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.
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