Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Follow the Green Dot –– Walking In Alentejo –- October 31 - November 9, 2017

It's been a long time since our last post and we've been very busy so there's a lot to catch up on. The ultra-condensed version is: 

  • California (family / friends); 
  • five weeks in Ontario, Canada (thanks Brenda! / family / friends / Bryce became an official senior citizen); 
  • California (thanks Ken and Claudia and Frank and Irene / Bryce had a second cataract blasted out / Molly had her last pre-senior citizen birthday / lots of friends); 
  • a few days in London, England (theater!); and 
  • six weeks in Portugal. 

A less condensed version of some of this is planned, and here's our start:  

Greetings from Cascais, Portugal where we are hanging out in a nice apartment, doing laundry, dining “at home” and generally resting up from our Portuguese travels which we launched in early October. While we enjoy the off-season calm of this famous beach resort and have had lots of interesting experiences before we arrived here, we’re going to humor ourselves and blog first about what we did most recently:

We walked.

We walked for 65+/- kilometers (40+/- miles) over six days through beautiful countryside and lovely villages following routes planned by a company appropriately called Portugal Walks. We observed rural Portugal on a very human scale while the company arranged for the transfer of our luggage between three very different but comfortable and charming accommodations. And in the evenings we consumed even more rich Alentejo food and wine than our walking justified.

This walking tour was inspired by our walk along the coast of Catalunya last year which we enjoyed very much. If one’s feet (and hips and knees, etc.) are up to it, walking is a wonderful way to experience a place and we hope to do it again in other countries. 

We, The Green Dot

In addition to the daily route maps and walking directions we expected, based on our walk in Catalunya, Portugal Walks equipped us with GPS tracks to download via an application on our cellphones called GPX Viewer. Once downloaded the tracks were usable even without cell or data connection. All we had to do was keep the green dot (representing us) headed toward the next “flag” (representing the next route change or point of interest). This new-to-us technology became very important because, after our first day’s trail walk, we alternated between walking farm roads

and crossing almost trackless farm fields. It turns out that, to the unschooled eye, one cork tree can look a lot like another.

We spent a lot of time pausing to let the green dot (the electronic us) find its place on the electronic map and then figuring out where to go from there -- it was similar to hitting the “find ship” button when tracking waypoints on Abracadabra’s moving map display. Occasionally we found that we had veered off the track or some farmer (the nerve) had put a new fence between GPS waypoints and blocked our path. We would huddle and compare the electronic data to the handy old-school paper maps and improvise. Bryce alternated between an elevated state of frustration and geeky map-guy bliss.

When we reached our goal at the end of each day we were tired and foot-sore -- but feeling very clever!

Neolithic Sites

The most unique thing about a walk in Portugal’s Alentejo region


is that the area near the town of Évora is practically littered with Neolithic (pre-Bronze Age / pre-1700 BCE) monuments.

On our second walking day we visited the Zambujeiro Dolmen which was built around 3000 BCE. [Archaeological factoid: A dolmen is a tomb structure formed by standing stones capped by a horizontal stone.] The Zambujeiro Dolmen is unusually large and is believed to have been the burial place for some very important Neolithic types.

3,000 BCE -- Hey, Kids, Let's
Build A Big Tomb For The Head Guy! 

It's All About Leverage

We Are Told This Was On Top of The Standing Rocks --
It Was Blasted Off By Explosives In The  1960's

Perspective: Our Model i= 6'2"

We also saw several Menhirs – freestanding stones from the Neolithic period. Though some internet information suggests that archaeologists aren’t sure of the purpose of these stones (religious, community gathering place – ?) our second thought upon seeing our first menhir (after the initial “Holy cow how did they get that here and then stand it up?”) was “well, uhm -- we have a pretty good guess what those Neolithic folks were worshiping there . . . .”

Menir of Almendres

Three of the menhirs we saw can be found on tourist maps and the Almendres menhir had quite a few visitors when we were there. But our favorite menhir -- at Barrocal – is not well marked at all. We found it at the edge of what seemed to be an abandoned housing development, standing to the side of a large area that included crumbling curbs and streets and large electrical boxes and conduits. Apparently having a neighborhood menhir was not a big selling point  . . . .

The Menir Down The Street

The most complex Neolithic site we saw was the Cromlech of Almendres, a series of over 90 free-standing stones in a pattern which clearly meant something important to someone about 5,000 years ago. We have read that two of the stones create a range which points to the sunrise on Winter solstice. Some of the stones still bear carvings.

Cromlech of Almendres

Standing Stone With Circular Carvings
(And Water On Camera Lens . . . )

Cromlech of Almendres

Unfortunately as we approached the cromlech site it began to pour rain. Shortly we were alone except for two other lunatics (who had at least thought to bring an umbrella) and had the soggy privilege of an almost private walk among the stones. We pondered the amount of community commitment and physical effort it must have taken to create such a place at that time. And thought how hard it will be to put up with the selfie-taking crowds at Stonehenge if we get there . . .

The other cromlech on our route, the Cromlech of Xerez, was drier and totally unoccupied, but ever so much less impressive. The information at the site explains the center Menir was found and placed there in order to protect the stone, and the other standing stones were moved to the site and placed around the menir in a square pattern because, well – that’s how the guy in charge decided to do it. The square pattern doesn’t correspond to any Neolithic design. In essence, Xerez isn’t so much a cromlech as a collection of random Neolithic standing stones.

Cromlech of Xerez -- Tidy But Inauthentic

“Recent” History
On our third hiking day the route took us to the medieval Castle of Valongo notable because it was not originally built by the Moors, nor was it surrounded by a village. Our personal memory of the castle is that we arrived during a rain so hard it flooded the pocket of Molly’s jacket and temporarily disabled her cellphone (see above re: the phone’s important GPS feature).

Storming the Castle - Literally
(Rain Jacket Over Pack)
Lesson 1: Put Phone In Plastic Bag
Lesson 2: Don't Wear Jeans In The Rain

On another, drier walk, we were routed to an interesting medieval water feature with a carved Latin message which, according to the English translation posted nearby, assured us that if we blessed our face and breast with the water there we would have nothing to fear from the "treachery of lemures" (spirits of the dead) or "false apparitions".

Bryce Watching For Treacherous Lemures

Molly Looking Out For False Apparitions 

Sadly for us, the fountain was dry . . . . 

Our first walk was along a path following a very impressive “water feature”, the Aqueduto de Agua Prata (the Silver Water Aqueduct) which was originally built in the 16th century (though most of what one can see now is from the 19th century reconstruction) and is still in use today.

The Aqueduct Path

The most interesting parts of the aqueduct for us were the “visitors boxes” – repair access and aeration ports.

Visitor's Box
Alentejo is a farming area so we walked through and by lots of farms, farmers and farm animals. We saw cork trees, marked to show the date of the most recent harvest, some showing signs of multiple harvests.

Pre-2017 Cut

Cork trees are first harvested about 20 years after planting and can be re-harvested every 9 years on average. They live for 150 to 200 years. Stockholders should be informed that cork is a long-term investment.

We also saw hectares of olive trees (necessary to provide the bushels of delicious olives we have been eating!) and passed beside several orchards at harvest. We had read that the "old school" way of harvesting, which involved beating branches with a rod until the olives dropped, was harmful to the trees and that new harvest methods had been adopted. And then we saw the new method in use:

Olive Harvest - The New Technology 
Looks And Sounds Like A Tree Vibrator

Of course we also saw lots of farm animals – some quite curious about us

Bryce's Buddy
(Too Young To Be A Good Snarling Dog)

Well, Helllo There

. . . others not so much.

Pay No Attention And They Will Leave Us Alone

Unlike our walk in Catalunya, which was primarily a continuous path (on most days we would leave our accommodation and walk to our next), this walk was six distinct routes, some which started from or ended at our accommodation and others which required coordinating a drop off and/or pick up with a driver. This difference meant we missed the sense of accomplishment that we had from walking a continuous distance in Catalunya (“we walked from here to there . . . “), but we enjoyed not having to pack our bags every morning and it made it easier to “cheat” on one rainy day.

Our first three nights were at the Monte do Serrado de Baixo which, for our cyclist friends, is the base for Portugal Best Cycling. It is also a lovely and comfortable guest house, offering delicious, hearty food. We don’t often include pictures of food, but how could we not take a picture of the quail eggs and squid salad appetizers?

The staff at the farm is very charming as is Pipoca (Portuguese for Popcorn), the dog. Pipoca insisted on accompanying us for a portion of our first walk and after awhile we realized that she was “protecting” us from the neighborhood dogs (which were safely barking and snarling behind fences). Pipoca put on quite a show of barking and snarling back and running along the fences. If we took too long looking at the map or reading the tour notes about the aqueduct Pipoca would herd us on.

C'mon You Guys!

[Side Note About Farm Dogs: Alentejo may not be the best place to walk for someone truly frightened of dogs. Farms have dogs -- working dogs whose job it is to keep animal and human predators away from the expensive animals, crops and equipment. Some of the chained dogs looked  scary, but our experience was that the free-range dogs were only interested in fulfilling their duty statements (See stranger:(a) Bark, (b) Snarl). They would snarl and bark but not approach closer than the edge of “their” property. We kept to the road or trail and would greet them in our best non-threatening voices, “Good job there, dog! You are protecting your farm – good dog! We will tell your farmer that you are a very good dog and won’t come near your farm!”. And we didn’t.]

Our second accommodation was Convento de São Paulo, a former convent (with a 15th century beginning) which is now a very lovely (if a bit worn around the edges) hotel. The Convento looks like it might be jammed with bus tours in the high season (two pools, two bars, a huge breakfast room and dining room) but on an off-season Friday night we encountered only one other couple at dinner. On Saturday night the restaurant was full of small groups, many Spanish, on driving tours of Alentejo.

Molly’s favorite part of the Convento was the big fluffy white robe which greeted her after walking in the rain to Castle Valongo. Nothing better than a hot shower and fluffy robe after a walk in the rain!

The convent was also our place of refuge on the following day. Our planned walk was a circular one starting from and returning to the hotel. It looked like more rain. Our clothes were soaked. Really, who would know? We slept in, ate our packed picnic lunch in the bar and spent the rest of the day wandering the halls of the convent and enjoying the 18th century tile work.

Joseph as a Weary Backpacker -
We Related

Yeoooow! [What Is This?!]

Our last two trek nights were in the beautiful medieval hilltop village of Monsaraz - lovely, even if "hilltop" is not exactly what one wants to hear at mile 35-ish . . . 

Keep Climbing - You Can't Miss It

We stayed in Casa Pinto, a converted townhouse decorated in High Raj décor (water tinkling in the background and lots of incense) -- a bit uncomfortable given that Portugal controlled several areas of India which they didn’t give up until forced to in 1961. Bryce sneezed a lot (see above re: incense) and kept banging his head on the very short doorway between the bedroom and bathroom. But the views were lovely and breakfast was great.

Monsaraz is small and charming and while it looks like it may be gruesome in high bus-tour season we enjoyed our time there very much. The castle ruins offer very nice views. 

There are a couple of churches and two little museums to visit. The museums are not very accessible to non-Portuguese speakers and the churches prohibit picture taking. Everybody closes at 13.00 for lunch - no negotiating.

Kindness of A Stranger

Our favorite Monsaraz-related experience was our last walk of the tour. We decided that the previous day’s climb up the hill to town had been enough climbing and that, rather than take the entire circular route laid out for us we would walk down to the valley, take the portion of the route with the most interesting sites (8-ish kilometers / 5+ miles), have lunch as we passed through in the village of Outeiro at the café prominently marked on our map and, in the subsequent village of Barrada call a taxi for a ride back to Monsaraz (we have purchased a Portuguese sim card for one phone and had been given the number for a taxi company). Perfect plan.

Problematic execution.

The walk down the hill was lovely. We stopped in Férraguda for coffee. More pleasant walking. Then things began to go a little off the rails. In Outeiro we found only one closed café and one where we were told, with great regret, “não, não cozinha” (no, no kitchen). Coffee, beer and packaged snacks. Hmmmm. We sat on a nearby bus-stop bench and ate our hiking snack (apples and Kellogg's cereal bars) supplemented by potato chips and some weird Cheetos shaped like soccer balls we had purchased at the não, não cozinha café. 

More pleasant walking and then at our planned final destination – the village of Barrada - our plan really began to unravel. The one café in town was closed; the taxi company phone number we had been given didn’t work; and the bus to Monsaraz wasn’t due for two hours. On the plus side we provided a lot of entertainment for the two pensionistas hanging at the bus stop.

We were sitting on a park bench Googling “taxi Monsaraz” when a lady came out of her house and greeted us. We offered up "Boa Tarde" (Good Afternoon) - one of the few Portuguese pleasantries we had committed to memory -- and Bryce asked in Spanish (which many Portuguese sort-of understand) if she knew a telephone number for a taxi. She made reassuring hand gestures, went back to her house and returned with her husband who spoke English. Enough, anyway. He offered us a ride to Monsaraz which we gratefully accepted. We learned that he had recently retired to the village and lived in a house he had inherited from his father; he was the owner of 215 olive trees; he didn’t like Trump; and he seemed reassured that we didn’t like Trump either. When we arrived in Monsaraz he refused our offer of money for gas, saying “Portuguese are good people.” We agreed - yes, they are.

Resting Up In Évora

Portugal Walks arranged for our transport from Monsaraz to Évora where we had decided to stay for a couple of days. We had spent a few hours in Évora before – it was the destination of our first walk along the aqueduct - but we thought it deserved more time.

Évora. Aqueduct.
Aqueduct Arch = Prime Real Estate 
Portugal's "White Villages" -- Not As Well
Known, But As Pretty as Those In Spain

We stayed for two nights at the M’ar de Ar Muralhas hotel (which we think means something about air; any real Portuguese ideas are appreciated) and are glad we added the extra time in Évora. There are several interesting things to do / see there and staying in a big, tour type hotel with a plush mattress was very nice!

The University of Évora is high on the list of Things To See In Évora. It was founded as a Jesuit seminary in 1551 but after the Jesuits were expelled from Portugal in 1759 the university was closed. It was reopened in 1973. In the intervening 200 + year the buildings were used for a wide variety of educational and social purposes, including a high school and an industrial school. The 200+ year hiatus doesn’t seem to matter to the University, however – it bills itself as having been a university from 1559 to the present day.

University of Évora

The “sights” at the University are primarily classrooms, which have totally cool tile murals on the walls, much like every other Portuguese public building decorated in the 16th – 17th century. Many of these murals contain scenes that seem generally uplifting in nature, even if the imagery is not entirely clear to modern viewers.

Others seem a bit violent for impressionable youth.

But we weren't disturbed until we were leaving through a departure hall lined half-way from floor to ceiling with tile pictures of flowers and birds and realized that . . . the eyes of every single bird had been chipped out.

Every Single Bird
That calls for a psychology class or two.

Speaking of creepy, another Big Deal Site in Évora is the Chapel of Bones at the Church of St. Francis, which we almost passed on. [After all, we lived in Guanajuato, Mexico for over four months without visiting the famous mummy museum there.] This time we took the tourist bait.

Yorick - You There, Dude?

The stated purpose of this 17th Century chapel was to invite contemplation of the transient nature of life.

We Are Told This Latin Phrase Means
"We Bones Here, For Yours Await"

It was oddly interesting, but we found a better lesson abut transience at the Neolithic sites nearby. Those Neolithic people lived, worked their asses off hauling and raising stones, died (probably not unrelated to all that rock hauling); the rocks remain but we are left to wonder – what the heck was that all about? 

The church also has a museum with the usual beautiful church things – but one painting was particularly interesting to us: a very graphic explanation of St. Francis’s stigmata.

Follow The Red Lines . . . 

Speaking of transience, there are some Roman ruins in Évora, though sadly the beautiful (based on pictures) temple columns that are the symbol of the town were covered in plastic and under repair. What we were able to see was a small Roman Bath complex which we finally found in the lobby of a city government building. While waiting to deal with a utility bill or building permit issue, citizens of Évora can either sit in the hard plastic chairs in the lobby and watch the electronic take-a-number machine or walk a few feet to see what’s left of a Roman bath.

Some city employees can look down on the former baths from their desks.

Does Magritte Work Here?

As retired civil servants, we couldn’t help but wonder if looking at the remains of an empire renowned for its organizational structures encourages Portuguese civil servants to heights of efficiency – or puts things in perspective in a very different way?

We visited the Cathedral and paid to climb to the roof of the cloister. The view of the cloister and cathedral were very nice.

In sum – there are a lot of things to see and do in Évora and we are glad we stayed a few extra days. 


We are off to Morocco soon where we will be undertaking an experiment in travel. We have arranged to take a two week group tour of the Highlights of Morocco. We think this is our first multi-day group tour experience since we hiked the Inca Trail in Peru over a decade ago and are quite nervous about it. We will let you know whether we work and play well with the other tourists or become the annoying couple that delays everyone by arriving late in the morning complaining loudly about the hotel breakfast. Stay tuned.


Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Panama City, Panama– March 20–June 13, 2017

We explored Panama City (locally referred to as simply “Panamá”, leading to occasional confusion) first while moored at Balboa Yacht Club and later during two short tourist visits from Shelter Bay Marina near Colón, one with Special Guest Crew Member Bob Romano. Most of our time navigating Panamá was spent searching out goods and services necessary or convenient for every day life: the best grocery option, a barber, lunch, boat parts and theaters showing subtitled (vs. dubbed) English-language movies. But we were able to perform some Acts of Tourism – which is what we’ll share here.

Pre-History Panama

For those interested in the Isthmus of Panama pre-human residence, we recommend a visit to the Biomuseo. It provides an accessible explanation of the creation of the isthmus (think: first chapter of a James Michener novel) and the planet-altering effects of that creation. We learned (here conveyed in highly unscientific terms) that the creation of the isthmus:
  • closed an opening between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, altering ocean currents and thus the planet’s weather patterns; and
  • provided a land bridge between North and South America, allowing interaction between species which had not been previously introduced – the result of which was catastrophic for some species (in current political speak, “evolutionary losers”) which were introduced to predators they had not evolved to defend against. E.g., bye-bye giant sloths . . .
This information and more plus a 3-story, 360-degree nature video for only $18. The museum’s little coffee shop is good and the museum is housed in the only Frank Gehry-designed building in Central America:

Biomuseo By Sea - Taken From Abracadabra

Biomuseo By Land -
Taken From The Amador Causeway Sidewalk

Looking Out From The Biomuseo On La Playita Anchorage

Critters of Panama

Not far from the Biomuseo, also on the Amador Causeway, is the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute at Punta Culebra. The Institute has a very nice display about the frogs of Panama:

Not Your Grandmother's Ceramic Ashtray --
A Real (poisonous) Frog

It’s also a place one can get close to:

Sea Turtles

Fish With Disney Faces and Coral

Outside of the exhibit spaces, one can observe:


Docents and Curious Children

Looking further, one can even see sailboats:

Abracadabra Anchored at La Playita
Next to Full Monty

Spanish-Era Panama

Spain’s first settlement on the north shore of the Gulf of Panama lasted for about 150 years -- until the city was sacked by a group of pirates led by Henry Morgan. Once Team Morgan cleared out the Spanish rebuilt their city several miles further west using a lot of the rubble Morgan had left behind.

A present-day visit to the site of the first settlement (Panamá Viejo or Old Panama) is an archaeological tour and a museum visit. Those with an interest in Spanish colonial history will find it very interesting. Others may simply enjoy walking among ruins and looking at the views of modern Panamá Moderno from what remains of the old cathedral tower.

Bryce and Bob - Exploring Ruins

Bob and Bryce - Taking In The View

The Spanish next built in the area now called Casco Viejo. In today's Casco area there is little that remains from the colonial era. There are several lovely churches to visit but the real draw are the mid- to late-19th century mansions which have been or are being re-purposed as hotels, restaurants, bars and shops.

[Note: The existence of two “viejo” (old) areas of town sometimes results in confusion for tourists. Cab drivers have learned to interrogate tourists to confirm which they are looking for. There also seems to be a move to re-brand Casco Viejo (Old Town) as Casco Antiguo (Antique Town) which can add another layer of confusion since Casco is not as antique as Panamá Viejo . . . .]

Casco Whichever is a nice place to wander during the day and we had a good lunch there one afternoon. Because it is reported to be a very “happening” place at night, and we are not very “happening” people, we have never looked for a hotel or gone to dinner there. But recently we talked to some yatistas who reported getting a good night’s sleep at a Casco hotel so we might try staying there in the future in search of a hotel with more "charm" than the Hampton Inn.

The Canal

Casco is also where the Museo del Canal Interoceanico (aka The Panama Canal Museum) is located, housed in the building that once served as the headquarters for the first French canal company. 

Interestingly, despite it’s location, this museum gives the French canal efforts short shrift and focuses primarily on the American canal and the transfer of the canal to Panamanian control. It is a must for those even remotely interested in the history of the canal or of the country of Panama.

There’s even a Northern California connection: some exhibits about the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition of 1915, held in San Francisco. Molly was amused to see one of the bonds issued by the City and County of San Francisco to finance the exhibition because one of her first transactions as a baby bond lawyer (a few decades after 1915 . . . ) was a refinancing of the City and County of San Francisco's fire suppression system. However far we travel we take our history with us!

An Aside: We've said this before but really - it bears repeating: anyone interested in the history of the canal should read David McCullough’s The Path Between The Seas. That said, Bryce doesn’t think he needs to read it. He spent several weeks being interrupted in whatever he was doing by Molly’s insistence that he hear certain information from the book or listen while she read paragraphs to him. Read it before your spouse does in self defense.

Another canal museum is located at the Miraflores Locks Visitors' Center. We visited the locks as part of our pre-transit education and got to see several sailboats pass through these locks (some of those pictures can be seen in our canal transit post). We also enjoyed the museum, so much so that Molly toured it for a second time with our Special Guest Crew Member Bob Romano. She thought it was even more interesting after having gone through the canal.

Lock Control Building

Cargo Ship Bridge Simulator -
Miraflores Lock Museum

This museum also provides a lot of information about the recent canal expansion that was opened in 2016.

While moored at the Balboa Yacht Club, we had a front-row seat to canal traffic - car carriers, cruise ships -- even a Canadian destroyer and a U.S. submarine! We often didn't get pictures because the highest traffic time north/south was during our dinner hour -- way better than eating dinner in front of the television!

The Bridge of The Americas -
From Our Balboa Yacht Club Mooring

Panama City Today

[Travel Tip: Not so much a tip as a warning. Internet searches for “Panama City” done in English often bring up information about Panama City, Florida. It plays hell on trying to do travel research.]

Panama City, if you weren’t reading newspapers in 2016, is a big banking center and home to law firms specializing in international tax advice for the wealthy. There are countless sleek high rise buildings we presume are evidence of this wealth.

Panamá Moderno Shot From Panamá Viejo

Iglesia de Nuestra Señora del Carmen (1953)
And A More Modern Neighbor

Muy moderno!

But walk or drive (or cooler and calmer yet, taxi) a few blocks off Avenida Balboa and you will find charming, but deteriorating, buildings of the early 1900’s. Look to your right or left while traveling the highway to the Amador Causeway and there are ugly and blocky mid-rise crumbling concrete apartment buildings. The people’s housing. As in most countries, the wealth is not deep. We understand individual travelers can’t have a significant impact on a country’s economy – but we remind one another that the minimum wage is under $500 a month when deciding whether to tip generously.

Thus ends our short summary of Fun Tourist Things To Do In Panama City (Panama). We will be returning to Panama December-ish and may have time to engage in some of the other interesting activities the area offers. If so, we’ll report in!

Next stop: a family visit in Lakefield, Ontario, Canada. Our last trip to Lakefield was in 2015, so we have a lot of catching up to do.