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.

 

 

 

 

 

Three Days in July, A Cyclorama and the Enduring Symbolism of Gettysburg

Gettysburg Battlefield, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoIt was hard to imagine the brutality of war as we drove through the Pennsylvania countryside.   The landscape was fifty shades of green with rolling hills, great rock outcroppings and a sky of brilliant blue.  And yet, on the days of July 1st through July 3rd of 1863, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War was fought with over 51,000 soldiers wounded, missing or dead at its end.  A war that had begun over states’ rights and numerous contentious issues of free versus slave states, which foreshadowed the greater question of the preservation of the Union, gradually had evolved into an all-out effort to subjugate the old South and banish the institution of slavery.  Like all American school kids, we’d grown up learning the bones of the story and reciting dry facts.  As adults, we’d read our share of the countless books and essays that have been written about it.  And yet, during our visit to the Gettysburg National Military Park, the significance of the Civil War seemed especially sobering in view of the great rifts and divides currently afoot among the people of the United States today. Gettysburg Battlefield monument, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

At the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center we watched a short film which sketched in the historical events leading to the Civil War and, two years into the war, explained the importance of Gettysburg as a turning point in the conflict.  Nearby, a massive painting called a cyclorama piqued our interest and got our undivided attention as it showed in painstaking detail, the final battle in Gettysburg where the Confederate infantry brigades attacked and made one last attempt to overwhelm the Union soldiers.  Known as Pickett’s Charge, the decisive defeat of the south at Gettysburg came in less than half-an-hour with more than 5,000 Confederate men broken upon the fields: missing, wounded, dying or dead.Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoA trendy form of entertainment in the late nineteenth century, cycloramas were panoramic images built in the round that gave the viewer, who stood in the middle, a 360-degree view of the action; battles, of course, were popular depictions.  Hundreds of cycloramas were made and the most popular ones would travel from city to city to be displayed, often accompanied by music and narration to make the viewing of the image a complete performance. Today, only about thirty survive worldwide with three cycloramas located in the United States: Gettysburg, Atlanta and Boston.  The Gettysburg Cyclorama, painted by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, is enormous at 42 feet high (4 stories) and longer than a football field at about 380 feet. After spending months of research on the battlefield, it took Philippoteaux and his assistants well over a year to complete the huge canvas in the early 1880s.  First exhibited in Boston in 1884, the painting suffered a lot of abuse over the years including being sliced into panels and trimmed down to fit into exhibit spaces as well as temperature and humidity fluctuations, water damage, rotting and tears and fire damage not to mention improper storage.  By the time the National Park Service acquired the cyclorama in the 1950’s, and did some restoration work before exhibiting it for the centennial anniversary of the battle, it was in sad shape.  In the late 1990’s a massive conservation effort, the largest of its kind in North America, restored and repaired this historical artwork so that it could be appreciated by the more than 1 million visitors who visit Gettysburg every year. Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum, Pennsylvania. photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Cyclorama at Gettysburg Museum. Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoAfter spending quite a bit of time walking around and examining the cyclorama, we piled back into the car and took the self-guided audio tour around the huge park which covers over nine square miles.  There are approximately 1,300 markers and monuments scattered in the fields and along the roads describing what occurred and commemorating the relevant brigades who fought there. Gettysburg Battlefield monument, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Gettysburg Battlefield monuments, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Gettysburg Battlefield monument, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To GoIn the July heat following the Battle of Gettysburg, the smell of thousands of dead soldiers decomposing permeated the countryside and residents in and around the nearby town of Gettysburg carried peppermint oil and pennyroyal to help mask the stench.  Fearing an epidemic, the bodies of the dead were hastily buried, many only crudely identified with a pencil written note on a board.  Many more corpses, unnamed, were buried in shallow trenches and mass graves. Shortly thereafter, the State of Pennsylvania appropriated funds for the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and purchased a site which included the ridge where the Union forced back Pickett’s Charge.  The reburial of the Union dead began on October 27th, 1863, nearly four months after the battle, with countless graves reopened and the remains identified if possible, many by the things they carried. The bodies clad in Union uniform were placed in wooden coffins and moved to their final resting place.  The grisly exhumation of the original graves took months to accomplish and was overseen by Samuel Weaver who made sure that only the boys in blue were placed in Gettysburg’s National Cemetery.  Any grave containing Confederate dead was closed again, the corpses left in place.Gettysburg Cemetery, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

And what of the dead wearing the Confederate gray, moldering on a battlefield far from their homes?  A women’s group in North Carolina began to advocate for the return of these southern soldiers so that they too could be honored for their sacrifice and laid to rest.  And finally, after nine years, the first of the shipments south of the remains of 3,320 soldiers began. Most of the dead were reinterred in the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, but many also found their final resting places in the town cemeteries of Raleigh, Savannah and Charleston. Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

November 19th is Remembrance Day at Gettysburg.  The day honors those who gave their lives in the war and commemorates the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery and Abraham Lincoln’s eloquent address.  In his brief speech honoring the men who had fought and sacrificed their lives, President Lincoln urged the living to continue their fight for the preservation of the country.  In the years following the Civil War, Gettysburg has become a symbol of healing, a place where former Union and Confederate soldiers returned to reflect upon the battle, but also to shake the hand of a former enemy.  Maybe we all need to remember, despite the contentious political climate that exists today, what has kept our nation united these many years since the Civil War… We can only hope.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Don’t Know Much About Art But We Know What We Like: The Grounds For Sculpture

Until some family members moved to “The Garden State” a few years ago, we’d never had a reason to visit New Jersey, a state we knew best as the setting for a couple of our favorite series, “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire.”  Tough and gritty shows that were entertaining but a long way from the peaceful, idyllic image that “Garden State” should evoke.  Wasn’t it the place where: New York City dumped its garbage, a skyline of industrial towers and chimneys belched fumes into the atmosphere, and the trashy reality show “Real Housewives of New Jersey” was filmed?  But we’ve had to change our uninformed opinion of the state as each time we visit, we get a chance to drive through some of New Jersey’s cities. We’ve seen scenery that lives up to its license plate motto with beautiful gardens and parks, rivers, forests, hills and mountains. Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton Township, New Jersey. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

One of our favorite places during our visit to the state this time can be found at #80 Sculptors Way, Hamilton Township, New Jersey.  In fact, right at the beginning of the lane leading into the Grounds for Sculpture, we were welcomed warmly by an enthusiastic, sign-waving group that gave us an inkling that we might not be visiting any old, staid and contemplative indoor/outdoor museum.  We might actually have fun!

An enormous "au naturel" beauty (and her hissing cat) overlooks the parking lot.

An enormous “au naturel” beauty (and her hissing cat) overlooks the parking lot.

The 42-acre park sits on the site of the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds and opened to the public in 1992.  It’s the brainchild of J. Seward Johnson, Jr., one of the heirs of the immense Johnson & Johnson medical products fortune.  Johnson is a philanthropist and a painter-turned-sculptor whose bronze figures can be found in many American cities as well as throughout the world.  The Grounds for Sculpture brings together many of his works as well as showcases compositions by other renowned American and international artists in an evolving collection of over 270 contemporary large-scale and life-size statues.Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton Twonship, NJ. Photo by No Particular Place To Go


Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton Township, NJ. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton Township, NJ. Photo by No Particular Place To Go.A walk through the grounds is an interactive experience with Mr. Johnson’s sculptures showing “ordinary people doing ordinary things.”  We strolled around and through outdoor rooms separated by tall hedges and treed tunnels, enjoying the lush landscaping and variety of plants, flowers and trees as well as approaching each new area with a sense of anticipation for the next surprise – the next tableau.  At one point during our walk we heard a woman singing and the sound of water running.  Rounding the corner of the outdoor room and much to our amusement, we spied commonplace pieces of clothing hanging from pegs and a woman showering.

"Employee Shower" by Carole Feuerman

“Employee Shower” by Carole Feuerman

Interspersed throughout the park were familiar scenes straight out of well-known paintings from the Impressionist period.

Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton Township, NJ No Particular Place To Go

 

Grounds for Sculpture- Hamilton Township, NJ. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

 

Grounds for Sculpture - Hamilton Township, NJ. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

But, we don’t want to forget the additional six indoor galleries with exhibitions like the painted figure inspired by Vermeer’s “Girl with the pearl earring.”

Grounds for Sculpture-Hamilton Township, NJ - Photo by No Particular Place To Go

And an unexpected iconic scene that made us smile!

A life-size Marilyn in an iconic scene from the movie , "The Seven Year Itch."

A life-size Marilyn from the movie, “The Seven Year Itch.”

Perhaps the only sobering moment was at the beginning of our visit when we came upon Seward Johnson’s “Double Check,” a life-size bronze figure of a businessman, seated on a bench, reviewing a contract.   Located near the North Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, it was the only piece of art that survived intact.Grounds for Sculpture, Hamilton Township, NJ photo by No Particular Place To Go

A sign nearby explains the exhibit.

“Rescue workers in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 tragedy got their only smile of the day when a “victim” lifted from the rubble turned out to be a bronze sculpture by artist Seward Johnson. “Double Check” was set up among the wreckage, becoming a makeshift memorial, as flowers and heartbreaking remembrances soon covered the piece.

Deeply moved, Johnson reverently collected all the messages of love and pain, cast them in bronze, and welded them to the piece exactly as he had found them one month after the tragedy.  Johnson’s reinvented work, “Makeshift Memorial” was ceremoniously installed on New Jersey’s Hudson River Waterfront Walkway, which overlooks lower Manhattan and the former site of the World Trade Center.”

Grounds for Sculpture-Hamilton Township, NJ. Photo by No Particular Place To Go

Art can make you appreciate the world around you, make you think and hopefully, make you look at the world a little differently. (We also like art that makes us laugh occasionally but that’s just us.) We don’t know much about art but we know what we like.  And our visit to J. Seward Johnson’s Grounds for Sculptures definitely got our thumbs up!

Inspired by Grant Woods "American Gothic."

Inspired by Grant Woods “American Gothic.”

Note: Unless otherwise mentioned, all works are by J. Seward Johnson

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash  Grounds for Sculpture

 

Planes, Trains and Automobiles or What We Did On Our Vacation

We didn’t plan to neglect writing our blog posts while we traveled from Portugal to the US but, as master procrastinators who can find that one excuse is as good as another, that’s exactly what we did.  Any blogger will tell you that writing a post takes time and a fair amount of discipline and we found both of those to be in short supply once we landed in the US.  In fact, rather than the slow travel we both have found we enjoy so much, we behaved exactly like tourists.  We tried to cram as much sightseeing and visits with friends and family as we could into the roughly six weeks we were back in our home country.  The map below will show you the ocean crossed and the ground we covered.August-September 2016

We kept a calendar and a folder to organize our bus tickets to and from Lagos to Lisbon, our airline and Amtrak reservations, the AirBnB house that we rented to share with family members during a family reunion and an upscale hotel on Bourbon Street in New Orleans.  We collected numerous maps and brochures from tours of the Gettysburg and Vicksburg Battlefields, a walk around the monuments of the National Mall in DC, a sculpture Garden in New Jersey, an aquarium in Atlanta, a ride on a steamboat up the Mississippi River, multiple museums in several cities and tours of antebellum houses in Natchez, Mississippi.  We even took a day trip south of the border to feast on some authentic Mexican cooking.  17 nights were spent in guest bedrooms, 16 nights in hotels, 7 nights at an AirBnB rental and 2 nights on Amtrak trains.  We packed and unpacked our suitcases 15 times.  An estimate of the miles we traveled by air was a whopping 6,372 and we logged in somewhere around 4,943 miles by land.  But who’s counting? 🙂 Just adding it all up made us exhale a big “Whew!”

Most importantly we renewed ties with friends and family.  And we kept learning.  It’s never too late to learn more about the War of 1812 or the US Civil War, how and why Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and what a beignet and the “Best fried chicken in the South” tastes like.  We also delved into the Civil Rights Movement and reminded ourselves why it still matters today.

We returned home a week ago to Lagos, Portugal with heavier suitcases, a great sigh of relief and a promise to ourselves that next year family and friends will have to cross the Atlantic to see us. We’ve unpacked the suitcases for awhile (can we help it that we’re already thinking of future journeys?), washed the mountain of laundry that tumbled from our bags and are in the process of making the rounds to say hello to our new friends.  We have several hundred photos to edit and lots of stories to tell about life here and there.  And it’s way past time to resume a healthier diet and engage in some much-needed exercise!

Sure writing takes time but we’ve missed the fun of rehashing and thinking back on where we’ve been, what we’ve seen and learned as well as the chance to share our experiences.  We’ve missed the give and take of online friends, comments and replies, the support of the blogging community and the chance to “meet” more of the traveling community – those who travel near and far as well as those who travel by armchair or in their dreams.  We’re looking forward to telling some tales, sharing some places and stringing our words together in a way that’s, hopefully, both entertaining as well as interesting. Thanks for hanging in there with us.

And in case we haven’t emphasized this point enough: It’s good to be home!

Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

cobblestone walkway along marina, Lagos, Portugal

Cobblestone walkway along marina, Lagos, 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

 

We’ve been “Discovered!” by WordPress

Porto de Mos, Lagos May, 2016

Near our home in Porto de Mos, Lagos, Portugal      May, 2016

In hindsight, we should have started writing our blog in 2011.  Back when the “great epiphany” hit us that we wanted to trade in our current lives, wipe the slate clean so-to-speak and walk down a totally different road. But of course then we were much too busy!  And so it wasn’t until 2013, during a housesit in Antigua, Guatemala, where we were graced with some reliable Wi-Fi that we got serious and started to research how to even start a blog; the nuts and bolts of putting it together and what we wanted it to look like.  And that didn’t even count what bloggers call “content” – our words, our pictures, our ideas …  We checked out a couple of blogging websites and selected WordPress because it was simple.  Easy for non-experienced and new bloggers like us who had no idea what we were doing.  With some gentle hints and guiding us in the right direction we put the bones together.  We started out slowly, with no real goals and like our travels, no idea what direction we wanted to go or even an idea of where we wanted to end up…

A couple of weeks ago we were contacted by Cheri Lucas Rowlands, an editor at WordPress who asked us if we’d be interested in being featured in a post she was putting together about “nomadic and free-spirited lifestyles.”  Of course, we jumped at the chance, not only because WordPress has thousands of bloggers and being invited to do this was a big deal, but we really liked being called “free spirits” at our age! 🙂  As if that weren’t enough, we’re in the amazing company of two other terrific blogging duos who write at Adventures in Wonderland and Paint your Landscape.  Go ahead, you know you want to check them out!

Here’s Cheri’s post with the link:

 

Three retired couples blog about their shared journeys and the joy of travel and self-discovery.

via Blogging Nomads: On Wanderlust and Shared Journeys — Discover

We hope you enjoy Cheri’s post and want to tell you how much we appreciate you all for stopping by our blog.  It’s so awesome to think of all the people we meet online, comments exchanged and virtual friends we’ve made.  Our world has grown much richer through our travels but also richer with the friends we’ve met, both online and face-to-face through fortuitous meetings.  Our sincere thanks,

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

 

 

 

Once Was Enough: A Visit to Marrakesh

In the Medina-The PlazaWe took the train from Casablanca to Marrakesh. We gazed out the windows at the dusty, brown landscape, piles of trash here and there and shabby towns passing by and we talked about a song from the late sixties, Marrakesh Express, sung by Crosby, Stills and Nash.  For us, the city symbolized some of the spirit of the sixties and seventies, attracting rock bands like The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, celebrities and the wealthy from all over the world as well as the young and adventurous.  The city sings its siren song to travelers like us, older with many experiences behind us but still eager to explore its souks, gardens, ancient streets and history.In the streets

We climbed into a taxi and set off for our lodgings located within the Medina of Marrakesh, the older, walled portion of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Like Fez and Casablanca, the streets were teeming with people in western and traditional dress sharing the thoroughfares with bicycles, scooters and motorcycles, trucks, mules, horses and carts.  Here and there we spied some of the many scruffy cats that slink about the streets, lingering occasionally to enjoy a bit of sun.  Our attention was drawn to two mules, hitched together alongside the road and a man beating one frantically with a stick who had his teeth sunk into the neck of the other.  And then, in an unexpectedly shocking act of violence the man picked up a large rock and hit the offending mule savagely in the head.  Shaken and a bit sickened by what we’d seen we continued on, our anticipatory moods subdued by the event.Dar NaJat

For our living arrangements we had selected the Dar Najat, a traditional hotel, featured on Trip Advisor.  A dar is similar to a riad in that it is a three to four-story residence organized around a central courtyard but it lacks the interior garden and fountain. Our host, an energetic and dreadlocked young man with a wide, welcoming smile showed us to our small but clean room with rock hard beds and vividly colored bedspreads and pillows. The vibe was most definitely young and hip (in fact, we got the feeling that a joint or chunk of hash could be ours for the asking) but we felt comfortable and joined the few other travelers on the roof top dining and lounging area.  During our stay, we started each morning with a vast assortment of Moroccan pastries, eggs, freshly squeezed orange juice and bitter, strong coffee to fuel our adventures.In the streets - Medina wall

Today, Marrakesh is a huge draw for tourists all over the world and consists of its old city, the Medina, fortified by the (not so) red sandstone wall which gave it the nickname, “The Red City” and is surrounded by modern neighborhoods.  However, it should be kept in mind that it is one of the world’s most important trading centers, stretching from antiquity to the present day drawing merchants and buyers from the Maghreb (all of North Africa west of Egypt), Sub-Saharan Africa and, most recently, Europe. One of Morocco’s four former imperial cities built by the Berber empire, its history stretches back over a thousand years to its founding in 1017; a city that has survived feasts and famines, plagues, anarchy, the plotting of feudal lords, military coups and political intrigues.in the Medina

We spent a couple of memorable days in the company of our driver, Taoufiq, who showed up our first morning at Dar Najat promptly at 9 to collect us and walk us the short distance from the Medina to the square where his van was parked. His older brother Daoud, an erudite and well-spoken gentleman, accompanied us and shared the history of this fascinating city.  The following are some of our favorites:

  • The Ben Youssef Madrasa was founded in the 14th century and was one of the largest theological colleges in North Africa.  An interior courtyard let in the day’s weak sunlight and featured intricately carved stucco walls, marble floors and ancient, hand-worked cedar trim enclosed by a warren of dormitories.  It was fascinating to imagine the lives of its male inhabitants, as many as 900 at a time, who studied in its environs over the years.  The madrasa closed its doors in 1960, underwent extensive refurbishment and was reopened to the public as a historical site in 1982.Medraza de Ben Youssef
  • The El Bahia Palace, first begun in the 1860’s, was completed a couple of decades later by a former slave who rose to wealth and power, Ahmed Ibn Moussa, who brought hundreds of craftsmen in from Fez to lavishly embellish it.  Intended to be the greatest palace of its time, Ahmed Ibn Moussa lived there until his death in 1900 with his four wives and an entourage of twenty-four official concubines as well as the multitude of children who accompanied them.  With 160 rooms of reception halls, private quarters, interior courtyards with fountains and the two acres of gardens surrounding the palace, the place is a mouth-dropping delight of carved stucco panels, zelig tiles, arched doorways, carved cedar and painted ceilings.Palais BahiaPalais Bahia
  • The twelve-acre botanical garden, Jardin Majorelle, was designed by the French landscape artist Jacques Majorelle in the 1920s and 1930s and has been open to the public since 1947.  In 1980 the garden was bought by Yves Saint-Laurent (whose ashes were scattered there after his death in 2008) and his partner, Pierre Bergé, who continued the efforts to preserve the garden and share the artist’s vision with the public.  Bird song and the play of water trickling from fountains accompanied us on our walk and voices were hushed, much like being in a church.  An astonishing variety of cacti, some fifteen to twenty feet high, are included among the three-hundred plant species from five continents. The buildings on the grounds are painted a bright blue that is named after the artist, bleu Majorelle.Jardin MajorelleJardin Majorelle
  • We’d missed seeing a working tannery during our time in Fez so a visit to the Tannery District was high on our list, a chance to see how leather has been processed for well over a thousand years.  Our guide, Dauoud presented each of us with a large clump of mint and told us to breathe through the leaves while we were there.  The noxious stench was visceral.  The animal skins are brought by mule or donkey from the slaughterhouse and then piled high awaiting their turn.  Men worked in and near vats filled with various mixtures of diluted cow urine or pigeon feces (ammonia cleans the hide of remaining fat, flesh and hair) and the hides are spread out to dry.  A ghastly pile of scrapped-off animal hair stood to one side.  Then the hides are immersed in other vats filled with natural vegetable dyes (indigo, henna, poppy, cedar wood, etc.) and at some stage the men knead the skins with their bare feet to soften them further.  The process was fascinating to watch but we definitely wouldn’t recommend it to anyone with vegetarian preferences.tannery
  • We’re not shoppers by anyone’s definition but a stroll (if you can tolerate the aggressive vendors who surround you whenever you pause to examine an item) through the Souks of Marrakesh are an integral part of experiencing the sights, sounds and smells of the city.  Here it seems like everything you can imagine is for sale from slippers to jewelry, medicinal herbals to geodes, leather goods to carpets.In the medinaIn the medina
  • Lastly, the heart of Marrakesh, the Jemaâ El Fna (historically used for public beheading by rulers seeking control) is the center of Marrakesh’s activity, tourism and trade.  We’d thread our way through the narrow streets of the medina and throngs of people at the end of each day to sit on the second-floor balcony of one of many restaurants overlooking the huge square and meeting place of the Medina. We could easily have been transported back centuries as we ate lamb, chicken and sausage dishes along with the ever-present hovis, round unleavened bread, washed down with a-ti’, sweetened mint tea. Below, unfolded a tapestry of musicians, dancers, snake-charmers, henna artisans, food vendors, alms seekers, magicians, acrobats and hucksters out hustling the masses that flowed through and around the square striving to make a living.  Wandering through the surging throng seeing what was to be seen took fortitude to ward off the persistent vendors who weren’t turned away with a polite headshake or firm “No.” It soon became apparent that when one’s camera was raised what quickly followed was a hand insisting on a small remuneration for the privilege. It seemed that everywhere we turned there was a demanding hand or a wheedling voice trying to sell us something and it didn’t take long before we’d decide to forego the fascinating scenes playing out before us and tire of the intimidation and harassment of the vendors and flee.In the medinaIn the Medina-The Plazain the medina plaza

In 2015 Marrakesh was named by Trip Advisor as its most popular travel destination in the world.  That fact alone should have served as a warning to avoid the city…  While we enjoyed much of our time there we found that we were also uncomfortable many times with the repeated demands for money and pestering to sell us goods in which we had no interest.  At the end of our third day in Marrakesh a full moon hung low in the sky and we boarded a night train heading back to Tangier and home to Portugal.

By Richard and Anita

 

 

Precious Oil, Argan Trees and the Tree Climbing Goats of Morocco

goats in Argan trees - On the road to EssaouiraWe were in an herbal shop in Fez, Morocco sipping sweet mint tea while the owner opened up jar after jar of medicaments and shook bags filled with loose herbs.  We sniffed and listened while he expounded upon the healing properties or cooking wonders that each provided and then he gestured us towards a corner where a couple of women sat roasting and cracking nuts with rocks.  To our shame we paid these hard-working women scant attention because we’d totally focused upon the poster behind them of a tree.  And not just any tree but one filled with goats, happily standing on the branches like oversized Christmas ornaments.  Cooperative-Argan oil & spicesA few days and questions later, after a bit of online research and some money that crossed our driver’s palm, we were on our way to the area near Essaouira, about a two and a half-hour drive east from Marrakesh.  Besides being a name rich in vowels, the coastal city of Essaouira is a popular vacation area for European beachgoers and surfers with a rich history dating back to the Carthaginians and Berbers.  Surprisingly though, that was of little interest to us as we were on a mission that had to do with the argan trees and the tree climbing goats in the Sous Valley.  And this day trip would take us to the only place in the world where these trees are to be found, the reason why the southwestern region of Morocco became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1998.

Our drive led us through several, micro eco-systems, both artificial and manmade.  Leaving Marrakesh behind, we encountered crop lands of varying sizes. The majority were small family plots while others appeared to be mid-size fields of wealthier land-holders as well as some walled and guarded properties of seriously, major players or corporations. The signs of irrigation and intensive fertilization were abundant. Concrete aqueducts, modern spreaders and workers bent over hand weeding were only the most obvious. The vibrant greens of the abundant and healthy vegetable crops were the ultimate give away.On the road to Essaouira

In short order this lush, verdant land gave way to what could have been called The Big Dry, where piles of rocks appeared to be the most abundant harvest. Our guide, Daoud, explained that Morocco was in the midst of a multi-year drought. There had been only two or three days of rain in the new year; totally insufficient to replenish the land. The effects of the previous years’ calamities stood in stark relief before us. Homes appeared to be abandoned in piecemeal fashion on both sides of the road. Crops were stunted or dead in the fields. Whole stretches of land were tilled but left unplanted. This was not land lying fallow; it was land farmers would not waste the seed upon, in plots destined to be barren because of the lack of moisture, a harbinger of want, hardship and destitution.

Then, climbing slightly in elevation, we crossed a ridge and descended into another landscape, the only place on earth where the fabled argan trees exist, the Sous Valley. Here in this hard-scrabble dirt grow the trees which for centuries have nourished the local Berber people who inhabit this land.On the road to Essaouira

The argan tree (argania spinosa) grows up to 30 feet in height and lives up to 200 years. It is well adapted to its harsh environment with its widespread root system that allows it to retain moisture and withstand the temperature extremes providing an important defense against erosion and the encroachment of the Sahara Desert, to the immediate south. In a land where not much else grows, the argan tree with its thorny branches and twisted trunks has been used for centuries by the Berber as building material, fuel and food.  And in a splendid example of environmental adaptation, the hungry goats learned to climb the trees to eat the walnut-size, yellow-green fruit.goats in argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

 

goat in Argan tree - On the road to EssaouiraHistory does not record such prosaic events as to who went through the goat droppings and discovered the prize after the fruit passed through the goat’s digestive system.  Who wants to think about such things anyway?  (Okay, we confess, we do and we had several entertaining scenarios envisioned!)  The goats obviously provide the easiest and most efficient way to extract the highly valued kernel but workers can also dry the argan fruit and then remove the pulp or remove the flesh mechanically.

The tan colored nut that remains though, contains one to three oil rich argan seeds and when processed this is the reward which has sustained the Sous Valley Berber for generations. One of the rarest oils in the world, high in vitamin A, vitamin E and essential fatty acids, the extracted oil can be used either as food for humans (the nuts are roasted first to enhance the flavor) or as a medication to heal acne, psoriasis, eczema and inhibit scar tissue formation. It is also becoming increasingly well-known for its cosmetic and anti-aging properties.

goats and argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

 

goat in the argan tree field - On the road to EssaouiraAfter watching the fabled tree-climbing goats and exchanging smiles with a goat tender who brought one of the long-haired creatures over to us to pet, we stopped by a small building on the side of the road, the La Cooperative Feminine Argan Majji, to learn how the oil is processed. nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's Cooperative

Following the removal of the fleshy pulp (by goat or other method) the women begin the labor intensive process to extract the oil. To get to the kernels, they crack the nut open the time-honored way, between two stones, with the leftover shells being gathered for later use as fuel for fires. This tedious work requires stamina, dexterity and finger protection for rocks are hard and fingers ain’t.  Argan nuts rank among the hardest nut in the world and this first stage of breaking them open is the most difficult part of the process. So far a machine hasn’t been developed that splits the nuts reliably and the traditional method, combined with the womens’ skills, remains the most effective way to get to the kernels. Once the kernels are extracted they can be crushed and pounded into a paste or fed into machines that pulverize, press and extract the valuable argan oil. The remains come out in long thin ropes of gray pulp that are fed back to the goats (an elegant cycle) for their second enjoyment of the argan fruit.cracking nuts-nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's Cooperative

 

processing nuts to make Argan oil - The Women's CooperativeMuch of the argan oil produced today comes from over fifty women’s argan oil cooperatives like La Cooperative Feminine Argan Majji that were first formed in the late 1990’s and operate under union protection. The work provides income which many of the women have used to educate themselves and their children, provide healthcare for their families and also gives them economic freedom in Morocco’s traditional society.  And, although the men’s part might be overshadowed by the success of the women’s co-ops, their role is equally important in tending the goats and argan trees, many of which are individually owned.  After all, goats are intelligent animals, but also greedy and rapacious creatures by nature, and need a goat herder to dissuade them from feasting upon other’s trees.

And when we left the Majji Co-operative to visit the coast before returning to Marrakesh we’d exchanged some Moroccan Durhams for a small bottle of oil, soaps and lotions.  We had a new-found appreciation of the argan trees, their valued oil and happy memories of seeing the tree-climbing goats of Morocco’s Sous Valley.

goat in the argan trees - On the road to Essaouira

By Richard Nash and Anita Oliver

 

 

 

It’s All Relative: Old and “New” Fes, Morocco

narrow passages in Medina-UNESCO WHSWe arrived at Ryad Alya in the old Medina of Fès long after the sun had set, following a couple of young men who “offered” to show us the way to our hotel down the dimly lit and narrow lane and piled our small suitcases in a hand cart.  After tipping them and then upping the tip a bit more when they made the face that we became very familiar with during our time in Morocco – basically a grimace conveying the meaning that we were stingy foreigners who had shown disrespect for those who had labored diligently to meet our every need, whether requested or not – we finally escaped into the opening door of our hotel and into another world.

Hassnae, an attractive young woman dressed in skinny jeans like any university student in her 20’s, welcomed us into the riad, a traditional Moroccan house of three stories built around a courtyard.  Furnished with linen-draped dining tables, the large space had a comfortable feel with couches here and there along the walls for enjoying both the bubbling fountain and a garden with orange trees.lute player in Ryad Ayala

An elegantly dressed gentleman in a suit and polished black shoes was seated unobtrusively in a corner, plucking at the strings of a lute producing a soulful melody for the only couple dining.  Hassnae seated us in a lounge off to the side of the courtyard and served us little cups of mint tea, heavily sugared and pretty cookies that, since it had been awhile since our last meal on the road, we wiped out without much ceremony. lounge-Ryad Alya

She then showed us to our room, thankfully equipped with its own heater as the rooms around the garden were all open and it was cold.  Finally, we were able to shed our fleece vests, scarves and coats which we’d worn during our day of travel from Tavira, Spain to Tangier, Morocco and then to Fès. The beds were rock hard and weighted down with heavy blankets that kept us pinned beneath them but we had no complaints.  Actually, despite the late night sugar, we slept like we’d been heavily drugged.Ryad Alya

A tour of the riad the next morning, led by another friendly and pretty staff member named Shaimae, filled us in on the details of the paradise in which we’d found ourselves. Riads, once the fine homes of a city’s wealthiest citizens, lack windows on the exterior walls.  The architectural style is what Wikipedia calls an “inward focus” and opens onto the interior courtyard which provides the family complete privacy from the outside world.  Our riad, Ryad Alya, was originally built in (no typo!)1363.

Riad Ayla

The current owner whom we met that evening, Kholid Filoli, was an articulate, well-traveled Moroccan who spoke glowingly in English of his visits to the US.  He’d bought the riad in 2003 for his wife, an accomplished painter and his daughter, an architect living in Geneva.  The ancient house was renovated by skilled workers who spent three years returning the home to its current glory and converted it into a hotel with five beautifully furnished suites and three less expensive, but no less comfortable, rooms with their own private baths. The walls were embellished with designs in the carved plaster and zellige tilework, “a form of Islamic art” that features geometrically patterned mosaics.

Rooftop terrace of Ryad Alya

Rooftop terrace of Ryad Alya

During our stay in this Moroccan oasis the staff introduced us to many traditional three and four-course meals of unfamiliar and delicious foods, including our first taste of fava beans.  This had (one) of us cracking up intoning Hannibal Lector’s famous line, “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti.” UNESCO WHS-old city walls - Medina

We’d decided to explore the Medina on our own the first day and we set off with maps in hand.  The Medina of Fès was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981 and is said to be the best preserved old city in the Arab world.  Covering 540 acres, it’s also the world’s largest car-free urban zone and goods are brought in by donkeys, mules and hand carts. Called “The Mecca of the West” and “The Athens of Africa,” this ancient walled city is actually divided into two medinas, the Fès El Bali or Old Fès dating back to the 9th Century and the “new” part, Fès Jdid, which dates to the 15th Century.  In this area that surrounded us with its sense of ancient history and present activity are great open spaces of gardens with sparkling fountains and avenues.

Jardin Jnane Sbil - The Royal Gardens

Jardin Jnane Sbil – The Royal Gardens

These skirt narrow streets funneling foot and animal-drawn traffic into lanes and crooked paths where it feels like a great crowd of humanity is pressed around you, engaged in the business of daily living.  Surrounded by walls, the Medina’s space has remained the same for centuries as the number of its inhabitants has increased exponentially resulting in overcrowding – probably not the best experience for anyone who suffers from claustrophobia.  The passageways wind around in a labyrinth with age-old buildings of three and four stories abutting them and as the streets twist the sunlight overhead is partially blocked. building details in Medina

Behind the walls of these ancient buildings in various states of crumbling disrepair and ongoing attempts at restoration, are other warrens of buildings built around interior courtyards where thousands of people preserve customs and traditions passed down through the millennia.  In contrast to other parts of the world, Jews and Arabs have coexisted peacefully for hundreds of years; there’s an old Jewish quarter occupied by a dwindling population as well as the Ibn Danan Synagogue dating from the 17th century. Throughout the Medina are schools for secular learning and madrasas where the religion of Islam is taught.  Groups of children passed by us greeting us in Morocco’s unofficial first language, French, with “Bonjour Madame et Monsieur,” the boys in street clothes and the girls uniformed in white coats resembling lab jackets worn over their street clothes.

Medina of Fes-UNESCO WHS

 

Jewish Quarter Bakery

 

Jewish Quarter

Open shops on the ground floors offer anything a shopper could want: leather goods, jewelry, dried fruit and herbs, ceramics and metalware, every day and finely embroidered clothing for special occasions.  There are bakeries where families bring their bread daily to bake in communal ovens and butcher shops with fish displayed on ice next to pharmacies, barber shops, small cafes and restaurants.  Lining several of the twisting lanes were other vendors conducting an informal farmers’ market with brightly colored fruits and vegetables piled on makeshift tables.  Heavily laden donkeys and mules led by men in peaked hooded djellabas passed by and there were women completely veiled as well as those wearing robes and headscarves along with many younger women in western style clothing.   street market in Medina-UNESCO WHS

 

street market-Jewish Quarter

 

burrow - In the Medina

We were completely lost and completely caught up in the full sensory overload of sights, sounds, smells and tastes of different foods that we tried here and there.  We gave up on trying to figure out where we were on the map and wandered for a few hours trying to absorb the completely exotic, chaotic and alien world.  And finally, after brushing off multiple offers from the unofficial guides that appeared here and there with offers to show us selected sights and shops with “special” bargains, we struck up a conversation and agreed on a payment with a young man who pointed out places of interest as he helped us find our way back to Ryad Ayla for some much needed tranquility.

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Next post: Sights to see in Fes, MoroccoJewish Quarter-women in djellaba

 

The Road to Morocco and Across the Straits of Gibralter

Lagos to Tarifa

A gusty wind and scattered rainstorms accompanied us along the Portuguese coast as we headed east to Spain.  The wind followed us as we turned south towards the tip of Spain and Tarifa, a port city dating back to the 8th century, just 14 kilometers across the Straits of Gibraltar from Morocco.  The wind kicked up whitecaps in the sea promising a rough crossing and, when we checked with the ferry company, FRS, we found that all ferry passages had been cancelled for that Sunday and the following day, when we had planned to travel, looked doubtful as well.  A little disappointed (but we’d seen enough news stories of sinking ferries to be anything but grateful to a company who valued safety) we made our way to our hotel.  The Hotel Convento Tarifa was a converted convent with simple but comfortably furnished rooms and friendly staff who assured us that, if the ferry cancelled its scheduled trips for the next day, we’d have a place to stay for another night.

Guzman Castle (circa 960) and city walls with ferry station in foreground.

Guzman Castle (circa 960) and city walls with Tarifa ferry terminal in foreground.

The next morning dawned bright with a blue sky and a cold wind that seemed just a bit diminished.  After checking with the ferry company we learned that, while all the morning passages had been canceled, the ferry might resume its service with the first crossing scheduled for 13:00.  We hustled down to the station, bought our tickets, (one of us) downed meclizine to stave off sea-sickness and boarded.  We were ON OUR WAY TO MOROCCO.

A little background for those readers who like their complicated history in an easy-to-swallow, capsulized form.  We could start with archeological excavations showing the presence of hominids at least 400,000 years ago or move quickly on to recorded history with the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Berbers occupying the territory between the 8th to 3rd centuries BCE followed by the Romans annexing it for a few centuries.  The Vandals, Visigoths and Byzantines all had a piece of the action from 430 to 700 CE that ended when the Muslims conquered the region and the Berbers, though converted, took to the mountains.  The Muslim conquest brought the religion of Islam to the region as well as the advanced Arab civilization and over the succeeding centuries Morocco was a hotbed of political and religious turmoil with various dynasties squabbling, rising and falling while the Ottoman, Spanish and especially the French crouched like vultures waiting to swoop in and get a share of Morocco’s vast mineral resources as well as its strategic location for themselves.  In 1912 Morocco’s instability resulted in its becoming a protectorate of France with Spain horning in to claim its own zone of influence as both countries vied to exploit Morocco’s natural wealth.  Finally, in 1956, after years of nationalistic movements, Morocco gained its independence from both France and Spain.  Today, Morocco maintains strong ties to the west, enjoying free trade agreements with both the US and the European Union.blog Tarifa to Tangier Ferry

We reached Tangier, Morocco, in about an hour-and-a-half, the ride not particularly smooth but neither of us turned green or lost our breakfast.  Earlier we had decided to heed conventional wisdom and leave Tangier to the day trippers and when we disembarked from the ferry at the tail end of the crowd we found that just a few taxis remained.  Although we had planned to take the train for the five-hour trip to Fès (also known as Fez) it didn’t leave for another two hours and we made a quick change of plans.  We talked to one of the drivers who spoke a little English and lots of Spanish (our common language), conferred briefly and decided to hire a taxi for the drive after agreeing upon a price.  Our driver, who introduced himself as Younes, was full of smiles as he loaded our bags into the van and set off. Eunice - our driver

And very quickly we learned how driving is done in Morocco.  We edged our way into a roundabout of five lanes in which the cars all seemed to be pointing diagonally into each other’s paths jockeying for an in to the next lane rather than staying in what would appear to be their own lanes. Horns honked, cars edged in and out flirting with disaster, miraculously avoiding each other and then we were free and onto the next driving lane and roundabout.  After a lot of quick gasps, clutching the door handle and hitting the imaginary brake pedal, Tangier was behind us and we were in the countryside with Younes demonstrating the next feat in his repertoire of Moroccan driving.  Once again the lanes seemed to be a mere suggestion of where the driver should be.  Younes straddled the center line of the road and only ceded way to the approaching driver at the last moment.  He ruthlessly tailgated the cars in front of us and seized his advantage when a break appeared in the traffic, smashing his foot down on the gas pedal and careening around the car.  Just in the nick of time he’d move to the right to let an approaching car pass us.  And it wasn’t hard to see when he felt someone had violated the traffic rules either as he would twist his wrist and flick his fingers in a gesture of scorn and his lips would curl down in disdain.  All this while he talked to himself and occasionally addressed a remark to us.  And smiled.On the road to Essaouira

We were trapped.  Fortunately for us, we’d had some training as passengers on Guatemalan chicken buses and Nicaraguan roads where the rules were nothing like what we’d learned in Driver’s Ed so we tried to relax, listened to the Moroccan music Younes had thoughtfully provided and gazed out our windows at the passing countryside. Younes kept up his conversation with himself in the driver’s seat, occasionally laughing and nodding his head.  It felt surreal…  The countryside was patchworked fields in brown and green, flocks of sheep scattered about with shepherds close by.  Small 3-wheeled trucks loaded with as many as eight people passed, which Younes jokingly call “Pakistani taxis.”  On the edge of the road were burros and mules hitched to small carts led by men in robes with pointed hoods (djellabas) pulled up against the cold wind.On the road to Essaouira

 

On the road to EssaouiraWe drove through small towns with shops along the roadside selling souvenirs and pottery and outdoor cafes filled with men only, sitting at tables watching the cars go by, drinking from small cups and talking.  The signs appeared in Arabic with an occasional translation in our own Latin alphabet for us to guess at the pronunciation.   Flat land and hills passed by, shockingly littered for as far as we could see with trash and plastic debris. Off to the south-west the Atlas Mountains emerged in the distant background.

We stopped at a large restaurant, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, for a late lunch about mid-way through the ride.  A butcher brandishing sharp knives hacked at legs of lamb and fed the meat through a grinder.  Walking into the restaurant we were surprised.  The many tables were set with white linen and because it was late in the afternoon our group was the only one on our side of the restaurant.  Younes urged us to order the sweet tea with mint and excused himself for prayers.  A trip to the bathroom was our first encounter with a squat toilet but the sink was equipped with running water and soap.  We picked a ground lamb dish which came with Moroccan flatbread and a colorful salad served family style and enjoyed our first delicious Moroccan meal with Younes as our guest.Lunch on the road - butcher

 

Moroccan salad

Back in the van the afternoon faded into evening and still the ride went on mile after mile, darkness draped around us, a few stars peeking through clouds.  We’d forgotten how dark it could be in the country with no lights along the road to mark our way.  The van’s headlights pierced the night, the Moroccan music played in the background and Younes continued his self-talk.

And finally, we were in Fès winding our way through roads with street lights and shops, cafes open for business and people walking along the streets.  Periodically, Younes would take advantage of the stalled traffic, roll down his window and shout at the adjacent taxi driver for directions to our destination; more-or-less the Moroccan taxi drivers’ GPS.  At last, he stopped at a lane that led to our riad (a traditional house with a central garden and fountain) and indicated that cars were not allowed in this portion of the Medina (the original historical Arab city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and that we needed to walk from there.  A group of young men argued over who would help us with our luggage, small carry-ons with wheels that we could have pulled ourselves, and we found ourselves paying for a service we hadn’t requested, caught up in a kind of hijack as they led us down the dimly lit, narrow lane, into the medina, showing us the way to Ryad Ayla.

Next post:  Fès, Morocco

By Anita and Richard

 

 

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: A Sausage Festival In Querenca

Querenca, with a population of less than 800 residents, is not a place that you’d stumble upon – you have to look for it.  Located in the central interior of Portugal’s Algarve region it’s at the end of a steep and winding road that makes you suspect you’re going nowhere but still feel curious to find out where nowhere might be located.  The drive itself is worth a trip to Querenca to see clichéd but oh-so-lush, green pastures with grazing sheep and pink flowering almond trees. One of the high points of our drive to the middle of nowhere was when we came upon a house between a hill and a creek which sat adjacent to the highway.  The home obviously pre-dated the two-lane, macadam roadway and the Portuguese manner of handling this engineering conundrum spoke to their national ethos. Rather than defacing the existing structure in any manner, there was a sign placed by the side of the road indicating that the thoroughfare was one lane for the next 40 meters or so to allow the driver to maneuver around the house.  And then the road reverted to a two-way.  A simple solution that causes no great inconvenience to those who drive along this road less traveled. village plaza

So what were we doing parking our car mid-morning on a dusty square under the watchful eyes of two frowning women who apparently wanted us to move our car a couple of centimeters closer to an invisible line?  We smiled and accommodated their request – everyone was happy.  And then we followed a small group of people up a hill that opened into a large plaza lined with a few restaurants and other businesses and dominated by a beautiful church dating back to the 16th century for …Smoke

The Festa das Chouricas.  From the moment we’d heard about The Festival of Sausages in Querenca we knew this event had our names all over it.  Besides the prospect of stuffing our faces with the local chourica (a smoked sausage made of pork shoulder and spiced with paprika, lots of garlic, black pepper and salt and blessed with an offering of red Portuguese wine) we planned to sample some of the many tasty foods and libations for sale: olives, breads, nuts, various pastries, glittering bottles of liqueurs and wines.A chef

An annual tradition, the festival is held in honor of São Luís, the patron saint who protects the health and welfare of animals. In times past, the families of inland Algarve raised a pig to sustain themselves through the year and asked São Luís to safeguard it.  To thank the Saint, they offered their best homemade sausages and today the festival also raises money for local charities.  The festival draws an estimated crowd of at least a thousand visitors from many places around the region and the fund-raising looks to be a huge success.

Olives and beans

 

Burning stuff

 

the happy bakerWe walked around inhaling the perfume of chicken and sausage dripping fat upon the grill, admiring the local crafts on exhibit, drooling over the pastries and buying almonds and olives and handwoven baskets. The scent of grilled sausage became irresistible. Everywhere smoke hung in the air.  We stood in line and paid 7.50€ for a monster sausage on a crusty (made you feel glad to have your own teeth!) freshly baked roll that fed two.  sausage sandwich

We stood in line to sample the quiche and share a huge piece of sweet fried bread dusted with sugar among us and our friends.  We chatted with other guests and vendors while the wind swirled billowing clouds of aromatic charcoal smoke from the grills around us.  And we people watched: vendors smiling and bargaining with guests, people enjoying the food and sunny afternoon, children laughing, a fashionista in bright red, 4-inch heels teetering carefully on the old cobblestoned walks.  A lazy, golden-haired dog lay on the pathway with eyes closed and tail thumping while the crowd carefully walked around him. We reckoned the smoke infused lungs and clothes were indeed worth it as we both agreed that the Querenca sausage and the local gastronomy were scrumptious.sausages

 

Olives, figs and almonds

 

smiling vendorIn the mid-afternoon people began to cluster in small groups in front of the picturesque church and before long a man carrying a banner emerged followed by the gold crowned statue of São Luís smiling benignly, carried upon a flower bedecked platform by men in short robes.  A small group of the faithful trailed behind the hoisted saint while we visitors clicked cameras and watched as they paraded at a slow, measured pace around the church.  The procession ended up back at the church doorway and then São Luís was tucked inside the church for another year.the procession

 

AndusThe afternoon was fading and even though musical performances, singing and dancing and fireworks were promised we decided not to brave the winding roads after dark and to make our way home.  We left the smoke and the quaint hamlet of Querenca behind.  But, in the back of our minds lingered the thought that Querenca’s Sausage Festival is only the first of many sausage festivals throughout the year in Portugal.  There were more good times and good eating ahead!

Comida

By Richard and Anita

 

 

 

 

The Postman Rang Twice: The Portuguese Side of a Resident Visa

It’s a strange adjustment to go from three years of nomadic living without a fixed physical address, no utility bills and long and short version answers to the question “Where do you live?” to being tethered once again with a lease agreement, an address and a postal box which receives our utility bills and occasional bank correspondence.  We managed to live virtually paperless for three years since we had to carry everything we owned and now we have folders neatly organizing the papers that tie us to an address once again.

We wrote here Setting Up House in Portugal about the small frustrations of settling into our apartment and the strange acronyms NIF, our fiscal numbers which establish our financial existence in Portugal, and NIB, which shows that we have a bank account. Carrying these acronyms on their separate pieces of paper allowed us to get connected at one of the local businesses, MEO, for phone, cable TV and internet.  And we were really on a roll when we rented a car to take us to new and fascinating places.

Next up on the tasks of settling in came our mission of changing the utilities from the landlord’s name to ours.  Fortunately, we weren’t pressed for time as finding the appropriate buildings was somewhat equivalent to the mythical snipe hunt.  It was difficult to program into the GPS directions we had for the city water company, Camara Municipal, which were, “It’s a big white building on the second roundabout on the way to Pingo Doce (a grocery store), across the road from the burned out building …”  When we finally found the building which, despite its size blended into the background due to its totally bland exterior and that we’d passed by almost every day, we almost high-fived each other.  Upon setting up our water account we asked the English-speaking clerk where we could find the electric company, EDP, and she pointed us in the correct direction.  Another place we wouldn’t have found on the GPS as there was a small space back in the corner of the Miele appliance store where two lecterns with accompanying paper shufflers stood: one for receiving payments due and the second for new accounts. Success again and we were on our last and final leg, Rolegas. The next day, energized by how relatively easy our changing our accounts had been so far we set off in search of the gas company following nebulous directions which read simply, “About six kilometers out of Lagos.”  Having googled the address we had a hazy idea of which way we needed to drive and a picture of what the building looked like.  We sailed by the building three times before we finally saw it using the roundabouts to change direction, missed the entry lane, retraced our route, finally arrived and carried out our business.

Since we’ve lived here we’ve learned to bring all of our folders because we never know what paper might need to be produced.  Each utility company needed our NIB and NIF numbers, our lease agreement and phone number, pictures of the corresponding meter (which we had stored on a tablet), passport information and a previous bill from the owner.  And, except for Rolegas where we ended up with a translator over the phone, everyone we dealt with spoke English and was polite, friendly and bent over backwards to make sure we got signed up with a smile.  Finally, all was done – until and when we decide to find a more suitable apartment and have to redo the whole process!4 month residency visa

4 month residency visaWe’d arrived in Portugal in November with our freshly stamped “long term” visas, good for a period of four months and due to expire in February of 2016.  We wrote about the documents that we’d gathered in the US to procure the initial visas that would set us on our path toward a Portuguese residency in this post, The Great Document Roundup: Starting the Portugal Residency Process. Now we needed to start gathering the documents we’d need to extend the initial temporary Residence Permit on the Portuguese side.  We checked the internet for a list what US citizens needed for this second step but once again we found the information to be inconsistent with what our attorney, Duarte was telling us.  Since it’s simply easier to go with the flow we put our trusting selves into Duarte’s hands.

First off was making the actual appointment with the Servico de Estrangeiros e Fronteiras (SEF) aka the Foreigners and Borders Service or immigration, a police service responsible for border control and the issuance of residence permits to foreign nationals legally residing in Portugal.  Since we live in Lagos our appointment with the SEF was in nearby Portimão and we scheduled our appointment about 30 days before our visa expired in case there were any glitches that needed to be resolved.outside of the SEF

We gathered the following documents to bring with us:

  • Passports with our current resident visa
  • Three-months of our most recent bank statements for an account that is in both our names
  • Rental lease agreement
  • The document with our NIF (fiscal) number
  • Proof of health insurance
  • Statement from the Centro Regional de Seguranca Social de Algarve This is Portugal’s version of Social Security, Social Services and Unemployment Insurance in the Algarve Region. Finding this office was another snipe hunt story where it was near the bus stop and behind the Maritime police station, etc.  Basically this document shows that we are not relying on income from the Portuguese government nor are we employed.  We presented our NIF number, our passports for identification and the employee gave us each a signed statement that said a record search showed we weren’t in their data bank.

We also brought a copy of our marriage certificate and 2 passport sized photos which were not needed.

SEF - Official # 1On the day of our appointment we took the train from Lagos to Portimão and Duarte came down from Lisbon to Portimão by train to make sure all went smoothly. We arrived within 10 minutes of each other and then shared a taxi to the SEF.  Our wait was no more than 5 minutes and soon we were chatting amiably with the SEF officer who spoke English. He filled out forms, made sure we had the required documents and then we stood in front of a kiosk which collected our biometric data: taking our photos (no glasses and no smiling so we look rather dour), scanning and recording our left and right index fingerprints and finishing with a retina scan.  We signed forms, one part of which authorized current background checks and then sat and chatted with a second officer who collected €157,80 from each of us, a total of about $350 USD for the both of us.  Note: The SEF only accepts cash or a Portuguese bank card.  After receiving a receipt, we were told that we should receive our Titulo de Residencia cards by registered mail within two weeks.

And so, ten days after our appointment the postman rang our outside bell a couple of times and we signed for our new cards which declare us to be bona fide residents of Portugal. WHOO HOO!  We have the country’s permission to live here for a year at which time we’ll go through the process once again and renew our cards for a two-year period.  In Portugal (as in the US) when things work, they work well!residence card

By Anita and Richard

 

 

Silves and Its Castle: Conquests and Crusades

Silves CastleIt’s not hard to find the ruins of the Moorish castle as you enter the town of Silves, Portugal.  Perched on a hilltop high above the town it dominates the landscape, its presence looming as the castle and remaining walls that surround it are easily visible from wherever you are in the city.climbing up to Castle Silves

The castle is like a picture in a kid’s storybook with its stereotypical, crenellated silhouette, narrow slits and gaps for the defenders to guard against intruders or rain down arrows and boiling oil upon enemies, massive red sandstone walls and the turrets where sentries stood watch. It’s not hard to find yourself imagining the hoof beats and neighing of horses, the sound of armored soldiers clanking by, dark robed men silently skulking about in the shadows, tradesmen mixing with peasants going about their business, the blare of trumpets and flags unfurled in the wind.Silves Castle

Our reaction when we first saw the Algarve’s biggest and arguably best preserved castle?  Big grins and what we later tried to describe to each other, a feeling of little kid wonder as we remembered tales read long ago.Castle Silves

Silves (pronounced the Portuguese way in one slurred syllable SilvSH) has archeological remains that go back to Paleolithic times and has been known by many names – Almohad, Cilpes, Shelb, Xelb – depending on who was occupying it at the time.  Located on the Rio Arade (pronounced with a g sound that sneaks its way in, A rad gee) which connected the hinterland with its riches of copper and iron to the Atlantic, it was an important trade route for the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians and Romans.  Silves’ prosperity really took off with the Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula in 713. The city became an economic rival to Lisbon for over two centuries claiming the nickname, “The Baghdad of the west” with its bazaars, shipyards and port.  With its strategic location overlooking the river and built upon one of the largest aquifers in southern Portugal, Silves had a lot to offer and everyone wanted it. For a few centuries a tug-of-war existed between factions of the Moors themselves, the Spanish and the eventually victorious Portuguese aided by crusaders who stopped by on their way to the Holy Land. In 1249 the Portuguese had the Moors fleeing for the final time stripped of their possessions including, according to some accounts, the clothes on their backs.  In the following centuries Silves’s fortunes waned with the loss of its North African trade routes that the Moors had established and as competition grew from other ports along the coast.  The gradual siltation of the Arade River formed a swamp which bred fevers, disease and epidemics like the Bubonic plague, which contributed to its downward spiral.  The 1755 earthquake that destroyed much of the Silves along with the rest of Portugal’s cities seemed to seal its fate.

In the background - Old Cathedral on the left and Silves Castle on the right

In the background – Old Cathedral on the left and Silves Castle on the right

Silves is a city of living history with its fabulous Moorish Castle, declared a national monument in 1910, but there are a few other reminders that testify to its former greatness as you wander through the historic part of this picturesque city.  Rising up near the castle is the second most striking building of its skyline, Sé Velha, the Old Cathedral.  A national monument since 1922; the original structure was built in the 13th century by the conquering Portuguese on the site of a former mosque.  Over the centuries it’s become an eclectic blend of many architectural styles with a Baroque façade and Manueline style doorways and windows as well as the great entrance, an arched, Gothic doorway of yellow sandstone with its balcony above embellished with corbels of animal and human faces.

Gothic doorway - Cathedral of Silves

Gothic doorway – Cathedral of Silves

Manueline doorway

Manueline doorway

Nearby is the Municipal Archeology Museum which has exhibits from the Paleolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages to Roman artifacts, displays of ceramics from the Moors and finally pieces from the Portuguese victors of the 13th century.  The museum itself is built along a section of the old city walls and incorporated an existing Islamic cistern-well originating from the 11th century that is 18 meters (59 feet) deep within its structure.12-13th century Almohad well-cistern - Almohad period

It’s hard to imagine that Silves was once a bustling port or that the Vikings war ships attempted an armed, exploratory excursion bent on looting and plunder in the 10th century up the Arade River.  Known as the Old Bridge or the Roman Bridge of Silves (although the Roman road that crossed the area would have existed several centuries earlier) the original structure was built in the 14th century.  Historically, one of the main entries into the city connecting Silves to the coast, it has five semi-circular arches that span the waterway, now heavily silted.  Today, benches have been scattered along it in the city to make it a charming place to sit and admire its beauty.old bridge

While Silves will never regain its former glory it still has a lot going for it: a pretty city spread over hills in a beautiful countryside. Its economic prosperity began to improve in the 19th century as cork and dried-fruit industries were established and many residents enjoyed an increased level of affluence. Today its economy is fueled, like many of the towns in the Algarve, by agriculture and tourism. It’s exactly the kind of city we love to visit and return to with friends to share its magic.view from Silves Castle

By Anita and Richard

 

 

 

 

 

 

Portuguese Pronunciation, Porches Pottery and a Bit of the Past

One of the first things we learned upon our arrival in Portugal was that “picking up” the language was going to be difficult (especially since we have about ten words between us now) and pronouncing the words may indeed be our downfall.  So when we talked to a local friend about our visit to Porches – we said it American style, POR chez – her response was a puzzled look.  Only when we pointed to its location on a map did understanding dawn.  “Ah” she nodded and then said very slowly something that sounded like the car Porche with the r smothered somehow and the ending s a mere suggestion.

Looks like we’ll be pointing for a while …

We’d first heard of Porches, population a smidge over 2,000, when we went to a monthly market in an even smaller village earlier this summer and saw some examples of the pottery for which the town is known.  Nowadays, it’s a place easily passed by unless you’re looking for it, settled among hills with cliffs overlooking the Atlantic. Gallery - capela de Nossa Senhora da Rocha - 16th Century

However, it’s easy to see why it was an important vantage point in the ancient times of the Romans and Moors and a significant medieval town in the 13th Century with only the ruins of a long-ago castle remaining.  In the Middle Ages a string of forts stretched along the coast to defend Portugal and one of these, the Nossa Senhora da Rocha Fort still exists. Within the walls is located the 16th Century Nossa Senhora da Rocha Chapel, simple in its whitewashed exterior, a small building perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean.  Here, according to local lore, it’s said that an apparition of the Virgin Mary once appeared to local children. The site sees many visitors, both the devout as well as those of us who appreciate the melding of a beautiful, awe-inspiring setting and a site of cultural significance.Gallery - the capela da Nossa Senhora da Roch

Many of the streets of Porches are cobbled, wide enough for one-way traffic only, winding up and down the hills.  Most of the homes are whitewashed and the contrast of the bright colors of bougainvillea climbing along walls against the blue sky is dazzling.  We wended our way through the small “downtown” area looking for a place to eat but found the handful of cafes closed, maybe because most of the tourists were gone or maybe for the simple reason that it was Tuesday.  A woman at a local bakery stepped outside and, with a friendly smile, pointed the way to a cafe she thought might be open.

Daily meal - Restaurante Mar a VistaThe unassuming exterior of the Restaurante Mar a Vista led to a covered porch and a chalked sandwich board with the daily menu.  We seated ourselves inside at a wooden table, enjoyed a hearty welcome by the waiter and ordered the €8 lunch special of three courses with an appetizer of olives and our favorite Portuguese bread, spinach soup, the fish of the day, dorado, presented alongside a plate of salad and an included beverage. The conventional wisdom is, “If you want to know where the best and cheapest places to eat are, look for the locals.”  And, as we slowly enjoyed our lunch, the tables around us began to fill.  By the time we’d finished, almost all of the tables were occupied with people partaking of their noon meal.  There was the pleasant buzz of conversation in the background and we left feeling like we’d received much more than our money’s worth.Porches Pottery

storks and nestsSidetracked by the visit to the Nossa Senhora da Rocha Fort and lunch, we hadn’t quite forgotten the original reason for our visit, the pottery. We got diverted for a bit by a display of outdoor art including a real-size, huge, metal sculpture of a traditional Algarve chimney complete with a stork’s nest, some whimsical, smooching hippos, also life-sized, and a fire-engine red Rubenesque lovely, larger than life, dancing in the midst. Gallery - Dance for the sheer joy of dancing!

Next door was the Olaria Pequena Artesanata (the Little Pottery) shop with some distinctive, creative pottery, dishes and tiles as well as some gorgeous ceramic wall pieces that we admired greatly but were well out of our modest price range.Olaria Pequena studio

Traditionally, Porches was renowned for the pottery produced in its vicinity and it was located handily near some clay pits.  But, by the mid-twentieth century the ancient art of pottery making in Portugal was dying out because styles and tastes had changed and there was cheaper, imported pottery and china available.  The older artisans were retiring or passing on and there were few apprentices working at their sides, learning the skills as well as the art.  In the sixties, however, an Irish ex-patriot, artist Patrick Swift and his Portuguese counterpart, Lima de Freitas, worked to reverse the demise of the industry and set about reviving this centuries-old craft.

Porches Pottery 1968

Quite by chance we stopped by Porches Pottery, founded in 1968 by Swift, which is located in a typical old farmhouse and produces beautiful, functional tableware and tiles.  The distinctive pottery is hand-painted and decorated with Moorish designs as well as illustrated with local themes such as fish and olives.

artesans painting the pottery

Today it is managed by Patrick Swift’s two daughters, one of whom we met, and currently employs ten Portuguese artisans as well as the next generation of the family, an Irish nephew.  We bought a butter dish to start our collection of tableware with plans to return in the future for a full set of dishes.Porches Pottery - butter dish for our Christmas gift

There are several other pottery shops dotted about Porches and along the two-laned highway leading into the town including some with replicas of the large, traditional outdoor terracotta pots that were used to store olive oil and wine and some with garden statuary. Despite its diminutive size, Porches appears to be thriving and the once dying pottery industry revived and producing traditional as well as new contemporary ceramic designs.  And, lucky for us, since it’s right down the road from Lagos, we’ll have opportunities to visit it again.  We’re not holding our breath but maybe by then we won’t be stumbling over how to pronounce its name!dog on the roof

 

By Richard and Anita

 

So This Is Christmas

When we left the US in early November the hype for the Christmas season was already in full swing, the stores decorated and temptations arrayed with SALE! SALE! SALE!  The ads on the TV bombarded us with visions of an idealized Christmas with attractive, middle-class families smiling and having the best of times, SPENDING! SPENDING! SPENDING!  It was the perfect time to flee…

Thankfully no one we know!

Thankfully, no one we know.

This is our fourth consecutive Christmas outside the US and except for missing our family (Yay Skype) we’ve enjoyed some holiday time with new friends we’ve made along the way in each of our temporary homes.  We’ve appreciated our role on the sidelines watching long-established celebrations with the emphasis on family and community traditions rather than the commercialism, excess and high expectations that we were a part of for so many years.

Mexico, 2012

Mexico, 2012

Nicaragua, 2013

Nicaragua, 2013

Colombia, 2014

Colombia, 2014

As we’ve walked and driven around and about Lagos we’ve discovered, somewhat to our surprise, that the city’s decorations are very low-key with few outside ornaments and lights although many of the store windows around the central plaza have a Christmas themed display.

A lurking Santa and an unlit Christmas light display

A lurking Santa and an unlit Christmas light display

Santa's sleigh

Santa’s sleigh

In fact, until you duck into the larger stores or souvenir shops you might not even know that Christmas is just around the corner.  But if you look up you might catch a glimpse of Santa clambering about the rooftops.A tiny Santa checking out the chimneys

And what will we do for the holiday? Since we’re still in the settling-in phase in our newly adopted city our answer is a very contented, “Not much.”  We have our poinsettia plant which has been shedding leaves steadily as our lone concession to decorating for the season and we’re already wearing our Christmas presents that we bought a few days ago at a Christmas market: shearling slippers. shearling slippers for Christmas

Christmas Eve we’ll celebrate in one of our favorite little restaurants with a British style meal of turkey and the trimmings and just enough Christmas carols to get into the Christmas spirit.  And, if we can keep awake long enough, maybe we’ll drive around the city to see how others make merry.  As for Christmas Day?  There are miles of nearly deserted beautiful beaches nearby…  Does it get any better than that?

Christmas elves

Christmas Elves

Feliz Natal y Feliz Ano Nova to you and yours,

Anita and Richard

 

Setting Up House in Portugal

downtown square

We returned to Lagos, Portugal in mid-November accompanied by a strange mix of feelings.  We were tired from many airports, the long, uncomfortable plane rides, losing a piece of luggage (located the following day) and zoned out trying to adjust to the five-hour leap ahead of the clock. There was a bit of culture shock as a new language surrounded us and we gazed out of the windows of our shuttle at a somewhat remembered but still unfamiliar November countryside of orange trees still bearing fruit, houses built in tiers upon the hills and the giant chimneys scattered about the region where the storks build their colossal nests.stork nest

But there was also the giddy realization that WE WERE FINALLY BACK IN PORTUGAL as well as the low-level anxiety about all the strange tasks that lay ahead of us as we settled into life in a new country.  Our friend, Ana, met us at our apartment, showed us how to work the combination gas-electric stove and washing machine and whisked us off to the grocery store to pick us up some basics.

Our furnished apartment itself is small, very sunny, and sparsely “decorated,” less than 700 square feet with two bedrooms, a living-dining area, one bath and a galley kitchen designed for two skinny chefs.  When we prepare meals together it’s an elaborate dance to pass each other, open the pantry and drawers, etc.  The apartment itself is far from ideal: too small, too basic and we’re paying too much for the convenience of having a very lovely, Portuguese couple who speak English available for the times we need to reach out for answers to all of the complexities we find ourselves confronted with in our new setting.  But it’s a fine start and the time here gives us the chance to figure out if Lagos is where we want to live while we explore other cities and villages in the Algarve as well as Portugal.Lagos marinaAnd the location is perfect: the primary reason we chose our modest abode to set down our shallow roots. We’re situated on the first floor overlooking the Marina de Lagos with its variety of humble boats to small yachts, views of pallid to spectacular sunsets, the caws of huge, fat seagulls and cormorants perched upon sterns with their wings outstretched, bat-like, drying themselves.  Next to us is a row of shops and bistros while the train station is a two-minute walk straight ahead.

The old train station is much more picturesque than the new station next door.

The old train station is much more picturesque than the new station next door.

We can walk to a large supermarket in ten minutes or cross the drawbridge to the main street of Lagos and stroll through the weekly farmers market, wander through narrow streets with shops or a variety of restaurants (traditional Portuguese, Indian, British or Chinese fare) passing medieval buildings, a castle and the ancient stone walls that guarded the city long ago.  Close by are giant sandstone formations and rocky cliffs overlooking the Atlantic interspersed with golden sand beaches.shops lining the streets

Walls of Lagos 16th century

Walls of Lagos & the Governor’s Castle – 16th century

Our checklist of things accomplished within our first weeks is small but each day we untangle another mystery that makes up daily life in Portugal.  Nothing can be done without the NIF numbers (ńumero de identificacão fiscal) which establishes our official existence in Portugal and were procured for us by our attorney prior to our return. The first “to do” was getting connected which involved setting up cable TV and internet, a local mobile and home phone at the cable store, Meo (pronounced mayo).  We showed our passports, rental agreement, walked back home for the NIF papers and returned, filled out some forms in triplicate, signed multiple times, made friends with our clerk, Catia,  and then… stymied!  We needed a NIB number.  The NIB (pronounced neep) stands for ńumero de identificacão bancária which would allow the cable company to receive payment online from our nonexistent bank account.  Off we went on a quest to the bank, Millennium BCP, to set up a bank account with Teresa, our next new friend. The bank account required passports, our rental agreement, our NIF numbers and social security cards (foreign banking law requires notification to somewhere in the US of its citizens setting establishing accounts outside the US – probably so that our last tax dollar can be squeezed from us).  Again … stymied!  Who carries around their social security card in a foreign country?  Home we went to email my sister (our guardian angel) to copy and scan our social security cards which we then forwarded to our new BFF, Teresa.  The next day we again walked to the bank, chatted with Teresa, signed papers, obtained our NIB number and walked to Meo, chatted with Catia, presented our new NIB number, and set up an appointment for later in the week for cable/internet/phone installation. sunset on marina

Fortunately for us the cable store and bank have proved to be the most difficult things so far requiring lots of patience and remembering our smiles from time to time.  We’ve also set up local health insurance policies with Médis (90 € per month for both us) which, with a copay will cover doctor and hospital, dental and vision after a waiting period of three months.  We found a place, located in a shoe repair shop that also sells handmade shearling slippers, to copy our apartment keys. And we rented a car for our first month(s) at the cost of 320 € during low season including full insurance.  Driving is on the right-hand side of the road like the US but reacquainting ourselves with the proper round-about etiquette and road signs has been a little tense with some testy sniping involved.  And gasoline, sold by the liter, goes for over $5.00 – that’s US Dollars – per gallon. So much for the oil glut!

storkWe’re discovering that the process of settling in and becoming residents in a new country is more challenging and quite a bit different from passing through as full-time travelers.  There’s a whole new vocabulary of acronyms to learn and various bureaucratic hoops to jump through.  But the people we meet have all had wide smiles and patience galore for two bewildered foreigners trying to integrate ourselves into their welcoming country.  Who could ask for more?

By Anita and Richard

 

 

 

 

Transitions, Changes and Americus the Beautiful

And then we waited … And waited… And … We were at loose ends after we submitted our application in late August to the Portuguese Embassy in Washington D.C. for a long-term visa.  According to the fine print in the application, the review and approval process could take up to three months. (The fact that we received our visas in under two months could be seen as testimony to the alacrity with which the Portuguese bureaucracy can move when it sees a couple of prime candidates for immigration.) But given this gift of free time, and we did after all have a car again, we decided to take a road ramble with only a loose itinerary, following our inclinations with no particular place to go.

Wyoming

Wyoming

Our time in the US could have been measured in the places we stayed: one rental apartment, two housesits, six guest rooms with friends and family and, lastly, fifteen hotel rooms.  We could have counted our time in miles spent crisscrossing the USA: approximately 5800 miles.  Or the number of states we drove through, seventeen, from Texas through Colorado to Washington and Montana and then through a part of the midwest and the deep south to Florida and finally to Georgia where we left our car with family. Or tallied the airport flight connections and boarding areas we sat in from the time we left Portugal in mid-July to our return in November, a mind-numbing seventeen.  We could enumerate the number of photos of old friends (friends old in the longevity of our association as well as longer of tooth) and family with whom we spent time catching up, laughing and playing “remember when?” or the countless pictures of breathtaking scenery and small town life as the miles rolled by.

Montana

Montana

Florida

Florida

During our sojourn we fell in love with our home country, this time as travelers seeing it from a new and different perspective after our three years spent out of the US.  The vast road system woven throughout the states, driving Interstate highways around the big cities and state highways through small cities and towns with their flags and banners displayed.  Friendly clerks at countless gas stations, waitresses greeting us with smiles and refilling our cups of coffee time after time, places where people take pride in their hometowns.

Livingston, Montana

Livingston, Montana

We whiled away an afternoon in Livingston, Montana where the Yellowstone River flows north from its headwaters in the Park through the Paradise Valley flanked by the majestic Absaroka Mountains. We stayed one night in Americus, Georgia and visited the site of nearby Andersonville Prison, a name synonymous with the horrors of the Civil War in our own country.

Andersonville Cemetery

Andersonville Cemetery

In nearby Plains, Georgia, yards had signs showing their support: “Jimmy Carter for Cancer Survivor.” Meanwhile, a Confederate flag hung side-by-side next to an American flag across the street from the Secret Service sentry booth outside President Carter’s family compound. In the other direction and a hundred miles or so down the road was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s summer home, “The Little White House,” in Warm Springs where he showed people that America and the world could be fixed again and hope could thrive.

Watching the nightly news and the Republican and Democrat debates told us what was wrong with the US – in divisive and contentious language and finger-pointing accusations.  But our travels showed us another story: what was positive, strong and right with our country.  Many things may be broken but there’s a lot that works and a lot of which to be proud.

Alabama

Alabama

We left the US this time with a deep appreciation for what it represents but glad to be resuming our lives in Europe, with the opportunity to learn about new countries and cultures, art and architecture as well as to meet new people and hopefully, become a part of a community.  And here we are, finally and barely a week into setting up a new life in Lagos, Portugal, transitioning from full-time nomads to traveling expats with a home from which to venture forth and return.

Anita and Richard

 

The Great Document Round Up: Starting the Portugal Residency Process

Google “Best places to retire abroad” and Portugal consistently shows up in the top ranked countries. Ditto in highly regarded magazines such as Forbes and AARP, as well as those magazines selling sugar-coated dreams to those with rose-colored glasses.  And we’d done our homework as travelers who’d spent the last three years roaming Mexico, Central and South America as well as several Caribbean islands before we jumped to Europe. We knew what we wanted and what we wanted was to live in Portugal.  Ask anyone who’s been there and they’ll know why.  For the uninitiated, we could list the low cost of living relative to other European venues, fresh and delicious food, a moderate climate with 300 plus days of sun, miles of coastline, fascinating history and warm people with wide smiles.  For us, Portugal pushed all the right buttons including an important one.  We didn’t want to give up traveling, not with Europe spread before us and beckoning.  We just wanted a place to call home, to launch from and return with only a small carry-on suitcase accompanying us.

Carvoeiro, Portugal

Carvoeiro, Portugal

It  requires little effort for much of the world, including US citizens, to visit Portugal and the other twenty-six European countries that comprise the Schengen Zone.  You simply present your passport at your original point of entry for a stamp and, presto, you’re granted permission as a tourist to enter, exit and cross borders with no further ado, similar to us driving from state to state in the US.  “Great” you say but, and for us as slow travelers with no time constraints, this presented a conundrum. The visa is only good for 90 days.  And then you have to leave the Schengen nations for a period of at least 90 days.

Lagos, Portugal

Lagos, Portugal

So, what to do if you want to stay?  We whiled away our time in Portugal this summer investigating places we’d like to live more-or-less permanently we also started doing our research and hired a lawyer to help walk us through both sides of the process: the documents we would gather in the US and the forms, renewals, translations that we would be completing upon our return to Portugal. There’s a wealth of material online (and probably much of it is even accurate!) from many countries about how to apply for a their residency visas as well as lists of the necessary documents but, when it came to Portugal, there seemed to be a dearth of information. We found articles online with guidelines for citizens belonging to the EU but for US citizens there was a confusing jumble of incomplete, contradictory and inaccurate data.  We finally concluded that there wasn’t an easy way – we had to begin at the beginning and put together our own list of requirements necessary to apply for a Portuguese residency visa (here’s where being stubborn not to mention methodical and, somewhat, patient comes in handy!)

The Application 

Our online inquiries led us to the official website regarding visas for Portugal at http://www.embassyportugal-us.org/visa-information/ and a little bit of squinty-eyed reading resulted in a Eureka! moment when we found a link for residency visas. (A reader pointed out that the original link we posted was no longer viable so this has been updated as of March 1, 2018. Another web site that may be helpful is: http://www.vfsglobal.com/Portugal/USA/). As retirees we were indeed on the list of people eligible to receive this type of visa. We contacted the Consular’s Section of the Portuguese Embassy in Washington DC requesting the application form and we received a prompt email response with four attachments.  An initial point of confusion was the actual name of the form itself, Application for Schengen Visa.  This form, however also covers the steps for the initial “long stay visa” that is the first step of the residency visa process.

Tip 1  Processing fee $128/person.

Tip 2  The signature needs to be notarized if mailing the application but a notary is not necessary if applying in person.

Tip 3  If you plan to present the application personally be sure to call and schedule your appointment a few weeks in advance as the office hours are limited.

Rounding up the Documents

Passport sized photo

Personal statement  We each wrote a brief paragraph about why we wanted to retire in Portugal (the people, the countryside, the culture and history, etc.)  as well as where we would be residing and our type of accommodations.

Proof of Financial Means  We submitted a printout of a letter from the Social Security Administration that showed that Richard received monthly Social Security payments and the amount 2) three months of bank statements to show the money was direct deposited into our account and 3) that the monies were available to us in Portugal

Tip 1  We haven’t come across a source we can quote on the income necessary to prove financial independence but the figure we kept in mind is that 1000 Euros is considered sufficient to support a family of four in Portugal. 

Tip 2  Our lawyer advised us to keep our answers regarding financial resources as simple as possible and not to complicate this step by submitting other sources of income such as 401(k) or 403(B) pensions, savings and investments holdings, etc. as they may needlessly complicate the process.

Tip 3  We included our Marriage Certificate to show that this income was available to both of us since Anita is not eligible to receive Social Security payments yet.

Criminal Record Certificate Issued by the FBI  We had our fingerprints taken at our local police department (cost $10/person) and then worked with a company to expedite their submittal and review through the Bureau (cost $63/person).

Tip 1  A list of pre-approved FBI channelers is available online but the company we used was My FBI Report (myfbireport.com). The company notified us 4 days after they received our print cards that Richard would need to get his fingerprints retaken and resubmit them as the FBI said they were “too worn.”  The police department waived the fee for the reprinting process when we presented the receipt showing proof of our initial payment.  However the expediters charged an additional $20. Anita received her background check within 10 days and Richard’s arrived a week later.

Tip 2  A search online resulted in the suggestion that applying Corn Husker’s lotion the night before could make the fingerprint ridges more distinct. We’re not saying it does but we didn’t have to go back for a third attempt!

A Copy of Our Lease as proof that we had a place to stay in Portugal.

Tip – You can also have a resident of Portugal write you a letter of invitation that includes the address where you will be staying.

Notarized Copy of our Passport’s Information Page

Tip – We copied the pages with our photo, address and the dates the passport was valid and had a notary stamp and sign underneath.

Proof of Health Insurance  This is by far the most expensive part of the whole application process.

Tip – We’ve carried policies with high deductibles from IMG (imglobal.com) since we began traveling.  Richard’s covers every country but the US and did not require a doctor’s exam ($1,836/year) and Anita’s policy includes an allotted time in the US and required a physical exam ($3,895)

And … The Approval!

Never ones to pass up a chance to visit one of our favorite cities, Washington DC, we decided to submit our applications and the supporting documents in person.  We also wanted to ensure that everything was complete as well as address any problems immediately versus a slow back and forth through the mail. We met with our contact, Ms. Dina Silva, at the end of August for a 30 minute appointment.  She examined our applications and told us that they would be sent to the Service de Estrangeiros e Frontiers in Lisbon, Portugal.  And then we waited… On October 6th we received a note from Ms. Silva and a form requiring our signature to authorize a criminal background check in Portugal. And finally, in mid-October, three months after we had returned to the US to initiate the process, we received an email saying that our residency visas had been approved. We mailed our passports to Ms. Silva to receive our official visa stamps and registry numbers. Our departure is imminent!

“What’s next?” is another post altogether as we move forward with the visa application in Portugal.  Our initial visa is valid for 120 days and we’ll be working through the next steps with our attorney for a Permanent Residency Visa.

For those of you who made it to the end of this long post … thanks and we’re done for now!  So many people have expressed interest in how a Portuguese Residence Visa can be obtained that we wanted to write about our experience as well provide some tips. We’ve tried to be as complete and accurate as possible but, despite receiving approval on our application, we’re no experts.  It only looks simple in hindsight!

photo available at www.gratisography.com

photo available at http://www.gratisography.com

By Anita and Richard

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