This is a blog featuring my personal stories of food, gardening, yachting, photography, travel and life. I love it all!

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Arrival in Lisbon and Some Travel Tips!


After a breakfast at the hotel in Evora, we headed for our next stop--Lisbon.

Evora rooftop breakfast space
We arrived sooner than we thought. The directions we'd copied down were so good that we wound up, unlike our experience driving in Sevilla, finding our hotel without getting lost.  When we arrived our room was not ready for us, so we checked our luggage and had a seat in the spacious lobby. It was also raining when we arrived which made going out exploring difficult.

We got into our lovely room after only a few minutes of waiting. I think the desk staff wanted us out of the lobby and to make us happy they hustled and got our room ready. After a picnic lunch in our room of the foods we'd bought in Sagres a couple of days ago, we laid down for a brief nap before heading out into the world of Lisbon.

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The nap turned into an afternoon of doing laundry in the sink and tub of our hotel room. And while we are on the subject of travel and laundry, here is my strategy for doing your laundry on the go. First, as I have already written in an earlier entry, laundry is immensely easier if you buy the right travel clothes to begin with. Materials that resist wrinkling and that dry quickly help a lot. This type of clothing is available on-line and at stores that cater to travel, adventure and hiking. REI is one close to where we live but you get the idea.

When we travel anywhere for any length of time, we have learned to take only one carry-on piece of luggage and a day pack. You save money since the airlines don't charge you for carry-ons. Pack lightly! We place our carry-on on the bed in the guest room and pack several days in advance. Then we start thinking about what we've packed and whether we really need each item. If we can't convince ourself of its importance, out it goes.

We are on a 5 week trip that takes us to both warm and cold climates. So we pack with the idea of layering. 2-3 t-shirts, 3-4 shirts (2 long and 2 short sleeves), 3 pairs of pants (2 everyday and 1 for out someplace nice) and a swim suit. I took two pairs of underwear and 5 pair of socks. Two pair of shoes, one for hiking around towns with those nasty cobblestones and the other, also well made but for a nice evening out. Extra shoes and socks are also important because of how hard you're making your feet work. Switch shoes every other day and maybe change your socks for the evening. It'll freshen your feet up and make you feel better all over.

I keep my meds and hygiene items in a zippered bag (get one of these at REI as well. They are great organizers) and I keep it in my day pack. If I wind up having to put my luggage in the plane's hold, I want to have these items with me in case the airline looses my luggage. Believe me, that happens more often than you think. I also carry my camera, lenses and flash in my day pack along with my C-PAP machine. With all that, I also have my iPad and all the cables and adaptors needed to survive. How do I get all that in the day pack? I found a really well designed pack! You probably don't need all the stuff I listed but do keep whatever is absolutely a must-have with you not your luggage. I even put one pair of underwear and socks in that day pack so I can survive without my luggage for at least a few days should I have to. It won't be pretty, but I can do it until my luggage catches up with me.

When I arrive at a new hotel, all the stuff in the day pack comes out and it becomes my pack for hiking around the city, holding only my camera gear and a jacket. Money,  important documents, charge cards, proof of insurance all go in my money belt. Don't have one? Don't travel without one. Period. I keep only few a dollars at a time in my pocket and never carry a wallet.

Now, how can you do your laundry without having to spend a day at a laundromat, which means getting the right change, buying laundry soap that spills all over and then hoping a washer and dryer don't eat your clothes or money?

I simply use the soap the hotel provides, the sink or tub for larger items or loads. First, get some hot water going and place the item or items to be washed into the water soaking them well. Pull up the parts that get the smelliest. Be aware of any stained spots. These are the areas where I apply the soap and the most elbow grease when I scrub. Now, vigorously rub the material together wherever you want to really clean. Knead the article of clothing, squeezing it and pushing it up and down in the water like your washer at home would do. Drain the sink, squeezing the clothing to extract water as you go until the sink is drained and as much water is squeezed out as possible. Except for the soap application, repeat this process once or twice more until the water draining out is clear. Squeeze, twisting the clothes as you go until as much water is out as is possible. Find a spot to hang up the article so air can circulate and dry it faster. Turn it occasionally to aid the process. If possible place the clothes in a sunny or warm place. 
Monument across the street from our hotel

Hotels don't like it when you hang dripping clothes in their wooden closets or over the balcony so passersby can see it. So use some caution in that regard. Many travel clothes will air dry overnight and be ready to tuck back into your luggage. Heavier clothes like my favorite pair of jeans I never leave home without, will take at least a full day to dry. If I'm out of time and must move on, I'll hang them over the back seat in the rental car.
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Nap over, Leslie headed out to scope out the city while I stayed in for a night off. Got a lot done doing that. With two days here in Lisbon, I was able to wash out a lot of clothes that will easily dry before we have to leave. And I was able to catch up on my journaling.

Leslie came back excited about the city and she had laid her plans for how we would spend our day tomorrow. With that, we headed off to an early bedtime. Big day tomorrow!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Evora and Fado


I'd like to start this blog entry with a good rant. Nothing gets the blood up and moving better. My topic today is about hotel beds.

You know, hotel companies pour millions into designing their lobbies, common areas and especially their guest rooms with the idea of making them attractive, inviting and comfortable for their guests. And yet so many times I walk into a hotel, impressed with all the above only to sit on the bed and my world comes crashing down.

Too many hotels spend too little time on the most fundamentally important fixture in any guest room. The bed! They are too hard. The pillows don't work. It's always something. Why not offer rooms with options. Feather pillows or hypo-allergenic pillows or how many pillows would you like? Optional mattresses could include pillow tops, latex top, or, my favorite, how about a Temperpedic mattress? The hotel companies could get the mattress companies to give them mattresses in exchange for posting ads in hotel lobbies and even little placards in the rooms. Nothing tacky. Just a hint that "if you slept well last night, it might be because you slept on a thus and such mattress."

I bring this up because of the 10 nights in hotel beds on this trip thus far, last night was the first night I have slept in a bed that didn't feel like I was lying on a board. 9 out of 10 so far. And these have all been 3 and 4 star hotels.

It isn't just in Europe either. I don't believe it is nearly the same problem in the U.S. but in Asia and Africa, the same issue. Hard beds. Am I missing something? Please, friends of my blog, educate me on this issue. I welcome any and all views on this topic.

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Well, we have arrived in ancient Evora. A city that has been conquered by the Romans, the Moors, the Visigoths, and the Spanish. It is a university city. The school was founded by the Jesuits who were finally chased off when they got too big for their britches and too unwilling to update their thinking--so the king tossed them out and took all their property.  In the 1970's the university was reopened as a secular school.

We walked all over the small historic core of the city. It lies within walls built in Roman times. The remnant of a Roman Temple still stands at the top of the city today only meters from the 14th century Evora Cathedral.

The town seems to still be slumbering in its winter nap with many stores closed, including the Public Market which was far more closed than open.

We visited the Bone Chapel, a small church whose interior walls are made of human bones. They were used by a monk to give folks an indication of their own mortality. It was interesting but if you have seen the Paris underground tombs lined with human bones, this will be a big let down. It is pretty fascinating though.

We walked up the main shopping street and again quite a bit was closed. I wondered how affected Evora was by the world financial crunch and how much is just seasonal. Some of the shops looked pretty closed up though.

At the top of the street we walked out into the square where the gorgeous Evora Cathedral sits. We toured it's cloister and the cathedral itself. It has a lovely main alter and several beautiful painted statues including one of a very pregnant mother of Jesus.

Outside the cathedral and around the corner sits the ruin of a Roman Temple with 14 still standing columns. Behind it is a well maintained park, once the site of the local Roman forum. We sat in the park and had a pitcher of sangria while taking in the panorama of the temple with the cathedral spire in the background.

We located a local restaurant that features Fado singing so we're heading there this evening. Fado  seems like the Portuguese equivalent of Country Western music. Sad, melancholy, my woman left me, my dog died, etc. Our experience turned out to be quite an adventure. Boy what a story!

We'd read about this traditional Portuguese music called Fado in our travel guru, Rick Steve's book about Portugal. We decided we needed to hear this music and decided that here in Evora we would have an easier time experiencing it than in the big city of Lisbon. Rick book recommended a restaurant that does Fado after dinner several nights a week. Perfect!

So we show up at this charming restaurant, called Bota Alta. Entering the small cafe, the first thing we noticed was how warm and inviting it was. The ceiling was barrel shaped and lined with red brick, the walls covered with small works of art reflective of Evora. Pictures of our host Esperanza with friends in poses while singing Fado lined an altar-like corner. In the center of the back wall was a blazing fire. Each of the 7-8 tables were covered with a pretty patterned table cloth and white place settings. 

Esperanza showed us to our table nestled in the corner by the fire. There was not another soul in the place. Hmmmmmm! "Fado tonight", we ask? She assures us there is. We must just be early. The Fado isn't supposed to start until 10 and can run until 3 in the morning.

Esperanza brings us the menu for the night and through her very rough English and Leslie's Spanish we manage to order our meal. Our first course came. Still no one in the place. Mind you it only has about 8 tables and one of them we had been told was set for the artists who would perform later. We figure we can always leave at some point in the evening when we tire or have had enough. Our evening was only just beginning.

The first course comes out with a basket of very hearty bread. Remember, if you eat any of the bread in Spain and in Portugal, you bought it. If you don't want it, either state you don't want it or don't touch it and you won't be charged. Either way, it is usually only a couple of Euros.

The first course, as I said, arrived. It was a delicious plate of pan fried mushrooms and chunks of chorizo sausage, and parsley, I think. Anyway, it was wonderful. Also, a bottle of Portuguese white wine accompanied it which was poured for us by Esperanza. It was so so. We lingered over our appetizer and sipped our wine. Esperanza was on the phone which rang several times.

About 9:30 Esperanza comes to our table crestfallen. The news is that the guitar player's wife has been taken to the hospital and won't be able to play tonight. No guitar. No Fado. Esperanza is heart broken. What can you do. We figured at least we were having a lovely dinner in an empty restaurant with a charming host.

About 10:00 our main arrives. It is the famous local dish called Cataplana, which has chunks of bacalau or salted codfish. This salted cod is in plentiful supply in Spain and Portugal and in almost every traditional dish in this country. We've enjoyed it in several dishes we've tried during the trip.. The chunks of fish floated in a delicious tomato based stew along with potatoes, small whole shrimp and some small clams. It almost looked like paella, without the rice which would have absorbed the soup, or a version of bouillabaisse.

We each dished out a big helping onto our plates. Our first bite was incredible. Heavenly!

Now, at some point and you'll forgive me, I hope, but I am having trouble remembering what happened next and in what order. But another bottle of wine, this time Esperanza's own label, and a much better wine than the first, was opened and poured into our glasses. Esperanza also decided to have her dinner with us. She pulled up a chair and Victoria, her cook with a very shy smile, brought another dish, this one with with what Esperanza called Dogfish. Basically a white wine based stew.  More wine glasses were placed in front of us along with a new bowl. The next thing we know, after the new wine was poured,  Esperanza ladled portions of this new soup into our bowls. It, too, was delicious. In fact we both liked it even better than the first.

All of a sudden, in the front door walks John, one of the Fado singers. Introductions were made all around and we invited him to sit down. Leslie spent a lot of time trying to convince both Esperanza and John, to sing some Fado for us even though there was no guitarist. John was not a shy singer so with a little prompting he stood up and tosses off his jacket, which he came in wearing like a cape, and broke into song. He finished with a flourish and we all applauded and took another gulp of wine. This goes on for sometime until John bows with a flourish, tosses his coat back over his shoulders and leaves. He returned a short time later with his girlfriend, Leonora, I believe was her name.  She was studying veterinary science at the university in Evora. More introductions were made, more invitations to sit, to eat something and have a glass of wine. Another bottle of wine was opened. More singing!

John and his girlfriend leave. We all hug and kiss each check the way they do in Europe. But shortly, in walks another young man who, as you might guess, also sings Fado. He sits down. He freely admits he is very drunk but he too is not a shy singer so he tosses off a couple of songs, except he keeps forgetting the lyrics because, as he said, he is very drunk.

In walks Esperanza's best friend of over 30 years. She is not a Fado singer but clearly knows the words to all the songs being sung and joins in from time to time while smoking her cigarettes and tossing back drinks she was making for herself in the bar. More singing. At some point another a bottle of Esperanza's best is opened and our glasses are filled to the brim again. More singing.

Then in walks Esperanza's best friend's two daughters, I think? They stayed only a bit and then left. More singing. More wine.

Soon our new male singer friend also needs to leave. He stood up kissed Leslie on both cheeks in the European fashion, shook my hand with his left hand, as is the fashion of pretentious opera singer types, and strode out the door and down the street singing into the cool night air. More wine. At this point Esperanza is singing into the fire that had been burning brightly all evening next to our table. It was dying down and so was our evening. It was just the three of us now as her friend had also taken her leave after the kissing rituals.

We made our move to leave and Esperanza begged us to stay until 1:00. We insisted we had to get up and head for Lisbon in the morning and must go.

We all stood, paid our bill, which was only 48, hugged, kissed on each cheek, exchanged addresses and then we headed for the door. Esperanza waved to us from her front door as we tottered our way up the street in the general direction of our hotel. We were back safely in our room by 1 am and probably asleep by 1:15.

This is why we travel. For unforgettable experiences like this. A once in a lifetime never to be forgotten dinner and impromptu evening of Fado in a small little town in the middle of Portugal. It couldn't have been any better had there actually been Fado that night or if the singers were world class Fado singers. This was just us and few very good friends of a sweet, passionate woman who happens to own an 8 seat restaurant down a narrow lane in Evora, Portugal.