Sunday, March 2, 2014

Porto and Beyond

We began with the familiar: fly into Porto and spend a few days at the same cozy little apartment on Rua Formosa where we had stayed before. We weren't sure what we were going to do, but after we got there and settled in we had no trouble finding new places to visit and new restaurants for our dinners.

The Portuguese Center for Photography is housed in what used to be a prison. After decades of neglect, the building has been beautifully restored and now makes an ideal exhibition space, and there's even a fine collection of cameras on display. Travel writer Stuart Forster has a brief background piece on the center over at Huffington Post UK.

Of course we spent a lot of time in my favorite activity, walking around looking at buildings and people. One of my favorite walks in the world is up and down Praça da Liberdade, between City Hall and the São Bento train station, admiring the grand old buildings and watching the crowds.

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Praça da Liberdade

My other favorite activity is eating, and we found some great new places. The best was Pedro dos Frangos, which we happened upon while walking back to our apartment one afternoon. I saw the luscious chickens roasting on spits in the window and said, "This is where we're eating tonight!" (Ironically, Pedro dos Frangos is on Rua Bonjardim; 'Bonjardim' is the name of a famous roasted chicken restaurant in Lisbon.) The perfectly cooked chicken, a big mound of french fries, a large salad, and a jug of wine came to €17, about $23.

Pedro dos Frangos

After enjoying the familiar in Porto we began exploring the unfamiliar by taking a bus to Viseu, a city of about 50,000, 50 miles away to the southeast. There were a couple of fine museums, interesting old churches, beautiful azulejos (tiles), lovely parks and squares, and plenty of people and buildings to look at.

Viseu - Igreja da Misericórdia

Igreja dos Terceiros de São Francisco

As we've come to expect throughout the country, the food in Viseu was delicious. In fact, I had one of the best meals I've ever eaten in Portugal, leitão da Bairrada, roast suckling pig with a tangy oil and pepper sauce, accompanied by fried potatoes and a salad at Restaurante Cacimbo.

Leitão da Bairrada

After three nights in Viseu we took a bus to Coimbra, the largest city (population 150,000) in central Portugal and home to an old and famous university. Our first evening we walked up to the university, which sits atop a hill in the center of town: Lisbon is hilly, Porto is hillier, but Coimbra is insane. Our first task the following morning was to buy bus passes to ride the elevator/funicular from the lower town up to near the top.

Coimbra has long been a cultural center and was even the capital of Portugal during part of the Middle Ages, so there were plenty of buildings to look at, including a fine Gothic church, São Tiago, the old and new cathedrals, and Igreja Santa Cruz. We went to our first fado concert, done in the Coimbra style, performed by men only. (Fado is a uniquely Portuguese song form, as much a part of the culture and national identity as tango is for Argentina.)

Fado ao Centro

We toured the old university, where we were awed by the Joanina Library (no photos allowed, but the link includes a 3D virtual visit). At the center of the old university is a gorgeous plaza.

Universidade de Coimbra

One day we walked across the Mondego River and toured the grounds of the Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Velha. The convent was built in the 14th century but had to be abandoned in the 17th because of frequent floodings. Excavation and partial restoration were not begun until the 1990s, and now there's even a well-designed modern visitor center.

Mosteiro de Santa Clara-a-Velha

We ate well in Coimbra. Late on the first afternoon, on the recommendation of Joanna at Fado ao Centro, we went to Nata Lisboa to try their pastéis de nata and were wowed: just about as good as Pastéis de Belém. We went back every afternoon for a hot-from-the-oven pastel and a glass of Madeira. Our favorite dinner was at A Cozinha d. Maria, where we feasted on steak with pepper sauce (Terri) and grilled veal (me). In the course of the meal and after a delicious dessert we swapped travel stories with our new friends, Wendy, who recently retired after 30 years as an American Airlines flight attendant, and her husband, Steve, a recently retired engineer. Wendy and Steve are braver than we are: they rented a car and were doing a grand tour of Portugal.

NATA Lisboa

Naco da Vitela Grelhado

On our last night in Coimbra we met a Danish sculptor, Jesper Neergaard, and his wife, Lilloian, a painter. In the course of a long and interesting conversation, they both highly recommended the Museu Nacional Machado de Castro. We had not planned on making it there but they were so persuasive that we got up early the next day so that we could visit the museum before catching our train back to Porto. I am so glad we did: the museum was wonderful. In the deep basement are excavated Roman ruins, the ground floor has incredible sculptures from churches in the area, and the top floors are devoted to paintings, including a wonderful triptych by Quentin Massys.

Deposition of Christ

The Passion of Christ

The trip back to Porto was pleasant and uneventful. We checked into the airport hotel and had a surprisingly good meal at a restaurant a quarter-mile away, O Malheiro: two of the biggest veal rib steaks I've ever seen, each an inch thick, and perfectly grilled. The next morning we were up way early and in the air on the way to Madrid by nine.

And a lot of other buildings and meals and stuff I didn't mention. All of the snaps from the trip are on Flickr. As always, there's even a slideshow version. While you're looking at snaps, I'll sit down and start thinking about the next trip.

Museum Bench

Monday, February 10, 2014

Tourists and Travelers

Hearing about one of our recent adventures, John Pickett said, "You're not tourists, you're travelers." (Our friends John and Dana Pickett are the parents of our friend Tina Pickett Holmes.) Even without a lot of explanation, this compliment felt right, reflecting my attitude about seeing the world. (Last year, Terri described in more detail The Way We Travel.) Then, a few days ago, I read a Rick Steves column that fleshed out the distinction between the two:

I'm often asked about the difference between a tourist and a traveler. To me, a tourist visits all the big sights, sees spectacles on stage, and returns home unchanged, with a suitcase full of knickknacks. A traveler becomes a temporary local, engages with the culture, and comes home enriched, with a vivid collection of experiences and a broader perspective.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with being a tourist, I've been one myself quite a few times. Big sights are big sights for a reason, and knickknacks are difficult for many people to resist. But for me, being a traveler is more comfortable: I love going to lesser-known places, loitering and exploring, figuring out bus and train schedules, pondering a menu in an unknown language, and relishing the unplanned and unexpected. We'll never see most of the world but the places we do visit we'll get to know fairly well. So far, my only souvenirs are small pins from some of the places we've been, along with thousands of snapshots and memories.

Pins

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We've been traveling and touristing regularly since 1999, and I've been posting some of my favorite travel snaps since around 2008: Here's my Flickr travel sets.

All this talk of traveling makes me eager to stop writing and get back up in the air. Tomorrow we're off again, this time to northern Portugal, our 60th trip together, the 37th outside the United States. We'll fly into Porto, where we'll spend a few days, then venture out to Viseu and Coimbra.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Évora, Também

Traveling from Lisbon to Évora was a reminder of just how nice it is to be in a place with efficient mass transit. Saturday morning, we left our hotel and walked down the street and around the corner, a half block total, to the #726 bus stop. We had to wait for, oh, maybe 4 minutes before hopping on a bus to Sete Rios, where we went across the street to the Rede Expresso bus terminal. We bought our tickets and 30 minutes later were headed to Évora (Wiki can tell you about Évora).

Évora

We had wondered if three nights would be too long a stay here, but shouldn't have worried. Évora is charming, large enough to have lots to see and do and small enough to easily walk across the old town within the walls in about 15 or 20 minutes. More importantly, located in the center of the Alentejo region (the 'bread basket' of Portugal), it is known for great food and wine.

The center of Évora is Praça do Giraldo, named after Gerald the Fearless, the Medieval knight who defeated the town's Moorish rulers in 1165. Images of him are everywhere, almost always on a horse, waving a sword after chopping off some Muslim heads, also shown.

Praça do Giraldo Gerald the Fearless

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Off to the side of the plaza is a small corner where older gentlemen congregate to ponder the recent obituaries posted on a bulletin board and sit in the sunshine.

Today's Obituaries

The City Museum was surprisingly good, in a recently restored building. We noticed another freshly painted building across the street, the Fórum Eugénio de Almeida. Intrigued by posters for a traveling art exhibit from Germany called INTER[IN]VENTION, we found one of the best collections of multi-media installations I've ever seen.

We visited a half-dozen churches, walked through the public gardens, saw Roman ruins, explored the University grounds, watched peacocks display their feathers for indifferent peahens, tasted a sampling of Alentejano wines (free!) and went to the top of the Sé (cathedral). We also went into the Chapel of Bones, built by a Franciscan monk and completely lined with bones and skulls to remind us that life is short.

Évora Capela dos Ossos / Chapel of Bones

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And yes, we ate really well. A specialty of the region is porco preto, black pork, named after a breed of pig native to the Iberian Peninsula. The swine feast on acorns and wild herbs and the result is incredibly tasty, tender pork. The first night we had dinner at Fialho and I had sliced black pork tenderloin. The second night we had dinner at 1/4 para as 9, where I had black pork and clams. The last night we had the best dinner of all, at a tiny place called Botequim da Mouraria, huge black pork steaks. Every meal was of course washed down with rich, tasty Alentejano vinho tinto.

Botequim da Mouraria Botequim da Mouraria

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The next day was dull and dreary, a walk through the rain to the bus station. Back in Lisbon it was still raining so we stayed in our IBIS hotel at Oriente until it was time for one last Portuguese dinner. The last morning we had to wake up at 4 a.m., took a cab to the airport at 5 a.m. (and got taken for an extra €5 by the dishonest driver), and were in the air to Madrid before 7 a.m.

Click here to see all the Flickr photos from our trip to Lisbon and Évora.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Lisboa Outra Vez

Like a beautiful painting or a classic film, Lisbon bears repeated viewings. Since our first visit in 2011 we have returned again and again, each time finding new sights and flavors.

This time we saw the elegant interior of the Igreja Fátima, the City Museum with its terrific model of pre-1755 earthquake Lisbon, and the Pinheiro Museum. We happily discovered the work of Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso (1887-1918) at a special exhibit at the Gulbenkian. A train ride to Queluz to see the National Palace was enjoyable but ultimately in vain: a bunch of Very Important Men in Suits were holding a meeting and police kept us humble tourists away at a distance, so we had to settle for a walk in the park.

In the Park at Queluz

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The Rua Augusta Arch was open after a recent restoration, so we rode an elevator to the top for fine vistas of the city and the river.

Praça do Comércio

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I got hooked on bitoque (a thin beefsteak topped with a runny fried egg), a standard Portuguese dish I had inexplicably overlooked before. In between these new experiences we made time for frango assado (roasted chicken brushed with spicy piri-piri sauce) at Bonjardim and a tram ride to Belém for pasteis.

Bitoque

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Best of all, we got to visit with friends. One day we took the tram to Graça to say hello to António and the rest of the folks at A Cabreira. I met António when we rented an apartment across the street and Terri and I would walk over for pasteis de nata or codfish balls. This time we enjoyed a fine lunch of grilled fish and afterwards were treated to glasses of beirão, a potent Portuguese liqueur. (A Cabreira is one of those places you find in almost every block in Portugal: café, bar, diner, pastry shop, savory and sweet snacks, and community center, open from early in the morning to late at night.)

A Cabreira

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Friday was a special treat. Our friends Manuel and Ana picked us up at our hotel for a drive to São Martinho do Porto, a small coastal village about 100 km north of Lisbon. The waves of the Atlantic boom at the entrance to a quiet, protected bay lined with wide sandy beaches; three- and four-story apartment buildings face the water with street-level shops and restaurants. We walked along the shore until the rains came, when we retreated to A Casa for an incredibly delicious lunch: fish soup, grilled shrimp, then a main course of caldeirada made with fish freshly caught that morning. The rains let up and the sun came out just as we finished lunch, so we enjoyed another walk with our friends before driving back to Lisbon through the lovely Portuguese countryside.

Manuel, Ana, and Terri Restaurante A Casa

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After five nights in Lisbon it was time to head to Évora, capital of the Alentejo region, home to great food and fine wines. Our time there deserves another blog post -- stay tuned.

All the photos are on Flickr.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Chasing Our Tails

We're in a bit of an endless loop with this traveling. We fly enough to earn status as frequent fliers, which gets us certain perks like fast check-in, international lounges, and early boarding. We get accustomed to the perks, which means we have to continue flying to keep them. Without the perks we wouldn't fly as much or at all, so the perks become the goal rather than an incidental benefit. Whatever. It's complicated.

In any event, we have status through the end of February so tomorrow afternoon we're off to lovely Lisbon. Yes, yes, I know, we've been going to Portugal a lot the last few years, but why not? This time we're staying in a different neighborhood, around Praça Saldanha. After enjoying the sights and sounds and flavors of one of my favorite cities we'll take the train (or bus? who knows) to Évora for a few days. And we'll start amassing miles for the next year of status.

We'll visit with friends, see the sights, and of course I'll have lunch.

Lunch Makes It Better

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Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Odds and Ends and Snaps

If you can, visit Italy in the off-season, between early November and late March. There's no crowds, prices are lower, and the atmosphere is much more relaxed. During this last trip, we never once had to stand in line anywhere, not even at the Uffizi or the Accademia in Florence.

Memorize these two words, because you will need them: spingere means "push"; tirare means "pull."

To buy train tickets, go to any travel agency (l'agenzia di viaggi) that displays the Trenitalia logo. You'll pay the same price and get much friendlier service than wading through the crowds at the station.

The Italian term for jet lag is jet lag.

Indoor heating and cooling is an iffy affair: some places will be too warm and some places will be too cold. In any event, Italians seem to dress by the calendar, not the thermometer. If it's December, they will be wearing scarves and coats, even in a restaurant heated to 85°. Be prepared to add or remove clothing as necessary.

The only flat part of Italy is the lower Po Valley, Parma-Modena-Bologna-Ravenna. Everywhere else, be ready to walk up and down hills. A lot.

Another important word is sciopero (SHOW-per-o), meaning strike, as in a labor stoppage. Strikes are an Italian tradition of long standing. Tourists learn of strikes by standing at a bus stop alone for twenty minutes until a helpful Italian walks by shaking his head and says sciopero!

Flying home across seven time zones in one day is hard on mind and body. But it's worth it.

Here's my snaps from the trip on Flickr. And as always, there's a slideshow version.
Christmas in Bologna

Christmas in Bologna

Monday, December 9, 2013

Eating

Italy is full of art, architecture, culture, history, beautiful scenery, and wonderful people, but the main reason to visit here is to eat. Mangiare!

As soon as we arrived in Bologna we headed down the block to Pizz'Altero for their wonderful pizza al taglio, chunky rectangles of thick pizza. The next day we had a three-hour lunch at a agriturismo with Cinzia and Sergio, sampling the different pastas of Emilia-Romagna and discovering crescentine, puffy fat squares of fried bread topped with different kinds of cheeses and cured meats. It's been pretty much an eat-a-thon ever since.

Our usual routine is to have breakfast at the hotel, a cappuccino or two along with pastries, salami and bread, or whatever else they put out that morning. Lunch is very light, a sandwich or snack eaten on the go. We save our appetites for dinner, the big meal of the day.

The food in Italy varies considerably from region to region, and even from city to city. In Bologna we dove into big plates of tagliatelle alla bolognese, flat noodles with meat sauce, and I had to have a cotoletta alla bolognese, a veal cutlet breaded and fried and topped with ham and cheese. Since we moved south into Tuscany we've had bruschette (grilled bread with garlic, olive oil, and diced fresh tomatoes), pappardelle (very wide flat pasta) with cinghiale (wild boar) sauce, thinly sliced beef on rucola, fried artichokes, and ravioli di zucca (pumpkin). At one little family place in the Oltrarno in Florence, we had arista, huge slices of pork perfectly oven-roasted.

The biggest problem each night has been, what do we order? Italian menus are made up of antipasti (appetizers, some quite substantial), primi piatti (first dishes, usually pasta), secondi piatti (second dishes, meats), contorni (side dishes) and dolci (dessert). Sometimes we split an antipasto then each have a primo. Or we split a primo and each have a secondo. Or I'll get an antipasto and a secondo while Terri will have a primo and a contorno. If we have a dolce, we share it. The serving size varies from restaurant to restaurant so it's hard to tell if you're ordering too much. Twice so far we couldn't finish our food, as delicious as it was.

Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco

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We bring along a dictionary but it's not much help. Menu listings use special terms and regional dialects that are never in the book. Rather than being a problem, this gives us an excuse to try new things and surprise ourselves. Sometimes we pay too much, sometimes we don't order the right things, sometimes we get too little or not enough. The only certain thing is that in all the time we've spent in Italy, we've never had a bad meal.

Dinner at Mamma Gina's

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With every meal we order a carafe (liter or half-liter) of house wine, almost always rosso (red), and it's always good and half the price or less of the cheapest bottle on the wine list. We also get a bottle of acqua minerale naturale (no carbonation); Italians do not serve tap water in restaurants and if you ask they will only answer with a puzzled expression.

Tonight's Dessert

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The waiter never brings the check until we ask for it. We sit at the table as long as we like and linger over the last of the wine and water. Finally, when I know it's time for a lie down back at the hotel, I get her attention and ask, "Il conto, per favore." We wander out into the Italian night, suffused with a rosy glow of contented satisfaction, and start thinking about what we'll eat tomorrow.

Here's the trip photos I've posted on Flickr. And here's dessert at the end of a lovely meal.