Category Archives: Travel in Europe

Fall Traditions: Aljezur’s Sweet Potato Festival and Giving Thanks

It came as a bit of a shock to us, back in 2012 and traveling in Mexico, that there were no outward signs that our favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, was taking place back in the US. Nope. We moved right from the Day-of-the-Dead to Christmas songs in the markets and grocery stores, simple and elaborate Nativity tableaus, and lighted decorations on the streets. That may have been our first clue that we were carrying some ethnocentric baggage with us as we moved from country to country. Over the years, we like to think that we’ve managed to shed some of the weight of those preconceptions as we’ve learned about other traditions and holidays. Interestingly, while mentioning Thanksgiving here in Portugal might get us a blank look, everyone knows exactly what the signs for Black Friday sales mean. It appears some cultural mores cross borders easily.

The weather changes so gradually that there isn’t much to mark the passage of summer to fall to winter in the Algarve. Portugal observes Daylight Saving Time so darkness comes earlier and mornings and evenings require a sweater or light jacket. And, instead of Thanksgiving heralding the holiday season, the Algarve Region has its own time-honored tradition: the annual Festival da Batata-Doce or Sweet Potato Festival. Taking place in nearby Aljezur (population 6,000) over the three-day weekend at the end of each November, the festival features the handicrafts and products of the Algarve and pays tribute to the sweet potato as part of its cultural and culinary history. In fact, the Aljezur Sweet Potato Producers Association goes out of its way to demonstrate that not all sweet potatoes are equal  by guaranteeing Aljezur’s tubers with a Protected Geographical Identification (PGI) stamp on each bag.

 

looking up at the Castle of Aljezur

 

The humble sweet potato is one of the earliest vegetables known to man with depictions of the root vegetable that date to prehistoric times discovered in Peruvian caves. They were among the various new foods that Christopher Columbus brought back to Spain during his voyage of 1492 and the Portuguese explorers are credited with carrying the sweet potato to Africa, India, Indonesia & southern Asia. During our time in the Algarve, I’ve developed quite a liking for the Aljezur sweet potatoes. However, it took a little persuading to convince Richard that we should go to the Sweet Potato Festival as he stubbornly maintains an aversion to the tuber being honored. In the end though, curiosity won out.

 

sweet potato beer and baked goodies

Canned tuna & sardines, cork products, spices and dried fruit

 

As expats, we love discovering festivals and learning about the cultural history of our adopted country. But, we also carry our Thanksgiving traditions in our hearts and each November we practice our own version of gratitude no matter where we are. This is the time of year we miss our son and grandson most and we’re thankful that they’re both happy and healthy. We take stock of our own health and, surprisingly take note of the fact that neither of us have had so much as a cold during the two years we’ve lived in Portugal. As Americans, we’re particularly grateful that we have health care when, for millions back in our country, this basic human right is either absent or under assault. We’re thankful that we have a comfortable home here in Lagos because many of the residents of our former home state of Texas and elsewhere, are still living in hurricane devastated communities, storm-damaged homes and makeshift shelters waiting for help from a government that’s reluctant to throw out more than a few rolls of paper towels. We’re thankful, too that we can safely walk the streets of our adopted country in daylight and after dark, and go into a theater, shopping center, concert hall and church without apprehension. And lastly, lest our love of our home country be questioned because we live as expats and speak freely of our deep concerns for the future of the US, we’re grateful to have come from a country with a rich tradition of welcoming all religions, ethnicities and races. We’re proud to have come from a country that’s provided sanctuary for those fleeing violence and oppressive regimes, offered a helping hand and safety net to our poorest, disabled and elderly and worked together with other nations for a better world for all. Our major contention with those who advocate for the ‘make America great again’ movement is – we happen to think, despite all its shortcomings, it’s always been great.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

tile mural of Aljezur and its Castle on the hill

 

The Hoopla About Hoopoes, A Birdwalk, and A Three-Hour Tour

In our former lives on Padre Island off the coast of Texas, one of the things we enjoyed most were the sea birds we could see in the wetlands near our house on a canal.  We never failed to be thrilled by the V formations of twenty to thirty brown pelicans skimming close to the waves at the Padre Island National Seashore or the sight of a brown pelican streaking by outside our living room window and plunging into the water to catch a fish. From our deck, we could see the birds feeding in the nearby wetlands: regal snowy egrets, white ibis, and gangly, great blue herons along with the roseate spoonbills that arrived each winter. Among our favorites were the huge, American white pelicans that circled around our green-light that rested on the canal bottom near our dock, dipping their heads under the water and hunting for easy pickings in the fish the light attracted.  The miles of beaches nearby always had an abundant variety of birds for us to watch and be entertained by: black skimmers, long-billed curlews, sanderlings, various plovers and terns, cormorants and the beach cleaners, turkey vultures who floating lazily overhead on the lookout for dead and tasty morsels.  And hundreds of laughing gulls, squabbling, arguing noisily amongst themselves and hovering overhead when we opened our lunch cooler; fearless enough to snatch a sandwich from your hand if you weren’t careful.

 

Brown Pelicans at Padre Island National Seashore
August, 2012

However, we were never serious birdwatchers and, when we were selling all we owned to set off on our full-time travels in 2012, we never gave a thought to shedding ourselves of the heavy, bulky binoculars and the bird guide books we’d accumulated over the years.  Through Mexico, Central and South America, we occasionally missed our binoculars when we spotted exotic and colorful tropical jewels like toucans, motmots, macaws, parrots, tiny hummingbirds and, another favorite of ours, the Montezuma oropendola with its pendulous, hanging woven nests dangling from a tree limb looking like something from a Dr. Seuss book. And, on our visit to the Galapagos Islands, we really wished we could get an up-close-and-personal chance to study the blue-footed boobies, the (two) Galapagos penguins that graced us with a sighting and the magnificent frigates with their brilliant puffed out red throat pouches.  We would try to remember things to help us identify the mystery birds when we thought to look them up later while on our computers but rarely had much luck.

 

Magnificent Frigate, Galagagos Islands, Ecuador, November 2014

And now, here in Portugal, coming up on our two-year anniversary since we arrived to take up full-time residence, we’ve found our bird watching interest awakened once again.  Maybe it’s the multitude of enormous storks’ nests on rooftops and chimneys in Lagos and around the Algarve and the exhilaration we still feel when we see these huge, fabled creatures from old-time storybooks gliding by overhead.  It could be the flocks of azure-winged magpies alighting briefly in the tree outside our bedroom window, the yellow-legged gulls which are much larger than the laughing gulls we’d been used to in Texas or the sporadic sightings of a hawk.  We long to put a name to the multitude of small and medium-sized birds with varying beak and tail shapes, a mix of differing markings and an array of colors that we see on the outskirts of towns, beside rural roads and walking in the countryside.

It was the hoopoe sightings though, that finally convinced me it was time to up our game and outfit ourselves with binoculars (a starter-priced pair bought in a local sports shop) and a used bird guide, Birds of Britain and Europe, that I found at an English bookseller’s shop here in Lagos.  This spring and summer, I’d occasionally catch sight of a peculiar bird darting across a path, seeking cover under the low-hanging branches of a tree or flying not-so-gracefully between the low scrub bushes.  I’d catch a fleeting impression of a long beak, the stark contrast of black and white stripes and (maybe?) a crest.  However, when I’d describe these briefly snatched glimpses of the bird to Richard, he’d laugh at my attempted verbal sketch of a slightly ridiculous, mythical creature:  a ‘zebra-striped bird with a mohawk and a sneaky scuttle.’  A bird book would definitely have saved my credibility because I could have theatrically pointed out the hoopoe with a ‘there!’

 

This fall, we met full-time travelers and passionate birding enthusiasts, Beth and Joe Volk, who write a blog at Simple Travel Our Way and made Lagos their home base for the month of September. It was impossible not to get bitten by the birding bug when listening to them animatedly talking about birds they’d seen during their travels and one early morning we caught the bus to the nearby Alvor Estuary. Here we spent several hours strolling the boardwalk that runs between the Atlantic and the area’s marshes, mudflats, saltpans and dunes. A perfect, stand-out day with the sky a deep blue and the sun shining brilliantly overhead, the temperature exactly right, glimpses of a deep blue sea in the background, white sand drifting and forming continuous patterns and the golden grasses ruffled by the wind.  Beth kindly shared her binoculars with me while she and Joe paged occasionally through the bird guide they’d brought and wrote down the species we saw in a small notebook: great blue herons, kingfishers, crested larks, stonechats, spotted redshanks and on and on. Serious birdwatchers indeed, but how fun to have someone put a name to the birds we saw and share a lesson on spotting the distinctive as well as the subtle features important in identifying each species. My personal favorite of the day was the group of Eurasian spoonbills we watched for a while, sweeping their characteristic spoon-shaped bills from side to side for the day’s catch.

 

Can’t see the birds? If we become serious birdwatchers we’ll need a serious camera!

From August to November, the Sagres peninsula is a major migratory route for many species of birds leaving their European breeding grounds for the warmer climates of Gibraltar and Africa. Here is where Europe’s southwestern-most point, the west and south shorelines of Portugal, meet at Cabo de Sao Vicente (Cape Saint Vincent).  Lucky for us, Lagos is a mere half-an-hour drive away and we made a couple of visits to the town of Sagres (with a permanent population of 2000 wind-blown souls) during the annual 4-day October Birdwatching Festival.  With us were our good friends, Kiki and newly minted residents of Portugal, Anne and Tim Hall (check out their blog, A New Latitude) who also love to share their bird questing knowledge with us. (Incidentally, it was Tim who knew exactly what bird I was talking about when I rambled on about my mystery bird sightings.)  One of the activities during the festival was a discounted off-shore excursion with a marine biologist with the pamphlet saying we’d look for “wild and free dolphins, seabirds, sharks, turtles” and maybe even whales. We were stoked!

 

 

Arriving at our meeting point early in the morning, we set off on a three-hour tour with seven passengers – and the theme song from the old TV show, Gilligan’s Island, ear-worming through my mind.  As we left the harbor heading out to sea, we saw a few birds perched along the rocky outcroppings and the red lighthouse marking Fortaleza de Sagres high above on the cliffs like a good omen.  The sun shone, the water sparkled and a not-too-freezing wind blew by as the boat increased its speed with us continuously scanning and searching for sea creatures.  Before long, however, I was forced to lower my binoculars as they seemed to up my nausea quotient about 100-fold despite the magical sea-bands I was wearing on each wrist and a hefty dose of Mexican meclizine.  And then, a single dolphin broke the water on our side.  Soon enough, we were seeing one, two and three at a time keeping pace with us and then disappearing.  The boat stopped occasionally as the marine biologist pointed out a storm petrel here, a shearwater there and (those in-the-know with a book in hand) debated the differences between a European and wilson’s storm petrel and if the shearwaters were corey’s, greats, sootys or manxes.  Eventually we saw them all along with the ubiquitous gulls, great skuas, northern gannets and European shags. The sea rocked the boat in the ocean swells and, as we picked up speed with the occasional hard thump where we met the water, the first passenger leaned over the rail to get rid of her breakfast, followed a short while later by the French couple (whose names we never learned) on either side of the boat.  And then, we were shadowed by an enormous cloud of birds circling overhead and suddenly we were in the midst of them: diving into the water, floating the waves and taking off to circle overhead again. Hundreds and thousands of birds it seemed, in a feeding frenzy accompanied by scores of dolphins (the biologist later estimated we’d seen at least two-hundred) in twos, threes and fours: swimming in choreographed rows around and under the boat, leaping in synchronized arcs, their curved fins breaking the water then disappearing.  Below, the deep blue, seemingly opaque water showed its clarity as we watched bubbles appear, floating lazily to the water’s top and dolphins several feet underneath the surface gliding by silently.  Minutes ticked by slowly until time mattered no more.

 

 

Perhaps the attraction of bird watching is capturing those perfect moments in time where you are truly present and delighting in the gifts of nature’s winged beings, the great outdoors, a dazzling blue sky overhead and the sun shining.  Some days cost little but the time that comprises them and the appreciation for those moments they’re made of – perfect gems that make us absolutely certain that we are right where we want to be.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Boot Sales, Hippie Markets and Chinese Stores

cliffs by Porto de Mos, Lagos

It’s been a ‘staycation’ kind of summer for us here in Lagos, Portugal, with lots of friends stopping by and making use of our guest room (if you want your friends and family to visit, just move to Portugal!) and day trips here and there.  We’ve met several new friends who have contacted us through the blog and are checking out both Portugal and the Algarve to see what all the buzz is about. We’ve also enjoyed some great conversations as well as mentally filing away travel tips and fascinating stories about future places to visit.  And, over and over, while lounging by the pool, enjoying the beautiful beach near us called Praia Porto de Mos or scarfing down a meal dining with friends, we’ve congratulated ourselves, several times in fact, about our decision to skip visiting the US this year and taking a time-out to enjoy our piece of paradise.

This summer we’ve also indulged in what seems to be one of the Algarve’s favorite past-times: the hunt for a good bargain that you didn’t even know you needed.

 

 

Boot Sales:  Flea markets are held in the villages and towns up and down the coast on designated days with traveling vendors.  The Brits call them “Boot Sales” as the items on sale are (theoretically anyway) sold from the “boot” or trunk of the car. Usually the goods are displayed on a blanket spread on the ground although a lot of the vendors set them up on tables, too.

 

Need your own copper still to make moonshine whiskey?

A boot sale we went to in the Central Algarve Region near Paderne had an herbalist displaying baskets of dried herbs and dispensing advice while a nearby couple deep-fat fried doughy rounds and dusted them with powdered sugar.  It might have seemed that the heat would have dampened our appetites but – no.  In fact, we were just a little tempted to split a third one between us!

 

 

Lagos’s Boot Sale is held on the first Sunday of every month and is as much a treasure hunt as a people meeting and greeting venue.  We always make it an event to visit and drag a friend or two along for the fun.

This may sound strange but by far our biggest score has been a circa 1970’s, pumpkin-orange slow-cooker that weighs about 25 pounds with a Euro-plug that’s been modified from the original UK three-prong.  When the seller saw my face light up at the find (slow-cookers aren’t sold in Portugal) he wouldn’t even bargain with us and we forked over the full €20 for an appliance at least 40 years old.

 

 

Chinese Shops: Every town and village we’ve visited so far in Portugal has at least one emporium (Lagos has several hiding in plain sight) literally stuffed to the gills with all sorts of paraphernalia and staffed by someone of Chinese descent, hence the name.

 

 

From floor to ceiling and usually piled in no particular order, you can find beach toys and bikini panties, thread and thermometers, shower curtains and slippers, paper goods and plasticware and Christmas décor year-round.  We tried to ferret out the origins of these Portuguese versions of the old five-and-dime stores or the newer Dollar Stores and all we’ve learned (unverified so who knows?) is that there are old trade agreements between Portugal and China that allow the owners to import goods duty-free.  If you have a little time, there’s no telling what bargain you’ll find poking around!

 

 

Hippie Market:  Going to this flea market held the 4th Sunday of every month, near the quirky village of Barão de São João, about a twenty-minute drive from Lagos, is kind of a blast from the past for us.  It’s as much fun to watch the retro European hippies, check out the “Pimp-my Ride’ caravans and make a lunch of the vegan/gluten-free pakora with mango chutney, as it is to look at the offerings for sale.

 

 

 

Sounds of live music and the smell of incense float in the scant summer breeze (our friends Roy and Ann hint that other smoky smells can be fired up too) and the whole scene reminds of us outdoor concerts in the 70’s when hair was long, clothing was billowy and we were weekend hippies ourselves.  Wandering about the area, you watch unleashed, happy dogs nosing around the dusty field for anything edible, scruffy kids playing or holding on to young mothers who look almost as disheveled in an appealing, exotic way and men looking laid-back and chill.  Like the other flea-markets we’ve been to, there’s a lot of junk and some interesting antiques and you never know what you might find as you wander round.  We’ve been tempted to buy some colorful paintings and jewelry by local artists, checked out the clothes straight from Thailand, bought some fresh herbs and sipped some fruit-infused water. The vibe is infectious and we always look forward to going – even if we do stand out in our uncool, buttoned-down way!

 

 

 

Of course, there’s always the Saturday farmer’s market down by the bus station in Lagos but we tend to avoid it in the summer as the crowds make the tented area inside a jam-packed, chaotic and sweaty event.  We prefer to wait until the cooler weather of fall and winter to visit the market and check out the fresh produce, baked goods, live chickens and rabbits in cages, and flowers, all offered at reasonable prices by friendly sellers.

It’s always a little sad to say goodbye to summer. But we’re looking forward to getting on the road again and traveling as well as taking advantage of the off-season prices for restaurants and accommodations now that the vacation crowds are returning from whence they came.  Our staycation was an all-around success this year and has us thinking that this might be the way we spend our future summers.  After all, why travel somewhere else during the high-season when you’re right where you want to be?

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

Bohemian Rhapsody: Cesky Krumlov

 

We set off from our temporary home in Prague one sunny morning and drove south through the countryside of the Czech Republic, heading for the small town of Český Krumlov close to the Czech-Austrian border. The landscapes of the Bohemian region were the kind that artists dream of: blue skies with wisps of clouds, rural farmhouses and fields freshly tilled or planted with various crops in checkered hues alternating with huge swaths of bright yellow canola well over two feet high. Time passed by almost dreamily, as we gazed out the car windows at mile after mile of flat land and gentle hills and places where timber logging and sawmills seemed to be the main industry. In some areas, we tunneled through thick woods growing almost to the shoulderless, two-lane road. Here and there the highway wound through picture-postcard towns of small businesses and houses, many at least a century old, set close together, with steeply pitched roofs to discourage the accumulation of winter snow.  White lace curtains hung in the windows, like a throwback to some gentler time.

 

 

The GPS took us right to the little pension we’d reserved for two nights, Hotel Krásné Údolí, dating from 1568.  The smiling owner opened heavy wooden doors that had us guessing how old they might be and we entered into a cobblestoned enclosure.  Straight ahead was the owner’s apartment, to the right was the dining room for guests and at our left was a steep set of stairs leading to the hotel’s six rooms.  Walking down the short hallway we had a chance to peek in the rooms and were totally charmed as each room had its own beautifully painted mural featuring a fair maiden from long ago and a country landscape embellished with flowers. The en-suite bathroom had an ultra-modern, glassed in shower with multiple jets, the Wi-Fi was acceptable and there was even a little dorm style fridge and a comfortable sitting area.  Throw in an ample breakfast that was included in the price of 53 US dollars a night and an innkeeper who did his best to answer our questions and we were doing a happy dance!

 

 

And then there was the town of Český Krumlov itself which topped the quaintness scale and then some.  Called “one of the most picturesque towns in Europe,” this jaw-droppingly, beautiful medieval town situated on both banks of the Vltava River is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, due largely to its intact architectural heritage spanning more than five centuries.

 

 

With more than 300 Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque houses, most of which date back to the 14th through 17th centuries, the passage of time has not done much to alter Český Krumlov’s appearance.  Careful renovations have preserved details that had us swiveling our heads: an assortment of gabled roof profiles, frescoes painted across many facades, ornate sundials, shutters, and decorative iron grills over windows and the pleasing harmony of red-tiled roofs.

 

 

Inside many of the former grand houses are restaurants serving delicious Czech dishes, boutique hotels, souvenir shops, museums, jewelry stores offering the semi-precious Moldavite stones found only in the Czech Republic, and shops selling traditional Czech crafts such as wooden toys, Czech puppets and sparkling crystal.  The street layout follows the horseshoe bends of the Vltava River which flows through the medieval town and the feeling is like stepping back a few centuries.  We strolled about the narrow and winding streets, admiring various houses, window shopping, stopping for a drink here and a meal there, in no rush to be anywhere but exactly where we were.

 

Plague Column

Eventually, all the streets we wandered would lead us back to the central town square, flanked by colorfully painted buildings with a fountain and tall Baroque sculpture anchoring one of the corners. Known as the Marian Column or the Plague Column, the statue dates from 1714 and commemorates the victims of the 1680-1682 plague epidemic. At its top and wearing a golden halo, is the Virgin Mary accompanied by the eight patron saints of the town.

 

But then, we’re getting ahead of ourselves because, before and during the evolution of the town, came the State Castle and Chateau Český Krumlov.  Built on a rocky outcrop alongside the river Vltava, the castle overlooks and dominates the old town which was built around it.  Second in size only to the Prague castle, the original buildings date all the way back to 1240 while additional palatial buildings were added between the 14th and 19th centuries.  The massive complex of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque structures totals an impressive forty structures with a covered bridge, gardens and five courtyards.

 

 

Of all these eye-popping gems, however, the stupendous mid-13th century Renaissance tower which stands out at its 178-feet height and magnificent, beautifully restored frescoes in all their pastel beauty.  A cheap admission of about $2.50 will pay the entrance fee to the tower for the privilege of climbing the 162-steps of the spiral staircase to the very top for a heart-stopping panoramic view of the city.  Two of the four bells hanging in the tower date back to 1406 and other small bells known as clock bells are estimated to be four-hundred-plus years old.

 

 

Perhaps because of its awe-inspiring size, the castle enjoyed centuries of quiet and prosperity and the Vltava River served as an important trade route in Bohemia. The castle and its lands passed peacefully between families from the original Lords of Krumlov in the 13th century to the Lords of Rosenberg who reigned over the region’s Celtic, German and Slavic descendants for three centuries until about 1600 and played host to artists, scientists and merchants from all over Europe. The Castle was sold to the House of Eggenburg and the town became the seat of the Duchy of Krumlov for about a century until it passed in 1719 to the House of Schwarzenberg who governed for over two centuries. Seized by the Nazis from its last private owner, Adolph Schwarzenberg, in 1940 and then confiscated by the Czechoslovak government in 1945 during the Communist era, the castle was neglected and ill-maintained as was the town until after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Today, careful restoration and its inclusion into the UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992 has guaranteed that this fairy-tale city and castle can be enjoyed by the citizens of the Czech Republic and people from all over the world.

 

 

As far as we’re concerned, Český Krumlov is a town that zaps you back in time and can only be described in superlatives.  We spent much of our time there gawping, head-swiveling, jaw-dropping, finger-pointing and stretching our lips into wide grins while we rhapsodized over this Bohemian treasure.  Be sure to include it on your “Must See” list and don’t forget to wear your comfortable walking shoes!

 

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

A Rant-A-Thon From a US and a Canadian Expat: Bureaucratic Contortions

Sagres, Portugal

A few weeks ago my Canadian blogger friend, Frank, at The Travels of BbqBoy and Spanky  reached out to me with an idea he had for a collaborative post called, “The Absolute Worst Thing About Being a Fulltime Traveler,” comparing our different perspectives.  What made his idea intriguing was that our worst experiences actually have nothing to do with traveling full time or with being an expat, he in Croatia and myself in Portugal.  This turned into a rather fun and enlightening rant-a-thon by both of us, so I thought I’d reprint parts of Frank’s post here with his permission. 

 

The US Perspective  By Anita @ noparticularplacetogo.net

Six years ago I decided that I wanted the life my husband had: early retirement. We’d worked hard over the years and, lucky for us, weren’t hit too hard by the great recession. We had savings, our home was well on the way to being paid for and we’d had a recent epiphany that life was short. The lifestyle that I was working for (house, cars, stuff) was no longer important to us.

Rant 1 Exorbitant Healthcare Costs. We quickly found out that the US isn’t set up for middle-class people who want to retire early. The biggest problem that we ran into right away was how to pay for our health insurance. My employer picked up half the cost of an excellent health care plan but I was still paying $800/month for the two of us. We solved that problem by deciding to leave the country and “going naked” (that’s what people from the US say when you don’t have health insurance) except for traveler’s insurance policies. We took a year to sell everything, leased out the house and became nomadic expats in 2012, slow-traveling through countries where healthcare was affordable.

Rant 2 Capital Gains Taxes. About three months into our new life we knew that we’d never live in Texas again and probably not in the US either. Deciding to sell our home wasn’t difficult but the whole *when to sell* decision was taken out of our hands. Rather than waiting for the best time to sell our house, we were forced to sell between years two and three of our travels in order to avoid paying hefty capital gains taxes on a place that was no longer our primary residence. (Not that we had any residence at that point!)

Rant 3 Transparency. We consider ourselves to be fairly honest. However, having a US street address is important for so many reasons we’d never considered. In fact, it seems that you need an address to prove your very existence. And so, we use my sister’s address. Simple things like keeping our money in a US bank, having domestic and international credit and debit cards, keeping our US driver’s licenses current, paying income taxes, remaining active voters, etc., all need a US street address. We’re not quite comfortable with the deceit but …

Rant 4 And speaking of honesty and transparency: Be careful to whom you mention that you reside outside the US. Banking and investing places seem to equate opting to live abroad with offshore wealth, tax havens and money laundering. If you want to avoid needless hassles and make your life a little easier, you might opt for, “We’re living out of the country for a while …” not, “Hell no, I’m never coming back!”

Rant 5 Taxes. Aren’t taxes always worth a good rant? And yes, we’re still paying them, on time and every year. We have an accountant who keeps us up to date on changes. All to stay law-abiding US citizens with piss-poor representation and absolutely no benefits.

Rant 6 Banking. It was fairly straightforward to open a bank account in Portugal where we live now unlike a lot of other countries that are refusing to open accounts for US citizens because of onerous reporting requirements and paperwork. However, we had to present our social security cards to open our accounts (who carries those when traveling? Or anytime?) and we’re careful to maintain our account balance under $10,000 to avoid complicated paperwork. (Try paying for a car using your debit card!)

Rant 7 Healthcare. And we’re back at where we started. Richard now qualifies for Medicare and we pay $110 each month for that luxury. However, Medicare is only good in the US and the insurance is not something you can cancel and pickup at a whim when you’re in between countries. So, he has “cheap” insurance (by US standards anyway) and I have none for the occasional visit back in the US. Our solution, should I ever get sick during a visit, will be to hurry up and get the hell on a plane and anywhere else before we’re bankrupted.

Our expat life has been all about minimizing what we have and simplifying where we can. Seems that our country of birth could be a little easier on us too and make the hoops to jump through just a little closer to the ground!

 

The Canadian Perspective By Frank @ bbqboy.net

Three years ago, after 20+ years of working in Quebec (Canada), paying a shitload of taxes every year (Quebec has the highest tax rates in North America) we decided we wanted to leave our 9-5 lives to travel.

It’s not that we didn’t enjoy our lives or didn’t love Montreal, Quebec or Canada. We were getting older and we just wanted to see more of the world before we died.

When we left to travel, we continued paying Canadian taxes. No issues with that, we’re Canadian, we’ll pay our taxes just like we suffer through 6 months of winter. But paying a shitload of taxes doesn’t mean we get any of the benefits that come with been Canadian.

Rant 1 Health Care. Two years into our travels we were no longer eligible for Canadian Health care. We’ve used up our “exception year” (I wrote about Canadian health care/insurance in detail here). Ask any Canadian why we lose our health care after 6 months out of the country and they’ll just shrug. Nobody seems to know. So we ended up getting expat insurance which, at 50 years of age, costs us about $3,000/year Canadian between the 2 of us. Basically we’re double paying because as Canadians our taxes are supposed to cover our health care coverage. That sucks.

Rant 2 Capital Gains Taxes. So we’re into our 3rd year of travelling, loving it, we don’t want to come back to Canada.

After renting out our Montreal condo for the last 3 years, our tenants decide they want to move, they want to start a family in the suburbs.  After weighing our options (rent? sell?) we decide that we would face reality – we love our lives travelling and have no plans to return to live in Canada.

So we put our condo on the market. It takes 2 months to sell but we’re happy when we find a buyer. Great!

Until the government bureaucrats get involved. “You’re a non-resident. This complicates your file. You will need to obtain an accountant in order to obtain for the provincial and federal governments a certificate of disposition. Furthermore, we must put a hold on the sale price in our in trust account until we have received confirmation of these certificates and the payment of the required taxes”.

Exact words with bolds and underlines cut and pasted.

Lucky for us, we have an excellent tax accountant who took care of this. It helped that a few years ago he made us fill out a form stipulating that our condo was never intended as an investment property and that it is still our primary residence and exempt from capital taxes.

Note: Just because you have an overseas address, that does not mean you are not a resident of Canada. As long as you stay a fiscal resident (ie. pay your taxes) you are still deemed a resident (although, as I say, without some of the most important benefits).

What would we do without an army of tax accountants and lawyers dealing with this bureaucratic shit?

Rant 3 Home Insurance on the rented property. When renting out our Montreal condo we had to get “renter’s insurance”. I specified to the company that we needed the insurance because we wanted to travel and rent out the property while doing so. Easy enough. But when year 2 came TD Insurance kept calling me, asking me when we would be coming back to Canada. Our renter’s insurance depended on it they said. By year 3 they said they could no longer cover us because we were out of the country too long. WTF? It ended up being another factor in the decision to sell.

Why would I get renter’s insurance if I came back to Canada? I’m renting out the condo because I don’t live there…

Rant 4 Needing a fixed address. We found out that you need a fixed address for everything: banking, investments, anything to do with government… Everything. In the first 3 years I used my condo address. Now I’m using my son’s address. You’d think in this day and age, with more and more people working remotely, that businesses and governments would keep up with the times. They haven’t. In fact, if you don’t have a fixed address or telephone number you realize pretty quickly that you are a rare species (I’ve had people look at me, wondering if maybe I was a vagrant…). It took full-time travel to bring home to us how totally non-existent you are as a person if you don’t have a permanent address and fixed telephone number.

Note: I should have used my son’s address as my address when selling the condo (Rant 2). Would have saved me and my accountant a lot of hassle.

We don’t mind paying Canadian taxes, Canada is still ‘our’ country. We have Canadian passports, Canadian driver’s licenses, Canadian bank accounts and investments, Canadian credit cards. I have Canadian family living in Canada. And I pay Canadian taxes. But why is the government taking away our benefits (notably Healthcare) or trying to screw us over with Capital Taxes? And it’s not just us, I know older Canadian friends who are not entitled to the GIS (Guaranteed Income Supplement) because they chose to live overseas (where they can get by with less money. Some can’t afford to come back to Canada). It just doesn’t make sense.

I wish the Canadian and Provincial governments would have a more modern and open approach to how people live today. With more and more people working remotely from overseas it would be nice to see a little more flexibility in the system.

One last thought.  For those of you thinking about making the jump to becoming either full-time travelers or expatriates, maybe this post will address some questions you haven’t thought about yet.  As for me, and I think I can speak for Frank too, I feel just a bit better now that I’ve done some ranting and raving about the bureaucratic contortions we go through to live outside our respective countries.  And despite all the hassles, it is, without a doubt, worth it.  It’s a whole ‘nuther world out here!

 

Lagos, Portugal

 

Konopiste Castle, The Heir to the Austro-Hungarian Throne and The Great War

 

Just 50 kilometers southeast of Prague in the Czech Republic, Konopiště Castle sits high atop a hill, surrounded by a thick forest.  Built as a Gothic fortification towards the end of the 13th century, it was a huge and sprawling rectangular edifice with plenty of towers, seven in all, for the most effective defense.  Over the centuries, the castle passed through the hands of numerous owners and was the site of sieges, revolts, occupations and plundering.  It’s appearance also changed through the centuries with a stone bridge replacing the drawbridge, the demolition of some of the towers and after 1725, the transformation of the castle into a Baroque style château. Frescoes were painted on the ceilings, marble fireplaces with carvings installed, gardens planted and statues scattered about the grounds.  At the time of its purchase in 1887 by its most famous resident, the estate was vast, its densely wooded forests filled with abundant wildlife stretching almost as far as Prague.

 

And here’s where our story starts, with the purchase of Konopiště Castle by the Duke Frantisek Ferdinand d’Este.  Better known as Archduke Franz Ferdinand, he was a man with an immense fortune inherited from the last reigning Duke of Modena (now part of Italy) and an eye for only the best.  Employing the services of architect Josef Mocker between 1889 and 1894, he refurbished Konopiště Castle into a luxurious residence fit for a king or, in his case, fit for an emperor and the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne.  Among some of his innovations were the installation of electricity and modern plumbing, including a new-fangled flush toilet, along with one of the first electric elevators. The extensive grounds became an English-style park; more statues were brought in and placed about the terraces and rose gardens (a passion of the Duke’s) were planted and lovingly tended.  And then he filled the castle with furnishings of museum quality: collections of the finest antique furniture, paintings, tapestries, crystal chandeliers, Meissen porcelain, and ivory carvings in addition to his hunting trophies and an armory – one of the best in the world – filled with antiquated weapons and medieval suits of armor.

 

 

Not that we weren’t blown away by the immense luxury and the fantastical display of the best that money could buy a century ago, but it was the hunting trophies that caught our attention. Because, competing with the priceless furnishings and countless artifacts, are an estimated 4,000 hunting trophies.  And all those headless antlers arranged like patterned wallpaper, stuffed animals whose glass eyes followed our movements, birds of prey with wings outstretched and animal skins stretched out across walls and floors moved our tour into our favorite category of “This is plain weird and just a little creepy.”  Now here was a side to the Archduke that piqued our interest!

 

 

History hasn’t been kind to Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  Described as “not a very likable man,” he had a reputation for a hair-trigger temper.  In fact, his rants and raves were so terrible that many questioned his very sanity.  He was an obsessive collector and his passion for trophy hunting around the world or in his own well-stocked forests was extreme, even by the trophy-hunting elites’ standards of the time.  Wikipedia says that, “In his diaries he kept track of an estimated 300,000 game kills, 5,000 of which were deer.”  According to our guide, the Archduke kept twelve taxidermists in his employ full-time, ready to stuff at a moment’s notice so-to-speak, and his hunting collection of trophies ranks as one of Europe’s largest collections.  And when he wasn’t hunting live animals, he amused himself by doing a little plinking on his indoor shooting range, a unique and elegant toy with moving targets.

 

 

However unpleasant and arrogant the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s reputation may have been, there is no denying that he loved his wife, the former Countess Sophie Chotek, who he met in 1894. Franz Ferdinand’s wish to marry his beloved Sophie was unfulfilled for several years because he was a member of the Imperial House of Hapsburg and she was neither a member of a reigning or formerly reigning European dynasty.  Franz stubbornly refused to even consider marrying anyone else and the Archduke’s uncle, the Emperor Franz Joseph, finally gave his permission for the couple’s marriage in 1899 but not without some stipulations.  Any descendants from the marriage would not have succession rights to the throne nor would Sophie share her husband’s rank, title or other privileges.  In fact, whenever the couple was required to spend time with other members of the imperial family, Sophie’s inferior royal status forced her to stand apart from her husband, with the lesser mortals. The couple agreed to the humiliating conditions and were married in July of 1900.

 

Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Duchess Sophie (source)

No doubt, the Imperial family’s disapproval of their marriage and the snobbish treatment of Sophie led the couple to spend as much of their time away from the royal court as possible.  Konopiště Castle, far away from Vienna and private, became their favorite residence. It was there that Franz Ferdinand and Sophie, by all accounts, lived happily devoted to each other and their three children.

 

Archduke Franz Ferdinand , Duchess Sophie and their children (source)

And so, Konopiště Castle is most famous, not for its own magnificent history and beautiful setting, but because it was the last residence of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne and his wife, Duchess Sophie.  Their visit to Sarajevo, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and their subsequent assassination on June 28th, 1914, led to a chain of events that eventually triggered the Great War, World War I.  By the end of the war in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was no more. Maps were redrawn enlarging Italy and Romania and creating the new countries of Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Hungary, the Republic of Austria and the newly reestablished State of Poland.  However, the peace was tentative and resentments and violence flared again only a couple of decades later into an even more devastating war, World War II.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Note:  We were not allowed to take photos inside the castle but wanted to share an awesome video that we found online of a tour that Rick Steves made.  Click here.  It’s just a little over 2 minutes and will give you a glimpse of what makes this castle such a must-see if you find yourself in Prague.

 

 

 

Terezin: If A Picture Paints A Thousand Words

It’s the children’s drawings that linger in our minds, haunting us long after our tour of the town of Terezin that once served as a concentration camp. We’d seen some of the drawings years before at an exhibit at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC and then at the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague. Pictures showing happier times with houses and gardens, holiday celebrations with family, children playing, flowers and trees.  Pictures showing darker times too: the day-to-day life in an impoverished ghetto, the faces of sickness and starvation, acts of savage cruelty and the endless transports by train of people arriving from elsewhere or departing for the camps.

 

Field of canola with the Small Fortress in the background

Terezin, better known by its German name Theresienstadt, is a little over an hour’s drive north of Prague.  It was originally built as a fortress in the late 18th century by the Habsburg emperor, Joseph II, who named it after his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. (Incidentally, the Empress was also the mother of Marie Antoinette of the “Off with her head” fame.)  The fortress, divided into two parts, never served its military purpose as protection against Prussian attacks but instead proved useful as a prison for dangerous criminals, eventually evolving into a political prison for anyone (which numbered thousands) who the Austro-Hungarian authorities deemed a threat before and during the first World War. (Another interesting factoid is that this is the prison where the assassin of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie, whose murder set off WWI, was incarcerated.)

 

Small Fortress, administrative offices and barracks

Small Fortress

Following Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March of 1939, the garrison town of Terezin would also prove to be the perfect place for the Nazis who, in 1940, modified the political prison known as the “Small Fortress” into a police prison for the Gestapo to interrogate, torture and imprison its enemies. The town of Terezin itself, called the “Big Fortress,” met the Nazi requirements for a Jewish ghetto since it was surrounded by thick ramparts which would facilitate guarding of the prisoners. It was located about a mile-and-a-half from the Bohušovice nad Ohří railway station and had several barracks buildings.  Additional barracks were built by Jewish prisoners with triple-tiers of bunks constructed to make the most of available floor space in anticipation of the large populations (ranging from 35,000 to 60,000) who would be “concentrated” and crammed into the small town. The townsfolk of Terezin, numbering about 7,000, were evacuated and the ghetto opened for business. Between 1941 and 1945, Theresienstadt served as both a concentration camp for many prominent Czech Jews (musicians, writers, artists, poets and prominent intellectuals) and as an intermediate stopping place for other populations including communists, the Gypsies or Roma people, the educated and elite, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and religious leaders.  Tens of thousands of Jews deported from Germany and Austria, as well as hundreds from the Netherlands and Denmark were in the transports into Theresienstadt.  All too soon, many of these prisoners would be outbound, selected for transport to Auschwitz and other death camps in the east.

 

“To the Train Station” by Petr Ginz February 2, 1928 to October 24, 1944

Artist Unknown – Transport – Jewish Ghetto

And yet, despite the abysmal conditions – severe overcrowding, inadequate sanitation, insufficient supplies of potable and even non-potable water, vermin (rats, fleas, flies and lice) starvation rations, illness, disease and death –  a semblance of life went on. In between the work details and selections for transport going to the death camps, noted musicians gathered themselves into orchestras and played concerts, poetry recitals were given, writers wrote, operas were performed, artists sketched and painted with whatever supplies they could find and clandestine classes were held to educate the children.

Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944)

In December of 1942, Freidl Dicker-Brandeis (1898-1944), an Austrian Jew who lived in Czechoslovakia, arrived in the Theresienstadt Ghetto with her husband.  A talented artist, she had chosen to fill much of her limited luggage allowance of 50 kilos (about 110 pounds) with art supplies which she used to give surreptitious art lessons to over 600 children in Theresienstadt between 1943 and 1944.  Serving as a reminder of a world outside the camp, the lessons also provided a sort of therapy to help the children deal with the harsh reality of life in the ghetto and the constant fear and uncertainty that surrounded them.  Freidl Dicker-Brandeis encouraged her students sign each of their works with their names and ages and collected the pictures from her pupils after each class. Over the two years that she worked with the children, she assembled a collection of almost 4500 drawings, watercolors and collages. Before she and 60 of her students were deported in the autumn of 1944 to Auschwitz-Birkenau, two suitcases filled with these pictures were carefully hidden in one of the children’s dormitories. The drawings were recovered after the war and have served as a reminder of the names and lives lost that might have otherwise been forgotten.  An important part of Prague’s Jewish museum collection since the war’s end, the pictures have been exhibited around the world.

 

 

Almost from the beginning of Theresienstadt’s existence, the Nazi’s had maintained the fiction that the ghetto was a place for resettlement, a haven of safety for the Jews of Czechoslovakia (and later, other countries) and a model city of great culture with its high proportion of musicians, writers, artists and prominent leaders.  No one really cared to follow up on their story until a group of 466 Danish Jews (we wrote about them here) were transported to Theresienstadt on October 5, 1943.  Soon after their arrival, both the Danish and the Swedish Red Cross Organizations began asking questions about their whereabouts as well as their treatment and living conditions.  In a move of astounding audacity, the Nazis decided that they would invite the Red Cross to the camp and prove to the world that the Jews were being treated humanely by their benefactors. A huge cover-up ensued to hide all outward signs of the ghetto’s true circumstances: deplorable sanitary conditions teeming with vermin and pests, widespread disease and rampant starvation. Seven thousand, five hundred of the ghetto’s sickest population along with all of the orphans were deported east to the death camps to reduce the severe overcrowding. A predetermined route for the June 1944, visit was decided upon and buildings were spruced up with paint, flower boxes and curtains while the grounds along the way received more flowers, grass and benches.  Shop windows were filled with foods and goods and an elaborate play unfolded with bakers baking bread, a load of fresh vegetables being delivered and people singing. Prisoners were nicely dressed, cued with pre-rehearsed praise for the camp and carefully placed along the route to present a picture of a charming village filled with happy people.  Musicians played music in the background and the Red Cross fell for the ruse, never deviating from the route nor probing too deeply.  In an ironic twist, the Nazi’s liked their elaborately staged hoax so much that they produced a propaganda film called, “The Führer Gives a City to the Jews.”  After the film was completed, the director and most of the cast of prisoners were shipped to Auschwitz.

 

 

Terezin was a way station for almost 150,000 people from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark and Hungary to the extermination camps of Sobibor, Majdanek, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz-Birkenau, to name a few. And, while it wasn’t a death camp by the usual definition, approximately 35,000 people died there between 1942 and 1945 from exposure, starvation, disease, torture and executions.  Fifteen thousand children under the age of fifteen passed through the Terezin Concentration Camp.  Only 132 of those children were known to have survived.

 

 

It’s not easy to visit a place like Terezin, nor is it fun.  And yet, we believe that visits to places like Terezin are necessary and that we owe it to ourselves to learn what hatred based on religion, race, political beliefs and sexual orientation can become.  We need to take those lessons and draw parallels to what we see around us today.  We owe it to the victims to honor their memories and never forget.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Kutna Hora: Medieval Beauty and Bones, Flying Buttresses and Frescoes, Gothic Splendor and Gargoyles

 

Kutná Hora, Czech Republic

Have car – will travel!  And travel we did during our time in the Czech Republic, putting many kilometers on our can’t-lose-me-in-a-crowded-parking-lot, neon-green, rented Skoda during the week we had it.  As luck would have it, the little city of Kutná Hora, population around 20,000, was only an hour east of Prague and almost dead center in the heart of Bohemia, making it easy to heed the advice of several friends to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

 

cistern

The original silver mining settlement of Cuthna Antiqua, Old Kutna, was settled as early as the 10th century but its economic fortunes were tied to the establishment of the first Cistercian monastery in Bohemia, Sedlec Abbey, in the nearby village of Sedlec in 1142.  The combined riches of the silver mine on the monastery’s property and Old Kutna’s mines led to economic boom times.  In 1308, King Wenceslas II (aka King Václav II) established the Royal Mint in the city which produced the silver Prague groschen coins that were then the hard currency of Central Europe.  Considered the treasure-house of the medieval Kingdom of Bohemia and favored as a residence by several kings and the ultra-wealthy, boom town Kutná Hora rivalled only Prague in importance of enormous wealth, political influence and culture for several centuries.

 

 

According to one of the brochures we snagged at the tourist information center, there are more than 300 Gothic, Baroque and Classical buildings in the city and a walk around the historic center’s narrow and winding streets was a must-do introduction.  Much of the building took place in the 14th century and included a rich residential architecture of places fit for the royals, homes for the very wealthy and their lessors, churches, monuments and a couple of cathedrals reflecting the enormous wealth of city.  Over the years, many of Kutná Hora’s buildings were damaged or destroyed by fires and war but the continued income from the silver mines allowed for these to be reconstructed or replaced as needed.

 

Cathedral of Saint Barbara

 

The spires of the Gothic Cathedral of Saint Barbara, named after the patron saint of miners, dominate the skyline of Kutná Hora from a hill overlooking the city.  There’s really no way to describe this cathedral, whose construction began in 1388, as anything but magnificent.

 

 

Even those tourists who are “churched and cathedralled out” should find many things to appreciate in this over-the-top cathedral with its arches and vaults, flying buttresses and frescoes, multiple stained-glass windows, murals, sculptures, gargoyles and, not to be forgotten, a completely rebuilt and restored Baroque pipe organ from the 17th century.

 

17th century Baroque Pipe Organ

Financed by generations of local blue-blooded families whose fortunes depended both on the politics of the day and riches from the silver mines, the construction of the cathedral was an on-again-off again holy project that spanned several centuries until it was finally declared finished and consecrated in 1905.

 

 

Without a doubt, Kutná Hora is a jewel in the Czech Republic’s crown of historic cities. But, among all its charms, we highly suspect that its most popular tourist site might be the small Cemetery Church of All Saints.  Also called the Ossuary at Sedlec, it’s more simply known as the Bone Church of Kutná Hora. The Sedlec cemetery dates from the 12th century and because of a legend claiming it contained soil from the city of Jerusalem – and was thus a part of the Holy Land – became very popular in Central Europe as a last and eternal resting place.

 

 

Over the centuries, thousands were buried in the cemetery – upwards of 30,000 victims from the recurring plagues or “Black Death” and thousands more slain in the religious Hussite wars. The cemetery became extremely crowded and was closed in the 15th century. The remains of an estimated 40,000 people were exhumed from their not-so-final resting place and unceremoniously heaped inside and outside the underground chapel of the Church of All Saints. A century later, a half-blind monk stacked these bones up neatly into huge pyramids that lined the interior walls of the chapel and gave the faithful some room in the middle for worship. Over the next few hundred years, relics constructed of bone were arranged decoratively in the spirit of “memento mori” – the medieval practice of reflecting upon mortality.

 

 

However, the really bizarre (and endlessly, ghoulishly fascinating) attraction of the Bone Church was the interior decorating performed with a macabre panache by master builder, František Rint, in 1870.  After cleaning and bleaching the bones of the not-so newly departed, he created all sorts of fanciful decorations including an enormous chandelier that includes every bone in the body, a crucifix arrangement and a coat of arms in tribute to his employer … His work is even signed with a flourish in – what else?  bones!

 

 

As the centuries passed, Kutná Hora experienced its share of hard times. Repeated appearances of the plague, the religious Hussite Wars in the 15th Century, the flooding of its richest mine in 1546 and the destructive Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) all contributed to its decline.  By the 16th century the silver mines were producing less and less and were finally abandoned at the end of the 18th century.  Fortunately, time seems have treated the city kindly and its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995 ensures that it will be a destination to explore and enjoy by people like us for (hopefully) many generations to come.

 

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

A Walk Across Prague’s Charles Bridge, Three Towers and Thirty Statues

 

It took us three tries to make it all the way across the Charles Bridge but, like they say, “The third time’s the charm.”  Following a leisurely river boat tour that introduced us to the city of Prague on both sides of the river Vltava, we joined the throngs of tourists and passed through the Old Town Bridge Tower to walk a short distance onto the bridge. The Sunday crowds only seemed to grow bigger with each step so we decided to save our crossing for another day and turned back.  A few afternoons later, on a chill and gray day, we reasoned that the cold might keep people away from this popular tourist destination and decided to try again.  Bundled up in our light down coats and new cashmere scarves we’d bought at a street market, we made our second attempt and walked about halfway across before deciding we should have bought mittens too!  However, as the early days of May passed by and Prague warmed up degree by degree, we picked a day in the middle of the week and set off for our third visit.  Success!

 

 

Tourist map of Prague and Charles Bridge – (source)

There are seventeen bridges that cross the Vltava River as it makes its way through Prague but the iconic Charles Bridge (called Karlův Most by the Czechs) is the oldest, with an intriguing backstory and more than a few legends, too.  Replacing the Judith Bridge, the first stone bridge built over the river around 1170 and destroyed by floods in 1342, the Charles Bridge formed the only link between both banks of the Vltava: the Old Town on the west bank and the Lesser Town (Malá Strana) where Prague Castle is located on the east. Known as Stone or Prague Bridge for several centuries, it was the only “solid-land” connection over the river until 1841, making Prague an important trade route between Eastern and Western Europe.

 

 

Czech king, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor (how’s that for a job title?) Charles IV commissioned the Charles Bridge and laid the cornerstone on a date decided by his royal astrologers, the 9th of July, 1357, at 5:31 AM. (When written in a year, day, month and time format, it makes a scale, going upwards and then downwards: 1 3 5 7 9 7 5 3 1.) The King’s favorite architect, Petr Parléř, oversaw the majority of the construction and divided his time between the bridge and his masterpiece, St. Vitus Cathedral, at the Prague Castle.  Finished after Parléř’s death in 1402, the bridge is built of sandstone blocks supported by sixteen arches of varying spans and shielded by ice guards. For centuries, folklore said that eggs were mixed with the mortar to give it extra strength but recent investigations have debunked this urban legend. Nevertheless, the Charles Bridge, one of the mightiest bridges in its time, has survived for 665 years despite countless floods that have damaged or demolished various pillars and arches, invasions, occupations and wars. Horse-drawn trams crossed the bridge beginning in 1883 until they were replaced by an electric tram line in 1905. Shortly thereafter in 1908, the trams were traded for buses which served as public transport until World War II. Cars were allowed to cross the bridge until 1965 and then the bridge was closed to all but pedestrian traffic.

 

Old Town Bridge Tower

Flanked on either end by fortified towers which were built to guard access to the bridge, the Old Town Bridge Tower, a blackened, Gothic structure, is truly impressive.  Built at the same time as the Charles Bridge and completed in 1380, it was part of the royal road and a symbolic archway through which Bohemian kings marched on their way to Prague Castle and St. Vitus’s Cathedral for their coronations. One of the most interesting stories we read (gruesome in other words) was the tale of the Protestant Bohemian uprising in 1621 against the area’s ruling power, the Catholic Hapsburg dynasty.  After the revolt was quashed, twenty-seven of the leaders were decapitated in a formal execution on Prague’s Old Town Square and their severed heads were displayed at the Old Town Bridge Tower in a grisly warning against future resistance or uprisings by the Bohemians.

 

Lesser Town Bridge Towers

At the opposite end of the Charles Bridge stand two more fortified towers, connected by a walkway, which protected the gate to the Lesser Town and serve as the main pedestrian entrance to the Malá Strana quarter of Prague.  The smaller structure dates from the 12th century and is named Judith’s Tower. Originally part of Judith’s Bridge, it’s the only remaining part of the original stone bridge. The larger building, Lesser Town Bridge Tower, was built in the second half of the 15th century and is modeled on the Old Town Bridge Tower. Inside the tower are exhibitions of the bridge’s history and, for a modest fee you can climb the spiral stairs which seem to only get narrower and become steeper (as you huff and puff your way up to the top) for spectacular views of the historical city on both sides of the bridge and the river Vltava, winding its way through the historic city.

 

 

The Charles Bridge itself forms a wide avenue set between its three watchful towers and serves as a kind of open air gallery for thirty impressive, mostly Baroque statues and sculptures made over the years by a variety of artists. It’s hard to believe now as the sculptures have come to be synonymous with the bridge itself, but for several centuries the only decoration on the Charles Bridge was a simple crucifix placed in the 14th century.  A more elaborate crucifix was erected in 1657 followed by the first statue, a tribute by the Jesuits to St. John of Nepomuk in 1683.  Other Catholic orders installed their own venerated statues of favorite saints and patron saints (the majority were erected between 1683 and 1714) and, as the years passed, new ones were added to replace those damaged or lost to floods.  Most of the sculptures were made of sandstone and, beginning in 1965, have been systematically replaced by quality replicas.  The originals can be found in the National Museum’s Lapidary (closed for renovation during our visit) or Vysehrad National Cultural Monument.

 

We’re not quite sure what’s attached to their heads but they looks like pinwheels!

 

By far the most popular statue on the Charles Bridge is St. John of Nepomuk, which can be located about halfway towards the middle of the bridge.  He’s also the first person hurled to his cold and watery grave from the Charles Bridge in 1393. The story goes that he was the confessor to the queen and that her husband, a jealous King Wenceslas IV, son of King Charles IV, demanded that the priest reveal her confession which the good priest refused to do. (The more probable reason may have been a bitter conflict between church and state.)  Wenceslas had poor St. John’s tongue cut out, then weighed him down with armor and heaved him off the bridge. Perhaps the story was a bit too macabre so it was given a pretty little twist and concludes with the stars in his halo following his body down the river.

 

St. John of Nepomuk

Now a patron saint in the Czech Republic, he’s also a protector from floods and drowning.  We noticed a small group around the statue and learned that the real reason for St. John of Nepomuk’s popularity seems to be the tradition that says if you rub the bronze plaques (notice how shiny they are?) you’ll have good luck and return to Prague one day.

 

 

Charles Bridge has provided a backdrop for numerous films and the combination of the Gothic bridge towers on either end, the hulking sculptures that line the parapets and the wide expanse of the Vltava River below makes a visit to this historic bridge a must do for any serious sightseer.  The guidebooks recommend visiting the bridge at dawn (seriously?) when the mist is lifting from the river or in the evening for a romantic stroll.  Weekdays seemed to be less crowded and it’s a great place to people watch, listen to the talented street musicians spaced along the wide thoroughfare, eye the offerings of the souvenir vendors who line both sides of the bridge, and watch the local artists at work drawing landscapes, portraits or caricatures.

 

 

And, to make sure that we would return to what was fast becoming one of our favorite cities, we made sure to give both of St. John of Nepomuk’s plaques a little rub!

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

Wenceslas Square in Prague, Saints and Statues

The city of Prague in the Czech Republic shot to the top of our travel list when friends casually mentioned that an old coworker of theirs had offered them his family’s apartment in the city and said we were welcome to join them for the month of May.  The words, “free accommodations” had us checking flights from Lisbon to Prague and the welcome mat was barely unrolled before we arrived with our suitcases and a long list of things to see and do.

 

 

Wenceslas Square was our starting point, a long boulevard which connects the Old Town of Prague (history first mentions Prague in 1091) with the New Town.  We guess in Europe “new” might be a bit of a misnomer as this area was founded in 1348, ancient by anyone’s standards. During the Middle Ages the rectangular area was called “Horse Market” since that was the business conducted there but, during the 19th century Czech national revival movement, citizens decided the name needed to be upgraded to something a bit more dignified.

 

 

Enter the patron saint of Bohemia, Saint Wenceslas, whose mouthful of a name was bestowed upon the square and in whose honor a noble statue was erected. On the south end of the boulevard is the Czech National Museum (a neo-Renaissance structure undergoing renovation and closed until 2020) and the statue of Saint Wenceslas astride his mighty steed and flanked by four Czech patron saints.  The Mustek metro station is on the north end with a cable car intersection nearby which has cars hurtling by every few minutes (look both ways!) and the streets become narrower and kind of funnel you past a street market right into Old Town Square.

 

 

And in between?  Doubtless there’s shopping elsewhere in Prague but it looked to us like this might be a good place to load up on everything from souvenir magnets to cashmere scarves to Czech crystal, fine jewelry and designer fashions. There are banks, hotels, bookstores, casinos and apartments as well as plenty of restaurants with outdoor tables to people watch and enjoy traditional Czech food or find other favorite international dishes from Thai to Lebanese to McDonalds.  There’s lots to catch your eye as you look around but bend your neck back a little bit because the best views are overhead.  Here is the realm of architectural eye candy!

 

 

 

 

We had a hazy recollection of the Christmas carol, Good King Wenceslas, but the history of the Saint himself, Duke Vaclav I of Bohemia (Wenceslas is a Latinized version) is but a few sketchy details and a whole lotta legend and myth.  Born around 907, he was the son of a Christian father and a pagan mother.  When his father was killed during a pagan backlash against Christianity in 921, the young ruler became the pawn in a power struggle between his Christian grandmother, Ludmilla, and his pagan mother, Drahomira.  Ludmilla won initially and raised the boy for a few years but was eventually strangled by supporters of his mother.  Once Duke Vaclav, by all accounts a devout and pious Christian, assumed full power he had his heathen mother exiled.  He fostered the spread of the Christian faith, was generous to widows, orphans and the poor, founded several Christian churches and kept the Bohemian people independent.  However, in 935, while on his way to Mass one day and, as the story has it, right at the church door, he was brutally hacked to death by minions of his younger brother Boleslaus.  The pagan brother assumed power and was thereafter known as Boleslaus the Cruel. (His biography is undoubtedly a lot more interesting than that of pious brother.) Soon after Vaclav’s death, he was being hailed as a saint and martyr for the faith and miracles were reported at the site of his murder and at his tomb. The cult of Wenceslas spread throughout Bohemia all the way to England.  Several years after the murder his remains were dug up and reinterred at the St. Vitus Cathedral in the Prague Castle complex.

 

 

Taking a break from piety and patron saints, we explored the area just a block off Wenceslas Square and saw a very different statue of Vaclav/St. Wenceslas in the art-nouveau shopping arcade, Lucerna Palace.  Created in 1999 by Czech sculptor David Černý, “The dead horse” hangs upside down from the ceiling of the marble atrium with its tongue lolling out and Saint Wenceslas astride.

Wenceslas Square was a great introduction to Prague and the site for many dramatic events throughout the centuries.  Recent history includes the October 28, 1918, proclamation of Czechoslovakian independence. Following by only a few decades, the square was the scene for Nazi rallies and parades of Nazi tanks in 1939 and during the German occupation. The Prague Uprising by the Czech Resistance in May of 1945 at the end of WWII, marked the end of one era and the beginning of the Soviet Union’s imposition of a puppet regime upon the Czech people.  The brief Spring Uprising was suppressed by Soviet tanks massed in Wenceslas Square in 1968.  Finally, during the Velvet Revolution (November-December of 1989) massive demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of people in Wenceslas Square led to the peaceful end of the Communist Era in the country.

Today, the square keeps drawing us back, to wander and gawk at the architecture, enjoy a meal and take endless pictures while we join the other sightseers and locals and enjoy the sights and sounds of this beautiful city.  Prague, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is rapidly becoming one of our favorite cities.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

The Tram Cafe

Portugal’s Love Affair With Tiles and the Museu Nacional do Azulejo

Landmark Green Tile Building, Lagos

You don’t have to be in Portugal long before you notice the colorful, hand-painted tiled plaques on building walls, tiled murals randomly placed here and there as you enter a village and tiles covering the facades of whole buildings. You’ll find tiles inside and out decorating humble homes, large homes, churches, cathedrals, grand palaces and train stations.

 

Peacock Building, Lisbon

 

Old Train Station, Lagos

Named azulejos (our mangled pronunciation sounds something like “a zu lay zhosh”) the tiles are a unique part of Portugal’s artistic heritage. Originating in Persia and adopted by the Moors, the azulejos spread to southern Spain and Portugal. The Portuguese adopted painting on ceramic tile as their national art with many artists preferring tile over canvas, painting religious images and historical scenes as well as vivid, decorative patterns. Inspired by many cultures including Asian, Arabic, Italian, Flemish, Spanish and Dutch, the styles also vary from Baroque to Art Nouveau to contemporary and range from simple, repeating patterns to massively complex and sophisticated murals of fine art.

 

Museo de Azulejo, Lisbon

For those of us honing our appreciation for all things tiled, there’s no better place to learn more about Portugal’s love affair with the azulejos than the National Tile Museum (Museu Nacional do Azulejo) located in Lisbon.  It’s worth the trip alone to see the 16th century building, the Convent of Madre de Deus, which is deceptively modest from the outside and a jaw-dropping example of Baroque architecture and decoration inside.  Important paintings, lavishly gilded alters – and any other surfaces that might have once made the mistake of being plain – relics from the virgin martyrs and of course, the azulejos – all compete for your attention.

 

Church of Madre de Deus (left) and Chapel of St. Anthony

The museum is spread out among the convent’s three floors (there’s a lift too) and set around a courtyard.  Since it was way past lunchtime for us, our first stop on the ground floor was in the café where we had a very inexpensive (less than €5 each) sandwich and coffee in the convent’s former kitchens.  While we scarfed down savored our tasty lunches, we admired the walls around the café which still retain their original 19th century tiles.

 

 

From there, we spent a few fascinating hours learning about the origins of Portugal’s unique artistic heritage and admiring the enormously impressive collection which dates from the 15th century to the present day.

 

 

 

It would be hard for us to pick favorites out of the many tiled murals we saw but, after all the solemn religious art and oohing and ahhing about the sheer magnificence of the tiles, we were ready for a couple of laughs and to speculate about the backstory behind these two tile murals.

 

Social satire? – 1720

 

The Marriage of the Hen – by Singerie, 1660-1667 (A political lampoon?)

And we couldn’t help but wonder if this old saint was flashing us the peace sign.

 

 

Despite its somewhat out-of-the-way location, a visit to the National Tile Museum should be on your list of must-sees whenever you find yourself in Lisbon.  It’s probably safe to say it’s one of the most important museums in the country and a visit will give you some insight into the historical and cultural significance of Portugal’s love affair with the azulejos.  The Portuguese are justifiably proud of their unique artistic heritage and we love being reminded of it whenever we happen upon it in this amazing country.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cordoba and Once Upon a Time

pretty door - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoOur arrival in Córdoba didn’t go exactly as planned and reminded us, once again, that the travel gods have a sense of humor even if we don’t.  We’d arranged a swankier than usual room at a small boutique hotel through hotels.com since one of our nights in the city would be free with their loyalty program and, following the hotel’s instructions, arrived mid-afternoon to check in.  Since the hotel was in the historic part of the city, a maze of winding streets with many only wide enough for bicycles and pedestrians, the taxi driver dropped us off and pointed the way down a cobbled path.  We found the correct address along a whitewashed wall of connected two-story residences, took hold of the heavy brass knocker, and rapped, a loud and hollow sound that seemed to echo down the narrow lane.  We waited a bit and tried again (and again) with similar results.  Finally giving up, thoroughly out-of-sorts, grumbling and dragging our overnighters behind us, we managed to plaster smiles on our faces as we asked for directions and followed the pointing fingers of a few helpful people until we found a street busy enough to hail a taxi.  Fortunately, we had the name of a place to give to our driver, Hostal La Fuentes, where a friend of ours was staying.  Now that the travel gods had had their fun, they decided to smile on us and we were happy to find a clean and comfortable room for three nights at half the price. A call by Skype to hotels.com resulted in the cancellation of our reservation and a refund of both our money and the free night to use in the future.  Travel is a good way to remember that, contrary to our illusions and the plans we make, we really don’t have control over much!

street scene - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoWith the detail of where to stay for the next three nights resolved, we turned our attention to making the most out of our visit to the historic area of Córdoba. Its history stretches back over two-thousand years and includes a population who practiced three major religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1994, you can bet that the city has many fascinating stories to tell.

Roman Bridge - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoOnce upon a time, Córdoba was a Roman city.  Founded around 152 BCE alongside the Guadalquivir River, the Romans constructed a wall around the city and built a bridge.  Known as El Puente Romano, the Roman bridge still spans the river and has been restored and renovated numerous times. The Romans shipped Spanish olive oil, wine and wheat back to Rome and the city was the capital of the Roman Province of Hispania Ulterior (the southwest corner of modern Spain) which translates rather poetically into Further or Thither Spain.

Roman Bridge - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoOnce upon a time, Córdoba was ruled by the Visigoths. After Nero fiddled and the western Roman Empire collapsed, and despite invasions by several tribes of Germanic origin, Córdoba continued to flourish.  The Visigoths brought Catholicism with them when they conquered the city in 572 CE and built a couple of churches over their relatively short rule of 150 years.

Once upon a time, Córdoba was a major Islamic center. The Moors invaded and conquered the city in 711 and occupied it for the next 525 years.  In its heyday, the city became the capital of the Caliphate of Córdoba, governing almost all of the Iberian Peninsula.  As one of the largest cities in the world with a population estimated around 450,000, as well as one of the wealthiest in Europe, Córdoba was a haven with a reputation for progressive thought.  Here, Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisted, more or less amicably, in a spirit of religious tolerance.  During this time, the city became a center of Moorish philosophy, architecture, mathematics, arts and poetry. And thriving alongside the Muslims, the Jewish community also became an important seat for Jewish scholarship, medicine, learning and culture. Perhaps most notably for us travelers, this was the era of some of the Moor’s greatest architectural glories.

Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To Go The Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos or Royal Palace is an enormous complex with multiple towers and a fortress begun in 785.  It has a complicated history beginning as the home for Caliphs (leaders of the Muslim community), Spanish Kings and Queens, the Headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition, a garrison and military prison as well as a civil prison.  Now a national monument, it’s not hard to imagine the history that played out within its maze of mostly empty rooms, halls and towers. Outside, are the patio and magnificent gardens laid out in three terraces with ponds and fountains, boxwood hedges, cyprus and citrus trees and flowers, few of which were in bloom since it was winter.

gardens - Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To Go

Alcazar de Reyes Cristianos - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place To GoConstruction on The Great Mosque of Córdoba (now called the Mosque-Cathedral) began in 784 and continued over two centuries.  Without a doubt, the most stunning religious monument we’ve ever seen; we devoted our last post to this magnificent building that you can find here.

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoA reconstruction of the Albolafia Water Mill (1136) is next to the Roman Bridge on the northern bank of the River Guadalquivir.  Water was drawn up by a chain pump and carried through a series of aqueducts to the Alcázar Palace Gardens.  Legend has it that Queen Isabella ordered the water wheel dismantled since its noise disturbed her.

Albolafia Mill - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to GoThe Caliphal Baths, also known as the Arab Baths, were built in the mid-tenth century and are adjacent to the Alcazar.  The pools reproduced the Roman series of cold, warm and hot water baths and were an important part of social life as well as the ablutions and ritual cleansing mandatory before prayer in the Islamic religion.

The Calahorra Tower - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to GoThe Tower of La Calahorra, the oldest defense building in the city, is located on the far side of the Roman Bridge. Built towards the end of the twelfth century as an arched gate between two square towers, a third cylindrical tower was added a couple of centuries later and connected the original towers for additional fortification.  Past use has included a prison as well as a school for girls (an eyebrow-raising perspective on a previous educational system) and currently it houses a museum with interesting exhibits of Cordoban life and history.  A climb up to the roof is worth the effort as there are spectacular, panoramic views of the Roman Bridge, the city and the Mosque-Cathedral.

Once upon a time, Córdoba was the home of the Catholic Monarchs: Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon.  After centuries of warfare between the Christian Kingdoms and the Moors known as the Reconquista, Córdoba was conquered by the Christians in 1236. The splendor of the era and progressive thought under Islamic rule vanished with the expulsion of the Moors.  Over the next two centuries, the economy weakened and a series of epidemics including the Black Death (aka the Plague) in the spring and summer of 1349 led to a decline in the population from Córdoba’s heyday of 450,000 to 25,000.  Ferdinand and Isabella used the Alcázar as one of their primary residences while they set about ridding Spain of the last of the Moors in Granada (1481-92).  Any Muslims allowed to remain in the city were forced to convert to Christianity and were known as “Moriscos” although they fared better than the Jewish community who were labeled “a scandal against Christianity.” During this time, Jews were either forced to convert to Christianity and become “Conversos” or flee, culminating with the final order leading to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1483.   Here is where Ferdinand and Isabella met with Christopher Columbus to discuss the little detail of financing his expedition to the “New World.”

Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand and Isabella - photo by No Particular Place to GoAnd here is where they launched the Spanish Inquisition, lasting over three centuries, that strengthened the Church and enriched its treasuries. The Royal Palace was converted into a tribunal with interrogation and torture chambers and many of its first victims were the Moriscos and Conversos.

Note:  We don’t usually say to flat out avoid a museum but that’s what we recommend regarding the Gallery of the Inquisition.  This horrifying museum is located in the heart of the historic Jewish quarter (the Judería) and has several rooms filled with various implements and devices used in the Inquisition that are designed to inflict the maximum amount of pain, cruelty and humiliation upon its victims. Many methods of torture made burning at the stake a favorable alternative.

Once upon a time, and over the next few centuries, Córdoba became something of a cultural backwater. Although Spain was at the peak of its power, Córdoba retreated into the background and many of its buildings fell into decay with little business or commerce to entice new residents.

The Caballerizas Reales de Córdoba, translated as the Royal Stables, are located next to the Alcázar and were built in 1570.  Home to the magnificent Andalusian horses, we devoted a whole post about these magnificent animals here.

view from the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba, Spain

Caballerizas Reales de Cordoba, SpainPuerta del Puente or Gate of the Bridge was built in the late sixteenth century (circa 1576) in an urban renewal project and effort to spiff up the city with a ceremonial gateway.  Located at the opposite side of the Roman Bridge from the Tower of La Calahorra, the gate is a beautifully elegant structure built in the Renaissance style.

Puerta del Puente (Bridge Gate) - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to GoThe Plaza del Potro is one of many public squares in Córdoba.  Once a horse market, the plaza has a Renaissance fountain dating from 1577.  Off the plaza is the Posada del Potro, a legendary inn described by Cervantes in his book, Don Quixote (1605) as a “den of thieves.”  The inn is now home to the Centro Flamenco Fosforito, a museum which has the reputation as “possibly the best” flamenco museum in Andalucia.

the Plaza del Potro - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

Flamenco Fosforito - Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

Flamenco Fosforito - Cordoba, Spain - photo by No Particular Place to GoOnce upon a time, Córdoba was sacked by Napolean.  During the Napoleonic Wars, the “Nightmare of Europe” fought Spain, Britain and Portugal for control of the Iberian Peninsula.  His armies sacked the city (1808) and for a time were garrisoned in the Alcázar.  Before leaving Córdoba, they seized the Andalucian horses, long prized for their reputation as adroit war horses, to use in their own invasion, which almost led to the demise of the breed.

Once upon a time, Córdoba sided with Franco early (1936) in the Spanish Civil War.  Someday we hope to delve into this subject but for now, it’s definitely another topic and trip.

And they lived happily ever after ….  Well, maybe not all the time but our visit had us describing the city in long lists of superlatives to friends and trotting out the words “picturesque” and “charming” way too often.  Córdoba is a city that had us at hello and left us with the feeling that we had to say goodbye too soon.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nashsteet scene - Posada del Potro, Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

Cordoba, Spain photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba: An Architectural Allegory

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoEver since we’d seen pictures of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba, aka the Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba, we’d known that it would be at the top of our “must see” list when we returned to Spain.  Quite simply, there’s no other building like it in the world and if we had to describe it in less than ten words we’d say, “a sixteenth-century cathedral inside an eighth-century mosque.”  But that doesn’t even begin to convey the ten-plus wow factor of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, without a doubt the most stunning religious place we’ve ever seen.  Nor does it suggest the promising symbolism of two major religions, Islam and Christianity, coexisting in one shared space.

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoCórdoba’s history stretches back for more than two thousand years to its founding in the second-century, BCE and the land upon which the Mosque-Cathedral was built has long been sacred to many religions.  Originally there was a Roman temple dedicated to Janus, the two-faced god looking at both past and future.  When the Visigoths invaded Córdoba in the sixth century, they converted the temple to a cathedral dedicated to the gruesomely tortured martyr, St. Vincent of Saragossa.  Next came the Moor’s invasion at the beginning of the eighth-century and, for a time, the worship space was divided between Muslims and Christians before the cathedral was demolished to build the Great Mosque of Córdoba at the end of the century.

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

The construction of the Great Mosque of Córdoba began in 784 CE and lasted for over two centuries resulting in what UNESCO refers to as “the most emblematic monument of Islamic religious architecture.”  Thousands of artisans and laborers were employed. Only the finest materials were used: stone and marble quarried from the mountains of nearby Sierra Morena and columns of granite, jasper, marble and onyx recycled from the original temple and other Roman ruins around the Iberian peninsula.   Upon the columns were the double arches which allowed for support of the higher vaulted ceiling.  The lower horseshoe-shaped arches were made of red brick alternating with white stone that continually draws your eye.  The décor was fashioned from ivory, gold, silver, copper, brass and mahogany and intricate mosaics from azulejos (glazed, colored tiles) were designed. Interestingly, the mihrab or prayer niche, a piece of ornate artwork in dazzling colors that stands out among all the other splendidness, faces south rather than the traditional placement towards Mecca.  A remarkable and unique creation, the Great Mosque of Córdoba held a central place of importance among the Islamic community and was a major Muslim pilgrimage site.

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoFollowing the Christian invasion of Córdoba in 1236, the mosque was preserved as a very visible trophy of Castillian Spain’s victory over a former Islamic land.  Besides the symbolism, the Reconquista and kingdom building was a spendy proposition and Spain, not wanting to divert its money from conquest to building places of worship, spent some of its energies converting mosques into churches.  The former Great Mosque of Córdoba was renamed the Church of the Virgin of the Assumption, dedicated to the Virgin Mary and consecrated with the sprinkling of holy water which allowed the transformation of religion from Islam to Christianity.  Over the years a couple of chapels were constructed to the side of the vast space and the four-story minaret, from which calls to prayer were previously heard, became a tower for tolling bells summoning faithful.  For nearly three centuries, no major alterations were made because the church was a little occupied with imposing the one, true religion upon the land. In between converting Muslims and Jews to the correct religion or expelling the lucky ones altogether from the realm, they occupied themselves with the horror called the Spanish Inquisition.Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

It wasn’t until the sixteenth century that the reigning monarch, King Charles V (also confusingly known as King Carlos I) turned his attention to the former mosque in response to a proposal by the church to build a cathedral within the center.  Overruling the objections of the people, the King, completely ignorant of the building’s unique beauty because he’d never visited Cordoba, backed the church’s request.  The heart of the Great Mosque of Córdoba was demolished and over the next couple of hundred years (1523–1766) the cathedral was built in a variety of styles ranging from late Renaissance, Gothic, and Spanish Baroque.  Like many cathedrals, it’s breathtaking with its ornately carved mahogany altar and the plunder from the New World gilding surfaces in silver and gold.  A variety of semi-precious stones are used throughout the area and oil paintings of notable events and personages are abundant.  It is however, bizarrely at odds with the original architecture of what was once Islam’s crown jewel.Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To GoThere is one more strange and short chapter in the story of the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba.  In 2006, the diocese of Córdoba dropped the Mezquita (Mosque) part of the building’s name and began to simply call it the “Catedral de Córdoba” in what was seen by many as an attempt to hide its Islamic origins.  In 2013, an online petition garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures protesting the omission.  Finally, in April of 2016, a resolution of the dispute between the local authorities, the regional government of Andalusia and the Catholic Church was reached and the building is now referred to as the Mosque-Cathedral Monument Complex or Conjunto Monumental Mezquita-Catedral.

We started out this post by writing about the hopeful allegory of two major religions, Islam and Christianity, coexisting in one shared space.  In medieval times Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side-by-side and perhaps the Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba might be seen again as a symbol of religious tolerance, diversity and multi-culturalism.  We can only be optimistic …

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Mezquita - Catedral de Cordoba/The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

 

 

 

Caballerizas Reales de Cordoba and The Andalusian Horses of Spain

We took the “slow” train from Seville to Córdoba for under €14 and a less than ninety-minute journey through flat, mostly rural countryside, lushly green from the recent rains. We’re not sure why Córdoba hadn’t popped up on our radar well before our last trip to Spain but once we started reading about the city and its history, it rapidly rose to the top of our places-to-go list.  Not to say that we don’t usually do a little preparation before traveling to a new place but this time we were unusually prepared with a two-page list of things to see, including a place we’d run across only in passing; described as a “hidden treasure.”  Located next to the Alcázar of Córdoba, we could see the Royal Stables (aka the Caballerizas Reales de Córdoba ) from vantage points atop the Alcázar’s walkways along the old walls as well as a lone horse and rider practicing a series of moves in a small arena.

view from the Alcazar de los Reyes Cristianos, Cordoba, SpainThe Caballerizas Reales date from 1570 when King Felipe II, described in many accounts as “a great lover of horses,” commissioned Diego López de Haro y Sotomayor to build the royal stables where he hoped to breed thoroughbred Spanish horses.  Not that we’ve visited many stables but we can safely say that these will be among the grandest we’ll ever see and why these stables deserve a place as one of Córdoba’s historic monuments.  The stable area is massive, almost cathedral-like in atmosphere, with a long center hallway and horse stalls on either side.  Sandstone columns support a cross-vaulted ceiling and numerous, small windows light the space in addition to suspended lanterns.  A new stable houses the royal horses while the old stable contains many elegant coaches and conveyances once used by the royals and other elites.Caballerizas Reales de Cordoba, Spain
Old royal stables, Cordoba, Spain

 

Old royal stables, Cordoba, SpainAnd here in the royal stables, according to a decree by King Felipe II which laid out formalized standards, the pure Spanish thoroughbred, known as the Andalusian horse, was officially documented as a breed.  From the very beginning, the horse was incredibly popular among European royalty and became a symbol of the Spanish empire.  The horse carried the conquistadores to the New World and its reputation as a prized war horses almost led to the demise of the breed in the Iberian Peninsula when Napoleon invaded Spain in the 1800’s and seized them for his own invasion.  Luckily a small herd was sequestered at a monastery in Cartuja near Granada and the breed recovered.  Today the Andalusian horses number over 185,000.

Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, SpainQuite by serendipity and even before we visited the stables, the Hostal La Fuente where we stayed told us about the equestrian show, “The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse.” Purchasing the tickets (a great value at €15 for an hour’s performance) also allowed us to visit the arena during a rehearsal.

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian HorseThe program was a terrific chance to see these magnificent creatures display their intelligence and beauty. Far from knowledgeable about horses in general, we didn’t have to be die-hard horse lovers to be completely captivated by the graceful and magical performance.

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian HorseFor those who wanted to get more show for their money, there were several dances featuring a flamenco dancer and some wonderful Spanish guitar in the background which added to the ambience.  For us, the flamenco dancer was extraneous and rather a distraction from the real stars of the show.

For those who wanted to get more show for their money, there were several dances featuring a flamenco dancer and some wonderful Spanish guitar in the background which added to the ambience. For us, the flamenco dancer was extraneous and rather a distraction from the real stars of the show.

 

For those who wanted to get more show for their money, there were several dances featuring a flamenco dancer and some wonderful Spanish guitar in the background which added to the ambience. For us, the flamenco dancer was extraneous and rather a distraction from the real stars of the show.

We were captivated with the intricate footwork, stylized gaits and beauty of the whole performance.  At times, it was almost as though as invisible string could be seen between the rider and horse as they seemed to communicate intuitively.  Obviously, the training involves hundreds of hours with a very skilled trainer and/or rider and an incredibly intelligent horse.

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse

 

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, SpainInformation:  The show is every Wednesday, Friday and Saturdays at 20:00 and Sundays beginning at 12:00. Entrance to The Caballerizas Reales is free for visiting, from Tuesday to Saturday during the morning hours from 11:00 to 13:30 and afternoon hours from 16:00 to 20:00.

Special thanks to our friend, Kiki Bridges, who generously shared her photos for our post.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

All Roads Lead To Seville

Visits to the city of Seville, Spain, bracketed our year of 2016 neatly, highpoints on either end.  Our first stay in January had us wowed and promising ourselves we’d plan a return to see more of the city.  Our visit in December, had us feeling the same, leaving us with the anticipation of more to see when we go back. And during the year, we skirted the city several times on our way to other places in Spain.  In fact, the joke seemed to be that, from Lagos, Portugal, all roads lead to Seville.street scene - Seville,Spain photo by No Particular Place To Go

One thing we’d learned from our previous visit to Seville: a car was more hassle than it’s worth.  With an historic area that’s compact and walkable as well as daily parking rates that can go upwards of €30, taking the bus was an easy decision to make.  We bought bus tickets, packed our bags, obtained the phone number for a taxi driver and set our alarms for an early Sunday morning departure.

Note to Selves:  Reserve a taxi for early Sunday morning getaways.  We’d made many early morning taxi rides previously but failed to realize that Sunday mornings are sacrosanct to Lagos taxi drivers.  After being turned down cold by the gentleman we’d been assured would drive us, we went down our list of phone numbers with a growing sense of unease.  And at 06:15 in the morning, it wasn’t much fun rousing hard working taxi drivers from their sleep only to be told a groggy “no” for a ride to the bus station.  We came up with a hasty Plan B (and a Plan C should we need it), drove over to our friend’s home who was coming with us and hitched a ride with her pet sitter who’d just arrived. He at least was happy to accept €10 to schlepp us to the station.

The previous week had gifted both Portugal and Spain’s southern coasts with several inches of rain and, because the Algarve is a rural province, the fields were varying shades of green.  The rain followed us all the way to Seville but, after our first day of playing enthusiastic tourists braving the occasional rain showers (and minus one umbrella at the end of the day) the weather changed to cool and partly sunny, perfect sightseeing conditions.  And, for self-professed history geeks and wanna-be culture vultures, Seville is the perfect place to indulge your interests.  There are endless things to see and do in the city but here are 9 things we can recommend:

Real Alcazar of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go1) Topping our list for a revisit, The Real Alcázar of Seville is a group of palaces over a thousand years old dating back to the 11th century.  The upper levels are still occupied by Spain’s Royal Family which makes it the oldest royal palace still in use in Europe.  We have to agree with Lonely Planet who said they hoped that “heaven looks a little bit like the Alcázar”  and we were head-over-heels wowed during our first visit in January.   A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987, one, two, three pictures and more are worth a thousand words. Real Alcazar of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Real Alcazar of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Real Alcazar of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To GoWe paid the extra money for the self-guided audio tour but, after only a half hour of listening, left the earphones dangling around our necks because (we can’t believe we’re saying this) the didactic, historic monologue proved to be a huge distraction. This is a place to stop and stare, listen to the fountains and breathe in the scent of sour oranges – a place that really just needs to be enjoyed.

2) For those of you thinking, “Seen one cathedral too many,” the Cathedral of Seville or Catedral de Sevilla is an awe-inspiring, tremble-at-the-knees, kind of place. Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

The third largest church (a football field would fit inside easily) and the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world, it’s also registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We’d visited the cathedral during a service the first time (the organ music was sublime) which limited what we could see and a return was also high on our list of things to do.  Built between the 15th and 16th Centuries, the body of Christopher Columbus is entombed here in splendor and, should you wonder where all the gold Spain plundered from the New World ended up, the 20 meter (66 feet) altar would be a good start. Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Crypt of Christopher Columbus

Crypt of Christopher Columbus

The bell tower of the Cathedral deserves a special mention below.

3) The Tower of Giralda was built in the 12th Century as a minaret of the Great Mosque which formerly occupied the site of the Cathedral of Seville.The Tower of Giralda, Cathedral of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

At 105 meters (343 feet), the tower is an iconic symbol in the city.  Topped with a 16th century belfry and a weather vane of a huge bronze, statuesque beauty nicknamed “El Giraldillo” bearing a cross, there’s no mistaking which religion is on top of the tower now.  There’s a separate charge to climb the tower and, as you climb the THIRTY-FOUR ramps up, there are alcoves along the way to (pretend) to admire the incredible views while you gasp for breath.  And bells that vibrated us right down to the soles of our shoes when they tolled.   Giralda Tower-Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

View from Giralda Tower - Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See. Photo by No Particular Place To Go4) Lest you think that Seville is only full of centuries old palaces, mansions and churches (and it is, it is!) the Plaza de España was built for the Ibero-American Exhibition of 1929, a kind of World’s Fair. Located in the city center in the middle of Maria Luisa Park, the brick monument is an exuberant combination of Art Deco, Renaissance and Moorish Revival architecture, embellished with exquisitely painted ceramic tiles.Plaza de Espana, Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Plaza de Espana, Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To GoThe enormous brick buildings form a semi-circle around a plaza complete with a moat-like canal running through it and crossed by four gaily-painted bridges.  To say we were captivated might have been an understatement and, with the blessing from the warm weather gods, we decided to nix our plans to visit the museums originally on our itinerary and instead spent hours wandering around the grounds, watching inexpertly rowed boats float by and soaking up the feeling of stepping back to the previous century.The Tower of Giralda, Cathedral of Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Plaza de Espana, Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go5) Seville celebrates all things Flamenco, an intense dance linked with Southern Spain’s Andalusian Roma, aka the Gypsies.

Flamenco dresses displayed in a shop.

Flamenco dresses displayed in a shop.

By chance, we happened upon a street performance with a thin and wiry dancer who struck theatrical poses, clapped her hands and finger-snapped, swirling and stomping her feet upon a wooden platform.  Her male companions played the guitar and tambourine, while one cupped the microphone in his hands and sang mournfully. Flamenco dancer and musicians. Seville. Photo by No Particular Place To Go We were so intrigued by the street dance that we followed a friend’s recommendation (thanks KemKem!) and bought tickets for an evening concert.  The flamenco conjures up enough intense emotions to satisfy any drama queen and we also fell under the spell.   In fact, when we did a little more reading about the art form the next day, we learned that UNESCO had “declared flamenco one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 2010.

A slightly blurry but nonetheless stirring performance.

A slightly blurry photo but nonetheless, a stirring performance.

6) We’re not quite sure how the massive and very contemporary (2011) Metropol Parasol came to be built in the old quarter of Seville’s La Encarnación square but we appreciated the jarring contrast between the ancient and ultra-modern sights of the city.  Claiming to be the world’s largest wooden structure, we had no trouble imagining the controversy its construction would have roused since its six parasols have earned it the less-than-stellar nickname, “Incarnación’s mushrooms.”  However, we loved its sensuous curves and swoops as well as the walkways on the highest level which gave us an amazing 360° view of Seville. Metropol Parasol. Seville, Spain. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Views from the Metropol Parasol. Seville,Spain. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Views from the Metropol Parasol. Seville,Spain. Photo by No Particular Place To GoWe came to Seville with a map and list of things to do and see but it seemed that the city set its own pace.  We saw more than we realized but found that we also slowed down to enjoy:

7) random and rambling walks throughout the historic city,

8) sharing a cone of roasted chestnuts and stopping at sidewalk cafes to savor tapas and lingering meals with friends and

9) absorbing the sights and sounds of an ancient city coexisting with a metropolitan city of modern and sophisticated people.

At the end of our second visit to Seville we were unsurprised to count the many things we’d seen and done but, like all great experiences, we were left wanting more.  We have many more trips to Spain planned for 2017 (Madrid, Salamanca, Bilbao, Leon…) and, since all roads east of Lagos, Portugal lead to Seville, Spain, it won’t be hard to talk us into making a third visit to a city that’s got a piece of our hearts.street scene - Seville,Spain photo by No Particular Place To Go

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

A note of thanks to our awesome friends Kiki Bridges, and Tim and Anne Hall who blog at A New Latitude who made this trip even more fun by sharing the adventure with us!rainy day in Seville, Spain. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Part Two – Figuring It Out Along The Way – Life In Portugal

Lagos, Portugal

Lagos, Portugal

At the end of our last post, Part One (read it here) we promised that we would continue our “Not the Same As” list comparing the differences between life in the States, no longer United, and our newly adopted country of Portugal.  Sure, we could paint word pictures about the picturesque cobbled streets, the single lane country roads that curve and beckon one to explore, the giant storks’ nests upon the chimneys and roofs and on and on. Storks, Lagos, Portugal. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Those were the things that piqued our interest about this part of Europe and made us fall in love with the country but they don’t answer the questions we had when we first moved here.  Our questions were a lot more prosaic, dealing with life on a day-to-day basis but, seriously, we didn’t even know enough to ask them.  So, here’s another list to answer the question of, “What’s it really like to live in Portugal?”

Shopping.  Not to make light of the homeless situation in the US, but we’re from the land where grocery carts serve as portable storage trailers.  It’s not unusual to see someone walking along the edge of the road with a cart piled high with their belongings and what these runaway carts cost the store is another matter altogether. However, Portugal is the first country where we ran into “tethered grocery carts.”  (Evidently Canada has them but, as our Canadian friends remind us, they’re ahead of the US on a lot of things.)  Upon seeing these for the first time, we hung out for a bit (trying to figure this new wrinkle out) before watching someone insert a coin which released the chain holding the carts together.  In a “Duh” moment it took us a few trips before we found out we could get our money back at the end of our shopping by inserting the key at the end of the chain again whereupon our coin would pop out.  The store even gives away plastic coins so you can spend all your money right there!   Anyway, we think these are clever and we like to dazzle our American friends with our new parlor trick when they come to visit.Tethered grocery carts. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Fruits, vegetables and bread.  We love them all and they seem to have so much more flavor than what we’re used to in the US. The upside (or downside depending what side of the argument you’re on) is that they spoil much faster because the fruits and vegetables are ripe when they’re picked and, as the commercials used to promise, at “the peak of their freshness.”  A loaf of still-warm bread is best the day of purchase because there are no preservatives.

We buy our eggs in a half carton, six at a time, off an aisle shelf; they have yolks so yellow they’re almost orange.  Likewise, our milk, which comes in a waxed cardboard carton, is found on a shelf on another aisle. Neither is refrigerated.  Since we were properly indoctrinated on the need to refrigerate dairy products, it took us a while to accept that it really was okay to ingest them.

And then there are the bright red ticket machines. Rather than lining up in front of the butcher or baker’s counter, people pull off a numbered piece of paper which marks their place and mill about.  The number comes up on a display or the baker/butcher yells it out.  The whole system seems to work fine.  A quirk however (and we’ve been ignored a few times) seems to be that you need to pull your number even if you’re the only one standing there.  Ticket machines are ubiquitous: at the post office, the doctor’s clinic, pharmacies, phone or cable stores and any government service where people might line up.

Obviously, the subject of shopping could take a whole post but we’ll stop after one, two, three more observations.  1) Bring your own tote bags or you’ll need to buy some. 2)  Remember to sign up for the store’s loyalty plan and have your card scanned at the beginning of your purchase.  It can save you a lot of money.  3) And, like most countries, it’s usually not a matter of one-stop shopping.  Pingo Doce is our favorite store and we buy our hamburger, plump chicken breasts and most of our produce from there.  Continente gets our business because it’s closer, we can buy plain Doritos corn chips, Knox spice mixes and (no kidding) sometimes hard-to-find celery as well as some household goods.  We shop at Aldi for the best priced walnuts, feta cheese, hard German salami and the adventure of seeing what goods (socks, plastic ware, toys, umbrellas, jackets, and once even sewing machines at €90) are in their center aisle bins each week.  This week we scored with an electric heating pad! In Lagos, we have our favorite, butcher, bakery and fruit and veggie stands.

Driving. Stop signs and traffic lights are the exception in Europe.  Here, roundabouts rule. We first ran into roundabouts in the island country of Curacao and were confounded, not in small part because the signs were in Dutch.  Our GPS directs us to, “Go around the rotary” and “Take the second exit” in a proper British accent but it took us a while to get the hang of roundabout etiquette.  We thanked the gods above more than once last winter that we could practice during the low-season while the streets and roads were mostly empty. (Here’s a big tip: We take turns driving so that we can change-up who’s yelling at who.)  Here’s a handy diagram that might help.

Source

Roundabout Etiquette  (Source)

And, speaking of tips, after one exits a roundabout in urban settings, there’s usually a white-striped crosswalk.  Pedestrians have the right-of-way of course, but it’s easy to tell who’s local because the Portuguese assume we’ll stop while tourists look both ways first before setting a foot on the road.  Once we’d “mastered” some of these driving proficiencies, we were still puzzled about the occasional honk we’d get when we signaled to make a left-hand turn.  Finally, we realized that we hadn’t seen many people making them … Another “Duh” moment because the roundabouts also serve as a way to change directions and avoid most situations requiring a left-hand turn.

(Not-so) Common Courtesies. There are of course the usually handicapped parking spaces but there are also signs for preferred parking spaces for pregnant women and parents with children.  And, after some internal fuming about the old women who sashay their way ahead of us in line at the grocery, we learned there’s a common practice of allowing the elderly to go ahead in line. Kind of nice, right?

Preferred seating and priority service

Preferred parking for pregnant women and parents with childrenAt the doctor’s and dentist’s offices, the appointments are on time or only a little late.  And, we kid-you-not, the staff apologizes if they’re running late. We usual get a text message reminder a few days before scheduled appointments and we’ve received calls saying that the staff is running behind and asking us if we could come in later.

At the Movies.  One of our small pleasures, now that we belong to the leisure class, is going to the movies.  Lagos has a small movie theater, right above one of the Chinese stores (that’s a post for another time) with two “salas” or rooms with screens.  A new movie comes to town each week on Thursday and usually there’s one or two for adults, including first-run movies in English with Portuguese subtitles and something good for the kiddies.  The tickets cost about €4 each and a large bag of popcorn is under €2.  We’ve heard they make American-style popcorn occasionally but so far, we’ve just had the typical Portuguese popcorn, a caramelized, slightly sweet treat that’s grown on us.  At this price, we check the offerings weekly and usually go to the matinees where, most times, the “crowd” is less than ten people so we get preferred seating too. This week the offerings are Office Christmas Party, Sing! and the new Star Wars movie, Rogue One. Because Christmas is right around the corner and the holidays have begun, we may have to give up our preferred seating and rub elbows with the crowd to see Rogue One.

We’ll close this two-part rambling post on basic life skills for expats in Portugal with a note on Time.  Continental Portugal is in the Western European Time (WET) Zone, usually abbreviated as UTC + 00:00.  (Note for you trivia fans like us: UTC stands for Universal Time Coordinated and is the same as GMT or Greenwich Mean Time.)  A reminder to our son in Denver, Colorado: This means we’re seven hours ahead.   Portugal observes daylight saving time and uses the 24-hour clock so appointment times are written as 09:00 or 14:30 rather than 9 AM or 2:30 PM.  The date is written in a DAY-MONTH-YEAR format so today’s date is written 17/12/16 rather than 12/17/16.

So, on this day, a gorgeous, mostly sunny, Saturday afternoon with the temperature high of 17 °C on 17 December 2016 in Lagos, Portugal, we say “tchau!”

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Pedestrian only entrance to historical city of Lagos, Portugal

Pedestrian only entrance to historical city of Lagos, Portugal

 

 

 

Part 1- Figuring It Out Along the way – Life in Portugal

lighthouse at Ponta de Piedade in Lagos

Lighthouse at Ponta da Piedade in Lagos

Traveling and expating means that we have to/get to learn new ways to do things. We, however, like to think of it as a fun exercise in “mental stimulation” that AARP recommends to stem the onslaught of dementia.  Each country we visit has a unique twist on how certain things are done and, despite how Urban Dictionary defines different as a “pseudo-polite way of saying something is unpleasantly weird or unacceptable,” we like to think that differences just are.  And in Portugal, our list of “Not the Same As” keeps growing.  Here are some basics.

Language  In Portugal, the official language is Portuguese.  As we’ve looked through various books and online teaching classes we’ve learned that there are two variants:  Brazilian Portuguese and the correct choice, European Portuguese.  Here in our part of the country, the Algarve, most people speak English, a fact that has made us very lazy but here’s hoping that (someday) we’ll magically acquire the ability to twist our mouths and tongues into the acceptable shapes and pronounce suitable sentences in the correct tense.  So far we’ve evolved from English to Spanglish to Portuglish.

Money  In the US the dollar ($) is king but in Portugal the euro (€) reigns.  What we like are the bills which are different sizes and colors depending on the denomination and, rather than one euro notes, there are one and two euro coins.  The downside is that your wallet can get very heavy, very fast.  Right now, since the dollar is strong, the conversion rate is almost at parity with a euro approximately equal to $1.06 dollar.  This means, with nineteen countries in Europe using the euro, travel is a pretty good deal right now.Euros. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Plugs, sockets and adapters Like all of continental Europe, Portugal uses the Europlug, a two round pin plug for 220 – 240 voltage that fits into a recessed socket.  Since most of our electronics are from the US, we have a variety of adapters that we’ve picked up here and there and, because our wall sockets are never quite enough or conveniently placed, we use extension cords.  With our adapters, and especially with the surge protector on top, it makes for an inelegant and precarious tower.    Inelegant extension cord, adapter and surge protector. Photo by No Particular Place To GoMeasurements  Growing up, we both remember hearing our teachers say that the United States was going to change over to the Metric System “any year now.”  Decades later, that still hasn’t happened but we’re getting pretty darn familiar with the concept.  Our weather forecast and oven setting are in Celsius versus Fahrenheit, our mileage is in kilometers versus miles, our drinks are in liters and our weight is in kilograms (so getting on that scale isn’t quite the shock it could be).

Our home  Forgive us for a sweeping generalization, but it seems that in Portugal and the parts of Europe that we’ve seen, everything is smaller, including the houses and apartments. The refrigerators are narrow and it’s common to have the refrigerated section on top and the freezer below.  Washing machines are half the size of their American counterparts. There are no garbage disposals – or none that we’ve encountered.  Dishwashers are rarely installed in older homes but are more common in newer, higher-end apartments or refurbished homes.  And clothes dryers are even rarer – maybe because they’re expensive or because utility costs are high.  We have a fold-up rack for drying our clothes, a few lines on our rooftop terrace and a good supply of clothes pins . And speaking of clothing care, ironing boards and irons appear to be in every hotel room and rental.  In the stores, there’s a whole offering to the mighty iron. Instead of central heating, homes have heaters of many varieties and various efficiencies in selected rooms and doors to close off the warm areas from the cold. On-demand hot water heaters are the norm as opposed to up-right tank water heaters.  Upright vacuums are rare and much more expensive than the canister types and we have yet to see a wall-to-wall carpet.  It’s more common than not to see bidets in the bathrooms and let us tell you, we’re getting spoiled with our heated towel racks too. (Okay, heated towel racks probably aren’t common but it hasn’t taken long for us to get used to them.)  And the beds … all we can say is, “Where are the box springs and pillow-top mattresses?”  Beds are low, usually a mattress on a platform, which might be good for the back but less-so for the soul.

Cars  Cars are smaller too.  Perhaps so they can wend their way through cobblestone roads designed for a donkey and cart without knocking off the side mirrors? (Of course, there’s no need to ask how we know that those side mirrors pop right back on when you do that, right?)  And another thing. There’s a whole generation or two in the US who have no idea how to drive a car with a manual transmission but here’s a heads-up – get some practice. We’re not quite sure why but it costs more to rent or buy a vehicle with an automatic transmission – or it would if you could find one.  Lucky for us, we hail from the generation that needed those shifting skills occasionally.  But, speaking of skills, we’ve discovered that parallel parking is something we could both use a good refresher course on.

Which bring us to – Gasoline.  Portugal has both the self-serve stations and attendants who’ll help you feed the hungry beast or pick you up after you faint at the price.  Because, in Portugal, gas prices are a whopping €5.60/4 liters which is roughly a gallon. And with OPEC back in the gas boycott business, prices may escalate soon. community garbage cans. Photo by no Particular Place To Go

Garbage  Yes, we have recycling!  Instead of a trash and recycling bin for every home however, the garbage cans are grouped together every few blocks for common use.  It’s a sort-as-you-go system and the bins are clearly marked with the refuse that goes in them.  They sit on a concrete pad that is cleverly lifted so that the containers below can be emptied.  Our bins are three blocks away which gives us a good reason to take a stroll every day

Garbage seems like a good place to end the first part of our “Not the Same As” list.  Next post we’ll continue and talk more about our daily life in Lagos, Portugal, including driving, shopping and entertainment (some say they’re the same thing 🙂 ) and small courtesies.  To quote a couple of lines from singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, “It’s those changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes, nothing remains quite the same…”  Here’s to the differences!Tiled house, Ferragudo, Portugal. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Emigrating, Immigrating and Celebrating Our First Year in Portugal

Countryside in Central Algarve, Portugal

Countryside in Central Algarve, Portugal

We don’t usually think of ourselves as trend-setters.  We left the US in 2012 with the plan to travel slowly and see where the road took us.  We’d concluded the year before, in 2011, that the only way early retirement would be possible for us was to look at moving to another country where the cost of living was cheaper and the health care more affordable.  We weren’t making any political statements as we traveled slowly from Mexico to Central and then South America with a couple of island nations thrown in for good measure.  And how we ended up in Portugal wasn’t because we were disaffected with the US.   However, judging from the dramatic increase in Americans inquiring as to how to move to other countries like Canada, (so many that the immigration website repeatedly crashed the night of the election of Donald Trump as the future President) we may well be ahead of a rising number of US expatriates seeking new lives elsewhere.

Along the cliffs between Lagos and Luz.

Along the cliffs between Lagos and Luz.

Coincidentally, the increased interest in moving abroad has occurred on our first anniversary as Portuguese residents, living quite happily in the Algarve area of Portugal.  It’s been awhile since we’ve talked about our lives in the small city of Lagos, what we’ve learned as we’ve coped with the cultural differences and figured out how, where and when to get things done.

One of the most important things we did, after consulting our lawyer and giving our landlord the required 60-days’ notice, was to move.  Turns out there’s a H-U-U-U-G-E difference in living out of a suitcase for three years and viewing each home as temporary versus renting a place with the plan to stay for a year or longer.  Our small apartment at the Lagos Marina was iffy from the start and, over the five months we lived there, doable slowly changed to irritation, changed to the old movie line from Network, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Heaters were replaced and light fixtures repaired but we were still left with broken down, uncomfortable and stained furniture, the sound of late-night partygoers holding loud conversations outside our windows and the fact that we had about a foot of counterspace to prepare meals in our “efficiency” kitchen.  And once we rented and later bought a car, the walkable location and proximity to the grocery store, city center, bus and train stations became much less important.

View from our balcony

View from our balcony

Finding a rental in Portugal.  Unlike the US where rental companies and realtors share multi-listing services, it takes a little more effort and diligence to find a rental here.  It’s not that there aren’t property managers, rentals or sellers out there – it’s just that their listings are exclusive.  A renter or buyer goes from one representative to another and views different properties with different agents until they find what they want.  Another wrinkle in the Algarve and especially in Lagos, is finding a long-term rental versus a short-term rental (called a “holiday let” here) because this is a popular tourist area.  The rents double and triple in June, July and August and many owners have a good income as well as the option of using their property as a vacation home.  We’d made friends with one realtor during our time in Lagos and a new friend recommended another property manager so, in a classic case of the right time-right place circumstances and in the space of a week, we had two great places to choose between.  One was a 2-story, 3-bedroom, 2-bath townhouse/condo for €900 in the nearby town of Luz and the second choice was a very modern second floor apartment, 2-beds, 2-baths with a sea view on the outskirts of Lagos for €800.  Both were furnished nicely right down to pans, plates, sheets and towels, had gated access with parking for our car and lovely pools.  We opted for the second apartment with its granite countertops and dishwasher (only €50 more per month than our original rental) and, giddy with the feeling that we had a most excellent abode, forked over without any hesitation our first and last months’ rent.  We’d moved to Portugal with three medium-sized suitcases, two carry-ons and two small backpacks.  This time it took two car trips to schlepp our stuff, mostly kitchen items, a bulky printer-scanner, pillows and off-season clothing, Beverly Hillbillies style.

What we learned.  We should have rented a place month-to-month (Air BnB has some great choices) for the first one to three months while we looked for a good rental that better suited our taste and budget.  It takes a bit of work to wriggle out of a long term lease.

Other things to consider:

*If you’re thinking about the Algarve, start your search during the shoulder or off-seasons, September through May.  You’ll save money and there will be more choices available.  Keep in mind that living along the coast will be more expensive as is living in a popular tourist town like Lagos.

*Rent a car by the day, week or month (the rates go down during low season) even if your plan is to be auto-free and pedestrian once you settle in.  This will give you a chance, in your quest to find the right place, to explore the small villages scattered along the coast and inland which all have unique personalities and characteristics.

*Don’t buy a property right away if that’s what your long term plan is. There’s a lot to choose from and no reason to rush. And, if we haven’t made it clear by now, our plan is to keep renting for the foreseeable future. We’ve been there – done that as far as owning property and we much prefer to keep our options open.  In fact, we really can’t see too many reasons to buy property in a foreign country since the rents are so reasonable.

Coastline near our apartment

Coastline near our apartment

Changing your address.  Since we’d traveled for several years we’d gotten out of the habit of a having either a phone (when you’re new in town who are you going to call?) and mailbox.  The ease of doing everything online and staying in touch by email is a no-brainer.

*However, now we had a phone and internet/cable contract so we walked over to our service provider, MEO, to advise them that we were changing addresses and needed to have the cable moved to our new apartment. The new installation cost a whopping €100.

Consider: In a foreign country, we always try to do things face-to-face to make sure we understand and are understood!

Consider: If you’re going to rent short term, find a place that has wi-fi and cable TV (almost every apartment but the one we rented!) to avoid a package contract.  Our new apartment had public Wi-Fi and cable so now our services are duplicated. On the upside, our total bill is only €54/month and our internet is private.  Still, if you only have a phone contract, it’s much easier to update the address and pay the bill as an auto deduction from your bank.

*We took photos of the water, electricity and gas meters of our old apartment on the day we moved out to give to our former landlord to change the utilities back to his name.  The whole process of changing the utilities took a lot of patience and ended up with us feeling frustrated as well as feeling like we’d (most probably) been ripped off.

Lesson Learned.  Our new property managers gave us the option to keep the utilities in the owner’s name and we pay the bills online as we receive them which is much easier and more straightforward.

ruins near Porto de Mos, Lagos

ruins near Porto de Mos, Lagos

As foreign residents, the most important people to tell about an address change is the SEF, Service de Estrangeiros e Frontiers aka the Foreigners and Borders Service –  in short, the immigration authorities.   We stopped by the nearest SEF office in the city of Portimao where we showed them our new lease and address, forked over €40 each and had new photos (hurray, the new photos make us look less like fugitives but one of us is lacking a chin!) and fingerprints taken since SEF would issue a new resident card with our updated information.

Another lesson learned.  Make sure your address is complete.  While our address was correct the original information we’d been given lacked our apartment number which meant the postman couldn’t deliver it.  We waited and waited for our new resident cards to come, checked at the post office where they shrugged their shoulders in a polite but unhelpful way and finally went back to the SEF office to find out the cards had been returned.  We picked them up and, next time, will make sure our new cards have the apartment number on them when we renew our resident visas.

Car Taxes and Road Inspections.  We’d bought our spiffy little car, a used, low-mileage, 2012 Skoda, from a reputable dealer for €7500.  In Portugal, the license plates come with the car and a road tax is paid annually at the Finanças office.  Our cost was about €120.  Once a car reaches the grand old age of four, it also needs to be inspected either annually or biannually depending on its age. Using a hand-drawn map, we headed out of Lagos toward the town of Sagres for a few kilometers, past the campground, around a few roundabouts until we saw a furniture store and, next to it, our target, the Inspecção Automóvel.  We paid the inspection fee of €33 and watched as our baby was poked and prodded, the brakes stomped on repeatedly until we thought we’d have to buy new tires and then shaken, over and over which had us thinking, “This can’t be good.” And it wasn’t … We were given a temporary pass, told to have our shocks replaced and headlights adjusted (€300) and instructed by the unsmiling technician to return within the 30-day grace period. A final re-inspection fee of €8 (and a smile at last) confirmed our car’s continued road worthiness for another two years.car inspection

Portuguese Driver’s License. We haven’t quite figured out what to do here. As residents, we’re supposed to have a Portuguese driver’s license but we understand that we have to exchange our US licenses.  In the US, a license is necessary for many day-to-day transactions. Since we travel to the US and also drive, we don’t want to surrender our licenses.  We’ve talked to several Brits who have lived here for years and have yet to find anyone who has exchanged their licenses.  So, for now, this issue is unresolved.

Lastly, and thanks to our lawyer, we recently received our registration as Non-Habitual Residents (NHR) which exempts our foreign income (like social security) from being taxed twice, once by the US and again by Portugal, for ten years.  We’ve included a link here which will explain this difficult concept much better than us since our understanding is, “WTH?” at best!  Taxes for Non-Habitual Residents

Looking back at this lengthy tome we’ve written has us thinking “We should have done this months ago” in more manageable posts!  For those of you with questions about becoming a resident in Portugal, hopefully this provides more information and didn’t induce too many yawns.  For those of you happy where you are, we hope we’ve impressed you with our dogged determination to master our lives in a foreign country.  Every day we’re reminded in many small ways that, “We ain’t in Kansas anymore.” Things are done differently here in Portugal but the extra effort is definitely worth it.

A cairn along the cliff path near Lagos

A cairn along the cliff path near Lagos

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Next Post:  Continuing with the “We ain’t in Kansas anymore” theme, we’ll talk about some of the things, for better or not, that are different here in Portugal.

 

 

 

 

 

A Hop-On, Hop-Off Boat: Cruising the Canals of Copenhagen

It was Monday morning in the old maritime city of Copenhagen.  Smiling Danes walked briskly past us or whizzed by on their bicycles all looking like they had places to be and things to do.  However, our big question on this Monday as tourists was, “What to do when many of the museums and tours of major attractions are closed?”  The answer?  Take a canal tour and view the city from the water. There are actually several different boat tour companies operating along the canal but the tickets for the hop-on, hop-off boat tour are good for 48 hours and can be combined with a land-lover’s hop-on hop-off bus trip of the old city.  You can choose between a boat with a covered top (to protect you from Copenhagen’s unpredictable weather) or take an open air boat like we did and chance the cloud bursts.  Some of the tours offered a guide but our boat had an audio tour where we could pick the language of our choice to learn more about what we were seeing.  Since the audio that accompanied our cruise was scratchy, difficult to listen to and just plain distracting, we pulled the cheap earphones off and enjoyed the quiet ride of the boat’s electric motor, guessing our location from the free maps we’d been given.

Watch your head - low bridge!

Watch your head – low bridge!  Check out the centerpiece carving below ↓

Tongue out troll! On center arch of marble bridge.

A welcome or a warning?

A blend of different architectural styles

A pleasing blend of different architectural styles.

The Opera House

The Opera House

And more lovely buildings along the canal.

More picturesque buildings along the canal.

Another old and low bridge. Head down and all body parts in the boat.

Another old and low bridge. We kept our heads down and all body parts in the boat.

We caught the boat at Gammel Strand which was about a five-minute walk from where we were staying and cruised along the wide canal for a bit, admiring the variety of very old and new buildings lining the canal. While motoring down a narrower canal, we instinctively ducked every once in a while as the tour boat navigated its way through centuries old, low and arched bridges. Gradually, as we entered the Nyhavn area, the 17th and 18th century homes became more colorful and vibrant, like something from a picture postcard.  Once home to artists, ballet dancers, poets and writers like Copenhagen’s favorite son, Hans Christian Andersen who lived at #67, the 17th century waterfront also had pubs for thirsty sailors and ladies of the night to provide a little company. Translated as “New Harbor,” Nyhavn is in fact a canal that was excavated from 1671-1673 by Swedish war prisoners. For the next 300 years, ships brought their cargo into the city to King’s Square for unloading.  With the decline in the importance of small ship transport, the area gradually faded but underwent an urban revitalization beginning in 1977.  Now the trendy streets lining Nyhavn are filled with upscale restaurants, pubs, street food vendors, cafes with outside tables and specialty stores and the area is lively with both locals and tourists day and night. We hopped off our tour boat to stroll the streets, window shop and gobbled down a tasty Danish hotdog from a street vendor’s cart while we people watched.  After our impromptu lunch, we jumped back on another boat belonging to the hop-on, hop-off Gray Line fleet to continue our cruise and admired the beautiful wooden boats, old schooners, yachts, and small vessels that filled the canal. Nyhavn - Copenhagen canal boat tour- photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Nyhavn - Copenhagen canal boat tour- photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

Copenhagen canal boat tour - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Lovingly refurbished wooden boat

Lovingly refurbished wooden boat

And then we were cruising by Copenhagen’s iconic statue, The Little Mermaid, by Danish sculptor Edward Ericksen who used his wife as a model for this life-size statue.  Inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the bronze sculpture was completed in 1913 and receives more than a million visitors a year.  For some reasons not quite understood by us, the pretty and innocuous Little Mermaid seems to be a source of ire and controversy and has been beheaded three times, covered in paint twice, had an arm removed and knocked off her pedestal.  She’s the most photographed statue in Denmark but unfortunately, when we had a chance to take her picture free of all those annoying tourists (besides us!) who insisted on posing with her, our photo turned out to be a blur of her backside.  You can find a great photo here.The Marble Church, Copenhagen photo by No Particular Place To Go

We drifted by and caught a rear view of Amalienborg Palace, the winter residence of the Danish royal family since 1794 and the Marble Church, officially named Frederik’s church, with its distinctive copper green dome.  The church, begun in 1749 and finally completed in 1894 after many stops and starts, is open to the public daily and a popular site for weddings on Fridays and Saturdays.  Amalienborg Palace is actually a complex of four identical separate palaces constructed in the 18th century and built around an octagonal courtyard.  The stately residences were first occupied by noble families but bought by the Danish royal family in 1794 when their Christiansborg Palace burned down.  Various kings and their families have occupied the four palaces over the years and the Amalienborg Museum is open daily, including Monday.  We can highly recommend a leisurely visit to this area (we went the next day) to watch the ceremonial changing of the Royal Life Guards, view the inside of the Marble Church and take a tour of the Amalienborg Museum in one of the Palaces.  The museum will show you how the rich and famous lived with rooms lavishly overfurnished furnished in various styles, all reflecting the refined taste of former inhabitants that lots of money can buy. (Here’s a peek below.)

abundant luxury

abundant luxury of a bygone era

We made our way to Christianshavn Canal, founded in 1618 as a fortress city and home for merchants, later incorporated into Copenhagen.  Here we admired beautifully refurbished houseboats and yachts.

Christianshavn along th canal tour - photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Copenhagen canal boat tour - photo by No Particular Place to Go

 

Copenhagen canal boat tour - photo by No Particular Place To Go

Hopping out we wended our way through the lively neighborhood of residences, restaurants and 18th century warehouses to the Baroque-style, Our Savior’s Church, circa late 17th century.  The exterior spiral stairway was added later in the mid-eighteenth century and contains a daunting 150 stairs up to a panoramic view. Topping it all is a golden globe with the figure of Christ wielding a banner.

Our Savior's Church, Copenhagen. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

With our canal boat tour approaching Gammel Strand once again, we passed by the Brygge Harbor Baths, open-air swimming pools right on the canals, that had us reflecting that the Danes are much hardier people than us.  There were the swimmers basking in the Copenhagen summer weather while we glided by in our jeans and light jackets thinking about anything but a dip! Copenhagen-swimming pool by canal - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

A canal cruise is a terrific way to begin your visit to Copenhagen, see many of the city’s highlights and tourist attractions and orient yourself to where the sights you want to see are.  The trip takes about 65 minutes for the whole loop through the canals and boats run a regular circuit with intervals of about 10 to 15 minutes between pick-ups.  And, lucky us, we liked cruising along Copenhagen’s canals so much that we did the circuit with its hop-on, hop-offs twice!

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Copenhagen Boat tour in blue (Source)

Copenhagen Boat tour in blue (Source)

Them and Us: Mitzvahs and The Danish Jewish Museum of Copenhagen

Danish Jewish Museum Copenhagen photo by noparticularplacetogo.netIt’s a small space, consisting of three oddly shaped rooms, starkly modern and contrasting sharply with the building in which they are housed on the ground floor of the seventeenth-century, ivy-covered, brick building that was once the Denmark Royal Boat House.  The walls are not square, the floor is not flat and the severe angles and planes of the geometric spaces, passageways and vaulted ceilings have you tilting slightly as you move about the museum.  The design, by Polish-American architect David Libeskind, is based upon the four Hebrew letters spelling Mitzvah. Translated into “A good deed” or “The duty to do the right thing ” the museum has an inspiring story to tell: the rescue of the Danish Jews in October of 1943.Danish Jewish Museum Copenhagen photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

Although a lot of the focus of the museum is on World War II, this is not a museum that emphasizes the horror of the Holocaust.  Instead, this museum begins its story in the seventeenth century when the Danish King hit upon an idea to improve the country’s economy and extended an invitation to wealthy Jews in many countries to settle in Denmark. (We couldn’t help but notice a parallel to many countries today who extend “Golden Visas” to wealthy applicants willing to buy property or invest in the economy in exchange for a visa.)  Many Jews, seeking more opportunities or fleeing pogroms and rampant anti-Semitism, accepted the offer.  In Denmark, they were allowed to practice their religion and were able to move about freely rather than live in designated areas (ghettos) common elsewhere in Europe.  In exchange for these autonomies and for agreeing not to compete with the established professions, the selected Jews were granted entry. The immigrants were encouraged to engage in other trades, such as textiles and tobacco production, marketing coffee and tea and trading fur and hides as well as financial activities like collecting fees for the national lottery.  Over the centuries, and with the occasional influx of new Jewish immigrants, the Jews assimilated into the country, interweaving their culture and traditions, intermarrying and living peacefully and prosperously as respected Danish citizens.

German troops parade in Copenhagen. Source

German troops parade in Copenhagen. Source

All that was threatened with the German invasion of Denmark on April 9th, 1940. In the space of a few hours the Danes conceded to the inevitability of Germany’s superior force and, hoping for a peaceful occupation, entered into a period of cooperation with the enemy.  The King retained his throne while many sectors of the government were still allowed to operate.  But, right from the beginning, Denmark asserted repeatedly that “special measures” and attacks against her Jewish citizens would not be tolerated and time after time denied any “Jewish problems.”  Incredibly, the Germans, who valued the meat and agricultural products that were shipped from their “model protectorate” back to Germany and didn’t want to jeopardize the precarious balance, backed down.  While deportations of Jews from the rest of occupied Europe to the concentration and death camps began in March of 1942, the Danish Jews were unbelievably free to continue a more-or-less normal life under the German occupation for a while longer.

Danish and Nazi Germany flags fly side by side Source

Danish and Nazi Germany flags fly side by side Source

By the summer of 1943, however the cooperation between Denmark and its occupiers was wearing thin as most Danes believed that an Allied victory was imminent.  The Danish resistance gained momentum, labor unrest and strikes spread throughout the country. Several German military targets and businesses cooperating with the Germans were sabotaged by the underground resistance movement. The Germans clamped down, arrested several prominent Danes and, by the end of August, martial law and a curfew were in effect.  The period of cooperation was over and, for the first time since the German invasion, Denmark’s 7,800 Jews were at great risk for deportation.

But here’s where Denmark’s story becomes unique when compared to much of the rest of Europe and the Mitzvahs deserve to be counted and remembered.

  • Several anonymous Germans warned their Danish contacts of an impending roundup of the Jews, scheduled for October 2nd, 1943.  When word of the imminent arrest and deportation of this vulnerable segment of the population reached the Danish Resistance Movement on September 28th, they warned the head of the Jewish community, C.B. Henriques who began spreading the news.  At early morning worship services the following day, the general alarm began to circulate throughout the Jewish population urging all to go into hiding immediately.
  •  Neutral Sweden, realizing that the Danish Jews were in immediate danger, announced that they were prepared to accept all of Denmark’s Jews to Sweden.  With this timely offer of asylum towards its neighbor, Sweden threw open it’s safe-haven doors (that most other countries had slammed shut) in an exceptional act of humanity and generosity.
  •  Passage to Sweden, by whatever means and transport available, became the goal for most of the Danish Jews who began to make their way to the fishing harbors along the coast.  They hid in the rural cottages of friends and in the woods, in the homes of their Danish neighbors and in village churches while awaiting their rescue out of Denmark.  In a massive group effort between the Danish Resistance and a substantial number of ordinary Danish citizens, almost all of Denmark’s Jews (7,200) were smuggled out of the country over the course of the next few weeks.  They navigated the Øresund strait from Denmark to Sweden in rowboats, kayaks, small boats and large fishing vessels.  The Danish Resistance smuggled those refugees deemed too young or too old and weak to withstand the rough sea passage through choppy waters inside freight railcars that had previously been sealed by the Germans which were then resealed for passage across the strait on regular ferries.

    Source

    Boat headed for Sweden in October 1943 Source

# 6 Source

Fishermen sailing refugees to Sweden  Source

At the end of this extraordinary endeavor there were about 580 Danish Jews who remained in the country and some of these stayed in hiding until the end of the war, died in accidents or committed suicide.  The majority however (464 people) were captured by the Germans and deported to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in German occupied Czechoslovakia.

  • The Danish Government, far from forgetting its unfortunate citizens, persuaded the Germans to allow the Danish Red Cross to monitor the welfare of the Jews and accept and distribute packages of food and medicine to the prisoners.  Lastly, they exerted political pressure on the Germans not to deport the Danish Jews to the extermination camps.
  • At the end of the war, Europe was in shambles and the great majority of the European Jews were refugees, neither wanted nor welcome in their home countries.  The homecoming for the Danish Jews from Sweden and from the concentration camps was different however, as many returned to Denmark to find, in a final Mitzvah, their homes, possessions and even pets had been cared for by their neighbors during their absence.  (A separate exhibition called “Home” at the museum gives some valuable insight about their homecoming and the difficulties of resuming a normal life after experiencing the trauma of persecution and exile.)

    Celebrating the liberation of Denmark May 5, 1945 Source

    Celebrating the liberation of Denmark May 5, 1945 Source

In the news, we hear and see devastating examples of the hatefest called THEM versus US daily.  It was heartwarming as well as inspiring to learn about a small country that displayed formidable courage and performed multiple Mitzvahs: a country that remembered its duty to do the right thing in small kindnesses and large deeds and stand up for its most vulnerable citizens.

Note: In the end, the Jews of Denmark had the highest survival rates in Europe following the war (greater than 99%) and Yad Vashem, the international organization which researches, documents and commemorates the Holocaust, records the remarkably low number of 102 Danish Jews who lost their lives to the Germans during the war.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

The Pursuit of Happiness: First Impressions of Copenhagen

Historic Copenhagen - photo by noparticularplacetogo.netWhile Denmark had always been on our “Bucket List,” we’d been quick to group it in with the other Nordic countries as simply too expensive to visit in the near future.  However, fate, in the guise of two Canadian friends, extended us an offer that we couldn’t refuse: a place to stay, a kitchen to cook in and a list of inexpensive things to do to get the most bang for our buck.  It took a mere few seconds for us to glance at each other and start googling air fares.Historic Copenhaven - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

A four-hour bus trip from Lagos to Lisbon was a convenient way to reach the airport and the 3-hour flight to Copenhagen made our rather impetuous decision to visit the city of Hans Christian Andersen seem pretty darn reasonable.  We still had that “pinch me, I’m going to Denmark” feeling when we flew over the wind turbines of Middlegrunden offshore windfarm, less than 4 kilometers off Copenhagen’s shoreline, with the skyline of the capital rising up in the background.

Like any good travelers with an interest in history, we’d done some reading about Denmark, land of the Vikings and especially the origins of Copenhagen, a 10th century Viking fishing village located on a natural harbor with a teeming supply of herring.  The fishing industry boomed, the village became a town became a city and a fortress was built in the 12th century to protect the coast from Wendish Pirates (Baltic Slavs).  The kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden/Finland and Norway formed a union (1397-1523) in part to block German expansion northward and the University of Copenhagen opened in 1479, making it one of the oldest universities in the world.  In the 16th and 17th centuries Catholicism yielded to Lutheranism following a three-year civil war, the Plague was responsible for the deaths of 22,000 inhabitants and the fire of 1728 burnt down almost half of the medieval city.  The beginning of the 19th century saw Britain unleash some particularly brutal attacks on the city to neutralize the Danish fleet during the Napoleonic Wars and yet, despite the warfare and national bankruptcy, Copenhagen entered into a period called the “Danish Golden Age (1800 -1850) where neoclassical architecture, paintings, sculptures and music by Danish artists thrived.  And the history, while fascinating, gets even more complicated from thereon so, in the interests of brevity as well as getting on with our story, we’ll leave you dangling in suspense. (Wait, wait, we’re just about to get to the electrification of the city …!)Copenhagen near the Amalienborg Palace, photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

 

The Marble Chapel

The Marble Chapel

At the airport, we exchanged some Euros for the Danish Krone, stopped by the tourist information booth to pick up a city map and headed in the direction of the bus stop to catch the 5A bus to our stop, Klaksvisgade-Langebro – our tongues and memories both had a hard time wrapping themselves around the names – and meet our friends. And the location of their sublet apartment (furnished of course in Danish modern with some Ikea influence thrown in) couldn’t have been better, within walking distance to everywhere we wanted to see.  Arriving in any city for the first time can be a disorienting blur but a walk about the area our first day gave us a kaleidoscope of impressions to mix with the factoids we’d picked up about this charming city.

Church of Our Savior

Church of Our Savior

Copenhagen - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

It’s a city that rightly earns its nickname, “The City of Spires,” and the skyline is dotted with these tapering structures.  Towers and steeples adorn many of the older government buildings, churches and castles – jutting towards the heavens, silhouetted against the sky.Copenhagen - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

 

Copenhagen - photo by noparticularplacetogo.netIt’s a city with a multitude of architectural influences that mix, contrast and ultimately work together to blend the oldest section of its medieval city with eye-catching and exciting modern architectural designs that have been built since the millennium.  The skyline of the historical area is horizontal rather than vertical so that the contemporary architecture doesn’t overshadow the Baroque palaces that mingle with 18th Century rococo mansions along with beauties from the Dutch Renaissance.

The Black Diamond

The Black Diamond

Opera House

Opera House

It’s a city where you’re never too far away from the water.  Built on two islands in the Baltic Sea, Zealand and Amager, Copenhagen has eleven bridges spanning seven canals.  The water gives the impression that everything has just been washed and, when the sun was out, sparkling clean.Copenhagens canals - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

 

Copenhagens canals - photo by noparticularplacetogo.netIt’s a city of wide avenues mixed with one-way streets of cobblestones and pavement.  A city where three lanes of traffic means a lane for cars, a lane for bikes and a lane for pedestrians. And that middle lane, the “bike path” was actually one of the most astonishing things to us, hailing from the land where the car is king.Copenhagens Bike friendly streets - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

Here sturdy bikes, unadorned or topped with baskets or pulling kid-friendly conveyances, rule!  Copenhagen is a city of bicycle super highways and networks of lanes that connect the downtown to its outskirts.  In fact, more than fifty percent of Copenhagen’s residents use the bicycle as their primary form of transportation.Copenhagens bike friendly streets - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

 

Copenhagens bike friendly streets - photo by noparticularplacetogo.netIt’s a city of changing weather.  We changed sandals for shoes and socks, shorts to jeans and carried and donned light jackets as needed.  The sky was brilliantly blue one moment, steel-gray the next and during our visit we experienced intermittent sprinkles mixed with downpours and moments of radiant sun. And yet, while we were scrambling to keep up with the fluctuating weather, the residents carried on according to the calendar, wearing the clothes suited for the month to catch the fleeting rays.  We even spied some hardy souls swimming in the pools adjacent to the canals, celebrating the short summer.Copenhagen-swimming pool by canal - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

 

Happy and healthy in Copenhagen - photo by noparticularplacetogo.netIt’s a city where the number of daylight hours in the northern latitude carries a lot more weight than other places we’ve been.  The winter solstice has only 7 hours of daylight but our visit was just after the summer solstice, June 20th, and we were treated to a whopping seventeen-and-a-half hours of daylight.  Our first night saw us reluctant to end the day but fumbling for dark socks as make-shift eye masks the next morning when the sun rudely awoke us at 04:30.sculling on Copenhagens canals - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

 

Copenhagen - photo by noparticularplacetogo.netIt’s a city that radiates health and happiness and has, in fact, landed on various surveys over the years attempting to define the elusive nature of joy as “The World’s Happiest City.”   It’s a “seize the day” sort of city where the inhabitants whizzed happily by us on their bicycles, walked with energetic strides about the streets, relaxed at outdoor cafés like they were posing for magazine covers, lounged about the various open spaces with picnics and drinks and engaged in all sorts of sports.  They radiated such an absurd amount of energy and happiness that we couldn’t help but hope it might be catching!  And, forgive us for mixing countries, cultures and metaphors, we couldn’t help but think of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon to sum up our first impressions of Copenhagen, a city “…where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

anchor street art

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

 

Shoot ‘Em Ups and Spaghetti Westerns in Tabernas, Spain: Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood

High noon at Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood

High noon at Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood

We left early in the morning to make the seven-plus hour drive from Lagos, Portugal, to Mojacar, a resort city where friends were staying in Spain’s Costa del Sol region.  The toll road (the A-22) that took us along the southern coast of Portugal was smooth and sparsely populated and, after several months of driving along this stretch of road, we felt sufficiently confident to listen to an audio book while the miles passed.  As usual, we traded the time behind the wheel back and forth and, with a cooler for drinks and some snacks, we only needed to make a few, short breaks.  About five hours into the drive we passed north of Granada and were thrilled to see the Alhambra atop the hill in the distance which we had visited a few months earlier and wrote about here.  The highway began to climb and wind through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and we spied snow on many of the higher peaks although it was almost summer. Oleander, with pink and white flowers, and bushes with brilliant yellow blossoms filled the median of the highway with vibrant color for miles.  Evidently this was a major freight route because we passed uncountable numbers of long haul tractor-trailers (we’re not sure who drawled, “We’ve got us a convoy” from the old song which cracked us up) laboring their way up the slopes and braking on the downside.

Presently, we left the highway for a two-lane road; the land became more arid and the small olive groves and vineyards that we could see from the road thinned out.  We passed through little villages and wondered out loud why people had chosen to live in such an inhospitable country.  And then, like tech-dependent travelers everywhere, we checked our GPS and finally (a throw-back to our generation) we pulled out our road map of Spain as well to check our whereabouts.

The Tabernas Desert in Spain (with some incongruous teepees!)

The Tabernas Desert in Spain (with some incongruous teepees!)

Another view of the Tabernas Desert with mesas and an old west landscape (see the cemetery?)

Another view of the Tabernas Desert with mesas and an old west landscape

And there we were – right in the middle of the Desierto de Tabernas, surrounded by landscape that looked strangely familiar, like something out of an old, western movie: dusty, dry with low-lying scrub brush, ravines, plateaus and mesas.  In fact, the Tabernas Desert is located in Europe’s driest province, Almeria, where rainfall averages around 6 to 7 inches annually and has the distinction of being the “continent’s only true desert climate.” Evidently, we weren’t the only ones who thought of America’s southwest and old western movies as we gazed at the passing scenery because a few miles down the road we spotted a huge, honest-to-God billboard for “Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood.” Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

Here’s the landscape made famous by many of the old “Spaghetti Westerns,” a term widely used to describe the international films, most of which were directed by Italians and included multilingual crews and casts from Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the US. In fact, between 1960 and 1980, over 600 European Westerns were made.  Sergio Leone, an Italian who shot many of his movies in the Tabernas area, was the genre’s best known director and his wildly popular film-making style in the sixties made his movies international box office hits.  We’d seen the three movies known as the “Man with No Name” or “Dollars Trilogy” with the up and coming star, Clint Eastwood, which included one of our all-time favorites, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” No wonder we had a feeling of déjà vu!Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas - Spain - photo by No Particular Place To To

 

Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To GoThe sets built for many of the old spaghetti westerns were acquired by a stuntman-turned-entrepreneur, Rafa Molina, in 1977 and have been turned into a nostalgic western-style theme park called “Fort Bravo, Texas Hollywood.”   At the entrance gate we handed over the not-so-insubstantial fee of 35€ which included a senior discount.  A few steps took us back in time – a hundred years and more – and place – the American wild west – as we strolled through dusty streets exploring movie sets, ready and waiting for their next role as backdrops in an old west or southwestern epic.  Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Fort Bravo Hollywood Texas, Spain - photo by No Particular Place To Go

Boomers like us will remember the golden age of westerns, the weekly television shows like Rawhide, Bonanza and Gunsmoke. We spent many weekend nights at the movie theater where we could watch handsome men with watchful eyes and murky pasts pursue outlaws who had committed dastardly deeds, protect wagon trains of settlers moving west from marauders and chase after dreams of gold.  Cowboys built ranches, sheriffs delivered law and order by gun or by rope and merchants turned obscure outposts into bustling towns.  These were places where justice was pursued by a fast-draw hero with a dead-on aim, the bad men were easily identifiable by their black hats and “shifty eyes” and anyone foreign was either naïve or downright suspect.  Women knew their places, too: they kept their virtue unsullied and their mouths shut, looked slightly disheveled but alluring and listened to their men.  A feisty woman who questioned the way things were done always had questionable morals.  Stereotypes abounded and, now that we think about it, while westerns were lots of fun in their heyday, sometimes it might just be better to move on …

By Anita Oliver and Richard NashFort Bravo, Texas Hollywood, Spain Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Note:  We’ve only talked about the spaghetti westerns here but the Tabernas Desert and the surrounding area of the Almeria Province have served as the backdrops for over 400 movies of many genres including Cleopatra, Lawrence of Arabia, Patton, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and are even seen in the 6th season of Game of Thrones.  Here’s a link with a little more background:  http://www.unique-almeria.com/movie-filming-locations.html 

To the Manor Born: The Parque da Mina

We spend a lot of our time as travelers imagining.  Imagining what it might be like to live as a modern day Bedouin in Jordan, a Berber in Morocco, a farmer or fisherman eking out a living in Nicaragua, Vietnam or Russia.  We have no problems at all imagining where we would go if money were no object or the style in which we would travel.  And, since we both have a passion for history, we imagine what it would have been like to live at the height of the Mayan or Incan civilizations, travel along the Silk Road or learn about wondrous new places during the time when the New World was being mapped in the Age of Discovery.

Wikipedia has a surprisingly long list of castles and fortresses that are located in Portugal and ruins dating all the way back to the Romans and even earlier. So it’s easy to for us to close our eyes and imagine the lives of the nobility and history’s “social influencers” – what it would be like to stride our way through one of the great halls, feast at a grand banquet in one of the dining halls or sleep in one of the bed chambers of these vast estates.  It is, however, harder to frame a picture of the day-to-day lives of the common folk who tended the sheep, brought in the crops or sold their wares at the markets.  And there’s surprisingly little written on the lifestyles of those wealthy merchants or the “middle class” of Portugal just a few centuries ago.Parque de Mina

Our chance to find out more about how the common folk and upper-middle class lived came when we took a detour on a recent day trip to Monchique, located in the mountain range of the Serra de Monchique of the Western Algarve.   A winding mountain road took us through forests of cork oak and eucalyptus trees, past small farms and the occasional groupings of homes.  A sign for Parque da Mina at the edge of the road invited us to take a right-hand turn and piqued our curiosity so we turned and followed the paved road a few meters to a small parking lot. Upon further reading of another sign we found the tempting promise that we could travel back in time and see how one, land-owning family lived in this area of Portugal.  We ponied up the price of 10€ each (which seemed a bit high but goes towards maintaining the property) and set off down the path as it began to lightly rain, towards the family home turned museum and a glimpse of how life was lived many years ago.

Parque de Mina

Our first sight of the 18th century home made it very clear that this was a property lovingly and carefully maintained.  In typical Portuguese fashion, the home has been passed down by the original family through the generations and the current guardians of the estate have generously shared their family history and opened the home as a living museum to the public. And what a treasure!  We were welcomed at the door by a smiling woman who gave us an informative tour through the old home that was packed full of practical artifacts used in daily life, some extensive and eclectic collections that reflected the family’s interests and some more modern curiosities like the old Victrola we found in one room. Parque de Mina - 18th century Portuguese farmhouse

The tour began with the heart of the house, the kitchen, furnished with a lovely old table and chairs, earthen bowls and a collection of plates decorating the whitewashed walls. Here the meals would have been prepared by those in the employ of the family and the large fireplace in the background serves as the focal point.  Look closely and you can see the keepers-of-the-hearth sitting and enjoying a bit of a rest. Parque de Mina, near Monchique, PortugalNext was the dining room with a rich Oriental rug and intricately carved furniture.  (A maid stands ready to serve some traditional Portuguese dishes.)  Parque de Mina

We passed by the sitting room where the family may have sipped some tea and learned of the news of the day from (what seemed to us to be so quaint mixed in with the formal antiques) a vintage radio perched upon the side table. The bedrooms were tastefully decorated and, since Portugal is a traditional Catholic country, the saints protected and watched over the family while they slumbered.Parque de Mina

 

Parque de Mina,

And then came our favorite room, obviously where the family must have spent their time together playing music and maybe cards, listening to the Victrola, reading and enjoying the warmth of the fire.  Here was their collection of musical instruments and, a sure sign of how times have changed, several species taxidermied and displayed.  A large sea turtle shell stood upon the floor next to the backbone of some huge, unknown mammal.  Viewed by today’s cultural norms the display might be a bit macabre but the home would have reflected the tastes of a well-traveled and sophisticated family who enjoyed and celebrated a good life. Parque de Mina

 

Parque de MinaHere and there were nooks with a favorite collection of the patriarch’s pipes, displays of fine china and a whole little room devoted to an enormous assortment of finely carved and embellished, antique wall and table clocks. We peeked into a room where the sewing machines and flat irons stood at the ready and learned that all families of means employed their own personal seamstresses.Parque de Mina - sewing room

Passing by the office we noticed a colorful painting that, upon closer inspection turned out to be a grisly little scene of hunting dogs bringing down a wild boar and the master with his knife at the ready, lunging in for the kill. A bit removed from the more genteel side of life but another glimpse into times past and the country life of long ago.  Parque de MinaThe last part of the tour took us down a winding staircase to the immense cellar with doors giving access to the courtyard and grounds which, again, had several informal exhibits showcasing the different industries that would have been necessary to support the household. As one of the wealthiest and largest properties in the Monchique region, Parque da Mina had agricultural fields, forests and a working mine that produced iron-ore and copper.

Parque de Mina

The old trades of the region were showcased in several displays of many fine, old agricultural tools and machines whose uses we couldn’t begin to guess at.Parque de Mina

In one corner an animatronic wine maker greeted us in Portuguese and we admired the nearby wine making apparatus and learned about the local liqueur, medronho, made from the fermented berries of the arbutus tree which grows on the property. Parque de Mina

And, in a country where wine flows as abundantly as water, we saw many old barrels and casks used to store vintages of years gone by, some marked branco (white) and tinto (red).Parque de Mina

One of our favorite displays was of a general store and its contents that dated (our best guess only) from the 19th and 20th century.Parque de Mina

And finally, despite the threat of more rain showers we ventured outside to explore some of the outdoor exhibits and especially liked the old vintage vehicles scattered about the grounds.Parque de Mina

 

IMG_7734 (800x477)

Sometimes it’s more fun to take a detour to explore a place you’ve never heard of rather than stick to the original plan and, for us, this turned out to be one of those times.  It’s rare to see a historic home so meticulously maintained and to find so many authentic and vintage collections displayed in each room. We arrived at our original destination, Monchique, a few hours later than we had planned but very pleased to have taken a trip on the “Way Back” machine and imagine what it might have been like to live in this rural area of Portugal long ago.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Put a Cork in it – The Cork Trees of Portugal

Homemade Liqueurs - photo by noparticularplacetogo.netEver think about where that cork came from that you just pulled (maybe in pieces) from your wine bottle?  If you’re like us, the answer would be a resounding “Never” and maybe a suggestion to “Get a life.”  Sometimes an item that we see daily, handle and casually toss away when we’re through with it takes on a whole new significance when we learn more about it.  Until we moved to the Algarve Region of Portugal, all we knew about cork was that it was handy to pin notes on, provided a cushioning footbed in our favorite sandals, served as a convenient little coaster to prevent those unsightly rings on our table and lent a festive “Pop!” when pulled from a bottle of quality champagne.  However, in the souvenir shops and vendor stalls found in Lagos and other towns up and down the coast of Portugal, cork products are a big business and you might wonder just what all the fuss is about.

Partially stripped cork oak tree

Partially stripped cork oak tree

Our curiosity was piqued and, when we mentioned our newly found interest in cork (who would have thought?) a friend of ours told us about a tour given by the family owned company, Novacortiça Cork Factory.  We booked a visit online and set off one morning on a pleasant one-hour drive to nearby São Brás de Alportel, a village in the foothills of the Serra do Caldeirão mountains, regarded by those in the know as one of the best regions of cork in the world.  It wasn’t hard to find the place (and yeah, there was a big sign too!) as there were huge piles of tree bark, almost all neatly stacked and baled in the front and along the sides of the building.  And the smell?  A bit hard to describe but an aromatic combination of sweet and earthy that took us back several years to stacking freshly cut wood for our fireplace.  Only better.

harvested cork

harvested cork

It all starts with Portugal’s national tree, protected by a strict law that makes it illegal to cut down any cork tree in Portugal without permission from the government.  It takes twenty-five years for the cork oak to grow large enough for the first stripping of the bark in the hot summer months by a highly skilled cutter, a tirador, who peels away door-sized cuttings using a specifically purposed hand-axe.  The virgin cork has an irregular structure and is very rough and brittle, hence its main use is as wall and flooring insulation.  The second cutting, after a period of 9 years or more, in which the outer bark regenerates, yields a denser bark but it isn’t until the third cutting, that occurs any time after the tree is 43 years old, that a high quality cork, compressed and pliable and suitable for wine stoppers, is finally harvested.  Which makes the Portuguese saying, “Plant a cork oak for your grandchildren” easy to understand.  And, since the trees can live up to 250 years old and yield a harvest every nine years (the year of the stripping is painted on the bark) they can be a valuable heritage for many future generations.

Cork oak before stripping

Cork oak before stripping

cork oak after stripping

cork oak after stripping

Cork oaks are never completely stripped. Different areas of the tree can be harvested at different intervals.

Cork oaks are never completely stripped. Different areas of the tree can be harvested at different intervals.

We sat through a well-presented lecture about how cork is processed and wine stoppers are made before our tour of the plant and asked so many questions that the German couple next to us started giving us dirty looks that perfectly conveyed the meaning, “Let’s get a move-on, you nerds!” as well as “Get a life.”  Once the actual tour started we still asked questions but tried not to embarrass ourselves further while we racked up “most fascinated tourist” points with our guide.

There are several steps that go into making the heretofore underappreciated wine stopper:

  • The pieces of harvested cork are boiled to remove dirt and insects which also softens it and makes it easier to work with.
  • The rough outer layer of bark is removed by hand.
trimming the cork

trimming the cork

  • The planks are sorted by quality and thickness and cut into pieces that make them easier to work with.
Squeezing water from cleaned cork

Squeezing water from cleaned cork

  • Whole bottle stoppers or the discs that comprise the “technical corks” can be hand or machine punched .
  • The majority of Novacortica Cork Factory’s end product are the discs for the more economical “technical corks” or “one-plus-one corks.”  A cylinder of agglomerate cork comprises the center of the bottle stopper with a disc of natural cork at each end.  The disc portion of the cork is what comes into contact with the wine so that the taste is not tainted.
cork discs - Novacortica

cork discs – Novacortica

The beauty of any product made with cork is that there is no waste.  Any cork scrap can be ground up, molded into large blocks or pressed into sheets to make fabrics and upholstery, handbags, shoes, hats, flooring, fishing floats and even surfboards.  It can be textured, dyed and burned.  It’s completely natural, completely renewable and completely recyclable.

We can honestly say we’ll never look at a “cork” the same way again!

A few factoids:

  • Cork stoppers for different qualities of wine range from 5 cents to 3 euros (about $3.36) for the finest of champagnes.
A variety of corks for different libations-Novacortica

A variety of corks for different libations

  • Portugal produces 50% of the world’s cork.  Cork oaks also grow in the Mediterranean climates of Spain, Algeria, Morocco, France, Italy and Tunisia.
  • Cork has a honeycomb cell structure which gives it remarkable insulating properties.  It’s flexible, compressible and elastic as well as lightweight, impermeable, durable and hypoallergenic.
  • The cork oak forests have been called “Europe’s Amazon forests” and are amazingly biodiverse regions that conserve water and soil as well as provide wildlife habitat.  Cork oak trees store carbon (and reduce greenhouse gases) in order to regenerate their bark.
  •  And lastly, here’s a link about Wine Corks that has even more fascinating information.  Thanks Dyanne at TravelnLass.com for sharing the heads-up with us!

By Anita and Richard

cork upholstered couch - Novacortica

cork upholstered couch – Novacortica

Quality handbags - high cork products

Quality handbags – high end cork products

 

 

Grottoes and Golden Arches – Ponta da Piedade

Ponta da Piedade, Lagos, PortugalFor longtime followers of our blog it should come as no surprise that we have a passion for travel and love delving into guide books, checking out Skyscanner for good deals while dreaming of exotic places and reading our favorite travel blogs for the thrill of a virtual armchair travel experience.  And even though we’d done a lot of reading about things to do and see in our own adopted town of Lagos, Portugal, it was quite by accident earlier this year that we happened upon what has become our favorite place here while driving around, following the different roads here and there.  A two-lane road led us west of the historical old town a couple of kilometers, skirting Lagos Bay along the coast and ending in an almost deserted parking lot with a small restaurant (closed for the winter) and a souvenir shop with a few offerings. The wind gusted across the promontory as we set off on a short path towards the yellow lighthouse (circa 1912) topped with a red lantern.  A sign told us that we had arrived at Ponta da Piedade which translates forlornly, for some long-lost reason that we couldn’t find, into “Point of Pity.”Ponta da Piedade, Lagos, Portugal

Probably the most astonishing thing for us as US expats, coming from a land where everything carries a warning of imminent danger, was the fact that only a tourist sign stood at the edge of the sixty-plus foot cliffs which stretched in both directions as far as we could see. Effectively, our safety was solely in our hands. Should we wander too close to the edge of these sedimentary rock faces, feel the earth crumble from under our feet and hurtle to our deaths, well, so be it.  And perhaps that’s the meaning of the name “Point of Pity.” 

Ponta da Piedade

 

Ponta da Piedade, Lagos, Portugal

 

Ponta da Piedade, Lagos, Portugal

We followed the path alongside the cliffs for a bit, clutching our coats around us against the fierce winds, gazing at the dizzying views and watching the waves hurl themselves against the cliffs.  The chill chased us back to the stairs, all 182 of them, that wind down to the bottom of one of the most amazing natural monuments we’ve ever seen where the physical world has played its starring role as a sculptor for thousands of years.  Staring down and around and lastly up, as we descended, we kept saying “Wow” in hushed amazement and wonder at the fantastical setting of golden-hued arches, pillars and tunnels, grottoes and other huge, surreal rock formations in pyramidal shapes.  The waters’ shades varied from deep blues to turquoise and, with the gray sky and scudding clouds creating a backdrop, rivaled any cathedral we’ve seen.Pontas de Piedad Grotto boat trip

Since our initial visit we’ve made many return trips by ourselves when we’ve needed to add a bit of wonder to our lives.  We’ve also made it a point to include Ponta da Piedade as a highlight whenever we get a chance to play tour guides to old and new friends – a spoiler alert for those of you coming to visit us this summer!  But, despite several on land visits, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that we actually took one of the numerous boat tours available with friends visiting from Nicaragua and saw what Huffpost calls “The most beautiful shoreline on earth” from another perspective.

Pontas de Piedade - Grotto boat trip

 

Ponta da Piedade -Grotto boat trip

 

Pntas da Piedad grotto boat trip

Since we stumbled upon the Ponta da Piedade on a winter day we’ve learned that many regard it as one the most magnificent features along the Algarve coastline and we can enthusiastically add our opinion to this thought.  And it’s yet another reason to add to our growing ode of “Things we love about Portugal” and why Lagos could well be the perfect place for us.

Note:  Boat trips are available from numerous companies in booths and tents that can be found along the walkways near the Lagos Marina.  We booked our two-hour trip with Dolphin Seafaris and the cost (low season) was 12.5 € per person.  Kayaks and stand-up paddle boards are also available for rent.

Seafaris Grotto boat tour

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

 

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