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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Weekend Excursion

Portugal has the worst drivers in all of western Europe, or so everyone keeps telling us. So, what did we do? We rented a car for the weekend to head north up the coast to Porto.

Without the time constraints of a bus or train schedule, we were able to see many things in a short time span. We hit the picturesque medieval city of Obidos, where we wandered up and down the narrow cobblestone streets. Then, on a whim, we stopped in Foz de Arehlo. It turned out to have an amazing beach that stretched out into a sheltered bay on one side and bordered the Atlantic on the other.

We stayed on the coastal roads and ended up in Sao Martinho do Porto, a beach town situated on a crescent-shape bay that was full of fishing boats. For a Friday night, things were pretty quiet. Being the off season, many things were closed and there were only three lodging options available in town. We stayed one block from the beach for 40€ ($60).

The next morning, we made our way to Aveiro, the "Venice of Portugal" where we navigated the canals in an old, brightly painted wooden boat.

We also learned how to make ovos moles, the sweet treats that were invented here. As the story goes, the nuns at the convent would use egg whites to starch their habits, but they were wasting the yolks. By adding sugar, they were able to preserve the yolks for up to three weeks and use the concoction for eating. These days, the mixture is encased in a pillow-like shell similar in taste and texture to a communion wafer.

From Aveiro, we drove up to Porto, where we saw the sun set on the River of Gold (Rio d'Ouro), bathing the river and buildings alongside it in golden light. One can see how the river got its name.

On Sunday, we headed to Fatima, an important Christian pilgrimage site in a city named after the daughter of Mohammed. Thousands of worshippers come to this location, many of whom walk on their knees to the chapel built over the location where Mary first appeared to three children in 1917. The apparition returned two more times, each time relaying prophecies about the future that later came true.

We came back to Lisbon later that night. Happily, we returned the vehicle, and ourselves, in one piece. However, there was one point on our trip that an ambulance (not on an emergency call) crossed over the center lane on a curve and nearly crashed into the car head on.

"So, that's how they get clients," said Jennifer, after our close call.

Perhaps our visit to Fatima gave us some good karma.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

One part rodeo, one part gladiator

Portuguese bullfights differ from those in other countries in two major ways.

First, the star of the show is not the matador, but a horseman bullfighter, costumed as an 18th-century nobleman, with a plumed hat and embroidered coat.

Second, and most importantly, the bull is never killed in the ring thanks to a decree made by the Marques de Pombal in the 18th century.

The latter seemed to make the idea of attending a bullfight a bit more palatable, so that's how Jen and II found ourselves at the Campo Pequeno in Lisbon at 10pm at the last event of the season.

Outside the venue, a group of folk dancers competed for attention with a group of protesters who were trying to drown out the music with airhorns and cowbells. Inside, we climbed the stairs to the second balcony and took our seat in the first row, which offered the best view of the action, and cost 17.50€ ($26).

We were joined by Peter, a Danish tourist who came by himself, leaving his wife and kids back at the hotel.

The principle characters paraded into the ring, led by the forcados, then the matadors and finally the caveleiros. After the introduction, the bull is ushered into the ring and the battle begins.

>Bullfighting originated as a military training exercise for both man and horse, building dexterity and agility as they avoided the horns of the angry bull. These days, the horsemen display their skill by guiding the horse left, right, forward and back as the bull (with his horns filed down) chases from behind. The closer to the bull the caveleiro is, the bigger the applause when he finally "escapes."

The barbaric part comes when the cavaleiro charges the bull with a bandarilha (dart) and drives it into the bull's back. With each successive pass, the dart gets shorter and shorter, which increases the risk to the horse and the horseman. Meanwhile, the bull gets increasingly angrier and weaker at the same time.

When the cavaleiro is finished showing off his bravado, a group of eight men charge the bull and the frontman flings himself onto the front of the enraged charging bull, while the other men work on slowing the bull down. It looks pretty comedic, but the danger is high.

Finally, a group of cows are paraded into the ring and the bull follows them out. Then the process is repeated with another bull and a new cavaleiro.

In the end, I left with no desire to ever see another bullfight (as expected). It just wasn't a fair fight. Sure, it was a cultural experience, but then again, so is NASCAR, and I have no plans to attend a race anytime in the near or distant future.

If I were the Marques de Pombal, I would have made another decree. I would ask that the bulls be "marked" with paint or velcro darts instead of causing real harm to the animals.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Heavenly treats

Where has pasteis de Belem been all my life? The fresh, hot custard pastries sprinkled with cinammon and powdered sugar at the Antiga Confeiteria de Belem were a delightful treat after walking along the shore of the Rio Tejo (Tagus River) in the Belem neighborhood of Lisbon.

Although they are sold in bakeries across Lisbon, the best place to get the goods is at this particular pastry shop, which is to Portugal what the Magnolia Bakery is to New York City -- an institution. Originally made by the monks at the nearby Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, the recipe has not changed over the last 172 years. Heavenly, indeed!

Line up at the front of the store to take away a box filled with the yummy goodness, or sit down and have the waiter bring pasteis fresh out of the oven to your table in the enormous cavernous eatery. Jen, my latest travel partner who arrived just today, and I had one a piece and it was clear we would have to order another . . . and another.

"I can't have just one," says Mariana, the front desk clerk at the youth hostel where we are staying. "I usually end up eating five or six and have to stay in bed the next day. But they are so good!"

As a friend pointed out, they are "LisBon Appetite." I say: FINALLY! Most of the main dishes are bland and uninspired, but the desserts are a different story.

Mariana has been our sweets pusher since we got here. Tomorrow, she has recommended we try "travesseiros" at Piriquita in Sintra. We're not making a special trip or anything -- we are going to get a little culture, too.

But I will be sure to report back on how these new goodies stack up against the pasteis.
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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Scintillating Sintra

Trains leave Rossio station in Lisbon every 20 minutes for Sintra, a UNESCO world-heritage town blessed with stately manors and hillside palaces and castles. There's just not enough time in a day to see them all.

Even in October, the crowds were as thick as a bees in a hive. The best way to avoid them is by walking, although if you don't want to climb straight uphill, hop on bus #434 and take it all the way to the Palacio de Pena.

Home to final kings of queens of Portugal, the palace is a heady mix of styles from Arabic to Victorian. Walking across the draw bridge, you can imagine visitors arriving in carriages for grand parties on the palace's sweeping terraces that offer views of the Atlantic Ocean in the distance.

While it's interesting to tour the private chambers of the royals (smaller than I imagined), the best part of the visit is to wander through the gardens surrounding the palace. The paths wind past church ruins, duck houses, grotto and underground passages that lead into the surrounding hills. I brought my flashlight for this purpose, but the passage narrowed and I couldn't get through with my backpack on.

The main path eventually leads down to the Castelo dos Mourros where King Joao III liked to paint. By the time he lived at the Palacio de Pena, the 9th century military fortress had long been abandoned.

In 1839, a complete restoration of the fortress was undertaken. Archaeological research within the stone walls have found objects that pre-date Arab occupation.

After exploring the site, you can walk down the hill to Sintra or ride the bus. If there's time in the day, there are several museums in town, plus good eats and pricey gifts shops. I also recommend the Quinta de Regaleira, at one time an elegant summer retreat for the Baroness de Regaliera, which has intriguing gardens that beg to be explored. The Initiatic Well is a subterranean tower that sinks 27 meters into the earth, made accessible bya spiral staircase that leads down to a series of underground walkways. This structures, as well as others in the garden, are linked to the Knights Templar.

TRAVEL TIP: Buy a two-day pass to visit the four major sites (Palacio Nacional de Pena, Castelo dos Mouros, Monserrate and Convento dos Capuchos) for 20 Euros or a pass to vist to two of the sites for 11 Euros (but you must decide which two at the time of purchase). Tickets can be bought at any of the sites.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Seven Hills

I have come to Lisbon, and Portugal in general, with no expectations and no agenda. I spent the first day wandering the steep cobblestone streets up and down the seven hills that make up the city. With me are Chris, who has a fever, and Lauren who is coming down with a sinus infection (I'm popping Vitamin C).

The Castelo de Sao Jorge at the top of the highest point, is a natural first stop. While taxes and buses do head up there, we walked through the sleepy neighborhood of the Alfama, which was just starting to wake up on a Sunday morning.

The timeless alleys and squares are like living museums with white-washed or tiled houses with red-tile roofs, flower-laden balconies and old-world looking people in the windows or in the streets offering a friendly "Bon Dia" as we walked by.

At the top of the hill, we entered through the gates of the castle and were instantly transported back to the 11th century when it was built by the Moors, the Arab invaders that controlled the city until Dom Afonso Henriques led a siege in 1147 that ultimately drove them out.

The castle, once home to kings and queens, now has peacocks, turkeys, cats and tourists roaming the ground. We were fortunate enough to arrive before the nine o'clock buses carrying the masses. We took in the city from the castle's vantage point atop the hill. Boats were sailing in the Rio Tejo, a church bell was ringing somewhere down below and more areas to explore were beckoning.

The rest of the day, we meandered and really fell in love with the picturesque city. We finished the day at a small but packed restaurant serving fresh seafood and meat dishes, typical of Portugues cuisine.

As we fell asleep, a trio of musicians performed under our window at an open-air cafe four stories below us.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

North shore ramblings

Puerto de la Cruz is the second largest city on the island of Tenerife. It is a picturesque port town on the north shore with cute shops and good restaurants, as long as you wander off the main boardwalk, lined with high-rise hotels and cheesy "handicrap" (as opposed to handicraft) stores.

The further west in town you go, the more authentic the experience. Colorful fishing boats bob in the gentle water of the port protected by a high wall from which the locals will dive into the water for a swim. A few blocks uphill, the main square is surrounded by Spanish colonial buildings that feature intricately carved wooden balconies that are typical of the area.

Just outside of town, you get into the heart of the island's wine-growing district--the Orotava Valley. The town of La Orotava is just a short distance uphill from Puerto de la Cruz, and can easily be explored on foot.

We wandered up the steep cobblestone streets passing the main church with doors that make you feel only inches tall. The Casa de los Balcones is an overpriced store that sells high-quality Canarian products at high prices. However, the building in which it is located gives you the chance to peer inside a historic building with its lovely inner courtyard. Plus, it is open midday when all the other businesses close for three hours for siesta.

It was in this town that we finally found a laundromat to wash our clothes. I can't think of a better place in which to be stranded for a few hours.

We headed back down to Puerto for dinner and finished out the night with sangria and dancing in the streets to the music of a Canarian band.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Pooling Resources

Tucked in a corner of the island not visited by most tourists you'll find the tiny seaside villages of Bajamar and Punta Hidalgo. They are both one hotel kind of towns that time forgot.

In Bajamar, older men chat on benches in front of the tiny church, people walk their dogs or stroll along the narrow streets. And some take to the waters at the "piscinas," two sea-water pools set on the rocky shore below the Hotel Delfin (50€, including breakfast), which caters almost exclusively to Germans and older tourists. We spent two nights with the sound of waves crashing over the espanade lulling us to sleep.

Early morning and late evening are the best time to watch the locals taking a dip in the natural pools that are filled with sea water that washes over the edge of the cement and into the pool. The Tenerife tourism literature describes this area as a health-conscious tourist destination.

We decided to dive into the healing waters this with the old folks. Brrrrr. The saltwater made my eyes burn, but did wonders for my blisters. Swimming over to the far side, we sat under the spray from the ocean only a few steps away.

As for food, we skipped the cafeteria-style hotel buffet and opted for a fresh dinner at El Abogado, halfway between Bajamar and Punta Hidalgo. The fish was freshly plucked from the water by a fisherman that day and now I stood before a tray of fish, from which I selected the one I would eat.

Before the grilled fish, we enjoyed Gambas al Ajillo (garlic shrimp), boiled potatoes and yams and Pimientos Padron (salted and roasted jalapeno peppers), a local specialty.

A delicious end to the day!

History mystery

It's not easy to get a good understanding of the Guanache people who first settled the Canary Islands.

They are believed to have been blonde-headed, blue-eyed Berbers from Africa. They lived in caves and made pottery using clay from the abundant volcanic material on the island.

That's all we could really figure out from the archaeology museum in Puerto de la Cruz. There are "pyramids" on the islands, but they are shrouded in controversy. The Guimar Pyramids were discovered in 1996 and thought to be of great significance. However, the terraces of rock yielded no artifacts and resemble the agricultural terraces still in use on the island today.

Only one pottery figurine (El Guatimac) was discovered at the site but it was found in a cave, along with bones fragments and potsherds.

However, founders of the museum at the site go to great lengths to try to make an arguments that the islanders were great pyramid builders, like those in other parts of the world. The museum has photo after photo of pyramids from Peru, Guatemala, Mexico and Egypt.

Yes, I believe that there was contact between early civilizations, but the assumptions and connections made by the Canarian museum were based on the research of a Norwegian man who recreated full-size reed boats, made like those from antiquity, and sailed across the Atlantic successfully.

He just happened to settle in the Canary Islands toward the end of his life and after talking to people on the island about his theories someone decided to take a pile of rocks and build pyramids and call them ruins.

Now, if someone comes forward with more compelling evidence, I'm willing to entertain the idea, but for now, I remain skeptical.

If you're ever in Tenerife, pay a visit to the Pyramids of Guimar to decide for yourself . . . if you are willing to pay the 10 Euro ($15) entrance fee.

Black sand beaches

Excluding the national park at the top of the Teide volcano, the island of Tenerife has two distinct sides. The south is known for its sandy beaches and sunny skies, while the north is higher and cooler with crashing waves under plunging cliffs.

The south is touristy (full of visitors flying in from London, Madrid and Miami to stay in high-rise hotels on the beach), but there are some gems.

El Medano has the longest beach in Tenerife. The black sand beach is the result of Teide's eruptions, the most recent being in 1909. The sand is interrupted by flat layers of lava rock that flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

The beach is littered with millions of colorful pieces of tumbled sea glass in colors you just can't find on Lake Erie. So, Lauren and I scoured the beach, picking up glass in shades of lavendar, light blue, turquoise, cobalt, yellow and olive green. Oh my!

During our hunt, we watched surfers hanging ten, nude bathers strutting and dogs patiently waiting for their owners to return. As the last bit of sun passed over a distant peak, we wandered into a beachside bar for a pizza run by an English bloke who had traveled extensively in the United States and had lived briefly in Hawaii.

"I really loved the scenery in Hawaii," he told us. "But, I loved the Canarian lifestyle."

In that moment we could understand what he meant. We've eased into island time, living in the moment without a car in the world.

Friday, October 09, 2009

For the birds

What do you get when you cross a parrot with homing pigeon? A bird that will ask direction if it gets lost.

Jose Ledesma tells me that joke while dining at a local Canarian restaurant owned by a friend of his.

Ledesma raises racing pigeons. In fact, one of his birds, Bayo Casablanca, holds the world record for longest distance traveled. Facing extreme conditions, the bird traveled from Morocco, over the open ocean and made its way back to Tenerife.

"The fact that they know how to get back is one of the mysteries of the world," says Ledesma. "They have a sense that humans just don't have."

Ledesma, who once raised and trained falcons, stumbled across the racing pigeon industry purely by chance. Now, he is considered a respected leader in the field, and is known all over the world. He raises pigeons that are purchased for racing.

Once every two years, he organizes a pigeon race that begins in Fuerteventura, one of the other islands in the Canaries. Participants from countries such as Belgium, Germany, Ireland, China descend upon the islands to cheer on their bird, and hopes it will be the first that arrives back to the loft, which is in the backyard of Ledesma's home.

The prize: 12,000 Euro ($18,000). A couple from The Netherlands were the most recent winners. They shrieked with joy when their bird was the first to enter its roost.

When I first started to research the Canary Islands, I thought I'd find the canary bird here. Nope, I haven't see Tweetie, but I now know more than ever about the pigeon.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

We caught the monkey, but killed the bat + more animal stories

The amount of ground we've covered so far is astounding, but now that we are in the Canary Islands, it's time to slow down and enjoy things on island time.

The Canary Islands are located off the coast of Morocco, but belong to Spain. The flight from Madrid cost under $200, and it's worth every penny to make the three-hour journey to this island chain.

The island oof Tenerife is the most popular with tourists. The beach resorts in the south appeal to sun and surf lovers, the legends of the Knights Templar, the colonial past and Mary of the Sea attracts history buffs and the volcano that rises from the center of the island is a mecca for nature lovers, not to mention UFO enthusiasts.

"There are a lot of sightings, especially on top of El Teide [the volcano]," says Kalani Hano Hano, an American friend of a friend, who moved to the island in 2005 with his wife, who is Canarian. Kalani, himself, witnessed an event that he can't necessarily explain that lasted four hours. "Lights would appear every few seconds and shoot across the horizon," he says. "I've never seen anything like it."

It's no wonder that you can spot unusual phenomenon on the island, especially.on the volcano. There is no light pollution obscuring the night sky and we witnessed a shooting star within minutes of looking skyward from our vantage point at our hotel, which is located high on the volcano.

This spot will be our home for the next couple of days and we're looking forward to seeing what's out there in the daylight. We arrived well after dark, mostly because I had to stop to take pictures of sunset behind the peak, which poked out of the clouds that were below us.

After killing a bat with our windshield on the way up, we pulled into the parking lot of the hotel and I was amazed by the rock formations. When I got out of the car for another picture, I could hear the pitter patter of feet on the pavement, but I could see nothing. There were no lights in the parking lot. But, I felt something lurking behind me. Kalani had just warned us about packs of ferocious wild dogs roaming the highlands, so when I finally saw the creature by the light of the car's dome light, I froze with fear and whispered to Lauren, "There's something out there; I think it's a wild dog."

She couldn't see anything, but once her eyes adjusted, she could see the Unidentified Feral Observer (UFO) with its pointy ears and muscular body.

"Oh my god," she cried. "It's a dingo. Get in the car. Hurry!!!!!"

I jump in the car and close the door, not knowing what to do next. I drive 15 feet from our parking spot to the entrance, and Lauren runs in to find out if it's a friendly pet or not. The desk clerk confirmed our suspicions that it was indeed wild, but assured us that we would not be eaten. But the behavior of the animal was so strange. If we turned our back on it, he would approach closer and closer as if he was going to pounce or try to take our grocery bags. Lauren and I backed slowly toward the front door, closing it behind us.

"You know, the wild dog reminded me of the dog in the animated film 'Lilo and Stitch,' says Lauren. "In the movie, the dog was actually an alien that the girl adopted from the pound. Maybe there are aliens here after all . . . or maybe it was the chupacabra."

It looks like we're going to have a good time here. The stranger the better.

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Monkey business

Gibraltar is the only place in all of Europe where you can find primates in the wild. Known as the Barbary Apes (a misnomer: they are macaques), the endangered animals nearly went extinct in the early 20th century. Today, nearly 300 primates live on the rock, and most of them gather around tourist sites hoping to catch an easy meal.

The best way to get to the top of the iconic rock is by cable car, which takes about 6 minutes. For roughly $20, a one-way ticket includes a self-guided multimedia walking tour and access to the major attractions on the way down to the town at the base.

As you step off the cable car, the monkeys await. A young boy eating a candy bar as he exited was stunned when a monkey charged at him, jumped on his back and stole the candy bar from his grasp just as he was about to take a bite. The boy was fine and was laughing about it, but it was still a shock to see it as it happened.

First lesson learned: Don't eat around the monkeys.

We spent the next few hours strolling from site to site, enjoying the monkeys along the way. Babies jumped from tree to tree or clutched their mothers; juveniles wrestled and clacked their teeth together and the older males napped on the rocks.

If the monkeys weren't cool enough, we went subterranean a few times, which provides respite from the sun and heat.

St. Michael's Cave, with its high ceiling dripping with stalgmites, was incredible. The first visitors to set foot inside were Neanderthals nearly 40,000 years before Christ. Later, the caverns were thought to be the Gates of Hades, the entrance to the underworld. In the 20th century, the caves were used by WW2 soldiers as an emergency hospital, and it serves as a concert hall to this day.

After all our walking, we stopped for a beverage at the eatery next to St. Michael's Cave. While Lauren ordered a passion fruit slush puppy for us to share, I watched the tourists taking pictures of the monkeys gathered outside. One woman was nervous, so I told her there was nothing to worry about unless she had food on her. Lauren came out and started telling the woman about the boy with the pilfered candy bar.

The words "They won't bother you, as long as you don't feed them" were still hanging in the air as a monkey lept from the roof onto Lauren's back. She shrieked and the frightened woman looked horrified as she watched the monkey try to snatch the slush puppy from her hand. Lauren didn't relinquish the drink, but some spilled on the ground and the monkey bent down to lap it up.

Meanwhile, another monkey swooped in and grabbed the styrofoam cup from behind, and finally Lauren let go. The monkeys had won, and we were still thirsty.

Second lesson learned: Don't drink around the monkeys.

We wandered off down the path again, laughing all the way. And by the way, I got it all on camera. Pictures to come....
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Monday, October 05, 2009

Four Countries / Four Days

Planes, trains, buses, ferries, grand taxis and subways. It's been a whirlwind of public transportation on two continents. Yes, the schedule has been quite ambitious for the first few days of this trip. However, a visit to southern Spain afforded us short jaunts to Gibraltar, which is owned by England, the Spanish enclave of Ceuta on the African coast, and the country of Morocco, just beyond Ceuta's border.

There is a saying that a Moroccan man told us: If you slow down, you'll catch the monkey, but if you go too fast, you'll kill it.

Four days is not enough time to really get to know a place or its people, but I've been here before and I wanted to give Lauren, my current travel companion, a taste of Morocco so she plans her own trip back.

"It was chaotic, yet it was fascinating," she says. "The cultural differences were astounding. The world is so small but so different. Morocco got my travel bug itching. I would like to go back."

From the souks of Morocco, we are heading to the Rock right now. Gibraltar is just across the strait from Morocco, but instead of figs and cous cous, we'll be eating fish and chips.

Whether we kill the monkey remains to be seen. The Barbary Apes await. Stay tuned to find out.

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Sunday, October 04, 2009

Likely Story

Excuse me, pardon me. Do you speak French. Or maybe German. Or Spanish. You English? Please let me show you special exhibition. Today only. I take you there. No problem.

The touts in Tetouan, Morocco, are relentless, especially since we seem to be the only tourists in this town. They say the want to practice their English, but they really want to take us to a carpet shop, so they can get a commission on whatever we buy.

Yesterday, we arrived with packs on our backs and we stuck out like a sore thumb. Our first priority was to find lodging, but the touts were trying to lead us elsewhere.

Now, after 24 hours, we can not only spot them coming, but we've managed to avoid them rather successfully. First sign that he's a tout, he seeks you out and speaks English very well. The second sign: he is missing teeth. He likes to tell you lies; anything to get you to follow him.

What business do you do? I'm a photographer. Oh, he says, come take picture of my home. Uh, no. No really, please come. I live just here.

Okay, I have to admit I was curious to see if he was for real. And of course he led us directly to a rug store. He said he was the owner, named Hassan, but there was no way.

He really pulled the rug over our eyes.

However, we started talking to a man in the store, who was likely the owner, and he seemed to know a lot about Ohio, including the area codes. And he said he'd been to Put-in-Bay. Interesting.

Anyway, we've wandered the souks of the medina, just enjoying the day-to-day activities. We'ved stopped at coffee shops and patisseries.

And soon we'll be going to Ceuta, the Spanish enclave on the African coast and returning to mainland Europe. The excursion to Morocco was respite from the Euro, and it paid off. We slept (or not, depending on whom you ask) for only $15, compared to nearly $50 anywhere in Spain.

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