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Sunday, June 27, 2010


Woohoo--the beach!
On Friday, we left Porto to drive down to Sagres, the beach town that holds the southwesternmost point in Europe. According to the Lonely Planet, going to the beach without exploring all of the small towns in the Algarve (the southern region of Portugal) is to miss the point. Whatever, we came down here for three days to hang out on the beach, read, and do some trip-planning. [It's kind of weird, even though I know it seems like this entire adventure is one big vacation, it seems like we're going to have to plan to relax at times as well...we're still figuring out how we're going to set up routines to maintain our sanity....]

Our main criteria for picking a hotel was convenience and internet access. That may sound lame, but in trying to plan our next stages, the internet is definitely a necessity. So since we've been here, we've taken care of a lot of stuff for Morocco (that's our next stop), done a little reading, and done some sight-seeing.

First, we went to the Fortaleza de Sagres, which was really cool. The fort itself wasn't that exciting, but the views were *amazing*. I don't know how high the cliffs are above the water, but we guessed 500 feet and that you'd probably die if you fell in. Shockingly, there were locals fishing over the edge! We actually also saw some scuba divers down there as well--BRRR!! Yann got some amazing photos (and I suffered many near heart attacks as he insisted on getting too close to the edge). Charlie and Dad, you'd love the photo opportunities.

Afterwards, we went to the Cape of Saint Vincent, the southwesternmost point. I have to say it was really anticlimactic and we thought the views from the fort were a lot cooler. They also had the area at the actual point blocked off. Our plan was to chill out on the beach and return for the spectacular sunset over the Atlantic (having grown up on the east coast, that is just weird). However, at that point, the haze had completely set in and there was nothing to see. The wind was super chilly, so we just went to dinner. The octopus here is *awesome*.

[Side note: if you ever come to Portugal, I'd highly recommend that you try the farinheira, just as a culinary experience. We find it absolutely repulsive--it's "sausage" made of flour, roasted peppers, pork fat, and a *ton* of salt. It made its way onto our cheese plate last night--yuck.]

Today is our last day at the beach and we're going to try to call some family this evening while we have this awesome internet connection. We've found that skype's phone calling feature is great. It sounds pretty good and it's only $0.02/minute to call the states. Tomorrow, we're taking a bus to Algeciras, Spain, where we should get the ferry to Tangier, Morocco on Tuesday. Then we'll take the overnight train on either Tuesday or Wednesday to Marrakesh!


One thing I've really noticed is that Europe does a much better job than we do with conservation and efficiency.

The things that stick out:

-- High efficiency toilets, usually with two buttons: one for a small flush and one for a big flush

-- Teeny cars and expensive gas. We are the proud lessees of a Mitsubishi Colt hatch-back. It definitely has issues getting up the steep roads in the small Douro towns!

-- Diesel! There are TONS of diesel cars!

-- If you hang your towels in your hotel bathroom, they really do just rehang them for you rather than replacing them.

-- Lots of motion-sensored lights, especially in bathrooms and hotel halls

-- In larger hotels: having a main energy switch in your room triggered by your room card. When you are in your room, the electricity doesn't turn on until you put you card in the wall. Then when you leave and take your card, everything turns off. (This is annoying if you're trying to charge something though)

-- Large container refillable toiletries affixed to shower walls in hotels rather than teeny little bottles that you throw out

-- Hand dryers everywhere instead of paper towels

-- Nuclear power

-- Huge emphasis on renewable energy, conservation, and climate change. I feel like we run into information on these things EVERYWHERE.

The only thing I feel like we do better is bottled water. Over the past five years or so, it seems that there really has been a big push to use filtered tap water rather than bottled water. In fact, I don't know many people at all who still buy bottled water except for convenience purposes, like if they're on a trip or something. However, Europeans are big fans of the 1.5L bottle of water instead of the 16.9 oz bottle that I think is so popular at home. :)

Porto: Gateway to the Duoro

After three days of winding (and I mean literally winding) through the Duoro valley and taking in the beautifully hand-built terraces of the vineyards we followed the river west towards the Atlantic and the historic city of Porto. I believe most people who visit the region make this trip in reverse, start in Porto then travel out into the Duoro, but I thought it was nice to follow the path those world renown grapes take every year starting in the vineyards, floating down the Duoro, and then being stored on the hill-side across from Porto in Vila Nova de Gaia.

Thus far on our journey navigating through the country side had been relatively easy and we found that the map we were given worked fine to get us from point A to B (granted, at times you had to be paying very close attention to signage). The ease of driving completely crumbled when we pulled into Porto and spent close to an hour trying to get from the interstate to our hotel downtown. I think we made about 5 passes at trying to find the right street to turn down and get to our hotel. By the time we actually found our accommodations we were both laughing at the ridiculous difficulty of navigating the city by car.

But all was well, our hotel was smack dab in the middle of the city and conveniently situated between the main avenue downtown and the waterfront where later that evening the city would transform into a sea of frolicking locals dancing, hitting each other on the head with plastic hammers, eating fresh grilled sardines and celebrating St. John's Day--Porto's biggest party.

We had already mentally committed to indulging in the festivities and staying up to see the fireworks at midnight so we decided it was best to get some walking and sight-seeing in that first afternoon. Our first stop was at the Torre dos Clerigos a 76m high tower built in the 1700's which provided a birds eye view of the city. We climbed the alleged 225 stairs to the top (Catherine counted steps and disagrees with this figure)snapped a few pictures and made our way back down to take in the street vendors preparing for the nights festivities with displays of fresh garlic, garlic flowers, and plastic hammers that make a squeaking noise when used to bludgeon the nearest random stranger.

From the tower Catherine led us to our next stop at the old church Igreja de Sao Francisco. On the outside it looked much like your average run-of-the-mill several hundred year old European church, but boy was I ever surprised after we paid our admission and stepped inside.

I have never in my life seen an more ornately decorated interior space. Every square inch (less a few areas vandalized by Napoleon's troops) was covered in gold plated wood carvings of cherubs, flowers, angels, and biblical scenes. Pictures were not allowed inside, but I was able to find this thanks to the information super highway:

The city was awash with a festive spirit and we continued our walk along the water and across the bridge to check out the port houses that lay on the other side of the river. We searched dutifully for the two recommendations made by the LP but ended up lost and retreating back to sample ports readily accessible on the riverside.

Heading back to our hotel to change clothes and prepare for the festivities we decided that dinner would consist only of items purchases on the street. Armed with warmer clothing and better walking shoes we took to the streets to join the party. We purchased plastic hammers to defend ourselves (and randomly smack the natives of our host city) and wandered through the city streets enjoying the sites and music that were reminiscent of a tame Mardi Gras. We had a lot of fun enjoying snacks that ranged from foot-long hotdogs covered with lettuce, corn, potato-chips and mustard to the infamous grilled sardine which is coveted as one of the country's oldest and most favorite snacks. Fireworks set off at midnight and lit up the sky directly over the Duoro river as everyone cheered and danced. Too bad we didn't have our camera along.

We spent our next day recovering from the indulgences of the festivities and creating a lengthy walking route around the city. One stop included finding the elusive Taylor's port house which had been on our list from the previous day. As we followed signs up the hill we were turned away half-way up due to construction. Luckily there was a map explaining an lengthy detour up the steep hill and towards the tasting room. As luck would have it, just as our spirits were falling out from behind a wall walks a gentleman whom inquires about our heading. The gentleman happens to be Adrian Bridge, the owner and managing director of Taylor Fladgate. He was extremely pleasant and walked us down the hill towards the tasting room while apologizing for the inconvenience caused by the construction of the group's latest hotel which had caused the original detour. After delivering us to the tasting room he instructed his staff to lead us down the shorter route back to the river once we were done. The tasting was interesting and fortified our week long education in the process of making port wine. I think we both have a new appreciation for this spirit for which we previously had no interest.

The remainder of the day was spent walking around the city and enjoying a quite evening before we headed south the next morning. And with that we wrapped up our visit to the world's oldest demarcated wine region.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Pinhao and Lamego

Vila Nova de Foz Coa was a pretty quiet little town aside from the paleolithic art that we saw. Not that it was a bad thing, but we decided we may as well drive further west that night and stay in a different small town on the way to Porto (all in about 3-4 hours away). The drive was absolutely beautiful and we stopped for several photos along the way. The slopes down to the Douro river are extremely steep and rocky and heavily planted with grapes, olive trees, and almond trees. Despite the dryness, it is really green.

The trusty Lonely Planet promised that Pinhao was an unremarkable small town on the river, but a good place to base ourselves if we were interested in checking out some of the local vineyards. It is one of the sections of the Douro region that seems to be the most densely populated with vineyards open to the public. As we got closer, it didn't look unremarkable at all, but quite charming. Since we were arriving on Sunday, I was concerned that most things would be closed on Monday (it seems that many touristy things are), so we decided to stay for two nights. We found an inexpensive hotel (Ponto Grande) across the street from the train station and got settled in before taking a walk down by the river and finding a couple of glasses of jug wine for just one euro (that's for both, not each)!

There was some sort of festival going on in town (we never figured out what it was for) that night and it seemed that all of the restaurants had closed early. We finally found one that was open (Ponto Romano) and it wound up being really fantastic. The waiter recommended the octopus, the veal, and an inexpensive bottle of wine.

Feeling a bit internet-starved the next morning, we walked over to the fancy hotel (the Vintage House) and bought an hour of wifi to do a little trip planning and check some email. The restaurant looked good and we made a reservation for that evening. The concierge was also nice enough to recommend two vineyards that he knew would be open despite it being Monday. We decided to grab a quick lunch and check them out. Over lunch (which was quite long since this was during the game where Portugal kicked North Korea's @$$ in the World Cup), we noticed a couple adjacent to us with an identical Lonely Planet. I guess Yann was already getting tired of me, because he started up a conversation with them as they got up to leave. They turned out to be from Ottawa and on the last week of their three week-long honeymoon. We chatted for a bit and found out we were headed to one of the same vineyards that afternoon--maybe we'd see them again.

Our first stop was Quinta do Panascal who supplies grapes to Fonseca (among others). Before this trip, my only experience with port had been when someone brought a bottle of Taylor's over to our house to drink after dinner and I thought it was okay. I have to say honestly that even though I still don't love port, I think I now have more of an appreciation for both the process and the taste. Over the period of our two days in Pinhao, one day in Lamego, and two days in Porto, we visited Quinta do Panascal, Quinta do Seixo, Quinta da Pacheca, Caves de Reposeira, and the tasting rooms in Vila Nova de Gaia for Vasconcellos, Calem, Taylor's, and Croft.

Unlike wine-tasting in California, each place offered a tour and explanation of their port-making process, so after hearing about it more than five times, it's cool to know more about it. A lot of these places still have groups of men stomping the grapes during harvest season! Our only complaint was that they really are only port-tastings--the only place that let us taste their table wine was Quinta da Pacheca, which may be the reason that it was our favorite (that and the fact that we kind of stumbled on it and it was much smaller than the others). I guess the upside to that is that you don't get much of a buzz tasting port (it's just too sweet to drink that much of it) and driving around to these vineyards is TERRIFYING with all of the super-steep drives!

When we went to Quinta do Seixo, we ran into the couple from Ottawa again and invited them to join us for dinner. The Vintage House has a garden that is right on the Douro and is a beautiful spot for dinner. I think the food itself is a little overrated and definitely overpriced, but it was nice to have some company for dinner. They'd started their honeymoon in Paris and had been driving all over Portugal for the last week or so. We had a nice, long dinner and were eventually informed that we were free to move into the bar area (meaning: get OUT already!)

The next morning we were off to Lamego. It has this amazing church, Igreja de Nossa Senhora dos Remedios, with a bazillion steps leading up to it and hand painted tile murals.

Afterwards, we inquired at the tourist office about tasting sparkling wine and also found out about a vineyard that also offered lodging and dinner, Quinta da Timpeiro. It wound up being perfect for that night. We'd done the tasting at Caves de Reposeira and it was about a half km away. We checked in and read by the pool until it was time to shower for dinner at 7:30 (super-early by Portuguese standards and a bit of a relief).

Dinner wound up being an older couple from Belgium, the innkeeper, and us. It was a simple, but very delicious, meal of vegetable soup, braised chicken, rice, salad, mango mousse, and fresh cherries. Yum!

Next stop: Porto!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Vila Nova de Foz Coa (and 10,000 year old art)

We left Manteigas bright and early and headed for the infamous Duoro region of northwestern Portugal. While at breakfast we sipped coffee and consulted our trusty Lonley Planet guide to devise our attack for this next destination. After a bit of reading we agreed to defer what promised to be a lot of wine tasting and instead spend the afternoon visiting the Paleolithic carvings located at Vila Nova de Foz Coa. It took us a little over two hours of winding through the mountains and interpreting our road map against post signs but we managed to find our way up to the town. There are three entrances to the archeological park and it took us a while to actually find one that appeared to be open. A neighboring vendor informed us the tour office was closed until 2pm and invited us in to his shop to spend some coin. Being completely starved, we politely told the gentleman that we were off to find food but would be back when the offices opened. Fortunately we found a little café not far from the park entrance—and trust me, we were pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Walking into the café we proudly displayed our week-long honed Portuguese skills which resulted quickly into relying upon Catherine speaking in French to figure out what was going on. Salted cod was what was going on and we accepted our lunch option with big smiles surprised at how un-salty the dish tasted—in fact, it was quite good cooked with potatoes, olives, and a bit of parsley.

Back at the park’s tourist office at 2pm we were warmly greeted in English and informed that we could join a tour being led in French at 4pm that afternoon (yes, we should have made advanced reservation like Lonely Planet told us). However, as luck would have it a Dutch couple agreed to take a tour in English and the four of us piled into our guides 4X4 and headed down into valley to view the art of our ancestors which was carved in the stone over 10,000 years ago.

The five of us piled in a 4x4 jeep and made a 15 minute trip down 350 meters from the small town into the valley. Our guide did an excellent job of explaining the region's history, the story of how civilization had come to live here in the upper Paleolithic era, and some personal anecdotes of her own life and the Portuguese culture.

The archeological site was guarded by 24 hour security to prevent the findings from being compromised by vandals--crazy that people are the worst enemy, eh? The guide walked us along the river valley and sat us down in front of large flat rocks where she proceeded to point out the carvings of different animals in the stone.

Luckily we were shown sketched highlights before having to look at the rock and were able to pick out the three significant types of animals in display--goats, horses, and aurochs (an ancient ancestor of the ox).

By the end of the tour we were basically pros at picking out the carvings and identifying the right animal. As our final test the guide pointed up on the hill near where we had parked and asked us to find the deer etched in the red rock.

The tour was quite good (exceeding both of our expectations) and we managed to learn a thing or two about the region’s rich history.
The tour ended early enough that we had time to drive over to our next stop in wine country and find lodging in Pinhao.

Saturday, June 19, 2010


Our major goals in Portugal were eating and drinking. We knew we needed to fly into Lisbon, so we figured we ought to check it out at least while we were there recovering from jet lag. After that, the plan was to make a beeline to Porto for easy access to food and wine (and probably some port as well). However, we’d heard that the hiking in the middle of the country was supposed to be pretty good, so my job was to figure out where to spend our weekend on the way up north.

The Lonely Planet indicated that Portugal’s parks department is highly underfunded. Parque Natural da Serra da Estrela seemed to be the one with the best infrastructure despite the fact that its last trail maps were published in 2006. Of the small bordering towns, Manteigas sounded the prettiest with the best access to the park.

We arrived in Manteigas with minimal difficulty. Like Lisbon, the rest of Portugal does not seem to have the best marked street signs and Yann did stop once to ask some locals for directions. I know this will only get more difficult once we get into third world countries, but I doubt we’ll do much driving on our own there! I have to give my husband major credit here, while I’m better with languages, he is much better at communicating without a common language.

When we got into Manteigas we stopped at the parks department first since they are closed on weekends. As expected, they didn’t have any trail maps. Unexpected, however, was that French would come in handy here. I only speak enough Portuguese to order dinner and the ranger spoke very little English. Even though I haven’t spoken French since my first semester at Rice, we managed to get trail directions. After this experience, I’m even more excited to get to Morocco. I plan on having a separate entry ranting about how I hate not speaking the local language….

I’d already reserved our hotel room (yes, I AM the planner) at Casa das Obras. It is a completely charming converted old home that reminds me of a castle with its thick stone walls and cold air. It also has a pretty garden and pool across the street and a HUGE house dog—an Estrela Mountain Dog. I’d never heard of these guys, but they are sweet and cuddly and enormous. Hopefully, Yann will be kind enough to insert a photo.

This morning we went on what Yann called the best hike of his life and I may have to agree. It started with the best breakfast ever of local goat cheese and honey, fresh bread and fruit salad, and a selection of cured pork products. Yann also got one of those custard tarts that he loves. This little inn is fantastic in its attention to detail. Even the calla lilies on the table were cut from the garden that morning.

Side rant: I love Portuguese breakfast. I’ve been eating awesome cheese and ham on wheat bread every morning—YUM!

The “hike” started out at as a little bit of a disappointment. We walked about 4 km along a road and then along a goat path for another 4 km. However, the scenery was absolutely gorgeous. We were in a valley surrounded by mountains of beautiful plants and granite. Somewhere along the way, there was a local watering hole and a couple of small waterfalls. It was also pretty cool to see the local farming culture. At one point we happened upon a flock (do goats live in a flock? A herd?) of goats (including one baby goat which was the cutest thing EVER—I’m such a girl, I know). Not far away was their shepherd. He shouted to us in Portuguese and we waved stupidly saying hello and not understanding a word.

He finally got us to follow him up to his little house where he pulled out two rounds of his goat cheese. If only we had a way to store it, I probably would have bought four (or ten!) rounds!

Anyway, after we got to the real part of the hike, it was pretty cool. I’d imagine our total elevation change over our 5 or 6 miles in was about 3,000 feet, with most of it in the last mile or so.

It was also much better-marked than we expected. The blazing wasn’t the greatest, but there were plenty of rock piles to keep us on the path. We ended with a ham and cheese (local goat, I’m sure) sandwich overlooking the valley. When we headed back, we saw two other hikers at the very end—the only two we’d seen all day! What an awesome hike: strenuous, cool mountain culture, baby goats, cheese, and some very unspoiled scenery.

Now I’m off to shower before dinner at Dom Pastor, which promises a delicious meal incorporating local meat and cheese. We’re off to the Douro region tomorrow.

Friday, June 18, 2010


Before we left Baltimore, we’d booked our hotel in Lisbon for three nights, figuring we could always stay longer. However, it wound up being perfect. Lisbon is very pretty and charming, but I’d compare it to San Francisco. That is, while it’s a great city, there isn’t a whole lot in particular to check off the list. (also, it’s really hilly!) It’s more like wandering around individual neighborhoods taking in the shops, cafes, bars, etc. It would be a great place to meet up with friends, but with just the two of us, three days was perfect.

The first day was a blur of jet lag. We’d reserved a room at Hotel Lisboa Tejo, which at €70/night fit the bill. It wasn’t fancy, but it was clean, comfortable, had free breakfast and internet, and was in a convenient location. Once we checked in and showered, we knew we needed to stay up until bedtime. We kind of wandered around Rossio (where our hotel was) and climbed up the hill to Castelo Sao Jorge. We decided €7 apiece was too expensive to go inside the castle, so we just settled for the views, which I think was probably the whole point anyway. See how budget-conscious we are now that we’re unemployed!

For dinner, we’d found somewhere that sounded great, but navigating to specific addresses in Lisbon proved difficult in general. All of the streets wind around and a lot of them are so narrow and/or unmarked, they’re easy to miss. Anyway, we couldn’t find the one we were looking for and after about an hour of walking and deciding against others along the way, we settled on a pretty touristy place near our hotel. Despite the relative lack of character, we had a delicious dinner al fresco of stewed seafood and an even better bottle of wine from the Douro region.

On day two, we slept in even though we should have gotten up. After a quick breakfast of coffee and these crazy rich custard tarts, we headed to Bairo Alto, the much hipper neighborhood to the west of Rossio. We wandered around the streets taking in the sights, had a quick lunch outside (everything was outside—SO awesome), wandered around the botanical garden, sampled some fantastic wine, and finally headed back to our hotel to get ready for dinner. This was definitely our night to party in Bairo Alto—we started out with tapas and ended up with way too many drinks in different bars with live music.

Day three was shockingly awesome. We peeled our hungover selves out of bed in time for our free hotel breakfast and got on the metro. The previous day, I’d found a section in our Lonely Planet guide describing Parque das Nacoes, the area along the water in the northeast corner of the city that had been completely redone for EXPO 98.

Evidently, they tore down a bunch of old factories and installed botanical gardens, huge art, oversized percussion instruments, a gondola, restaurants, and even an “extreme sports park”. (Rhett—apparently, in Lisbon, extreme sports include rollerblading and riding a scooter, because that’s about all we saw these kids doing.)

All of that combined with the architecture caught us completely by surprise. I’d highly recommend spending at least a half day up there walking along the river.

That night, we took in some fado, the traditional, mournful Portuguese music in Alfama, a very old-fashioned neighborhood on the east side of Rossio. The singing wasn’t our favorite, but we did get to enjoy MORE Portuguese wine on the cobblestones. Then we (shockingly) found our restaurant and had a lovely last dinner in Lisbon. The next morning we picked up our rental car and took off for the mountains, to be followed by the wine region in the north, the beach in the south, and then on to Gibraltar to catch the ferry to Tanger!

Note to all—I’m taking a break from photos for a while. Yann has graciously offered to pick up my slack and insert them into my entries. Basically, it’s a pain to put them into the blog (made more difficult by the fact that I’m computer illiterate) and I’m just not a picture person, so I can’t be bothered. Dad and Charlie, especially, I’m sorry, but I think you made me this way. ;)