Sunday, August 4, 2013

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Portugal Travelog: Evora to Estoi (Day 10)

On our last full day in Portugal (you have to be a little relieved to hear that right?) we awoke to another beautiful day. We did some packing and enjoyed another exceptional breakfast at the Albergaria do Calvario this time including Portuguese French Toast (delicious and hearty) and their own homemade maple syrup (I didn't ask but it was good!). We checked out and got some excellent advice on where to park to see the cathedral on the other side of town.

The cathedral was wonderful. We first took the fast route to the roof and got an exceptional view of Evora and its sights.

The Cloisters

From ground level

We finally abandoned the roof and walked the perimeter of the cloisters before entering the chapel proper. The chapel is (somewhat) famous for depicting the Mother Mary as pregnant - apparently an gesture meant to appeal to the pagans and attract them to the church.

The pregnant Mary.
We left the cathedral and started towards Evora's University which we had been unable to locate the previous day. Visiting the University somehow brought the idea of living in Evora home. To see the students doing ... student things in this exotic (to us) place was really cool.

We entered and walked around a bit exploring. The perimeter of this central courtyard is dotted with doors that lead to modest classrooms. At one we poked our head in and saw (as advertised) the relatively modern and simple classroom space highlighted by a pulpit from which the Jesuit priests used to lecture.

We exited the University and said our good byes to Evora heading now to the Cromelechs dos Almendres. We had received some general directions from the very helpful woman who checked us out at the hotel and we had Rick Steves' guide book to help us find them.

None of this was enough apparently. 

We found ourselves driving down a very rural road through orchards of cork trees attended to by peaceful cattle - and then on a very small, very rough and very wrong road wandering through the countryside.

It was peaceful but was not what we were looking for.

We regrouped, re-read Rick Steves and realized our mistake. After another half hour or so we found the spot. It was no less remote than our sojourn with the cattle - we toured the spot completely by ourselves and it was quite magical.

This place is over 7,000 years old. At the end of the day it's just a bunch of stones, it's amazingly moving to realize the history of the place.

As we made our way back to where we had parked the car, we met two bus loads of students on a field trip. Our timing - for once - had been fortuitous.

As we waited for the busses to park (they were literally blocking the small access road), we examined the amazing cork orchard surrounding the area. The combination of the beautiful day, the ordered rows of trees and the foreign (to us) site of harvested cork trunks was quite special. The bark of the trees is harvested to make all those wine stoppers - it takes about nine years for the tree to recover and be ready for harvesting.

At this point we again found ourselves late in the day with several hours of driving ahead of us. I reluctantly pointed the not so mighty Clio at the A2 to make time getting to Estoi. These interstate type roads are in excellent condition and make for fine fast driving but of course it's not so interesting.

It's also expensive as hell! We were on the road for about three hours and when we got off we paid close to 30 euros in tolls.

The TomTom took us straight to Estoi which is a working town in the Algarve about 10 minutes from the Faro airport. We drove straight to the main square where the town church and our hotel (Casa de Estoi) was. The town was very quiet and there was no obvious hotel parking so we parked across from a little store and schlepped our bags towards the hotel.

We tried to enter through the door by the sign on the right of the building and the door wouldn't budge. I pushed. Nothing. I found a button that looked like a buzzer and pushed it. We waited. I finally put my bag down and put my shoulder into it to be sure it wasn't just stuck and the door magically swung open unlocked from within by the hostess of the Casa de Estoi.

Here we ran into the first true language barrier as the young lady who had unlocked the door spoke only sparingly and never in English. Despite this Meg and Oxana (we learned) were able to communicate very effectively. We confirmed that we had reservations, got a tour of the historic building and were shown to our room. We had a short discussion about whether we wanted the room with a terrace and two single beds (yes we do) or the interior room with a queen bed (no thank you).

All without English. This was actually very cool. 

The room and indeed the entire hotel was a snapshot in time. It clearly had been an opulent home that was converted into a hotel and we seemed to be the only guests at the time - though others showed up later.

There are certain universal truths throughout the globe and one is fueling your rental car before you return it. We chatted with Oxana (and gestured: I tried to imitate gassing up our little Clio) and she gave us directions to the nearest gas station. We found it - not exactly where we expected - and were ushered through the harsh reality of paying European diesel prices. Our little Clio consumed over 60 euroes of fuel. Ouch!

The good news is that gas stations in Portugal seem to always carry beer and wine so we returned to the hotel and explored the terrace and surrounds settling down to enjoy our Super Bock. As we enjoyed the evening sun and our beer, Oxana and another woman entered the pool area from the street and we were soon chatting with the apparent manager of the hotel.

She apologized for Oxana's lack of English saying that all her friends said she should replace Oxana (who was from Moldavia) with someone who could speak English but "...she is a very good cook". We enthusiastically agreed that she should stick with Oxana and reassured her that we had no trouble checking in despite the language barrier.

We finished our beers and consulted our records to see where we were to eat in Estoi. Meg had found one restaurant in town and we walked the twenty paces or so to find it. There was an ice cream window on the outside and we walked into a small cafe with a bar serving both ice cream and beer. Further inside the building was a large simple dining room. When we asked about dinner, they turned the lights on in the dining room and showed us to our table.

Once again the friendliness of the Portuguese people was on display. We relaxed and watched the Portuguese soap operas on the TV they also turned on for us. The kitchen was at the back of the large dining room so we could monitor the progress of our food as it was being prepared.

It took a while and at a certain point we realized that one of our dishes had been scrapped and they were starting over. When the food came it was delicious and ample. I ordered a special which seemed to be related to the cocido we had enjoyed in Madrid several years ago - a meat and veggie stew - while Meg had bachelhau. We thoroughly enjoyed dinner and thanked the chef as we left.

With that, our last dinner in Portugal, our trip started to officially come to a close. We rested well at the Casa de Estoi and rose to pack and prepare for departure the next morning. I took a nice early morning walk around the square near the hotel. The town was very quiet though punctuated by the occasional whine of a small motorcycle whizzing through town piloted by a man who invariable had a small backpack apparently going to work. Several men were standing waiting for their ride - all with the same small backpack.

I returned to the hotel and poked around for signs of life - and maybe a cup of coffee or breakfast - and found none. However once we finished packing Meg again ventured forth and announced that she found breakfast.

What a find!

We ate outside near the pool and Oxana brought us fresh orange juice - even better than the orange juice I squeezed in Salema as it had more pulp - and fresh from the oven apple tarts which we enjoyed with steaming delicious coffee. It was a great send off!

After breakfast we climbed into the Clio and made our way to the Faro airport and back to our Transavia Boeing 737 to start the long trip home. The road to the airport presented a choice between the airport and the Faro beach (praia in Portuguese); it was a tough choice.

The trip home went well and included the now familiar challenges of flying these days. It included a sprint through Schipol airport where I had to unpack the entire camera bag including every single camera and lens, no time for food until Boston (thank you Jerry Remy's Bar & Grill and Green Monsta IPA!) and a long ride home on the Dartmouth Coach. But all went well and we arrived home safe and sound.

What a great trip!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Portugal Travelog: Evora (Day 9)

We woke in Evora at the delightful Albergaria do Calvario hotel/B&B. I think they have 32 rooms but it feels much smaller. We had a wonderful breakfast (the owners are very into food) and headed out for the day. It was a gorgeous one - very clear and quite warm.

The hotel is located just inside the Roman wall that still encircles much of the city. The main square in Evora is called Praça do Giraldo named after a Christian knight that re-took the city from the Moors in 1165. It's a modest square filled with café tables, taxis and activity at all times of the day.

Church of Santo Antão
We followed Rick Steves recommended Evora walk through this very modest city visiting the town hall and passing other sites including this church with the grilled windows so the cloistered nuns can observe without being observed.

The Romans were here for a long time (Evora is about 1100 miles from Rome) and they certainly left their mark including this temple below in the Jardim Diana. This is the touristy center of Evora but was pleasantly quiet when we visited. 

Nearby the Jardim is a very clean and tidy building that was once the home of the Inquisition. 

We toured the Cavadal family chapel which boasts a gridded trap door in the floor through which you could see stacks of bones. Apparently this is not uncommon and even has a hilariously obvious name: ossuary. I call it creepy.

Next we tried to enter the main Cathedral in Evora but we were too late. They close in the middle of the day for a couple of hours. We would have to return another time.

Leaving this main square, we took another look at the Roman ruins and walked back to Praca Giraldo to find some lunch. We settled for eating right on the square and though the place was clearly a casual touristy spot, lunch was again a delight.

Meg got a tuna salad which was a salad - complete with hard boiled eggs - with big hunks of tuna and a delicate olive oil dressing. Our canned tuna mixed with mayo will never be the same after this! My lunch was a pork dish with bread made as part of the sauce. This was a bit reminiscent of the first meal in Lisbon at Cervejaria Trindade which was bread and shrimp. All of it was good and of course there was beer as well. How nice is that?

While dining outside we watched as a film crew filmed what appeared to be some kind of Portuguese soap opera. The cast included a band of musicians including the guy below who had important business to attend to on his cell phone. It turns out that the local University includes a film program and all these young folks were students.

After lunch we walked the short distance to the Church of St. Francis where Meg took this picture showing the town framed by the arches outside the Church. You can see the film crew in the lower part of the picture dutifully following the lead actor around town.

Before visiting the church we entered the Bone Chapel. This place was built and furnished with the bones of monks through the ages to remind residents that regardless of your wealth and station in life, we are all equal in death. Quite a solid message and a truly weird place. I mean there were a lot of bones here.

After touring the church we started to wind our way back to the hotel. We took a break along the way to make some calls home. While we paused, I saw a black cat walking across a nearby rooftop. He looked completely at ease like this was his normal stomping grounds.

As we passed through Praça Giraldo, we discovered a sort of spontaneous musical event happening including bass, drums and a phalanx of horns. Once again we saw the film crew, this time turning their video cameras on the band.

Wearing down we stopped at the historic Café Arcada on the Praça for a cappuccino before continuing back to the hotel.

At the hotel we got freshened up a bit after the long hot day and relaxed on the terrace while plotting our attack on dinner. The hotel supplied a wonderfully informative one page summary of their favorite places to eat. It was very descriptive and I suggested we try Adega do Alentejano which was billed as "very casual" with "rustic decor" and "food [that] will exceed your expectations".

This was one of our better choices on the trip and we enjoyed a wonderful meal in a fascinating setting. The place was indeed rustic and as advertised our wine was poured directly from the barrels in the room just off the dining room.

It was very quiet when we arrived with only one other table occupied. No music at all, just the sound of the kitchen and muted conversation. Shortly though Carlos arrived and explained the menu - tacked to the wall above Meg's head - to us. It included a number of classics including their sopa de tomate and a pork and clams dish both of which we ordered.

The sopa de tomate here is not like any tomato soup I've ever even heard of. Carlos went to lengths to explain that it is an entrée not a soup and he was right. It was delicious and the pork and clams - along with some wonderful potatoes - were just outstanding. Better yet was chatting with Carlos - whom our hotel guide had referred to as a hoot

As we slowly enjoyed our dinner, the place grew busier first and then quieter again. By the time we left, Carlos was introducing us to some of the solo diners most of whom were regulars and also his friends.

The whole thing made me very happy indeed!

We walked back to the hotel tired, happy and full. The day had been eventful and very enjoyable. Evora was just plain fun. We made plans as we downloaded pictures and prepared for bed to visit the Cathedral the next morning before starting our drive back to Estoi in preparation for - could this be true? - heading home.