Sintra

Our final days before flying out from Lisbon back to Costa Rica were spent in Sintra. Located about a half hour, in good traffic, west of the airport, it is another hilly town with many attractions. Even though it was the end of March, we felt there were too many tourists for our liking and couldn’t imagine the throngs there must be in the height of summer.

Our BnB was just on the outskirts of the town center giving us a steep hill to navigate just a few minutes away by foot. Driving through Sintra and parking are difficult so we were glad to be able to leave our rental in the lot by the BnB. When we arrived the woman in charge seemed surprised to see us. It turned out the manager, who was off shopping, had forgotten we were on the books, but we were allowed in our room and settle in. To make up for the oversight, we were not charged for breakfast when we checked out. Our room had a small balcony with views of the valley below and a palace and castle above. A small wood stove was tucked off in a corner and breakfast was delivered to our room at the selected time.

Sintra has two palaces and the one recommended that we visit, the National Palace, was right in town. I think I had seen it before over thirty years ago as aspects were faintly familiar. The highlight for many is the expansive kitchen with two very tall conical chimneys. Even though there were several cooking areas along a wall, the only way for the steam and smoke to escape was from the room up to the ceiling and out the chimneys. It must have made working in the kitchen a bit uncomfortable at times.

We also visited the estate Regaleira, which turned out to be a fantastic playground for anyone growing up there. Footpaths, spiral staircases down wells, nooks and crannies, grottoes, caverns, fountains, waterfalls, lookouts, etc. would have entertained any child. The one who did grow up there, however, turned out to be quite spoiled and wasted all his money as an adult. We spent a few hours ambling about and enjoyed finding and photographing all the treasures. The mansion was also creative with amazing carved fireplaces, frescoes, and mosaics.

The rest of the 24 hours there we meandered about the side streets and found some good food. For me it was a great place to finish off our three months in Europe. The drive to the airport was a bit stressful with traffic making the trip much longer than expected. We had set off early so had plenty of time before the car needed to be returned. Then we had nine or ten hours to pass at the airport before we could drop off our bags. The desk opened about 3:30 AM for our flight just after 5. There was little seating in our wing except for the couple of small restaurants. People were camped out all over on the floors trying to get some rest before their red-eye.

Lufthansa business class from Lisbon to Frankfurt just meant no passenger in the middle seat and no more leg room than economy. I felt it was a bit of a ripoff. We got to use the lounge in Frankfurt, eat, take showers, and I even took a nap with my head on a pillow at the table where we sat. The flight onto Costa Rica, however, did have lie flats for us of which I certainly took advantage! The food was good, snacks and drinks were frequently offered, and the movie selection fine for our twelve hour fight. We both watched Bohemian Rhapsody which was pretty amazing.

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A Week of White Spanish Villages

In between dentist appointments for me in Faro, Portugal to finish up work on a bothersome tooth, we drove to Zahara de la Sierra in Spain, less than four hours away. It is an area we had contemplated moving to a few years ago when we were fed up with locals’ houses being robbed by adolescents and the town elders not doing anything about it. The sparkling white hilltops look as though someone dumped a pile of snow on the ground in various places throughout the countryside. They all have a huge cathedral with lofty spires piercing the air space and some still have rounded castle towers which afford even greater panoramas.

As we approached Zahara, it was pretty cool finally seeing it in the distance in person after just dreaming about it. The Renault Scenic we were driving seemed too big for the village roads making us wonder why personal vehicles are even allowed. We opted to park, roam around while waiting until time to check-in, and awed at the scenery from all angles. Our hotel was only 2 stars, but it seemed worthy of three. Our room for the week was spacious enough, had a king sized bed, roomy bathroom, and two small terraces. All six rooms have views of the aqua reservoir and with spring bursting forth, leaf buds and blooms added to the ambience. Another white village could be seen in the far distance. Breakfast was included, and for the first time there was a bit of variety daily.

Zahara seemed to be smaller than most of the other villages we explored. The really really steep streets and steps gave us a good workout to get to some of the restaurants, shops, and then on to the tower further up the incline. With sunny skies, cool spring temperatures, and sometimes blustery wind, the exertion was challenging but doable. I kept thinking that if I had grown up there perhaps I would not have developed saddle bags!

I think of all the other white villages we visited, Setenil de las Bodegas and Ronda were our favorites. The first one is centered around former residences set underneath overcropping rocks. Now they house mostly restaurants and when we arrived around noon, a morning market was ending. It was there I so enjoyed the lamb shank and French fries. Even my wine was pleasing, which it wasn’t always. We saved Ronda for last and we afraid the ancient very tall 18th century bridge we wanted to see would be a bit ho hum after Pont du Gard in France. It certainly is less marvelous, but it kind of grew on me after we drove across it, hiked down into the valley to see it in its entirety, photographed while walking across it, and admiring it from lower down on the other side. Old Arabic baths from the 13th century are still present in Ronda and can be seen for a small fee. The arches have withstood the test of time and a movie explains the process of the former clientele. The baths are located just outside the former wall of the city so that people could bathe before entering. Cleanliness was very important to the Muslims.

We also carefully descended a winding staircase in a shaft to a 14th century water mine. This was the former water supply for the town, excavated through a natural fissure. There had been a water wheel which worked due to Christian slaves carrying water up to the surface. To protect the supply, a tower was built at the bottom. Unfortunately there was one weak point. To one side of the tower was a thinner wall out of range of the windows where defenders to throw down arrows and stones and places from where they could pour boiling liquids. Attackers knew of this weakness due to a slave who informed them in return for sparing his life. They made a hole in the wall and destroyed the water wheel, thus ending the water supply for the city. It took just a few days for the residents to surrender which was the beginning of the end for the kingdom of Granada. The mine was hidden for over 400 years. At the beginning of the last century a duchess bought the neighboring mansion which gave her access to the mine. She transformed the mansion into a palace and bought more property for gardens. Michelle Obama visited here!

On the way back from Arcos de la Frontera we drove through Grazalema Natural Park which was an adventure in itself. Our elevation escalated quickly on some very scary switchbacks with only long cement blocks to keep us from going over the edge. I was very thankful there were few cars and that we did not scrape our rental car against those cement barriers. With my depth perception issues there were several times I had to close my eyes so I wouldn’t panic we would have an accident of some sort, possibly even life threatening! As the temperature quickly dropped the views became spectacular, when I did look out the window or we were able to pull over. Mountain goats provided a diversion with scampering about near the road and a couple having a tussle with their horns. The unease continued as we descended and although I was thankful to be back “home”, I would have enjoyed spending time in the park with my feet on the ground.

Marseille and the French Riviera

For a while in Costa Rica we were friends with a nomadic family. Philippe is French, Martina is German, and together they have two sons, Etienne and Máxime. They had sold a hotel in southern France and traveled the world for a couple of years before landing in Costa Rica. While there, Martina was temporary director of Proyecto San Gerardo and Philippe eventually helped out with one of its aspects, Cafe Bambu. The two boys were around nine and eleven. Martina had been home schooling them which gave them a lot of flexibility in their day. As the only female in this family, she often referred to being Martina and her men. After a year or so they moved on and we spent time with them in Cuenca, Ecuador and later, in Chachapoyas, Peru. Currently, they are back in France for the boys´education and are living in an apartment in Marseille which they had been renting out. It was time to meet up again in yet another country and continent!

One great aspect of being true friends is that you can go for years without seeing each other, and when you reconnect, you pick up where you left off. They looked great though Philippe is still recovering from a serious car accident caused by a drugged driver without a license and a long history of priors. Etienne had fared better and seemed to be basically back to himself. But, those boys who are now in fourteen and sixteen, are truly young men. They both have deep voices and the beginnings of facial hair. Oh, my!

Philippe was kind enough to take the two of us on a walking tour of the area in the blustery wind and give us the history he enjoys learning. One of Philippe´s other passions, is playing the guitar. He is now part of a rock band who plays a couple of sets once a month at a bar. Luckily our timing gave us the opportunity to see him in action. Despite the late night start, it was fun to meet his friends, see that he plays quite well, and is even brave enough to sing when no one else is available. The next day we took them for lunch and Phillipe guided Bill as he drove along the coast. We saw some fishermen mending their nets and walked up to the top of a cliff for wonderful coastal views.

One day just the two of us took a comfortable bus to Aix where we meandered the streets and various fountains of all sizes and styles throughout the old area. We had a tasty lunch, meandered some more, and headed back. The city is interesting but nothing spectacular compared to what we had already visited.

The next day we took just a minimal amount of luggage and drove east to Colle-sur-Loup where we spent the next four nights. It turned out to be a great location as it is a quiet town and close to others we wanted to visit. By staying at an AirBnB we were able to do laundry and cook meals. The clothes even got to dry in the fresh air outside, something which hadn’t happened since the end of December.

On the way we stopped by Grasse, famous for making perfume, and wandered around the old town as we would have been a bit early arriving at the BnB. We returned another day to see the rest. It, too, is hilly with a maze of narrow streets

St. Paul de Vence is just a few minutes away, and the first hill town we explored. I had been there about thirty years ago and had been enchanted with the hilly narrow cobblestone streets and shopping possibilities. This time we just wandered around enjoying the ambience. On the other side is wall with stairs to the top. I decided we could walk along it and see other views. Well, it was a bit narrow and the inside was completely open with no railing of any sort to provide a sense of safety and containment. I did ok for a minute but then had to hold onto Bill’s belt to feel more secure. Though less shaky, I finally said we had to turn around and go back, a tricky maneuver in itself. When we returned to the beginning I vowed we would never do that again! We eventually went to the tourism office to ask about pétanque lessons I had read about. We scheduled them for late the next morning and paid our seven euros each. The tickets included entry into a wax museum depicting the town’s history and a chapel with very modern murals by a Belgian artist on three of the walls.

Our lesson was given by Diane who speaks fairly fluent English. She seemed quite knowledgeable of the game and strategy, though she said she is not at the level of a professional. We learned how to toss the ball to either gain distance and stop near the little ball, the piglet, or to knock the closer opponent’s ball away from it. Only one person can score in each round with the goal being to obtain thirteen points first. Afterwards we drove onto Vence, which has a small but not very interesting old section.

Our last day turned out to be much longer than we anticipated. There are basically three parallel rural routes along the coast which are supposed to afford spectacular views. We took the middle one as it is supposed to have numerous turnoffs for photo ops and take in the scenery. There were some, but not as many as we would have liked. As we bypassed Nice and skirted Monaco, I reflected on my marvelous solo train excursion along the French Riviera thirty years ago.

Eze is a another hilly village with expansive views and narrow hilly cobblestone streets. We took some time to explore it but did not get the wonderful views for which we hoped. I guess we were supposed to stay in a hotel for $500 a night to do that. We did get some cool photos, though.

We stopped at the last town, Menton, before the Italian border. The skies had cleared by then, the water was lovely, and the air warm enough to be what the riviera should feel like. After parking for free, finally, we strolled along the restaurant laden street and enjoyed the ocean view. The old part of Menton is on an incline with a network of narrow streets and ancient buildings several stories high blocking out most sunlight. At night it would feel quite creepy. The strips of streets connect with narrow stepped passages which surely must be most unsafe at night. There is a central spot with a cross-cross of staircases and a huge cathedral which provides a respite from the claustrophobic residential area.

Needing to pee and not finding public toilets, we stopped at a restaurant where we had to buy something to use the bathroom. I opted for a scoop of ice cream which was icy, too sweet, and not worth the three dollars. At least I could relieve my bladder.

Not long after we started back home I noticed a castle way up the mountain. A quick read in Lonely Planet said it had spectacular views. Since we hadn’t really seen any we took a detour and found our way through yet another hilly village. We skipped the entry fee to the castle and eventually found views of the riviera and Monaco. A hanglider even passed right by us and soared down the mountainside and over the water. That was pretty fun to watch.

The drive home should have gotten us there by four-thirty. That was not to happen as we soon noticed police and people at various locations in a town as though they were waiting for someone to drive by. The prince of Monaco? A movie star? Probably not. Then we saw a Skoda banner high across the road, as though there was a race happening. A few bikers appeared but we continued on….until we couldn’t. A kind policeman stopped us to say, at first in French and then in English at my request, that we could only take one road forward due to a bike race. Little did we know that not much further ahead we would be stopped for about a half hour waiting for racers, cars with extra bikes, motorcycles, etc. to continue on their route above Nice. This time police did not, maybe would not, try to speak English. The female one seemed to take sympathy after asking me what language I speak, English and Spanish, and then clearing stating she spoke French, and said if it was about the route, maybe ten or thirty minutes more. Fortunately it was closer to ten minutes. Meanwhile I was in awe watching a pack of bikers zip up the very long, very steep hill as though it was completely level, and pass out of sight around the bend. Frustratingly, further along we came to another blockade. We decided to go the other direction and let the nav guide us home. As we passed the mile long string of cars waiting to be allowed through, I was thankful we did not wait. We seemed to be heading back towards Menton, but eventually found ourselves going through Nice. It was six o’clock by the time we parked in the driveway.

The next morning we drove back to our friends’ apartment in Marseille, repacked all our suitcases which meant not letting them weigh more than 20 kilos rather than 23 for RyanAir, had a lovely homemade quiche for lunch with Martina and Philippe, left them with a huge bag of items we sort of didn’t want in our efforts to downsize, and drove to the airport. Security made me take off my shoes and sent them through the scanner, patted me down quite thoroughly, and then took every item out of my small backpack. Each was opened and placed on the counter. Finally she took out the box holding the keyboard for the iPad, said it was a computer, opened it, swiped it and the inside of my pack with her special wipe, analyzed it, and said I could go. Thanks. Then I had to put it all back in just so in order to get it to fit, find my headband had broken, and fume in irritation at the terrorists who have created this situation. They haven’t gunned me down, or anyone I know, but we are all impacted to some extent by their choices.

From Nimes to Arles

With a very long day of driving in the rental, the scenery slowly changed leaving the quaint villages behind. We finally arrived in Nimes where the air was colder and blustery. We managed to unload the various luggage at the hotel and made our way to the paid parking garage associated with our lodging. I punched in the code to lift the door open, and Bill slowly but surely reversed into a tight space. When deciding how to spend the next few days we opted to see all of Nimes by foot and then after checkout, extract the car to visit the outer area.

Nimes is certainly an interesting city, full of Roman history and remains. While waiting for restaurants to open for dinner at 7, we meandered around our neighborhood. A vast plaza with a towering cathedral and statuesque fountain were lit up and just off that is the ancient arena which we would tour the next day. When the restaurant opened we returned all with several others and chose our pizzas. We were surprised there was not a choice of beer and wine; there was only the house version. Palatable, but not the best. My bruschetta pizza with goat cheese had good flavor, though.

The next morning we opted for breakfast at the hotel. There was the usual bread, croissants, pain au chocolate, toast, ham, cheese, cereal, yogurt, and fruit. It was sufficient but eggs would have been good. Then we began our Roman ruin explorations. The arena is the best preserved of the remaining Roman amphitheaters and has some ongoing restorations. We listened to an app explanation of the history and architecture as we were directed to move to various areas. Finished in the early 2nd century AD, seating was according to social class. The oval shape meant everyone had a good view of the spectacles and the geometry and symmetry of every aspect, including the arches and seating, were truly engineering feats. The well planned galleries and staircases meant that crowds could enter and exit quickly and greatly lessened congestion and pushing. The stone was quarried nearby and the sand on the arena floor was turned regularly to minimize the smell of human and animal blood. Surprisingly, awnings were erected to protect the spectators from the hot sun. Trapdoors were used by gladiators to enter and exit the arena. There was even a hydraulic drainage system. It seems they had thought of everything two thousand years ago.

From there were visited the new Roman history museum where there are artifacts from excavations. Statues, gravestones, friezes, pottery, etc. were displayed along with with movies which provided a chance to sit as well as become informed. After being on our feet for hours it was time for a early afternoon lunch and then a rest back at the hotel. With such a big meal we did not need dinner, so while on our evening walk of the old quarter, we purchased some lemon tarts to enjoy after leftover bread and cheese.

The next day we visited the Maison Carrée, a temple of the same era, which was built to house the recently established Imperial cult, showing loyalty to Rome. It was dedicated to the two grandsons of Caesar Augustus. We watched a half hour movie which gave us some historical background, and that was all that was available to see inside the building.

From there was a bit of a walk to the Fontaine gardens, built around the founding spring of the city which is contained within two grand winding staircases, with a spacious plaza and garden decorated with vases and statutes. Off to the side are the remains of the Temple of Diana, but it’s purpose is not known. Following paths through trees and garden from the top of the staircases brought us to the crest of the hill. There is one remaining tower from the city wall, which has all but disappeared. Tour Magne was built around 15 BC. It was almost destroyed in the 12th century when a gardener was convinced the Nostradamus prophecy referred to this tower. He got the king to let him search it with the king getting two-thirds of treasures. He found nothing while emptying it and nearly destroyed the tower with his foolishness. We climbed the 140 steps where we were rewarded with a panoramic view of the city.

After lunch, more lemon tarts and bread purchased, a rest, and a short evening stroll we packed up ready for the car extraction in the morning and a short drive to the next Roman marvel.

The Pont du Gard is certainly quite impressive! We had hoped to be able to park somewhere for free or low cost and walk to it, but the area is protected from such freeloaders! One has to park, walk to the ticket office and pay the entrance fee which is nine euros each and includes parking, and then around the bend the views begin. At first trees were obscuring the view somewhat, but down by the river, which was at a low level, were clear views. Once past the trees there were more photo opportunities.

The three tiers are quite spectacular. The bridge is almost 50 meters high, 275 meters long, and includes 35 precisely built arches. Each block, some weighing more than 5 tons, was carved by hand and transported from nearby quarries. The height of the bridge very gradually diminishes by 2.5 cm from end to end, just enough to keep water flowing. Not bad for 19 BC! After proper admiration as we approached and snapped multiple photos, we traversed the first level where graffiti from the 1800’s can be viewed; at least there wasn’t spray paint back then. A few sightseeing planes flew overhead, and how I wished we could enjoy that perspective. On the other side there are numerous trails for walking and one to the museum, cinema, food, etc. The ticket included the museum which explained the history and process of constructing the bridge. It is all rather humbling.

From there we continued north to Orange where we expected to visit an ancient theatre. When we arrived, the ticket office informed us of scaffolding covering the huge stage wall. We decided to forgo the experience and walked around the outside of the theater. After a bit of an exploration of the back streets we found ourselves able to view it from outside the premises. That was good enough and saved us twenty dollars. At first I was disappointed not to enter, but having seen the Greek theaters, I was content with what we could see here.

We ended the day by driving to Arles where we had a fantastic AirBnB. It was roomy, well-equipped, and the location was close to everything, yet quiet. After parking in the designated garage where we left most of the suitcases, we trudged along with our few needs for two days. As we approached the central square, there was clearly some sort of event happening. At the far end was a gathering of people and smoke. Just as we neared the action in front of the town hall, a small wedding party emerged. They stopped there and over the heads of the crowd, we were able to aim our iPhones to take pictures and video of the celebration. The bride and groom, cheered on by family and friends, began to dance together to their ethnic music. A few minutes later they made their way across the square to continue the celebration elsewhere.

From there it was just another block or two to where Sebastian greeted us at our BnB. He was quite charming, speaking English pretty well. After showing us how to use everything, he reviewed a map to orient us to sites, restaurants, and groceries. We returned to the garage with the free access card, left the garage after paying, and entered again to park for free. Afterwards we meandered about the area, bought groceries, had dinner, and then took a quick walk at night to see the arena lit up. There are many narrow cobblestone streets and lanterns which create an ambience we enjoy.

The next day we decided not to enter the arena as we had done that at Nimes. We walked around the outside, ambled about admiring the street scenes, found a cemetery outside the wall but no really old tombs, and ended up at an ancient theater from the end of the 1st century BC. The remains are minimal compared to the one in Orange from the same era yet had been the same size. I did want to see this theater and while we paid for tickets, we found they included the arena. Since we were sleeping in Arles, we were able to take part in the winter special which gave us a 33% discount. Score! A movie explained the history of the theater, which we watched after we had explored the seating, stage, and remnants lying around out of the way. Apparently, the theater wall had been two stories high and looked a lot like the arena from the outside. Only a few of first rows of seats are original, and there are two complete columns from the wall still erect. After the fall of the Roman Empire it was taken over by the Catholic Church and later a group of nuns. During the Middle Ages it was slowly dismantled and quarried, the stones used to build the other projects. It is currently used for various entertainment productions.

Next, we visited the arena since we had already paid for it. A description said it is the same size as the one in Nimes, but it seemed smaller. After a rest back at our place, we checked out the courtyard of the former hospital where Van Gogh had his ear stitched. Now it seems to house a small variety of commerces, and a place where we had just missed an exhibition. The courtyard was full of flowers, even though it was just March.

Then it was time for lunch. We chose a Moroccan eatery, with a view of the arena for me, where we had tagines. Mine was a chicken leg/thigh with lemon slices and way too many green olives for me to eat. Bill had a spicy meatball concoction in a tomato sauce. We opted for desserts this time. He had flan which did not have enough of the orange flavor it was described to have, and I had an assortment of tiny pastries. They we all ok, but nothing notable.

That night I had a message to arrange a Skype interview for a pet sit in the UK next August. We agreed to set it up for the next morning, just a half hour before we were to check out with Sebastian. During the conversation she decided to confirm us as the other candidates were coming from another country; we will already be in the UK for other sits. Score again!

On to Marseille to reunite with Martina and her men!

A Month in the Dordogne

The previously mentioned house/pet sit is coming to an end. All in all, it has been pretty easy. Having a free place to stay, being able to prepare all our meals as eating out is quite expensive, using a washing machine and heat from the wood stove as a dryer, being able to leave animals alone for hours, and most of all, having use of a car all create a rather great month.

To top it off, the Dordogne is a marvelous area with one picturesque medieval village after another. Many are bastides, or fortified towns, and/or deemed to be one of the most beautiful villages in France. They have similar qualities but are different enough in layout, elevation changes, and some architectural features to all be interesting. Two of our favorites were Sarlat-la-Caneda and Beynac-et-Cazenac. The former has a population of almost ten thousand and is a complex maze of honey-colored buildings, alleyways and squares. The latter village is smaller but on a steep hillside with vertical cliffs dropping down near the river. At the top stands a fortress where Richard the Lionhearted was ruler for a decade. It commands a grand view of nearby villages and the river. All these villages kept a close eye on each other, for support as needed and because they were each other’s worst enemies.

The area is also is well-known for the walnut orchards and goose and duck husbandry. Each has their weekly marché , with not only the usual fruits and vegetables; vendors also sell nuts, honey, a wide variety of cheese and meat, including chicken being rotisseried right on the spot, pates, bread, and some even have flea market type goods. A couple even sell black truffles, coveted by many but not us!

The Dordogne Valley, where we are, is countryside at its’ best. Even in winter with spring approaching, the area’s rolling hills, meadows, and woods along the twisty Dordogne River, are relaxing. Paddlers and bikers are present, even during these cooler months. Rides on flat-bottomed wooden boats are available during the warmer seasons, something to do should we return.

Just north of here is the tiny Vezere Valley where limestone cliffs house caverns and shelters. The prehistoric sites are pretty awesome and contain the highest concentration of Stone Age art found in Europe. We visited Font-du-Gome with the only original polychromatic paintings still open to the public. Viewing impressive art work by Cro-Magnon people from 14,000 years ago was a pretty cool experience. Buffalo and deer were subjects and we were able to see some of the best preserved. Most paintings are closed off to the public to preserve them and can be difficult to access. One advantage of being here in February is that visitors are few making tickets easy to obtain and in our case, only one other person in our group. We could take photos but have them treasured in our memories.

We also visited the UNESCO World Heritage abbey and cloister in Cadouin, just south of Trémolat. The large simple abbey is in stark contrast to the ornate cloister. Built on the Romanesque ruins from the one built in the 12th century, the current Gothic one is about three hundred years younger. At some point the monastery possessed what was thought to be a shroud of Jesus. This was of great importance, of course, as the abbey became favorite place for pilgrim and made the monastery quite wealthy. Then the Hundred Years War greatly diminished the number of pilgrims and greatly damaged the cloister. In 1791 the abbey, which only had four monks by then, was dissolved in the French Revolution. From the late 1800’s to late 1900’s restorations have occurred from time to time. In 1934 the cloth was analyzed and found to have come from Egypt and had no relation to Christ. It is now kept safe elsewhere. The decor is not just fancy lacework in places; there are numerous small sculptures built into the walls and keystones set into the ceilings depicting religious scenes. I really found this cloister to be amazing with its artwork, one remaining frieze, and fancy door surrounds. There are four galleys surrounding a central courtyard through arched openings with pointed arches and fancy traceries.

We certainly landed ourselves a fantastic first house/sit. This is a prime area to visit should one want to see France!

Pet Sitting in the Dordogne

We flew from Lisbon to Bordeaux where we rented a car to get to Bergerac. There, our hosts retrieved us and our luggage to drive the forty minutes to their cottage. Andrew took our belongings to the cottage while Karen drove us in her car and stopped at the Intermarche. She helped us find groceries we needed to get us started. When we arrived in Tremolat, we were enthusiastically greeted by ten-year-old Honey, a lab, and fourteen-year-old Tilly, a French hound. We eventually met the three cats, Smutty, Pooh, and Sox, who are free to come and go as they please. Buster, a stray, is strictly to live outdoors as Andrew, who does not like cats, has drawn the line at three allowed indoors. Buster is a sweet fellow, though, who has been enjoying his evening head rubbings given by Uncle Bill.

We arrived on Tuesday afternoon and the Calverts left four days later. Meanwhile, we learned the routines of the animals, how to use the wood stove as their only heating source, the appliances, and various mundane chores. As the Calverts have downsized to a cosy cottage on the other side of the building where they run one of two gites during the high season, there is little space. Folding wooden dining chairs are kept in a closet when not in use. For a dining table they use a collapsible one which converts from coffee table height to eating height. The top also rotates, if needed. It’s really quite clever, but even more so is her solution to drying clothes inside during the winter. She has rigged up a rack made of wooden slats hung by rope on a pulley system and installed it over the stairs to their bedrooms. Heat from the wood stove rises and dries the laundry within the day, or by the next day. Draping the clothes on the lowered slats can be a bit tricky at first, and precarious, but I have eventually figured it out. When raised, the clothes are generally well enough above our heads. In our bedroom I found a short regular drying rack I set downstairs for the lots of underwear, socks, and other short items.

Our hosts work three days a week running their fish and chips business from a food truck. The second night we were there, they invited us to visit them at their job a few miles away for a treat of their speciality. I have never been a fan of battered fried food, but their cod was perfect. I loved the flavor, lightness, and crunchy exterior. They were not greasy at all, and Andrew says its from setting the fish on its side after frying to let the excess oil drain. Bill thought the chips were also perfection. At this particular site they have a deal with the local bar. People order their meal from the Calverts and then go inside to buy their drinks. Karen then delivers their meal or, on the busy nights, she gives them a buzzer so clients can retrieve their food orders.

We are about halfway through our stay, which is free in exchange for the animal care. Thankfully, the creatures are easy going. After noisily gobbling down their combination of dry and wet food in metal bowls banging on the floorboards, the dogs go for a walk only once a day. We either put them on their leads and take them to the other side of the village where they run in a field, or we put them in the old van and drive them a short distance to one of two sites along the river. The train passes over at the end of one of the runs, and Olympic scull trials were held at the other one many years ago. Water activities are still an option during the warmer months. There is also a campsite there. Andrew showed us another choice, but it is further away and wild boars inhabit the area. As Tilly has already been gored by one, we chose to not take the chance despite the rocky ledge well above the river with a panoramic view. It is known as Le Cingle, the scene of a murder in the 1970 film “Le Boucher”.

Tremolat, our home for a month, is a tiny medieval village on a bend of the Dordogne River. The Church of St. Nicholas, from the 12th century, is in the center of the square. It is quite plain and bone chilling this time of year. There are some frescoes dating from the 14th century, short interior doors, and narrow steep well-worn stone steps on a side wall. The cloisters disappeared during the Hundred Years War. A few minutes walk away is a small 12th century chapel, de St. Hilaire, which was renovated in the 50’s and is abutted by the local cemetery. Despite its age, graves from that period are not obvious. Modern stainglassed windows help to add a bit of ambience as the sun shines through. Two restaurants are open in February; the more expensive restaurant/hotel is quite pricey with lunch at about $20 per person, though it is supposed to be tasty. One boulangerie is still in business. Unfortunately, their bread is dry, but the pan au chocolat are just fine! They also sell a few other goods such as tetra packs of milk, tea, and mustard. Tuesdays mornings there is a one produce truck which comes and sells a wide variety of vegetables and fruits. Below is a bistro just down from the church and then the view from our living room.

During the day we often go exploring in Karen’s car which, generously, is at our disposal. This region is one medieval village after another. I had feared I would become bored with them all looking the same, but they are all quite different! Some are on hills with narrow winding lanes, some have buildings with the exposed wooden timbers, some are flat, some are built alongside cliffs where people lived prehistorically, etc. We have toured a castle where Richard the Lionheart ruled for a decade and where it is stated the villages all kept an eye out on each other, either for support or as they were sworn enemies. Each has their weekly market with a few selling black truffles for 600-1000 euro per kilo.

Reflections of the Algarve

Spending most of a month on the southern coast of Portugal was a fabulous way to begin our nomadic lives. The eastern side, from Faro over, is much more quaint and lacking the higher rise structures of the western side. More Brits reside over there so for those wanting to immerse themselves in the Portugal culture and society, stay east where the villages are quainter and more picturesque.

The morning we were to leave we had breakfast at Rosalia’s with our hosts Ron and Charmayne. We then met them back at the condo to check-out and drive the car we rented the day before to visit one last eastern village. Castro Marim is easiest accessed by road as the train station does not stop here and buses from Vila Real de San Antonio only go so often. There are remains of a 14th century castle from which there are views across the river to Spain, the salt pans, and marshes of a natural reserve. The castle was greatly destroyed in an earthquake back in 1755 but the walls are still impressive. Inside them is a 14th-century chapel where, perhaps, Prince Henry the Navigator prayed. After leaving, we passed the salt marsh where numerous pink flamingos were gathered in the distance.

The exception to the above opinion is the far western corner where we spent the first few days of February based in Sagres. Located beyond the end of the train tracks, one needs a car to access the area. Buses may go there, but we did not see any. The rocky cliffs are staggering in their height and magnificence. Erosion has created arches and numerous caves, the best being along the coast of Lagos, where the railroad ends.

Being just a few hours from Conceição by car, taking the roads without tolls, we arrived in Sagres in mid-afternoon with quite gusty winds which lasted two more days. After checking into our apartment/hotel for about $50 a night, we explored the town and drove along the coast, stopping at a fort and remains, to Cabo St. Vicente where there is a lighthouse and a marvelous sunset at about six o’clock. We visited the fort the next day and marveled at the waves crashing into exposed rocks at the base of the distant vertical cliffs, which sometimes sent spray well above ground level! I agree with Lonely Planet’s description of the fort being “blank, hulking, and forbidding”. Legend says Prince Harry the Navigator set up his navigation school here.

I really wanted to take a boat trip to see the cliffs from the sea and visit the caves, but as there were still high winds we visited the cliffs near Lagos which were impressive. Ponta da Piedade has a lighthouse and photogenic sandstone cliffs. We had to be careful how close to their edge we ventured as the wind could have knocked us over or the ground give way to our death. The next day was considerably calmer so we drove past Lagos to Benagil Beach where we were fortunate to enjoy even more dramatic coastline and then found we could take the next boat excursion in twenty minutes. I was so excited and while we were out there soon decided it was worth the 25 euros each we spent. Being a small boat there were maybe fourteen people plus the guide/driver. One of the caverns goes right underneath the lighthouse in Lagos. The most impressive by far was Bengali Cave, one of the best in the world. From above one can look down into it but that means crossing the fence around it. We chose to respect the rules though many people did not. The best views from within the cave are from the beach looking out to the sea. As we were not allowed to leave the boat to do that, we did not get the full sensory experience I would have liked. There are two entrances plus the hole overhead making the pictures I had seen taken from the beach quite breathtaking. Along the coast are three rock formations of interest; one of a crocodile, an enormous elephant, and a human face. Some of the beaches we saw while on the tour are accessible only by sea and a couple of them through a tunnel.

The next day we had to leave but took a bit of time to walk around Loule, quite close to Faro where I had a dentist appointment. The historic area has a Moorish castle, but it was closed that day. There is a huge market in an impressive 1908 neo-Arab structure with four oriental looking raspberry cupolas at the four corners. Inside was quiet, being a Monday, and seemed to be a mix of fish, local produce, and cafes.

Then it was time to go to work! We drove back to Lisbon, spent the night, and early the next morning flew to France where we began a month-long house/pet sit.

Sevilla, Spain

Oh, how we are liking Sevilla! We spent three nights here giving us the the better part of four days. The ambiance of the centuries old architecture with such visual interest and pleasure, lack of traffic and fumes, and the walkability all add to its charm. Our apartment/hotel is on a quiet side street where only once in a while we hear the clackety clomp of the horse-drawn carriages passing by, and it is not far from the absolutely gigantic Gothic cathedral.

There are quiet electric trams to transport people around though we never saw many passengers waiting at stops. One is not able to see in so only those inside know how busy they are. A combination of wide boulevards and narrow winding cobblestone lanes make the city fun to explore. Tapas are available throughout the area and on Friday after work the bars are quite busy and noisy.

The building we most enjoyed was definitely the royal palace, the Real Alcazar. As seniors we paid only 3 euro each rather than 11.5! The current king and his family still stay there from time to time. For an extra four euro one can take a guided tour of the the private quarters. We opted just to show ourselves around the rest of the structure in which it is quite easy to lose one’s way. It began as a fort in 913 and after 11 centuries and many renovations it has become quite a spectacular UNESCO heritage site. There is a combination of Iberian Islamic architecture (Mudejar) and Christian. The variety make it more attention grabbing and kept up the level of interest. Intricate plasterwork, arches, amazing ceilings, decorative doors, and various courtyards are all breathtaking and wonderful. One room has several enormous tapestries depicting life hundreds of years ago. The gardens are also massive, and even though it is January, trees are laden with oranges. In fact, they are all over the city. The gardens are huge and when they are in leaf and bloom must be quite stunning.

Another visual wonder is Plaza España which was built in 1929 for the Iberian Exposition. Today it houses some government offices on the first level and the plaza has various vendors. Boats can also be hired to paddle around the semi-circular waterway which can also be crossed using tiled arched bridges. Adjacent is the Parque Maria Louisa which is a respite within the city and houses several museums, some of which are in buildings leftover from the exposition.

The Triana section across Rio Guadalquivir was, in the Middle Ages, where undesirables were sent and factories established. Now it has many bars and the city’s bullring. There are boat tours, many kayakers, and the occasional sculler who ply the waters daily.

Simply wandering the city is interesting in its’ own right as there is a maze of very narrow, winding, lanes in which one can readily get lost and need to use a map app to find one’s way out. Hotels, boutiques, restaurants, bars, museums, churches, plazas, and stores are tucked in everywhere, yet spaced apart keeping the walks from becoming overwhelming. There is a shopping district with pedestrian walkways, but this we found rather dull in comparison. The occasional buskers and couples practicing the tango and flamenco for spare change add performing arts to the architecture and ambiance.

Food is not cheap, if wanting a meal and not just a tapa. We ate breakfast at our apartment and the third day ate lunch there as well. Vegetables, other than salad, are generally not part of the entree. We did order a plate of grilled vegetables for the two of us but had to pay the price of a regular main course! Our last dinner was chicken and seafood paella, which did have a few vegetables mixed in. The white wine I preferred is Verdejo, a sauvignon Blanc.

Sevilla is such an intriguing old city and well worth the time spent there!

Settling In at the Algarve

We finally made it. Our dear last cat died June 1 which allowed us to begin nomadic lives. While waiting out the remaining seven months to finish our lease, we very slowly sold the items we had accumulated since we retired to Costa Rica in June 2013. Facebook Marketplace was a pain to use due to the lack of consideration on the part of the potential buyers and effort to read the details of the postings, but it was the means through which most of the sales occurred. I also found that I was part of a yahoo group, about which I had forgotten, and one guy down in Perez Zeledon, ended up buying two batches totaling a bit more than $800. A local family also came and returned many times getting great deals, especially the last week. A carload of items we donated to a women’s group in Escazu who sells used items to raise money for children’s education, meet their food needs, etc. A friend bought our car two weeks before we left. We crammed our remaining goods into two suitcases and two carryons each, took an Uber to SJO, and flew to EWR and onto LIS business class so we could get lie flats for the portion crossing the ocean.

To deal with jet lag, though it never hit me, we spent the night in Lisbon near the airport where we were given an early check in after waiting an hour. After settling in we took Uber to the old section, Alfama. We spent the afternoon ambling around, having lunch on the sidewalk tables, and changing money at Western Union before returning to our room. I was quite taken with all the clothes drying all over the district. It’s quite the way of life. Orange trees are plentiful and heavy with fruits despite being the beginning of the year. The next morning Bill set off to retrieve our car rental and we drove south to Conceição de Tavira.

The Alfama:

Bill had secured us a great AirBnB just a fifteen minute walk to the shore. There are two bedrooms, one of which we use for our suitcases and my clothes, while Bill uses the closet in the master bedroom. Two bathrooms means we can use separate sinks. The guest bath has a stall shower which has slightly more water pressure but is barely large enough to move around in. The main bath has a tub and shower affording more space for shaving legs! The kitchen is small but adequate and quite well appointed for a BnB. It was the owners´first condo here so they left it as it was. The washing machine is small but new. To dry clothes we hang them on our own rooftop terrace where there are also lounge chairs and a BBQ. We have a balcony off one side of the condo and a spiral staircase goes from there to the rooftop. Although the building is only three stories, this is considered a ¨penthouse¨.

The temperatures are from the high 40´s to the low 60´s but sunny all the time. We do use the somewhat effective heat while we are here but with an extra blanket are plenty warm while sleeping. The weather makes for pleasant explorations and gives us a chance to wear our cool weather clothing. During lunch the other day we sat next to a British couple recently who have lived here for nine years. They said January is usually rainy but this time December and into the new year have been as dry as it is from March to October. Selfishly, we hope it continues.

The local train runs the length of the southern coast with numerous stops along the way. There is a station just a two minute walk from the condo with several trains throughout the day. As seniors we pay half price making reasonable fares quite cheap. Although we have yet to experience it, the owners claim maybe a third of the time the conductor never arrives to collect their fare before it is time to exit. We have been here a week and a half and explore somewhere new each day. One day we took the train to the last stop in the eastern direction, about a half hour away, and took a fifteen minute ferry ride for about $2.25 each across the river to Ayamonte, Spain. We meandered around the cobblestoned town, had a great lunch with better wine than in Portugal, and returned home.

There are plenty of grocery stores and markets for the local produce and ocean fish sales. We bought two lovely salmon steaks from the local fishmonger and paid about ten dollars for them. As the condo owners suggested we not drink the water or even use it to brush our teeth, we do buy a large water jug for daily use. The wine here, is either red or white; they do not distinguish the type of grape. I find the white pretty ghastly. Bill did find a red he thinks is fine. The glass of white wine I enjoyed in Spain is made from the Verdejo grape. I bought two bottles, though a different mark from the restaurant, on the way back to the ferry, but one of them I tried so far is not nearly as pleasant as the one at the restaurant.

The language….well, to read it isn’t too difficult as it looks quite similar to Spanish. The pronunciation is another story, and one I don’t understand! There are several ways to say the letters. S can sound like sh and there is even a zh sound. It is all quite complicated and not one I intend to unravel. I can say hello, thank you, and I am sorry. English is considered the second language of Portugal but the knowledge of it is quite variant, mostly leaning towards not speaking it. As they do not like Spain, it is well advised to speak English instead of Spanish.

Euros are easy to use and convert about fifteen cents more than a dollar. They do have a lot of coins: 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, and 50 cents. 1 and 2 euros are coins while the greater denominations are paper. When we arrived in Lisbon we exchanged money at a Western Union for a great rate and no commission.

A few initial photos:

Faro fire station

View from church tower in Faro

Cabañas de Tavira 1 km from our condo

Fishmonger in Olhão

Churro maker at Saturday market in Olhão

Old church in Conceição near our condo

Update: Of all the towns we explored by foot, our favorite was Tavira. It has ruins of a castle atop a hill with aerial views of the area, an old Roman bridge with seven arches, and scattered old churches. Many tourists use it as a base but in January, it did not seem busy at all. My favorite restaurant was one to which we returned as the slow cooked lamb shank was delectable! The generous portion was accompanied by thin fried sweet potato slices and grilled eggplant and tomatoes. One train stop before Tavira is Porta Nova which accesses Tavira from the other side. About a fifteen minute walk away is the bus station where two friendly stray female cats are allowed to stay, and they must feed them as well. From there we took the bus to Seville.

Olhão, close to Faro, has a market all week, but Saturdays are by far the most active day. There are two large indoor markets in century old buildings. Fishmongers dominate one of them while fresh produce fill in the rest and spill outside. Fresh raspberries were a treat along with walnut pieces. Several types of honey, flowers, etc. are available along with a couple of venders making and selling fresh hot crispy churros. There is not a lot else to the town with its small cobblestone streets and lanes, but enough for us to return one day just to wander and photograph. Another day we walked a long long way to arrive at a reserve. I had hoped to see chameleons but they are especially elusive in winter. We did visit the wild animal rescue and rehab center just in time to help with the release of two seagulls who had eaten something toxic.

Faro is a bit large with a more encompassing historical area in which it was easy to become disoriented. The se, or cathedral, was completed in 1251 but greatly damaged in 1755 when there was an earthquake. The tower affords great views of the town and islands. The interior is a bit gaudy for us. We enjoyed just getting lost and wondering what cool atmosphere was around the next turn. It is also where a bothersome tooth was finally pulled and immediately replaced with an implant and temporary crown. For weeks it hadn´t felt sturdy and once we arrived in Portugal, had begun to bother me when eating. It took two visits to a Danish dentist to come to terms with needing to do this.

Photo Tour and More

The next morning we were up before the sun to meet Duq from Vietnam in Focus, a photography tour company.  It turned out we were the only participants so had all his attention.  Normally he would give a lot of guidance and instruction, but as Bill has been a professional for decades, we used him more to get around to areas we would not likely get to.  The focus of this tour was life around the railroad tracks and markets.

The driver dropped us off at Long Bien Bridge where the trains run and a huge bustling produce market is found street level.  As we waited for the sun to rise and the train to pass, we observed the hustle of deliveries by motos and yokes.  A road parallels the tracks on the bridge and all sorts of vehicles passed us, some transporting goods.  Conical hats are commonly worn by the locals which added to the photographic interest.  After the train finally passed we walked down to market level and meandered the numerous alleys lined with vendors.  Duq said organic produce is hard to find and verify, but he knows of one woman who has her own small garden that he trusts sells the quality he seeks.  By the time we got there, just after 6, selling had calmed down and money was already being counted and transactions recorded in notebooks.  In the market’s parking area delivery trucks were waiting, cleaners were sweeping the debris, and there was still a bustle of vendors.

From there we moved to another raised track and waited for the next passing.  This train moved slowly and stopped to pick up passengers.  Another market we stopped at is totally indoors with three floors of dry goods.  Herbs, textiles, clothing, dried fish, etc. are crammed together stall by stall with just enough room to walk past.  In one area several men and women were dealing with huge cylinders of material and a couple of men were dead to world while napping on others.  Even though the three of us took numerous photos of them, they never moved or even seemed to be breathing.

We also spent some time sitting on a curb at a busy intersections watching the complicated dance of the motos, cars, pedestrians, and street sweepers.  How no one got hurt was amazing.  Duq had us try to set our cameras at a low shutter speed to capture one person crossing the street in focus while the background was a blur.  My settings didn’t quite go low enough and success was difficult even for the well practiced.

After a bit we stopped for a refreshment.  My tea was really sweet so Duq kindly bought me another.  While we rested he became quite political regarding our questions on life in Vietnam.  He thinks the youth of today will become more vocal about the general unhappiness as the adults of today do not want to upset the peace after being under rule of China for a thousand years, the French for decades, and fighting the American War.  He believes that although it is purported that everyone works for the greater good,  the reality is everyone looks after themselves only.  He was quite disdainful of the culture.  When we mentioned that our river guide and told us a lot of napkins on the ground indicated tasty food at the restaurant, he again was disgusted with his own people.  Education and health care are not free in their version of communism, and he claimed parents even to help pay for the school janitors.

The highlight of the tour was probably the train tracks closer to Hanoi Station where people live just feet away.  They cook their meals and hang their laundry right in the mix of the passing trains.  Not many go through in a day and the residents work around the schedule.  There are cafes, a  homestay, and hair salons nestled there as well.  A group of middle-aged adults sat on chairs by and on the tracks and invited us to join them.  Not having the language,  we passed even though Duq could have interpreted.  It was really quite a fascinating neighborhood.

The Hanoi Station was closed off to us so about 10:00 he finally fed us a very late breakfast.  He scouted a few options and we decided on chicken pho at a stall he felt was safe, but I never did find out what he meant by that.  Mine was prepared without spices and was really quite tasty.  I was rather nervous eating “street food” but it never seemed to have a negative on me.  Perhaps it was the larger dose of Pepto Bismol that morning…Afterwards he called a taxi for us and paid our transport back to the hotel.  We could have walked but I was weary and the ride was free.

The next morning we returned to the tracks to get photos of the passing trains we had missed the day before.  Two women guards set up the road block just before the trains came and indicated we were to stand on one side of the track and well back.  Not being sure which way the train was coming we asked a fellow traveler, perhaps an Aussie, and he and the resident nearby indicated we were not to be close at all to the track.  Bill and I wanted to be on the other side, though, for a better angle, where there was even less room.   A kind woman, who had likely seen a few tourists before, invited me stand just inside the doorway of what might have been her shed.  Even at that the seeming rush of the train just emerging from the station exit created a bit of wind and a blur of the cars.

While in Hanoi we had to have a cyclo ride which turned out not to be as long as we had thought.  Not speaking the language meant not being able to communicate our deal but it was kind of cool sitting in front of the bike with no protection to the oncoming crazy drivers.  Maybe it was just as well that it was a short ride.

More jaunts around the Old Quarter, the lake, and a return to the organic restaurant finished our remaining hours.  The people are fascinating and craziness intriguing, once accepted it is the way it is.  You have to go with the flow or get run down, in any sense you want to take it.