January 13, 2005 - From Madrid, Spain:
Two full Zanax tablets were required to slow my pulse and get me on the plane and over the Atlantic to London. It is amazing how anxious I get about flying when I haven't flown for a while and I haven't been airborne since I returned from Brazil a couple of years ago. The Zanax knocked me out when we got aloft and I have no idea what kind of flight I experienced - was it rough, was the service good, how was the food - I have no clue. I awoke during the landing process and managed to sufficiently recover from my stupor to change terminals at Heathrow and get aboard the Iberia flight to Madrid.
Unfortunately, some repair work was needed on the plane and a 30 minute delay should have again raised my anxiety level. Either some Zanax remained in my system or the successful flight from Philadelphia reduced my anxiety, because I enjoyed the flight to Madrid despite the fact that the captain must have recently been discharged from one of the Spanish Air Force's fighter squadrons.
He approached Madrid from about 35,000 feet in about two minutes and landed like he was coming in for a strafing run. I have never been on a plane that descended so rapidly, but it wasn't a problem once I discerned that we weren't in a crash landing mode after they went through all of the pre-landing instructions.
I was pleased with myself when I used the ATM at the airport to get Euros and then boarded a bus for downtown Madrid, avoiding the more expensive taxi option. I obtained the last room at Felipe V, the little hostal where I stay just a block from the Puerta del Sol in the center of the city. It was also pleasant to be warmly greeted like an old friend by the hotel clerk (one of the two daughters of the family that owns the little hotel which is located on the fourth floor of an office building).
Crusty bread, coated in thick blue cheese scooped from a heaping, brown, glazed clay, oval dish twice as large as any turkey roasting pan I have ever seen was my first food in Madrid, accompanied by a small glass of vino tinto (red wine). This unbelievably delicious tapa started my meal eaten standing at a very crowded taps bar (the Nehru) not far from the Puerta del Sol. Another small glass of wine was required to dispose of the fantastic "calamare en su tinto", which is one of my favorite Spanish dishes. This half portion of black-sauced squid in its ink was accompanied by a small scoop of white rice, which completed my dining for the evening. I was in bed by 9:30, ignoring the evening meal portion of the Spanish schedule which begins somewhere between 10:30 and 11:00 p.m.
I have encountered only two problems in the shake-out phase of my journey. First, when lifting my suitcase out of the van in Philadelphia, I popped a button on my pants - an obvious sign that I need the leaner diet and increased exercise that this trip will bring. As I sewed the button on in my hotel room (with the sewing kit wisely included in my toiletries), I noticed a couple of wear holes in the black khakis that were to be the most worn part of my travel wardrobe. I headed quickly to El Cort Ingles, the biggest department store in all of Spain, to inquire about purchasing a replacement. It was embarrassing to be referred to the big and tall section of the men's department after the clerk measured my waist. The Spanish are small people, though, right? I was pleased to be able to communicate well enough to purchase a pair of wool-polyester pants that fit well enough (I hope) to save the day. Here's hoping they launder as well as the khakis that they will replace.
The second problem occurred this morning when I prepared to shave and found no shaving oil in my toiletries kit. I had unpacked and washed the kit at home and must not have put the traveler's shaving oil back when I repacked. I got a decent shave using the soap in the hotel and will shop this morning for some Spanish shaving cream. Life goes on, but the oil came in such a small container even with a three-month supply. If these are the only two problems that I encounter with my planning, the trip will be a major success, however.
This evening, I will meet the other Anglo-speaking members of our team at a tapas gathering, then tomorrow we board a bus heading for Avila, the site of the week-long Spanish immersion program where the Spaniards are linked one-on-one with English speakers. The problem there may be that I will not have Internet access for a week, so you may not hear from me for a while. While that will be a blessing for many of you, I will miss the contact with folks back home. If that is the case, you'll hear from me in a week or so. Adios.
January 14, 2005 - From Madrid, Spain:
Hola, todos! This will have to be quick because Paul, an Irish policeman from Dublin, will be back at this computer center shortly and we will return to our hostal to pack and prepare for our trip to Avila. There, we will teach English (actually, just speak English) to Spanish business executives. I met Paul and most of the other Anglos last evening at a tapas party hosted by the company that sells the sessions to the Spanish. The American who started the company here in Spain, after marrying a Spanish bride he met at the University of Texas, now owns a radio station which broadcasts English lessons and conversation to more than 100,000 listeners here in the Madrid area. It is a wonderful marketing ploy. He has a three-hour program daily where he ad-libs with several guests each day. His wife also has a program daily and their entire business is very successful. They are now planning to offer the same program in Italy, so I may get a shot at doing the same thing there sometime.
Paul and I had dinner after the tapas party with a retired, public school, dance teacher from Arizona and a computer technician from Ireland. We had a great time. The three others were very interested in the program they were entering and my experience in two previous sessions made them feel better about the task ahead. They had many questions, however. The Irish are delightful people with great senses of humor. They laughed at even my weakest material.
Paul is a 47 year-old, bachelor policeman who is having a great life, as he describes it. He said that if he had married, he would certainly have been separated by now, so he probably is living a great life. He has a couple of godsons and three brothers and sisters, so his life is pretty full. He is now a detective in Dublin, so I felt pretty safe walking the streets with him last evening. Actually, I feel absolutely safe even walking the streets by myself here in Madrid.
It reached 50 degrees yesterday, but the Madrilenos are still complaining about the cold. It felt great sitting in the park in the warm sun where I struck up a conversation with a retired English minister and his wife. Politics, religion, travel, and dining were all a part of the conversation. I was disappointed to break off the discussion to make the tapas party on time.
They tell me that there is no Internet access at the hotel outside of Avila, so I may be out of touch for a couple of weeks. I will do my best to keep you informed, but don't worry about me if I am quiet for a while. Hasta luego.
January 18, 2005 - From Barco de Avila, Spain
Hola, todos! I am writing from a laptop in another Anglo's room in the hotel while he takes a siesta on his bed. He was generous to offer this service despite needing sleep desperately. Last night was party night in the week's program and some of the younger folks didn't get to bed until 5:00 a.m. The English sessions began again promptly at 10:00, although breakfast was optional this morning. Usually, all meals are required with two Anglos and two Spaniards dining together to continue conversing in English. Today, we walked into the nearby village on an outing to have coffee in a couple of cafes in the village square. Then, it was back to the hotel (about 5 miles round-trip) for lunch. Johnnie, the young American, is using his siesta for some desperately needed sleep, but we will begin one-on-one sessions, one hour in length, beginning at 5:00 o'clock.
For those of you following on a map, I am currently near the village of Barco de Avila (I think that is the name), northwest of Madrid a couple of hours by bus. I will probably be unable to update the web page again until I return to Madrid, unless someone in the next session volunteers a laptop. There is not much time to communicate, either, unless I use my siesta time to do so.
Don't worry about me because these are luxurious accommodations with gourmet meals at lunch and dinner, complete with wonderful red and white Rioja.
I will say adios now and try to sneak out the door without waking Johnnie. Hasta luego.
January 23, 2005 - From Barco de Avila, Spain:
I have borrowed a laptop from Jack, a 70 year-old Illinois Anglo, who is in his room next door to mine at the hotel taking a siesta. I will sacrifice my siesta to update the web page for you folks.
The weather is gorgeous here. The temperatures are around 50 degrees each day with clear, sunny skies, but the air chills close to freezing each night. I still get in a walk with a Spanish speaker every morning to continue conversations in English. They are very appreciative of the Anglos and can't believe that we aren't paid for our work. They say that the Spanish would never do such a thing, but who knows?
The Anglos and Spanish participants have changed for this week, but the schedule and the work are the same. Five or six hours per day in one-to-one sessions conversing in English, three meal discussions rotating among the Spanish and the Anglos, and an hour's group session with improvisational skits, presentations by participants, etc. During last week's session, I dazzled the crowd, even the young folks, with a demonstration of the "Hambone." They made me do a repeat performance at another group session and during "graduation day" awarded me a certificate for being the person with the "Youngest Heart." I suspect that one had to be pretty old to win such an award, but I felt very complemented since there were others there who were very near my age.
This week, there are many younger folks here, but a couple of folks who are older than I. The old folks, mostly Anglos, tend to head for bed a lot earlier than the young ones who often stay awake until the wee hours. There have been Anglos here from California, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, The Florida Keys, New Zealand, Ireland, and England. Many of the participants are young, single, and very attractive. It is a delight to watch the chemistry.
The only problem to tell you about are the large holes that I burned into two pairs of under shorts while trying to dry them after laundering them in the bathroom sink. I didn't realize that those reading lights beside my bed where I hung them would get so hot. Fortunately, I smelled the burning cotton before the smoke alarm caused the hotel to be evacuated and I opened the window quickly. It was just another incident in the list of "things not to do" about which I could write a book.
If I don't get to borrow Jack's computer again, I will update you again from Madrid. Hasta la vista.
January 26, 2005 - From Barco de Avila, Spain:
SNOW! SNOW! SNOW! I can't believe it, but it snowed about 3/4 of an inch in Barco de Avila this morning. The stuff is just as bad as I remember it, too. I know that those of you in the Northeastern USA have been putting up with much more SNOW and significantly lower temps and I feel for you. But, give me a break; I just traveled across a couple of oceans and left my family to avoid this stuff. This is a real calamity for me, although the temperature this morning felt like it was in the 40's and I got in a good, brisk 45-minute walk while the snow was flying and before the wind really picked up.
I'm sure that things will be better tomorrow and I head south to Madrid and on to the warmer climes of Sevilla and/or Morocco after that. I guess that I am up to this test.
Other than that, things are pretty much the same here in Spain. You will be pleased to know that I have worn the underwear with scorched holes the size of the bottom of a coke bottle for the last two days and they are wearable. The holes, for those of you trying to imagine this not-so-pretty picture, are partially through the waistband, so the shorts themselves are in pretty decent shape - clean, too!
Lunch today was a form of paella made with pasta as the first course, followed by a rack of lamb for the second. The Rioja was great again and the dessert was a couple of small dips of homemade ice cream. A few more days of meals like this and the underwear won't fit anyway, so don't worry about the holes.
I will update you from Madrid, where I will rest for two nights before heading south. Fortunately, the language school will pick up the tab for the two nights in Madrid, so this couple of weeks has been very inexpensive. Not only that, but the dollar has improved against the Euro. All in all, it has been a successful two weeks. Adios.
January 29, 2005 - From Madrid, Spain:
I arrived back in Madrid last evening about 6:30 and, after finding my new digs in the hotel that the English school is providing for two nights, I rushed out to get my glasses repaired before the stores closed at 8:00. My newest pair of glasses ejected a lens during one of the nights of my second week in the English program. I awoke one morning to find the lens lying beside the frames where I had placed them before falling asleep. The backup pair that I brought made it through one day before requiring a little maintenance. Fortunately, the little Swiss pocketknife that I carry had a screwdriver that fit the screw that held the lens in the frame. Who would believe that both pairs would drop a lens within a week?
The good news is that the "Optica" store was able to repair them both in a matter of 15 minutes and there was no charge. Now, I am back to wearing the newest pair and I have a more dependable backup.
My clothes are being laundered as we speak and I will pick them up in an hour. Hopefully, I will be able to get them all back in the suitcase in time for tomorrow's train ride to Sevilla. Ah, warm Sevilla!! I am looking forward to temperatures in the 60's again. Mary, one of the Anglos in the class, is going to accompany me to Morocco. Relax, guys!! Mary is a grandmother several times over, a former college professor at NYU, and a really tough gal. She would have to be to endure two divorces, the establishment of a very successful catering business, and the subsequent destruction of that business after her best customers who were located in and around the World Trade Center no longer needed her services. She has retired and is now traveling frequently. She is very strong willed and independent, so our relationship may be short-lived. We have talked about this and she knows that her aggressive personality may make it difficult to contend with. We will see if we can tolerate one another long enough to provide companionship to and in Morocco. If not, we will go it alone. I will leave her in Morocco or back in Sevilla, after our return, if we can stand one another. She is planning to return to New York in a week or two.
The English program was fun, but was very hard work. I am unaccustomed to such a rigid schedule with sessions scheduled every hour. It was almost like being back in the classroom again. I met some wonderful people in this program and I recommend it to anyone who wants to experience a different culture. The close friendships that are developed with the Spanish speakers are amazingly intimate and saying good-bye was very difficult.
Now, I must say good-bye to you, because I must pick up my laundry and call Mary, who is staying in the hostal where I stayed when I arrived from the States. She doesn't yet know that I have purchased a ticket for her on the slow train to Sevilla (the bullet train was much more expensive and the slower train only took an hour and a half longer). I should be able to update you from Sevilla tomorrow or the next day. Hasta luego!
January 31, 2005 - From Sevilla, Spain:
It felt almost like reaching home when I arrived in Sevilla by train yesterday afternoon, because I have spent many weeks in years past in this beautiful city. I opted for the slower Talgo train from Madrid, because the bullet train (AVE) has gotten very expensive and only saves an hour. Price on the Talgo was 52 euros for the 3.5-hour trip. It was magical seeing the brightly colored oranges hanging like Christmas balls on all of the trees in Sevilla when we arrived in early afternoon.
Mary came to Spain with her real goal being to go to Morocco, which is why she is tagging along with me. In the process, however, she has fallen in love with Spain. On her last day in Madrid, while I was running around getting my laundry done and buying our train tickets, she walked miles exploring the capital city's interesting sites. When I picked her up at her hotel the next morning on the way to the train station, she exclaimed, "I just love this city!" Neither Rome nor Paris had impressed her as much in her trips to those famous European capitals.
Yesterday afternoon, as we strolled through the sunny, though still chilly, Sevilla, she began to wax ecstatic over the beauties of Sevilla, too. She is now trying to figure a way to move to Spain for a year or more, perhaps teaching English or U.S. political science at the university level.
Oh, in my previous discourse about the English classes, I forgot to mention that I won an award in each of the two weeks that I worked. There were as many as 30 people, counting both Anglos and Spaniards, in each of the classes and perhaps six awards were given each week. While I didn't win the award as the most desirable (sexy) person in either class, I did win an award called, "Person with the Youngest Heart." Interestingly, I won the same award both weeks, so I'm guessing that both groups really appreciated the "Hambone" that I performed, or maybe they enjoyed the stories of my extensive winter trips which seemed to amaze some.
Why they didn't give me the "most desirable person" award is a mystery to me, but I feel certain that it was either my new glasses or the many gorgeous young participants in their mid-twenties that deprived me of that honor. Perhaps I should look into a face-lift while I am here.
Today, I have two chores to perform. First, while Mary is taking a tour of the city, I will write a few postcards. Then, during tapas time this evening, I will go to the tapas bar where the owners befriended me three years ago. The owner, Manuel, who speaks no English, is fascinated by American Indians and their philosophy of life. I have brought him and Sandra, his significant other, two Navajo necklaces and a couple of other small Indian trinkets. I'm sure they will be pleased and it will be great to see them again.
I just received an email from Gumercindo, a member of the first class of Spaniards that I taught. He is an unbelievably creative architect, guitarist, songwriter, and singer who lives in Cadiz, which is on our way to Morocco. He insisted that I stop to see him so that I can taste what he calls, "the fantastic food of Cadiz." It is impossible to pass up that invitation, but I will wait until my return from Morocco when Mary should be on her way home. I wouldn't feel right barging in with another guest after such a warm invitation.
The environment in the English schools in Barco de Avila was rife with cold and flu bugs and I escaped until two days ago with mega doses of vitamin C. I forgot to take the vitamin that day and caught a cold immediately. There may not be any scientific link between vitamin C and cold prevention, but I swear by the stuff. I went through a miserable day yesterday with a runny nose and cough, but after taking the mega doses last night and this morning, I am feeling pretty good again. Now, I need to find a new supply of vitamin C, since I have exhausted my supply.
I should be able to update more regularly now that I have no teaching schedule to follow, but once I leave Sevilla the problem of Internet access may arise again, especially in Morocco. Adios.
February 3, 2005 - From Tangiers, Morocco (North Africa):
Talk about culture shock! A stroll down the main street of Tangiers last night provided a jolt of Muslim culture. Men wearing jalabas, the prayer robe with a pointed hood that covers them for their five daily prayers, coffee shops full of men (no women permitted), and very few women on the streets gave me a quick introduction to this male dominated society. It didn't leave me with a very warm feeling, however, even though some of the men wore the bright and colorful, traditional red fez.
Mary and I suffered the inevitable blowup of our relationship after she continuously abused the "guide" we had hired when we exited the ferry at the port. After checking in at an old, once classy hotel that he recommended, he took us to a local restaurant where we dined on a four course meal of vegetable soup (Mary didn't like it and left it sit) and a chicken pie crisply cooked with cinnamon and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Mary ate the entire pie and then went back for seconds and thirds of the dish of chicken and couscous that followed. She also ate two of the three shortbread cookies that completed the meal (okay, I confess to eating the other one). Mary then berated both the waiter and our guide about the quality of the meal and the price ($12 each, including my half bottle of wine). I paid the bill since Mary had forgotten to keep any euros with which to pay - she only had U.S. dollars of large denominations.
On the way back to the hotel, she berated our guide several more times in her abrasive New York way, including comments like, "I have Moroccan friends," and "I cook Moroccan food at home and this was over-priced garbage." I finally had enough
and blasted her with some of my finest golf course language, expressing the fact that I don't come to someone else's country and denigrate their food and disrespect them. She responded, "They don't respect you."
At the hotel, she fired our guide with, "You're not my guide, you're his guide!" So, delightfully, our relationship has ended. She is apparently on her own in a country not overly friendly towards women, but such is life. In prior discussions I had warned her that the only thing that really gets me angry is when someone tries to "abuse a person they view as being of lower status." Unfortunately, Mary crossed that line several times. Actually, even after a solid night's sleep, I feel pretty good about what I said and did.
Today, Akmed and I will tour Tangiers to see the sights. Last night, we ate in the Casbah, but I am sure that there is more to see in this ancient Arabic city. Tomorrow morning after breakfast, I will return on the ferry to Tarifa, the southern most city in Spain, from whence we made the 35-minute voyage here.
I will feel much safer in Spain, but Tangiers is not nearly as intimidating as some of the Central American border crossings that I have endured. Things are fine for me, but if you need to worry you might consider a couple of prayers for Mary, although her New York abrasiveness will probably see her through. Adios.
February 4, 2005 - From Cadiz, Spain:
It feels great to be back in Spain after my first two nights on the African continent. I covered the 14 kilometers (about 9 miles) across the Straits of Gibraltar in a little over 40 minutes and I was happily back on the much more familiar territory of Andalusia.
What was Tangiers like? I would describe it as dirty, hectic, poor, male-dominated, and sinister, but also colorful and mysteriously intriguing, too. Everyone there is trying to turn a buck. The guides at the port, the Berber women at the fantastically colorful market, and the shop keepers and carpet salesmen along the dirty narrow streets of the Casbah are all eagerly trying to earn a livelihood.
They are talented, sometimes aggressive salesmen. I am strong, however, and only purchased four Moroccan carpets. Thank God, my credit card company refused both of the purchases, totaling thousands of dollars. These are fantastic oriental carpets, which would bring thousands more back home, and I did want two - one small and one large for the kitchen. Capital One was suspicious, however, about such a large purchase coming from Morocco and they refused the purchases both times I attempted to complete a sale. The machinations the salesmen went through after the rejections were something to behold. One even showed up later at my hotel with a fax from his bank, requesting my social security number, my mother's maiden name, etc. Needless to say, I refused to divulge that information.
It was probably a good thing that Capital One rejected the sales, because I made the purchase each time partially to escape the heavy pressure by as many as six pretty sinister-looking salesmen. This is a bargain hunter's paradise, but it is not for the faint of heart. It is like Mexico in that one never pays what is initially asked. It is always necessary to bargain, so you're never quite certain if you made a good deal. It is also the kind of place where they offer you hot green tea with mint before making a sales presentation and you worry the whole time about the tea being drugged, since you are all alone most times with a multitude of salesmen.
I hope that pretty well describes the climate of the place, but in retrospect I would say that the locals were quite friendly - they just appeared sinister. I should have some great pictures of the unusual market, the Muslim clothing, and the crowded, narrow streets. It was a very interesting side-trip and the air temperature was a balmy 56 degrees. It is great to be back in Spain, however.
Incidentally, I left a note for Mary that said: "I left on the 9:00 ferry. Have a great time in Morocco and a safe trip home."
Now, even more fantastic news: I am staying in the flat of one of the students from my first week in the English program. He met me at the bus station when I arrived in town from Tarifa. Gumercindo was the talented architect about whom I spoke earlier. You'll remember that he emailed me wondering when I would visit to try the great food of his city. His flat (apartment) doubles as his architectural offices and four other architects work here. He is a bachelor and only requires a small space to live, although he is nearing completion of a deal on office space in which to move his business.
I will sleep on a sofa bed in his living room, but this place is on the fifth floor overlooking the ocean and the beaches. Furthermore, he tells me that it would be an insult for me to pay for meals. Something about the Spanish culture, but I will continue to try to pay for my meals. I feel uncomfortable being a moocher.
Gumer is a 32 year-old, guitar-playing songwriter who has a great sense of humor, though his English still needs a little work. It should come as no surprise that he knows most of the young ladies in town. Even better, tonight is the first night of Carnival, which is supposed to be spectacular here. It is one of the two best in Spain, the other being on the Canary Islands. Watching Gumer and the young ladies with all of the music, dancing, costumes, and drinking should make this weekend a real treat. I just lucked into it, but I am delighted. Stay tuned. Hasta luego!
February 5, 2005 - From Carnival in Cadiz, Spain:
Today has been absolutely fantastic and it is just 8:00 p.m. I have been to Rio de Janeiro, I have seen the first parade of Mardi Gras, and have even tasted some of the celebrations in Key West and San Francisco, but this is the most fun of anything that I have done. It would be even more sensational if I could speak Spanish fluently. That will be my commitment for the next visit here - to know the language better.
This afternoon's portion of Carnival had floats with up to 50 people, almost all men, singing original songs with lyrics ridiculing things that happened in the past year. These floats were slowly pulled to a new location a hundred yards or so away by the attached tractor and a repeat performance began. The event was held in and around one of the plazas int he newer section of town, which allowed for more people to congregate around the floats. We were standing right next to the floats as they moved to near our location, as close as six feet away for most performances. The participants are dressed in funny costumes and really gesture passionately with their singing. They hold nothing sacred, ridiculing the Catholic Church, the Spanish Royal Family, gay marriage (just made legal in Spain), the Mafia, bicycle racing, and just about anything else. Some of the voices in the choruses are great, but all are enthusiastic and their voices seem to improve as the hours go by and they get some more manzanilla.
Gumer and I left the house as 12 noon, had a bite for breakfast at a close-by coffee shop and started walking. We walked at least five miles up the promenade along the beach and I had to take off both my fleece liner and my coat, because it got too warm. It was still cool in the shade, but it must have been at least 60 degrees today.
We found the plaza where the choruses were moving around and singing, but stopped for some tapas at a crowded bar famous for its seafood before we returned to the thick of things. I bought a platter of sea urchins that they cut open for me and I ate the eggs inside. Gumer doesn't care for them, so I had to eat the whole serving. A couple at the next table explained that I was to shake out the juice on the ground and just eat the eggs. This made them better, because the first few that I ate only tasted like sand and sea water. The shaking took care of that. The other bites we ate were fried shark, calamari, and cuttlefish and all were light and delicious, fried in olive oil. Gumer took his digital camera along and took a few pictures, which I will have him email. My less technologically advanced first rolls of film are on the way and should be posted shortly.
The crowds got increasingly larger as the day went along and it was packed so tightly at times that you couldn't move. I wouldn't have imagined that I could enjoy all of the packed crowds, but it was fantastic. After we met Pancho, a friend Gumer's, we bought a bottle of Manzanilla, the sweet white wine of the area, and consumed it in small plastic cups. We added some of it to Sprite to make a cooler, but it was pretty tasty by itself. The streets were strewn with bottles, cups, confetti, spray string, and were really a mess. The bars in the neighborhood were doing a land office business with bars set up outside and numerous bartenders trying to keep up with the demand, which was frenetic. The bartenders were serving tapas, listening to the music, and saying hello to familiar faces. At one bar, all of the employees, both men and women, were dressed as nuns.
Gumer and I then walked the 5 miles home after being on our feet for six and a half hours straight. My feet were starting to swell and my legs were killing me, but I wouldn't complain. Gumer left me in his flat to take a siesta and headed out to buy us a costume for tonight. He is planning on coveralls, a red nose, and a wig for his friend Pancho, and the two of us. Do you understand that? We will be starting all over again this evening, this time in costume! Gumer says that no one would take to you if you weren't in costume, so I'll do my part.
Tonight, we will go into the old part of town where we strolled last night. It was very quiet then because there was a costume ball and not much activity on the street. The tapas bars were packed, however, and Gumer knew the best ones. We ran into a drunk in one (quite an exception) and we had a great time with him, especially when he decided that I needed a hat and he put his Greek captain's hat on me. This guy spoke a little English because he spent two years in India, but he was so drunk that he first kept leaning on me, making Gumer and the couple tending bar laugh. I played around with that and the guy brightened up and started having fun with us. Before it was over he kissed and hugged both Gumer and me and we became the best of friends.
I have tried so many different tapas and I want to write down the recipes to use as hors d'hoevres at home, but I just don't have time. I slept for about an hour and Gumer still hasn't returned. He has either run into some girls (he and Pancho are bachelors and are in constant pursuit) or he is having a problem locating costumes.
Tonight's activities will involve smaller groups of up to 15 singers, etc, singing while walking through the narrow streets. Gumer says that we will get crushed. He and Pancho are planning to stay at one location, the best tapas bar that we were in last night, and let the groups come around to us, but you know about the best-laid plans. I don't know how much more these legs can take.
Tomorrow, I am planning on watching the activities, then taking a late bus back to Sevilla. There, I will pick up the two bottles of wine that I left in my little hostal and head for Portugal. I will try to update you about tonight and tomorrow's activities after I arrive in Sevilla.
Unbelievable!! This is a Carnival that you ought to plan to attend some day!! Adios, it's party time!
February 7, 2005 - From Sevilla, Spain:
Mercifully, the first precipitation that I experienced on the trip (I refuse to accept the snow in Barco de Avila) began to fall at 3:30 a.m. on Sunday morning. It broke up the throngs of costumed people milling about the streets of old Cadiz and listening to the small choral groups who continued to ridicule the events of the past year.
The nights of Carnival are like Halloween on steroids! Almost everyone is in costume. I saw pregnant nuns, rabbits, American football players, Prince Charming and Cinderella, a group dressed in condoms, and other costumes too numerous to mention. Gumer and I were quite popular as chefs with red noses. A number of people commented to me about my attire - I had no clue what they were saying, but responded with, "Si, Si!" It was fine when Gumer and I were side by side but that was difficult in the throngs of people. When we got separated, the "Si, Si" seemed to appease those who complimented me.
Thousands of people crushed against me day and night and not one thought (well, maybe one in the beginning) about pickpockets or security. These folks are unbelievably law abiding and the only place I saw police was on the main road directing traffic at an exceptionally busy intersection. There were probably drugs, etc. among the young people, because Gumer pointed out the smell of hashish a couple of times, but everything was very peaceful and unthreatening.
There were others my age roving the streets, eating tapas from the temporary bars set up outside bars, drinking and reveling, but the night belonged to the young! Fortunately, I had a siesta while Gumer bought the costumes, so I handled the wee hours pretty well. Gumer didn't have time for his siesta, so he was at the end of his rope by the time the rains fell. I advised him, of course, that I seemed to be a tad younger than he and able to take the late hours better. In reality, I was ready for the sack when I crawled under the blankets of the sofa at 4:00 a.m.
Sunday morning, I awoke at 9:00, used one of the six computers in Gumer's apartment (for the architects that work there) to update you folks, then showered and shaved at about 10:30. Still no sign of Gumer behind the closed door of his bedroom, so I read my novel until 12:00 when I decided to stroll outside for a little breakfast. I returned, started reading the novel again and awoke an hour later at 1:30 p.m. - still no Gumer. He finally awoke at 1:45 p.m., his batteries finally recharged. After his morning cleanup, we headed to the old town in his car with my packed suitcase safely stowed in the back. We stopped at the terminal and I purchased a ticket for my return to Sevilla on the 6:00 p.m. bus. It was 3:00 and there was still time to get lunch and catch the final excitement of Carnival.
This time, the large choral groups slowly circled the small streets that surrounded the market and stopped every 50 - 100 yards in front of a new audience and entertained with their hilarious songs. Remember, there was no amplification and the vocals were only accompanied by three or four acoustical guitars in the center of the float. The crowds were so tight on the very narrow streets that I worried that someone would get run over by the wheels of the tractors or the floats. This was spectacular entertainment and even though I don't speak their language, I got goose bumps and tears in my eyes just for having the opportunity to experience this unique cultural event.
The crowds contained people of all ages and I saw several older folks (yes, even older than I) laughing and handing the singers more manzanilla to soothe their vocal chords. I snapped several great photos before the skies opened with a downpour that ended the singing. Not many people left the area, however, hoping that the rains would end. In the downpour, Gumer introduced me to several of his friends, three architects and a psychiatrist who returned from the Carnival from London where he is working and trying to learn English. It is amazing how warmly they greeted this old-timer and how they seemed absolutely thrilled to be able to practice their very broken English. Then, all too quickly, it was time to catch the bus and Gumer drove me to the station. We shared a warm embrace and I was off - Carnival for me had ended. Actually, it lasts another week and Gumer will be getting two more house guests from our English class next weekend. He will enjoy these house guests more, since both are lovely young ladies and Gumer is on the prowl once more. He is a class act and a really great guy - a real professional!
Oh, yes, I was able to insist on paying for a few meals and an occasional bottle of manzanilla, although Gumer fought me every step of the way. I kept telling him it was my turn, but he would say, "Your turn will be in Philadelphia" (when he visits me). I did enough so that I didn't feel like a moocher, but it was a battle - he showed me fantastic hospitality.
Those of you worried about Mary can relax. As I left my hostal this morning for breakfast, there was Mary walking 25 yards ahead of me. She was staying in the hostal I had showed her and was headed for my favorite breakfast place. Not wanting to open old wounds, or even to collect the $25 she owes me, I opted to branch off and head to a different cafe for breakfast. Sometimes, I really appreciate the merits of traveling alone.
Today is haircut day, and those of you who have followed my previous trips will remember that I got a really bad one here in Sevilla a couple of years ago. I will avoid that shop and take my chances elsewhere.
After resting one more day, I will get on the road again. I am planning to head directly (actually, a stop in Faro, Portugal, will be required) for Cascais, near Lisbon. There I will await the February 24th arrival of my wife and another couple. We have traveled much of Europe with these close friends, but neither they nor my wife have been to Portugal. I will eagerly await their arrival and relax for a couple of weeks, since I feel like I have been on the road a long time. I'll update you from Portugal. Luego.
February 8, 2005 - From Sevilla, Spain:
Bad news: I have to spend one more day in one of my favorite cities so that I can catch the express bus to Lisbon tomorrow. It only runs three days a week, but it also only takes five hours to reach Portugal's capital. I took the slow bus a few years ago and it stopped in every little town. It would probably take eight hours or more to reach Lisbon on that route. The woman at the ticket booth offered me a senior citizens discount of about eight dollars and I took it without shame, because of the devalued dollar. Otherwise, I would have had too much pride and vanity to admit that I deserved such a discount. How did she know by looking at me that I might qualify?
I know! I got a haircut yesterday and it exposed considerably more gray hair. But what a great haircut! As bad as the last one was a few years ago here in Sevilla, this one is just that good - probably better than I get at home. I wandered the narrow streets behind the Plaza de Toros (bull ring), looking for a barbershop and as I turned one corner, there it was - a two-seat shop cutting only men's hair. The bad haircut came from a beauty shop that cut both men's and women's hair. This barber took a lot of time and had a lot of pride in his work as he trimmed my hair, using mostly scissors, but masterfully using clippers, too. The cost was pretty high at about $18 and the hairspray he used left me skeptical as I exited the shop. I asked a woman who was sweeping her sidewalk to take my picture, so that I would remember the moment (she must have thought me crazy). But, when I shampooed and combed my hair later, I was pleasantly surprised. The haircut was great! The only problem was that there is that exposure of gray hair that apparently indicates my senior citizen status. No matter, it will grow back and people will think that I am 40 once more.
I want to discuss the clothes that I packed in the one suitcase that I brought, because they are working quite nicely in all kinds of weather. I will do that later, however, when I have little else to tell you about. I will talk to you again in Cascais, near Lisbon. Adios.
February 10, 2005 - From Cascais, Portugal:
The express bus from Sevilla to Lisbon only stopped once for a 10-minute coffee break and one time at a terminal in another town for a few minutes, but we made the Lisbon terminal in exactly five hours. I sat immediately behind the driver and had a great view of the territory through which we passed. When we first left Sevilla, we followed the four-lane highway that I took on my first scooter ride from Bologna to Portugal and it brought back memories. It even made me shake my head a little at the distance that I traveled in that odyssey. Twenty five or thirty kilometers later, however, we exited the four-lane highway and headed directly through the hilly interior of Spain and Portugal on a two-lane road that was a more direct route than the coastal one I had previously used.
The temperature reading on the digital clock/thermometer display on the very modern bus kept increasing, finally reaching 19 degrees Celsius by the time we arrived in Lisbon. Until I managed the metro to the train station for the Cascais train, the temperature had risen farther and had climbed to 70 degrees (21 C) when I arrived in Cascais - what a great welcome. I needed to take off my fleece sweatshirt to make my way to the little hotel where I booked a room. I have stayed here in my other trips to Cascais and the location (and price) is perfect. I am only half a block from the train station where the hourly train to Lisbon only takes 30 minutes in a ride along the sea and river. Today, I ran into a New Jersey couple and he advised me that the train price is reduced by 50% (to 80 cents) for senior citizens. I can't wait for the hair to grow back and hide the gray.
For those of you following on a map, and I know there are several of you, follow the river from Lisbon toward the sea and you will find Cascais. Actually, it is about where the nostril should be on the nose of Portugal's face, if you know what I mean. It is a delightful little fishing village that has been discovered by the tourists, but it hasn't completely been destroyed. There is still the daily fish auction, which I just attended, and I was impressed both by the catch and the computerization of the process. Bidding is all done on hand computers with the results tallied on an overhead screen. There were only 21 bidders, about half women and men, probably representing wholesalers who bid on the plastic trays full of varieties of fish. Many orange, plastic trays of octopus, flounder-like fish, stingrays, and a variety of other species first passed over a scale, then down a belt in front of the bidders. By the time the tray reached the end, a computer had printed out the buyer and the amount bid and deposited a slip of paper into the tray. Men then took the trays and placed them in piles for delivery. All in all, a very interesting process, which I followed from the unloading of the fish at the dock, to the final bidding process. No wonder I am exhausted today - this is difficult work, and it takes me all day to do it.
Last night, I had some wonderful grilled squid, here called lulas, and interestingly enough, the New Jersey couple had also eaten in the same small restaurant after arriving yesterday. He had the lulas, too. I found this restaurant the last time I was in town on one of the small back streets and Fred (from New Jersey) said the place is now in the Rough Guide tourist book for bargain places to eat. Salad, boiled potatoes, a full pitcher of wine too much for me to drink, the lulas, and the chocolate mousse, for under $10. No wonder it's listed in the tourist book.
Today's temperature plummeted to about 68 degrees with more beautiful sunshine and I took my pants (remember the ones I bought in Madrid?) to a tailor shop to have them altered. They can be picked up on Monday. I also had plans to take the train to Lisbon, but the second of my two naps seemed to make that inadvisable. There is always tomorrow. Boa Tarde.
February 15, 2005 - From Cascais, Portugal:
Holy cow!!! I haven't updated you in five days. Time flies when you are having fun and the temperature is 70 degrees. What can I say: the almond trees are in bloom, the flowers are bright and colorful, the grass is green, the views of the ocean and tiny beaches, the little fishing boats in the harbor, and the colorful streets paved in small, ornately placed stones must have blinded me. Other than that, however, nothing sensational has happened.
I spend most days arising around 8:00 a.m. and slowly making my way to breakfast in the hotel by 9:00, but today I found a spectacular pastry shop where I will breakfast henceforth. Then, I usually stroll a block up the hill across from the train station where I check the day's email. Usually, there is at least one email, but I am feeling a little abandoned over here. What, you're struggling so much with the snow that you can't even drop me a short line?
I ventured into Lisbon on Saturday night to be certain that I could find the restaurant to which I want to take my wife and two friends when they arrive. No problem. The 40 minute train ride and a ride on the short, but steep inclined railway up the hill to Barrio Alto (the high neighborhood) brought me to the very old, very dirty neighborhood where I stayed on my original visit to Lisbon several years ago. The restaurant was right where I left it and the food was absolutely outstanding again. They are going to love the place.
Since I left you last, I have dined on spit-roasted chicken in my room, a lovely stew of rice and octopus in a quaint little restaurant, a crepe full of bits of ham, spinach, and cheese, an octopus salad, and, of course, another portion of grilled squid which is one of my all time favorites.
The night in Lisbon was special, although considerably more expensive than the under $10 meals that I eat in the local restaurants here. The appetizers placed on the table and charged to you only if you partake (of course, I partook all) included a plate of sliced, prociutto-type ham, a plate of gigantic olives, farm style cheese (a slightly heavier and tastier version of Pennsylvania Dutch cup cheese), a basket of bread, and a basket of toast squares (for the cheese, of course). For my main course, I order a half-portion of grouper Cataplana, which is served and steam-cooked in a copper tureen with the grouper covered by onion and red and green peppers, accompanied by potatoes. I skipped dessert, but with a glass of red house wine and all of that food, I could barely make it back down the hill to the train station. But, the meal was one to remember. It should be for $31, but every once in a while one has to splurge. I don't know about you, but my description of the food has made me hungry and it is almost 11:30.
The only problem that I have encountered here has been the losing of my Portuguese language book. I must have left it here in the computer center where another tourist took it with them instead of turning it in as lost. I am really operating blind now, without even a dictionary to help with this difficult language. It really does make it more interesting when ordering meals, though. The crepe that I had last night was a complete surprise when it arrived. I was expecting an Italian meal in the little Italian restaurant where I ventured. At 4.75 euros, however, it was pretty good. There, I've gone and done it - made myself hungry again. I've got to run and find something to eat. I'll update you soon. Adeus.
February 16, 2005 - From Cascais, Portugal:
Would you believe it? I arrived in Portugal in time for another national election. Just what I needed! My hotel gives me four local channels only - not even the deadly and repetitive CNN. Just like at home, though, much TV time is given to comments by the candidates. I haven't picked a favorite, although the same charges of corruption, etc., are evident despite not understanding a word. Often, I watch TV with the sound muted, but the politicians go on. If the election would end, perhaps there would be more American movies broadcast, which are done in the original language with subtitles in Portuguese. That is wonderful, like a breath of fresh air in my room.
We have had three days of mourning that have also dominated the news here in Portugal. The eldest and last remaining of the three shepherds who saw the virgin Mary at Fatima in 1917 died at 97 years of age a couple of days ago. She was nine years old when she saw the apparition and spent her life as a nun. The funeral service was broadcast live last night and it featured close-ups of the glass-covered open casket. Thousands lined the streets of Fatima and Coimbra and waved goodbye to her with white hankies as the casket passed by. It was a colorful spectacle and meant a lot to the catholic population of the country.
I must thank those who responded to my plea for a few emails. I arrived at the email center to find 8 (eight) emails and after a short trip back to my hotel found three more waiting. It felt great to make connections to the English-speaking world again. I will have to plead for correspondence more often.
Today, the goal is to walk to Estoril, the vacation destination of European royalty in years' past, where the largest casino in the world is located. Yes, they tell me it is bigger than Monaco. I have been there before, but never ventured inside. The fountains in front of the place were entertaining enough on that trip, which is only about a three-mile walk along the ocean. Perhaps this year I will venture inside. I will probably gain admittance now that I am back in the well-patched, black khakis while the jeans are resting. Adeus.
February 18, 2005 - From Cascais, Portugal:
Another sunny day here in Cascais, but the evenings have grown quite cool and temperatures seem to dip into the lower 40's (I don't carry a thermometer). Like many others, I still sit a couple of hours a day in the warm sunshine, drinking coffee or cokes, having lunch, doing a little writing, and just enjoying the ocean views. It is a delightful place.
I have a couple of bits of news: Somehow, the slick salesmen in Morocco managed to get Capital One to approve the purchase of two carpets, which have been delivered to my home. My wife got quite a surprise when she returned home from work one day to find them on the front step. Now, will she like the things or will I have to maneuver Capital One into canceling the purchase while I return the carpets? They are heavy and she hasn't had time to open the package, since she is getting packed to travel here next week.
I might just offer them for sale at cost, especially if the second pair of carpets shows up, and they would be quite a bargain, since I have already negotiated a fantastic price without a middleman. If you are interested, you'd better let me know before I post them on eBay®, which would be interesting since I have never done that before.
Next, I misadvised you earlier by informing you that Estoril had the largest casino in the world. According to as significant an authority as the doorman at the casino, who discussed this yesterday at length with me in English when I arrived an hour before the casino opened at 3:00 p.m., the casino is the largest in Europe and third largest in the world, after one in Las Vegas and another in Macao. Macao was also a Portuguese colony and is now jointly governed by China and Portugal, much like Hong Kong and Britain, and will revert to China in about 50 years. I told you this guy was an authority on things.
The casino will not be able to afford to expand with the money they got from me, but I won't be able to pay for the carpet with my winnings as I had planned, either. It is difficult to play slot machines when you can't read or understand a word of the directions on the machine. I'm not much of a gambler, anyway; I find the process boring, but it sure is different when you can't figure out which of the six or eight buttons to push. I learned that one of the buttons calls an attendant, who promptly paid me the one-euro credit that I had on my machine and gave me a proper, computer generated receipt. He tried to help me, first in Portuguese, then in Spanish, but I was pretty hopeless and gave up after making a 20-euro donation to the casino enterprise. Actually, the casino adventure was a lot less expensive than the carpet expedition to Tangiers, now that I think about it.
There is good news, however. I have found the Portuguese book that I thought was lost. Apparently, when I changed rooms at the hotel and gathered everything in my arms for my trip up the elevator, I put the book in my dirty laundry bag where I found it yesterday. I wish that I had it in my pocket while I was sitting at the slot machine. It may have solved everything. At least I know that I am not suffering from dementia, although now I can't find the Spanish dictionary, which had a great conversion thermometer for determining Fahrenheit temperatures. One thing at a time, though; I'll go through the dirty laundry again. Stay tuned! Adeus.
February 20, 2005 - From Lisbon, Portugal:
My computer center is closed on Sunday, so I took the train into Lisbon this morning and am in a modern computer center in one of that city's main squares. It is a gorgeous day with temperatures approaching 70 in the bright sunshine and the ride in along the beaches was really beautiful. There were many fishermen fishing from the shore and quite a few joggers in shorts getting in their daily workouts. I only mention the weather and outdoor activity because of the snow forecast for the northeastern U.S. today. I know it must be cold and miserable there.
I walked to the nearby marina yesterday and strolled around the extensive shops and restaurants housed there, before stumbling upon a Spanish tapas bar. That is where I lunched and satisfied a craving that had been developing for the delicious Spanish hors d'oeuvres.
Last night, Paul bought dinner for me and his parents, Fred and Betty, after they invited me to share the meal with them. It was Paul's last night in Portugal and by now he is on the plane headed back to Prague, where he has taught English for more than a dozen years. He really enjoyed his stay in Portugal and returned to the Czech Republic with a considerable tan. Paul offered to serve as my guide if I passed through Prague on my way back home, which is still a possibility. I have a difficult time making a commitment to do that when I see the temperatures in mainland Europe. The daily high temperatures are in the 30's and I don't find that attractive at all. Perhaps, it will warm a little in the next couple of weeks while I am showing my wife and friends around Portugal.
On the train, I also learned from a couple of Dutch employees of Hewlett Packard, here for a training session, that they were staying outside of Cascais on a golf course. My ears perked up and, after getting the name of the place from them, I will make my way out there tomorrow. It will probably be too expensive to play, but there may be a driving range where I can get in a few licks. I haven't hit a ball for quite a few months now and certainly need the practice. It would be great to get ahead of the guys back home who are restricted to shoveling snow right now. Adeus.
February 23, 2005 - From Cascais, Portugal:
Socrates wins!! Socrates wins! The national election is over and Jose Socrates of the Socialist Party carried a record setting majority in the legislature here. If the government works like I think it does - similar to Britain's, that means that he will be the new Prime Minister. Imagine somebody from the left won a national election. I know this will shock all of my conservative friends, but perhaps America will not be stuck with Bush-like administrations forever. Although I couldn't understand a word of the debates or speeches, I would observe that Socrates (what a great name for a politician!) was the most photogenic and by far the best orator. That is enough politics for the day, actually that is quite enough for years to come - two national elections within six months! Maybe now I'll see some more American movies on TV.
I found the golf course the other day, but couldn't hit any balls because the little pro shop in the hotel was closed for lunch. I had taken a public bus out to the course at a cost of 1.44 euros and was proud that I had avoided a 5 euro taxi charge. I ate lunch at the resort hotel, however, and was soaked 10.50 euros for a club sandwich and 3.50 more for orange juice. So, I won one and lost one in the search for an economical vacation. Cheap transportation and an expensive lunch - I walked back to my hotel in Cascais to do penance for spending so much for lunch. That was not well advised, however, since it took me an hour and a half to get back, but I really had nothing else planned for the day. I really slept well that night, however.
Yesterday was laundry day. Here, I pulled off an economic coup. I had gone to the nearby shopping center - a small, but modern three-story building with a food court on the top floor that provides a spectacular ocean view. There, I got a price of 25 euros for washing and drying my laundry. With the dollar's plunge, that would mean that I would have to pay $33 for a bag of laundry! Needless to say, I beat a hasty retreat to the local Giant, which is only a block away and where I took laundry in past years. The Giant is called Jumbo here and they did my laundry for 8 euros, about $10.50. A victory for bargain vacations! I folded the laundry myself, which will really make me appreciate the comforts of home when I return, since the laundry is done for me there.
Today I will head for another golf course, which may be closer. I will be sure to eat lunch before I get to the course, which is in Estoril. Tomorrow morning my visitors arrive and I am excited about showing them this beautiful country. I may not have as much time to update while they are visiting, but I will do the best I can. Ciao!
I hit 50 golf balls today at the Estoril Golf Club, after winding my way there by bus. They charged me 4 euros for a token for the ball machine, and then I followed signed and walked a stone-covered trail alongside several golf holes to reach a pretty nice range. They were watering the tee as I arrived, so I had to hit from mats, which were in pretty good shape.
I found the old man who managed the range in a nearby building. He was 73 years old and only had two teeth in his upper jaw, one at each corner of his mouth. He was very helpful and permitted me to sort through the old clubs that were there for just such use. I found a beautiful Calloway five iron with a graphite senior shaft and an AVDP eight iron with a stiff shaft, before locating the real gem of the place - a bubble-shafted Taylor Made driver with an 8.5 degree face. Most readers have fallen asleep by this time, but my golfing friends will appreciate the clubs that I had to use.
Fortunately, I have an adjustable swing and was able to hit all of the clubs remarkably well. I expected much worse after a three-month layoff. Okay, I came over top a few and ducked them left, but I was pleased. The old-timer also gave me a shag bag full of balls and a putter to use on the chipping green nearby. There were a couple of practice traps, too, but I'll save that for later. I was concerned about hitting too many shots and straining my back after not using these muscles in so long.
Which brings me to the most interesting part of the entire day. When I took the clubs and shag bag back to the old-timer, we got into a fascinating 20-minute conversation. Fascinating, because he spoke nary a word of English and I have mastered about ten words in Portuguese. He has a son who married an American woman and now lives in Seattle where he has a cute granddaughter. I know, because we exchanged pictures of grandchildren. He was so excited when he found out I was an American!! Oh, he also has had surgery on his back, but still has a pain going down his arm. His most recent surgery was to remove his prostate (which sounds remarkably similar in Portuguese), and the scar runs from here to there. He didn't know the name Seattle, but pulled out a tiny map of the USA and Canada, which had an X on it and the word Seattle scrawled in the margin.
It was just a delightful conversation and he told me to be sure to return. Honestly, conversing with him was even better than hitting the balls. Making contact with someone who doesn't speak your language gives me a real rush. Adeus.
February 28, 2005 - From Albufeira, Portugal:
Three days in the Lisbon area have convinced my three visitors that this is a spectacular place. They have been impressed with the food, the friendliness of the people, the white houses in the little towns, and the natural beauty of the isolated beaches marked with large rocks, cliffs, and very blue water. They left Cascais with a complete awareness about how someone could spend the entire winter there.
It took a little more than three hours in our rental van on the two-lane road that we chose as our route to the Algarve. We crossed the large, Golden Gate inspired bridge over the Tagus River and proceeded south on a four lane toll road for an hour or so before taking the much more picturesque smaller road through the cork oak trees of the Alentejo region. We stopped in that area for a regional Sunday dinner that treated us to dishes none of us had seen before. I had a bean and bacalao (dried codfish) stew that reminded me of a very unique chili; others enjoyed a bean and pumpkin stew, bacalao croquettes, and a grilled mixed meat platter that included pork, beef, chorizo, and blood sausage. Everyone enjoyed their meal and nobody had anything that they could have ordered at home, except for the drinks.
There has been no rain in the Algarve since August 14th, but we drove in a light rain the entire day and the rain has persisted through the night. The farmers of the area must appreciate the weather, but today's sightseeing will not be as spectacular because of the dreary day. The beautiful fishing village made up entirely of white houses with red tile roofs will still be beautiful enough for my visitors, I'm certain.
I lived here for two months on another of my European odysseys, so it was a little like coming home when we arrived in town late yesterday afternoon. A quick visit to my old apartment building a block from the ocean awakened memories for me and my wife and friends were very impressed with the awesome beauty surrounding the apartment building across the street from a huge, lavishly appointed time-share hotel.
Today, we tour the little towns of the Algarve. I will report on our progress when time allows. Ciao!
March 3, 2005 - From Aveiro, Portugal (south of Oporto):
We are enroute back from Oporto, heading for Lisbon so that my visitors can prepare for their flight home on Sunday. After that, I will be alone again for another six weeks.
We traveled from Albufeira in the Algarve yesterday, visiting the U.N. Heritage City of Evora, before spending the night in Santorem. Today, we visited the holy site of Fatima, which was a very impressive and moving experience. From there we visited the uniquely beautiful city of Oporto, situated along the Douro River. We had a beautiful sunny day with temperatures close to 60 degrees in which to enjoy this northern Portuguese city.
We visited the Graham Port Cave (actually just a large warehouse), which houses all of the Graham Port wines, some of them in excess of 40 years old. They gave us three glasses to drink and all were delicious, although I merely tasted since I was responsible for driving the group. We headed south from Oporto, getting lost only once, and landed in Aviero for the evening. Tomorrow, we will stop in Navarre and Obidos before arriving back in the Lisbon area. I am sure it will be warmer there. Adeus.
March 6, 2005 - From Cascais, Portugal:
1,823 kilometers, about 1,094 miles later, the group of four arrived back in Cascais, near Lisbon, in our Peugeot van to spend the last day together. We had temperatures in the mid-60's and my friend, Ron, got a pretty good burn in the bright sunshine, but my spouse and friends have fallen in love with Portugal. How could they not? The warm temperatures, the friendly people, the gorgeous white villages, the blue-green ocean breaking against huge cliffs and isolated beaches, the freshest, best tasting fish in the world, and my company: it was a sure thing!
We traveled to seven of the nine cities recommended by Rick Steves, according to Ron, who reads everything that Rick has written in his travel guides. The beautiful, walled cities of Évora and Obidos, the fantastic seashore, narrow-streeted, white villages of Albufeira, Nazaré, Portimao, and Cascais, the gorgeous and intriguing Porto, and the nation's capital, Lisbon, were all visited and appreciated. This place is just gorgeous! And now, the visitors have gone!!
The last day was wonderful, the huge, one lobster-for-four people dinner was fantastic, but this morning I dropped them at the airport and they are winging their way back to the frigid tundra of Pennsylvania. I wished them bon voyage.
I am alone again and warily eyeing the cold temperatures of Athens, Dubrovnik, Budapest, and Prague. Do I really want to leave these warm temperatures and head back into the cold? I think not! I will hang out here for a couple weeks more, enjoying the sunshine, doing a little writing, and watch the weather in those eastern cities. If things warm up there, perhaps I will give it a shot. If not, I will stay here until it is time to head back to London. I will keep you advised about my progress. In the meantime, it is back to the driving range for a little practice. Ciao!
March 7, 2005 - From Cascais, Portugal:
It works!! It works!! The hitchhiking thing works! Yesterday, I dropped my visitors off at the airport at 5:45 a.m., an ungodly hour. On the way, I learned that my friend, Karen, had left her scarf at the restaurant where we celebrated our final dinner together the night before. I was charged with retrieving the scarf, which had sentimental value because her sister-in-law had knitted it for her. The problem was that I needed to turn the car in before 11:00, before the restaurant opened and would have no car to make the seven-mile trip to the beach-front restaurant.
Where there is a will, there is a way, so I jumped on a bus at the nearby bus station just as it was leaving for Guincho Beach and it dropped me at the driveway of the Joao Padeiro Restaurante. I had called previously to be sure that they were open and had the valued garment. They greeted me warmly (after spending what we had the night before, why wouldn't they?) and handed me the scarf.
I would have had to wait an hour or more for the bus to return, so I decided to walk. After walking an hour, only getting about halfway, and with legs getting weary, I decided that this wasn't a good idea and stood at a bus stop to await the next bus.
Then, it hit me!! This was a perfect opportunity to try out the hitchhiking part of my trip, so I stuck out my thumb. It was Sunday and there were many cars, most of them with couples inside. I fought off the rejection of nobody stopping for about 10 minutes, when a brand-spanking new BMW Fastback stopped 30 yards ahead of me on the berm. I ran up to the car, hesitated before opening the rear door because I wanted to be sure that they hadn't stopped to admire the ocean view, but they waved me inside. It worked! The hitchhiking thing worked!! The driver was a handsome, young German man with a very pretty Argentinean wife and they took me to the Cascais marina, where I was headed to rest and have a cool drink after the heat of the walk in the bright sunshine.
During the brief ride, we had a short discussion about George Bush and the German was more open-minded than many Europeans, saying that he had read Woodward's book about Bush and had respect for the way that decisions were made in this administration. That was a surprise!
The bottom line is that the hitchhiking works and I have Karen's scarf. I will carry the scarf home with me and I now have another option to consider as far as transportation back to London. It was a great adventure! Adeus.
March 10, 2005 - From Cascais, Portugal:
The last few days have been very routine: laundry folding, a haircut, crossword puzzles sitting in the sun by the beautiful, little beach that is isolated by massive, multi-colored boulders, and evenings with grilled, fresh fish and a jarro of $2.00 red house wine that is too much for me to finish, although I try; I try.
I didn't do all of that in one day, mind you. One day I walked to the local grocery chain, Jumbo, picked up my laundry, took it back to my room, and folded it. The previous day was consumed by walking the laundry the entire three-block distance to the store, uphill unless one learns to cut through the shopping center, utilizing the escalator to rise to the higher street level. These efforts wore me out each day and I didn't attempt anything more strenuous than the crossword puzzle in the sun, saving my energy for lunch and dinner.
Yesterday's haircut, another good job by a lady from Venezuela with Portuguese parents and husband, was done in a four-seat shop operated by three women and a man and each had less room than a phone booth. My knees kept hitting the sink in which she washed my hair after the trim and she couldn't move the chair much, slipping two-thirds of the way around, snipping and clipping. She finished it with a razor and a little gel, eliminating the shaggy dog look that I had grown. She did a very good job and the price was seven euros less than the haircut I got in Sevilla.
Needless to say, the stress of the haircut was all that I could endure for the day and I retired to my beachside table to complete the crossword puzzle and contemplate my meal options for the day.
I have been researching transportation to Eastern Europe and coming up pretty empty-handed, trying to get to Greece with reasonable (cheap) airfares. I have managed to develop a reasonable plan to get to Prague and Budapest, but it is a patchwork arrangement. I will have to bus to Oporto, take a Ryan Air flight to London, layover a few hours, and then board an Easy Jet flight to Prague. There, I will visit a couple of days with Fred and Betty's (remember them from New Jersey?) son Paul, an English teacher for more than a dozen years in the capital of the Czech Republic. With his help, a couple of days should be sufficient to familiarize myself with the city that most agree is the most beautiful capital in Europe.
Then, a train ride from Prague, through the Slovakian capital of Bratislava, to Budapest. In Budapest, I hope to spend a couple of days with a group from a pub that I frequent for lunch in my hometown. Their annual trip this year is to the Hungarian capital and they are expecting warm weather. Things will have to warm considerably in the next month for their expectations to be reached. Yesterday's temperature extremes in Budapest were 29 F and 23 F with light snow, according to local TV.
I must be crazy, hop-scotching all over Europe to see friends under those frigid conditions. I could just wait to see them when I get home, since they get back the same day that I return. What fun would that be? I will also get to see three countries that I have never visited and practice enduring cold weather again for my mid-April return to the brisk winds of Pennsylvania. I'd better make the reservations. Ciao!
March 11, 2005 - From Cascais, Portugal:
The weather is warming, with 70 degrees forecast for today. I am headed for the golf course to hit a bucket of balls, which I didn't get done in the last couple of days because the sky was overcast. We even had a little drizzle when I walked to dinner last evening, but it didn't amount to much and this country is desperate for some extended rainfall. The agriculture is in very bad shape and farm animals are struggling to find grass on which to graze. Their plight is on the TV news nightly.
Dinner last night was very interesting. No, I won't describe in great detail the fantastic, grilled leg of lamb that I consumed or the bottle of house red that I couldn't finish. I was fascinated by my compatriots in the restaurant and that experience is part of what makes these vacations so rewarding.
The table across from me was occupied by four young, English-speaking ladies. No, they weren't drop-dead gorgeous; for that matter, they weren't even that attractive. But, they were speaking English, unaware that I was also English speaking. As I approached the end of my meal, (I think it was during the homemade ice cream with graham cracker-like squares imbedded in the frozen slice) I spoke to the ladies, who were somewhere in the 19-21 year-old range. I asked them where they were from, guessing Ireland and England. It turned out that two were from Scotland, one from England, and one Irish. They were having a marvelous time, just discussing the things that young ladies discuss, but I was struck by the delightful accents. It made my meal very interesting and I wasn't really eavesdropping.
A party of seven then came in, five ladies, a young man and an older fellow (not quite my age). They were apparently from a language school nearby, because the first arrivals (three ladies, one of them young, two middle-aged) began speaking in French. They then switched smoothly into English part way through their conversation. I admired their language competency. When the rest of the party arrived, they all spoke in English, although some had heavier, perhaps German accents. The older male acted like he was their instructor.
They needed my table to seat the unexpected seventh in their party, so I quickly gave it up, along with the portion of red wine that remained in my bottle. They accepted the table and the wine graciously and I strolled home; the rain had ended and I reflected on a totally enjoyable evening.
I have three weeks remaining here before I depart on my odyssey to eastern Europe. I was thinking that perhaps one of my readers (among the thousands) might enjoy spending a long weekend or four or five days visiting me during that period. I think that there are fantastic bargains on the Internet on flights to Europe right now. So, process that information and consider a spur-of-the-moment holiday.
If you have a few days and would enjoy 70-degree weather, delicious food, and a guided tour of Lisbon and vicinity by a near-native, drop me a line. The hotel is very inexpensive (around $45 single, $52 double) which includes a barely acceptable breakfast, but is perfectly located to enjoy this beautiful fishing village and the capital city. It is possible, since I have an empty single bed in my room, that you could share my room (most non-familial males will not qualify for this privilege) at a cost of around $25/night.
Now, it is time to head for the links and stretch a few golfing muscles. Ciao!
March 14, 2005 - From Cascais, Portugal
The weekend produced little exciting, except a trip into Lisbon because my Internet cafe is closed on Sunday. The train ride into the capital enabled me to witness a mini-marathon around one of the large central squares of Lisbon, but I saw later on TV that the race had started on the big, Golden Gate-copy bridge across the Tagus River, much like the New York City marathon. The new Prime Minister (remember Socrates?) participated. I can't imagine our controversial President able to run in a crowd like that with the animosity our country has generated toward all politicians. This race took place within two weeks of the conclusion of a very heated campaign here in Portugal.
I had Sunday dinner alongside the Tagus in an Argentinean Restaurant (I needed a big T-bone steak!). The restaurant was housed with a dozen others in a series of renovated port warehouses spread along a walkway overlooking a marina full of boats of all varieties. The walkway and adjoining parks provided great recreational opportunities for Lisbon's residents, with many fishermen plying the waters with surf rods, kids on skateboards, parents kicking soccer balls with their offspring, and people strolling, like yours truly.
I am starting to miss the modern newness of my home country. It never ceases to amaze me how much these trips make me appreciate home. I know that once I arrive I will be almost as much in awe of our newness as are first-time visitors to our country. Portugal is beautiful, but the quaintness and antiquity of the place provides a big contrast to the U.S.A.
Most streets in this country are cobble stoned, as are the sidewalks, though in different colored stones. The sidewalks are made of white, about four-inch rectangular stones that take many man-hours to lay. They are colorful and quaint, although the white always looks a little dirty. They don't make for easy walking either, since the different elevations of the stones and their inconsistent shapes constantly stress one's feet and ankles.
New, four-laned highways are asphalt, but most roads around cities and towns are dark gray cobblestones, although of a somewhat larger size. I am beginning to long for the smooth asphalt and concrete streets, roads, and sidewalks of America and for the newness of the houses, stores, and government buildings. It sounds like I'm getting a little homesick and maybe I am, but there is still a month to go and Prague and Budapest to explore. Adeus.
March 16, 2005 - From Cascais, Portugal:
Today, let's talk about security. I always protect myself and my valuables when traveling, but in Portugal I feel absolutely safe. That is a problem! When traveling, one always has his guard up when first arriving in a foreign country, especially after hearing before departure the horror stories of pickpockets, stolen purses, hotel room break-ins, fake police scams, etc. Ah, but after you are in the country a while, the guard comes down because it just feels so safe. That's where the danger lies - letting your guard down.
In Portugal, Spain, New York, and wherever there are many tourists, there are petty criminals looking to tap an easy mark. I constantly remind myself not to let my guard down. I still keep both of my credit cards (one debit, one credit), my passport, my leftover American cash, the bulk of my Portuguese cash, and my return airline ticket in the zippered, leather wallet that has a loop that fastens to my belt and hangs uncomfortably underneath my pants. I dare the pickpockets to get into my pants without my realizing it!
I wear a money belt that has a few, big American bills inside in case of emergency, such as banks being closed, AMT lines to the USA being down, etc. These bills were essential when crossing through Central American borders last year and poorly estimated money exchanges left me with insufficient funds. I do not carry traveler's checks any longer, because of the inconvenience and the cost. They may be free when you buy them, but there is always a significant charge when you cash them.
Every morning, when I unfasten the safety pin from my wallet from beneath my pillow (remember the hotel room break-ins?), I remove enough cash from the wallet to supplement the leftover cash in my pocket so that I have sufficient ready cash to last one day. If I am pick pocketed, the thief will get one day's cash, not a windfall that would wipe me out. If I am unfamiliar with the hotel, its employees, or the hotel's location, I also use a wedge door alarm, which emits a very loud alarm when depressed by the opened door, to protect against break-in. In some hotels, even the finest (although I mostly use one or two star hotels), the employees' master keys passed to friends are the big threat. Many a peso has been lost by a nighttime sneak thief rifling pants pockets while the hotel room occupant snored comfortably close-by.
When walking alone in big or strange cities at night, I carry police-quality pepper spray. This can be purchased on the Internet, but not carried aboard the plane. I put the spray in my toiletries kit in my checked-in luggage to make the trip, and then put it in my pocket if I am going to be out alone in a big or strange city. I have never used spray and only got it out one time a few years ago when I erroneously thought a dog was about to attack. It just feels good knowing there is one surprise, last ditch defensive maneuver left to me.
That said, the reason I am writing about security at this time is to alert me not to let my guard down. I feel more secure here, honestly, than I do in my own home. There are very few gun crimes and residential break-ins in Portugal. I watch the Lisbon news every morning and have never seen a violent crime reported.
I did see a report of a police raid the other day that netted drugs and weapons from a ring of drug dealers, but that is the first such event reported. The real danger to travelers here and in the rest of Europe is petty, non-violent crime. I attribute that to the strict control of handguns, but there are plenty of readers who will disagree with that. Whatever the reason, it is very safe here and I walk fearlessly down the darkest alleys without concern for my safety, even if there are a couple of dark-looking males lurking - most are talking on cell phones and not lurking at all. Of course, I am rarely out past midnight when they tell me the nightlife is just beginning.
I hope that you feel safer when you travel, but take adequate precautions and never let your guard down. Once you have been robbed, burgled, mugged, or pick pocketed, it is too late. The travel security dissertation is over and there is plenty of sunshine and warmth to catch. Ciao!
March 18, 2005 - From Cascais, Portugal:
And then it was summer! Yesterday's high temperature leapt to 85 degrees Fahrenheit and todays high is forecast at 79 degrees. Now we're talking!! I strolled around yesterday in khakis and a Famous Grouse Scotch Whiskey tee-shirt (compliments of my favorite pub at home during their annual golf tournament). In those short sleeves, I ate lunch sitting outside in the shade where most other Cascais residents and tourists enjoyed their mid-day repast. Under umbrellas at outside cafe tables or on the shady side of the street were the places to be in such glorious weather. It was that kind of mid-summer day.
I have discovered a beautiful, little park, covering 100 acres or more, hidden behind the Cascais Cultural Museum. The entrance is hidden behind some bushes with a marble statue close by, where I strolled to investigate. The park was donated by the family that also donated the huge, yellow mansion that is now the cultural museum and is just a delightful place for reading, strolling, meditation, etc. Several pond shelter ducks, geese, and enormous numbers of turtles; I photographed 35 of the hard-shells crammed on a few rocks and one another, trying to get some of the delicious sunshine. I have spent several hours, exploring the trails, walking the freshly trimmed, yet-to-flower rose gardens, visiting the children's small animal zoo, sitting on benches hidden underneath trellises of greens, and reading Sinclair Lewis' Babbitt amidst the smell of the eucalyptus and myriad fruit blossoms of the trees that populate the park. The park has been a great find!
Yesterday, though, I spent several hours just sitting by the little beach where I write on occasion. In the first really warm weather of the year, I just sat and watched the waves, boats, sea gulls, pigeons, and other people who were enjoying watching the very same things. It was one of those days where you just appreciated being able to sit outside without a jacket.
I will admit to a little boredom, but I don't do enough of this sitting, reading, appreciating turtles, and enjoying the outdoors when I am home. Part of the problem is the instant gratification of jumping in the insulated car and going somewhere: downtown, to the mall (always parking as close as possible to reduce the walking), to the golf course, to dinner, wherever. At home, I live life dominated by the automobile. Here, with no auto since I returned the rental van, I walk everywhere and that forces me to enjoy my surroundings and be more in touch with the outdoors. It has to be significantly healthier. I have moved one notch down on my belt and I feel and sleep better. Some of it may also be the increased amount of fish in my diet, as well as the significant increase in the quantity of wine. You just have to love a country where the wine is cheaper than bottled water! Ciao!
March 20, 2005 - From Lisbon, Portugal:
I was pulling for the weatherman to be right this weekend when he forecast, "Finalmente Chuvia", or finally rain! It was not to be, at least until this Sunday noon, except for a tiny sprinkle as I walked to the Italian restaurant where I dined last evening. By the time I finished my tagliatelle with fresh asparagus, shrimp, and a few chopped tomatoes, the sprinkle had ended. Too bad!
This country desperately needs rain and daily TV stories about the need to conserve water and pictures of mostly dry reservoirs, along with dying orange trees with piles of rotting oranges underneath attest to the shortage. I was pulling for them this weekend, unlike most short-term tourists for whom rain would ruin their holiday.
I am writing from Lisbon, because I need a little excitement and, of course, my computer center is closed on Sunday. A day in the hubbub of the big city may be just what the doctor ordered. I will make reservations for my train trip north to Oporto, from whence I will get my Ryan Air flight to London for the connection to Prague at the beginning of April. It is necessary to make reservations on trains in Europe, just like on airplane flights at home. Hopefully, the price to Oporto will be half of the regular fare, since I will use my new status as a senior citizen to wangle a good deal.
It is a three-hour train ride to Oporto and I will spend the night there, before catching the 9:20 a.m. flight to one of the smaller London airports. After a five or six hour layover, I will board the flight to Prague where my arrival at 9:00 p.m. might make the acquisition of a hotel room an interesting challenge. I know I can reserve ahead, but I feel better seeing the room first in the little places where I usually rest my head.
Last Sunday here in Lisbon, I opted for a big T-bone steak at an Argentinean restaurant. Tonight, I had my hotel clerk make reservations for me at a restaurant recommended on an Internet site (it may have been Frommer's). The place is called "Red Wine Nose" (in Portuguese, of course) and was highly recommended. The name itself makes it an attractive option and I will, of course, report its presentations.
I just learned that Tchau is the Portuguese spelling for the Italian Ciao, so forgive me, and TCHAU!
March 24, 2005 - From Cascais, Portugal:
Whoever said that, "it is no fun to be sick when you are away from home," was dead right. I suffered from a 24-hour transatlantic, stomach virus yesterday and the night before and, believe me, it was no fun. I doubt that it brought many laughs for those who suffered through it on the other side of the Atlantic, either, but I heard via the Internet that it was active over there, too. Almost a whole day of fasting and an evening meal consisting of a banana, rotisserie chicken, and bottled water in the room has me pretty well back to normal, but that explains my delay in updating the web page for those of you still following along.
A couple of newsworthy items: It rained for a day and a half over the weekend, not hard, but a consistent drizzle fell and should have helped the water situation in Portugal a little bit. They could use two weeks of rain to fill the reservoirs, however. Next, I have seen several incidences of violence on TV since I reported their absence. In one, a lover shot his girlfriend to death and the TV spot showed the blood, the bullet holes in her car, and the boyfriend's picture as he was arrested and manhandled by the police. In another incident, two national policemen (here called militia) were killed in a gun battle with drug dealers and many guns, knives, and other weapons were confiscated. The funerals of the officers, interviews with his family and co-workers, and the manhandling of the drug dealers were shown repetitively on TV.
Speaking of TV, I have now sunk to watching reruns of a serial, American Tarzan show which has a blond, handsome, though shoeless Tarzan running wild in New York City, helping the female detective, Jane, solve crimes in the Big Apple. I'm ashamed of myself, but I have been more than a month with no English-speaking television, including news. Except for Sunday afternoons, late at night, and Tarzan from 5:30 to 6:30 on one of the four TV channels on my set, there has been no entertainment that I could understand. I'd wager that if I upgraded my hotels a tad I would at least get to see the unbelievably repetitive CNN of which I grew weary in Spain. I have gotten accustomed to TV only in Portuguese (except for Tarzan) and don't miss the American news, because I use computer time to read the headline stories on Yahoo. Even my hometown newspaper has a web site which I check on occasion. Daily, however, I catch the Phillies web site to find out how Spring Training is going for my favorite team.
Every year that I travel, I marvel at the volume of American entertainment abroad. It is now, no doubt, the chief export of our country and has impacted the culture of every place that I have traveled. As I write this, B.B. King is playing blues over the Internet cafe's speakers. The other day, a Ray Charles CD with Willie Nelson had all of us tapping our feet and singing along. The owner is proud of the music that he plays and most of it is American. During the rain of the weekend, I watched "Hitch" at a local movie theater, shown in its original version with Portuguese sub-titles. Earlier, I caught "Million Dollar Baby" in a similar format before it swept the Oscars.
You can find a McDonald's in every city with more than a few tourists, Coca Cola is consumed world-wide, and there are still a few of our big vehicles on the foreign roads, but the big impact on local cultures seems to have been the entertainment business. Foreigners see American life through the entertainment we export and maybe, just maybe, that's who we really are, despite our disclaimers. Tchau!
March 28, 2005 - From Cascais, Portugal:
Easter has passed and the country is finally getting the rain it so desperately needs. It has rained each of the last three evenings, starting on Good Friday, and yesterday it rained through the evening and night after a bright and sunny Easter. Today, we are expecting an all day rain, although I got to the Internet cafe without a drop. I am delighted that the country is getting the rainfall. It ruins some short holidays for vacationers, but may put off the water restrictions that officials have been threatening.
I am happy to report that the hitchhiking thing really works. While I won't get to use the skill I have developed (standing on the side of the road, looking unthreatening and forlorn) to get back to London, it is something that I always have in reserve.
Saturday, I was determined to walk the six plus miles to Guincho, the beach where I went by bus to retrieve my friend, Karen's, scarf. You'll remember that I started to walk back and tired, finally hitchhiking a ride back to town.
This time I paced myself, took two hours and five minutes to make the trip past the restaurant to the beach itself, which is famous among windsurfers. It was a bright and sunny day, but there was considerable wind and, as I walked along the ocean road, huge waves battered the coastline. It must have been a small Northwester, because the winds were coming from that direction, which I had not seen before. The waves pummeled the coast, sending huge sprays of water and foam more than 70 feet in the air and the spray occasionally reached me on the far side of the road, misting my glasses and dampening my tee shirt. It was a delightful walk, but by the time I reached the beach, I was pooped.
I had lunch, resting my legs and enjoying a squid skewer with rice, along with a half bottle of Vinho Verde, the famous green wine of Portugal. The wine must have done the trick, because my feet protested their placement one in front of the other, so I only made it about 50 yards to the beach bus stop. Again, I thought that I would work on my hitchhiking technique, while I waited for the bus. It took less than five minutes (unthreatening and forlorn works) and a delightful young Spanish couple stopped to pick up this old-timer. He was a 21 year-old primary school teacher and she was a 23 year-old nurse. They complimented me on my Spanish, although it was extremely difficult switching from what little Portuguese I have picked up. They were from Madrid, which takes between five and six hours on the autopista. They were leaving the next morning after a long weekend getaway. You meet wonderful people while hitchhiking!! Tchau.
March 30, 2005 - From Cascais, Portugal:
Approaching the end of March and, with the sun shining brightly in the sky, I decided to venture back to the golf driving range yesterday. Like last time, someone had made off with the beautiful, 8.5º, Taylor Made, stiff, bubble-shafted driver and I used a regular-shafted Callaway strong three wood off of the tee. I hit the ball so well with that club that I might start using that club off of the tee when I return to the links back home. The Scottish pro was giving lessons on the range while I was hitting again and afterward, we got into a wonderful discussion about the game of golf, its history, and, finally, about my swing. He gave me one tip that he said he just couldn't resist mentioning and I was most appreciative. I will have to practice with that tip in mind when I return home.
I had taken a bus to the golf course, but decided to walk home and strolled, downhill most of the way, into Estoril, the little neighboring town famous for its Casino, you'll remember. I stopped for a light lunch of cuttlefish in tomato sauce, and got home after about an hour's walk. I got some exercise and took a little rust off of my golf swing. All in all, that is a pretty full and successful day.
I also stopped at Jumbo, where I get my laundry done, to be certain that the laundry was open on Saturday. I am leaving on Sunday and want to leave with a suitcase full of clean clothes. That way, I will have sufficient clothing for the remainder of the trip to Prague and Budapest.
My travel plans are now complete. After picking up my laundry on Saturday and packing my one suitcase with clean clothing, I leave at 9:55 Sunday morning on the express train to Oporto. There, I will spend the night at a hotel, to be determined after my arrival, and, Monday morning, I take the Ryan Air flight from Oporto to London. After a six-hour layover in Stanstedt airport, I board an Easy Jet flight to Prague, arriving around 9:00 p.m. That should give me time to make it to the center of Prague, somewhere around the train station, to find lodging. I need to be close to the train station because I will leave early in the morning from that station two days later.
I will train through Slovakia, with a stop in the capitol of Bratislava, arriving in Budapest, the capitol of Hungary sometime around noon on April 7th. After four nights in Budapest and renewing acquaintances with my friends from the pub back home, I fly back to London for my return flight home. I will spend only one night in London, giving me time to travel from Luton Airport to Heathrow for my return flight to Philadelphia. The last few days of my trip will certainly be more hectic than my last couple of months here in Portugal, but I would regret being this close to Prague and Budapest and not making the effort. I can rest when I get home. Adeus.
March 31, 2005 - From Cascais, Portugal:
I will not make it a habit to update you daily on the remainder of my trip, but I had an interesting experience at a restaurant last night that I thought you might be interested in hearing.
Have you ever had to talk your way into a restaurant? Last night, that is exactly what I had to do at an interesting restaurant, "The Melting Pot," where you knock on the door and have to be admitted. A British couple (from their accent) went in ahead of me and had a little difficulty gaining entry, but when I tried, the waiter (who also turned out to be the chef and owner) really didn't seem to want me inside his establishment. I don't know if it was my jeans and the fleece sweatshirt that I decided to wear last evening, or what. Either that, or he didn't think that I had the capacity to pay, or he thought that I didn't understand what "prixe fixe" meant. He kept reiterating in English, very broken with a heavy Portuguese accent, that he selected all 12 courses, that's right, 12. He must have repeated the "I pick the food" thing 12 times, too, before he finally relented and left me enter.
You know that I wasn't going to be excluded, because it became a matter of pride, cost-be-damned, and after I told him by name that I was finished with the Caprece Salad, which was one of three dishes that he first placed on my table, he really warmed up. Maybe, by naming the salad, he thought that I knew a little about good food, who knows? Another salad was ham and melon, topped with a warm, goat cheese sprinkled with herbs. The other dish was an appetizer of three different, delicious sausages, sliced on the bias and served on a bed of cold, but cooked lima beans. The sausage was unique and scrumptious.
Then came bacalaho (dried, salted cod fish) with much cilantro and a bread thickening, served on a piece of toast, which I thought a tad salty. I only ate half. Next, came a deep fried bacalaho cookie (his nomenclature), which was very good and also contained cilantro (or coriander, I'm not sure which is which anymore).
The next course was quail (very good, but a very small portion), then rabbit (very small and served on a half piece of toast). Both of these were delicious in great, complimentary sauces. Then, several pieces of chicken breast surrounding a green asparagus, broccoli, carrot, bread, not-quite-pureed mold piled high in the center. I could only eat a bite or two, because that series of small plates had filled me to the brim and then some. He then brought dessert of three small pieces of cake and I tasted two of them, which were quite good, the second had a buttery shortbread dough that melted in your mouth. I tried not to hurt his feelings, because he waxes ecstatic over every dish, which he said he had prepared all day long. But, by trying to be polite, I had eaten to excess, didn't feel very well, and tried to get the check, which seemed to take an hour.
The bill was 35 euros and that included a 15-euro bottle of very good Alentejo wine, which was apparently the cheapest on the wine list. I had listened to the two Brits as they tried, unsuccessfully, to find a cheaper bottle of wine. They were the only others in the tiny, 16 seat, candle-lit restaurant and the Brit had jeans on, too, although they were admittedly newer-looking. I had quickly told the waiter/chef/owner that I would have the bottle that the Brits selected, so he didn't have to trifle with me over wine and that may have won him over, too.
I walked back to my hotel room, spent a very uncomfortable night in the sack, and have sworn off food completely for today. That is, except for the bola do arroz (rice cupcake) that I had with my gallao (latte-like coffee) this morning. I'll update you when I fully recover, although I may be in Prague by then. Tchau!
April 2, 2005 - From Cascais, Portugal:
My final day in Cascais and it is overcast and raining pretty hard right now. It rained some last night, too, dampening the jean shirt that I hung on a coat hanger over my balcony railing to remove the second-hand smoke that permeated the shirt during dinner last evening. Smoke has only bothered me a few times in restaurants here and I didn't notice it at all last night, until I returned to my room and happened to smell the smoke on my shirt. The smoke was gone this morning, but the collar on the shirt was damp from the rain. I wore the long-sleeved shirt to dinner because the air had cooled last evening after reaching 80º yesterday afternoon.
I returned to my favorite restaurants one last time the last couple of nights to say good-bye. At "A Tasca" (Fred is following along and will remember the place), I enjoyed "Lulas Grelhadas," grilled squid, and they were delicious as usual. They always serve a small pitcher of melted butter to ladle on the squid, but, of course, I cheat and also ladle some on my rice. The squid is fresh, but not cleaned sufficiently for me, so I always split the head and remove the brain and eyeballs. I know that the less squeamish among you would eat the whole thing as do the natives, but I just can't manage. I end up sending my plate back with a few shreds of the salad that I can't pick up with my fork and a small pile of brains and eyeballs. I'm weak and I accept it.
Last night, it was back to "Melody," to say goodbye to Joseph, the owner, who was a chef in the Dutch Merchant Marines and speaks pretty good English. Jimmy, the waiter/bartender doesn't speak a word of English, but has always been friendly and attentive during my many visits to the establishment. I had arroz pulvo, octopus rice, which was like a stew and very tasty, especially with the piri-piri sauce that Jimmy has put on my table ever since he found out that I enjoyed spicy things. There are signs everywhere in this country advertising Frango Piri-Piri, which is chicken with the spicy sauce that originated in one of the Portuguese colonies, probably Mozambique.
Spicy, my eye! Piri-piri sauce would make suicide buffalo wings seem as mild as oatmeal. Two drops of the stuff on a large plateful of the octopus rice gave it a real kick-start. The octopus was very tender and the dish was served in a stainless steel pot, which kept the strew warm throughout the meal. With the muscatel and lemon juice that Jimmy always serve me when I arrive and the very small pitcher of the house vinho tinto (red wine) that I consumed during the meal, I had plenty to drink when I rose to leave the place. "Not so fast," Joseph said, as he came out of the kitchen to pour me a goodbye shot that contained about four liquors, including coconut rum. How could I say "no" to that? "Okay, just one," I said, but Joseph quickly replied, "In Portugal, we always say that was the next-to-last one."
I insisted on buying the last one, then the Dutch couple (he is in the Dutch army, newly stationed here with NATO) that I had met at the restaurant a couple of times earlier, decided that they should join the good-byes, so a third one was obligatory. I may have wobbled a bit on the way back to my hotel room, but not much. I think drinking wine with every evening meal has increased my tolerance, because I did not feel bad and had no hangover this morning. I know that is one skill that I had not planned on acquiring on this trip.
That reminds me that in earlier updates, I failed to report that the deadly caipirinha rose its dangerous head here in Cascais the other evening. I found a wonderful, little Brazilian steak restaurant here in town and when I sat down at the table they asked if I wanted one of Brazil's famously delicious drinks, with which I had become familiar in Rio de Janeiro on an earlier trip. I had one for old time's sake, but, wary of the danger of their bite, I stopped with one and had my small pitcher of wine with the fantastic strip steak that I had ordered.
There, I've gone and done it again - made myself hungry and it isn't even lunchtime yet. Tonight, I have planned to enjoy my final dinner here in the great Italian restaurant overlooking the small beach in the center of town. I know that I should eat Portuguese on my last night here, but there is always tomorrow in Oporto, right?
I can't close without recommending Portugal to you. The people are warm and friendly, the scenery beautiful, the roads and transportation systems modern, tourist information thorough and plentiful, the history intriguing, the weather mild, and the prices more reasonable than the rest of Western Europe. You couldn't ask for more. You'll love the place as I have!!
I plan to report from Prague and Budapest before I head for home, so stay tuned. Adeus.
April 6, 2005 - From Prague, Czech Republic:
The train reached 220 km/hr (130+ mph) several times during the three-hour trip from Lisbon to Oporto and often cruised in excess of 200 km/hr, arriving precisely on time. I know all of this because each car had an LCD speedometer, clock, outside and inside thermometer, and message board at each end. The train stayed too long at the second Lisbon station and was late arriving at the next three stops, so the message board apologized for the delay, which couldn't have been more than a couple of minutes. The train made about eight stops between the two cities and by the fourth stop was announcing the next stop on the message board with the comment that "we will be arriving on schedule." This was a very modern, high-speed train and I made the trip for half price - $13. What a bargain!
The trip was a geographer's dream, passing through olive groves full of gnarled, old trees with light green leaves vibrating in the light rain that fell periodically. Cork oaks with their sharply defined scars and deep red color where the bark had been recently stripped stood in pastures almost as far north as Oporto. The rain so desperately needed by the country had fallen heavily through the night and many, flat, recently plowed fields had large puddles in the low spots. All of the south-facing vineyards had fresh, green sprouts shooting from the old vine stalks, but vines on north-facing slopes were dormant, still seeking solar energy to make their first green shoots.
Small gardens around farms were neatly plowed and displayed many green plants; I noticed cabbage, beans, and tall plants that probably were the cilantro used in so many Portuguese dishes. There were lemon and orange trees full of fruit, flowers on what must have been cherry trees; everything was green and springlike and simply beautiful. Flowers bloomed everywhere and wisteria in full bloom covered many walls with gorgeous, lavender flowers. I even noticed a lilac plant full of blooms in one front yard.
I arrived in Porto (sometimes you see the O and sometimes, no) and found a room in a "Residencia," also called a "Pensao," although I had to climb two flights of awfully steep marble stairs to get to the "recepcion." There was an elevator from there to my single room, which just contained the basics, although it appeared to be reasonably clean. Not bad for 30 euros and right next to the bus stop for the airport bus that I would take in the morning.
For those who thought me squeamish for not eating the brains and eyeballs of the squid, you will appreciate that I ended my days in Portugal in style and with a tad more bravado. I found a great little restaurant full of locals, not far from the Duoro River's tourist haunts, and had lamprey eel. The waiter said the "fish" was rare and that they could only get it this time of year, which is what made it the most expensive thing on the menu. But he didn't fool me, they may call it a fish, but that was an eel. It wouldn't be so rare, either, if they stopped eating the females. My lamprey was all dark meat, cooked in chunks, full of eggs, and served in a bordelaise sauce, which was delicious. The sauce was delicious, the eel a little fishy, especially after the first bite, when I got to all of the eggs. It was a great restaurant and it became obvious why all of the locals were in the place on a Sunday afternoon. The price was right, the food delicious, and the wait staff friendly. A great way to exit Portugal.
The next morning, I caught the bus in plenty of time to make the airport and go through the very simple check-in procedures for my Ryan Air flight to London. The security was thorough and I felt secure, safely under the spell of the two Zanax tablets that I had started taking immediately after finishing the lamprey eel. These flights really had me unnerved and I needed the anti-anxiety medicine desperately. The pre-flight anxiety is getting bad enough that I can see the end of my globetrotting days. I realize that it is a ridiculous phobia, but it is getting very close to paralytic. I probably should be more anxious about the 130 mph train rides, but my mind doesn't work that way.
Two hours later, I was in London where I read for six hours during my layover, ready for the adventure in Prague that lay ahead.
April 7, 2005 - From Czech Republic:
Breathtakingly gorgeous!!! This city may just be the most beautiful city that I have ever visited. That is saying a lot when one considers London, Paris, Rome, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, and all of the American cities that I have visited. But, this city is just that spectacular. Built on seven hills, the city is the center of Europe, north-south and east-west, and has thrived because of its location on the Voltava River, which becomes the Elbe in Germany. Here, Charles IV built an enormous castle, either the oldest or the largest in all of Europe, and determined that this should be his golden city. He sure convinced me. Palaces abound, once owned by the wealthiest European families, all of who wanted a Prague address. Those glory days are returning; palaces have been converted into government buildings, embassies, and homes of wealthy Italians, Germans, and other Europeans who have bought and renovated them to their past states of beauty. Walking through the old city, turning every corner requires a new photograph. The city just dazzles!
The first morning, I walked downtown from my hotel, located a trolley ride up one of the hills to a more reasonably priced Prague 3 address. Prague 1 is downtown where hotels like the Hilton, Four Seasons, etc. charge a tad more than I am willing to pay. I walked directly to Hlavni Nadrazi train station, asking directions along the way to young people who could speak English. I will catch a 7:30 train there tomorrow morning, after two full days in this gorgeous city. I think a week here would not be enough to explore all of its beautiful sites and squares. I bought the ticket and asked directions about precisely where to go for the train (the station is huge and houses a large subway station, as well). I don't want to be confused and rushed that early in the morning trying to find my way around a station whose signs I cannot read. I did a trial run of my entire route to the train platform inside the huge station. I should be okay for tomorrow's departure.
Then, I walked downtown, meandering through streets asking for the Centrum as I went, turning a corner and, there I was in Wenceslas Square. Certainly, not the most beautiful square in the city, but easily the largest and also the point from which I catch my trolley back to the hotel, I later learned. I located a tour company and bought a ticket for a two-hour bus tour of the city. The company has a total of 22 different tours in an around the city. There are that many things to see. A week would never be long enough and two days are a ridiculously short time. The tour would help, however.
There are 16 bridges in the city. One, the stone, arched, Charles Bridge, is closed to traffic and provides a pedestrian walkway full of artists, souvenir vendors, musicians (one, beautifully playing Mozart on wine glasses), etc. It leads to the foot of the castle that dominates the city's skyline. As beautiful as the city is in the daytime, it simply dazzles at night. The bridges are lit, the spotlights shining on the castle make it one of the most impressive views I have ever seen, and the squares of the city just glitter with lights and people sitting in cafes, enjoying dinner and drinks. The high season has just started and with yesterday's warm weather, the city teemed with people and activity.
Last evening, I met Paul at his school where he took me on a short tour of his impressively large language school, which employs more than 200 teachers, whom Paul is responsible for training. Then, he walked my legs off all over town. He had taught all day and needed the exercise. I had walked all day and needed the rest. I didn't express my needs and surprised myself by keeping up with the young fellow. Paul is 13 years my junior and he stepped right along. I had a fantastic time, since Paul has lived here for 13 years and was able to show me the squares and restaurants and views that I would never have found by myself. The view from one of the bridges, looking up the river to the castle is one that I will remember all of my life.
We ate at a wonderful Czech restaurant and both had fantastic meals. I would describe the food to you, but I can't remember the name of the crustless, bread-like dough (very German) served with the beef in cream sauce. The beef was topped, first with the cream sauce, and then with a slice of orange covered in a sweet cranberry sauce and a pile of whipped cream. Disgustingly spectacular! A bottle of very nice Moravian wine (Paul had two beers) and we called it a meal.
Paul escorted me back to the top of the hill leading to my hotel, because he was concerned about whether I might get lost. I told him in Wenceslas Square that I was fine, but he rode the trolley with me and got off at my stop to be certain that I was okay. What a great evening we had and what a wonderful host Paul was.
It is now noon on my second day in this glorious city, where, incidentally, the women are strikingly beautiful, too. I am wasting time talking to you, so I bid you adieu to investigate this city further. I will talk to you next from Budapest. Tchau!
April 8, 2005 - From Budapest, Hungary:
I am still recovering from the beauty of Prague. The city seems to have it all: beautiful architecture, an amazing history, fantastic public transportation, wonderful food, a cosmopolitan atmosphere, friendly people, and cheap prices. Pretty difficult to beat, but I observed two weaknesses. There are so many tourists, even this early in the season, that it makes sightseeing difficult. Locals told me that it gets so bad from May to September that it is almost impossible to walk over Charles Bridge, the one with the pedestrian walk. Secondly, you have to pay to pee! All public restrooms, in the train stations, in the parks, wherever, have signs announcing the fees for whatever bodily functions you need to rent space. The restaurants, of course, provide free space, but only to customers. No wonder they drink so much coffee there. It makes them customers. Other than that, this city pretty well tops the list. Put it on your list of places to see and put it right at the top, but schedule your visit in April, October, or November, although Christmas might be wonderful there.
I caught the 7:30 train at the Hlavni Nadrazi station (I thought that was the name of the place, but actually learned that it meant "main station" in Czech) and battened down the hatches for a seven-hour ride. This was not the spectacular ride that the Lisbon to Porto run was; it had the old time compartment type cars with the narrow aisles and, unbeknownst to me, there were seats reserved in some of the compartments. That was apparently why the lady told me that I needed to pay 40 more after I asked about a seat number on my ticket (40 what, I have no idea), if I wanted a seat. Turns out, I put my bags in a compartment that was reserved and sat down oblivious to the rules of the road.
A porter entered, cleared up the mixed-up but embarrassed me, and I headed for another compartment that had no tags on the door where the porter had sternly pointed. I was joined by a nice man about my age and two women, none of whom spoke English. That doesn't mean that they didn't speak, however. The women talked incessantly the entire way to Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. I endured that for a while, reading, until several men got on at one of the stops and sat in another compartment in my car. These young men had, without a doubt, the worst body odor that I have ever smelled. They stunk up the whole car. I finally figured that was what the Iron Curtain was for - to seal in the male body odor. Now that the Curtain is down, the odor has definitely escaped. It was disgusting!
I migrated to a much nicer and cooler dining car, where I read, had breakfast, and eventually, lunch. The scenery was really not very interesting. It was not yet spring in the Czech Republic or in Slovakia, so there was little green. Much reminded me of winter at home, with dead grasses, no leaves on trees, etc. The topography reminded me of home somewhat, with hills and streams that could have been transplanted to Pennsylvania without being noticed.
I endured the trip, however, and got into Budapest at about 4:00 p.m. I located a hotel about a block from where my friends will be staying, took a siesta, then a shower, and strolled the town looking for an Internet center and dinner. Internet centers are more difficult to find here, but the meal was great. Eaten outside on a pedestrian walkway with many other folks, I enjoyed goulash, Hungarian chicken, and a glass of wine. I then headed back to my hotel, but found a little restaurant with a live jazz band right across the street from my hotel and stopped there for one last glass of Hungarian red. I will tour the city today and let you know what I find.
April 11, 2005 - From London, England:
Budapest was a wonderful place to visit, not as knockdown gorgeous as Prague, perhaps, but very beautiful in its own way. I enjoyed a fantastic couple of days with the folks from the pub in my hometown who welcomed me aboard their tour bus for two days of tours in and around the city. I paid entrance fees, meals, etc., and tried generally not to be a mooch, and I think that I succeeded in that.
The downtown area of Buda and Pest (right across the Blue Danube, but hardly blue at this time of year) are spread out much farther than the downtown of Prague and that dilutes some of the beauty of the city. It addresses the problem of excessive tourists very nicely, however. Both cities are cultural centers with Opera houses and Symphony buildings; after all, Mozart, Liszt, Beethoven, and many other famous musicians lived and/or worked in these cities. Budapest has wonderful streets, full of open-air cafes, and feels much like Paris. Indeed, its main street - name erased from my memory bank at the moment - looks very similar to the Champs Elysse. This city is another that has capitalized on its unbelievable history, excellent transportation, pedestrian malls, an exciting night-life, and a tolerant, sophisticated populace to keep its downtown exciting and bustling with people.
I went to a place called the Jazz Garden, because the Lancastrians forced me to experience the nightlife, and enjoyed three nights of unforgettable Jazz. The musicians were as skilled as any you might see in New York, San Francisco, or any American city. There are major universities specializing in music here and these folks can flat-out play. They sang the English lyrics almost without accent, too. It was fantastic.
One evening, Dave (who experienced Central America with me) and I meandered (well, we taxied) to Franz Liszt Square and walked among more than 20 outdoor cafes and through the well-dressed folks enjoying intermission outside the symphony, trying to select a restaurant. Unfortunately, it started to rain as we were making our selection, so we chose to eat inside and enjoyed a wonderful meal and a fine bottle of Hungarian red wine. We both started with an appetizer of Goulash Soup, as they call it, and Dave was scalded and shocked by the jalapeno floating on top of the stew after he chewed it up like the sweet, green pepper he thought it to be. It sure got his attention and took his breath away; this after I warned him that they always float a hot pepper in the stuff. No mouth-to-mouth resuscitation was necessary and we enjoyed the rest of the meal, complete with so many laughs at trying to read the menu items in this difficult language that my sides hurt.
Both Prague and Budapest feature concerts advertised all over the city and these folks mean real concerts, not some rap or rock star screaming or rapping obscenely at the top of their lungs. Concerts of classical music sell out quickly in both of these cosmopolitan cities. You will have to put this city on your list of must-sees, as well.
I sit in London, a block or two from Picadilly Circus and I am excited about rediscovering this city. It is awesome to see the names of all the places familiar from movies, news stories, and television through the years. Unfortunately, the handle on my $29.95 K-mart suitcase, bought especially for this journey, broke when I entered the hotel in Budapest and I have had to pull the bag with the handle at half-mast. It won't go in or out! Easy Jet checked it in with the handle in that condition, but I may not be as lucky with British Airways tomorrow. Today, pulling the bag, bent over to reach the lower handle, caused extremely tired back muscles and forced me into the most expensive hotel of the trip (by about $400/night), but sometimes things work out that way. I am about a block from Harod's, the famous department store that Lady Di's boyfriend's father owns, and a half block from Hyde Park. The idea was to get off the tube at a location whose name I recognized to acquire a cheap hotel before reaching the expensive hotels at Heathrow. I failed miserably at that and this will become one of the few times where I would have been better off calling ahead for reservations. Either that, or better off buying a more expensive suitcase.
It has been a fantastic journey and one that I have enjoyed completely. I hope that those of you who have vicariously traveled with me have enjoyed it as well. This is my final update of 2005 and it may be the final episode in my annual travels. I am reminded that I feel this way every year when I am ready to return home, but I certainly am eager to get back. The anxiety of air flights doesn't help, either, and one-half Zanax too many to fight that anxiety may also have contributed to the exhaustion that occurred when I checked into the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park-London. I'm living high on the hog tonight! Toodle-oo!!
Website Designed By: