Two days into the new year, we escaped raw London and were strolling in Barcelona, delighted to see a palm tree again. There we had the chance for a remarkable parade: Epiphany is celebrated as the Reis Mags, and Catalan children receive gifts on Jan. 6, a national holiday. Holiday lights still blinked throughout the city, with Santas strung over the wide clean streets, and white light garlands wound high around thousands of tree trunks. The magi enter the city by boat on the eve of the feast, and we shoe-horned ourselves into a dense happy crowd to watch their parade thread through the city center. Floats dispersed thousands of yellow cardboard crowns: we resembled a huge Burger King party. Kids perched on every window ledge and shoulder. The kings’ helpers, in colorful robes and headdresses, hurled candies into the crowd and eager kids dove on them like prospectors at Sutter’s Mill. Somehow nobody toppled over the crowded balconies. There were moving searchlights, flying confetti, and colored swirls of red smoke rising into the night, and bands on horseback and on floats. But the next morning, it took a keen eye to discern even one piece of colored confetti in the clean shop doorways.
Stores bustled with shoppers. Armani, Gucci, and Zara vied with Cortes Ingles and other department stores, and New York or Paris would envy the upscale contents and service. This city is the capitol of Catalonia, one of Spain’s 17 states. Wafting through the air were pure Catalan melodies: White Christmas, Jingle Bell Rock, and Jerry Lee Lewis! American music permeates the world. There is a flair for style obvious in the store windows, but some shops still close for siesta.
The city is delectable, exciting, vigorous, and so easy to enjoy! Its natural beauty, with Mediterranean beaches sweeping into its lap and mountains cradling its back, has long been appreciated. There are 160 parks and many landscaped squares. Ancient artifacts, Roman walls and aqueducts, and Spanish castles testify to the battles over its vigorous seaport, today bustling with thousands of container trailers and huge storage tanks. Catalan sailors once explored the world’s seas under their bright yellow flag crossed by red lines, some say reminders of the blood from dying fingers pulled over a golden shield. This travel has again invigorated our history appetite, since we hadn’t realized how much the Catalans hated their Spanish conquerors. Signage was mostly in Catalan, Spanish, and English, possibly a holdover from the ’92 Olympics. Bon dia replaces Buenas dias.
The low-rise architecture is similar to Paris, with balconies by the thousands climbing up fine buildings both ancient and modern, and the Modernista movement of Gaudi and others at the turn of the century adds exclamation points of interest. Wavy lines in colorful tiles, mosaics, curving pillars, swirling leaflike metal doors and balconies are a joy to see, ‘tho Frank Lloyd Wright might vomit. Form doesn’t follow function, it wanders wherever it likes! Those buildings are as well tended as if they were built a decade, not a century, ago. Restaurants are inexpensive, wines delicious, and service delivered with a smile. Supposedly, one may dine al fresco 300 days of the year. We missed all those days! Yet, I recommend every reader buy a ticket ASAP! (I don’t know if it’s as wonderful in a sweltering touristy summer!)
Walking along the famed tree-lined Ramblas is a pleasure. The street is divided by a wide center aisle holding squawking bird markets, busy newsstands, brilliantly colored flower stalls, sleight of hand artists taking bets on which box covers the pea, and buskers of every variety. (Our hotel gave written warning against betting outdoors.) Tossing a coin into a hat earns a robotic salute from a “bronze metallic soldier” perched on a railing, or a wailing saxophone song. Backpackers coexist with full length minks, and it’s easy to overlook the signs, like London’s, that pickpockets work the area. There seems to be no drunkenness or tawdriness, although there is graffiti enough for several cities. The city sends trucks out to remove it with hot steam. (I’m sure tawdry is available, but our miles of walking and gawking found none.)
We rode a cable car from the fort at the top of green Mountjuic, so named because of the ancient Jewish cemetery there. Hanging from a wire over the whole city, you see the tall Columbus monument, with the bronze navigator pointing to sea, the harbor with its aquarium (biggest in Europe) and wide verandas that must be packed on summer nights. We walked along the sand to the high rise Arts Hotel for a drink, passing the huge woven copper Frank Gehry fish sculpture that’s become a seaside city icon. Nearby is the Olympic Village.
We visited enormous La Catedral and its cloister, with its 13 live white geese, since that was the age of the martyred St. Eulalia, the city’s patron. In one trial, she rolled naked in a barrel of glass, but I think the Romans chopped off her head. Her 9th century tomb lies in the crypt. The cloister is full of tall giant palms, and had a crèche inside with live chickens nearby, and a neon star shining above baby Jesus. Roosters and geese vied for audio supremacy. The cathedral interior, build in 1298, was filled with one altar more awesome than the last, with helpful signs identifying many of the saints. Everything looks cared for; this elaborate multi-spired Gothic building replaces a 4th century baptistry and a Romanesque 11th century church. On Sundays, there is folk dancing on the large brick square facing the church. Its proper name is Santa Maria del Mar, on the Plaça Reial.
We walked through St. Joseph’s open food market just off the Ramblas. What a sight! Hundreds of counters displayed mountains of every food imaginable, from hanging rabbits and hens (still furred and feathered) to piles of vegetables, fruits, fresh fish of every variety displayed on chopped ice; there was candy, pastry, and a lunch counter offering cava, the local champagne. Butchers whacked away with cleavers so fast I wondered how they retained all their fingers! Everything was polished, clean, and gorgeous. My eyes, ears, and nose fought for supremacy amid overload.
We sampled cava varying in cost from a couple of dollars a bottle to finer vintages, and decided that maybe paying a bit more was worth it. We were always served Spanish wines, with pride. Paella is served for lunch everywhere, in round individual pans almost like pizza, and menus offered vast selections of tasty tapas. Flea markets, painters, and coin sellers plied their trade under square canvas umbrellas. Everyone took either pesatas or euros (ay-OO-rohs, roll the r) easily, often using calculators to figure out the brand new amounts. Some stores displayed prices in both currencies, but many were still in pesatas which will soon be relics, like pieces of eight. Shopkeepers counted carefully and it was interesting to be in town as the euro was just being rolled out.
The museums offered contemporary culture, military or maritime history, modern art, and ancient Romanesque and Gothic art in well kept venues; the latter are in the huge Palau Nacional. It’s a Spanish baroque wedding-cake palace built for a world exposition, overlooking the city and offering a majestic vista worthy of Albert Speer. Remarkably, they’ve removed wall frescos of several Romanesque country churches from the nearby Pyrenees Mountains, and rebuilt copies of the little churches. Viewers can enjoy the thousand-year old murals nearly as if they were in situ. The churches were endangered, abandoned, and falling apart. The Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona is a huge spacious white Richard Meier edifice, with room for many more paintings than it holds. It nearly floats. American postwar art is very much present. Nearby, the Centre de Cultura Contemporània offered a “requeim for the staircase” exhibit, which mourned the loss of that part of structures these days and used loads of examples. It’s a contrast to the Roman walls, Venetian towers, and 2000 year old history of the city with 160 parks.
The Museu Picasso is a group of five exquisite 15th century town homes, joined along an elegant street of shops. There are courtyards and railings, medallion and pedimented windows, and eroding stonework balconies worthy of Juliet. Work is still ongoing to complete the museum, but the temporary exhibition was the same Picasso Erotique exhibition I’d seen in Paris. The permanent collection was chronological; over 3000 pieces include the young blue and pink periods that occurred here around the 1890’s. Picasso and his family donated many, including sculptures and ceramics. His series on Velasquez’s Las Meninas is 58 pieces, a remarkable group of interpretations of a master by a master. We visited the Foundació Antoni Tàpies and saw non-traditional collections of mass-produced photos and banal kitchen instruments gathered as art by Hans-Peter Feldmann. Plaça Sant Jaume, built on the Roman forum site, holds today’s city hall.
The Joan Miró Foundation Museum (say Zho-ON) offered a lunch as delicious as its building. Small, spare, white, designed by Joseph Luis Sert, it’s an airy treasure. An enormous shaggy tapestry in red, yellow, and blue reminded me of the one hanging in the west wing of Washington’s National Gallery. Jean Arp also was shown in a special exhibition.
A totally different style was Gaudi’s Casa Milà, sometimes called La Pedrera. It provided a furnished apartment for visitors to view after we’d clambered through those curvy chimneys on the roof and enjoyed the upper floor museum of his other work. (Those chimneys are much bigger than they look from the ground!) I hadn’t realized there was an inner courtyard to the structure, and that the building was supported by vertical columns. The furnishings are all turn of the century, and spacious creamy curving halls and patterned plaster ceilings have newfangled phones and stoves. Outdoors, rows of white mosaic benches anchor curving, flowing metal street lamps. The building had a large Russian icon exhibition from fourteenth to seventeenth centuries in its ground floor art space. Gaudi seems quite the dreamer and romantic; he’s been beatified by the pope. Is there an architect saint? His Parc Güell is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a private plan for an urban housing community that never worked out. It’s now the most visited city park, wildly decorative and curvy, with mosaics, pillars, stairs, and the famous mosaic salamander fountain at the base of a staircase. At each site were laughing international visitors. Even if his flamboyant design doesn’t speak to our spare modernism, he used the latest materials and technical schemes, and people are awed by his over -exuberance. He never thought less was more!
The subway was clean and fast, somehow unscathed by graffiti. We rode to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia church, filled with tourists, some lying on their backs with cameras vainly trying to fit soaring mosaic spires into one frame. The church is unfinished, tho’ begun in 1882, and is astounding in scope. Animals, plants, and saints melted into every nook and cranny and each other: there are no corners, only rolling rising stone sculptures, and workmen scurry everywhere. A few windows have stained glass installed, where the sun’s rays brilliantly transform pale stone walls into kaleidoscopes of color. Most bare windows and the roof revealed blue sky against white marble. Gaudi died in 1926, but private donations will add four bell towers to the present eight, build a central dome and add a Mary tower. An elevator goes partway to the top, and Mike climbed beyond to the peak though a forest of scaffolding and stone. I chickened out and took my nervous stomach back down; skyways aren’t my thing. But what a view of the city, like an eagle’s!
I was laid low by rain and chill, and suffered at trip’s end, but Mike discovered dinner at Picasso’s old hangout, Quatre Gats, and persuaded me to come there on our last night. How glad I was! The piano player and violinist knew how much I liked them, and they smiled and played all night, while we enjoyed a fantastic dinner in this denizen of artists past—and, I hope, present. Picasso’s first commission was its menu. Prices compared to London were fabulous, but then just about anything would be. (Mike informs me that “bistro” means “quick” in Russian, a word called out by soldiers to the waitresses. I encourage his telling me anything non-mathematical!)
We walked through the Gothic area, Barri Gòtic, with medieval buildings, passed the rotisserie chickens cooking on the exterior corner, and entered Los Caracoles through the kitchen. (The Snails, a restaurante tipico fundado en 1835.) We carefully walked past a giant black iron stovetop big as an ice rink, with giant pans of snails simmering in a tomato sauce. Huge caldrons simmered on back burners, and blue flames under black skillets busied the white-clad chef brigade. The temperature was like a boiler room-–and it was midwinter! We ended up going twice, dining under wooden beams and a photo of NRA’s darling Charlton Heston at lunch and under Ben Gazzara at dinner. The USS JFK and the USS Long Beach photos were just past Ben, and our waiter gleefully referred to Mike as El Commandante after I revealed his submarine skipper past. Signed photos of every politician, prelate, and movie star, past and present, decorated the walls. Mike ordered caracoles especiales. And we missed seeing Montserrat, the monastery atop the mountain, and Costa Brava beaches, so I guess we’ll have to return!
PORTUGAL APRIL 2001
We escaped London’s dreary rain for a sunny week to Portugal at a wonderful time of year when the hills are still spring green. Towns and beaches are uncluttered by the summer hordes that overrun them. The trip was planned in about 30 seconds, when I saw a colorful advert in the Sunday Times magazine for a package tour to the Algarve. Only afterwards did I learn that that is THE tourist bastion of the nation, and I left London fearing the worst: wall to wall Englishmen and Germans, spewing like human lava from overcrowded tour busses, shouting, sunburned, and drinking beer.
Not to worry. After a rocky delayed start, we flew to Faro and sped on a coach to a corner room at the Dom João II ("zh-WOW", King John, or Don Juan, a great ruler) overlooking a wide sand beach and calm blue ocean. At the end of the beach, dramatic craggy rocks jutted up from the sand: The Three Sisters--Três Irmãos. Our balcony had two white plastic chairs, a local mainstay, and overlooked gardens filled with bougainvillea, geraniums, palm, pine, orange, hibiscus, and fragrant pittosporum in blossom.
Algarve means the west, in Arabic. This region is full of al- words from the Moors' Islamic occupation of 711 which lasted nearly 600 years, until after the Crusades in 1297. European knights and churchmen grew rich on booty. Today's citrus groves and irrigation techniques were introduced by the African intruders, as was religious tolerance, for Christian, Jew, or Moslem--soon to change with the vicious Inquisition. Their reign of terror lasted almost 300 years, until 1820, after Napoleon's defeat by Wellington. Portuguese navigators in the meantime sailed the world, to India, Africa, the Azores, and Brazil, enriching the throne with a fifth of all trade in taxation. Brazil was proclaimed its own country in 1815, after Waterloo again, but Portugal's own history is one of recurring royal pillage, war, inadequacy, dictators, and mismanagement. Its conservative leadership supported Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and it was neutral in WWII. It was pulled into NATO because of its strategic location, and today tourism and EU investment are changing everything.
Nearly every Algarve house and fence is stark white, except for those faced in painted tile squares: no walls peel in delicious multicolored layers, like Italy's vanilla and apricot pastels. Each is topped with a tile roof and peculiar white chimney, sometimes rectangular, sometimes pointed, always closed. Chimneys are pierced with carved pattern holes, in countless cutout variations. Some ovens were built outside the main house, and they're crowned with jutting white chimneys too. Punctuating these small homes were thousands of hi-rise apartimentoes and hotels, in every town of every size. Construction is ubiquitous! Cranes, bulldozers, and road crews are everywhere! Where will all the people come from to use these places? (Maybe they will all get lost in the divertimentoes forcing traffic through dusty groves and bumpy cliffsides.) Many of the towns look like Mexico, minus roadside trash. It's tidy. Many restaurant bathrooms are downright hygienic. Flowerbeds are weed free, and sometimes white calla lilies grew by the roadside. Agave, alas, is ignored, not transformed into tequila. ‘Jose Cuervo, you are no friend of mine; no one here to drink you with a little sip of lime…..’ Roaming mutts of every size must take ‘Friendly’ classes. Few wear collars, and leashes are a rarity.
Not everything is modernized. A few old men drive donkey carts, and on some smokestacks and tall telephone poles, huge storks bend wings over their bulky straw nests. I feared offending the former with my camera, but snapped the latter. (None were delivering babies.) I also resisted photographing the old widows in black, or the women wearing kerchiefs under straw fedoras. The fishermen at dockside mending nets happily have their pictures taken, and every bus stop had a few old people sitting and chatting, but we were inside a moving vehicle. Many Portuguese are small and dark, rather like Sicilians, very friendly, and a bit reserved. Perhaps the north is different, but I'll need another journey to report on that. Everyone learns English in school, and many younger people speak German as well. The average tourist seemed to be about 70 from what we could see; no Hollywood Brad or Britney chilled here. Maybe because it's preseason?
In the evenings, we walked to the harbor of our little town, Alvor, about ten minutes from the hotel down barely paved roads. There’s great food and wine, if you like grilled fish. Fish are scaled, but not cleaned, then rolled in rock salt and grilled over charcoal. Every little restaurant has a grill with gray coals and ash, sometimes in the dusty road alongside the entry door. Menus are restricted, and preparation is plain. Rolls and black olives precede the starter, which might be soup, shrimp, or fish. Chicken is roasted with a fiery African tonsil-searing piri-piri sauce. Main courses might be pork or prosciutto-like smoked ham, but often are a delicious fish and shellfish stew, with a bit of tomato and wine, all cooked in the coals inside a tight copper hinged pan, the cataplana. Yum. Fish kabobs (remember the Arabic) whole grilled fish, fried fish, fish salads--you get the idea. No fancy sauces or rosemary sprigs on the side. Fish knives? Maybe in a museum! A few places offer finger bowls after the small sweet boiled clams. They're wonderful. Desserts are made with a sugar less sweet than ours at home; marzipan is a favorite, and we had fantastic fresh juicy strawberries. I vainly sought desserts called angel's breasts and nun's thighs. Cloth napkins come only at the hotel; otherwise thin paper. It's hard to spend much on dinner, even if you finish with espresso and the local firewater, medronho. Ooooh, strong stuff!!!
Alvor once had many fishermen, but today there are periods when even their staple, silvery sardines, is forbidden, due to overfishing. There are some small painted wooden boats, but not in former numbers, and most of the fishermen looked old, but maybe they weather faster on the sea. Bream, swordfish, and bass are caught; piled-up heaps of alcatruz, terra cotta pots, laced with barnacles, will be lowered as octopus traps. The national favorite, once in every pantry, is salt dried cod, now imported and expensive. We saw it in the Gypsy Market, stacked on counters like stiff white shaggy boards, waiting to be soaked in water for 24 hours and fried in olive oil, then served with boiled potatoes. It’s good!
We took a guided tour one day and toured on our own for two. Other days required nothing more taxing than determining tide tables and walking the beaches. Under a full moon at the end of the week we slept like babes. In the countryside, a traffic jam meant spying another car. Cork oak trees along the roads take nine years to grow a new crusty hide after being peeled to be shaped into corks. The year they were skinned is roughly painted on each trunk in white, looking like a shoe polish scrawl that says “99” or “01.” We toured an old cork factory, now a museum, and saw rows of black metal machines lining the walls, none with hand guards; they were demonstrated for us and were used for many years. How many fingers were lost, before Blue Cross and ER's? We visited the Gypsy market to bargain for a few souvenirs, including Guatemalan flutes we can't play. The vendor was a young man yearning to get a visa for the US, where one of his uncles worked. Young men all over the world have that same dream. There are acres of vineyards in all directions, but port is mostly made in the north, near Oporto and Lisbon, not here in the south. Eucalyptus trees are everywhere, and the green hillside fields are filled with millions of white blooms of rock roses. Roman ruins, Moorish castles, and Catholic cathedrals dot the map.
In Lagos ("Lah'gosh"), a pretty harbor city, a small swirly ornate baroque chapel of St. Anthony has an interior covered in 10 and 14 carat gold leaf. The plain lower walls are covered in painted blue and white tiles, and the floor is large terra cotta tiles, since the military mass attendees were on horseback! There is an adjoining museum. Another museum is in a seaside fort overlooking the narrow river entrance and harbor. Tiny wooden boats bob alongside a stone walkway across from the museum, with fishermen calling up to tourists, hoping to take them in twos and threes to the grottoes just outside the rocky breakwater. It’s probably a pretty ride.
The large and dark mountain town of Silves ("Sil'vish") has a cathedral of São Bartholomeu. It's built next to a red brick fortress on top of a mosque, in a walled mountain town once the local capitol. There is a large crucifix inside with a battered, bruised bloody corpus, in the best Spanish tradition. Visitors can walk on the high fortress walls, which have square towers but no railings, and peer out for miles over orange groves.
In Portugal's very southwestern corner sits Cape St. Vincent lighthouse, near Sagres ("Sagresh"), where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic. Perched high inside a bulky white stone fortress on stunning tall cliffs, it has warned mariners since ancient times. Mike has seen so many of those sights from a periscope that it was especially interesting to him, and I was delighted that we had an unusually nice day, with no strong wind or mist. An easel wouldn't have blown over, but the area is known for stiff breezes. Figures walking on top of the cliffs look like ants. Quiet Indians or Gypsies sold sweaters and blankets on tables next to the ice cream trolley in the road. Sagres, home of Henry the Navigator and his school, supposedly was later leveled by Sir Francis Drake in 1587 to ensure safe English passage around this Cabo de São Vincents, back when Spain ruled the area of strong currents. Gil Eanes, one of Henry's students, daringly found new passage to Africa where 15 explorations had failed, and brought back plants, foods, and the first slaves to Europe. The group also developed a new light and fast ship, the caravel, which aided exploration and brought back booty.
In Luz, we sat in an old fortress for lunch, overlooking sunny red rocky cliffs on one side and flattened rocky coastal fingers on the other, stretching above a wide sand beach. A gardener tended bursting flower beds: daisies, roses, flowering trees and shrubs offered color and fragrance. The sidewalks are set in large black and white mosaic of graceful vine patterns. Burgau is so small the guidebook recommends leaving the car near the tiny bus stop at the top of the hill and walking down. We sat in a beachside restaurant that we decided must close during the winter, since it was all glass, perched a few feet above the ocean and beach. In Monchique, we ate ham and pork in the plain but large and clean mountain restaurant that every tour bus visits, but it was the only big restaurant in the area, as far as we could see. Our table mates were four British collegians, two boys and two girls, off on a jaunt after exams. Next door was a pottery and souvenir shop.
The most memorable sights from the trip had to be in the southwestern Atlantic coast. The land is like California's coast, with red rocky soil, lush green grass, and dramatic white foamy swirls surging into steep carved red and gold cliffs. Land masses seem to float, gently overhanging endless blue oceans. Pools of surging white foam below ebbed and flowed, crashing into the rocks, spraying high into the air, or sliding into tiny private beaches. We were nearly alone, freely stopping in our rental car. Only a few seagulls and terns and a scattering of cliff swallows shared the view. A few surfers in wetsuits chased after scarce waves in the coves, rewarded with short rides on short boards, mostly on their stomachs. California surfers would scoff. After an afternoon spent taking in these rich sights, we headed back to Alvor, cutting through the mountains, again beautiful, green, and quiet, with a few farms and towns.
Summers are for windsurfing, sailing, swimming, grotto tours, and all year long, fishing, but the waters had few takers during our trip. A few little kids played at the edge, and we got no wetter than wading permits. The sand beaches are a beautiful alternative to the stony Mediterranean ones. Many places had just opened for the summer, and early April saw energized whitewashing and planting. A few small boats sat on beaches awaiting tourists, but not many. The area is famous for the best golf in Europe. We looked at one of the pro shops, but didn't play, although we brought shoes and gloves just in case. (It's been so long!) There are countless little snack shops along the beaches but driving on the sand isn't allowed. Thank ya Lord! Vendors arrange lounge chairs beneath strips of canvas on the wider beaches, and, if you sit down, arrive at once with their palm out, demanding beach chair rental fees.
There are not many indigenous crafts available for purchase besides pottery, and much of it is inexpensive ceramic. Tablecloths and leather seem widespread. We did visit one strong art exhibition in a converted warehouse and bought a few gifts in the gypsy market in Portimão. There is room for more development in this direction. Alas, we heard no mournful fado (fate) singing. There was none nearby, and we weren't interested in navigating tiny roads in the dark. However, we did hear those great Portuguese sounds of Elvis, Frankie, Ella, Roberta, and the Beatles.
Since Portugal is in the EU, there is great change and investment going on. I don't know what is going on politically, artistically, or religiously, or what the relations are with Brazil, but it was a quiet relaxed week. We spent relatively little, well under $2000 total, with taxes and car rental, though the plane's cramped seating, obviously designed for dwarves, might create medical bills in the future.
We flew to Portugal on a special fare from TAP, Portugal airlines. The Lisbon airport is modern and clean, and most taxis are cream colored Mercedes sedans. We climbed narrow alleyways and hilly streets past smoky outdoor grills to a place with fado and folk dancing in the oldest section of town. Two large women in black alternated wailing songs as two ancient guitarists strummed. Next, folk dancers whirled in embroidered peasant costumes. From outside, the building was nearly unnoticeable, but we had a great dinner graciously served once we came up with the equivalent of “Joe sent us.”
We took a city tour the next morning, crossing the wide Tagus River (Tay’ gus) on a modern suspension bridge and visiting monuments and the cathedral. The Coach Museum is in a beautifully restored building whose floor was once sand, for the royal riding school. Today rows of painted and gilded chariots for kings and queens show how transportation has changed, and no one would prefer those old springs to a BMW. “The Berliner” was the first big improvement in carriages, with a spring beneath the coach that until then had sat directly on the axles; now it tipped over less often! I liked the sedan chair, myself. Royals often were pulled by 8 or 6 matched horses in gleaming decorated leather harnesses, and the costumes of their wigged footmen are in a few cases, with whips and postillion boots. The latter were sturdy and large, fortified with extra leather and metal to protect the right leg of the rider on the team’s lead left horse so that it wouldn’t be squashed by his partner horse on the right!
As we trudged up and down cobbled hills and into broad plazas, bright crepe paper remnants of the fiesta from the weekend hung from balconies. There is lots that’s old, but the city is ringed with thousands of new apartment blocks, nearly uniform in light pastels, and not yet softened by the blooming blue jacarandas, palms, or cypresses seen elsewhere. The hilly old section, mostly rebuilt after an earthquake in 1775, has lots of scaffolding and decay adjacent to beautifully restored old buildings. The reason turns out to be rent control! Landlords can’t raise rents, they stop improving properties, which decay, but since they’re ancient, they can’t be torn down. We stopped counting the broken panes and crumbling doorways, but I nearly went for a pail of soapsuds and a brush. Maybe centuries of grime act as mortar!
The city is famous for tiles that still face many buildings, but probably once upon a time they all matched! There are huge tiled murals, however, mostly religious or historic, on several major buildings. Many are blue and white. We closed the zoo at the end of the day. It’s excellent, crowded, and a bit expensive. We tried to ride the gondola after the porpoise and sea lion show, but were seconds too late to catch the last ride. There are hippos, giraffes, lions, bears, zebras, penguins, camels, many kinds of monkeys and birds, and much more in a large park, often in imaginative surroundings. We were so exhausted from the heat and getting lost from the tube stop that we ate in the Marriott that night and went to bed. Their pretty pool was too freezing to use. Winds nearly raised whitecaps, and blew flowers off the oleanders.
We drove north on the big highway from Lisbon to Porto on Sunday morning, and south through seaside towns. As we rode up, we spied a sign for Fatima, encountered unexpectedly. As schoolchildren, we both learned about Mary’s appearance to three peasant children and the Fatima secret locked up with the Pope. We learned Marian hyms from the nuns and held May processions to crown Mary as queen.
Spying the highway sign, we quickly turned off the road and immediately parked in a dusty field where everyone seemed intent on abandoning cars helter skelter. Men in sun visors carried lawn chairs, moms pushed strollers, and grannies hobbled on canes. There were teens, frolicking kids, and a few vendors selling bread from vans. It was like going to a football game! We passed parking lots paved with busses and coaches, and followed the crowds with no idea of where we were headed until we heard singing, carried over loudspeakers. The huge downward-sloping plaza ahead of us was densely packed for 11 AM Sunday mass, and soon a distant procession of banners, crosses, and clergy far below began to fill the wide outdoor altar in front of the basilica under a long awning. Eventually, a statue of Mary in a crown and white gown was carried up the steps, and though it teetered alarmingly, it was safely deposited at the altar. A huge golden crown gleamed in the sunshine atop the narrow tower of the creamy stone cathedral behind the altar as the dense crowd continued singing and praying.
There were Hail Marys at one time over the loudspeakers in English, and many hymns. Pilgrims on their knees wiggled slowly to the altar down a slight smooth incline threading a thin ribbon between rough paving stones. A bony old woman was carried on a canvas stretcher by scouts in uniform, her handbag between her face and shoulder. People carried rosaries; others bore 6 foot white candles, and hurled them into 3 raging ovens on the left side of the plaza, which spewed orange flames and black banks of smoke swirling into the air. Every nationality was there: I felt I was watching the haj in Mecca, more watcher than participant.
We slipped away from the faithful before a high Mass ended and lucked into a tasty outdoor café lunch nearby, sitting alongside a large group of jovial bus drivers in white shirts, black ties and black trousers. They had wine, and so did we, but it wasn’t from the altar! The smoky charcoal grilled chicken aroma was tantalizing; and vines grew in trellises around us and the sun shone. Waiters seemed to be one family with one or two hired hands. Nobody spoke much English.
There is more to see in Fatima, but we had a long drive ahead. Lucy, Francisco and Jacinta were all under ten when Mary appeared to them outdoors, and the latter two were ill and died young after the sun moved in the sky for gathered miracle-seekers. Their statues are nearby. Shops are not short of statues and rosaries; hotels line the streets and the economy looks sturdy. We added a small green ceramic pitcher to our collection.
Farther north in Porto, our hotel sat on the ancient quay of the Rio Douro, along which grow grapevines to make the huge casks of port shipped worldwide. The town is charming, but once again, suffers from the same real estate problems of Lisbon. It teeters on a steep hillside along the river, so properties each tend to be about 6 or 7 feet wide, with one doorway after another squished into ancient narrow streets. Barber shops, bakeries, hardware shops and police conduct their business at street level. Above are living quarters, usually 3 or 4 stories high, with a narrow room on each floor. The alleyways are paving stones; a few windows and balconies have bright geraniums puncturing bareness. Children wander on the stones or ride bikes, teenage boys kick soccer balls, and everyone living so close must know everyone else’s business. I wondered if things get slippery in icy winter frosts on the narrow stairways and tunnels.
Our quayside hotel was once three houses. Since our room wasn’t quite ready, we sat in the airy stone foyer and were offered a flute of a mysterious potion, and asked what we thought. We were stymied: white local port with tonic water! It was really good.
Outside the hotel, we watched costumed dancers and musicians perform on a wooden platform in bright sun. Women wore heavily embroidered black skirts and aprons, with gold chains around their necks over embroidered blouses, and the men’s red cummerbunds wound several times around their waists between black trousers and vests. Men wore white long sleeved shirts and wide brimmed black hats. Their enthusiasm and dancing footwork brought happy crowds, as we sat under colorful umbrellas by the square’s fountain, amid pigeons and tourists. The river was behind them, with signs from Sandeman, Taylor’s, Croft, Cockburn’s, and many port factories on the other side in Gaia. (All have tastings, sadly missed by us!) After the dancing, we climbed aboard an old boat on the “Douro Maravilhoso” and went under the “6 pontes” before wandering past shops and finding a wonderful quayside restaurant.
The bridges are a story in themselves. The gorge is so wide and high that for centuries only ferries could cross. Then about a hundred years ago, one of Eiffel’s students constructed a gigantic iron bridge in a vast arch spanning the river. It holds a road, and far, far above it a second road, where busses look like toys on an erector set. Downriver is another iron train bridge; several ultramodern bridges span the river too, in juxtapositions of new and old.
The hilltop cathedral requires a vertical climb and a few twists and turns past graffiti and broken bottles, but is a fantastic visit, despite being partly hidden behind the ubiquitous scaffolding clothing the town. The rich interior has obviously been refurbished: altars of gold and silver attest to Portugal’s past wealth as a mother of colonies worldwide. The cloister is filled with tiled wall paintings and carved stone, the treasury is filled with gold woven garments and reliquaries, and the sacristy holds paintings and books. Because usually locked cabinets on the walls were ajar, we spied shining monstrances and incense censors being polished by a sacristan. A few silent older women arranged large floral arrangements for the complex.
We visited some seaside villages en route from our short trip, but were disappointed that mostly we were on toll superhighways, which made for smooth travel but not much sightseeing. They are EU benefits. We had heard that the coast roads were stunning, but missed the beauty that we had seen in the south two years ago on our visit to the Algarve.
Gaudi's architecture influences this graceful city in parks, a church, and apartment buildings.
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