Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Portugal & Spain - Part 5

Well, the rental car has been returned. All of my belongings lay scattered around the room, waiting to be packed. And we're enjoying the last waning hours of afternoon daylight at Estalagem Santo Andre, on the quiet beach north of Porto.

The past few days that we've had “on our own” have been quite pleasant and somewhat more relaxed than the time spent with the group. Saturday we traveled up to the nearby town of Viana do Castelo, and put “Carmen,” our level-headed electronic navigator, through her paces. Was the Basilica of Santa Luzia in her database? Why, yes it was. Did she know where it was? Absolutely. She led us up a windy cobblestone road way way way up on the mountain, overlooking the sea and the city, right up to the parking lot of the Basilica. What Carmen failed to do, however, was inform us that as soon as we stumbled into the small basilica, we'd be walking in on a wedding. Whoops. I like to think that we walked in right as the minister said, “Does anyone here know of any reason why these two should not be married?” in which case all heads would turn around and face us and wait nervously for me to announce that I was in love with the bride-to-be. But of course, that's not what happened. I don't think anyone even noticed our intrusion.

On our way up north, we stopped at a local restaurant. We had heard rumors of the Portuguese providing very generous portions of food (even by U.S. standards), so much so that a single dish can often feed two regular appetites or three light ones. But we had never really found that to be the case. The portions were always adequate but never generous; the food was nearly always good but tended toward heavy on the salt but otherwise bland, and wasn't what I'd call exceptional. Until we got here. The prices were reasonable, the staff was gracious and friendly and worked hard to make us happy, the portions were enormous and the food was delicious. The thing that separated this place from all the others is that they are apparently not used to catering to tourists, and so all our communication had to be through the erratic linguistic dance known as Portu-spañol and our waiter was extremely cooperative and adept. We had to share the restaurant with a group of about a dozen (though they sounded like fifty) middle-aged men, who were drinking and singing and even broke out the drums and accordion and started dancing. We were clearly not on the tourist circuit. And that was kinda cool.

On our way back we stopped by a large shopping center, sort of a Portuguese answer to Wal-Mart, except even better, bigger, and with more choices, and something Wal-Mart doesn't have...a huge stinking pile of dried, salted cod, three feet tall. These Portuguese really like their dried cod. When checking out, the cashier said something completely unrecognizable, much to my chagrin, and I had to admit that I didn't speak Portuguese. She rattled off a list of possible alternate languages to communicate with (kind of like giving the day's we have German and English with a French garnish), and I said that English or Spanish is okay with me. “English is good,” she said. “But Spanish...” and then she made some kind of a retching or spitting noise, clearly communicating her dislike of the language. I don't know if it was the sound of the language she didn't like, or the fact that it was spoken by their arch-rival nation, Spain. Then realizing her gaffe, she squirmed a little and asked me if I was Spanish. I said I was from the United States, and she was relieved.

So sometimes Spanish is a help, and sometimes it's a liability, and it's hard to know exactly when. Like the other night when I went down to the front desk, the fellow behind the desk greeted me warmly in Portuguese, and I asked him if he spoke English, and he said, “Yes,” in a nicely clipped British style English, giving me a great deal of confidence in his English abilities. I asked him about laundry service, something I was in desperate need of. He smiled and nodded knowingly, and showed me to the dining room, and pointed out the menu to me. I tried it again in Spanish, using words like “lavandería” and “lavar ropa” and figured one of those phrases had to have some similar cognate sound in Portuguese that he would latch onto and recognize. He seemed to catch on. “In your room?” he asked me. Laundry in my room? Well, I suppose I could do it myself, but the reason I'm asking is if there is laundry service, so I don't have to do it in my room. Then he showed me to the bar, and assured me I could have a drink in my room. I was beginning to wonder if maybe that wasn't a good idea. After all this, I was going to need a drink. I tried again in English, trying to not look impatient or worse, to laugh. “I want to wash clothes,” I said, grabbing ahold of my shirt and trying to make the motion of hand-washing clothes. “Yes, the bar close at twelve o'clock,” he assured me. I realized it was pointless for me to say, “Clothes, not close.” So I decided to change the subject. “Can I access the Internet?” I asked him. Internet is the international language. He smiled pleasantly and said, “I think you will talk to my colleague.” Yes, I suppose I will.

Of course, when I finally got the laundry price list, I could either have my clothes washed, or throw them away and buy new ones, it would cost about the same. I figured the bidet, some shampoo and hot water would work just as well.

Sunday provided us with a much-needed and deliberate Sabbath. Hardly much to tell. I slept in. We had a late breakfast. I read on the balcony. I napped. I read some more. We ate lunch in the hotel. We went back to the Wal-Mart clone again and picked up some snacks which ended up becoming dinner a few hours later; played some cards, read some more, and drifted to sleep to the soothing sounds of the Atlantic breakers. All in all, an extremely profitable day.

Monday, though, we got up early and headed northward to Santiago de Compostelos (St. James of the Compost Heap? That's my best guess as to the meaning, but I doubt that's it.) which is some place we had been told we HAD to go see, but since all of our guide books were for Portugal, and Santiago de Complostelos was in Spain, we knew virtually nothing about it. Except that we had to go see it.

And true enough, it is a cool town. It's about an hour from here to the Spanish border, and then Santiago is about an hour further. We pulled into Santiago during morning rush hour, with lots of construction, so it was a bit like San Jose, Costa Rica, trying to fight our way through traffic circles and Carmen, our trusty navigatrix, steered us right into the heart of town, and dumped us into a parking garage. We spent half an hour in the mutli-level parking garage. Parking garages in the States can often feel tight; this place would challenge the turning radius of a child's tricycle. First we had to find a place to park, which involved going to the third level and circling it like a vulture waiting for someone to pull out; and then when someone actually cleared a spot, actually maneuvering the car into its place. I suddenly found myself craving one of those truncated “Smart” cars that are so popular here in Europe. The parking spots in the garage were completely unfathomably tight. Literally EVERY car we saw parking there required one of the passengers, usually a hysterical Spanish middle-aged woman, to guide the driver through the wafer-thin clearances between cars, usually involving about ten or twenty rotations through reverse and first gear to inch their way back and forth into the parking spot. With a little butter and a shoehorn, we managed to get our car parked in much the same way, minus the hysterical Spanish lady.

Santiago really is a cool town. The old city has lots of monuments and like most similar spots is lined with trinket shops where you can get all sorts of things made in Taiwan that say “Souvenir of Spain” or whatever. What I really wanted to do was just sit and have an espresso, so that was my first order of business. The coffee here at the hotel is strong but vile, and usually has a greenish hue to it. So finding real coffee while out and about is a must. And since being here in Europe, to have anything less than two espresso stops after mid-day is the height of deprivation. Of course there's (green) coffee with milk in the morning. Milk in morning coffee is almost a requirement here; however, after breakfast, milk in coffee is anathema. Apparently, in Portugal, to pour milk in your coffee after breakfast is about as unthinkable as pouring whiskey on your morning corn flakes. But no matter; I only take milk in the morning to mask the green hue, so the two-espresso daily minimum (one between breakfast and lunch, and one after lunch, and occasionally one after dinner) suits me just fine.

Santiago has something else that most other cities don't have—the remains of one of the twelve apostles, the apostle James. At least that's what the tradition says. I didn't realize this until we went to the Cathedral (another impressive church), and there was this little alcove you could go, and it was clearly labeled, “The tomb of the Apostle James” (Santiago in Spanish). And there was this silver crypt. The bones of the apostle James. Naw, I thought. This can't be! But apparently, this little town is second only to Rome and the Holy Lands as being a pilgrimage destination. Why had I never heard this before? (Because I'm a poorly-educated American, that's why.) Of course, tradition and reality are not always in perfect unison. There is a strong tradition that suggests that James (the apostle, not the brother of Jesus) did to go Spain, and more sketchy tradition has Spain as his final resting place. And even if that's the case, who's to say (besides some 8th Century Pope) that the bones in that crypt really are the bones of St. James? Who knows, they might be. Tradition isn't something to be completely dismissed. But then again, they could just as easily belong to a sixth-century shepherd named Paco. And I suppose in the end, does it really matter? It would be nice to know as an historical curiosity, but beyond that, you start treading the dangerous waters of idolatry and relic worship.

There was something else that was unusual. Everywhere we went we heard Scottish or Irish music, and there were all these Celtic loops and things that smacked more of Edinburgh than Spain. I finally asked one of the shopkeepers to enlighten me a bit, and she gave me a crash course in Galician history and culture. She quickly informed me that the music I heard was not Irish but Galician. Santiago is in the region of Galicia, in the extreme northwest of the country, which is more closely linked culturally and ethnically with the Celts than with the rest of the Iberian populations. They are also fiercely independent, and would just as soon be separate from Spain. (Many of the signs we saw pointing to Spain are tagged, with “España” spray-painted out and “Galizia” (the Galician spelling) spray-painted in. There is even a Galician dialect, which I guess is sort of a Celtified Spanish. I tried to imagine what that must sound like. (“Ach! Git yer manos off me tortilla, ya wee muchacho!”) I had never made the connection between the words “Galicia” and “Gaelic”. Apparently the area was settled by Celts, sort of like Brittany in France was; and there is some debate as to whether Celts came down from Scotland/Ireland and settled there, or vice versa. Either way, I enjoyed learning something completely new about a place I have virtually no knowledge of to begin with.

So after being mere feet away from one of The Twelve and then dancing down the narrow Spanish streets to Celtic jigs and reels, we ate lunch, wandered around town a bit, sat in a shady park watching people go by, and then bit the bullet and squeezed out of the parking garage and took the beautiful drive back to Portugal.

We stopped by Feira Nova (the Portuguese Wal-Mart clone) to pick up something for dinner. There are no bargains in Europe...except wine. The average bottle of wine costs between 2 and 3 Euro, or 3-5 bucks. And it's very good wine. Sure, you can pay a lot more, but rarely do. In some cases, wine is literally cheaper than water. So we make our dinners from bread, cheese, cured meats (salami, pepperoni and the like), olives, dried fruit, nuts, and wine, and chocolate. All the things that Europe does really, really, really well. And we recently discovered another taste treat—piri piri sauce, a spicy, seasoned chile oil, which I guess is kind of the Portuguese answer to Tabasco.

Then on Tuesday (whew!) we got back in the Opel and headed north and west again, this time to Portugal's only national park. There are two parts, a northern part and a southern part, and between them is a quick jaunt through Spain, or at least what's supposed to be a quick jaunt. We meandered our way through the picturesque riverside drive in the northern portion, checking out old villages and driving past ancient monasteries. Then we crossed into Spain, and Carmen decided to get even with us for something. I'd turned onto some little road to reset Carmen with a new destination, and she tried to get us there by sending us down these little rocky paths that would intimidate even cattle. At one point we got wedged between a couple of other vehicles that were trying to go the other way, and letting me through wasn't very high on their priority list. We finally backed ourselves into a corner after Carmen instructed us for the millionth time to “turn right on unpaved road” that did not exist. And sometimes it did, but there was no WAY I was going to drive on it. So I did a twenty-point turn to get us out of there, and finally, ignoring Carmen's highly annoying protests, got us back onto some sort of main road, and Carmen got her bearings once more and led us properly through the maze back into Portugal, and the southern part of the national park.

The drive throughout was extraordinarily beautiful. It took us through landscapes that reminded us of the rain forests of the Oregon Coast, the pine forests of central Washington, and alpine overlooks that can only be Europe. Hairpin turns were so tight that the turning radius of our car was pushed to the maximum. I'm not even sure you could fit an actual hairpin in the gaps between the loops, they were so tight. The distance we covered was not very great, but it seemed to take all day. We finally made our way back to the coast, and decided to try a roasted suckling pig restaurant we had passed by a few days ago. It's one of the Portuguese specialties, and we were told it was a “must”. I was relieved that we weren't going to have to pick our meal the same way you pick a lobster at Red Lobster (“Yeah, I'll take that little piglet sleeping next to his mommy.”)

So...our adventure in Portugal and Spain is coming to a close. It's been a really awesome experience, getting to know this part of the world that I really knew virtually nothing about. It's definitely a place I'd like to return to some day. Now all that's left is to get up at 3:30 tomorrow morning, take our ride to the airport for our early morning departure to Madrid, and from there to Atlanta, and from there to Salt Lake City. (We've heard horror stories about the Madrid airport, so we're HOPING for no more “adventures”).

It's been about two and a half weeks. In some ways, it's flown past. But at the same time, when I think about our first night here, it seems like such a long time ago, so much has happened, we've seen and done so much. It's been great...and I am very grateful for this experience.'s time to get on home. Thanks again for joining me!

To view the last installment of photos, click here.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Portugal, Part 4

Well, I managed to find another Internet connection, but it's highly ephemeral; I am granted 15 minutes of free Internet each day at the hotel we are now staying at, which means that I can do little more than cut-and-paste this into my blog, highly unedited, and thus you get to be subjected to yet another blog entry in which I ramble on about traveling in Portugal and Spain with my parents. Don't you feel so honored that I'm spending my precious Internet seconds on you? Hooray for you!

Anyway, where did I leave off? Ah, yes, Thursday, September 24, our first day striking out on our own. With the mournful strains of fado music, with all its saudade (a Portuguese word that refers to an intense, unfulfilled longing—homesickness, lost love, and nostalgia, all that sort of thing, rolled up into one emotion that really can only be properly expressed in song), I surrendered to a way-too-early wake up call, had my bag out of my door at 5 AM and was on the bus with about half the Elderhostel (er, Exploritas) group.

Everyone else was going to catch an airplane (except for those, as we later found out, that got stuck because of the Portuguese airline pilot's strike, which has immobilized some 20,000 people over the past couple days); meanwhile, we were going to catch a rental car. Turns out that most of the adventure happened before we even drove out of the parking garage. Once we located our car rental counter, we were told we couldn't get the car until 10 AM. (We were there at 6:30 AM). I don't know if it was my puppy dog eyes or what, but this little problem was waived, and we were given a constract, and by 8:00 were standing in front of an Opel sedan that required a magnifying glass to see clearly. (Needless to say the leg room was a bit tight.) We spent a good while going over every scratch on the car to make sure that we wouldn't be held responsible for it. We loaded our bags. I got the key, turned the ignition, plugged in the GPS unit I brought from the States, and...discovered that the power outlet didn't work. That wouldn't do...we NEEDED this GPS unit to navigate the craziness that is Portugal.

So I tracked down someone from the car rental agency, and they eventually gave us a new car...this time (fortunately) a station-wagon type car, with more luggage space and more leg room (bonus) and a power outlet that functioned (we checked this out before doing anything else). So a little after 9 AM we finally got ourselves moving.

As far as functionality went, the GPS unit was purely decorative the first day. Oh, it worked all right, in terms of telling us where we were. But it failed to tell us where we wanted to go. Or at least it was trying to get us there by way of Morocco. I thought I'd programmed in the city of Obidos (oh-bid-DOOSH) but it apparently thought we wanted to go the opposite direction, and kept telling us so, until we finally told it to shut up and tried to follow a map. Once we successfully navigated the 20-lane roundabout whose centrifugal force finally flung us in a generally northward direction, we criss-crossed the web of freeways until we found the one we wanted to be on...using the good old fashioned paper map. Remember those? Then I plugged in the GPS coordinates of where we wanted to go (you know, North 31 degrees 22 minutes, 16 seconds, etc) and boom, it was spot on, though by then it was purely academic, since we knew where we were going.

The freeways are quite nice, clean, well-maintained, and autobahn-fast. The speed limit was about 120 km/h (about 70 mph), but any vehicle even capable of doing 100 or more miles per hour (160 km/h) was doing so, no exaggeration. I kept our Opel purring at about 140 km/h (what's that, 85 mph?) and was constantly being passed like we were standing still.

But we were rewarded an hour or so later when we pulled up to our inn at Obidos, a small town with an enormously tall medieval wall surrounding it. Our small hotel is butted up against one of the outer walls, and has that kind of classically austere feel about...comfortable in that circa 1940 kind of way.

We couldn't check in for a while, so we wandered through the streets of the city before it got too hot. Everything is narrow, cobblestone road, all the buildings are white-washed with cobalt blue trim, bougainvillea plants growing up everywhere. And of course tons and tons and tons of trinket shops and refreshment stands. Very touristy, but really, really cool looking too. It's kind of like a medieval outdoor mall. Most of the stuff that they sell around here is ceramic; Portugal is famous for its blue and white tiles, and so lots of souvenir kitch reflects that. They also make stuff out of cork (most of the cork in the world comes out of Portugal, did you know?). Not just wine corks, but they actually make it into cloth, of all things. Handbags, umbrellas, ties, shoes, just about everything imaginable is made from cork, and it actually comes off feeling like very soft suede. I don't know what they do to it to make it “work” but it seems to.

And of course there are the vendors of Port wine (no bargains!) and this cherry liqueur that the area is famous for. Not to diss their cherished beverage or anything, but if I could buy the empty bottles and just fill them with cherry Nyquil when I got home to give away as gifts, it would be pretty much indistinguishable, both in taste and in effect. (In all fairness, maybe I haven't yet tasted the “real” stuff, but the little I tried worked wonders on my cough.)

As the day warmed up, we sat in a beautiful chapel for a while. Just sat there. Didn't have anyone telling us we had to be somewhere in ten minutes. We just sat there, enjoying the quiet and the baroque designs which by now we're getting familiar with. Then we stopped by one of the little hole-in-the-wall places and got ham sandwiches.

Then we checked in, and napped a bit through the heat of the afternoon, and ate at this restaurant (which had been recommended by Susana to us) called Alcaide. It's pronounced “Al-Qaeda” as in the terrorist group. Despite conjuring up images of suicide bombers, it was quite good. Like most Portuguese meals we've had, it was tasty but not presumptuous; hearty and simple fare.

Which brings us to today, Friday. After breakfast, I took a walk along the ramparts of the old Obidos city walls. They were built in the 1100s, so they are pretty darn old, and parts of the rampart walk definitely showed its age. Most of it was quite precipitous; basically walking along a three-foot wide ledge, with lots of very uneven pavement. One trip could be deadly. On a couple of occasions I had to slow-dance with some French people who were moving in the opposite direction along the wall, as we tried to maneuver past one another without falling fifty feet down into someone's back yard.

Then it was time to put our Garmin GPS unit to the test. I named the female voice giving instructions “Carmen.” Sounds kinda like Garmin. It was amusing how the vocal algorithms try and pronounce the names of the roads and streets. The highways are labeled with “A” and “IC” which Carmen tries to pronounce “Ike”. It took a while for me to realize that when she was saying “Eye Kate” she was trying to say “IC-8”. And when she tried to pronounce Estalagem Santo Andre, it sent us into fits of laughter.

But Carmen did the trick quite nicely, all things considered. Instead of putting down street addresses, I used Google-earth to get the actual GPS coordinates of our various stops, and it really did the trick. Our sightseeing outing today was Conimbriga, which is one of the most prominent Roman ruins on the Iberian peninsula, and if Carmen had her way, we'd have been driving our Opel right down the stone cardo between the Roman columns. (I chose instead to use the visitor's center parking lot.)

From Conimbriga, we had the long, long, LONG drive up to the seaside hotel that Susana had booked for us, in the town of Aver-o-Mar, north of Porto. We plotted a course that avoided going through Porto, which was kind of oppressive, traffic-wise. It took us back through some of the country we had traveled through on our boat journey, in fact, we passed by many of the same landmarks. A beautiful drive. And Carmen was our faithful companion through it all. Why did we ever doubt her?

As we approached Aver-o-Mar, we meandered through a bustling resort town, with all its casinos and high-rise hotels (something we were trying to avoid), and Carmen told us to turn left “here” and named a road which we couldn't understand or confirm with any road signs. “Seriously, Carmen?” I asked as we turned onto this miniscule, ancient cobblestone road barely wide enough to handle our car. We still had several kilometers to go, and this did not look like it was going to do anything but end as a sidewalk. As if saying, “Just trust me, and drive, you moron,” Carmen continued to issue commands nonchalantly, which I continued to follow reluctantly, as we twisted and turned down these roads which one could generously call “quaint.” But...I gotta hand it to her, when she said, “Arrive at destination!” we had, indeed, arrived at our destination, a smallish sea-side hotel overlooking a wide, lonely stretch of beach on the Atlantic. My little balcony looks over the water, and I watched, I think for the first time, the sun set on the Atlantic ocean. (I've seen the sun rise many times on it, but never set!)

Anyway, by the time I get this posted and ready, my fifteen minutes of Internet will have dissipated, but thanks once again for travelling with me! In a few days I'll collect another fifteen minutes of Internet time and check in once more.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Portugal, Part 3

It's Wednesday night in Lisbon, and this is our last night with the Elderhostel group. (Just so you know, while we were on this trip, Elderhostel legally changed their name to Exploritas, a contraction of Exploration and Veritas (Latin for truth). It seems that name-changing is all the rage these days! In any event, any name is better than Elderhostel. It has carried the connotation of old people staying in youth hostels. Or just plain hostile elders (and I'm sure there've been a few of those, too.) In any event, we left Elderhostelers and we return Exploritasslers, as Brigitte, the young British woman who is our group leader, said.

Brigitte is a kick. You can frequently see her counting people. When we're particularly bad, we have to line up and walk through an imaginary turnstyle one at a time to be counted. I usually say “Moo” as we head down the branding chute. Susana, our Portuguese guide (another brilliant young woman) and Brigitte make a great team. Susana carries the shepherd's staff and leads us around, and Brigitte flanks the group nipping at everyone's heels and keeping them in line. I usually say “Baa” to Susana and “Moo” to Brigitte. I will miss them when we all go our separate ways. Brigitte's organization of our group with her wry British humor, erm, humour, has been a great bonus, and Susana is quite possibly one of the most brilliant people I know. She speaks at least five languages fluently and probably gets by in several others; she leads tours all over Europe and manages an entire encylopedia of information, a la Rainmain. (She was even the private tour guide for Princess Rania of Jordan a few months ago.) I've only heard Susana get stumped on one thing...what's the average rainfall in the upper Duoro Valley. She didn't know. Mr. Sunshine, when talking about that later in the day, was disgusted by this unforgiveable gap in her knowledge. “Someone get her a book!” he grumbled.

As the baby of the group, it has sort of fallen to me to assist people out of the bus. It's a tough job—not the assisting, but to determine just who to assist. Folks in this group range from the stable, healthy and active semi-retired folks who would just as soon bicycle around Portugal as ride a bus, to those who could nearly blow over with a puff of wind and shatter. Heaven forbid I offer my hand to someone who could just as easily do cartwheels out of the bus.

A lot of the folks on the trip frequently ask me how I like hanging out with the old folks. And I can truthfully answer that I really have enjoyed it. They're an interesting group...most are quite well-traveled and lead interesting lives. And it's nice feeling (for once) like I'm the one that people have to catch up with. And it's also a reminder to me to do what you can, while you can, because most of us are going to be old some day. But they're also quite grandmotherly, the ladies anyway. I've come down with a cold over the past couple days, so they frequently ask about how I'm feeling. I'm sure if I were at their home I'd be plied with tea and biscuits and chicken soup.

Anyway, as for the running commentary on our day-to-day lives...let's see. On Sunday night we arrived at Porto, where, after our captain took us down to the mouth of the Porto river (giving us a great view of the beautifully-lit waterfront of Porto at night), we docked at our starting point. The next morning at 8:00 our bus collected us and we headed for Coimbra, a university town in central Portugal. Wow, what a cool town. The university makes Harvard look like a young community college. It was started in 1100-something. So it was steeped in tradition. We took a tour of several of the baroque “new” buildings, which date back to the 1600s.

There is a lot of tradition with university students in Portugal. One tradition is the black cloak, which all are given to wear. In years past it was a required part of the uniform. Nowadays it is used in formalities, special occasions, or during the winter. But given the ancient surroundings, young people wearing black cloaks, it gives the whole place kind of a Hogwarts feel. I half expected to see people flying around on brooms.

Now, it's the beginning of the school year, so there's a lot of hazing going on, most of it good-natured. We passed by a group of a couple dozen young initiates, who all of a sudden plunged into our group of perplexed seniors like wolves among sheep and starting hugging us like we were long-lost friends. (Wow, these people are so friendly!) The fact that we were mere targets for their hazing ritual of course didn't have anything to do with that. It was all quite amusing. Once we passed through the throng of hug-happy freshmen, we toured some of the old buildings, including the library, which is quite possibly one of the most awe-inspiring old buildings I've seen. “It's all a bit Harry-Potterish, isn't it?” Brigitte commented to me as we craned our necks upward to see the level after level of ancient books. “I half expect to see a gnome shuffling about fetching books.” Like I said, the whole place reminded me of Hogwarts. Tragically, we weren't allowed to photograph in there. Sigh.

From Coimbra, we made our way down to Lisbon, a city of significant size. We rolled into town in the late afternoon and got ourselves all sorted at the hotel, which is pretty close to the city center. It's actually a cool city, lots of monuments and both old and new buidlings. Well, none of the buildings are too old, as the entire city was destroyed in the 18th century during a massive earthquake, so that which was rebuilt is new since then. But old by Western USA standards. Lots of squares and boulevards and parks and so forth.

The hotel overlooks one of the squares. It's a hotel in kind of the grand old style, a four-star hotel in that sort of faded-glory way. But no matter; I appreciate being able to take a shower in something more than three cubic feet of space which is about all I had on board the ship!

We all ate together at a nearby restaurant that was somewhat disappointing, but by now, we've done quite well food-wise, there's really no space for complaint.

Tuesday we went to the nearby village of Sintra. Holy crap. This place was incredibly beautiful. Forget what I said about Lamego, this place was one of those idyllic villages set amid the forested mountains, with all sorts of castles and palaces dotting the landscape. We toured one of the palaces, a place you could actually take photographs in, so that was cool. Afterward we wandered around town a bit, grabbed some espresso. Went into some Port wine shops as well, and saw some bottles for sale that date back to the 1800s. None of them were cheap. We're talking into the thousands of Euros. Oh, if I won the recent 100-million Euro lottery, I'd buy the lot and have a big tasting. But it's been my experience that the Port wine more within my reach here is no better, and no cheaper, and often the exact same Port as we can buy at Costco or any stateside wine shop. And the really good stuff...well, it comes at a premium that will forever place it in the category of Nectar No Mere Mortal Such As Myself Shall Ever Apsire To Enjoy. Fortunately, Portugal is also quite prolific with some very nice and affordable table wines.

Tuesday afternoon we had “off” which for me meant a nap after lunch. Dinner was on our own, as well, and so my folks and I took a cab to a place a ways a way that had been recommended to us by some friends, and it was a worthwhile recommendation.

So today, Wednesday, we took our big tour of Lisbon. We started off visiting the maritime museum, which is housed in part of what had been an enormous convent and church (quite easily the biggest and most impressive that I've seen yet). It was remarkably well done. Lieutenant Katherine was our guide; she was an attractive, smartly-dressed young naval officer, who led us sheep down hallways and hallways of displays and model ships celebrating Portugal's glory days as the commanders of the seas and all-around explorers extraordinaire. The shipping trade had at one time made Portugal one of the world's wealthiest and most powerful nations. Small country, big heart,” as Susana our guide often says. Portugal's glory lasted a century, perhaps two. It got me thinking about how we (the USA) have really only been a superpower for less than that time, and most of Europe serves as a lesson that Things Don't Always Last The Way You Think They Will.

We visited a botanical garden nearby; by now, the day had become rather hot. The past couple of days it's been unseasonably warm in Portugal, up into the high 80s, near as I can tell. So we jumped from shady spot to shady spot, trying to listen to the garden's guide, who dressed and acted a bit like a washed-up lounge singer, constantly ask our guide how to say such-and-such in English. (I suppose have no right to complain; his English is infinitely better than my Portuguese. Then again, I don't pick up a microphone and try and lead tours of Portuguese-speakers through my home town.)

We had lunch (yay!) at a waterfront restaurant, which served fish (really!) I think I've had more fish on this trip than I usually have in a year back home. Don't get me wrong, the fish is fine. Well, at least I suppose it is, since my cold has left me without the ability to taste. Though generally speaking, this doesn't leave me quite as heartbroken as it would have done in say, Italy or France. The food here has been good, but it's not particularly exotic or intensely flavored. Fish, your standard vegetables, salad greens, an occasional beefsteak or chicken, potatoes, brothy soups, creamy desserts, and good, strong espresso. It's hearty, homey fare, but most of what we've had has been pretty ordinary.

After lunch we paid a visit to the same Monastery of St. Jerome, where the naval museum was housed, but this time we went into the main sanctuary and the cloisters. All I can say is WOW. Photos won't do it justice. Towering ceilings, ornate columns, the cloistered courtyard was incredibly beautiful. Or, in the parlance of Mr. Sunshine, “Another damn church.”

We returned to the hotel and got ready for our farewell dinner at a “fado bar”...a little restaurant tucked away in some dark cobblestoned alleyway, with ancient stone floors and timbers that had to date back a couple centuries. The food was quite tasty (or so I was told, still can't taste much) but more to the point, we enjoyed one last meal together. Then a fado music group entertained us with the traditional Portuguese “fado” this case, a guitar, a mandolin, and a woman who could SING. Wow. The music was dripping with rich, exotic, haunting melodies that appealed to me instantly. Recognizeable elements you find in Greek, Middle Eastern, and Spanish music, but not really “like” any of them. The words I could pick up had to do with longing, broken hearts, betrayal, and other universal themes of minor-key music. Kind of made you want to dance and cry at the same time.

So ended our group tour together of Portugal, certainly a small taste, but enough to make me want to come back some day. Tomorrow (Thursday) we go with the group EARLY to the airport. The rest get on planes; we get a rental car, and are going to suddenly be on our own. No one to hold our hands, tell us where to go, decide what we eat, tell us when to be where. Part of me looks forward to that; but part of me also is going to miss the relatively carefree way we live when we don't have to make the decisions or do the driving.

Our hotels are booked (theoretically) already through the week. The plan is to spend tomorrow night in Obados (pronounced “Oh-bah-DOOSH”) which I guess is a very beautiful little medieval village. Then we head to Povoa, north of Porto (the place we began our trip). From there we'll do day-trips around northern Portugal, and probably up into Spain once or twice. Susana, our guide, was a great help to us in recommending places to stay and things to see.

Anyway...we have to get up early so I'm going to post this and go to bed. You can CLICK ON THIS LINK to view some more photos. I'm a couple days behind this log in photos, but my next update I'll hopefully be caught up. I don't know what the Internet situation will be like where we're going, so I may or may not post something else before leaving the country. But either way, thanks for “traveling” with me! It's been fun.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Portugal & Spain, Part 2

Well, we're here in Lisbon, now, and I finally managed to find an Internet connection!

Here's the deal...what follows is kind of a running log of our journey since my last update, and I haven't had time to really sit down and edit it, so it's longer and a bit more run-on than it would otherwise be, and probably contains details that on later reflection wouldn't really be of much interest to you, but...oh, well! Here it is, the director's cut, unedited. If you're not interested in the minutiae of this journey, I won't be offended, and may offer a shortened version of it when I get back. If you just want to see the photos, scroll down to the bottom and click on the link. Okay, so here's my rambling journal notes.

My last entry was from last Wednesday, our “uneventful” day on the boat, spent heading upstream, as I was recovering from my little malarial fever bit or whatever it was. I'm grateful to say that thus far it has never reappeared, and have felt quite good since.

Thursday morning, our tour took us to the village of Lamego, an extremely picturesque town located in the mountains alongside the Duoro river, surrounded by terraced vineyards. In terms of sheer beauty, definitely the most impressive place I've seen so far. At the top of a very high, steep hill, accessed by some 300-plus stairs carved out in a very ornate baroque fashion, was an equally ornate church, Nosso Senhora de los Remedios (Our Lady of the Remedies). Fortunately, there was also a road to the top, allowing us to view the church...without requiring its funerary services. But most of us did walk down the stairs.

By the time we returned to the ship, it was time for lunch. We ate in our typical regimented fashion...that is, don't dare use the wrong utensil for the wrong meal or you will completely upset the kitchen staff and possibly cause the boat to capsize. It's that serious. It's a French cruise company, after all.

After lunch, a bunch of us went up onto the sundeck to watch the beautiful landscape go by. And it is beautiful...very rugged landscape, terraced into very hardy and distressed vineyards sinking their roots into the slate soil, and producing that “nectar” which mortals refer to as Port wine. True Port wine can only be grown from select grapes grown in the harsh, semi-arid regions along the Duoro River. It's the nectar that really is Portugal's gold.

We have to traverse a series of locks to get to the most upstream navigable parts of the river...five dams and locks, if I'm not mistaken. (These dams, by the way, also provide about 60% of Portugal's power.) Mr. Sunshine, when faced with this fact, demanded to know “what kind” of power. (What other kinds of power do dams generate? Hydro-political power?) Of course, he has constantly been on the lookout for reasons why Portugal, or any other country that doesn't happen to be the USA, is vastly inferior.

A few miles later, we went under a rail bridge. Not such a big deal until you realize that there was a paper-thin clearance between the top of the boat and the bottom of the metal trusses of the bridge. Keep in mind that there were still 40 or 50 of us still standing on the sun-deck when this happened. As the bridge approached, we began to get a little uneasy. Should we be up here? Of course, we thought, nah, couldn't possibly be as low as we thought. The sun-deck's canvas shade had been hydraulically lowered so that the top of it was about three feet above the deck line...meaning that most of us stood three feet higher than the top of the shade. As the bridge approached, we realized that we were literally going to have to hit the deck. Imagine 50 people nervously laughing (or screaming) as we scrambled to get ourselves lower to the ground than the three-foot canvas shade. It seriously is a wonder at least someone didn't get decapitated. (Well, this is a French cruise company, and the French know a thing or two about decapitation...) We couldn't even sit up; all 50 or so of us who were up there had to lie down or crouch down low on the astroturf as we passed (quite rapidly I might add) under the metal trusses in order to avoid being smeared like warm butter across the top of the canvas sunshade. There was literally less than a foot of clearance between the sunshade and the trusses. We very nearly could have been one of those tragic stories that people eventually must admit that they laughed about when they heard it on the news. Of all the dangers you don't prepare for when you board a cruise ship...

I was grateful that Mr. Sunshine wasn't up there, because he would no doubt have provided us with a long lecture about liability and how in a civilized country no one would have been allowed to be on deck during such an event. I happen to agree that no one should have been allowed up there (even though it was kinda fun, once it became clear that all of us had kept our heads on our shoulders, literally), but don't tell that to Mr. Sunshine.

So that excitement passed, and the landscape went from rugged and dramatic to drier and gentler; from grape vineyards to sporadic olive groves and finally, everything just started to look like the Yakima River valley as we headed for our most upstream destination, Spain, which we arrived at around dinner time.

The next morning (Friday) we got up early, and boarded our busses for Salamanca, Spain. It was about a 2 hour bus ride from our docking spot. It was actually a pleasant drive, through the rolling dry plains dotted with oak trees and olive groves and sheep and cattle. It was overcast, so it didn't make for the most dramatic of photography, but it was pleasant enough to look at.

Upon arrival in Salamanca, it was refreshing to finally be able to speak without using memorized phrasebook sentences. I reveled in my newfound freedom to actually interact unincumbered by language with people in town. And Salamanca is a beautiful university town, with an enormous cathedral...two of them, actually. Again, the overcast clouds threatened to make the rain from Spain fall mainly on the plain, and also didn't make for really stunning photos, but my dozen or so hours in Spain gave me enough of a taste to make me want to come back some day.

Upon returning in the afternoon, we actually met the boat a couple miles back downstream, back in Portugal, meaning we did a land border-crossing, my first land-crossing in the EU. It was a new experience to cross an international boundary without even a hint of customs. There was a blue EU “Portugal” sign (heavily tagged by someone), and that was it. It was about as complicated as going from Idaho to Utah, except here the language changes significantly. Well, actually, I guess that happens when you go to Utah too.

Saturday was a more relaxed day...actually got to sleep in. The boat left our dock around 8 and headed downstream a ways to another dock, where the busses picked up the tourists sometime after lunch. We took an incredibly scenic and treacherous bus ride along exceedingly steep and sheer mountain roads with some incredible vistas of the terraced wine country. We were then deposited at the Sandeman winery, near the village of Pinhao, where we took a tour of the Port wine production facilities. Sandeman, for those who may not be Port wine aficionados, is one of the larger and better-known Port producers. It was all quite slick and led by some young guy dressed in a black cape and black sombrero, all Zorro-like, as this is the trademark emblem of the Sandeman company. Since we are here precisely at harvest time, we got to see some of the grapes being crushed, the smell of which brought back all sorts of childhood memories of the fall crush back in our active vineyard days.

We were given samples of the Port wine, which was decent enough, but nothing special. But the view and the facilities more than made up for the unspectacular Port. We were then spirited (pun intended) back to Pinhao, where we visited a wine museum, and were given a sample of some 12-year-old vintage Port. At the same time, we were given a demonstration of a different way to open a wine bottle. Metal tongs, the ends of which were designed to perfectly encircle a wine bottle's neck, were heated in a flame until glowing, and were then placed around the neck of the bottle for a few seconds. When the glass was heated enough, ice water was poured over the neck and the temperature shock, in theory, would make a clean break. After a couple of tries, they eventually got it to work. But man, when they poured that THAT was a stop worth making. I like Port wine okay, but it's not the first thing I reach for. This stuff, I would reach for. Of course, I'm sure it's 50 or 60 Euro a bottle, so don't anyone expect me to bring back samples.

Sunday we boarded our trusty coach early in the morning for a trip to the village of Vila Real, another very picturesque town in the steep, green mountains along the Duoro River. We took another road that was just screaming to become one of those “bus plunge” stories you read about in the international news section of the newspaper, as in, “Portugal Bus Plunges Over Cliff, Kills 45.” Absolutely spectacular scenery, and by some miracle we did not become a part of it. The Death Bus disgorged its passengers at the Mateus estate, a beautiful, classically baroque home surrounded by meticulously manicured gardens. I was just admiring the whole scene when Mr. Sunshine comes up behind me and croaks, “Well, all these places start looking alike after a while. Don't they? I mean, come on.” I very nearly turned around and smacked him.

We returned to the ship, and from there we continued our journey back downstream toward Porto, our final destination. It was a relaxing afternoon, just watching the scenery slip by. This really is a beautiful country.

Well, that's more than enough for now. I'll post the next few days' travels next time I update the blog.

Here is the link to my Facebook photos: click here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Portugal, Part 1

Okay. So I'm sitting here in the lounge of Infante D. Enrique, a river cruise boat on the Duoro River in Portugal. We have a full free day on the boat! I'm looking at a huge steel arched tress bridge constructed by the same bloke that built the Eiffel Tower. And a muzak version of Madonna's “Like A Virgin” is playing. Oh, wait. Now it's kind of a soft-jazz lounge singer's version of U2's “With or Without You.” Welcome to the incongruous world of cruises.

I for one am grateful, exceedingly grateful, for a day in which we don't have any programmed activities, except for a lecture in the afternoon. Yesterday morning on the bus on an outing I suddenly started feeling sick, and passed out. Yay! So I spent the rest of the excursion laying in the back of the bus, trying to rehydrate myself after all the cold sweats. At fist, I thought it was my old friend malaria coming back on me. And it may have been, I don't know. It often makes an appearance when I'm tired, or haven't slept, or am under stress. All I know is that it really took it out of me. Most of the rest of the day, upon return to the boat, was spent in considerable intestinal distress, not unheard of with malaria but it's usually not been my primary symptom when I've had it in the past. Who knows, I may have put my hand on the wrong rail in our forty-mile excursion through the Paris Airport. I'm not really that much of a germaphobe, but when you think about the tens of thousands of people that pass through that airport, and where they came from, and their less-than-pristine hygiene habits, sliding their hands along escalator and walkway rails, well...let's just say you don't really need to travel to the third world to get dysentery.

Anyway, I'm generally feeling better today, and hoping that it's behind me, and not just lying in wait to pounce again.

But I'm not really complaining; illness aside, I've really been enjoying the trip.

On the afternoon of Saturday the 12th, after the Peach Days parade in Brigham City, my parents and I flew from Salt Lake City directly to Paris...the only direct flight between Salt Lake and Europe. It was uneventful as flights go. Long. Boring. Mildly uncomfortable. But overall, not too bad.

Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris is pretty big. It's pretty well-marked, so getting lost isn't really a big problem. So cheers to the French for that. But that doesn't mean that we didn't spend a couple hours walking from one point to another. We managed to get ourselves to the Air Portugal flight to Porto. I was pleased to see that for the two-hour flight they would actually serve a meal. Well, my excitement lasted until the meal came. The meal was not apparently approved by the Portuguese Tourism Board. (“First time to Portugal? Welcome! Here's a steaming pile of vile rubbish for lunch!”) For the record, most subsequent meals have been quite good, and many downright excellent.

We were picked up at the Porto airport in a seamless exchange, and taken to our hotel by a hotel representative. The hotel was quite nice, a four-star I believe. Right in the heart of old Porto.

Before I go any further, I should probably state that this is an Elderhostel trip. Elderhostel is an organization that organizes educational tours for retired folks, and they range from weekend getaways to pretty serious international excursions. I'm not in the age bracket for Elderhostel (55 and up) but I'm apparently able to come as a “guest” of my parents. So I am kind of the baby of the group of 41 or so retired folks. (Makes me feel young...sort of.) Overall, it's a nice bunch of folks, and I've enjoyed getting to know some of them. A couple of them, of course, I've had to learn quickly what subjects to tread lightly upon. (I once nearly got my head bitten off for saying that I found Palestinians to be quite hospitable as a people.) I call him "Mr. Sunshine." Of course, he finds a way to complain about perfect weather. after the first night at the hotel, we took a bus tour of the city of Porto, which is quite a beautiful city, and then found ourselves on the riverboat that afternoon. The boat was to remain docked in Porto for a couple of days (and in fact just left the dock as I was writing this entry.) So after yesterday's bout with whatever it is that I had, that brings me up to now...our boat is meandering slowly up the Duoro river, along steep, forested banks with the occasional villa or village perched overlooking the river. All things considered...not too bad! Well, I think it's time to break out the camera, so I'll close for now.

Addendum in the PM: We arrived at some small town that has an internet cafe on the dock (woo-hoo!) so I'm actually able to post this today! How exciting!

For a few photos, check out this link.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Word on the Street...

One peculiarity here in our great state of Utah is its widespread collection of inscrutably bizarre baby names. Sure, there will always be people anywhere who will name their children Zippity-do-dah or some fool thing, but I'm telling you, it's downright epidemic here behind the Zion Curtain. I would wager that there is no other state where you will find a girl whose name is pronounced "Absiddy" (spelled "Abcde," as in, the first five letters of the alphabet.) It gets worse. And this being Utah, there are of course a lot of names that come from the Book of Mormon, which has its own share of bizarre names (Zeezrom, Coriantumr, etc.) Now, when Lord of the Rings came out, it was no big surprise that there would be lots of girls being named Arwen and Eowyn and boys named Legolas and Aragorn. Of course, most Lord of the Rings fans presumably know that these names are fictitious. But the poor kids going around with Book of Mormon names fully believe that they bear historical monikers. (Note to all you guys out there named "Nephi": If you happen to have a more conventional middle name like William or Matthew, or even HIJKLMNOP, I suggest you go by that when outside of Utah.)

I would probably give the same advice to many other people in Utah with, shall we say, non-standard names. For instance, if your parents are brain-damaged enough to name you something like Zaragrunudgeyon (an actual name, I kid you not), or Nightrain Lane (likewise), then you've certainly got a case for suing them for being an accomplice to assault, 'cause you're going to get beat up a lot on the playground.

Oh, and the Utah Baby Names list doesn't end there. There's a whole host of names that sound like they came from a Klingon dictionary, or were inspired by the periodic table of elements. (Chlorina?) If you ever want an amusing slice of Green Jell-o (local speak for "Utah culture"), check out the Utah Baby Namer link on the list of links on the right, and when you get there, select the "Cream of the Crop."

Anyway, it's a far cry from the way names were arrived at in biblical times. The Bible has its fair share of unusual names, but they nonetheless had meaning. Names were important. They communicated something much deeper than fashion or creativity (or, in the case of Utah names, cruelty and stupidity). And whenever a name is changed in the Bible, there's always an intriguing story behind it. Abram became Abraham, Simon became Peter, Saul became Paul. These all came about when God changed something very fundamental about the person who bore that name.

Well, I've been thinking a lot about names, because our little church, too, is undergoing a similar transformation, and we are adopting a new name, as well.

The idea of changing our name has come up from time to time ever since I moved here, but it never really gained any traction until now. The thing that triggered discussion of a name change this time around was the fact that the video ministry, when it separated from the church, insisted on retaining the name "Living Hope Ministries." We allowed them to do this, expecting that communication on their part would minimize the potential confusion. We were wrong. In fact, it has caused much more confusion and difficulty than we had anticipated, for us anyway.

Since we had already agreed to let them use the "Living Hope" name, we began to realize that the only way we could really draw a clear line of distinction between the church and the new organization, and to begin to put the confusion to rest, was for us to change our name.

At first glance, this seems like kind of a sorry reason to change a name. But after we considered the problems that precipitated this solution, something very different began to emerge in the whole idea of changing our name. It was a sense that God was re-making us, and forming a new identity for us, and a name change--quite apart from any of the "issues" with the video ministry--was almost inevitable. So changing the name wasn't simply a response to a problem, but rather, an outward expression of a fundamental change and growth that God was working in us as a church body.

I've mentioned in a previous entry how so much of what we had based our identity upon was being swept away. The name "Living Hope" around here is a pretty charged name. It's a name that carried weight (or baggage, depending on how you looked at it). It was always a temptation for us to revel in our notoriety. Whether you loved us or hated us, we were undeniably "known" in the state of Utah. So part of what I believe God has been doing is setting us free from the trappings of our notoriety, so that he can grow us in new ways.

With that in mind, we began to pray about what God was re-naming us. We didn't want to just adopt a name that sounded cool or clever or trendy. We wanted a name that communicated the essence of what God was doing in our church. Which actually got us asking a lot of very good what is God doing in us? What is He calling us to? To make a long story short, the name that emerged from our prayers and discussion was Main Street Church.

Main Street Church? Isn't that a little...plain? Well, yes, and deliberately so. It's uncomplicated, unpretentious, and unreligious. In other words, it's counter-culture, at least here in Utah. No sermons embedded in the name. It's not modern or trendy. But it does communicate, in a very concrete way, what God has been doing in and through us. We are, after all, a church on Main Street. We're in a high traffic area, and it's no mistake that God has placed us there. We are awakening to the many possibilities for ministry precisely because of our location on Main Street. We want to be approachable and engaged with our community, which we think this name communicates. We are growing in our passion to be salt and light, and to find practical ways to extend the love of Jesus to a town of very needy people--most of whom don't even have a concept of their need.

So...Main Street Church of Brigham City is our new name. We figure that we're in good company with the New Testament churches--church congregations were commonly known by their location. The church in Corinth. The church in Ephesus. The church that meets at so-and-so's house.

And then there's us. A little church on Main Street. A group of forgiven sinners, quirky, every last one of us, imperfect vessels seeking to serve a perfectly awesome God. It's been quite an adventure thus far; we're anxious to see where it goes from here!

Check out some pictures of Main Street Church's ongoing "facelift"...still a lot of work to do but it's coming.


PS: God willing, I'm leaving on Saturday for Portugal with my family (a nice early Christmas present from my parents!) and will be gone for the rest of the month. I don't know what the Internet situation will be like where we'll be, or if I'll have time to do any blog updating. At the very least I'll give you an update when I get back in October, and if I catch a few quiet moments with an Internet connection, maybe even something mid-trip.