems the bike ride required a sense of humor with a series of troubles from no rear brakes to chains dropping off mid ride. Luckily everyone was game for this new definition of adventure and they all said they had a great time. Nothing like new stories to tell.

No one is hungry for lunch, probably because in the last week we have consumed enough food to last us the entire month. So we head to the water park knowing there is a snack bar there is we need it later. The sky is a bit over cast and I almost feel a chill in the air, but the kids are ready for the water. The park consists of threes systems of water slides – wavy, circular, steep – that dump you into small pools, and two larger pools for swimming and playing. It is very nice in that it is small enough to enjoy from one vantage point – in our case lovely padded lounge chairs! The sun came out and the adults – Steven and I, Joana, and Victor our driver who speaks almost no English but is so much fun to have along – take turns napping and reading and joining in on the water slides. I discovered Victor enjoys a Sudoku puzzle as do I - but he has the program on his cell phone and he uses it to cheat when he gets stuck! I have forgotten the Portuguese word for cheater! but hope I won't have to use it again anyway.

Leo, Mallory and Sam hardly stopped – they had a blast going down the slides, each run a new experiment on how to do it – feet first, head first, sitting up, lying down, on your knees, hitting the water straight or curled or feet up in the air. At snack time – can you believe hunger overcame us? – we discovered ‘tosta misto’ a most delicious grilled ham and cheese sandwich which I am quite sure will be requested at home, in Portuguese, for years to come. We also remarked on how popular Fanta Orange is here, though I prefer the pineapple soda which I think is yummy. Steven had a tiramisou ice cream cone! I stuck with a small drinkable yogurt and a bite of Leo’s second tosta misto… Then back to the water! I went down the slide 6 times, which according to Sam was the number required in order for her and her dad to come with us to Morroco. When it was time to leave we could hardly believe it had been 4 hours – oh, another best day!

After showering and changing we drove about 45 minutes to Guimaraes… known as the birthplace of Portugal, as King Afonso chose it as his capital in 1139. This is an old city! We walked through the Largo da Oliviera - the large main square – where the old ‘city hall’ is built as a second story with space below for the local market vendors. Down streets to smaller narrow streets in the medieval area (where cars whiz by so fast as you press against the buildings, certain they will run over your toes!) we come to our restaurant. Set in an old stone building, the inner décor is very modern and stark in an inviting sort of way. Our farewell dinner is delicious, pork with a chestnut gravy and potatoes, and a custard for dessert – and there is a series of toasts to the great time we had all week.

Back at the hotel there is mandatory packing before the kids retreat to the outside patio for cards and a coke, though the waiter never appears to serve them. There is some huge fashion show happening on the plaza across the bridge, right outside our windows. Music, lights, a big crowd, it all presents quite a festive atmosphere though I am not inspired to move in closer to check it out. Eventually I invite the kids back to my room to enjoy the sodas from the minibar and they talk and talk and talk until – 1am? I fall asleep, I don’t know when it breaks up. But I do know Mallory and Gladys have to leave at 3am …

Monday, July 2, 2007

Friday June 29 , leaving Lousa for new frontiers

These last postings are showing late since I lost an internet connection - which by no means diminished our extreme pleasure in our final days.

I think I am beginning to feel crabby, knowing it is almost over. But first, what we did today:

Packing was not fun. The suitcases are bulging since we all know clothing multiplies when one travels – somehow things never quite fit the same when you need to get them back in the suitcase. It felt embarrassing how *heavy* my bag is… It was a sad goodbye to Lousa.

We drove about 90 minutes and made a fun stop at a rest area, an experience on the same line as visiting the local grocery store. A little gift shop, coffee and snacks, a zillion kinds of candy bars and quite clean bathrooms – though challenged by a crowd of about 25 five year olds being marched in one by one while the rest sat loudly on the *floor* (ugh) in a circle. Portuguese teachers yell and yank at their young students just like the American ones do.

Another 30 minutes in the bus and we arrived at the Manor House (see photo above), Quinta de Santo Inacio de Flaes. Lived in until 10 years ago, it sits intact as if the family had just stepped out to market. We had a tour of all the rooms including a chapel, all very English and all arranged so we could really imagine ironing the linens with a small cast-iron iron (!) and sipping sherry in the after-dinner sitting room (though the women did not ever go there). Then we walked the gardens, some organized and delineated, some wild and ‘romantic’. The zoo – which Jim had always described as a ‘small zoo’ – is in fact huge for a private enterprise with buildings, a gift shop, restaurant and many outdoor exhibits. I made everyone go into the reptile building, my personal favorite. Those Burmese pythons can make your teeth curl just looking at them! Then we had lunch at the manor house restaurant, a wonderful meal of turkey wrapped with bacon and cheese with broccoli and rice with a chocolate lava cake for dessert. And of course two local wines – a green wine, and a red. I can barely do up my jeans anymore and serious dieting awaits me at home.

Next a brief drive to Porto, sitting along side the beautiful river. (Joana explains only tourists call it Oporto, to distinguish the city from the Porto wine.) We make a visit to the Sandeman port wine cellar – It is not where they make the wine, but where it cures in the barrels until it is bottled for their port. We have an interesting tour with a woman dressed like Zorro – the Sandeman signature logo is a person dressed in a traditional Spanish hat, and draped in a black cloak. AKA Zorro.We actually see some port that was bottled in 1906 and though there is a lot of dust on the bottles, the selling price is 3000 Euro per bottle. Sorry Larry, I did not get you any.
After our tasting and shopping we board a boat for a tour of the city. It is a beautiful sunny day and it is wonderful to be on the water. We are surrounded by Italians, Portuguese, Spanish – sometimes it is hard to tell what language is being spoken. I think the whole place looks like Venice (though admittedly I have never been to Venice) with old buildings built along the banks, some on top of sheer cliffs of rock that merely become the outside wall of the building.. how do they do that, how does that get built in the first place??

When we get off the boat we take a walk through Porto, more narrow streets full of shops, restaurants and laundry hanging out to dry. Joana takes us into a shop where they are making gold and silver filigree – just a guy who says he went to school to learn it, but the product is amazing and it results in a flurry of shopping. Then we head back to our bus – I have to say the up-hill is not so bad, but the down-hill is quite painful to our legs after yesterday’s hike…

About an hour takes us to Amarante, a village of 2000 along the banks of the Tamega River which feels a lot like a moat right here because of the large church resembling a castle just across the bridge from our hotel! We will explore more tomorrow. We find our amazing rooms overlooking the river, with huge bathrooms, beautiful drapes, artwork (though I have A LOT of picture straightening to do in this hotel!!), and rose petals strewn over the beds. This is a Relais and Chatueaux property, and the whole property is delicious with many cozy common rooms to gather in and a beautiful terraced pool area overlooking gardens and hillsides. The church bells ring every 15 minutes, and the whole feel here is that we are definitely in another country.

At dinner there is a special wine tasting event that we just happened to be here for as it is only scheduled every couple of months. What this means though is that we are at the mercy of the other diners because we all need to be seated at one time… what is supposed to begin at 830 doesn’t really start until the others arrive at 9 and then the service – well things move so slowly here!! It is a nine course meal if you count the espresso at the end. I only made it until #7, the tiramisu terrine with saffron sauce --- which came after glazed veal jarrot, and baby leek veloute, and rock mullet, and oysters with jus….. but all those came after an amazing array of appetizers like foie gras terrine with caramelized apple and vichyssoise with Avruga caviar shooter………. Anyway I’m sure this is all familiar to you so you already understand that it was almost midnight by the time I finished course #7 along with the various wines and a glass of champagne both to start and to finish.

Hm, maybe I should mention the kids, who are still here with us – they stuck it out almost as long as I did at dinner but leaving a bit earlier to try out the swimming pool. We have become so jaded as parents we now say things like: Kids, don’t forget your curfew at 1230AM!!

For as spectacular as this hotel is there is no simple internet connection – They have a set up here where you can only be connected if you have a Portuguese cell phone which I do not. Joanna offered me hers, but it is with the wrong company. I think we are in a part of Portugal that cares mostly about food and wine, and you know -– for my vacation I think that’s just fine.

We play more tomorrow, our last day – it is market day in Amarante, and the water park beckons in the afternoon. Along with our daily riddles we are working on Steven and Sam who seem quite close to joining us in Morocco in July which we all think would be terrific. Once again, it is very sad to think about parting ways with new friends; Sam was very sweet tonight at dinner when she said “But if we don’t go to Morocco we might never see you again!” So I had to promise to visit Knoxville, Tenn. if they can’t make it. Jim, can we run a family adventure in Knoxville??