THE PLAN:By expressing or feigning an interest in my winter sojourns, you have been included in this, the plan for the 2019 adventure. That’ll teach you. Yes, I’ve apparently been granted the time and the meager wherewithal to have another frugal go at a 3.5 month getaway. At my age (I’ve been doing this since I first retired 20 years ago - you do the math), this year’s trip may be biting off a little more than I can chew, however. Originally, I was on the road by car, van, motor scooter, train, or bus, a few nights here, a couple there, living out of my suitcase, then hitting the pike again. That evolved, as did my method of reporting: first with handwritten essays, then on very-scarce, often-shared, rented computers found in stores, game rooms, laundromats, and people’s living rooms, eventually in huge computer centers where dozens of computers lined the walls, and ultimately to the present day, where a personal iPad is all the equipment needed to file a report through my daughter, the webmaster, onto my travel blog. As reporting evolved, so did my preference for a less-rigorous, winter lifestyle. In recent years, I enjoyed settling in one, foreign, home base, becoming part of the neighborhood, soaking up the language, food, and culture, and taking occasional day trips to spice up my winter existence in some place warmer than Pennsylvania. I think maturation played a role in that evolution and now, in my doddering, senior years, I much prefer that gentler adventure, BUT...
A few years back, probably a decade now, I ran into a travel partner (regular readers will recognize the nickname, Schim, short for Schimmelpfennig) while teaching English to Spanish business executives in Madrid. Schim’s preference is sprinting through life, tourist sites, museums, cities, and countries in an apparent effort to add another notch to his belt or to get it all in before the grim reaper comes for him. He also prefers eating at less-expensive (cheap), food trucks and roadside stands. Somehow this year, in an attempt via email to dissuade him from a joint, two-week dash through all the countries of Southeast Asia, I agreed to lead him on what I have grown to call “A Farewell Tour from Portugal to Sicily.”
The plan is rather simple, though just listing the countries we will visit is exhausting in and of itself: Portugal, Spain, Andorra, France, Italy, San Marino, and Malta. We, or perhaps just I by then, will settle in a home base in Sicily from which I can spend a couple months soaking up the sun, the language, the food, and the culture in the ancient and interesting island off the toe of Italy’s “boot.”
We’ll travel by train, bus, boat (Schim’s never been to Venice), and maybe even by bicycle, if I can’t avoid it, to some very interesting places a few of which I visited previously and made some friends with whom I hope to renew acquaintances. Never staying too long in one place, Schim’s way, we have reservations (Airbnb) for five nights in Cascais, Portugal, five more in Seville, Spain, and after that no reservations at all. If I survive the arduous journey and the company, it should be interesting.
There are folks, thousands, no doubt, by our President’s method of tallying, who enjoy traveling vicariously with me while curled up under a blanket on the sofa watching the snow fall outside their windows. While I pack, unpack, labor up (and down) the stairs to the next train track, these folks love reading about my adventures and misadventures, enjoying the comforts of home. There are others who couldn’t care less. I’ll find them and seek revenge, I swear. Actually, feel no pressure. There will be no quiz and I’ll only know if you read a word if you bring it up. I’ll be too busy remembering the cataplana, the paella, the spaghetti carbonara, the great wines, and the wonderful new people I will meet.
|01/10/19 - Cascais, Portugal
Unfortunately, Schim showed up on schedule at the beautiful, beach-side hotel in Cascais, our meeting point, on schedule six hours later than I arrived. Not normally a problem, but the complete lack of sleep on the TAP flight from Newark, because of the tail end of the three-week bout of flu/cold that I worried would bother others, kept me from it. I was so exhausted that I couldn’t keep from dozing for a few minutes while seated waiting in the lobby, which later caused the clerks to tease me about the brief nap.
There he was, full of energy and psyched for a lightening stroll through postcard-beautiful Cascais, the city he disdained in our discussions of this year’s itinerary. He marveled at the town’s beauty during the entire stroll. I was completely wiped out, but suffered through the brief stroll to locate the apartment we had rented for five days up what seemed like a mountain at the time, to the much tinier apartment than depicted on Airbnb. We met the landlord after laboring up the hill with the small bags we brought with us and the adventure began.
Outfitted with two large, electric, portable heaters, the apartment was colder than a morgue and had white tile floors that felt carved from blocks of ice. By this morning, after a night at the heaters’ maximum setting and our overnight body heat, the place had warmed to a point that the shower with an on-demand, hot water heater was tolerable and extremely refreshing. After more than 10 hours sleep, my body felt invigorated and the ham and cheese sandwich and fresh coffee at a neighborhood, corner cafe re-energized both of us. We were ready for a serious stroll.
Stroll we did, Schim still marveling at the town’s forgotten beauty and stopping in every tourist-trap, souvenir shop to browse. We strolled to the train station, purchasing five passes for the train to Lisbon for $6.50 with senior discounts. Schim had insisted that he had learned that each ride would cost $12, but I knew better. Suffice it say that he was thrilled. From there it was a stroll across the street to the post office and a visit to the modern shopping center for a few groceries, a drink and a rest. We wandered back to the apartment and decided to update.
Schim has been a bundle of surprises. He lost 38 pounds, exercised three times a day, and became an obsessive organic-food consumer, green-tea drinker, reading all labels, pointing out the dangers of my diet, and focused on healthy dining. He says he will stay with me to Rome which may drive me quickly out of my mind. A murder among transients should be an extremely difficult murder to solve. I need to develop a plan.
Today is our last day in Cascais. We leave at 9:30 tomorrow morning for a seven-hour, bus ride through the Algarve in Portugal to Sevilla, Spain. Though Schim was not enthralled with the idea of revisiting Cascais, I must say that he seemed to thoroughly enjoy himself. Not much wonder why - the place is picture-postcard beautiful with a unique cuisine that, despite the fanaticism about his new, organic, diet, he thrived upon.
I am just back from lunch while he is on his second walk of the day, dropping postcards at the post office from both of us to grandchildren. He will make the walk an endurance march and I accompanied him this morning, walking on the ocean promenade and joining hundreds of others exercising in the fresh air and beautiful sunshine. The temperature was in the upper 40’s and rose to the mid 50’s during the day today. All five days in Cascais have been bright and sunny with temperatures reaching the low 60’s a couple days. Sweaters and windbreakers have been my clothing of choice, though Schim, the Floridian, has bundled up with shirt, sweater, puffy-quilted vest, windbreaker, gloves, and Humphrey hat, once even flipping the earmuffs down from inside the hat. He stayed warm all right, but we received more than one sideways glance - the old gentleman and his nerdy friend.
I have spent most of the time in Cascais, finally wearing down the flu/cold that knocked me down for so long. Today, I finally feel like the bug must be on its last legs in my system. Schim has been most compassionate with my maladies, sensing when I needed a break on the forced marches, and helping with bags and the normal chores of travel. He even made my bed on a couple of mornings when he was most sympathetic and energetic. We are both still lagging a little. He thinks that he is completely adjusted from jet lag, but still goes to bed late (after 10:00 p.m.) and arises late (8:30 or 9:00 a.m.). Doesn’t sound much different than home, but we are now five hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. We are both early risers and our circadian rhythms are slowly adjusting to the new locale. I expect we will continue to phase into the new time zone as time passes.
The only disappointing parts of the trip so far have been my inability to make contact with people in the restaurant business who became my good friends during the long winters I previously spent in Cascais. The wonderful Melody Restaurant is closed for renovations until after I leave for Spain and, despite leaving messages on his webpage, I have been unable to contact Joe, the proprietor. Joe hosted me for a Sunday dinner with his entire family the last time I was in town and I looked forward to seeing him again. My friend, Gonzalo Diniz, proprietor of Dom Diniz, made contact by telephone last night and I hope to have dinner with him today. We have visited his restaurant several times during our stay, but his new wife and 8-month-old child seem to take enough of his time that he only makes late (for us) appearances at his restaurant. Here’s hoping I get to renew acquaintances with him tonight.
There is still packing to do and an early start in the morning, since the trip will require a train ride to Lisbon and an Uber trip from the Cais do Sodre train station to the bus hub. Should be pretty hectic around here in the early morning. Will update from Spain where the language should come a little easier. Tchau.
01/16/19 - Sevilla, Spain
Our last day in Cascais and Portugal was an epicurean delight! Breakfast was at a different restaurant, but the fare was the same: coffee and sweet roll for me, ham and cheese sandwich for the Schimster. Lunch was a different matter and watching Schim slog his way through the humongous portion of Portuguese Cocido for two was a spectacle to behold.
We made contact with my friend, restaurateur Gonzalo, the night before and arranged to meet him for a drink and possibly dinner to follow on our final night in town. Schim lectured me all day that we needed to eat a light lunch because of the potential for a larger dinner, possibly a free one, that would give him license to chow down. I took him to the Fishermen’s Association for lunch where a small restaurant serves very fresh fish daily to a few hardy souls, except on Sunday when an army of locals vie for a seat for the Cocido A Portuguesa, a treasured, national dish. Nine euros for one portion, 16 for two. After waiting 15 minutes or so, we were seated at an outdoor table, protected from the weather by a heavy-plastic, patio cover with propane heater to ward off the 60 degree chill in the air. We ordered the Cocido for two and Schim started with a small beer and I with a can of Lipton iced tea, the only one of the trip to date. Then, the boiled meal was served on a platter large enough to feed a dozen homeless folks, none of which, interestingly, have we observed in Portugal. Inexpensive cuts of pork (think pigs feet and knuckles), beef, several types of sausage, carrots, turnips, potatoes, covered with huge cabbage leaves and accompanied by a separate, large bowl of rice and red beans. Schim was aghast, but I swear I detected smoke rising from his utensils as he gorged himself on the tasty, local cuisine. He managed several portions of all the ingredients, almost waxing poetic over the authenticity of the repast. So much for a light lunch, but perhaps we’ll only have a drink with Gonzalo in the evening.
NOT! We did have a drink together at a touristy, local, British pub, owned by a friend of Gonzalo. He then offered to take us to a great seafood restaurant where he was a regular and, of course, a friend of the owner. Gonzalo has maintained his position as a well-known, man-about-town and it did not surprise me that he was greeted by everyone. He escorted us, after a short walk, back to the market we had visited on Saturday, but which was then devoid of the produce stands, tables, and crowds of market day. The restaurant was on the periphery of the market, had modern decor, seafood tanks, though containing only bubbling water at the time, and a huge, iced table full of the freshest of local seafood and fish. Gonzalo selected tiny clams, oysters, and a giant crab that reminded us of Florida’s stone crabs and we were shown to our table. Another drink followed as we awaited the preparation of the seafood while appetizers of a local sheep cheese, crackers, bread, and more were served. Schim seemed to find the appetizers delicious, he still being in a ravenous state.
The seafood was absolutely fantastic! The tiny clams, which I would never have selected, were flavorfully explosive and the sauce in which they were cooked was good enough that Schim (and Gonzalo) wiped the serving plate clean with the second basket of bread that was required to address the hunger of my meal mates. Most noteworthy was the crab, now steamed, the claws surrounding its large body in which a fresh crab dip, perhaps a quart, was colorfully displayed. A third basket of bread was required for Schim and Gonzalo to extract the final portions of the scrumptiously-delicious, sweet dip from the shell. A light meal it was not, but worth every calorie that Schim will bemoan for days. Schim and I split the check, since I couldn’t justify taking advantage of my friend after his cordial hospitality guided us to the restaurant and through the culinary paradise. Schim will probably fast for several days to justify the expense and walk several more miles each day to work off any weight he may have gained.
Tuesday, we were up very early, on the train to Lisbon by 7:00 a.m., joining commuters heading for work as we headed for the bus station. A cab from the train station and we arrived an hour before departure for the bus through the Algarve of southern Portugal, across the international border, and on to Sevilla. On the way, Schim observed the cork-oak trees for which Portugal is famous and we both napped a few times on the seven-hour ride that continued our journey.
The apartment we booked on Airbnb in Sevilla is barely as large as a typical hotel room with separate, tiny shower room, and toilet/wash room entering from the hallway that is attached. Much smaller than the apartment in Cascais, the two, large Americans will, no doubt, bump into each other in passing over the next five days. We can endure, however, as we make the decision as to our next destination city: Madrid, Barcelona? Stay tuned. I promise the next update will be more brief. Adios.
One of my loyal readers, who says she faithfully reads all updates, claims that she eagerly awaits the annual details that address the medical emergency she insists is present in each of my adventures. She should enjoy today’s update.
I don’t know what it is about Sevilla that brings out the worst of my dental health, but yesterday I endured my second, root canal in this Andalusian capital. A mild toothache became too bothersome to ignore, so Schim and I walked into a dentist/odontologist’s office two, short blocks away from our tiny apartment. The receptionist/hygienist talked to the unseen doctor and they squeezed me in for an immediate exam. Tapping on my teeth identified the problem when I almost leapt from the very-modern chair when the offending, capped molar was hammered. The handsome, fortyish dentist said he needed an X-ray to diagnose the problem, so I moved across the office to the panoramic X-ray machine. Before my excellent American dentist even had similar equipment, I got my first panoramic X-ray during a previous Spanish root canal here in Sevilla many years ago. This city happens to be home to one of the most highly respected dental schools in the country. The doctor showed me the pictures and said that to eliminate my pain he had to open the cap, clean out the infection, excise the root, treat the cavern, then close the hole. He scheduled me for an appointment the next day (yesterday).
I walked into the waiting room and, almost immediately upon sitting in the beautiful room with marble flooring and matching sofas and chairs, an ungodly, loud, jackerhammer-like noise invaded the space. It almost vibrated the furniture and I thought the dentist was treating another patient with the slow, tortuous drilling equipment that I had endured at home as a child many, many years ago. I began to fear that this could be a painful, debilitating procedure. The noise stopped and I was ushered into the treatment room, different than the room in which I was examined the previous day, but containing what appeared to be very modern equipment with running water, a spittle sink, and everything. The doctor entered wearing turquoise scrubs and a surgical mask. He spoke decent, though broken English and with my almost decent Spanish, the communication was pretty comprehensive. As he approached my chair, the loud drilling noise began again! I quickly asked, “Is that another dentist working in the next room?” He pulled his surgical mask down and laughed aloud, “No, they’re renovating another apartment in the building and they’ve been at it for two months! It’s every day at this same time.” Whew! I joined him with a relieved guffaw!
The procedure was no fun, but was absolutely pain free after several stabs with the Novocain needle into my gums and tongue. He asked several times if I felt any pain and I assured him that I felt nothing. It took an hour and a half and three, “bite wing” X-rays along the way to finish the work as he explained that one of my two root canals was unusually narrow and he had difficulty ensuring that the root and infection were completely gone. He worked meticulously, using familiar enough equipment, but my jaw ached from keeping my mouth open so far for so long. No real pain, though. When finished, I asked if I could take a photo of the doctor and the hygienist and they complied willingly. The doctor even used my camera to snap a “selfie” of the three of us which I’ll also post. We shook hands, I paid the hygienist $185 for the day’s procedure and left with a prescription for antibiotics and instructions for the three-day regimen. The panoramic X-ray of the previous day was $62, so the entire procedure cost just less than $250. Wow, I haven’t heard of a root canal costing less than $800 at home and I haven’t had one for a few years.
No pain???? Not so fast, old man!!! As the day wore on and the Novocain wore off, I began to experience severe pain in my jaw, ear, the roof of my mouth, and all my teeth. Whoa, perhaps I shouldn’t have been so adamant with the dentist about no pain pills, fearing an opioid script that would have kept me drowsy for days and made an addict out of me. Surely, the Tylenol I carried would do the trick. NOT!! The $6.00 prescription for antibiotics at the corner Farmacia was not dulling the pain and the Tylenol did no apparent good. I did improve enough after an hour’s nap to accompany Schim for a light dinner of fish and broccoli, but in the middle of the night the pain once again became excruciating. So bad that I took more Tylenol and an early dosage of the antibiotic, but to no avail. I slept only fitfully, but must have dozed near daybreak and awoke at 8:30 to find Schim showered and ready to attack the day. Me? Not so much!
I have sworn off Ibuprofen because of recent studies that relate an increase in strokes and heart attacks among older users, but plenty of the wonderful pills remained in my pill chest. I decided that I would endure the risk in the hopes that the Advil would impact my pain and even lubricate my barking knees. An hour later, over breakfast of toast spread with olive oil and tomato pulp and a delicious cafe con leche, I realized that the magic drug had all but obliterated the pain. Nothing hurt, though I chewed gently on the opposite side of my jaw. Aggressive chewing can wait for another day.
Tonight, Schim and I will be dining with the family of a waitress friend of mine (Elena), her husband, and four, lovely children. We are both looking forward to the experience and I to see the family who adopted this new, American grandfather a few years ago. We have kept in touch via Facebook ever since.
Schim and I bussed to the train station this morning and purchased a ticket on the “bullet train” to the Atocha Station in Madrid for tomorrow around noon. It will be good-bye to beautiful, welcoming, dental Sevilla and on with our journey. Hasta luego!
If there is a way to better spend a final day in Sevilla, I certainly don’t know it. Picked up at our apartment by Nando, the husband of my friend, Elena, and his two children, Fernando (16) and Noelia (13), we were whisked to their beautiful home thirty minutes away. A major welcoming took place with Elena’s two children, Pau (13) and Blanca (11), fully involved in the process; they are a wonderfully blended family. Kisses on both cheeks of the females and handshakes and hugs among the men completed the process. Blanca presented Schim and me with a lovingly-handmade, stick figure she colored and glued out of popsicle sticks. A wonderful touch. We presented flowers, a large bottle of Rioja wine, and a bag of candy (think M&M’s and Twix) for each of the children.
Elena proudly conducted a tour of their townhouse-like abode, pointing out the rooms where the kids paired up in trundle beds that were neat and orderly, although Elena pointed out one pair of pajamas that one of the boys had carelessly left out before the company arrived. On the dining room table, set for all eight of us, sat beautifully-prepared tapas of many sorts. The famous, Spanish tortilla sliced into bite-sized pieces with toothpicks inserted, smoked salmon and cream cheese roll-ups we later learned were home-smoked by Elena. Sliced chorizo and tiny toast, bread and three different pates, small pieces of fruitcake, and, no doubt, several more that elude me as I struggle to remember two nights ago.
When we ate our fill (Schim ate like an 18-year-old defensive tackle), Elena excused herself to the kitchen to retrieve the rest of the meal. What, there’s more? She emerged and served a plate full of beautiful, cold camarones (shrimp), heads on, and another plate of HUGE, hot prawns, that would have made a meal all by themselves. I ate three of each, but watched in awe as Schim and Pau (13) each devoured seven or eight of the prawns and too many cold shrimp to count. Crustaceans certainly must be on Schim’s diet. We drank most of the wine, the kids Coke, and Schim and Nando each had an after dinner cordial of some sort. A fantastic repast it was, prepared by Elena who spent the two previous days in the kitchen, a fact we learned from Nando on the way home. What hospitality!! I sure hope we get to host this lovely family in our city.
The next morning everything worked according to plan, except that Schim left our computer-charging paraphernalia plugged in at the apartment (we have a backup), and we boarded the AVE train at the station after a short bus ride. Two hours and fifteen minutes later, after reaching speeds just under 150 mph, we emerged from the train in downtown Madrid, only a 10 minute walk from our hotel. Ah, yes, the hotel was booked the day before our arrival by Dorita, Schim’s daughter, who got us the employee rate in a very modern hotel. Thanks, Dorita! We’ll enjoy two nights here, visiting previous neighborhoods and restaurants, then head on another bullet train for Barcelona, where Dorita is already researching hotel choices for us. They’re right, it’s not always what you know that counts. Hasta pronto!
01/22/19 - Barcelona, Spain
After viewing photos of the table set for us by Elena and her daughters, I think I did them a disservice with my prior description of their efforts. I forgot two of the most impressive and labor-intensive dishes prepared for us. First was a mild, tuna “cake” proudly prepared from the recipe of Elena’s mother. It was delicious and only after inquiring as to its ingredients did I learn that tuna was involved. Delicious. One of the biggest splashes of the evening came with the gorgeous, “seafood mousse” that could have served as a centerpiece for the table. Coated completely with a light, salmon-colored mayonnaise and topped with pieces of crabmeat and strips of red, sweet peppers, it was my favorite dish of the evening. Well, perhaps the giant prawns tied on my list of favorite dishes. I feel better having given more time to Elena’s super efforts.
The next day arrived right on schedule, though, and it was finish packing, return the keys to the Airbnb apartment owner living next door, catch the bus to the train station and head for Madrid. We experienced our first light rain of the trip during our first day and evening in the nation’s capitol, but the drizzle didn’t deter us from walking through the Plaza del Sol and the Plaza Mayor, familiar places to both. We stopped for lunch so that Schim could enjoy the locally-popular calamari sandwich that he had been craving. I enjoyed a delicious plate of fried calamari. After a stroll through a market turned upscale-food court that Schim hadn’t visited during his several-month stay in the city while teaching English, we found my favorite Asturian restaurant, El Neru, where I enjoyed the special, blue-cheese spread famous in that part of the country and a small glass of alcoholic cider. Schim had a cana, a small beer, and forced down his slice of what I consider the best blue-cheese spread in the world. Schim could not call it his favorite, not being a blue-cheese kind of guy. That evening, we walked two blocks in the drizzle and dined in another small, wonderful Asturian restaurant where I had a delicious entree: monkfish cooked in cider, their specialty. It was the best fish dish I have been served anywhere. Schim had another bowl of seafood soup.
The following afternoon we boarded another bullet train for the trip across the country to Barcelona, the next stop on this year’s odyssey. Fortunately, the hotel in Madrid, thanks again, Dorita, was only three blocks from the train station. Fortunately, because Madrid was experiencing a taxi strike and, had the hotel been a greater distance away, we would have had a long trek to the station. Unaware of local news because we rarely turn on the TV, we were surprised to find the taxi strike was nation-wide and, we were told at the taxi stand in Barcelona, it also included Uber. Uh, oh! Our hotel, again booked by Dorita at a fantastic rate, was a long distance away. The caballero at the taxi-stand told us the best way to our hotel was by subway and we were in the middle of the afternoon rush hour traffic. Subways, as the name suggests, are below ground! For this old-timer with barking knees, that presented a significant problem, especially since most of the trip to the subterranean trains involved long stairways with only occasional escalators. That meant traversing as many as twenty-five stairs in one fell swoop, backpack, pulled suitcase and all. Luckily, and I rarely compliment the big fellow because his head will swell, the Schimster was as good as his word before the trip and he carried my suitcase or backpack down several of the stairways. My age was really showing as rushing commuters passed me by as I limped down, step by agonizing step and lowering my bag. People have asked why this is a farewell tour and the answer came to light during our descent. Short knee-replacement surgery on both knees, which I’m trying to avoid and the orthopedic surgeon recommended, I’m getting too old for this nomadic form of travel.
The directions we got from both the guy at the taxi stand (a cabbie?) and a police officer in the subway with a giant, heavily-muzzled, Belgian Malinois, drug and terrorist-prevention dog, was to take a blue train one stop, then change to a yellow train to get the exit for our hotel. Unfortunately, both sets of directions and a third along the way, gleaned by the panicked Schimster from a friendly local, told us to exit one stop before we should have. The train was jammed with commuters and we squeezed into a standing position surrounded sardine-like and very vulnerable to pickpockets. Schim inadvertently made us a target by trying to communicate with me too loudly in English. My whispered warning to him was processed and put to use the remainder of the ride as the crowd thinned. A good lesson for both of us. The fact that there are two of us, each to watch the other’s bag and pockets also served as a deterrent.
The walk up the stairs, without escalators, presented the same problem in reverse and I struggled up to the fading daylight. Asking directions along the way, we learned that our Hotel Forum was off in the distance, a 20-minute walk away. Not bad enough, the most direct route was on a bicycle/jogging path made of clay and stone, a tough pull. Endure we did, arriving at this luxurious hotel (Dorita!) in a very new convention-like area with a very modern, large shopping mall and several, famous hotel chains. Needless to say, we were exhausted. A short rest, however, and we ventured across the street and had a light dinner before crashing.
Updating every several days makes my recollections longer than I would like, but so be it. If too lengthy for you, I suggest putting down my scribblings and getting back to watching the snow flakes fall outside your living room window. Oh, if you are interested in reading Schim’s recollections of these same events, much more brief and jotted down more regularly, just email me that request and Schim will send you his address on Google Document. Onward to the snowy country of Andorra tomorrow after a quick day of touring Barcelona. Hasta pronto!