And to all a good Night! Mom’s come down for the festivities and J’s made some non-traditional cabbage rolls and ham with scalloped potatoes for our Christmas feast. I hope you are all with friends, family and loved ones this season!
I was feeling nostalgic and reading my posts from my last trip and realized it’s all backwards, so here:
As we were about to leave Fatima this morning, another Trafalgar bus pulled up behind us and who should be in the front seat, but the tour guide Mom and I had on our last Trafalgar trip through Portugal – and not ten minutes later, the one we had in Spain appeared. What was fantastic is that they both remembered us and hugged us. I was really pleased and mom was just over the moon. Such nice people.
Our first stop is probably one of my most favourite places now: Batalha.
There was a battle regarding the succession to the throne when one of Portugal’s kings died without a male heir. The monastery was built to thank the Virgin Mary for the Portuguese victory over the Castilians in the battle of Aljubarrota in 1385, fulfilling a promise of King John I of Portugal – who from the history books seemed to be the bastard son of a previous king, one Pedro I. Regardless of it’s purpose, the place is both unfinished, and astonishing. Subsequent generations of the royal family added to, re-purposed and generally messed around with it’s floor plan until we have this intricate and beautiful building. (I had a really hard time paring down my photos for this entry.) When John and his wife Phillipa died they were depicted on their sarcophagus holding hands – they actually liked each other which is a peculiarity among alliance marriages. Among their children was Henry the Navigator who is also buried here.
After our visit to Batalha, we went on to Nazaré.
Nazaré is also on my list of favourite places.
It’s a fishing turned surfing town, so usually busy only in season, but so pretty and a destination I would have been sure to frequent had I been a Portuguese teenager. Mom and I had a pizza with a couple from Toronto, did a little souvenir shopping and then trekked down the sand to stick our feet in the surf.
Next stop on this beautiful day is Óbidos.
Óbidos is a medieval town – and by that I mean that the old town is still pretty much as it was back in medieval times. I do believe they have Ren fairs and such there – there are enough shops selling medieval and renaissance garb to make this true. Pedro had another little hidden treat for us here, which was a taste of the local liqueur: Ginjinha It’s served in little chocolate cups which you are obligated to eat afterwards. (oh, darn.) SO GOOD.
Óbidos was one of the few cities that belonged to what was called the Queen’s House, and therefore they paid their taxes to the Queen, rather than to the King – ostensibly to give the queen some spending money, but it seems like she spent it, and then some, on improving the cities themselves. Pedro told us where we could purchase a replica Queen’s happiness ring which sent a number of our ladies hurrying off to the little silver smith, but mom and I went exploring.
On our way from Óbidos to Lisbon, Pedro recapped our trip for us, which I thought was really nice. He handed out little gifts and there was much applause and praise and a little bit of singing, even though we hadn’t had as much wine as we had had at Casa Insua.
The evening marked our last with the group and our farewell dinner was at Flo, in Lisbon, which is where we went last time as well, There is a very artistic rendition of the zodiac on one wall inside is how I remember. We are handed champagne as we file inside and we are all a little bit sad that our tour is over. The food is fabulous and we exchange contact info and memories as we eat.
Thank you, Trafalgar for another fabulous tour.
iToday was a very busy day. We started off by visiting the Buçaco National Forest and it’s attendant palace. It seems the forest is the site of an important battle in 1810. There are trees in the forest from all over the world.
We didn’t get much time here, because we had other places to visit – one of them being Coimbra, a university town, known for it’s university and excellent library: the Biblioteca Joanina.
When we arrived in Coimbra, however Pedro made his usual speech about following him as quickly as we could – and once again we were presented with a regional treat, this one a custardy confection covered in pastry and powdered sugar. I love everything about the picture here, how he’s got one sweet in each hand and everyone’s smiling faces as he explains the treat’s origin and about the bakery he ordered them from. We were given time to have lunch – mom and I opted for bakery goods and some espresso before exploring the newer part of Coimbra.
It was an exceptionally hot day, and when we went up to the older part of the city where the University was situated I felt a little faint seeing some of the students in the traditional black robes – much like the ones the children in Harry Potter wear. It was the beginning of the year so there was a bit of hazing going on, as we experienced as some of the older students were prompting new recruits to do silly things in the square.
I was thrilled that we got to go inside the library this time. We were not permitted to take photos inside, but let me say that it’s exceedingly awesome. There are little circular staircases hidden in the corners for access to the upper floors, and each of he cabinets are locked. You are only permitted to take volumes from the library with special permission and can only use the special reading rooms in an effort to preserve the books, some of which are terribly old. Founded by King João V in the 18th C its full of intricate woodwork and gilt. As Pedro was lecturing about it, he paused and said “You may see things in here, just out of the corner of your eye, that might make you think that there was something wrong with your lunch. But this is not the case, there really is a family of bats living in here.” They live inside to help control the moths and other insects. They are permitted to come and go as they please and the little bit of bat guano seems to be a small price to pay or such natural pest control.
Our next stop was Conimbriga, which shares its name with Coimbra, the latter being the spot the Romans fled to when they left Conimbriga. Why they left seems to still be a bit of a mystery, but the ruins in Conimbriga are fascinating. They are some of the coolest I’ve sen by far, since the water system seems to be in perfect working order. They have done a little restoration work and for a coin you can turn the fountains on. These clever Romans used water to cool their villas, and the fountain system was at the centre of the house.
Many of the mosaics are still mostly intact and there are walk ways above so you can get a good look at them. This is only one part of the city that they’re slowly unearthing here and there is a little museum at the top of the hill. Very worth a day trip if you ever come out this way.
After this was a visit to Tomar, which features heavily in the history of the Templars. This is one of the neater fortresses I’ve been to, partly because my teenage self had a bit of a love affair with Templar history, but also because it was very obviously built over a series of years, added to, partly demolished and then altered by different occupants. One of these little additions was sort of hidden by a later one, a very intricate Manueline style window. It was also one of the places I could imagine people living. I find it harder in some of the places we’ve been because there are pieces of it missing, but not so here.
And buried in the centre of it all; this tiny, opulent little chapel, covered in gilt and intricate woodwork. I especially loved the inner square, it was tiled with just the tiniest slant, so any rainwater would drain into the central cistern. There was evidence of swallows nesting in the walk ways and window ledges.
Our next stop was the ever-strange-to-me Fatima. Now Fatima only exists because of a vision that three little shepherd children had of the virgin. The last time we were here, we visited the house that these little children had lived in, which has now been enshrined, for obvious reasons. Nowadays, Fatima is a religious centre to which people make pilgrimage. There are two churches, the older one, which is currently closed to the public for restoration, the central chapel, which was first erected in the time of the three children, which is now under glass – I kid you not. And then there is the modern one, which is actually quite spectacular – and not just because it is a church. It’s entirely self-sufficient as it makes use of solar energy to both light and produce electricity. What it does not use, is used for the town. It’s an engineering feat of some merit, I wouldn’t imagine and big is a very small word for it’s insides. There are walls that can come up to make the inside more intimate for smaller congregations, but they were all down when we went inside. It felt sort of like a lecture theatre except for the gaunt looking Jesus and the massive golden mural at the front.
Somehow I felt it was a tiny bit rude to take photos inside, or of the pilgrims walking on their knees to the central chapel. I suppose this place is odd to me because I was not raised to be religious and I can’t feel the same wonder that others obviously did.
Tonight is dinner in the hotel, and then off towards Lisbon again with some interesting stops in between.
Today is what we started to refer to as a driving day. We left Evora early, and Pedro entertained us with little bits of history, some little info booklets he made up about Portuguese dogs, harvesting cork, megaliths, wine and bullfighting. João made a stop along the highway so that we could get a close up look at some cork trees and a not so close look at some cattle.
Apparently the pigs are not the only creatures who like the acorns. You can see in this picture how the trunks are dark. That is where the bark – the actual cork has been peeled off. They will paint a number on it in white to indicate the year that was done because they can only harvest every 10-12 years.
We also drove past a marble quarry – where we stopped the last time we were if, If I recall correctly. It seems that part of Castelo de Vide (Castle of the big Vine) had made use of said quarry for paving proposes. We are travelling through the Alentejo: beyond the river Tejus which is mountainous and fertile, as is evidenced by the acres and acres of farmland.
In Castelo de Vide, which is a settlement established before the decision was made to build a fortress. If we had more time we would have sought out both the 14th century walls and the 17th century ones.
Pedro surprised us yet again with another bakery treat: this one called Boleima, a sugary, apple-y confection between pieces of sugared and unleavened bread. Then he set us loose to explore.
This place feels like a sleepy little town. When I looked up the info on it later I find that the population is quite small for so many buildings which is why this is probably so.
I love the tiles on this little building. Judging by the numbers on the doorways I imagine that there’s ann upper and a lower dwelling inside.
Then we drove some more and stopped to see a roman building at Belmonte. This is a curious sort of ruin, as no one was entirely certain what it was for the longest time. I did find a new article about the tower here. Sadly I was far too busy gawking to actully get a good photo of it, but I will share the one I did get:
I especially like the little red fence and the sign outside. I imagine that in former times the stones from the villa were carted off to build other things, which is all the more amazing that this one tower is still reasonably intact.
Our highlight tonight is the optional dinner at La Casa Insua. The manor house has been converted into a hotel, but the surrounding vineyards and farmland are still in use. The garden is maintained and it’s possibly one of the more beautiful historical little pockets we had the pleasure of seeing. During the age of discoveries, it was the thing to do to have gardens with as many species of foreign plants they could have. One of the trees in Insua’s garden is an enormous Douglas fir.
The mean was a food an wine pairing, which consisted of seven courses, with seven different wines. So tasty. I was so into the meal and the conversation that I did not take pictures of each course as I had intended, but I did grab one of dessert:
I was up before our wake-up call to shower and pack so that the porters could take our suitcases down to the coach while we ate breakfast. I always set my alarm for before the wake up call because I hate being jarred out of sleep by the blaring phone noise or mom’s travel clock. We leave by 8, for a drive through acres and acres of fields, some cultivated with olives, cork trees or umbrella pines (for pine nuts). Some had no trees, and as s result, the bushes had taken over and had grown nearly tree-sized oregano, rosemary and Bay bushes.
Our first stop was in Setúbal which is on the other side of the Arrábida Mountains at the mouth of the Sado River which is one of only two places in the world (the other estuary being the Shannon) where grey dolphins live. We did not see any dolphins, but it was really pretty driving down into the city. It was foggy in the mountains so we could not see down into the valley; it was like driving next to a sea of cloud. (João had to honk now and then to scare foxes off the road – or to warn oncoming traffic that he was coming since the roads were so narrow and twisty.)
In Setúbal we went to the market, where local farmers and fishermen sell their wares. I took so many pictures inside, but so many feature the backs of my tour family’s heads so I can only share one here. (The only thing I didn’t take a photo of was the meat section where the rabbits still had their eyes in…) However I will note that the inside of this market is tiled in the iconic blue and white painted tile or Portuguese buildings. So pretty. It was apparent that this little city owed its existence to the port – and to the sardine, since there was fountain in the middle of the central park that featured three sardines.
Mom and I bought a pair of Fuji apples here that tasted like they had been picked from the tree the day before. Then we drove for a while more and then stopped at a rest stop where I bought something to drink and enjoyed the cool breeze.
One of the wonderful things about taking a Trafalgar tour is that they have these beautiful ‘Be my Guest’ meals. Today we had one at a place called Monte Negro, where they raise Lusitano horses which were used for war and now only for dressage and bullfighting. We were treated to a demonstration of the horses and to a home-style meal in the ranch house. It seems that the horses are essentially left to be horses until they are three years old, when their training starts. The mares are never broken and trained, just left to roam the 200 acres and produce foals. We were shown three yearlings who were still a bit skittish around people and just did laps around the ring. Then there was a three year old who had just started his training who knew he was being admired. He leaped and frolicked and rolled in the dirt for us. He was very nearly white with blue eyes, a shade they called Isabel. The last was a stud called Verse, and the woman who owned and ran the place rode him around the ring to show off his paces. His neck arched beautifully and he seemed to know he was on display.
The other horses were so fast, all my photos are a mere blur. The resident dog, a Portuguese Mastiff named Madrid, made friends with everyone who came in, even my mother who isn’t really a dog fan. He was quite lovely and probably would have been happy to lie under the table while we ate. Pedro is obviously a dog fan and he spoke about them at length on several occasions. Apparently president Obama has a Portuguese Water dog. I loved his enthusiasm.
Then we drove through some more beautiful countryside to our golf resort hotel in Vilamoura; the Pestana Vila Sol. I link it because it was a beautiful resort. The last time we were here, it was spring and we were lulled to sleep by the song of a thousand frogs. We had a little time to freshen up before we went to dinner in the Marina. We went to this little place that served the traditional Cataplana, which is a seafood stew. Mom and I recalled that it seemed to consist mainly of fish and shellfish still in the shell, so we opted for the sea bass option this time, which was in no way disappointing. It was sp perfectly done I could just lift out the spine and the bones. Afterwards was an almond dessert and an almond liqueur that was served with a tiny wedge of lemon. It was so refreshing that I wanted to finish it off, but it was also extraordinarily sweet. Afterwards, we were given an hour and a half to explore the Marina and surrounds, which was just coming alive with the night life.
After Breakfast, we headed out on a guided coach tour of greater Lisbon. I think the local guide we had this time was the same woman we had before; a fiery little dark-haired woman called Ju. We took quite a different route than the night before – and I tell you I am so glad we are taking a tour because driving here would be quite an adventure for me – possibly of heart attack proportions. João however, seems totally unruffled at the shocking way some of these little cars seem to dart in front of this massive tour bus.
Anyway, it was really interesting to see some of the parts Mom and I had walked through, essentially from above, since we are so much higher up in the tour bus. Construction in Lisbon is limited by the fact that they have to keep the facades (much like they do here of heritage buildings) in order to maintain the esthetic look that keeps the tourists coming back. To that end, from the street you can’t see much because the site is always hidden behind drop cloths of a sort. From the bus though, one could see right inside. I must say I have never seen such a tiny backhoe before – though I suppose in such narrow spaces it’s necessary to have.
Lisbon is a city of poets. I say this because the people have a romantic view of their land and I can’t blame them – there is so much history in it. Ju told us about the seven hills that make up Lisbon that surround the Baixa and how the Castelo at the top had been a fortress for as long as there have been people living in the area. The name Lisbon/Lisboa is said to come from either a Phoenician word meaning ‘quiet bay’ or from the name Ulysses:(Latin Ulyssippo) and/or Roman Olissipona, for the name of the Tagus river. Romans, Greeks, Arabs all lived in the area until it was conquered by the first king of Portugal in 1147.(Afonso Henriques I think, but don’t quote me.)
Our first stop was at Belem, which is a tower that used to be situated in the center of the river, but over time and because of the earthquakes the region has experienced, the river has silted up and changed positions. They have built a little ramp that goes inside the little tower but we didn’t go inside, choosing instead to inspect the beach and the decorative stonework on its outside.
Ju talks a lot about the Age of Discoveries, which spans the 15th to the 18th centuries and is characterized by all the travelling and exploring done by the Portuguese navy. This tower at Belem was built during this era as part of a defense system and as a ceremonial entrance to Lisbon. Belem, and the monastery nearby, the Jerónimos Monastery are decorated in the Manueline style: which is essentially nautical in theme – and very intricate. One of the key features is the appearance of little flower-like pieces which represent the artichokes the sailors used to prevent scurvy on long journeys.
Ju then showed us the Monument to the Discoveries, which is sitting at the current riverside. This monument was built in the 60’s and depicts all the people involved – both physically and symbolically – in the Age of Discoveries. Henry the Navigator is at the top, his Brother (Edward?), a priest, a poet and two men bearing a pole with the arms of Portugal, among many others.
In front of the monument was a map made of marble that showed all the places Portugal had influence during the Age of Discoveries. Our guide gave a French guide crap for letting his group stand right on the map so we could not see it while we clustered around the edge like school children and she asked us all where we were from and pointed out how Portugal had some influence on our history. I did not get a picture this time because of that, but there were sea monsters and mermaids around the outside, and some symbolic images of the winds. Very pretty.
We went into the monastery which was extraordinarily spacious. Apparently the monastery had been occupied by the military religious Order of Christ who were to assist seafarer’s in transit. Henry the Navigator was Grand Master of this order. This is the place that Vasco da Gama prayed the night before setting off on his global adventures. Vasco da Gama is also buried here, as is Camões, Portugal’s epic poet. The tombs of the Kings buried here rest on the backs of marble elephants, these two rested on the backs of lions. See how it is decorated with ropes and knots and wheels? Very cool.
When we came out, Pedro had been to a nearby bakery – apparently the only bakery that has the correct recipe for something called a Belem Tart. In order to make money later on in the monastery’s life, the monks took to baking and selling desserts – often for which they became famous. This is one of those desserts and omg… so delicious. They were still warm from the oven and consisted of a very particular custard-type filling in a crisp little pastry cup. There are shops in Lisbon that also sell “Belem tarts’ but none are like this, which are made here in the municipal region of Belem.
After this some of our number went back to the hotel, but the rest of us stayed on for the optional excursion to Sintra. We drove up the coast of Estoril, which is by turns Atlantic and rock and sometimes dune-y. We had lunch in the beautiful little fishing village of Cascais (pronounced Cash-kaish). We ate ice cream in Santini’s, which is said to have served ice cream to Royalty, both in exile and not. During WWII, Portugal was neutral so many royal families escaped to Cascais for the duration. There are photos on the wall of the famous people who have eaten there. I had a coconut milkshake and mom and one called Wild fruit. So very tasty.
After this we took a scenic drive up the mountain to Sintra, said to be named after the Greek Moon Goddess, Cyntia (An alternate name for Artemis/Selene) . The King built a summer palace in the area to take advantage of the hunting there and a town sprang up around it. We went into the palace and through all the intricately decorated rooms. I did not take as many pictures as I should have because I was just blown away by how much stuff there was to look at on the walls and the ceilings. One ceiling was covered in swans and another a pattern of magpies and Ju told a story about how the King had been seen to kiss a lady that was not the Queen and how all the ladies gossiped and so he had the ceiling commissioned. There was more to that, and I shall have to look it up. Mom and I then explored the narrow streets and again mom was drawn up the one street that lead to the top of the mountain and the fortress wall – the same wall that her grandparents had taken a photo from on their honeymoon.
Then we headed back to Lisbon for our second optional of the tour: a Fado night. Our driver dropped us off at the viewpoint in the Barrio Alto and then we had the fortune to have a look inside a little church nearby where everything inside had been made and then consecrated in Rome and then shipped to Lisbon – that’s every block of marble, gold leaf and painting. It’s apparently a museum now, but it would be a bit astonishing to have gone to church there I think. Then we walked through some of the more twisty streets to the Fado district and went into one of the Fado restaurants for dinner. The food was lovely and the singing tugged at our heartstrings yet again.