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2016 Grateful 20

Back in 2001, when I had a feeling that my time in the USA might be coming to a close, I took a road trip with the inimitable RosaB. On our way from somewhere to somewhere in the State of Alabama, we passed a billboard for the Ave Maria Grotto in Cullman. Then we passed a second. By the time we hit upon the third, the advertising had done its job and we left the highway to see what the fuss was about.

Built by a Bavarian Benedictine monk, he himself a little on the small side, too, the four acres is known far and wide as Jerusalem in Miniature. Not far into the twentieth century, Br Joseph’s job was to man the pumps and watch the oil gauges at the Abbey’s pump house, a mind-numbing task he did for 17 hours a day, 7 days a week. To keep himself sane, he started to build little grottos around tiny statues. He made tiny copies of the Holy sites in Jerusalem and eventually had enough to put together a miniature of the city. The monk had rarely travelled so he built his pieces from images on postcards. [I still send postcards – maybe somewhere, someone might put them to use. You know who you are.]

The Abbot of the monastery would have made Walt Disney proud. He soon cottoned on to the winner he had within his walls. He had great plans for an OTT religious grotto, carefully landscaped, meticulously made. Work began in 1932 in an abandoned quarry in the Abbey’s grounds and today, it’s visited by millions. It was one of the highlights of a memorable trip. Well worth a look if you’re in the vicinity.

Fast forward a few years, and I’m in the UK. I’d gone to meet my then boyfriend who was on leave from the QEII. We ended up in Wimborne with its 1/10th scale model town. An idea that incubated during the 1940s, it opened to visitors in 1951. The buildings are made from concrete with beech windows. I still remember feeling like Gulliver as I wandered through the tiny streets, afraid to put a foot wrong lest I step on something or a little someone. All very real it was.  Another lovely memory. Another one worth a visit.

In Portugal recently, we happened across a third such marvel in the village of Sobreiro. Aldeia Tipicia (typical village) was a the brainchild of potter José Franco who began work on this masterpiece in 1960. Driven to preserve the customs and crafts of Portugal, he wanted to replicate the old workshops and stores, the houses, and the communities that were all in danger of being swallowed up by progress. He also wanted a miniature village for kids, with working windmills and all sorts. Later he added a third part – an interactive children’s agricultural centre inside some castle-like walls. Franco died in 2009 leaving a legacy that,  like the others, and indeed like Miniversum here in Budapest, is still working its magic.

Because no matter what adult worries and concerns you might have going in, when you happen upon these miniature places, you can’t help but revert back to being a child. Rediscovering the open-mouthed child-like awe often jaded by cynicism is quite the experience. I found myself pointing and exclaiming like a kid on Christmas morning.

None of the visits were planned. But all happened when I needed some perspective. Someone up there is looking out for me. For this, and for the artists like Br Joseph and José Franco who made them possible, I’m truly grateful. Cost of entry: free. Recalibration: priceless.

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I found my book mecca in Mafra

I’m married to my kindle. I never leave home without it. I know, I know. For years I banged on about never, ever going electronic when it came to books. I wanted to be able to touch the pages, smell the print, turn back and reread. I spent enough time on a computer without adding more, I said. But when the airlines started their draconian restrictions on baggage, toting half a dozen books with me on holiday became too expensive. So I gave in. Reluctantly.

Fast forward a couple of years and I’m hooked. I’m completely sold on the idea. I can’t imagine life without my baby. Right now, the 200 books I have on my kindle weigh as much as a short paperback. I have a membership to a digital library so I can check out books I’d like to read but don’t particularly want to keep. And I’m reading more than ever, because it’s all so convenient.

That said, I still love the feel of a real book and some titles I still choose to buy in hard copy. I’d never consider getting rid of the hundreds of books on my various shelves and were I to move, my books would come with me, regardless of the expense. I’m a bookaholic and last month I found my book mecca in Mafra.

IMG_6563 (800x600)IMG_6565 (800x600)Back in the 1700s, King João V promised to build a palace and monastery if he and his wife, Maria Ana of Austria, were to have a son. Some might say he went a little overboard with this baroque convent and palace, built on the back of gold from Brazil that was flowing into Portugal at that time. It’s nearly 38000 square meters – that’s nearly four hectares – with 1200 rooms, thousands of doors and windows, 156 staircases, and 29 courtyards. That’s a lot of gratitude.

The palace is huge. Massive. Goes on for miles. The Queen had her wing, the King had his, and the bit in between was home to chapels, anterooms, a hospital, the kitchens, and various other royal salons. We toured them all. Or at least we toured every room that was open to the public.There’s a notable difference in style between the two wings, one oozing oestrogen, the other awash with testosterone. All of it fascinating.

IMG_6634 (800x600)Throne roomIMG_6638 (600x800)IMG_6646 (800x600)IMG_6649 (800x600)IMG_6650 (800x600)IMG_6683 (590x800)IMG_6653 (800x600)The games room, with its forerunner to the modern-day pinball machine, was special. The hunting room, with its dead heads and furniture made from various animal parts reminded me a little of something I saw in Macedonia. Not for me, thank you, but hats off to putting the parts to good use. It was the hospital ward that got me. All the beds face an altar so the monks could hear mass even while they lay on their sickbed. Back in its heyday, 330 monks were in residence.

IMG_6655 (800x600)IMG_6658 (800x600)IMG_6659 (800x523)IMG_6660 (600x800)IMG_6623 (800x600) Hospital chapelHospital bedIMG_6607 (800x600)As we reached the end of our map (and you need a map to find your way around the building), before we turned the final corner, I could smell the books. It was a heady, powerful scent of old manuscripts, faded ink, and leather bindings. Intoxicating.

The magnificent Rococo room is tiled in marble is 88 m long x 9.5 wide and 13 m high. With 36 000 books or thereabouts, it shows just how well-read people were back in the day. Apparently the library was used as the Emperor’s war chamber in the 1996 film Gulliver’s Travels. Can’t say I recognised it from that, mind you. But nonetheless, it is spectacular.

A sign clearly states that books cannot be removed without permission from the king. And as there’s no longer a king in the country, they’re there to stay. Definitely worth an afternoon if you’re in the vicinity.

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Living in a wifi world

Over coffee the other day, I was asked how many holidays I’d taken so far this year. I had to stop and think. Not to count, but to think. And not to categorise – does an overnight in Veszprém count as a holiday? Yes, I travel a lot. It seems like I’m always somewhere other than here, but I don’t see these trips as holidays. I see them as simply working from somewhere else. It’s one of the benefits of having a mobile job in a wifi world. I go, I work, and in between times, I try to fit in as much as possible. The ultimate working holiday.

In Portugal a few weeks ago, one such fit-in was to visit to the town of Sintra (home to Europe’s westernmost point), about a 40-minute train ride from Lisbon. We didn’t have time to fight the hordes of tourists milling about the narrow streets (something that even had we had the time, I’d have been reluctant to do – the place was heaving) but on a quiet day mid-winter, it might be nice.

The area has more than its fair share of palaces (if there is such a thing as a fair share of royalty). Queluz  palace is billed as a blend of  Versailles’ French grandeur and Portuguese eclecticism and in recent years has entertained no fewer than four US presidents – Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan, and Clinton – if that’s a modern-day claim to fame.

We missed the fourteenth-century National Palace in the centre of Sintra but I’d go back to see the magpie room, so called because of the birds decorating the ceiling. We missed seeing Challet Biester (think Johnny Depp in Polanski’s The Ninth Gate);  Monserrate Palace, which won the European Garden Awards a couple of years ago; and the eighth-century Moorish Castle. We missed the  fantasy Palace of the Millions. We missed the Tivoli Palácio de Seteais (now a hotel). We missed the Palácio da Regaleira, and its four hectares of grounds with lakes, grottos, and tunnels.

But we did get to see Pena Palace.

As we made our way through the valley of lakes and its amazing duck houses, beautiful black swans, and crazy art installations, we knew that we simply wouldn’t have time to see it all. You could spend a day in the park walking around and a day it deserves. We had a couple of hours.

IMG_6431 (800x584)IMG_6432 (800x600)IMG_6359 (800x600)IMG_6350 (800x600)Palacio Pena (which translates into Feather Place)  looks like it was built by someone on LSD, whose vision of fantastical was hallucinogenic. It’s what capitalises the WTF in incredible and lowercases the wow.  Mad. Truly mad.

The dreamchilIMG_6372 (600x800)d of Prince Consort Fernando of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, construction started on the Romanticist castle in 1840 and finished in 1885, the year he died. A garish mix of purples, pinks and yellows, it has a My Little Pony feel to it, even though I’m sure that the German architect Baron Wilhelm Ludwig von Schewge, the man responsible for the jumble Neo-Gothic, Neo-Islamic, Neo-Renaissance and Neo-Manueline architectural styles, didn’t have that as his guiding inspiration. The outside is adorned with carvings, religious icons, and the must-have hand-painted Portuguese tiles.

IMG_6373 (800x600)IMG_6428 (800x600)Inside, there are some gems. I was particularly taken by the paper mache furniture (chair and cabinet in the photo are made of paper…) and the many walls painted in trompe-l’oeil . The rooms are a curious mix of influences that seems to range from Middle Eastern to Middle European. Strangely, for me, a lover of old palaces, castles, and manor houses, this is the first that I simply couldn’t imagine myself living in. There is way too much going on for me ever to entertain the slightest hope that I might find some peace within its walls. I was completely underwhelmed by the dining room but must admit that the kitchen was magnificent.

Each to their own, though. Others who have visited rave about it and go back time and time again. Me? I’m glad I saw it. Once. It was a nice break in an afternoon of work. And when next in Sintra I won’t feel at all bad about giving it a miss in favour of the many other palaces to see and a cocktail in Lawrences Hotel, the oldest hotel on the Iberian Peninsula, one that boasts Lord Byron as its first guest. A hotel where the doors don’t have numbers, they have names. Perhaps more my kind of place. IMG_6414 (800x600)IMG_6384 (800x600)IMG_6388 (800x600)IMG_6404 (600x800)IMG_6398 (600x800)

 

 

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Size does matter

Whoever said that size doesn’t matter has never been a victim of the one-size-fits-all dress design. They’ve never been driven to the brink of distraction by the lack of standardisation that makes a size 14 an 8 in Spain and a size 8 a 14 in Samoa. Size plays such a huge part of our lives that it can’t but matter. Can you be medal-winning 5-foot-tall basketball player (assuming you’re over the age of 18) or be a successful 14-stone jockey? I doubt it.

I’m quite partial to size. There are times when being in awe in the face of magnificence is humbling, a good calibration for those times you start to believe your own hype. I’m a sucker for descriptives like the smallest pub in Ireland or the largest church in Portugal. And it was to the latter that I was recently drawn. Now, of course, having done some homework, it turns out that it’s not actually the biggest church in Portugal any more. That’s now in Fatima. Depending, of course, on which source you believe.

IMG_6061 (800x600)In the middle of the medieval town of Alcobaça, the church is part of Mosteiro de Alcobaça. Entrance is free to both on Sunday before 2pm but at other times, there’s a charge to enter the monastery.  It was late. I was hungry. And I was monasteried out. But I can always use the three wishes you get when you visit a church for the first time and I was curious to see for myself what the hype was about. Just how plain could such big church really be?

IMG_6066 (600x800)IMG_6068 (600x800)Wow. Wow. Wow. A minimalist’s dream, gobsmackingly gorgeous in its nakedness. What gold and gilt there was, were hidden in the side chapels. The rest was plain. Very plain. This, apparently, had something to do with the Order of Cistercians, the monks for whom the monastery was built. They’re rumoured to have liked clean, architectural lines. Mind you, the late seventeenth-century altarpiece depicting the death of St Bernard shows that they might have changed their minds a little as the years went on. The polychrome-painted terracotta is said to be representative of their pottery style.

IMG_6075 (600x800)There are two tombs in the church, those of King Pedro I and his mistress Inês de Castro. His sits on the backs of lions; hers on the backs of half-men/half-beasts. Theirs is a curious story. She was assassinated by Pedro’s father back in 1355. He was understandably a tad upset with this level of parental interference but once he became king himself,  he had Inês’s remains transferred to the tomb in Alcobaça. Although just a little late in having his way, the story goes that he crowned her Queen of Portugal and had everyone come and kiss her dead (and no doubt decomposed) hand. Gruesome it might be but there’s something touching there … if you think about it.

In contrast to the church, the tombs are very intricate. Same style apparently but at the opposite end of the Gothic spectrum (if there even is such a thing). And while his touchingly depicts scenes from their life together, hers showcases the Crucifixion and the Last Judgement. The artist must have had a sense of humour.

IMG_6096 (800x600) IMG_6072 (800x596) IMG_6073 (600x800)There are other tombs in one of the naves, too, one of which might be Pedro’s dad and his mistress’s murderer (nothing like keeping it in the family!). There’s also  a lovely little chapel of exposition that saw quite a bit of traffic when  I was there. The church is really something. So far removed from the ornate edifices usually associated with the Catholic Church. It was clean, airy, huge. An excellent place to regain some perspective.

Having dinner afterwards at one of the many outdoor cafés nearby, the evening sun added even more to its majesty. It’s really is quite something. Next time, I might just make it to the monastery.

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Wedding presents

Back when people moved into their first home when they got married, wedding presents weren’t an issue. A toaster. A half-dozen wine glasses. A casserole dish. Linens. Cutlery. Anything went. But today, most people have lived together before they get married. They already have a house together (a joint 30-year mortgage is the new engagement) and so need little by way of stuff. So what to give?

Back in the 13th century, King Dinis I of Portugal set a trend. When his wife, Queen Isabel, visited the village of Óbidos, she fell in love with it. He, having the kingdom at his disposal, gave it to her as a wedding present. The precedent set, the heirs to the throne followed suit, bestowing the lovely town on their brides. Until 1883, the town was owned by the current queen of Portugal. That’s one for the sisters.

Today, it’s a popular day trip for tourists staying in Lisbon and its surrounds. The lovely medieval town is made for postcards and chocolate box lids. It’s gorgeous. At various stages it was home to the Romans, the Visigoths, and the Moors, before being taken by the first king of Portugal in the twelfth century. The castle is remarkably together and towers over the little town, with its cobblestone streets, and floral walkways.

It’s quite a hub of activity year-round with a chocolate festival in March,  its famous Holy Week festivities at Easter, and an Ancient Music festival in October. It has one of the world’s first hotels in a historical monument (the castle) and a tableau of eateries, one looking better than the next. Some 3100 people live here now and it probably gets half that again in visitors every day.  Definitely worth a visit if you’re in the vicinity. Worth going out of your way for, too.

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Spread the love

Prior to Euro 2016, I wasn’t a great lover of international football. And I’m still not.  I can’t get my head around the number of zeros in some of those boys’ salaries. I have a hard time dealing with putting a monetary value on someone’s talent to the tune of tens of millions of euro, even though I know this is done in the Corporate World on an average day. Yes, I know they train their little socks off. And they work hard. And they sacrifice so much in their determination and commitment to win, but I simply don’t get it. What’s the attraction?

Why do millions of people put their lives on hold for four weeks as they watch their teams’ progress? Why do thousands more put themselves in debt to go abroad and support their teams in person? Why do people get so hyped up about 90 minutes of fancy footwork, theatrical romps, and jibs and digs? What’s the attraction?

When your home team doesn’t make it through to the final 16, there’s the disappointment to deal with. No matter what the odds, there’s always hope that a miracle will happen. I was lucky. I’ve moved around and could draw tangible if tenuous loyalty lines to other countries. I followed Ireland of course, even if I spend too much time bemoaning the Irish Manager’s lack of dress sense. I followed Hungary, too. Watching Hungary play on the big screen with thousands of Hungarian fans was incredible. I also followed Wales because I like the Welsh and was surprised to see that they play something other than rugby. I got into Iceland because they are fun and I’m sure some of those players have had ballet training. I’m not quite sure what I’d have done if any of these teams had had to play each other. But it never came to that.

When we boarded the plane to Lisbon a few weeks ago, Ireland had a 1-0 lead over France. It was half-time. I was hoping and praying that we’d pull it out of the boot and make history. By the time we landed in Portugal, that dream had died. I rode the Welsh wave in the surfing capital of Ericeira as they made their way through to the semi-final. And I hoped and prayed some more. And it worked. They got through. A group of 20 or so of us watched the Wales-Portugal semi in a little pub down by the beach called Café Joy. Mostly Irish. Mostly rooting for Wales (except the one Bremainer who has yet to forgive them their vote in the Brexit referendum).  But they fell to Portugal. And the Portuguese went mad.

eurio2016Our flight home from Portugal last Sunday had lots of free seats. There was a final to watch. And when the captain announced the final result, the fans around us asked where they could buy champagne in Budapest after midnight. I like those priorities. Nice one, Portugal.

I realised then what the attraction was. It’s not the soccer, per se, it’s what it represents:  a chance to focus on something bigger; a chance to suspend reality for a while and live vicariously through lads who live vastly different lives to ours; a chance to hope for a miracle that just might happen.  But mostly though, it gave us the opportunity to take pride in countries which, for various reasons, we might be a little disillusioned with right now.

Euro 2020 will mark the 60th anniversary of the competition and will be held in thirteen cities in thirteen different European countries. And while I still prefer rugby to soccer and doubt that I’ll ever fully appreciate the multi-million-euro pretty-boy antics of international football, I quite enjoyed the buzz. So spread the love, I say, spread the love.

 First published in the Budapest Times 15 July 2016

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2016 Grateful 25

I can’t explain my faith. I have no particular need to. I know it works for me and that’s what matters. I’m not much for organised religion even though I go to mass most Sundays and have daily conversations with my God. While there’s a lot about the Roman Catholic Church that I don’t like, it’s the faith I was born into and it’s too much trouble to change. Anyway, religions are man-made institutions, riddled with their associated foibles and prejudices. If there’s a perfect one out there, I’d be surprised. But at their core is the simple ethos: be kind, be true, be honest, be faithful. Not all that difficult really and yet the faithful manage to screw it up on a regular basis. I remember a quotation by Kofi Annan that I read on the walls of a church in Malta:

The problem is not the Koran, nor the Torah, nor yet the Gospel. The problem is never the faith – it is the faithful, and how they behave towards each other.

It’s no wonder that the world wonders where God has gone.

That said, from the outside looking in, Catholicism has to seem a little mad. Our churches are full of gilded statues while our people in many parts of the world are starving. Churches in Liverpool and Birmingham we built on the back of tithes from Irish workers whose kids went without food so that the priest could have shoes and the people could have a place to workship. In America, too. Catholic immigrants built the great churches and tithed and lived in fear of the almighty.

IMG_6050 (800x600)A stranger walking in to a Catholic church might wonder what the chap on the cross is doing. They might also have a hard time understanding the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation or buying into either. And as for confession… that for many looking in that seems like a free pass to do what you will when you want.

For me, though, the most wondrous part of all that is Catholic are the Marian Apparitions.  They’re spread around the world – four in France, one in Ireland, two in Belgium – seventeen in all said to be approved by the Holy See (this varies mind you… man-made institution with man-made reporting and all that). The first was Guadalupe, Mexico, in 1531. The most recent was in   Kibeho, Rwanda in 1981.

Fátima has been on my list of places to visit for years. The multiple apparitions here puts it high on the Roman Catholic Pilgrimage Trail.  In 1916, three children – Lucia Dos Santos aged 9, and her cousins, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, aged 8 and 6 – saw an angel who appeared to them three times, paving the way for Our Lady. The stories of Fátima sound fantastical but the miracles accredited to those who believe and pray to Our Lady are legendary.  I was amused to read the that

railing a little at the idea of someone telling me what’s worthy of belief.

Francisco died on 4 April 1919, Jacinta died on 20 February 1920, and Lucia lived till she was 97, dying on 13 February 2005. Now there’s a woman I’d have liked to have met.  All three are buried in the Basilica.

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IMG_6027 (600x800)I didn’t expect Fátima to be so… well… new.  I know my dates and I know that’s irrational. It is massive. The square is bigger than St Peter’s Square in Rome. If there were 200 people there the day we visited, that was it. We were lost in a place built for hundreds of thousands. On 13 May and 13 October, it is said that a million people come to pay homage.  The Basilica and its colonnades are fabulous   The new church, finished in 2005, can hold 9000 people and is said to be the largest in Portugal. IMG_6030 (800x600)

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IMG_6039 (600x800)Pilgrims walk (?) on their knees to the Church of the Apparition where rosary is regularly said. They then do three circuits, again on their knees, all the while saying the rosary. Those in the know had come prepared with their knee pads. I had a badly bruised knee from a spill I’d taken a week previously and with no pads just managed the one turn. But, of course, I hadn’t done my homework and didn’t realise till an hour into it all that there’s a procedure. If you go as a pilgrim, bear right to the Nativity and IMG_6035 (800x600)pick up your brochure there. It’ll tell you the rest and give you the prayers to be said and tell you where to say them. If you go as a tourist, enjoy.

I’m not sure what I had expected. I’m very glad I went, if for no other reason than lighting the myriad IMG_6029 (600x800)candles I’d promised to light for various people around the world (you know who you are).

There is a quietness about it all, a sense of reverence, an almost tangible belief in something greater than human form. Was I expecting an apparition? No. Do I believe that it all happened 100 years or so ago? Yes.  Do I expect anyone else to believe? It doesn’t matter. As I said, my faith is enough for me.  And that simple realisation, I’m truly grateful.

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Another sort of convent

I was educated in a convent. I spent my formative years with the Presentation nuns. I don’t think it did me any harm. I might have picked up a few quirks along the way that are all part of convent life to the point where I’ve long associated the word convent with women in habits – not men. So the Convento de Cristo in Tomar came as quite a surprise.

IMG_5901 (800x600)IMG_5907 (800x600)Founded in 1160 by the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, this absolutely stunning complex stands as evidence today of their skills and craftsmanship. It wasn’t all built over night. It took centuries. The Charola, which lies at the heart of the monastery, dates back to 12th century while the first stone of the Great Cloister, with its magnificent spiral stairways, was laid in 1550. First sighting of the Charola elicited audible gasps from many. The photos don’t do it justice. An hour could pass and you’d still not have seen the half of it, such is the detail.

IMG_5944 (600x800)A 16-side polygonal structure, with strong buttresses, round windows and a bell-tower, inside, the round church has a central, octagonal structure, connected by arches to a surrounding gallery (ambulatory). The general shape of the church is modelled after similar round structures in Jerusalem: the Mosque of Omar and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

IMG_5909 (800x600)IMG_5921 (800x600)IMG_5917 (800x600)It moved through various religious orders throughout the ages and in 1834 was in the private ownership of the Count of Tomar and his descendants. In 1933, the state acquired it and in 1983, it was granted Unesco World Heritage  status.

IMG_5936 (800x600)The place is a warren of interesting nooks and crannies. My favourite was the tiled Chapel of António Portocarreiro built in 1626. The azulejo tiles are amazing and the walled panels depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary are stunning.

The rather spacious cells – 20 lining either side of the long dormitories – made me rethink the austerity of life in a sixteenth-century monastery. It’s quite famous for its Manueline window – with its marine motifs. The carving at the base is supposed to be either the architect or the Old Man of the Sea. And, if you didn’t already know – as I didn’t – Manueline architecture is the Portuguese equivalent of Late Gothic. If you’re in the area, it’s well worth a visit.

 

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The journey

Toll roads are expensive in Portugal – after just 35 minutes heading north we came off the motorway and were charged €10.75. We decided then that what with the price of diesel, the upgrade to the rental car (need a big boot as I’m paranoid about leaving luggage on the back seat), and the GPS (yes, gave in – it’s a built-in one that comes with the car) we’d be better on the back roads. And we’d see more of the country.

IMG_5889 (600x800)I like a road trip that has a final destination (we were heading for Fatima) but with any place on the way up for grabs. First up was the town of Torres Novas, for no other reason that it’s home to the ruins of a 12th century fortress. We parked and wandered around and looked with something approaching wishful thinking at the wine bars that lined the main square and the stage being set up for music later that night. It, too, has some spectacular tile work.
IMG_5878 (800x600)It was here, eight IMG_5882 (800x600)IMG_5891 (800x599)or so centuries ago that the Moors and the Christians fought a bitter battle. It’s surprising that so much of the fortress is still intact. The walls are in great shape even if what’s inside is now a garden. This all still felt very European, but when we hit the road again, wending our way up hill and down vale, I travelled in my mind to South America or at least what I imagine South America to be like.

White gates led into the wild distant yonder with not a house to be seen. Tiny country churches and even smaller cemeteries dotted the landscape. I could imagine people coming to Sunday  mass  but couldn’t for the life of me see where they’d come from. There was nothing around. No sign of life. And yet graves were recent and the one church we stopped at, though shut, didn’t have an abandoned look about it.

IMG_5895 (800x600)IMG_5893 (800x583)It felt as little as if we’d walked on to a movie set. Quite surreal and very, very beautiful. For miles around all we could see were olive trees and grapevines. It’s said that the green on the Portuguese flag stands for olives and the red for wine. I can’t say for certainty if that’s true but it’s a nice story. Olives have been part of the culture since the Roman times and the country offers plenty by way of olive tourism.

The Portuguese are olive snobs and are very, very picky about their olive oil. While Americans shop for “virgin” or “extra virgin”, Portuguese will inquire as to which region the olives were grown, and will look for acidity levels, color and brand names in their olive oils. And the Portuguese use olive oils as Americans use ketchup – an omnipresent condiment. The Portuguese put it on everything from vegetables to fish to salad and no table is complete without a “galheteiro”–oil and vinegar holder.

You can visit at harvest time, take part in the picking and the pressing. You can sample the many varieties and become somewhat of an expert in choosing your oil.

IMG_5896 (800x600)Me? I was content to sample the delights of vinho verde. I thought it translated as green wine but it can be red or white or even a brandy.

Vinho Verde is not a grape varietal, it is a CAO for the production of wine. The name literally means “green wine,” but translates as “young wine“. It may be red, white, rosé and are usually consumed soon after bottling. Although a Vinho Verde can also be a sparkling, a Late Harvest or even Brandy.

I’m enjoying the sparkling white variety, sold on tap for €1 a glass in most of the eateries we’ve found. And the best thing so far about the wine is that whatever they put in it (or don’t put in it), there’s no hangover.

Portugal is very laid back. No one seems to be in a hurry to do anything. It’s all about enjoying life. Some say the country lacks ambition – perhaps it does. But as a tourist destination, it’s a gem.

 

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A new sort of reserve

Any day I learn something new is a good day. I’d never come across the term – Surfing Reserve – before coming to the Portuguese coast and the fishing town of Ericeira. Sitting about 35 km north of Lisbon, the population of the town apparently quadruples to 40 000 each summer. There are about 40 beaches around and about so plenty of choice and plenty to do.

IMG_5801 (800x600)Its origins are mixed. One story has it that it was once  the terra de ouriços (land of sea urchins). But recent investigations suggest that it wasn’t a tide of  ouriço, but rather prickles of ouriço-caixeiro (hedgehogs)  that gave the town its name. I’ve seen neither so can’t vouch either way. 

IMG_5813 (800x600)IMG_5816 (800x600)IMG_5819 (800x600)Its waters are said to have restorative powers but given the high winds and strong undertow, swimming this week has been minimal. Back at the turn of the twentieth century, many of Lisbon’s elite built houses here. Some of the villas are quite spectacular, with the tile work particularly impressive.

IMG_5842 (600x800)IMG_5817 (800x600)In the early 1940s, European refugees fleeing Nazi persecution made their way to the town. Poles, Germans, French, Belgians and Dutch expatriates found a second home here and there are painted tiles on the various walls in town saying as much. There are no shortage of old ladies willing to take you by the hand and lead you to where you want to go. You could wrap one up and bring her home.

Back in 1910, the king’s yacht was anchored offshore. On 5 October, the day of the revolution, the young king Manuel fled from here with Queen Amélie and the Queen mother. Crowds watched from the shore as they set sail into exile. Quite poignant. It was the end of an era.

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Walking through the narrow cobblestone streets trying to decide which fish restaurant to eat in, I got a pain in my neck from looking upwards and nearly took a spill a number of times. The tile work is quite something.I’ve said that already but it’s worth repeating. From complete facades to tiled pictures of saints and boats, it’s like a massive outdoor art gallery.

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Today, the fishing village  is more dependent on seasonal tourism. I’d imagine that retailers and restauranteurs hope to make enough in the summer months to get them through the winter. Well fixed on the surfing map, beaches like the nearby Ribeira d’Ilhas host a round of the ASP World Tour Surf Championship. A world surfing reserve since 2011, Ericeira takes its place right up there with  Malibu and Santa Cruz in California, Manly Beach in Australia, and Huanchaco in Peru. Surfing schools abound. Classes are plentiful. When asking if we were too old to take one, the chap said the oldest student he’d had was an 87-year-old woman. Fair play, I say. But I have yet to be tempted. I have too much respect for the power  of the sea and too little faith in my  ability to stay afloat.

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