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 special...today 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. But...it's time to get on home. Thanks again for joining me!

To view the last installment of photos, click here.

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