Tag Archives: travel and retirement

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

 

Kutná Hora, Czech Republic

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

 

 

cistern

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

 

 

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

 

Cathedral of Saint Barbara

 

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

 

 

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

 

17th century Baroque Pipe Organ

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

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

Landmark Green Tile Building, Lagos

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

 

Peacock Building, Lisbon

 

Old Train Station, Lagos

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

 

Museo de Azulejo, Lisbon

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

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

 

Social satire? – 1720

 

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

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

 

 

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

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The King Tut Exhibit: A Little Bit of Egypt in Portugal

It’s always fun when you figure out that those half-forgotten memories of long ago grade-school lessons weren’t entirely wasted.  We remember (vaguely) learning about ancient Egypt, the pyramids and the hieroglyphs, our imaginations taken immediately with the idea of cloth-wrapped mummies, tombs and the stylized drawings of a proud people shown in profile.  Recently, we’ve been researching a future trip to Egypt (just a pipe dream for now but…) so we didn’t have to think twice when we found out that the Tutankhamun – Treasures of Egypt exhibit was at the Pavilion in Lisbon, January – May, 2017.  A recent trip to the city combined a visit to our lawyer with spending time with friends and sightseeing.  And, once again, we found our curiosity piqued and interest captured by the story of King Tut, the boy king in a civilization from over 3,000 years ago.

 

Funerary mask of Tutankhamun

The story really begins with the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 by British archaeologist Howard Carter.  By the time of Carter’s arrival at the end of the 19th century, most of the ancient Egyptian tombs in the Valley of the Kings had been discovered, typically empty and looted of their treasures.  Carter had started out his career in his teens, sketching artifacts for other archeologists and eventually becoming a well-respected archeologist himself.  Following an interruption of his explorations by WWI, Carter began to focus his efforts on looking for the tomb of the little-known Pharaoh, Tutankhamun.  Akin to an urban legend, knowledge of the tomb’s location had long been forgotten over the intervening centuries, buried by debris from the building of subsequent tombs or deposits by flooding from the Nile.  Financial support for his expedition was received from George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, a very wealthy, amateur Egyptologist (and incidentally, the owner of Highclere Castle, the future home of one of our favorite TV shows, Downton Abbey). After years of intense and systematic, albeit fruitless searching, and just as Lord Carnarvon was threatening to pull his support, the steps to the burial site were discovered in November of 1922, near the entrance of the tomb of King Ramses VI.

 

Tutankhamun’s Tomb (source)

The short film we watched before entering the exhibition built up the suspense for what followed but it’s not hard to imagine their excitement as Carter and Lord Carnarvon descended the steps for the first time and discovered a door with its original seal still intact.  After entering, they found a secret chamber and Carter describes the next few moments:

“…as my eyes grew accustomed to the light, details of the room within emerged slowly from the mist, strange animals, statues, and gold – everywhere the glint of gold. For the moment – an eternity it must have seemed to the others standing by – I was struck dumb with amazement, and when Lord Carnarvon, unable to stand the suspense any longer, inquired anxiously, ‘Can you see anything?’ it was all I could do to get out the words, ‘Yes, wonderful things.”

 

 

 

King Tutankhamun’s tomb was the most intact of all the tombs that had been excavated in the Valley of the Kings, with more than five-thousand priceless, well-preserved artifacts meant to accompany the king on his journey to the afterworld.  Consisting of four rooms, one of which had murals painted on the walls portraying the king’s funeral and journey to the next world, the innermost chamber was behind a sealed door and guarded by two sentinels.

 

 

 

When the sealed chamber was opened in February of 1923, perhaps the most fascinating find of all was the stone sarcophagus containing three coffins, one inside the other and each more fabulous than the last.  The third coffin was made of solid gold and inside was the mummy of King Tutankhamun.

 

 

Much of what is known about the Egyptian Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, who’s multi-syllabled name was quickly shortened to a more manageable nickname of “King Tut,” derives from the discovery of his tomb as he was a relatively minor figure in ancient Egypt.   The son of King Akhenaten and his sister, Queen Tiye, he ascended the throne following the death of his father at the age of nine or ten and ruled from approximately 1332 – 1323 BCE.  Upon becoming King, and following the custom of keeping the royal bloodlines all in the family, he married his half-sister, Ankhesenamun.  The mummies of the couple’s two daughters, both stillborn, were found in his tomb, and with King Tut’s death, the family line came to an abrupt end.

 

There’s much speculation about what led to King Tut’s untimely death at the age of nineteen and modern forensics specialists have tried to solve part of mystery.  A reconstruction of what he might have looked like shows he was slight of build, taller than we would have guessed at approximately 5 feet, 11 inches, and that his left foot was severely deformed (a congenital birth defect)  with evidence of ongoing bone necrosis.  He would have needed a cane to walk and several walking sticks were found scattered about the tomb.  It’s possible that he suffered from other physical disabilities arising from his parents’ sibling relationship. (The death of his own daughters may have also been caused by unknown genetic defects due to the restricted gene pool.)   More than one strain of the malaria parasite was found upon DNA examination and researchers concluded that King Tutankhamun probably contracted multiple malarial infections, including an especially virulent strain which would have weakened his immune system. Towards the end of his life, there’s conjecture that an infection resulting from a severe leg fracture may have been the ultimate cause of his demise.

Doubtless, the early death of King Tutankhamun would have taken the Egyptians by surprise and they would have scrambled to complete all the rituals necessary to observe the customary seventy days between death and burial.  Considering his status, many researchers have observed that his tomb was smaller than expected, leading to the conclusion that the tomb occupied by the King was originally intended for someone else.  Much of King Tut’s burial equipment was made for the female pharaoh Neferneferuaten (aka Queen Nefertiti) including his middle coffin, the royal jewelry and the iconic gold mask.  That of course leads to the question of where she was buried and with what, but we digress.  Seventy days after his death, King Tutankhamun’s mummified body was laid to rest inside its eternal home and the tomb was sealed to lay undisturbed for three-thousand years.

 

 

The discovery of King Tut’s tomb, the most complete ancient Egyptian royal tomb ever found in modern times, received world-wide press coverage and generated an enormous interest in ancient Egypt and Egyptology.  Howard Carter remained in Egypt for another ten years, working on the excavation and cataloging the 5,398 objects found in the tomb (everything an Egyptian Pharaoh might need for a comfortable afterlife) until the excavation was completed in 1932.  King Tutankhamun’s linen-wrapped mummy rests, as it has for over 3,000 years, in his underground tomb in the Valley of the Kings, now encased in a climate controlled-glass box to prevent the “heightened rate of decomposition caused by the humidity and warmth from tourists visiting the tomb.”  Artifacts found in his tomb are kept at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo but popular exhibitions of the archeological finds began touring in the 1960’s, make them the most travelled relics in the world.

 

King Tutankhamun’s throne

The discovery of King Tut’s tomb has inspired several songs and dances as well motivated untold numbers of kids to learn more about Egypt.  His image has graced the cover of National Geographic’s magazine five times which, considering he’s been dead for 3,000 years, sounds like stiff competition for #45 with his eleven Time covers. Visiting the exhibit was a fun trip back in time on the “Wayback Machine” and when we exited the building we couldn’t help but hum a few bars of Walk Like An Egyptian!

Note:  The exhibit, Tutankhamun – Treasures of Egypt consisted of 100 full scale reproductions made in Egypt using traditional methods.  We found that little factoid out after we went but it only makes us more enthusiastic to see the real deal one of these days!

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

Egyptian Boat Model

 

The Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba: An Architectural Allegory

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

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

 

 

 

 

Caballerizas Reales de Cordoba and The Andalusian Horses of Spain

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

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

 

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

Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

Andalusian Horse, Cordoba, Spain

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

The Passion and Spirit of the Andalusian Horse

 

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

 

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

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

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

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

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

Lagos, Portugal

Lagos, Portugal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Source

Roundabout Etiquette  (Source)

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

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

Preferred seating and priority service

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

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

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

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

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

Pedestrian only entrance to historical city of Lagos, Portugal

Pedestrian only entrance to historical city of Lagos, Portugal

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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

"Employee Shower" by Carole Feuerman

“Employee Shower” by Carole Feuerman

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

And an unexpected iconic scene that made us smile!

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

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

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

A sign nearby explains the exhibit.

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

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

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

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

Inspired by Grant Woods "American Gothic."

Inspired by Grant Woods “American Gothic.”

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

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash  Grounds for Sculpture

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

cobblestone walkway along marina, Lagos, Portugal

Cobblestone walkway along marina, Lagos, Portugal

The Pursuit of Happiness: First Impressions of Copenhagen

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

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

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

 

The Marble Chapel

The Marble Chapel

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

Church of Our Savior

Church of Our Savior

Copenhagen - photo by noparticularplacetogo.net

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

 

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

The Black Diamond

The Black Diamond

Opera House

Opera House

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

anchor street art

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

 

We’ve been “Discovered!” by WordPress

Porto de Mos, Lagos May, 2016

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

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

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

Here’s Cheri’s post with the link:

 

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

via Blogging Nomads: On Wanderlust and Shared Journeys — Discover

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

Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Grottoes and Golden Arches – Ponta da Piedade

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

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

Ponta da Piedade

 

Ponta da Piedade, Lagos, Portugal

 

Ponta da Piedade, Lagos, Portugal

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

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

Pontas de Piedade - Grotto boat trip

 

Ponta da Piedade -Grotto boat trip

 

Pntas da Piedad grotto boat trip

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

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

Seafaris Grotto boat tour

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riad Ayla

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

Rooftop terrace of Ryad Alya

Rooftop terrace of Ryad Alya

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

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

Jardin Jnane Sbil - The Royal Gardens

Jardin Jnane Sbil – The Royal Gardens

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

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

Medina of Fes-UNESCO WHS

 

Jewish Quarter Bakery

 

Jewish Quarter

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

 

street market-Jewish Quarter

 

burrow - In the Medina

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

By Anita Oliver and Richard Nash

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

 

The Road to Morocco and Across the Straits of Gibralter

Lagos to Tarifa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Moroccan salad

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

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

Next post:  Fès, Morocco

By Anita and Richard

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We gathered the following documents to bring with us:

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

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

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

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

By Anita and Richard

 

 

Portuguese Pronunciation, Porches Pottery and a Bit of the Past

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

Looks like we’ll be pointing for a while …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Porches Pottery 1968

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

artesans painting the pottery

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

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

 

By Richard and Anita

 

So This Is Christmas

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

Thankfully no one we know!

Thankfully, no one we know.

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

Mexico, 2012

Mexico, 2012

Nicaragua, 2013

Nicaragua, 2013

Colombia, 2014

Colombia, 2014

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

A lurking Santa and an unlit Christmas light display

A lurking Santa and an unlit Christmas light display

Santa's sleigh

Santa’s sleigh

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

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

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

Christmas elves

Christmas Elves

Feliz Natal y Feliz Ano Nova to you and yours,

Anita and Richard

 

Setting Up House in Portugal

downtown square

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walls of Lagos 16th century

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

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

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

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

By Anita and Richard

 

 

 

 

Transitions, Changes and Americus the Beautiful

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

Wyoming

Wyoming

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

Montana

Montana

Florida

Florida

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

Livingston, Montana

Livingston, Montana

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

Andersonville Cemetery

Andersonville Cemetery

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

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

Alabama

Alabama

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

Anita and Richard

 

The Great Document Round Up: Starting the Portugal Residency Process

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

Carvoeiro, Portugal

Carvoeiro, Portugal

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

Lagos, Portugal

Lagos, Portugal

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

The Application 

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

Tip 1  Processing fee $128/person.

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

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

Rounding up the Documents

Passport sized photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notarized Copy of our Passport’s Information Page

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

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

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

And … The Approval!

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

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

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

photo available at www.gratisography.com

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

By Anita and Richard

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

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

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

 

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

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