Tag Archives: long term travel as a lifestyle

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

 

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

Back in the Land of Too Much: Round Pegs in Square Holes

We returned to the US with a mission: Obtain approval from the Portuguese government for a long-term visa.  In addition to amassing the documents and jumping through the bureaucratic hoops we looked forward to visiting with friends and fam.  However, our return to “The Homeland” seemed to be a slow downhill slide from simplicity to unanticipated complications.

Now don’t get us wrong; we are true-blue, passport-carrying Americans.  We like to think of ourselves as a contented mix of sunny, southern California and mountainous, western Montana (the hot and the cold, the yin and the yang) who willing relocated in 2002 to North Padre Island in South Texas. Having experienced the phenomenon of reverse culture shock previously we prepared ourselves again for the symptoms and looked forward to our return with great expectations and anticipation. That was until things began to go decidedly south.

It began just before we left Portugal for a return to the States, three days before our departure, with a scramble for alternative accommodations after we received news that the place we were going to stay was no longer available due to a family emergency.  Summer in Corpus Christi is high season and, as beachgoers pour into the city to visit the seashore and island, availability goes down as prices go up.  We reached out to our former property manager/realtor who scoured her listings and found us an efficiency apartment – overpriced but within our budget and on the island for our stay.

Miles of beach and open sky - Padre Island

Miles of beach and open sky – Padre Island

Our second indication of the deep do-do which awaited us was found at the car rental counter of the airport in our adopted city. We had reserved a rental car for a couple of days with the idea that we’d find a cheaper rental offsite later. It was during this transaction that we discovered if you did not own an automobile, which was of necessity insured, you could not cover a rental with your car insurance. Well duh! So, (and here’s the rub) if the car was X dollars per day to rent the insurance was a whopping 2X dollars per day. Somehow $111.95 per day was a bit steep for a sub-compact auto which barely held us and our luggage.  We tried another car rental agency the next day with a representative who oozed charm (but no ethics) and tried to finagle the insurance issue.  Luckily for us, our insurance agent called him on the slight-of-hand, the distinction between renting and leasing a car.  If we’d had an accident it could have been ugly. And so we accepted that a rental car was not an option.

Plan B, suggested by our insurance agent – with rhyming first and last names, a wide and very white smile, brightly colored talons, who called us “Sugar” and blessed our day – was to lease a car. We grasped the lifeline and decided upon a $1300/month car from the only short-term lease agency in town.  We’d gotten our insurance down to a manageable rate but the 2000 a month mileage cap, which we’d been assured was something we could negotiate, was chiseled from granite.  A short time later, wiser and poorer, we finally shed ourselves of the lease vehicle and settled on Plan C:  We bought a car.  The deed was accomplished in less than three hours with the assistance from a friend who was also manager of one of a multi-sited, new/used dealership; we were the grudging but proud owners of a 2014 Toyota.  From dedicated minimalists to All-American automobile owners … again! We were going in reverse!!

But now, back to our temporary abode at the “resort.”  (Caution! Whining involved!) We’d always thought resort sounded a bit posh but found the name to be only a hopeful aspiration. Since our apartment was on the third floor we’d asked, and been assured that there was an elevator which we (kind of ) assumed worked reliably.  We did our grocery shopping during our stay with the idea in the back of our minds that one of us might have to lug that 10 pound watermelon up three flights of stairs.  We hung bags of Damp Rid around as festive decorations  to combat the atmosphere of cold clamminess resulting from a temperamental air conditioner. And, after a couple of years traveling in Central and South America where our lips touched only bottled water, we came home to a boil water order. However, we were still begrudgingly pleased to have a place in which to spread out, cook a few meals and call home as we visited with friends and family and worked on gathering the necessary documents for the long-term visas for Portugal. Never mind that we had to buy our own Wi-Fi hotspot for the apartment rather than trek to the common area, sans air conditioning, sweltering and seemingly dedicated to the idea of defining “humid.”  All in all our home-sweet-home was a place to flop and infinitely preferable to a motel on the sleazy side of the city.

And so it was that we chipped away at the tasks of daily living, with the attendant aggravations of all of the above mentioned, and worked on jumping through hoops and the issues of starting the process towards obtaining residency visas in Portugal. And slowly the tide turned.  We were fortunate to have been given an opportunity to housesit for very dear friends for three weeks and we gratefully escaped the 3rd floor apartment. We flew to Washington D.C. to present our long-term visa request to the Consulate’s Section of the Portuguese Embassy and visit family.  We spent a lot of time at the beach and catching up with friends. We made arrangements to store our car with other family members near Atlanta, a boon over storing it in a secured lot with no attention in south Texas. And we whiled away the remainder of our waiting period by taking off on what we called “Our Epic Road Trip” which encompassed crisscrossing the country a couple of times.

image available atbwww.jokesandhumor.com

image available atbwww.jokesandhumor.com

In the end the salient points were driven home amid the strangeness and the familiarity.  America is the land where what you need is available and what you want is within tantalizing reach.  It’s the land of too much, the land where things are expected to work. In return, each must play their role. Deviating from the act of acquiring is not an admired trait – it is met with incredulity, intransigence and roadblocks. Without a home, a car, a cell phone, internet connection, insurance, ad finitum, ad nauseum you are at the mercy of the marketeers. We felt but a smidgen of this disfavor and it was uncomfortably frustrating.  We were, in a real sense, strangers in a strange land.

By Richard and Anita

Lagos, Portugal: A Place Like Home

2011 was the year of “The Great Epiphany.”  It was the year we decided  we wanted an alternative to the life we were living.  It was the year we realized that the “American Dream” was no longer our exclusive priority. We wanted something different …

2012 was the year we put our finances in order, sold everything, formally said goodbye to a steady paycheck and left the country to pursue what we once thought of as a pipedream: full-time travel. Over the next three years our dream has taken us through Mexico, all of Central America and several countries in South America as well as many islands in the Caribbean.  We’ve traveled by bus, by ferry, boat and luxury ship, plane, train, taxi, collectivo and tuk-tuk.

And in 2015, somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on our way to Spain, with visions of wandering across Europe dancing in our heads we decided that, while the nomadic life has been all that we wanted and more, it was time to tweak our travel dream a bit and set up a base.  A place where we could leave that extra suitcase as we leisurely explored Europe without worrying about the 90-day Schengen tourist visa and journey to North Africa, Turkey or the old Eastern Bloc.  A place where we could make friends without the constant goodbyes and even buy our own honed kitchen knives, coffee cups and pillows.  In short, it was time to find a place like home.

It was a toss-up between Spain and Portugal.   Both countries welcome foreign retirees, are relatively easy to obtain a residency visa and offer much in the way of culture, history, art and architecture, big cities and small villages, beaches, good medical care and all the needed amenities we might want.  And while we loved the small part of Spain that we visited, when we moved into our temporary abode in Ferreiras, Portugal we knew that the Algarve Region was the place for us, a place like home.carousel

Our friend, Luis said, “If you want to live in the Algarve, here are the cities you should check out.”  And so we spent our time traveling back and forth across the coast by train and, like Goldilocks, finding one city too small, one too hilly, one too quiet when the summer tourists left, …cobblestone walkway along marina

But Lagos, as Luis described it, was a city of “living history.”  A place where the cobblestone streets connect to the principal artery along the waterway leading in to the marina with benches for people watching, a place with a breathtakingly gorgeous coastline along the Atlantic, buildings from the 15th, 16th  and 17th   century, a city center that is relatively level for ease of walking on daily excursions to the fish market, the restaurants and vegetable markets as well as well stocked supermarkets.  Long popular with the British, Lagos has a large, English-speaking expat population and many of the locals also speak some English which would make settling in to the community easier.  Upon further investigation we found that there’s a language school where we can learn Portuguese, doctors, and dentists, pharmacies to meet our medical requirements, et cetera.plaza fountains & boy with church of Santa Maria and Santo Antonio

A part of the dense history clustered in Lagos is in the historic city center. Located here are the Ponta da Bandeira Fort and the original city walls – part of the complex of defenses to protect the nascent voyages of discovery – the slave market, the Governor’s Castle, and numerous ancient Catholic churches.Governors' Castle

Near the entrance to a church were two women, possibly widows, who, dressed head to toe in traditional black, whiled away the day in gossip, subtly indicating their bowls for alms. We later noticed these women leaving the historic city center in the late afternoon as we enjoyed a gelato waiting to taxi to our train back to Ferreira; the women, like ordinary workers, heading home at the end of another shift. Life, so it seems, has a rhythm that transcends national boundaries.cobblestoned streets

In the hills above Lagos are numerous villages and neighborhoods, none perhaps more picturesque than Praia da Luz. A small vertical town whose east-west streets side-hill the slopes rising out of the Atlantic while the north-south land drops precipitously on to the beach for swimming, snorkeling, boating and other aquatic opportunities. Here is a place to enjoy a cup of strong coffee, a mid-afternoon snack or simply watch the children and adults frolic in the surf.cobblestone road & ocean view

And as we hop-scotched across the Algarve region, playing our real life version of Eenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe the decision played out quite naturally and logically in the coastal city of Lagos. Here we were, are, betting that we will find a place like home. A place to settle in, study a new language, volunteer and teach English, become a small part in a large community and a place to serve as a travel base for further exploration, a place to return to and a place like home. Time with tell. Our application for a long-term visa is wending its way through the Portuguese bureaucracy and we await the country’s blessing on our request to reside in the Algarve.  For now we’re practicing patience while we wait, living out of our suitcases as we continue to travel and crossing our fingers.

S. Goncalo de Lagos (1360 -1422)

S. Goncalo de Lagos (1360 -1422)

By Anita and Richard

 

A River Runs Through It: Tavira

Moorish BridgeVisiting Tavira, in the eastern Algarve region of Portugal, it’s easy to lose track of the time, the day and, indeed the century.  Neatly bisecting one of the most gracious cities in the province is the Gilao River which forms high in the Serra do Caldeirao Mountains from rivulets and tributaries and flows southward down to the Atlantic Ocean.  At its mouth are numerous mariculture clam beds, salt pans and the golden, finely-grained sand beaches worshiped by the tourists, all of which bolster the economy of this ancient fishing village through which it runs and which gives entry to both banks of its historic urban center. Spanning the river is an arched bridge initially believed to be of Roman origin but recently revealed to be of Moorish construction in the 12th century.houses along riverOn the western shore the city climbs the slopes of hills where the twenty plus churches are scattered around and about its narrow, winding and cobblestoned streets, many of which are steeply pitched.  A short climb up the streets will give you a view of the roof-scape and the many short hipped, traditionally tiled roofs with the truncated ridge poles, a signature characteristic of Tavira’s charms.  It’s thought that this roof style may have originated due to the shortage of timber in the area although another theory is that the slightly oriental appearing roofs may have just taken the fancy of long ago residents.  historical cityOverlooking the city are the well-preserved walls of its castle, Castelo De Tavira, a great vantage point and a lasting gift from the Moors during their lengthy occupation of the Algarve, intended to consolidate and extend their Islamic power over the region.Castelo De TaviraOn the eastern shore is the level area. A thoroughfare fronting the river provides more housing, trendy shops, churches and a mix of spacious walkways and meandering streets which attract the locals and visitors alike as a place to sample the local food, savor a coffee or glass of Portugal’s fine wine or view life next to the river in a shaded area during the mid-day lull. Here vendors, musicians, merchants and patrons mingle easily in a slow-paced ambiance.street bandchurch tower, clock & vaneTavira, by almost any yardstick, is ancient. But in truth and to be more precise,  it is an iteration upon iteration of cities, great and small, which have risen and fallen according to the vagaries of the inhabitants and nature across the ages. Its origins date back to the Bronze Age (2300 BCE – 700 BCE approximately for this region) when it rose as one of the first Phoenician settlements in the western Iberian Peninsula. The village grew into the massively fortified city of Baal Saphon with temples and a harbor which was destroyed in the sixth century BCE by conflict, perhaps internal. The Tartessos people, traders in tin as well as copper and gold, all prized metals in the Bronze Age, next occupied the site. Their time was brief and by the arrival of the Romans in the early part of the Common Era their presence was all but forgotten. In truth, the Romans paid scant notice to the ruins of Tavira and built a town they called Balsa a short distance from the small city that sat atop the ruins of the once proud Phoenician city of Baal Saphon. The new city and the region prospered and decayed parallel to the fortunes of the Roman Empire and by the time the Moors arrived with their new religion of Islam, Balsa was already an extinct town.roof tops and train tracks/bridges in backgroundchurchThe Moorish occupation of Tavira between the 8th and 13th centuries left its mark on the architecture and culture of the area and its influence can still be seen in Tavira today with its whitewashed buildings and Moorish style doors. The Moorish occupation was a good time economically for the city which established itself as an important port for sailors and fishermen. In the 11th century Moorish Tavira started to grow rapidly, becoming one of the most important towns of the Algarve.  This prosperity continued but evolved again “under new management” during The Reconquista – the expulsion of the Moors – in 1242 which unified the fledgling nation of Portugal under the banner of Catholicism.  In 1755 an even more formidable foe arose in the form of a massive earthquake, perhaps as large as magnitude 9 on the Richter scale, and subsequent tsunamis which virtually destroyed the city.  Slowly it rebuilt itself amidst the remaining ruins and the 18th century historic city of Tavira is much as it appears today.historic old townAnd now this charming center of certainly less than 30,000 souls finds itself in flux again, a situation perfectly suited to the history of this magnificent locale which has endured so much change. During the off-season many of its businesses shutter their doors although there is a modern shopping center operating year around. And, like the rest of the Algarve Region, masses of summertime tourists descend upon this city with its excellent restaurants, miles of nearby beaches, and rising real estate prices.  With the growing popularity of the area there won’t be any hope of holding back change.  Just as invasion and conquest, growth and abandonment, tsunami and quake have swept over this land and altered this city, the future of Tavira with its river running through it will be sculpted by the hand of 21st century modernism. Hopefully, its touch will be gentle.little plaza

By Richard and Anita

Here Be Dragons: The Promontory of Sagres, Portugal

lighthouse & cliffsAt times, we’ll hear the comment that we, two retired baby boomers with itchy feet and pursuing our travel dreams, are adventurous. And maybe for our time and (especially for our age!) we have the spirit of adventure since we’ve left the comfortable and familiar environs of a middle-class existence in the US to see more of the world, one continent at a time. We carry with us our laptops that link us instantaneously (or so we’d like) to information regarding bus, train and flight routes, weather, lodging and even recommendations for the best places to eat. But as we stood on the promontory of Sagres Point, near the southwesterly tip of continental Europe, we felt we were at the edge of the earth. As the ferocious winds buffeted us and we gazed at waves below us crashing into the sheer cliffs we couldn’t help but talk about the adventurers. Men who set off, in the times of “Here be dragons,” into the great unknown with sketchy maps, meager food and water supplies and a great curiosity as to what lay beyond as well as dreams of finding their fortunes.

When Portugal was in the ascendancy in the late middle ages it was in large part due to the efforts of their royal leader, Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460). Recognizing the historic and logistic positioning of the promontory as a demarcation of the known and unknown worlds – Phoenician, Greek, Carthaginian and Roman captains had all stopped at this boundary – Henry capitalized on its deficiencies. The area was sparsely populated due to the continual ravaging of pirate hoards; Henry recolonized the land and built protective forts. He brought in people so there were families to raise crops to feed the growing population. He mobilized craftsmen to work the timbers and metals which he imported to maintain the fleet of discovery and there were the skilled cartographers who worked with the returning captains and crews to update, clarify and expand the accuracy of mapmaking.

Commemorating the 500th anniversary of Prince Henry's death and The Great Age of Discovery

Commemorating the 500th anniversary of Prince Henry’s death and The Great Age of Discovery, Lagos

Henry’s exploratory crews benefited from the improved design and performance of the caravel sailing ships. These boats, of greater antiquity, were given more masts, a broader beam and a mix of square and lanteen sails that handled well, sailing into the wind. The fast, nimble and responsive ships were designed to meet the challenges of discovering and mapping the off-shore islands of the Azores, Madeira, the Canaries and later, the coast of Africa and eventually, the Indian Ocean. In the process the astrolabe, sun-dial and mariner’s compass were improved and refined. Each new expedition of seafarers went forth armed with revised knowledge and techniques brought back by the previous crews. It is the simple truth that Prince Henry put his country on the path to the pinnacle of exploratory prowess in his lifetime.walls and entrance to fort - Promontorio de Sagressentry box - Promontorio de SagresAnd that path led directly to the Fortaleza de Sagres, a central fortress in what came to be a string of coastal defenses against privateers from the Moorish lands of North Africa and, in time, other European nations. As we approached the fort we spied from a distance the curtain wall that served as protection from a land based attack. The remainder of the fortifications outside of the walls were in gun batteries, and a lone, remaining sentry box, on the eastern shore battery.

The guns overlooked sheer drops into the wildly rolling waves of the sea. The armaments were protection for commercial watercraft, fishing vessels and explorers’ ships which could find shelter in the leeward bay under the guns. Those cannons facing out to the south and west could harass the invaders and keep them at bay.Promontorium de SagresInside the gate of the fort is an enormous design of rocks and cobblestones arranged in a pattern which some believe to be a mariner’s compass while others think it’s a sundial. Called the Rosa dos Ventos theChurch of Santa Maria -Promontorium de Sagres  outline was excavated in 1921. And again, opinions differ as some think the stonework may date from Prince Henry’s time, while others guess that the 16th century is more likely. The precinct’s oldest buildings include a cistern tower to the east (for always there was a need for water), a house, and the small, whitewashed, 16th-century church, La Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Graça , a simple barrel-vaulted structure with a gilded 17th-century altarpiece. A magazine, a more recent addition, for storing shot and powder stands prudently off eschewing neighbors in the event of mishap.

wall of cistern tower - Promontorio de Sagres

wall of cistern tower – Promontorio de Sagres

The Forteleza, begun by Portugal’s Prince, was altered, expanded upon and finally completed in the 18th century. It may be billed as the star of the promontory – the physical manifestation of Henry the Navigator’s designs for his fledgling nation. But in reality, the commanding presence at the site was the fissured, eroded land; the hardy low-lying vegetation that clung valiantly to life on the windswept escarpment; the gulls, terns, frigate birds and albatross that circled, rose and plummeted on the currents; the wind that swept up and over the land, bending people and plants to its will.outbuilding - Promontorio de Sagresfisherman on cliffsThese and the fishermen. For the people here have always been part of the sea and land. Here, at land’s end, at the edge of the once known world the men still gather to seek their sustenance. They fish for what the sea will offer that day such as bream, cuttlefish or sea bass. They challenge the wind’s wrath by moving about on these sheer precipices, precariously balanced and certainly we were relieved to see that none were carried off as we cautiously stood far back from the cliffs to keep our feet firmly planted on terra firma.fisherman on cliffs - Promontorio de SagresWe were enthralled. There was a tremendous power in the invisible hand of the wind as it pushed and swept around us and across the promontory accompanied by the background roar of the waves. You can see immediately why the ancients would have believed this to be the edge of the world and that beyond, dragons might indeed wait to prey on the foolhardy and unwary. It was with some reluctance that we left the site at the promontory of Sagres for it turned out to be one of the highlights of our time in Portugal.

By Richard and Anita

Simple Pleasures in Southern Portugal: The Algarve Region

beaches and housesMention that you’re planning a visit to the Algarve Region of Portugal to most Europeans and they’ll nod knowingly and remark upon its reputation for having some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe.streets of Alvor   Mention that you’ll be going in the months of June and July to a native Portuguese and they’ll comment on the rates which increase two to threefold during the high season as well as the influx of people from all over Europe which triples the off-season population of approximately 500,000 permanent residents.  In Portugal itself, the coastline is THE most popular holiday destination and it’s estimated that up to ten million people (Portuguese as well as millions of foreign visitors) vacation in the Algarve Region annually.  It’s difficult to find affordable accommodations in June, harder in July as rates do a quick upward tick and by August, the pinnacle of the tourist season, it’s almost impossible.

But, since we had to be somewhere in Europe during the early summer months and we’d read enough about the Algarve to pique our interest, we grinned bravely while looking at the rental bill, gulped a bit as we handed over our money and landed in the municipality of Albufeira, almost dead in the center of the Algarve coast.

We never quite got the pronunciation of the sleepy little parish where we stayed, Ferreiras (Fer-RARE-as) correct but we developed a real affection for this wide-spot-in-the-road of 6400 souls (we weren’t quite sure where they all were) with a round-about that sorted people into four different quadrants and a charming railroad station (circa 1918) from which we shuttled east and west across the southern coast every few days to view a different destination.  Located about 3 miles from the Atlantic Ocean, the surrounding countryside of Ferreiras is mainly agricultural with almond, fig, olive and carob trees.  Gorgeously juicy oranges were abundant in the orchards and a bagful, sold at the side of the road, could cost as little as a Euro alongside some of the biggest lemons we’d ever seen.

countryside near Ferrieras

countryside near Ferrieras

Since we were in the middle of the Algarve Region we were never at a loss to find a place to visit among the fifty plus parishes, villages and little towns dotting the coast and interior like undiscovered pearls with their Roman ruins and ancient bridges still being used to this day, castles, mosques built by the Moors, centuries old churches and walled cities.  And of course, the Algarve’s hundreds of beaches, gracing the approximately one-hundred mile coast with their fine white and golden sands and coves, clear waters in vivid shades of turquoise and aquamarine, stunning rock formations and limestone bluffs that ranged from worn smooth and subtly colored to rugged precipices pocked with caves and hidden grottoes accessible only by water.beachfront

A favorite day trip of ours by bus and only 4 kilometers away was the municipality of Albufeira, famed for its red-white and blue, street scenebeaches and one of the most popular coastal destinations in southern Portugal since the 1970’s.  Originally it was a fortified Roman city, later occupied by the Moors (who gave the city its present name) for several centuries and then a quiet fishing village for hundreds of years.  The heart of Albufeira is its old historic town with dazzling whitewashed buildings silhouetted against an intensely blue sky and mazes of steep and winding, narrow streets leading down to the sea.  Alongside the cobbled streets are cafes, shops, bars and bistros and a central square, Largo Duarte Pacheco.  Spreading out from the old town are tourist accommodations for every budget including ultra-posh resorts, five-star hotels and residential homes and condos as well as a recently built marina.overlooking streets and shops

Several outings to Albufeira to wander its charming streets, visit its beaches and people watch at the outside cafes were always topped with meals of local dishes like razor clams and rice, freshly caught fish such as grilledwind vane sardines and sea bass, roasted piri-piri chicken, spicy from the peppery sauce and the mouth-watering seafood dish we ordered whenever we saw it on the menu, cooked in a large copper pot, called Cataplana.

We may have hesitated initially at paying the inflated rates for accommodations during the summer season but the Algarve Region has us convinced that the Portuguese know how to celebrate the simple pleasures of life.  Everywhere we went we were welcomed by people who smiled and spoke a few words of English during a transaction or tried to help us with our mangled Portuguese pronunciations.  And the beautiful countryside, beaches, historic landmarks and an abundance of fresh food beautifully prepared were always near by.  We’re convinced that the Algarve Region lives up to all the hype and acclaim and is well-worth a visit at any time of the year.

clock tower & wandering streets

Clock tower with filigreed iron support and bell on Rua Bernardino de Sousa, Albufeira

Next post:  More on the Algarve from Sagres.

By Anita and Richard

 

Pillars of the Earth: La Sagrada Familia

La Sagrada FamiliaOver twenty years ago we voraciously devoured the Ken Follett historical novel “Pillars of the Earth,” a huge volume about a 12th century stonemason who dreams of building a massive cathedral unlike anything seen before.  Tom Builder begins his life’s work knowing that it will not be completed in his lifetime but trusting that it will be finished.  And we couldn’t help but compare this fictional character to the real life Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudi, who collaborated with the Catholic Church to design and oversee the construction of La Sagrada Familia, the most iconic structure in Barcelona.  Begun in 1882 and still under construction today, this UNESCO World Heritage Site was consecrated as a minor basilica by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 and is Barcelona’s number one tourist site, welcoming over 3,000,000 visitors a year.La Sagrada Familia

Outside, the cranes tower over the basilica’s spires, plastic sheeting covers parts of the exterior and everywhere, throngs of people stand:  in long lines behind the gates, shorter lines awaiting admittance with their e-tickets, s-curved lines at the stands for audio headsets and lines awaiting entrance into the church itself.La Sagrada FamiliaThose not in lines gather alongside the walls with their heads tipped back and looking up, up, up, examining the carvings and sculptures, stories in stone, cameras clicking.La Sagrada Familia

And inside … We join the throng of people surging into the central nave and extricate ourselves as quickly as possible to stand quietly for a few moments trying to absorb the vast space. Organ music swells in the background and reverberates around us, voices are muted and there is the sound of shuffling feet.  We are awestruck.La Sagrada Familia

Above us the giant, tree-like pillars reach from earth to heaven, branches touching and supporting the spectacular vaulted ceiling.  Light filters in from enormous panels of stained glass through the branches and pillars of granite, basalt, porphyry and Montjuïc stone. The noise from the crowd fades and we are in nature’s hallowed forest.La Sagrada Familia

Much has been written of La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudí’s final work and all-consuming obsession. Gaudi, like the fictionalized stonemason of “Pillars of The Earth” was well aware that he would never live to see his life’s work completed and is said to have remarked, “My client is not in a hurry.”  At the time of his death in 1926 the church was approximately twenty percent completed and construction was expected to last for a few more centuries in a time when all stone was carved by hand.La Sagrada Familia

With advances in technology, machines to shape and tool the stone and computer-aided design, the hope is to finish the basilica in 2026, a century after Gaudi’s death. Private benefactors sponsored the initial construction and Gaudi contributed his own money as well. At present the money received from ticket sales as well as donations from Friends of La Sagrada Família fund the continuing work at the site.La Sagrada Familia

Perhaps a highlight of our almost two-hour visit was the organ recital at noon of Ave Maria.  We were totally moved as we stood in the sublime surroundings of the central nave.  For people who profess no religious affiliations or interest we seem to find ourselves in churches and cathedrals rather often during the course of our travels.  Churches are often the place where a city displays its best architecture and art and the structure becomes linked with both a city’s history and identity.  This most certainly is true as La Sagrada Familia has become Barcelona’s signature emblem.

By Anita and Richard

One Street and Three Architects: Barcelona’s “Block of Discord”

crowd in front of Casa BatlloClose by our apartment in Barcelona’s Eixample District was the boulevard Passeig de Gràcia, filled with tourists, many of them gawking (like us) or lined up awaiting their entry at one or another of the landmark structures.  Among all the significant buildings however, is one block with addresses at numbers 35, 41 and 43 Passeig de Gracia, that generates considerable interest and lots of camera clicking.  Between the years 1898 and 1906 three of the era’s most important modernist architects took existing buildings on the block and refurbished them in such dissimilar visions and contrasting styles that the street is often referred to as “The Block of Discord.”La Casa Lleo i Morera

We bought tickets online for an English speaking tour given each Sunday morning and joined a surprisingly small group of four other people to visit Casa Lleo Morera, Passeig de Gràcia 35. The original structure was built in 1864 and in 1902 Francesca Morera, a widow of considerable wealth, hired the renowned architect,  Lluís Domènech i Montaner to refurbish the entire building as well as design a private residence on the second floor for the Morera family.La Casa Lleo i Morera

Morera translates to mulberry tree in English and representations of the tree are found throughout the house. The home is an astonishing collaboration by leading artists and craftsmen of the day and each room seemed to outdo the one before it by upping the WOW factor with stained glass creations, sculptures, original parquet floors with the mulberry motifs, woodwork and cabinetry, sculptures, mosaics and on and on. Everywhere we looked was another detail to draw our interest away from the preceding attention grabber.  It was a huge stimulus overload of art, design, color, textures.La Casa Lleo i Morera Sculptures by Eusebi Arnau tell the tale of Saint George and the dragon while elsewhere his sculptures show several objects relating to the notable technological advances of the time such as the lightbulb, gramophone and phonograph, camera and telephone.  In the dining room, surprisingly small because families of the era did not dine with guests at home, are seven mosaic panels on the walls by Lluís Bru and Mario Maragliano representing country scenes with porcelain additions of faces, hands and feet by a noted ceramist. La Casa Lleo i Morera We questioned one panel with a large patch of blue tile and where told that the mosaic was custom-made around a piece of the original furniture which was removed at a later time.La Casa Lleo i Morera

But our hands-down favorite were the huge bay windows of stained glass designed and created by Antoni Rigalt i Blanch and Jeroni F Granell with naturalistic scenes that dazzled and enchanted us.Casa Amattler

After sticking our heads into the open ground floor door of the foyer of 41 Passeig de Gràcia (admission free for the first floor only) we bought tickets for a tour the following day for the second floor.  Originally constructed in 1875 it’s called the Casa Amatller after the family who commissioned the prominent modernist Catalan architect, Joseph Puig i Cadafalch, in 1898 to refurbish both the inside and outside.   The outside façade was inspired by the style of Netherlands houses with its fanciful stepped gabled roofline and the inside is a rather gloomy but fascinating combination of gothic and neo-gothic styles. dining oom Casa Amattler

For our tour we climbed up the spectacular curving, marble staircase, donned cloth booties to protect the floors which had just been restored and stepped back in time to the previous century.  We wandered among rooms furnished with early 20th century period pieces.  The motto here seemed to be, “Let no surface go undecorated.” Everywhere we looked – floors, walls, windows and ceilings –  were adorned.

ceiling woodwork

ceiling woodwork

It was a visual assault of colors, patterns, textures and light and the very definition of extravagant opulence.  Here, as in the Casa Lleo Morera house, the architect had collaborated with some of the finest modernist artists and craftsmen in Barcelona, all who appeared to be in competition to show us their best, and we admired stained glass windows, mosaic walls and floors, surfaces of marble and elaborately carved wooden ceilings.Casa Amattler George & the dragon - Casa Amatller

The sculptors Eusebi Arnau and Alfons Jujol, displayed their talents with an astonishing assortment of dragons and knights, damsels and classically beautiful faces as well as fanciful creatures cavorting among vines and animals.Casa Batllo

Next door to Casa Amatller is Number 43 Passeig de Gràcia and the iconic Casa Batlló, one of the most photographed buildings in Barcelona and one of the nine structures in Barcelona declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  We had admired its extraordinarily over-the-top exterior on our previous strolls around the neighborhood and whenever we had walked by, there was usually a long, long line in front of it waiting for admittance.  One day, with a few hours of time on our hands and without much planning, we joined the line, bought tickets (they can also be bought online to avoid the wait) and donned headsets for an audio tour.Casa Batllo

Built between 1875 and 1877 the structure was bought by Josep Battló i Casanovas who wanted the prestigious address and a home extraordinaire. He engaged Barcelona’s favorite son, Antoni Gaudi, the renowned modernist architect who set about the task of renovating the building, both inside and out, bottom to roofline, between 1904 and 1906.  Gaudi redesigned the façade of the house with walls of stone that undulate.  These were plastered and covered with trencadis, a style of mosaic used in Catalan modernism created from broken tile fragments and glass. mosaic Casa Batllo

Often referred to as the “House of Yawns” because of its enormous, irregularly shaped windows on the lower floors resembling gaping mouths, it’s also referred to as “The House of Bones” because of the decorative bonelike pillars.  Salvador Dali, after seeing the house said, “Gaudí has built a house of sea shapes, representing the waves on a stormy day.”  The sinuous lines and the feeling of gliding through waves continued in the interior space of the house as straight lines and right angles were avoided by Gaudi whenever possible.  This created rooms that totally delighted us with their originality, watery colors and reflected and filtered use of light.Casa Batllo

Surrounding himself with the master artisans and craftsmen of the day the beautifully proportioned rooms are a synthesis of stained glass, burnished woodwork and floors of tile and parquet.  The house is crowned by a roof terrace every bit as extravagant and dramatic as the rest of the building.  Said to resemble a dragon’s back, the iridescent tiles catch your eye as the spine wends its way around chimneys and a tower topped with the cross of Saint George, the patron saint of Barcelona.rooftop - Casa Batllo

The “Block of Discord” showcases three magnificent houses designed by three men with totally diverse visions.  It’s a step back to an era where all things seemed possible, new discoveries abounded and modernism symbolized wild extravagance, innovation and creativity, artistry and astonishing genius.

 

 

By Anita and Richard

 

Look Up, Look Down, Look All Around

Arc de Triomf

Arc de Triomf

A couple of years ago we met a photographer friend, Paula, in Antigua, Guatemala who gave us some useful advice as we were checking out the sights.  Our eyes were trained on the uneven sidewalks and streets, both of cobblestone, to sidestep potential trips and falls and dog bombs.  When we looked around we’d try to steer clear of the numerous masonry windows, with decorative grille work, projecting from buildings at concussion-inducing head height and still try to take in the people, the sights and our surroundings.  And then our friend said, “Remember, if you don’t want to miss anything, look up.”Arc de Triomf

Luckily, in Barcelona there’s any number of things for a visitor to see regardless of where you look and one of the best ways is just walking around the city.  Our apartment was in the Eixample (Catalan for extension) district, a 19th century urban expansion that merged the old city with the street scenevillages and towns nearby.  The urban plan was the brainchild of the progressive designer and Catalan Spaniard, Ildefonso Cerdá.  A strict grid pattern of long straight streets crossed by wide avenues helps to keep even the most directionally challenged people (we’re not naming names) oriented. Of course it helps that the streets have signs and numbers on the buildings and maps are readily available at tourist information sites as well as online.  The thing we were most taken with however, was Cerdá’s unique design of octagonal blocks (picture the corner building with its corner cut off) which allows for greater visibility at each intersection.open intersection

A five to forty-five minute walk from our apartment in any direction could take us to a flower, bakery or ice cream shop.flower shop on street

Or we could find a grocery store, farmacias (pharmacies) with their crosses of green or red displayed, organic fruit and vegetable shops and numerous ATMs as well as  metro stations.pharmacy

And of course there were elegant churches.Cathedral near Sagrada Familia

Nearby, we found numerous restaurants and tapas bars, trendy clothing stores and even a castle called the “House of Spikes” built in 1905 by the Terrades sisters."House of Spikes" - 1905 Casa Terrades - Casa de les Punxes

One Saturday we came across an enterprising company who had set up ping-pong tables on the wide sidewalks near the landmark, La Pedrera.ping pong on the street

And on another sunny afternoon people relaxed near an avenue in lounge chairs that had been set out in the common area as an urban park.Sunday in the city by House of Spikes

And we found one of Barcelona’s locations for its bicycle borrowing program called “El Bicing” where we could take one of the free city two-wheelers for a short spin.free bikes for tourists

Another way to look up, down and all around was riding around on the double-decker hop-on, hop-Hop on -Hop Offoff buses.  We took advantage of these to orient ourselves to the city as well as sight-see and while we rode inside the bus for a few stops, riding on the upper level gave us an entirely different experience that we enjoyed much more. The city actually has two companies that offer the tours: the red buses from Barcelona City Tours with 2 routes and the blue and white buses from hop-on hop-offBarcelona Bus Touristic with 3 routes.  The prices are comparable, they both offer one or two-day tickets and each runs in a continuous loop from early morning to late in the evening so that passengers can hop off to visit the sights they want to see and then hop on for the next destination.  Audio guides and headsets give information in several languages and explain each area’s significance, pointing out landmarks along the way and giving a little history.

view from hop on - hop off bus

cable cars to Castell de Montjuic

cable cars to Castell de Montjuic

view from hop on - hop off busA few days into our visit to Barcelona both of us noticed our necks were stiff.  It wasn’t too difficult to figure out the cause as we were continually tipping our heads back or craning our necks.  There’s lots to see if one looks down, around and straight ahead but, in Barcelona it’s good to remember to LOOK UP too!

Catalan flag of Barcelona and the flag of Spain

Catalan flag of Barcelona and the flag of Spain

By Anita and Richard

 

 

The Quarry: Yabba Dabba Doo or A Most Unusual Abode

La PedreraResidents of Barcelona call the house “La Pedrera” (The Quarry) or “Casa Mila” after its first owners and, when we saw this totally unique abode, it was hard for us to put into words what was in front of our eyes. The building, constructed between 1906 and 1910, was an earthy sinuous form with a undulating exterior adorned with angular, black, wrought iron balconies as a startling contrast.  Perhaps because of our particular cultural backgrounds of Saturday morning cartoons we thought at once of “The Flintstones” and a huge “Yabba Dabba Doo” cave-like dwelling rather than a quarry with its crumbled rocks and (Barney) rubble strewn ground. Whatever we thought though, we knew we had to see this most unusual building.  Disheartened at first by the long lines waiting for admittance we found another entry with a much shorter line and paid six Euros extra each for the privilege of an expedited entry into the building.

inside-outside balcony

inside-outside balcony

Inside the buidling inner courtyard

Inside the building inner courtyard

We’d done a bit of homework before our visit and learned that, in keeping with the other affluent Barcelona residents of the day (and no different from now) the original owners, Pera Mila and his wife, Roser Segimon (of whom it was rumored he’d fallen for her purse rather than her charms) hoped to dazzle and impress their fellow neighbors.  To that end they engaged one of the premier architects of the 20th century and Barcelona’s favorite son, Antoni Gaudi, to design a trendy apartment building which included their own very spacious apartment.  And, whatever their original intentions, it looks like they gave Gaudi free rein. Gaudi was a fascinating man. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather were coppersmiths and he grew up with the artisan heritage. In his youth he was greatly influenced by nature and incorporated this theme into his works throughout his life. Upon graduating as an architect in Barcelona in 1878 a professor is reputed to have remarked, “Either we’ve graduated a genius or a madman.”  In his early professional life he worked for and on behalf of the proletariat, then moved on to the bourgeoisie and finally became a devout Catholic and remained so until his death working under the auspices of the Church. It was during the middle period, when working with the bourgeoisie, that he accepted the commission to design the Casa Mila.La Pedrera After receiving our tickets for a self-guided tour we were equipped with audio headsets, selected English as our language of choice and were transported via the original elevator to THE ROOF.  The nearby roofs were just as expected, unspectacularly cluttered with satellite dishes, TV antennas, air shafts, duct works, AC units, the occasional solar panel and cats. But Casa Mila’s roof was a fantasyland: a kaleidoscopic arrangement of varied elevations with chimneys, ventilation shafts and duct works ornamented by sculptural coverings topped by what might have been mistaken as medieval knights wearing helmets. Some, decorating the ventilation shafts and the exits in particular, were covered with broken ceramic and marble tiles or glass forming colorful mosaics which reflected the sunlight. It wasn’t hard to imagine ourselves playing hide-n-seek in the vast, multi-leveled surface that wrapped around the light well dropping down through the floors. roof & sculptures  Following a staircase down a few steps we entered into the attic, originally a laundry and storage area, designed so that heat could rise through and out the open exits to keep the attic cool. This was not the typical, cramped and dingy attic of old but a huge space filled with 273 brick parabolic arches of varying heights that corresponded with the topography of the roof for which they provided support. Windows were placed intermittently and allowed light in, lending an airy and expansive feeling to this area. A small museum with models of Gaudi’s other defining works were on display.arches  kitchen Dropping down one level we were able to tour the one large apartment on the sixth floor open to the public, a welcoming, gracious and spacious living space. (We were ready right then to beckon for our suitcases!)  There were windows on the exterior walls, facing the city, and on the interior walls, facing the central light well so that each room was filled with natural light. No detail escaped Gaudi’s attention and the walls, ceilings, parquet and tiled floors, windows and window frames, doors and door frames, door handles and door pulls were all his creations: graceful, whimsical, beautiful designs that worked together and reflected his genius. And the size of the place – there were, if the count was correct, twelve rooms: a children’s bedroom, nanny’s room, sewing room, kitchen, bathroom, formal sitting and dining rooms, a master bedroom with ensuite bath (a novelty at the time) and more. The apartment was furnished in period pieces reflecting elegance and good taste, posh and plush. entry  Pere Milà died in 1940 and his wife, Roser Segimon, sold the building in 1946.  Over the years additional apartments were added and the space housed offices, an academy and even a bingo hall.  By the 1980’s Casa Milà was in poor condition and deteriorating while many of Gaudi’s decorative elements were lost forever with each renovation.  However, in 1969 Gaudi’s work received official recognition as an Historico-artistic Monument and in 1984 his work was added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites for its “uniqueness, artistic and heritage value.”  In 1986 the Caixa de Catalunya Foundation bought La Pedrera and urgently needed work began in the following year on the restoration and cleaning of the façade as well as, eventually, all of the locations now open to the public.

Ground floor entry and staircase

Ground floor entry and staircase

It’s not hard to imagine what the residents of Barcelona thought during the construction of La Pedrera, a controversial building totally unique to its time.  It was filled with many architectural innovations such as an underground parking structure built to accommodate Senior Milas’s automobile and novelties including an elevator, a rarity at the time. However, we knew what we thought about Casa Mila by the time we reached the lobby in the planta baja (the ground floor) and returned our audio headsets.  Taking a last look around the entrance with its sweeping staircase leading to the upper floors we knew that we had truly been gifted by seeing this work of Antoni Gaudi, the talented genius-madman architect.roof By Richard and Anita

Sant Pau Art Nouveau Site: “A City Within A City”

Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant PauLike most first time tourists in Barcelona we put some time into reading online recommendations of sights to see, blog posts and, of course, our hero Rick Steves, who blitzes into an area, does a kamikaze run and finds amazing places and highpoints to mention to the masses and then moves on to his next big find.  Surprisingly, our destination, Sant Pau Recinte Modernista wasn’t mentioned in the guidebook we had and received scant, if any, attention in our other sources.  In fact, we found this UNESCO World Heritage Site by accident when we spread our tourist map on the table and started googling the sights.  On our map the Sant Pau Site takes up something like nine square Barcelona-size blocks, a vast amount of space and stands out on that fact alone.  Located just a fifteen minute walk from the iconic La Sagrada Familia it’s overshadowed by Barcelona’s multitude of tourist offerings but, the more we read about this place, the more intrigued we became.  And hey, we liked the fact that we didn’t have to stand in a long line and the cost was 8 Euros, a bargain by any standard.Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

We approached the gate to this amazing complex along a side wall and were allowed tantalizing glimpses of the buildings within through several ten foot high iron gates.  The original location of The Hospital de la Santa Creu (the Hospital of the Holy Cross) dates from 1401 when the Council of One Hundred, the forerunner of the municipal council, and the Cathedral Chapter agreed to merge the six existing hospitals in the city of Barcelona. Located in the center of the city, it served the city’s residents for several centuries.  However, by the late nineteenth century, due to the rapid growth of Barcelona’s population and advances in medicine, the hospital became outdated and was unable to provide for its citizens’ needs; it was decided to construct a new facility.Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

Enter Pau Gil, a Catalan banker who left a philanthropic bequest for a new hospital which would bring together the latest innovations in technology, architecture and medicine and whose name would grace the completed complex, the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau.  An architect of European renown, one of the outstanding figures of Catalan Modernisme, was commissioned to design the new facility.  And here’s where architecture and art merge.  Lluís Domènech i Montaner put an ingenious twist on the traditional concept of memorializing the medieval hospital’s history, religious and cultural values.  He envisioned an area in the form of a cross (obvious symbolism here) as a “city within a city” sitting 45 degrees off from the urban grid where each building was assigned a different medical specialty.  And what buildings they were! Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

Unlike any previous hospital these edifices lifted the very spirits of all who entered by combining Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Paunatural lighting and ventilation with huge splashes of color from stained glass windows, mosaics, paintings, tiled roofs, turrets and arches contrasted against the dignified elegance of red brick and Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pausculptures of disparate figures of angels and gargoyles, flowers and dragons.  The gardens were a unique inspiration by Domènech as they were designed to be used by the patients and their families as a cheerful and optimistic setting during the recuperative process. The grounds brought open space, nature’s beauty and life into a total holistic approach to health and well-being.Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

Domènech began building his Art Nouveau masterwork in 1902 using only materials of the finest quality for its construction and hiring only the most skilled craftsmen who were artists in their own right. Sadly he did not live to see its completion and upon his death in 1923 his son, Pere Domènech i Roura, took charge of his father’s magnum opus.  When the hospital was formally opened in 1930 there were a total of twenty-seven buildings, sixteen pavilions of which were built in the modernista style.Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

Recognized as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997, the Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau served Barcelona’s residents for eighty years until the structural wear and tear on the buildings made it increasingly difficult for the old hospital to meet the demands placed on it and maintain the quality of care.  In the autumn of 2009, Sant Pau’s healthcare activities were transferred to a new and state-of-the-art modern building located in the northern section of the grounds which was better suited to the needs of present-day medical practices.

refurbishing the ceiling tiles

renovating the ceiling tiles

And while Lluis Domènech i Montaner’s superb buildings seemed to have reached the end of their working life as a hospital, the modernist complex evolved in a new direction and undertook a new mission.  Six of the remaining twelve pavilions have been thoroughly restored by craftsmen with an appreciation for the history and artistry of the original structures and two more are currently undergoing major refurbishments.  After four years of intensive restoration the Art nouveau Site officially opened in February 2014 and has reaffirmed the value of Domènech’s work as well as established Sant Pau as a major center for knowledge and a cultural landmark.Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

Guided tours are offered in several languages throughout the week as well as audio self-guided tours.  The complex serves as a fashionable venue for corporate and private meetings and evening musical concerts, ranging from classical to jazz to African and Latin-American music. The Sant Pau Art Nouveau Site has assumed its new role with the same grace, style and dignity for which it was renowned for when it was a functioning hospital in its prior incarnation.Hospital de la Santa Creu i Sant Pau

As we walked around the magnificent Administration Pavilion and gaped at the light streaming through the stained glass windows and colors on display in the mosaics we couldn’t help but be glad that we’d selected this site as one of our first places to see in Barcelona.  It may be off-the- beaten path for now but it’s a place that’s going to become more and more popular and populated as people discover it.  And then the serene gardens through which we strolled, contemplating the beauty and genius surrounding us, won’t feel quite as peaceful.

By Anita and Richard

 

What Lies Beneath: The Lost City of Barcino

Gothic quarterTucked away in the teeming-with-tourists Gothic Quarter of Barcelona we followed the narrow, twisting streets, backtracked along the cobblestones and still managed to turn ourselves around looking for one branch of the Museu D’ Historia De Barcelona.  Finally, we saw a plain brown sign with an arrow pointing the way to the entrance affixed to an unobtrusive building that was, indeed, the Museum of History of Barcelona. Go figure, this marvelous museum tucked away in the oldest part of the city which is itself just jammed to the gills with gargoyles, arches and cherubim.  Could it be that the citizens of the city are a bit jaded about their own rich culture?

And here was the museum, housed in A GOTHIC PALACE built between 1497 and 1515.  Serving as the public visage of the museum, the Casa Padellás was dismantled and moved, stone by stone, from its original location in order to preserve it during the construction for the International Exposition of 1929.Museum of HIstory of Barcelona - the exit to the Gothic quarter

However, while the new site in the Gothic Quarter near the Placa Del Rei (King’s Plaza) was being readied the ruins of the original city of Barcino were discovered, one of the largest Roman settlements ever found. The archeological importance of the site was immediately understood and the palace was placed upon pillars to allow for the excavation and preservation of the ruins.  In 1943 the Casa Padellás became the headquarters for Barcelona’s Museum of History with the excavated city of Barcino lying beneath it

FYI

We stepped inside the museum and paid for our tickets (with one of us getting the geezer discount) then spent a moment to figure out how to change the audio tour handheld recorders to English.  After thumbing through the introductory pamphlets we viewed a video then took the elevator down two levels … and took a giant step back in time.  From this point we would slowly but inexorably climb back up to the street level and in the process pass through this incredible time capsule.Museum of HIstory of Barcelona - public walkway and portions of walls

Beneath the Placa del Rei the immense subsoil museum (4,000 square meters) is devoted to the archeological history of the original city and its people and contains the remains of the fortress walls, homes, workshops and religious structures. Excavated between 1930 and 1960 and painstakingly conserved in this underground site, the timeline covers the period from the creation of the original Roman city to the establishment of the religious structures in the sixth century, a rather imposing sweep of time in one setting.

Museum of HIstory of Barcelona - rubble in fill of wallThe story and the tour began with the founding of the Roman city of Barcino between 15– 10 BC under the reign of Emperor Augustus. It was a colony for soldiers who had completed their obligations to the empire, their families and slaves.  Built at a defensive location on the top of a hill it was fortified by a stone wall with the city laid out in a grid pattern as was the Roman preference. As we gazed around at the stone walls, walkways and columns before us we noticed that, surprisingly, the Romans recycled stones, tiles, pottery and other rubble as fill inside the walls as they expanded the city’s perimeter;  little or nothing was wasted. In that respect, a rather thrifty and industrious group of folks.

walkway  with entrance to shop

entrance to shops

Walkway between shops

walkway between shops

aqueduct

aqueduct

Outside the homes of both the wealthy and the humble the city swirled around them as a place of social engagement and commerce but it also contained the minutiae that’s part of day-to-day living.  Although women lacked a political voice they did possess legal rights; they could buy and sell property and they were very visible in the life of the city. The city streets passed by numerous shops run by Roman citizens and one of the first excavations that we came upon was a public laundry. The clothes were washed and bleached in large round vats with ashes, lime and ammonia mixed with water. After the laundry was done the water would be washed down a drain and flow into an aqueduct which carried it outside the city to maintain sanitation. And the source of the ammonia?  (We loved this interesting little tidbit!)  In the streets, containers were assigned for urine collection from the public at large, which, when mixed with lime, resulted in an ammonia solution that was used during the laundering.

vat in garum factory

vat in garum factory

Also on display was a shop for processing garum, a fermented fish sauce used as a condiment atop all sorts of dishes and beloved by Romans.  The mechanics were a bit messy but the fish (and leftover parts too) and shellfish were smashed, mashed, pulverized and marinated in large vats, macerated in salt and left to rot or be cured and then sold commercially.  According to the lore, the smell was so rank during the fermenting that the citizens weren’t allowed to make it in their own homes – hence the shops.   Definitely an acquired taste!

maceration tanks for garum

maceration tanks for garum

In one section of the ruins were public baths for both men and women:  hot water baths (caldarium), warm water baths (tepidarium) and cold water baths (frigidarium) which were intended to be used in succession. Massages were offered and then as now, the masses and aristocrats were concerned with their appearances.  Cosmetics and unguents and creams to moisturize or hide the signs of aging and whiten the skin were available.  Linseed was applied to shine the nails and a mix of honey and oats polished the teeth while laurel leaves could be chewed to freshen breath.

cold water pool, part of the public baths

cold water pool, part of the public baths

And what’s a society without its intoxicants?   The Romans were egalitarian in the use of wine and, regardless of class, wine was served along with bread and salt at every meal. Structures of a wine making facility were found in the ruins along with vats for fermentation, a wine-press and even a wine cellar.  The wine was produced in great quantities and, while considered an unimpressive, inexpensive wine, it was suitable for export and became a staple in the western Mediterranean.

wine factory with vats remnants

wine factory with holes for vats

Christian carving

Christian carving

Towards the end of our tour, well into our third hour of roaming the walkways and as our energy began flagging we came upon the ruins of a 4th century residence of an early bishop of the Christian Church.  As the Roman Empire declined the new religion of Christianity gained in popularity until, by the fourth century, Christianity was Barcino’s official religion as well as entwined in its political life.  Evidence of a small necropolis exists and there’s a display of several pieces of sarcophagi decorated with Christian motifs, some originating from Rome.  Additional renovations in the sixth century changed the bishop’s residence into a grander palace, added a new church and show a religion gaining in influence, power and wealth.  Lastly we admired the remains of intricate tiled mosaic floors and the remnants of some of the remarkable paintings that decorated the ceiling of the baptistery and walls of the episcopal hall.

mosaid tiles from Episcopal palace

mosaic tiles from Christian palace

It was rather disorienting to climb out of our subterranean time capsule and surface into the 21st century sunshine.   Maybe what was more unreal was that we emerged in the midst of Barcelona’s Gothic quarter, another chapter of architecture, artistry, religion and history.  What a magnificent city!

By Richard and Anita

Cruise Virgins: Voyage to Spain

At this advanced stage in life it’s terribly embarrassing to admit to fellow travelers that we are, in fact, Cruise Virgins. We’d never seriously given the notion of “cruising” any real thought. Not for us … or so we thought until we found we could travel from Miami to Barcelona, Spain on an eleven night cruise for less than the cost of airline tickets, PLUS a balcony stateroom, PLUS meals and then we said, “Sign us up! We are ready, ready, ready to lose our virginity.”

Goodbye Miami!

Goodbye Miami, USA !

This particular ship, The Norwegian Epic, was a repositioning cruise on its last trans-Atlantic voyage from Miami to Barcelona, Spain;  its new incarnation would be sailing through the Mediterranean. The fifteen balcony room aboard the Norwegian Epicdecks contained a maximum capacity of 4,200 passengers but on this trip there were (just!) over 3,100 onboard, with an average age of 59 years. (It was rather nice to blend in.) The eleven-hundred crew members worked diligently to make sure our time aboard was a pleasurable experience.  The major pastimes of the guests appeared to be eating, sunbathing (in rather chilly temps on the upper deck) and gambling although there were evening shows with a hypnotist, comedians, musical acts and karaoke for those so inclined. There were art auctions, meet and greets for the singles on board and Friends of Bill W. and Friends of Dorothy gatherings.  And, of course, outrageously priced booze for the thirsty ship passengers.  However, the star of the show was the F-O-O-D: well prepared, varied and plentiful.  The buffet and food bars were extensive and overflowing. Pushing back from the table, to our consternation, became a major preoccupation.the Atlantic

Since this was our maiden voyage on a modern floating hotel/casino we were comforted by the fact that the ocean – an impossibly deep, dark impenetrable blue – was relatively flat so there was no upset to our overworked stomachs in the area of sea-sickness. At worst, the swells were eight to ten feet so pitch was relatively mild. The constant thrum of the diesel-electric engines underfoot was a bit disconcerting but soon lapsed into one of those background events of which one is only subliminally conscious.Funchal

We had only one port of call to intrude upon our days at sea and, early on the ninth day the island of Madeira, Portugal, began to slip past us on the port side.  Shortly after 6:00 AM bright klieg lights shone through our Silvestreopen balcony windows from the pier dispelling any future notions of sleep. Having purchased our shuttle passes the day before to take us into the downtown area of the capital city, Funchal, we tagged up with Joe, a fellow traveler from Cincinnati and decided to hire a taxi.  Our mojo was good because the first driver we approached, Silvestre, spoke beautiful English and offered his taxi service, a lovingly tended Mercedes-Benz 220D, at a reasonable rate. We discussed the options and sights we wanted to see, struck a deal and grabbed some Euros from an ATM.  (Note – ATMs are ubiquitous and much cheaper to use compared to the usurious exchange rates charged by the cruise ships.)  Overview of island

And a further aside about the present economy of the island which is based primarily on tourism. In an average year over 360 cruise ships will dock in Madeira and disgorge their passengers who, like us, will descend on the place in mobs to eat, drink, buy souvenirs, and take the quaint tram-way to the botanical gardens and see the island’s other sights. A whopping 70% of the euros generated in the economy come from the guests who flock to this magnificent speck of land. The remaining mainstays of the economy are from produce which is cultivated in the coastal areas and ranching in the highlands around the smaller villages. Fishing provides food for local consumption. terraces

Funchal (a Portuguese name for a fennel plantation) and the island of Madeira were first established around 1452 and the fertile lands in the coastal and upland areas provided the impetus for future settlements. It’s a small island but a handful of hours is insufficient to see all it has to offer from its numerous historic churches, museums and markets to the scenic vistas and countryside reached through roads winding their way through the hills. Actually, the entire island was scenic and the wow factor was high. (Of course, now we have to admit that we’re Europe Virgins too!) The homes were immaculately painted, yards and vegetation trimmed. The hillsides above and below the road ways were stacked with terraced fields which had been under cultivation for centuries; testament to the longevity of the settlement.  Life on this island looked to be slow-paced and comfortable.Camara de Lobos

One of our stops was at Camara de Lobos, a small fishing village where fishing boats had been pulled out of the water in the late morning and cleaned, filleted fish hung in the sun to dry.  Aside from its antiquity and quaint factor its claim to fame was that after the Second World War, Winston Churchill visited to sketch and paint the harbor. A café in his honor still operates near the wharf. The village also houses the church of Saint Santiago, a deceptively small and modest structure from the outside with beautifully painted plank ceilings and a gilded altar to admire upon your entry.Cabo Girao - highest cliff in Europe

Climbing away from the water we topped out at Cabo Girao and the overlook upon the highest cliff in Europe. Past the cliff the small village from which we had just departed could be seen. The entire sweep of that corner of the island came into view with thin gossamer clouds streaked in the sky, contrasting and merging with the ocean from which it rose. Traveling a bit further we stopped at the view-point of Pico dos Barcelos for another vista. We were not alone as buses, taxis and cars lined the parking lots and the tourists, most likely from our cruise ship, waited to get their photos of the not to be replicated panoramas.basket rides at Monte

tobaggan basketSince we’d hired our very comfortable ride in the Mercedes and a knowledgeable driver we decided not to take the gondola cable cars up to Monte, a parish a few kilometers east of Funchal and famous for its botanical gardens as well as the option to make one’s return to Funchal in the 19th century basket sledges.  The baskets are attached to skis and were adopted as a quick way to take the townsfolk of Monte down the winding mountain roads to the city.  They’re guided by two runners, dressed in white and wearing the typical hats known as straw boaters.

The Church of Our Lady of Monte, built in 1741 and rebuilt after an earthquake in 1818, was reached by a climb up many stairs.  Although a beautiful church, what made it stand out for us was that it is the final resting place of Emperor Charles I of Austria, the last of the Hapsburg rulers who died on the island of Madeira in exile after the dissolution of the great empire following WWI.The Church of Our Lady of Monte

We discovered that our short time on terra firma was fast evaporating.  Reluctantly we headed down the mountain toward the harbor where we were deposited at the gangway to our ship.  After a quick parting photo of our chauffeur and his Mercedes, we again embarked on our voyage having glimpsed but a fraction of the phenomenal island of Madeira.

"Pride of Madeira"

“Pride of Madeira”

By Richard and Anita

 

The Journey, Not the Destination and “Never Go Back”

in the campo  - trip to Cabarete - common hazzardThe Dominican Republic has three kinds of roads:  paved and smooth, once paved but now potholed and, the third, thinkin’ ‘bout pavement.  The first roads, double-lane and as nice or better than our highways back in the in the campo  - trip to Cabarete - toll road feesStates, are toll roads, distanced every 50 kilometers or so, with three to five little manned (or womanned) booths with the motorized arms that block further access until the toll is paid. We kept the smaller DOP (Dominican Pesos) bills and change in the console of the car for the frequent stops and the fare averaged about one-hundred pesos ($2 USD) depending on the direction.  Signs marking turnoffs and destinations were usually posted right at the turn to the desired road which resulted in the person with the best far-sighted vision playing spotter so that the driver could prepare his racing reflexes to make the correct turn.  Many times, however, we saw the sign too late, sailed by the turn and would have to double back…

Our drive from our temporary home base in Punta Cana followed the shoreline west towards Santo Domingo and proceeded smoothly on the toll road. We turned onto the second kind of road, “the once paved but now potholed” per our directions and headed more or less northwest towards the toll road to the “Amber Coast,” so named because of the huge amber deposits found in the north coast area.  The road lured us along unaware until … our teeth slammed together, our heads hit the roof of the car and our behinds thumped back into our seats. There were occasional grinding scrapes with the bottom of the car dragging as we crept from shallow hole to patched hole to gaping hole to speed bumps.  And this was still a well-traveled secondary road in the DR!

However, there’s something to be said about leaving the toll highway and slowing down along the bad stretches of secondary road.  We drove through small dusty villages seemingly out in the middle of nowhere scattered between farms and fields.  Many appeared fairly “prosperous” by rural standards, cement homes alongside the road with people sitting on the front porches, flowering bushes and neatly tended dirt yards. in the campo - trip to Cabarete

Further back off the road, houses were scattered between the trees with freshly washed laundry drying on fences or lines with surprisingly little litter to be seen.  But other places were scarcely in the campo - trip to Cabaretemore than shanty towns with shacks of rusting walls and roofs of corrugated metal.  We drove through groupings of sad and desperate hovels where the garbage, plastic bottles and trash had been mounded high alongside the dwellings that lined the road.  We could not avoid seeing the scenes of bleak poverty and decay; people here and there sitting under whatever shade could protect them from the glaring relentless sun overhead.Boca de Yuma - the drive

We referred to this bumpy, rutted roadway as the “Cement Factory Road” for the one industry we saw upon that route and we made a decision to avoid it on our return trip. Eventually we hooked up with the major interior toll road of the DR and drove through countryside rich and lush, beautiful and picturesque: the properties of the wealthy. Living fences of small trees interspersed with wire or intricate walls of carefully piled stones mined from the rocky fields enclosed herds of grazing cows and great horned bulls, horses with foals, goats and kids and the occasional pig.

living fence -wire strung between small, growing trees

living fence

We passed farms of papaya, sugarcane, rice fields and plowed land with mounds of rocks scattered and dug out and cleared for future crops.  Rolling hills, palm trees, beautifully shaped, canopied trees and trees topped with huge orange flowers were silhouetted against the blue sky, all contributing to the beauty of the setting.in the campo - trip to Cabarete

Near the city of Nagua on the northern coast the road opened up to the brilliant and varying shades of blue sea along which we drove for miles watching both gentle waves lapping the seaweed strewn wild beaches and waves crashing into rocky shores of uplifted and long dead coral formations. Back again to the “once paved but now pot holed” roads we made our way through urban Nagua slowly; small businesses perched on the road edge behind parked cars on both sides that frequently necked  the traffic down to one lane at time.  Streets angled out of the narrow main road with more stores and houses, scooters wove their way through the inevitable traffic jams and, everywhere, drivers laid on their horns. It was your typical traffic bedlam.

Cabarete beach

We spent three days exploring the tourist attractions in the popular beach towns of Sosua and Cabarete and then embarked upon our homeward journey to Punta Cana.  The map promised us a road that we hadn’t driven on the western side of Sosua which looked to be a feeder road to the major toll roads. Our selection may have been the correct route, but it turned out to be the third kind of road, the “thinkin’ ‘bout paving” variety. We jounced and bounced past small family farms and homes where people sat in the shade visiting with each other and (probably) commenting on the occasional idiot tourists with their cars scraping along the graveled, potholed, washboarded road.  After about a mile of this abuse and surrounded by a cloud of dust we stopped for directions.  Our elected guide was a grinning fellow, shirtless and washing his car with lackadaisical energy, swigging beer from a long neck bottle.  He pointed down the rutted road and said about an hour more that way would take us to the toll road headed south, explaining that the road was bumpy and slow but that it was better to continue on and saying like a drunken mantra, “Never go back.”  We mulled these dubious directions over and, after some discussion, decided to turn back anyway and take the known road.  And as we passed him, our guide’s look was confused as he gestured again down the road and shouted,”But it’s that way.  Never go back!”in the campo  - trip to Cabarete - bad stretch of road

By Anita and Richard

 

 

 

Three Road Trips: Three Vignettes in the DR

Okay.  So this first little snapshot isn’t quite the epic road trip we had in mind but it did involve us piling into the little white Kia rental we shared with our friends early on a Saturday afternoon and driving across the touristic sprawl of Punta Cana.  We’d heard there was a parade near the airport named the Carnival Punta Cana. The timing of the event struck us as a bit curious since it was well past Mardi Gras and into the Lenten period when simple living and abstinence are usually observed.  But as guests of the Dominican Republic, who were we to challenge their collective wisdom or rationale? After driving to the event and casting covetous eyes about for a parking spot (no, not on the sidewalk like a few of the bozos we saw!) we drove on and on and, finally, found one on the shoulder of the road not too, too far from the event.

Our feelings exactly!

Our feelings exactly!

Arriving at the parade route we quickly came to the conclusion that this event was another commercial extravaganza gratis of the dreaded All Inclusive Resorts. All the shaded seating areas seemed to be the exclusive domains of the aforementioned rascals and, yep, colored wrist bands were indeed the price of admission for the day.  By then we’d walked quite a ways, so back we plodded past the merry tents serving frothy libations behind barricades that prohibited us from simply crossing the street, to the parade entrance.  We crossed over to the free side of the street which of course was in full sun, found an open spot along the barricades with the potential for some afternoon shade and hunkered down to protect our viewing rights and enjoy the parade.

The festivities themselves were a strange amalgam of young women, many children and several depictions of disproportionally buxom females.  Interspersed were stylized demons in colorful, elaborate costumes designed to strike fear into the hearts of the young or whimsy into the heads of the inebriated; both of which were in abundance that afternoon. We admired the extravagant costumes parading by and noticed that many of the participants in the parade were representatives of the Caribbean Island Nations.  All was well until the Haitian contingent paced by us with an intriguing voodoo float and suddenly there were boos, rude catcalls and objects flying.  Peace was quickly restored and later we learned that, for many reasons good and bad, there is no love lost between the side-by-side neighbors, Haitian and Dominican, who share the island of Hispaniola.Carnival in Punta Cana

A few days later we took a rather nerve rattling drive through the provincial capital of Higüey several miles into the interior to visit the Basílica Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Altagracia, which could more simply be said as the “Church of Altagracia.”  Driving in Dominican city traffic is not for the faint of heart, which amply supplies the reason that neither of us was piloting our rental car. That onerous duty we left to our friend Bryce, an aspiring, derring-do, wanna-be Dominican driver. Our quest for the day was buried in the heart of the city and our relieved group exited the vehicle in the near empty parking lot. One of the most famous cathedrals in the country, this modern Basilica was begun in 1954 and competed in 1970.Basilica de la Altagracia

Designed by two French architects, it is a mixture of the sublime and the mundane: towering arches, massive stained glass windows and a jewel-encrusted framed painting of the Madonna of Altagracia as well as the designation as a Basilica in 1970 by Pope Paul VI anchor its upside. But the church structure itself is not regal, it is more compact and angular than the traditional churches and the unadorned, gray cement walls are the dominant theme within the sanctuary.La Basilica de la Altagracia

However, the quiet of the interior, with light streaming through the multitude of stained glass windows and the glow radiating back from the highly polished mahogany  pews, pulpit and the Madonna’s repository with suspended, foot-long, carved leaves encircling it, suffused the air with a tranquility, broken only by our superfluous guide’s uninspired soliloquy.

Ready for more adventure, but heartily relieved that we were still passengers in our rental, we set off again several days later and found ourselves on the eastern side of the Parque Nacional del Este, alongside the Caribbean Sea near Boca de Yuma, a stretch of rugged coast and coral reef that has been lifted by geologic forces from the ocean floor to become an island land form. The iron shore is stunningly beautiful with its ragged imperfections, numerous waterspouts and the quaint village of Boca del Yuma.  Boca de Yuma

Friends had recommended a restaurant, El Arpunero (The Harpoon) which sits regally atop the cliffs, open-aired so that the sea breezes flow in; a palm-leafed, thatched roof shades the whole dining area.  Immediately adjacent to the restaurant is a swimming hole, totally contained within a punch bowl of the old sea bed. It has a sandy beach but also outcroppings of coral rock; the water level fluctuates with the tidal action fed through a hole in the rocks which form the outer rim of the bowl. Boca de Yuma

Following one of the best meals we’ve had since we’ve been in the DR (langustinos or jumbo prawns and tempura battered shell-fish) and after a little dreamy fantasizing about owning a home in the area, we took a quick hike around the nearby cave, Cueva de Berna, a large cavern with openings blocked off behind warning signs and, unfortunately, graffiti marring many areas.  We returned back to the restaurant, cooled off in its filtered saltwater pool, did a bit of basking in the sun while enjoyed a cold libation as well as a few quick hands of Gin Rummy.

Road trips, short and long are entertaining past-times to get briefly acquainted with several of the various locales in any given area. Nothing is in-depth, but all of it is a slice of the life of the country. When added up, these dribs and drabs can fill in puzzle pieces forming a more complete portrait of a complex nation.  Speaking of which, there’s another road trip that we could fill you in on …in the campo  - trip to Cabarete

By Richard and Anita

 

 

 

 

 

Diego, The Ocean Blue and What’s an Alcázar?

Palace of ColumbusThose of us who are a “certain age” grew up with the rhyme, “In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”  We learned of Christopher Columbus (now the subject of a hot debate but we’ll pass on that story) and his voyage west, bumping into the “New World” along the way.  But we never heard about his family. His eldest son, Diego, for example, spent much of his adult life trying to regain the titles and perquisites bestowed upon his explorer father that were stripped from Christopher in 1500. Being a clever fellow like his padre, Diego married a woman with family ties to King Ferdinand. Recently, we became aware of the younger Colombo during our visit to the Alcázar de Colón in the historic central district of Santo Domingo, the Zona Colonial, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

renovation in Santo DomingoOur road trip to the capital city of the Dominican Republic began smoothly enough as well-marked and maintained toll roads run between Punta Cana and Santo Domingo. Upon reaching the sprawling city, however, the carefully thought out route to the hotel that our friends had downloaded to their iPad went awry.  Roads in the center of town were completely blocked off by piles of bricks, paving stones and mounds of dirt with huge gaping holes where the streets had once been.  A massive project of renovation and utility improvements within the old city was underway.renovation - historical zone

And there we were, driving down a one way-street the wrong way, four pairs of eyes looking frantically for a street sign to hint at our location.  A stern-looking representative of the Nacional Policia motioned us to stop with an imperious wave of his hand, allowed us to turn around and then led us along an unimaginably complex route to the destination where we were quartered for the evening. The officer finally smiled as profuse thanks were offered by all of us and we lugged our bags into the Boutique Hotel Palacio.  A few minutes later one of the hotel staff informed us that the policeman was still outside and we, somewhat gingerly, inquired of the officer if it was permissible to offer a “propina” (a gratuity) for such exemplary service. “Only,” he gravely and courteously replied, “If we wished to do so…”

sideview of Alcázar de Colón

side view of Alcázar de Colón

But, we digress.  Back to Diego and the Alcázar de Colón, the most visited museum in Santo Domingo. The royal palace was commissioned by Diego who became the Viceroy of Hispaniola in 1509 assuming the post his father had previously held. Construction initially began between 1510 and 1512 and, when it was finally completed, it encompassed fifty-five rooms and was the Viceroy’s residence as well as the administrative center of the New World for much of the 16th century.

Alcázar de Colón

Alcázar de Colón

Today only twenty-two rooms survive and we’re fortunate to have them.  Our old friend, whose dastardly deeds we’d first run into in Panama and then Colombia, the English Admiral Sir Francis Drake, sacked the Alcázar, or Palace, in 1586.  As the importance of Santo Domingo waned in the New World, the Alcazar was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Finally, in 1955, renovation began to preserve what remains.

Picture a square with a central courtyard populated by a fewinside Alcázar de Colón strutting peacocks and rooms leading like railroad cars to other rooms.  Weaving our way between tour groups of school children we tried hard to stay ahead or behind them as we went from one display to another admiring the period pieces of furniture, paintings, tapestries, armaments, clothing and other accoutrements of life among the royal families.  As an aside, it’s an unnerving feeling to be contemplating a royal dignitary’s bedroom, with its itsy-bitsy little bed, trunks, chairs and bureau (for they truly were small people) and look out the open-shuttered window and view a cruise ship docked not two hundred yards distant alongside the quay in the old city dwarfing the Alcázar.courtyard  cruise ship

apothecaryEntirely unique to our experiences in Latin America was a room containing what once must have been a fully stocked apothecary. A wall of individually labeled bottles, rather resembling Delft pottery in appearance, stored the herbs, spices, ground potions and liniments which an eminent physician would naturally have had at his disposal, especially when his clientele included the ruling masters of the New World.  Another wall contained shelves loaded with beakers, flasks, mortars and pestles, even a small copper distillery for producing the extracts and essences of the medicinal products. The Alcázar’s medical practitioner also possessed a handsome cabinet which, behind the screened front, revealed eighty-one individual drawers, each painted in exquisite detail, identifying its contents. While no plaques attested to the physician’s prowess in the healing arts this stupendous collection should, at the least, have assuaged some of the qualms of Diego Colón.apothecary

Much of our time in Santa Domingo was spent on the Calle da las Damas, the first cobblestoned street in the Americas and the heart of the New World back in the day. It lies parallel to the waterfront on the Caribbean Sea and the Ozama River and nearly abuts the Parque Colon and La Catedral de Santa Maria la Menor also known as La Catedral Primada de America, the first church of the Americas.

La Catedral

La Catedral – building began in 1514

This venue houses the Museo de las Casas de Reales (Museum of the Royal Families) which was initially the Royal Court, the first court of law in the New World.  Also on the Calle de las Damas is the Panteón Nacional, originally a Jesuit church which, after many iterations, became the resting place of many of the leading revolutionary figures and national leaders. A single sentry stands a silent vigil over the crypts.

There’s more to see in the venerable old city of Santo Domingo, first established in 1496, than we anticipated.  We returned to Punta Cana with the feeling that we could have spent another day exploring and learning more about the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Zona Colonial and the first and oldest Spanish colonial city in the Americas.

19th century statue honoring Christopher Columbus in Parque Colon - La Catedral in background

19th century statue of Christopher Columbus in Parque Colon – La Catedral in background

By Richard and Anita

 

“Long Time No See” and Island Hopping to the DR

We left Curacao on a lovely warm day flying in a small passenger Airbus over the teal blue Caribbean above puffy, white cumulus clouds.  We were headed north towards the island of Hispaniola and Santa Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic, where we would meet our friends.

A funny story about our friends. We first met B & C in January, 2013, in Merida, a good-sized colonial city (population approximately one million) in the Mexican state of Yucatan.

Paseo de Montejo Intersection, Merida

Paseo de Montejo Intersection, Merida

We spent our month-long visit walking miles around the city, locating various parks and neighborhood churches, visiting museums, wandering down the lovely wide avenue Paseo Montejo, waiting in the bus station to hop buses to the near-by ruins of Uxmal and Chichen Itza’, the seaside city of Progresso, the yellow city of Izamal, among other places.  And we kept bumping into the same couple, strolling about sight-seeing.  We’d nod, exchange a few words and a laugh and go on our way.  One night we ran into them again at dinner on Avenida Reforma and carried on a lively conversation, filling in our backgrounds and exchanging travel stories.  At the end of our stay in Merida we moved on to further travels throughout the Yucatan Peninsula and  Chiapas and then on to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and…

Nicaragua. Late December of 2013 found us in Granada strolling the streets when we heard a familiar voice say, “Long time no see.”

La Catedral, Granada, Nicaragua

La Catedral, Granada, Nicaragua

And there they were. What were they, stalkers? This time we met for a lunch, exchanged email addresses and actually arranged to meet again for a short jaunt to San Juan del Sur in January of 2014.  Again, we went our separate ways but this time we stayed in touch updating each other on our plans and travels until …

Ecuador.  There we were, contemplating a 7-week housesit in Curacao for January/February of 2015, deciding where to go in December (Colombia) and figuring out what to do with the several weeks we had in March/April until we departed for Europe.  A note from B & C said “We’re in the DR for four months – feel welcome to come and visit …” And so we did and here we are in …

Punta Cana on Map dominican_republicPunta Cana, Dominican Republic. After a week of staying with B & C we found an airy condo unit on the second floor of the same complex – because, after all, we’d like to cultivate our friendship not smother it!  We split the cost of a month-long car rental which makes getting around the spread-out, ill-defined area that offers stores, restaurants and other services much easier. The car rental has the additional advantage of simplifying navigating around this island nation to visit other towns and cities, historic landmarks and the rural countryside and coasts.

walled cityAlthough the coastal town of Punta Cana is written on a map it’s hard to encapsulate its location in precise terms since there’s no such thing as city limits for the sprawl.  Large cement letters lining a wide road and spelling out D-O-W-N-T-O-W-N Punta Cana lead to … nothing.  Poorly regulated growth has spawned these place holders for the all-inclusive end-destination resorts that blanket the eastern end of the island. These resorts tend to keep the vacationing guests and their money inside the gated walls and exclude the “others”, be they ex-pats or Dominicans, from the mix. Approaching the resorts from the land side is not an option due to the high walls and sentries at the gates which offer tantalizing glimpses of vast pools and lounges for reclining sun worshippers.

resort map

resort map

Access from the beach is ill-advised as well since the public area is small and the resort areas with their vast stretches of beach, while not roped off per se, hurry to shoo away folks who might decide that their beach stroll would be improved with a cold beverage or a bit of sit on a lounge in front of any particular resort compound.  Colored wrist bracelets clearly identify those who belong versus those who don’t.

For those not ensconced in the all-inclusive resorts, the people who actually live in Punta Cana or long-term visitors like our friends (who won’t return) escaping from harsh northern winters, the area presents a clean, modernized face with many amenities on its soulless interior. Certainly this is a vacation paradise where the living is easy but the city lacks any authenticity. “There’s no there, there.” aptly describes this urban area. For the sun worshiper it’s a vacation paradise. However, for someone seeking to learn about another country, Punta Cana is an unfair and unflattering representation of the Dominican Republic that is packaged and presented in this pasteurized, homogenized tip of the island.

By Anita and Richard

 

 

Housesitting: Parallel Lives in an Alternate Universe

Jokes houseIt’s rather strange to be house and pet sitters when you think about it.  We walk into a stranger’s house and make ourselves at home among their possessions and four-legged family.  We care for their treasures like we would our own, pamper and fuss over the pets, water plants and bring in the mail, converse with the neighbors and sometimes even add some of their friends as our own.  In short, we have a chance to sample and experience an alternative life in a new and unfamiliar city or country without a permanent commitment. How cool is that?

Joke's HouseAt the beginning of our stay in Curacao the security guard at the entrance recognized the vehicle we were driving but not us, and each new guard required the same explanation about who we were and where we were staying.  Shortly, however, a wave and nod and we’d be let back into the gated community with little fuss and a warm smile.  We learned some of the idiosyncrasies of the house:  the lighting system controlled by a remote, the combination stove/oven with the temperature in Centigrade that cooked with either gas or electricity, the washer with controls labeled in Dutch and the on-demand hot water heater.  We never did quite figure out the electronic gate of the fence that enclosed the small property and, if any neighbors watched our comings and Ninagoings we must have provided a small amount of amusement.  One of us would dance around with the control waving our arms trying to activate the “trigger” or light that powered the finicky beast. The gates would part halfway then slam shut and all the time the driver would be gunning the engine waiting to dart through whenever the gate god decided we’d been toyed with long enough.

And there were, of course, the three reasons our presence as house/pet sitters was required:  Grietje, Nina and Simba.  Simba, the big neutered Tom called our competence into question right away when he took off the second day of our stay for some nomadic traveling of his own that lasted Simbaabout two weeks.  He slunk back home thinner, wearing some battle scars and slowly insinuated himself back into the household as though he’d never left.  Nina, a feminine calico, had one eye (the other lost to an infection before her adoption as a small kitten) and loved watching us from her lofty heights on the refrigerator or the top shelf of the bookcases.  She also pounced on unsuspecting toes moving under the sheet early in the morning which was a rude awakening. And Grietja, a tortoiseshell, shed her hair in tufts and was ever mindful of her next meal, falling upon her bowl with famished enthusiasm.  All became our adopted family.

Grietje claimed one of our suitcases as her new bed

Grietje claimed one of our suitcases as her new bed

Instead of a parallel experience during our stay in Curacao we had a rather bifurcated house sitting gig. hikingOne half of our duo, “Immersed”, entered upon a social calendar which included yoga, a charity walk-a-thon, weekly walking/hiking jaunts with a group up and down hills and along the coast and tea or coffee sessions following the outings. The less mobile one, suffering from a twisted knee right before our departure from Cartagena deplaned in hikingWillemstad appearing something like a reincarnated Quasimodo: upper body canting forward and to the right, back and hip in open revolt and the left leg a reluctant appendage at best.  “Twisted” spent the first several days of our stay semi-reclined, leg propped up, alternating the reading of historic tomes with fast-paced best-sellers.  When rest didn’t work we explored medical tourism in phases: a doctor, physical therapist and finally an orthopedic doctor with a magic serum dispensed weekly by a wickedly long needle.  In fact, the orthopedist complimented “Twisted” by casually mentioning that the x-rays showed the knees of a 45-year old patient – Blush! Blush!

And so, in between semi-reclusion and endeavors, the few house sitting activities and the care of our three feline charges we interspersed swimming, sightseeing jaunts by car exploring the island and ultimately on-foot wanderings around the barrios of Willemstad.  With the offending knee working as it should “Twisted” was upright and mobile, ready for future rambles.  In fact, the big downside to our house and pet sit in Curacao was ….

Leaving!Simba in the birdbath

By Richard and Anita

Captivated by Curasao’s Colors

PPunda District - WillemstadAmazed! Bedazzled! Captivated!  We could continue to run through the alphabet of words to describe our reaction from the moment we stepped off the plane through the weeks we spent driving about, swimming, strolling and hiking our way through this little island nation.  But there’s no doubt about it – Curacao is all about c-o-l-o-r.Scharloo District - Willemstad

floating market in PundaHowever, it wasn’t always that way.  Curacao’s origins date all the way back to 1634 and the original buildings were constructed from island stones and coral or bricks from incoming ships that had been used as ballast.  These structures were then coated with a lime plaster made from crushed coral and shells and the sticky paste from the aloe vera plant.  The white facades reflected the rays of the intense Caribbean sun and the sight of these white stucco edifices against the vivid blue sky must have been quite dazzling.PPunda District - Willemstad

Otra Banda District - WillemstadAnd here’s where the legend of Curacao’s love affair with color begins. There are many variations to the story (and the locals will be delighted to tell you them!) but it seems that the early 19th century Governor-General, Albert Kikkert, suffered from killer headaches. Thought to have been migraines, he believed that his severe headaches were exacerbated by the glare of the sun reflecting off the brilliant white buildings.  In the grand tradition of a ruling pooh-bah he issued an edict in 1817 that the buildings of Curacao be painted in a color other than white.    All the government buildings including the governor’s home were painted a deep yellow which still seems to be a favorite color throughout the island today.  And to take the story a few steps further and uncover a mercenary motive, we’ve heard it told that the governor had an interest in the local paint business, hence the mandate.   Another variant of the story was that paint colors were priced differently and yellow was the cheapest.  People painted their homes with more costly colors and even used two or more accent colors to reflect their status and boast about their wealth.  Some things never change…Punda

Google Curacao and one of the first pictures that appears is the historical waterfront, Handelskade, on the Punda side of Sint Anna Bay with its Dutch colonial houses painted in a kaleidoscope of colors.  Named number eight on Tripadvisor’s 2012 “Top 10: Fantastically colorful places,” the blocks and blocks of colorful homes and businesses in Willemstad’s Punda, Otra Banda and Scharloo historic districts will wow even the most travel weary.  And no one will dispute any of the reasons that Willemstad was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1997.Willemstad Punda waterfront

Otra Banda District - WillemstadBut the colors of Curacao are far greater than just the picturesque painted houses and businesses found ubiquitously throughout the island.   Everywhere one looks there’s a color that pops.  Overhead is the brilliant, bright blue sky with soft white cumulous clouds and the vivid orange troupials flying by or parakeets and parrots.  The Caribbean Sea shimmers, undulates, waves and roils in shades from a clear shimmering turquoise to a deep blue.  During rainy season green hues are underfoot and overhead. The largest park in Curacao, Christoffel, is filled with the deep greens of the many species of cactus, flowering in season, orchids and trees like the divi-divi or the highly poisonous, lime-green manchineel tree with its small and sweet but very toxic little apples.  And did we mention the corals and colorful fish below the water’s surface or the flamingoes wading through the Jan Kok salt pans?Caribbean hiking

Curacao could almost be compared to an onion with many layers.  For those who visit Willemstad for a day of sightseeing from one of the numerous cruise ships, the medley of Caribbean colored architecture with its curlicues and shuttered windows found throughout the winding city streets are the first few tiers.  But, if time allows and you have a few weeks or longer the island won’t disappoint you.  There are myriad opportunities for the eyes to behold the variety of hues existing with each new layer that is peeled back. It’s impossible to leave Curacao without a belief that you have witnessed something unique.license plate

By Anita and Richard

A Past Gone With the Wind: The Landhuizen of Curacao

Rif St. Marie Landhuis

Rif St. Marie Landhuis – 1680

Our imaginations and interest were immediately piqued on our first full day upon the island when our hostess casually mentioned the plantation houses of Curacao and pointed out a couple of these “kas grandi”  (great houses) during our introductory tour of the northwestern half of the island.  Architecturally unique to the Dutch Antilles, the landhuizen provided a backdoor to the culture and history of Curacao neglected in the discussions of the UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassed in the districts of Willemstad.

Landhuis Habaii now houses the Gallery Alma Blou

Landhuis Habaii houses the Gallery Alma Blou –  ciirca 1752

Landhuis Papaya houses a treatment center for drug and alcohol addiction

Landhuis Papaya is a halfway house for those with drug and alcohol dependencies – 1850

Landhuis Dokterstuin - now a restaurant serving local food

Landhuis Dokterstuin is a restaurant serving local food – 18th century

It was our good fortune that the first plantation we visited was the marvelously preserved Landhuis Kenepa, in Knip. Moreover, it was a museum dedicated not to the aristocrats who owned the plantation but to the slaves who built and toiled in the homes or under the glaring sun in the fields and salt flats of the owners. This intriguing structure highlighted the role of Sula (also known as Tula whose iconic image is seen throughout the island today) one of the leaders of a widespread, but ultimately unsuccessful, slave rebellion in 1795 which was brutally suppressed.

Landhuis Knip is now Museo Tula - also called Kenepa

Landhuis Knip is now Museum Tula – also called Kenepa – 17th century

Our knowledgeable guide, Michalyn, sang soulfully in Papiamento, a pidgin tongue originated by the slaves and now one of the two official languages of Curacao.  The songs, passed down through the generations, spoke of a far-away homeland, day-to day cares, faith and future dreams and were sung by the slaves while washing clothing, grinding corn and other required labors. The foreignness of the tunes and language coupled with that of the isolation of the plantation lent an ethereal quality to the restored house now furnished with a mix of artifacts of the master’s costly possessions and the slave’s scant belongings, work tools and handmade musical instruments.

Landhuis Savonet Museum

Landhuis Savonet Museum – 1662

The first mansions were built in the 17th century as the focal point of the plantation, surrounded by outbuildings and warehouses and, at their zenith, there were over one-hundred landhuizen on the island. They were built upon large foundations which provided a platform, or veranda, at the front and rear of the house and were usually built on hill tops so that the manor overlooked the plantation.  From this lofty vantage point the home was cooled by the sea breezes flowing through the open doors and windows on both levels. This location also allowed the plantation owner, the shon, to observe the workings of slaves and the overseers from the verandas and the elevated location provided a direct line-of-sight with at least one other landhuis to allow for signaling in the event of an emergency – say a slave uprising.

Landhuis San Juan neglected and in need of restoration

Landhuis San Juan neglected and in need of restoration – 1662

Landhuis Morgenster shuttered and vacant

Landhuis Morgenster shuttered and vacant – 1786

Landhuis Kas Abou is uninhabited

Landhuis Kas Abou is uninhabited – circa 17th century

The abolition of slavery in 1863 signaled the end of this period of domination. The system died a slow death, hanging on through a familiar pattern of share cropping, where the former slaves, for lack of other options, exchanged their labor to maintain the plantation for plots of land to tend for their personal use and erect the now historic Kunuku houses. However, the times and the markets gradually gave way to the arrival of Royal Dutch Shell and employment in its refineries and the related service sector in the early 20th century.  The whole landhuis edifice began to crumble with the owners and the workers moving into the city of Willemstad, to the Punda, Otra Banda or Scharloo districts depending upon their circumstances.  They began to build a social order free of the colonial plantation system.

Landhuis Zorgvlied

Landhuis Zorgvlied – destroyed during a 1775 slave rebellion

Landhuis Fontein ruins

Landhuis Fontein ruins

The manors themselves began to fall into disrepair. The intercession of the Heritage Foundation, a national governmental organization, and private individuals has managed to conserve about half of the original larger plantations; roughly 55 are still extant. Others, scattered around the island, are in various stages of disrepair, neglect and destitution with little hint of their former grandeur while nature moves to reclaim her own.

Landhuis Jan Kok - houses the Nena Sanchez Gallery - 1704

Landhuis Jan Kok – houses the Nena Sanchez Gallery – 1704

Landhuis Groot Santa Marta employs the physically and mentally handicapped

Landhuis Groot Santa Marta houses Fundashon Tayer Soshal which employs the physically and mentally handicapped – circa 1675

Landhuis Ascension open for tours and owned by the Dutch Navy - 1672

Landhuis Ascension open for tours and owned by the Dutch Navy – 1672

Our visits to several of the landhuizen expanded our understanding of both the history of slavery and the plantation system but also exposed us to the wonderful utility of which these remarkable relics have been converted.  While some are still private homes many have been transformed into museums, art galleries, restaurants, small hotels and commercial business interests, including at least one distillery.   These plantation houses with a brutal history mired in slavery, presented us with a unique opportunity to augment our perception of colonial Curacao and the living history of the landhuizen.

Landhuis Zeelandia now occupied by private businesses

Landhuis Zeelandia now occupied by private businesses – 18th century

By Richard and Anita

 

Shake Your Booty & Cover Your Ears: Carnival Parades in Curacao

Children's Carnival ParadeA couple of things are certainties at Curacao’s Carnival parades. First, you will wait way longer for them to commence with the activities than you had anticipated and second, when they do get around to the parade to-do the initial order of business is to dispense earplugs along the length of the route.

Banda Bou Parade

So it went at the Children’s Carnival Parade one Sunday afternoon. It was an event requiring patience waiting in the scorching sun while being pressed up against a metal retaining rail as Banda Bou Paradelatecomers crowded in. We rationed our water from newly purchased and sweating bottles (because, after all, neither of us wanted to lose our places while searching for a porta-potty.) After a truncated eternity the street began to clear and there appeared, in dazzling canary yellow uniforms with the requisite short skirts, the Insel Air girls with their smiles and ear plugs for the masses. Children's Carnival Parade  All the schools, youth organizations and numerous companies, it seemed, had a presence at the children’s parade. And the theme of the parade was geared to the age; cartoon characters from past and present, including many that we recognized and remembered well. Passing before us were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, The Flintstones, Mickey and Minnie Mouse and other, new characters that were completely unknown.

Banda Bou Parade

Children's Carnival ParadeWe discovered quickly enough the reason for the ear plugs. Even before the first child was in sight we noted that spaced generously throughout the parade were Banda Bou Parade large mobile sound systems. Multi-tiered, ginormous woofers, tweeters, mid-ranges and bass blasted out live performances of Tumba, Curacao’s unique music, and Calypso or D.J. inspired audio mayhem of rhythm based “shake that thang baby” music.  But whether live or Memorex the volume was deafening. Shouting to each other was impossible. We could feel the vibration deep in our ribs and sternum from the bass rattling your bones, maximum decibel, blaring volume.

Banda Bou Parade Banda Bou ParadeCuracao has its own unique twist on the pre-Lenten celebrations that originated with the plantation owners and wealthy merchants who threw extravagant and stately balls complete with masks and wigs reflecting the heritage of their homelands. The slaves mimicked the upper crust behavior in their own homes with their songs, folklore and customs. After the abolition of slavery, with Banda Bou Paradethe enhanced freedom of expression and the rise of a freer, urban working class, the celebrations grew more elaborate and moved from the homes to the streets. Here developed the tradition of today’s Carnival with beauty pageants, Tumba dance competitions, street parties (the jump-ups), private in-door affairs (the jump-ins) and parades that encompassed all the island.Banda Bou Parade

Banda Bou parade routeHaving enjoyed ourselves with the children’s parade we ventured to the Banda Bou Parade in the town of Barber the following Saturday.  We were instructed to get there a couple of hours early as it was heavily attended since the Carnival frenzy continued to build as the countdown to sobriety and atonement, Ash Wednesday, was nearing. We arrived at our destination and drove the parade route from the end point towards Banda Bou parade routethe beginning and were politely, but emphatically, advised with head shakes that various parking spots we eyeballed were reserved as evidenced by a chalk mark, a cinder block or a folding chair. Near the front of the route we found a spot on the side of the road.  It was 1:00 PM; the parade, we’d been informed, started around 3:00 PM.  And so we sat and watched traffic ebb and flow, watched the Harley scooter contingent rumble through for a few passes, watched the vendors come and go, watched families with excited children, watched the sun cross a cloudless sky, watched the plates of food and Amstel beer and the locally distilled rum concoctions disappear.Banda Bou Parade

Sometime near 4:30, the police finally halted traffic and we waited with sorely tested anticipation. And then, the vivid canary yellow uniforms of the Insel Air beauties were among us again distributing foam hearing protectors with dazzling white-toothed smiles.  Shortly afterwards the parade was underway this time with children, teens and adults.  The bands and Tumba dancers, all elaborately costumed, strutted, shimmied and shook as they passed. Behemoth sound trucks, enough to justify the ear plugs, floats and cars with dignitaries and well-wishers rolled past us. And when it was done, we were among the first to lead the trek back down the island in the direction of Willemstad, deafened and carrying on a conversation at much louder levels than usual, happy that we had endured the wait and experienced another Carnival parade.Banda Bou Parade

Banda Bou ParadeThe next day, Sunday was the finale,  the Grandi Marcha Parade, a wild, riotous event for the adults celebrating what we were told was the island’s version of the New Orlean’s Mardi Gras festival that would eclipse all the previous parades.  Beginning in the late afternoon and extending well into the night it’s the city’s big blow out with the dancing, drinking and raucous partying so excessive that the day after is a national holiday, a day of recovery if you will.

Call us weenies with no sense of adventure but … we skipped it!Banda Bou Parade

By Richard and Anita

The Kunuku Homes of Curacao

kunuku houseWe’ve always been collectors.  However, as long-term travelers we carry all our possessions with us and our collections are now confined to friends and experiences, memories and digital pictures. And what fun we have as we find the things that make each place we visit unique.  On Curacao, we’ve explored many roads around the island and we’ve noticed simple homes with slanted sides scattered about the countryside.  As we’ve hopped out of the car for a better look and perchance a photograph we’ve occasionally been met by the family dog, for the most part in good humor, or occasionally by the proprietor perhaps curious as to the workings of the foreign mind.  And we’ve been counting, notating and reading about these houses as collectors are wont to do.Kunuku Museum

To our great delight we saw that one of these structures, called Kunuku houses, has been lovingly restored and is now a proposed UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The Kas di Pal’i Maishi (Sorghum Stalk House) has been turned into a small museum dedicated to educating people about the lives of the slaves following their emancipation on July 1, 1863 and the homes in which they dwelt. During our tour of the grounds and house our guide was extremely patient and answered all of our questions as we struggled to assimilate this intriguing information.Kunuku house

Prior to gaining their freedom the slaves lived in makeshift shelters on the land near the plantation manors using native materials for their crude dwellings. Posts, poles and stalks provided the walls while a hipped roof covered with thatch provided protection from the scorching sun and torrential downpours during the rainy season. After the abolition of slavery some of the 7,000 people previously held in bondage were given plots of land upon which they could build a permanent home and raise a few staple crops.  For many of the former slaves, emancipation was just a word; a sharecropper system soon developed which tied them to the land and left them indebted to their previous owners. However, from these private holdings grew the Kunuku homes, some of which survive and are still in use throughout the island.Kunuku house

The permanent homes retained the same basic style as the improvised shelters. They were symmetrically rectangular with a centered doorway, a style recalling dwellings in West Africa from which many of the slaves had been abducted. Windows on each side and the high hipped roof took advantage of the frequent island winds to cool the home. The measurements were not exact but homes commonly would provide roughly 500 square feet of living space. The daub and wattle walls were tapered on the outside to provide greater stability. The interior of the walls were filled with compacted rubble and covered with a plaster made of clay, crushed coral rock and aloe vera which gave it a whitened and durable finish. The dirt floors were treated with a mixture of cow dung and clay which, over time, developed a reliably sealed surface. The peaked roof with rafters and supports provided a stable platform for the thatched roof composed of five layers of sorghum leaves.inside the home

The cooking was performed in a separate small building to reduce the chance of fire and the homes were divided into two rooms.  The larger room was used by all the family for their daily gatherings, meals and, at night, by the children.  The parents slept in the much smaller room which many times contained a bed with sloping sides and a patchwork quilt.master bedroom in Kunuku house

Outside might be an open aired privy screened by a cactus hedge and the house could also be surrounded by a pillar cactus fence of two to three rows to keep out roaming animals and define the property boundaries.Pillar cactus fence

Many of the Kunuku homes still in existence are occupied although, of course, in the 21st century the floors are tiled or finished concrete and modern amenities have been installed. The roofs, while still steeply pitched, are no longer made of hand-hewn logs with covered thatch but are corrugated metal or synthetic roof tiles. Some of the dwellings have additions or have been joined together but the original tapered walls and distinct symmetrical shape remains.Kunuku houses joined

Kunuku houseHere and there throughout the countryside are crumbling ruins and abandoned or damaged houses and these allowed us to view the interior of the walls showing the compacted rubble that lent strength to these structures.ruin of Kunuku houseThe history of Curacao is not solely in the Dutch architecture of Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, or its centuries old, imposing plantation houses.  The simple and time-tested Kunuku homes with traces of their African roots have also been recognized, reclaimed and preserved as part of the rich heritage of the island and give an additional depth of character to the people who live here.

pride in Kunuku heritage

pride of placeBy Richard and Anita

 

 

 

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