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 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 DotIn 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 SitesThe 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|
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.
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.
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
(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 -|
|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 StrangerOur 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.
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 ÉvoraPortugal 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.
|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|
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.
NEXTWe 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.