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” music...in 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.