Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Some new pictures added to the most recent post!

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Early on we were told that Week 44 was a school vacation week, so we decided to take this opportunity to go on a family vacation. The local travel agencies have many standard packages for vacations from Sweden to Thailand, Kenya, China and more – Swedes are serious vacation-package travelers, which is why this otherwise sustainable country has such a big environmental footprint – but we decided to roll our own package to Portugal. (Portugal is considered to be too cold to be a Week 44 spot, although there are Swedish vacation packages to the Portuguese Azores.)

After learning to fasten our seatbelts and put our tray tables in the upright and locked position in English, Danish, Dutch and Portuguese, we finally we arrived in Lisbon. (Cathy had just returned from Oslo the night before, so she tried to recite it in Norwegian, too.) The car rental company called our mobile phone while we were awaiting our baggage at the Lisbon airport, and told us to meet a white Opel at the curb in front for keys to our first car in Europe (except for our forays to IKEA). We signed papers on the hood, and off we went, joining the notoriously aggressive Portuguese drivers, north to Nazaré, to a B&B that Cathy tracked down.

We had planned to travel around Portugal a lot, since it’s a small county, but we ended up traveling much less than we expected because we didn’t like how people drove and the kids got really bored in the car. Our B&B hosts had lived in Canada, and we hoped they could help us learn about the country and places to go since we didn’t have the rest of our trip planned. Their place, Quinta das Rosas, was wonderful, with a vista of the Atlantic and of the main beachfront town from our bedrooms’ balcony. The kids were happy because they got their own room. (OK, we were happy, too.) The B&B had a large property with a menagerie of farm animals that Akiva helped to feed including chickens, ducks, a goose (soon to be joined intermittently by a gander), a dog, a donkey, peacocks and probably more critters we didn’t meet.

Breakfasts were lovely, served in a sun-drenched dining room, setting a standard not met later in the trip: fresh bread, local cheese, cocoa, coffee, fresh juice from the B&B’s own trees, eggs from their chickens, persimmons from a friend’s grove, etc. (We are glad we told them we don’t eat meat, especially since we got to be good friends with the donkey.)

The B&B house, an elegant three-story villa, was built by the hostess’ father by hand about 20 years ago. He had a little help with things like pouring the foundation, but he did essentially everything including beautiful cabinetry, wood stairs, and the ceramic tiling himself.

David spent time with Evangelino, the man responsible for the B&B construction, while Cathy and the kids went body surfing. When he was 28, Evangelino left Nazaré for Canada to work as a carpenter. Several years later, his family joined him. In the early 1980's, he returned to Nazaré to "retire." Except that he built the house. And he picked up his saxophone again and rejoined some friends in a band that competed in some European festivals. And he knows everybody in Nazaré (still or maybe again). He took us all back to his apartment and showed us pictures of Nazaré from years ago (his father had designed and built many of the buildings in town). Among the more fascinating pictures were those showing fishing boats crowding the bay and townspeople dragging the boats to the plaza at night – it’s no wonder the local people look so sturdy! Now, there are few boats or fish left in the bay and most people make their living in the tourism industry.

Sitting and drinking coffee in the plaza let us see some reminders of the U.S. A huge Cadillac with Alaska license plates drove by – we kid you not! Evangelino said that the fellow brought in three or four similar road hogs from Alaska, but we couldn't figure out why, especially since our little Opel could hardly fit through many of the streets in town. Also, just like teens "cruise main" in some towns, some folks just circled around Nazaré endlessly. Of course, with the narrow streets and the crowds, they probably averaged about two kilometers an hour. And don't even think of the gas they were burning.

Our first night we ate dinner at a marina, sitting outside on the dock with local wine, fresh orange juice, and sangria until the fish restaurant opened at 7PM. We enjoyed the sunset and ordered “the fresh fish” (the owner’s English was fine, but all he could tell us was “it’s the fresh fish”). The next night we went to a fish restaurant that Evangelino recommended – he must have really liked this restaurant, since he showed up with his friends later in the evening. Again, the restaurant didn’t open until 7PM, so we wandered around the plaza, had some coffee, and watched a group of visiting nuns gather in the setting sun for a picture in front of the cathedral on top of the hill. A few minutes after we sat down for dinner, a couple of fishermen with a cooler walked into the restaurant. We could see into the kitchen and watched the unloading of “the fresh fish”. Soon after, the waiter introduced us to our dinner, which was then taken outside and grilled on a wood fire by a stone-faced woman.

During our first day in Nazaré we went to the beach. The water was a bit chilly but there were nice waves for body surfing, and the warm, rice-grained-size sand was perfect to cover Akiva. We also snuck looks a sunbathing man with the biggest nose we have ever seen; seriously, if George Bush had a schnoz that grew like Pinocchio's, it still wouldn't be noticeable next to this guy. Since it was a Sunday, the beach had a large number of families. In the summer apparently the beach is so crowded you literally need to rent a spot.

Cathy and Emma did a bit of shopping too. It turns out Portugal is the shoe capital of Europe (it is also the cork capital, but we already have enough cork). All of the shoes are designed for small southern European women and big German, Scandinavian and American feet are out of luck. Emma was happy since she her feet fit into the largest Portuguese shoes (European size 39).

The next morning we followed our B&B hosts to Alcobaça where they go to a fresh produce market. We stayed a while at the market admiring the cabbage and the sturdy Portuguese farmers, wondering what they did with the scads of massive cabbages for sale (since we didn't eat cabbage even once during the trip). We then walked over a small river bridge to the church in Alcobaça, the biggest church in Portugal. It was a truly enormous stone edifice with clean elegant soaring arches that probably have very special names that we never learned, but it was a beautiful, airy building. What impressed us most however was the portable street cleaner in front of the church called the “Glutton”. We were looking for the Lust, Greed, and Sloth machines.

That day we also went to Caldas da Rainha which had been a spa town (no more alas) but that was now famous for pottery made to resemble fruits and vegetables – including more cabbages! Cathy and Emma picked out some cabbage plates in the gallery of Bordalo Pinheiro, while David and Akiva had lunch in the park across the street from the pottery studio on a picnic table inlaid with porcelain chess tiles.

We also drove a little further on to the walled city of Óbidos. Portugal is filled with ancient walled cities atop high hills, built to repel waves of Roman, Moorish, and Spanish invaders. Óbidos is particularly well preserved and it is possible to climb the wall, 30 or more feet above the ground, and stare though the parapets as you traverse a three-foot wide stone wall around the old city. Emma and Cathy are sure-footed as mountain goats but Akiva takes after David, and was more comfortable holding Cathy’s hand at the highest, narrowest spots, while David made sure everything was working well on the ground by ordering another cup of coffee. David should have considered a hot chocolate since Óbidos was putting up tents and banners in preparation for the Nestlé European International Chocolate Fair the following week – we could have gone if we had taken our trip in Week 45.

We extended our stay in Nazaré for one night – Emma wanted to stay the whole week, and we were all sympathetic! On our last night, Cathy and David left Emma and Akiva at the B&B to enjoy their favorite meal of junk food and TV. As good as the fresh fish was, we went looking for something different for dinner in Nazaré. We decided we wanted to find pasta, but the first 10 restaurants or so had identical menus: sardines, grilled fish, hamburger, and Southeast Asian shellfish (shrimp, mussels, and crabs are almost entirely imported to Portugal). Not a strand of pasta to be found – “Houston, we’re not in Italy anymore.” Finally, in a dark and narrow street, we found a take-out pizza place with a couple of tables. It was the best we could do. Cathy wanted a pizza with black olives and mushrooms, but could only get black olives and onions (please hold the tuna, which came with the olives and onions). It was a lovely evening, topped off by some pastries and coffee (where we met Evangelino one more time).

The next morning we set off inland and east towards the town of Tomar, and planned stops at caves and at Fatima. Portugal, at least the parts of it we saw, is rocky and mountainous. There are apparently many caves dotted throughout the country. The caves we went to were discovered in the 1940s and developed for tourism, with stairs, handrails, lights, an emergency telephone system, and an elevator. The parking lot looked as if it could hold a lot of tour buses, but we were the only people escorted through the caves by a young man who only spoke Portuguese. We went to the bottom of one enormous cavern – looking up it was larger than the largest church in Portugal, and then we looked down into unseen and still dark depths. As we left the first cavern and continued to descend, the guide turned off the lights behind us and lit the new rock formations, dripping with constant slick water, pooled into plazas and ever more amazing shapes. The guide pointed to the rock formations and told us Portuguese names that were supposed to be “organ pipes”, “squid”, or “dried linguini” but basically they were all amazing. In all, we descended 683 steps, about as much 30-story office building. The week before, the final cavern had been completely flooded, cutting off the elevator and the tours. The elevator took us back up to ground level, leaving us about a quarter mile from our entry point. We blinked in the sunlight, walked back to the car and hustled off to Fatima.

Cathy likes to find places a little off the beaten path – and although both the caves and Fatima had huge parking lots they were empty at this time of year. Fatima is extremely busy on August 13 and October 13. On those dates in 1917, three peasant children saw the Virgin Mary and heard about the future of the earth. Some people decided that a visit to Fatima could heal body, mind, and spirit, particularly on the relevant dates, and a cult dedicated to this sighting and later miracles eventually shaped the town and its football-stadium sized church plaza, built to hold the worshipers. We parked a few blocks from the main church and walked past countless stores selling countless statuettes of saints, the holy family, and the children who saw the miracle. Stores also sold six-foot long candles and plastic body pieces – ears, arms, breasts, etc. – both presumably to be carried as believers went to be healed. In the giant church plaza there was a huge roped-off area for a confessional with wheelchair access and a sign which we made Akiva read that said “Silençio” in large letters.

In Tomar we visited the oldest medieval Jewish synagogue in Portugal. It was closed and turned into a storehouse during the Inquisition, but has been restored as a museum. The once thriving Jewish community in Tomar now has only two Jewish families in town; the guide was from one of those families. It's a Sephardic style synagogue, with an eclectic assortment of Judaica donated from around the world, including a tallit from New York, a torah from California, a challah cover from Florida, and more.

There was a river running through Tomar, and we stayed in a hotel right in the center of the city, indeed in the middle of a park surrounded by a moat (with one small bridge to enter the park). We had a lovely Chinese take-out dinner and yet another excellent bottle of wine sitting on our balcony, looking out over the park. That evening we saw a raucous and long parade of teenagers dressed in odd costumes, chanting and singing "When the Saints Go Marching In." It was Halloween, and we were pretty sure that it was something to do with All Saints' Day on November 1, but it turned out to be a hazing ritual for the freshman from the local university. Stores closed on All Saints' Day, a national holiday, and we saw amazing flowers at a cemetery in Fatima, but less in Tomar. It is not unusual for people to stay overnight in the cemetery on All Saints' Day to honor their ancestors.

Cathy found out that there were some famous spas a bit north of Tomar, so we headed off to Luso. The hotel we called said the spa was closed that day, but would be open the following day, so we reserved a room, used the swimming pool, ate on the balcony, saw a funeral procession, listened to recorded church bells (which made us homesick for the church bells in Lund), and awaited Cathy’s day in the spa. That night, Cathy and David walked through the tiny town of Luso and came up a public water source. There were a dozen or so spigots, and we watched for nearly an hour as families, couples, and individuals brought empty containers to fill from the apparently very special Luso water. Some took gallons and gallons and gallons.

The next morning, Cathy happily went to the spa, but it was closed. In fact it was closed for the winter. Why did the hotel staff say it was open? Well, we hope it wasn’t just to get our business for a night, but at the same time, there wasn’t much of a language barrier in this case. We decided to hit the swimming pool once more, but there was no sign of Emma’s swimsuit, which we had left to dry on the balcony. Hmmm, there was a big wind the night before. We talked to the staff since there were balconies below ours. We don’t know quite how, but Emma’s swimsuit mysteriously ended up back on our balcony at some point.

Upon finding the spa was closed, everybody – the spa staff (there behind closed doors cleaning or the winter), the tourist bureau, the hotel staff – said that we could try Curia, a nearby spa town that didn’t close in winter. They thought. All they could really tell us was the route to Curia, which was apparent in any case. At Curia, Cathy got a computerized-electronic hot water massage (because other activities were booked for days ahead), and the whole place felt more like a hospital than a spa. Oh well, Cathy misses the Korean spa near Seattle, to say nothing of the Japanese onsen we learned to love.

We spent our final two days in and around Lisbon but we’ll just need to tell you about our adventures there in person. Our flight back home to cold, wet Sweden (where we missed the first snow) was uneventful. Akiva and David made sure to make a pit stop again in the Amsterdam airport where all of the urinals have porcelain flies in the bowl for target practice (we have it on video!). May you hit every target you aim for.