Saturday, August 24, 2019

What I’m Bringing Home From Portugal

We made it home after a long day of travel. Our flight didn’t leave until 1:30 pm so we had a nice, relaxing morning at the apartment, before taking the five minute drive to the airport, returning the rental car, and proceeding to the terminal. We flew from Faro to Lisbon, had a four-hour layover, and then continued to Toronto. We landed at 9:30 pm and made it through Pearson airport in record time, but then got stuck in a massive highway traffic jam, which made the trip twice as long as normal, and it was sometime after midnight when we finally pulled into the driveway. During the trip, we drove about 2300 kilometres (175 km/day) and if the iPhone is to be believed, walked about 100 kilometers (6.5 km/day), so we spent a lot of time on the go. As far as financials, our daily costs of exploring Portugal, including absolutely everything, were about $500/day, which works out to $125/person (excluding flights it was $300/day). For purposes of comparison, our first trip to Asia worked out to $50/person per day. So yes, Europe in the summer is definitely not cheap.

I always like to bring things home from vacation. But I like to bring home ideas instead of stuff, although I did make two purchases this trip - a sardine bookmark and a new hat, both of which I’m extremely pleased with. Whenever we travel, I look for things that are done differently than what we are used to, in the hopes of finding something we can do to improve things at home, or maybe just give me something to bitch about until our next trip. Here’s a few ideas I’m bringing home.

1. Canada is so fixed that it’s broken

The New World gave Europeans a chance to fix a lot of things they didn’t like at home. This spans everything from political systems, to architecture, to city planning, to health systems, to pretty much everything you see around you. Canada’s system (and other Commonwealth countries) is based on the notion of Peace, Order, and Good Government, which inevitably led to the result of “Make Things As Boring As Possible”. We overregulate. We overbuild. We put ridiculous safety measures in place for the tiniest of risks. And yet, is Canada any safer than Portugal? The answer is no, and the statistics back that up. In Portugal, electrical plugs are not grounded and many of the electrical connections to buildings remind me of the third world, yet fewer people are electrocuted. There are very few safety barriers anywhere, even on top of hundred-foot castle walls or ocean breakwaters. Are people falling off and dying? I don’t think so. In 2001 Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs, deciding that it makes more sense to treat drug addiction as a medical problem and not a criminal one. The entire time we were there I did not smell marijuana or see anybody doing drugs or signs of it. Lastly, the traffic system is overwhelmingly handled by roundabouts, while in Canada we use “safer” traffic lights. Portugal has tiny, narrow streets, while Canada are massively wide. All the cars in Portugal are tiny, while we love driving huge vehicles, loaded with safety features. The entire time we were in Portugal, we saw one traffic accident, where somebody drove up onto a roundabout, and the person looked suspiciously like a tourist. During the drive home from the airport back in Canada, we saw three traffic accidents on the highway, and I consistently see car accidents in Brantford or on the highway several times per week. Portugal has extremely loose rules on alcohol – you can buy it anywhere at any time of the day, and drink it anywhere you want, even in the middle of the street if you like. And it’s very cheap – in fact, a bottle of beer ordered in a restaurant is often cheaper than a bottle of water. Does that result in drunk people staggering around everywhere surrounded by shattered beer bottles? Hardly.

What the hell is going on here? I think that when we try to regulate everything, and prevent stupidity, it simply erodes peoples’ sense of personal responsibility, and results in people doing exactly what you don’t want them to do. If you allow people to think for themselves, and not allow them to shirk their personal responsibility, then they will usually do the right thing.

2. Tipping does not result in better service

Nobody tips in Portugal. Except tourists. We saw tourists leaving tips in cafes or restaurants and being chased out by the server because they thought they just forgot some money on the table. Does the lack of tipping result in poor service? No. The service in Portugal was incredible – restaurant staff hustle, are friendly, never seem to get an order wrong, and look happy in their jobs. And many servers are older folks, who have clearly made a career out of restaurant work and are clearly good at what they do and proud of it. In Canada, we leave tips for any sort of service we receive, good or bad. Why do we do that? Is it because service staff are paid a pittance, like they are in the US? No – far from it, in fact the minimum wage in Ontario was recently raised by over 30%. It’s a cultural thing, and irrational tipping results in servers making a great deal of money (much of it untaxed), while kitchen staff do not share equally in the windfall, and service generally suffers for everybody and creates strange incentives. In Portugal, wherever we went, I consistently got the impression that service workers did a great job because they were proud of their work and enjoyed it. Isn’t that nice?

3. The gasoline in Canada is far, far too cheap

The cost of gas in Portugal is approximately twice what we pay in Ontario. It has been this way for many, many years, and the consequences are far ranging. In Portugal, everybody drives small cars, and you usually see more than one person in a car. Small cars mean that you need less space for parking, and it was simply amazing how many cars could be “parallel-packed” into the narrow streets, resulting in less need for parking lots and less land area devoted to streets. Because gas is expensive, public transportation becomes the preferred option, and their transport systems are excellent, allowing you to get from city to city on busses and trains. Renewal energy sources provide around 60% of the country’s power needs, compared to 17% in Canada, and during four days in May of 2016 100% of Portugal’s electricity needs was generated by renewable sources. The “job killing carbon tax” that we hear about in Canada these days is a pile of crap, and high energy prices have benefits far beyond combatting climate change.

4. The Portuguese have a wonderful relationship with food

To be honest, we did not find the food in continental Portugal to be particularly inspiring. They do not really season their food (there is never salt and pepper on the table), resulting in rather bland dishes. They also do not make much use of fresh vegetables, despite being able to grow practically anything there. Typical accompaniments to a meal were French fries, boiled potatoes, or a salad, which was practically identical no matter where we went, and was delivered on a steel tray with a short swath of lettuce, tomatoes, and onions, all unseasoned and dry. The meat dishes were always good, as was the fish, but again, rarely seasoned. But the food is all healthy, hearty, and simple.

Despite my palate and preferences, the Portuguese have an amazing relationship with their food. I read that they spend twice the percentage of disposable income on food compared to the European average. They love their food and are eating practically all the time. A pastry in the morning with coffee. Snacks throughout the day. A long, proper full lunch and dinner, always accompanied by wine. And then another pastry with coffee in the evening. Nobody counts calories, avoids fat, or seems to partake in faddish diets and food trends. Not once did we see mention on a restaurant menu of gluten, low carb options, or allergens. Good luck if you are a vegetarian or, God help you, a vegan trying to eat your way around Portugal.

In Canada, I don’t think anybody can deny that our relationship with food is broken. We don’t allow ourselves to enjoy our food, instead feeling the need to restrict certain nutrients (depending on what the current villain is – sugar at the moment?), supplement with other nutrients (protein powder), completely avoid some (gluten, dairy, meat), and otherwise make life miserable for ourselves. We won’t eat a potato unless we know it was grown organically, within five miles of our house. Our schools don’t allow our kids to take homemade cookies to school and insist that any snacks must come from a package. We refuse to feed seafood, eggs, or nuts to toddlers, ensuring they develop crippling allergies later in life. We eat bagged crap like chips, crackers, candy, and energy drinks throughout the day, then grab a sack of fast food on the way home because we don’t take the time to cook. And drink glasses of green sludge for breakfast. Yuck.

5. More money does not mean more happiness

Portugal has many, many problems, few of which you’re able to notice during a short vacation. Bad government, corruption, unemployment, and low wages are just a few. But one thing they do seem to have is a great sense of community, and a culture of living life outside - in coffee shops, at the beach, in the town square, in parks. Like so many countries we’ve visited, a lower income level does not mean less happiness; usually it’s the opposite. We’ve spent a lot of time in the Portuguese islands of the Azores, where much of Ana’s family lives. Their economic situation there is generally terrible – few jobs, low paying jobs, and few opportunities, which makes day to day survival tough. But this does not get them down, and they seem to have more fun than anybody, and always do it together as a family.

Is it possible to have money, and still be happy? Of course it is. But the relentless pursuit of wealth certainly does not guarantee this, and I think can sometimes make it more difficult.

So for now, goodbye Portugal, and thanks for an incredible adventure!

Monday, August 19, 2019

How Should We Spend Our Last Day In Portugal?

Our last full day in Portugal began with a leisurely, simple breakfast at the apartment then exploring the Saturday market at Olhao - a community just east of Faro. The kids and Ana found a few small items of interest in the goods market while I was mainly interested in the massive fish market that had so many different varieties of fish and a great mix of local and tourist visitors. I only wished that I could have bought something, but we just weren’t set up at the apartment to do any serious cooking.

There was quite a large marina in Olhao, but there were huge mud flats and the ocean was quite far out, and looked to be accessible by narrow channels, or perhaps not at all during low tide. There was a main pier with ferry boats taking tourists by the hundreds out to the island beaches, as there was no decent beach accessible from the shore. After exploring the market we sat down for a coffee at one of the cafes and got into some serious vacation planning as we realized that we have nothing at all planned after this trip, which makes for a sad return to real life. That is always a fun discussion, and we came out the other end with a pretty good idea of what we’d like to do next year.

We then drove right back to Faro, but kept on going until we found the first available beach accessible by car - Vilamoura, but the GPS guided us on a real strange route and after parking we had to walk a kilometre through scrubby brush and red, dusty paths, until we finally popped out at a huge parking lot in front of the beach. You can usually trust the GPS…but not always.

The beach here was much, much nicer than the Faro beach and we spent a couple of hours enjoying the water and sand, then had a painfully long, expensive, bad lunch at the only restaurant there, then head back along the dusty path to the car and returned to the apartment for a cool down session. There, we decided to go to the grocery store and pick up some food to cook for dinner instead of going out, as the dining was really starting to wear us down. So together we cooked a delicious, simple dinner, and drank a few local brews mixed with the juice of limes I picked from the trees outside of our apartment. We then drove into the Faro centre for a final wander around and ice creams before calling it a night. One cool thing we did notice were these massive nests, built on top of several of the buildings. They were large enough to hold people, but the internet told us they were nests of the white stork.

Our original plan was to do a whirlwind tour of the Algarve today and see all of the sights we had identified before the trip, but at this point of the holiday, after so many massive, action packed days, we decided to scale it back and take a pass on the big sights. Hey, need to leave a few things for the next trip!

Let’s Go To Spain For Lunch

Overnight the blistering 37 degrees dropped right down to 15, making for a lovely sleep and a cool morning. Breakfast was served at 8am - another kingly feast, but today it also included fresh figs picked that morning, omelets, and scones. We bid goodbye to our hosts, and to our farm animal friends, and set off south to the Algarve for the final two days of our vacation. Helena again gave us a recommended route, which we happily followed after the amazing day we had yesterday.

The first stop was at a town called Mertola, in the middle of a protected natural park. It had all the regular stuff - an Arabic mosque converted to Christian church, Roman ruins, and of course a castle on the hill with sweeping views over the town and Guadiana river which somehow had two large cruising sailboats anchored in it, which I found strange as we were still 40 or 50 kilometres from the coast. We took some time to wander around the old town and then through the castle, which was only partially intact, but quite interesting.

From here we continued on our way to Acoutim, and discovered a lovely little riverside town, with a mirror image town across the river (which also served as the border) in Spain. Here there were dozens of sailboats, and after looking at a map of the area I realized this was the very same Guadiana river that we saw in Mertola and it ran all the way into the Atlantic Ocean and was navigable by boat for at least 50 kilometres. As we enjoyed a coffee at one of the riverside cafes we made a mental note to add this potential sailing adventure to our bucket list.

As it was after 1pm, we decided the best move at this point was to have lunch in Spain so we boarded the little ferry and as we started across the river Stella said, “Let’s set sail to Spain!”, which took all of about 90 seconds. The town on the Spanish side is called Sanlucar de Guadiana. There wasn’t much to the town, but we did have a short walk around and then sat down at the riverside restaurant for lunch, which was delicious, and interesting as we were now surrounded by a bunch of crazy Spaniards speaking their rapid, machine gun fire Spanish. It was fun all around.

The ferry returned us to Acoutim and we continued along our way to the Algarve, which is the southern-most region of Portugal known for its beaches and beautiful weather. Ana and I have been to the Algarve region twice before, but probably almost 20 years ago so neither of us could remember much of anything. We drove along the coastal road, which isn’t actually a coastal road since you can’t often see the ocean, and found it to be quite…ugly. There were a lot of industrial areas, closed shops, graffiti walls, traffic, and not much of anything that looked interesting. We drove right to the biggest city in the Algarve - Faro, stopping only in the town of Tavira to see if there was a beach we could easily check out (there wasn’t).

We arrived at our apartment block on Amelia Rodriguez street, which was very near to the Faro international airport and our host was able to remotely open the doors to get us into the building and apartment. It was a very new building and the apartment was pristine so we got ourselves unpacked, had a short chill-out session, then decided we needed to get to a beach for a swim as it was still hot outside, but nearly as hot inside.

The only nearby beach you can access by car is the Faro Island beach. There are others, but they are located on islands that you need to ferry out to. There was a massive number of cars trying to get on the island on the single lane bridge so it took a while to actually get across, then once we were there it was another half an hour before we found a parking spot, and that was worth a happy dance.

The beach was hot, the water was cold, and we happily spent two hours there enjoying the heat of the day right up until after 7pm when we packed up then stopped for a quick drink at one the dozens of beachside cafes, before returning to the apartment for showers. I could have easily collapsed on the bed but we weren’t done yet. We drove into Faro for late dinner and found a juggernaut of activity - restaurant patios full of diners, cafes, bars, a night market, live bands playing, and people everywhere. This is clearly a party town and everybody was out for a big Friday night. We opted for a pizza joint beside the marina and sat back and enjoyed all the activity going on around us. I think it was around 11 when we returned home, completely wiped out after a huge day.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Why Does Magnus Always Get His Way?

Our initial impression of Beja did not inspire much urge to return, so we were quite happy when the matron of the house, Helena, suggested during breakfast that we take a day trip to the walled city of Monsaraz, located northeast from here, right alongside the Spanish border. Breakfast was delicious, and included homemade cherry jam and yogurt, eggs, pancakes and Nutella, of course, because we are in Europe. There was one other family staying at the B&B, from Lisbon, and we had a nice chat with them over breakfast, or at least Ana did and I tried as hard as I could to pick up enough words to understand a bit of what they were talking about. Ana considers her Portuguese dialect to be of the “back alley” variety, and the gentleman from Lisbon had more of a “front of the house” style so he was using a lot of words Ana was unfamiliar with, but she definitely understood the majority of what he was saying. I had vowed earlier this year to make a concerted effort to improve my Portuguese, but it was a total bust with competing demands, so the only real progress I’ve made is during this trip. Portuguese is a beautiful language and, in my opinion, a hell of a lot harder to learn than Spanish, which I do know, but it’s very rusty due to years of little practice. The written languages look similar, but when spoken, they often sound nothing alike. One day, Ana and I are going to spend six months or a year living in Portugal, which should be enough time for me to get the hang of it.

Driving through the Alentejo countryside was fantastic, and we stopped at a miradour (viewpoint) along the way for a spectacular view over the countryside including the Alqueva lake - a product of the hydroelectric dam built in 2002, which took eight years to completely fill (to over 100 metres in some spots), and is one of the largest of its kind in Western Europe.

How to describe Monsaraz? It is a walled city, built at the top of a very large hill with views stretching out for miles, even into Spain. The current population is about 100 people, which are greatly outnumbered by the visiting tourists (though not nearly as many as Obidos). It’s easy to walk around this place open-jawed with a phone camera out at all times, so you have to consciously put the damn camera down to enjoy the scene and try to imagine what this place was like 400 years ago, when people in the city were kept busy blacksmithing weapons, fortifying the city with stone walls, and transporting water and food up the steep hill instead of now where most of the current population were eating flaky pastries, drinking espresso, and flipping through travel guides, commenting on the uncomfortable heat.

Next we drove down to a beach area near Monsaraz, which was packed with flesh-baring Spaniards and some locals, all looking to escape the harsh temperatures. There were two beach restaurants/snack bars and we found one large table with only two people at it so we asked to sit down, which they happily agreed to.

“Where are you from?” asked Ana, in Portuguese.

“We are from Spain,” they answered, in Portuguese.

“Great, we’re Canadian, but we speak Spanish,” I added.

“Oh, well we both speak English,” the man countered, gesturing to himself and his wife.

“Well then, shall we speak Portuguese?” I said, which we did, but then switched to a weird mix of Spanish and English and had a lovely chat.

The lake swim was cool and refreshing, and the beach was jammed with people, primarily young Spaniards, as the Spanish border was just a few miles away. We stayed long enough to cool down, but since we did not have a beach umbrella, and there was no shade, we couldn’t last long under the full force of the hot sun, so we gathered up our gear, shook off the sand, and took an easy drive back to the farm, where we jumped immediately back into the pool.

While lounging, I had one of those moments that I think will stick with me for quite some time. We had the bluetooth speaker pumping out some nice reggae jams. The kids and Ana were playing in the pool. I was sitting on a beach lounger, directly under the shade of an olive tree, with a cold Sagres in my hand, with the feel of the slowly rising wind on my face, and my bare feet catching the odd splash from the pool. I’m not sure if anything could have made that moment better.

The tranquility was broken only moments later when Magnus found a half drowned grasshopper in the pool and put it up on the pool deck, then for some unknown reason called over Kima the dog, who promptly licked up the grasshopper, chewed it up, and chomped it down. The kids were only slightly horrified, but mostly just laughed because the grasshopper looked to be at the end of the line anyway.

All day long Magnus had kept asking/pestering/badgering me if we could go to the sushi restaurant he noticed in Beja for dinner. I told him no because Stella doesn’t like sushi and we didn’t come to Portugal to eat Japanese food. But he was relentless and kept asking me until I finally blew and said there was absolutely no way we were going for sushi so quit asking me.

We drove to a restaurant in a nearby town based on an enthusiastic recommendation from the Lisbon guests we met. We found out it was actually some sort of public holiday in Portugal, so the restaurant was closed. So we drove into Beja to try out a churrasqueira restaurant that also came highly recommended. Closed. You know what restaurant wasn’t closed? Yep, the sushi place. So that’s where we ate, despite Stella’s pleas of “Why does Magnus always get his way??” Fortunately, the sushi was amazing and Stella found some items she liked, and we had a great evening, despite being proved wrong yet again by one of my kids. I think I’m starting to get used to it.

Melting in Beja

After yesterday’s inspired breakfast, there was no choice but to return to the same place for our final meal in Evora. The basic breakfast included scrambled eggs of a deep yellow hue, perfectly cooked, three thick pieces of toast made from bread baked fresh this morning, cut lengthwise into thirds and generously buttered, three ripe cherry tomatoes, a small bowl of berry jam with a tiny spoon to scoop it onto the toast, and freshly squeezed pineapple juice blended with bits of fresh mint. And, of course, it came with a coffee of your choice - decaf Americano for me and a gallao for Ana, which is an espresso mixed with milk. I felt like the King of Evora.

The drive to our next stop, Beja, further south, took about an hour and led us through endless fields of cork and olive trees, with vineyards appearing here and there, and few signs of people. This Alentejo region is the largest of the country and serves as the breadbasket of the nation, producing huge quantities of fruits, vegetables and other farm products. The scenery is striking and much different than that in the north. I found it to be slightly haunting with the ancient and partially denuded cork trees competing for dominance with the twisted olive trees pushing up out of the earth. But at the same time it was peaceful and inviting as most of the land was cleared of brush, inviting you in for a walk amongst the trees.

Ana had booked us an Air B&B at a farmhouse, just a few kilometres outside of Beja, and we arrived to find a beautiful house with rooms overlooking a teardrop shaped pool, all surrounded by fields of figs, corn, olive trees and pomegranate bushes. The lady of the house Helena met us and told us that the room was not quite ready yet so we waited under a canopied sitting area near the pool until she was done, then we changed into our swimsuits and jumped into the surprisingly cold pool, which was refreshing beyond belief as the temperature outside had rocketed up to 36 degrees. We learned that Beja typically boasts the hottest summer temperatures in Portugal, but it still cools down to the mid-teens at night, making it perfect for sleeping.

Although it was lunchtime, we didn’t feel like driving into the city, so we ate a few of the snacks we still had (days old potato chips, oreos, nectarines and apples) and hung out at the pool and in the cool room right until 4pm, when hunger took over and we decided to go into town, even though it was still scorching hot outside. Well, Beja was practically deserted and we walked around feeling like we were about to get overrun by a horde of zombies at any moment. We didn’t see much of interest (yes, there is a castle and churches and museums but the heat had drained our enthusiasm for culture snorting) so we just wandered around for a while, looking for somewhere to eat, and we finally found a walking street with a few cafes open and sat down at one of them. There are many restaurants in the city, but none of them were open yet for dinner so we were stuck at a rather awkward time. We ordered snacks of bifanas (fried pork slices served in a bun) and toasted ham and cheese and decided to stop at a grocery store to pick up some food for a backpacker dinner back at the room instead of loitering around in the intense heat waiting for a restaurant to open. We grabbed a roast chicken, rice, fried cod croquettes, pre-made Caesar salads, wine, and it was all rather terrible, except for the wine, making for the worst backpacker dinner in recent memory.

The remainder of the evening was spent playing with the three friendly farm dogs (Cookie, Quema, Kakashi) feeding the terrible rice to the three free range chickens scratching around (unnamed, as far as we know), as well as reading and browsing the web for ideas of what do to tomorrow.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Find The Butt

The contrast from yesterday’s busy streets, thousands of tourists, racks of merchandise in front of the shops, restaurant chairs and tables everywhere, and this morning’s calm emptiness I encountered during my walk was stark. It was so quiet. I walked for a good while and then went down to the car to fetch the huge bag of pears that the neighbour in Aveiro had given to us so that I could put them out at the hotel coffee bar for the rest of the guests to enjoy, as there were far too many for the four of us to eat.

After an amazing breakfast at a restaurant right beside our hotel called The Bakery Lounge, we jumped in the car for a tour of Evora’s surrounding attractions, which seemed to be mainly archaeological in nature according to the guidebook. We drove out to the first location, which was a burial mound and chamber, and it was located at the end of a long dirt road that led through a cork tree plantation so I was finally able to get up close to one of these amazing trees. Magnus and I managed to chip off a few pieces of cork bark to take home for a souvenir. The kids weren’t too excited about the burial chamber, but it was like Disneyland compared to the next site, which required a kilometre long walk through the swiftly rising heat, and ended at a single rock sticking out of the ground.

“That’s it?” said Stella.

“What a waste of time!” said Magnus.

“I’m going back to the car,” said Ana.

“Snort up the culture folks, this is probably a very significant rock to those that know what they are looking at,” I said.

But they probably didn’t hear me because they had all returned back down the path and I was left standing there by myself, so It took a picture of the rock for no good reason.

The next site, a few miles down the road, promised to be slightly better, but it wasn’t easy convincing the kids to leave the car, until we saw a sign that indicated there was a gift shop and interpretive centre near the site. So we all walked over, and didn’t find any sort of gift shop, but we did see a whole bunch of rocks, set up like a mini Stonehenge, and it drew a very limited level of interest from the family - we stayed for at least five minutes. Upon leaving, better inspection of the sign advertising the gift shop led us to the realization that it was located in the nearby town of Guadelupe, but the kids thought we had scammed them.

Well, there was only one stop left on our culture mission, and that was the town of Arraiolos, known for its carpet makers. In short, we drove the 20 kilometres to the town, visited a crumbling castle on top of the hill, found the carpets to be a little lame, had coffee and pastries, and drove straight back to Evora, where everybody was once again happy to wander the streets and hang out in cafes.

During dinner we played a fantastic new game called “Find the Butt”. Magnus took close-up photos of various cleavaged parts of our bodies (bent elbow, bent knee) and we had to decide which one looked most like a butt. It is uncanny how butt-like some of the photos were. Magnus wanted to take pictures of our actual butts, but we decided that fell beyond the limits of good table manners, so instead we took them back at the hotel room. Can you guess which one is the real butt?

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

The Chapel of Bones

I wasn’t looking forward to the drive to Evora, our next destination, in the southern region of Alentejo, as it was going to take over three hours and trying to drive without falling into all of my sloppy Canadian driving habits is hard work. People here are great drivers, despite what I’ve read about the Portuguese being maniacs on the road. We have seen no evidence of that at all. What we do see is disciplined highway driving where you never move into the left fast lanes unless you are passing somebody, and then you immediately move back over to the right. The speed limit on the toll highways is 120, what it should be, but people can drive faster than that because everybody follows the rules and you never have a jackass driving 80 in the fast lane, causing people to pass at high speeds on the right, which is what happens in Canada all the time, making the highways much more dangerous than they need to be.

One other interesting thing I’ve learned is the reason for the random pedestrian traffic lights I’ve seen around that seem to turn red for no reason. When we visited our friend Horatio back in Areia Branca, I asked him about this and he told us that these light are linked up to a speed camera and will turn red if you are driving over the limit. What a brilliant idea and a great way to limit speed! Drivers in a rush hate having to stop at a red light, so put the decision in their hands - if you want to speed, then you’re going to have stop and hold up a bunch of cars behind you. If you follow the speed limit, then you can carry on without stopping. The only problem for visitors such as myself, is that there didn’t seem to be any signage explaining what these traffic lights were used for.

The drive went better and faster than I expected and we arrived in the walled city of Evora just after noon. On the way in we spotted a guy on the roadside selling figs, so I said “Hey what do you figger, should we stop for some? I bet they are figging delicious!” I waited for laughter from the back seat, but both of the kids had earbuds in and Ana wasn’t paying attention so I had to enjoy the joke myself. We pulled over, but the guy told us he could only sell them by the crate…for 6 euro. I love figs, but don’t think we’ be able to get through an entire, ridiculously low-priced crate.

The so called “hostel” that Ana had found for us was more like a hotel, and located right in the middle of the action, near the main square, in a perfect location. Like Obidos, Evora is an ancient walled city, but much larger, and has a population of over 50,000, at least half of whom probably live within the walls. Not surprisingly, the entire city is a UNESCO world heritage site.

The church of Sao Francisco, originally built in 1376, then rebuilt several times after that, was the first place we visited and held some real surprises. The Chapel of Bones, is a chapel added in the 17th century and the entire interior is adorned with the bones of over 5,000 monks. Pure heavy metal, but originally built to “encourage reflection on the transitory nature of human life” as the brochure says. The creepy inscription above the vaulted doorway leading into the chamber translated into something like, "Our bones here, for yours we await."

There was also a museum, dedicated to the Franciscan order of monks who originally used this building as a monastery, and it held many works of art such as paintings, sculptures, and tapestries. On the upper floor was a collection I had absolutely no interest in...until I actually saw it. It was a collection of Nativity scenes from Portugal and many other countries, and there were hundreds of them, made from so many different materials, from clay to ceramic to marzipan to stuffed fabric.

Thus far the weather on this trip has been perfect - highs of 21 or 22 provided excellent weather for touring around to all of these amazing sites. Today, the mercury shot up to 32 and the coming days are expected to be the same or hotter, so we will get to experience the blisteringly hot temperatures that August in Portugal is known for. Fortunately, walking around Evora in the heat is easy, as most of the streets are shaded by buildings, plus it is very dry here so the heat doesn’t hit you as bad as in humid conditions. We spent an hour or two just wandering around, getting lost, and finding amazing things around nearly every corner. The kids got a little bored after a while so they went back up to the room while Ana and I sat at a cafe for afternoon drinks.

Dinner was the best of the trip so far - Ana and I had cod and shrimp casserole while the kids enjoyed the Bife No Pedra (steak on a rock) where they got to cook their own meat on a blazing hot stone at the table. The restaurant was just one of many on a street just around the corner from our hotel, and the entire area was packed full of tables and chairs, all of them full, with people speaking a dozen different languages, all having fun. Such an amazing scene, especially with the bright, full moon above.

The evening was finished off with coffee in the massive Giraldo square, but we didn’t stay long as the weather had really cooled off, but made for a lovely night’s sleep with the windows wide open and the fresh breeze blowing in.

Drinking Port Wine, Right From The Source

Porto is the second largest city in Portugal, and one I’ve wanted to visit for a very, very long time. We had originally planned to spend a night or two in the city, but when we realized that it was less than an hour from Aveiro, we decided to make a day trip of it instead.

We took the toll road right into Porto, and stopped for gas as soon as we found a station. A strike of the union that does fuel transport began today so it’s expected that fuel supplies may become tight, so we’ve been topping up frequently to ensure we have enough gas to get to Faro in the south, where our departing flight leaves from. The cost of fuel has been around 1.55 euro/litre which is approximately $2.25 Canadian - twice what we pay at home, which means you don’t see a lot of 4x4, dual axle, Hemi-engined trucks driving around with single passengers. None of them would fit down any of the narrow city streets anyway. If our governments had any huevos, they would jack up the carbon tax levels to European levels and get serious about tackling pollution and climate change and stop wasting our precious resources. But that’s simply not going to happen.

After driving up and down a few steep streets we found a parking spot and slipped our little Clio in with a shoehorn. Then we started walking, first to a church with an excellent viewpoint looking over the entire area. The river Douro flows through the city, splitting it into two parts - Porto to the north and Gaia to the south, both built on hills, creating a dramatic and epic scene when looking across the river from either side.

Our aimless wanderings began, and soon we came across a big transport truck moving slowly down the street, blocking all traffic behind it, while dudes were unloading guard rails and installing them on both sides of the street, trapping the parked cars behind them. Ana spoke to a street cop and he told her it was for a big bike race happening today, and if your car got trapped in, you weren’t going anywhere. We realized this same street was the one we were parked on, but the truck was approaching fast so we ran down the hill, jumped into the car, and peeled out of there just before they dropped in a gate, trapping the cars parked in front of and behind us. Close call! We drove down the hill, close to the river and found an underground parking garage. But you have to understand, the Portuguese are masters at building parking garages, because they always put them underground instead of the hideous above ground ones we usually build in Canada. This one was amazing - we drove in and it led to a single, downward spiralling path with unusually high ceilings and rows of densely packed cars parked on both sides. We simply drove down, deeper into the ground, until we found the first unoccupied spot. On the inside of the spiral was another spiral going back up to the exit. Simple, easy to navigate, brightly lit, and so well designed.

The Porto waterfront has an electric atmosphere - both working and tourist boats passing back and forth, two levels of restaurants, bars, shops and galleries along the waterfront, but somehow done in such a way that they are not prominent or imposing. There’s a large pedestrian area along the waterfront, with a sheer 20 foot drop into the churning water with no guardrails or warning signs of any kind; the cities here, refreshingly, do not tend to not take on the responsibility of protecting people from their own stupidity. Do you really need a sign warning you to not get too close to the edge, or to step off the tracks when you see a tram coming, or move out of the way of the street/pedestrian walkway when a car wants to pass through? Here, they have allowed citizens the dignity of using their common sense.

Despite giving up coffee a couple of years ago, it’s not a hard and fast rule for me, and I enjoyed a fragrant, steaming, hot cup of Americano as Ana had a tidy latte while sitting in a riverside cafe, watching the action unfold around us. If we lived in Europe, I would be back on coffee in a second as it’s such an integral part of the culture here, along with the delicious pastries that always accompany it!

We walked across the bridge to the Gaia side and split up - Ana and the kids went to explore the shops and market while I went to the Taylor Fladgate port house for a tour and tasting. Gaia is the home of several dozen port houses, some that have been here since the 17th century. The vineyards are all located up the Douro, in the Douro valley, and during harvest time the barrels of wine would historically be shipped in boats down the river and unloaded right here for cellaring and transport.

The tour was fantastic, and the tasting at the end of two different vintage ports in the beautifully manicured gardens with peacocks strutting around was a nice finish. I would have loved to buy one of the hundred year old bottles of vintage port, but I’ll wait until one of my kids becomes a billionaire before I start upping my tastes to that level.

We reconvened and went for lunch at a place that was quite similar to the Time Out food hall in Lisbon, but smaller, then we walked back over the bridge to the port side to check out the bike race. As of yet, none of the leaders had reached the finish line, but as we stood there a rather ratty looking Portuguese elder on a beaten up bike came peddling down the lane with a buddy riding side saddle, both with smokes hanging out of their mouths, looking fresh from the local taverna, thoroughly enjoying their ride with a larger than usual crowd cheering them on.

Our walking tour took us throughout Porto, up and down the hilly, narrow streets, checking out shops and all the thousands of people scurrying around. The vibe was frantic, with the bike race (which we learned was the Portugal version of the Tour de France) and the massive crowd of thousands waiting at the finish line. We missed the finalists coming in, but were on the path for some of the later finishers, who each got cheered in by the enthusiastic crowd. It was very exciting.

It was nearing the end of the day, so we returned to the car and drove west to the beach area and went for a long walk along the promenade. There was a Portuguese sludge metal band playing a free show in a gazebo, next to a market, so I watched the show while the gang checked out the stalls. They were surprisingly good, and I was pleasantly shocked that a metal band was playing in the park on a Sunday. On the waterfront there was a raised rock pathway, maybe four feet wide, with no barrier stopping you from falling down the fifteen feet to the jagged and treacherous rocks and ocean below. And you know who was daringly walking on this treacherous pathway? Little kids, families, people riding bikes, couples in love, dogs, and even an elderly pair of friends out for a sunset walk. Nobody fell in, and everybody was having a great time. The four of us sat on the ledge with our legs hanging down, discussing the likelihood of an Apple iPhone surviving the drop, and how one would go about retrieving it, which seemed unlikely.

A thought was given to having dinner here, but we decided to head back to Aveiro instead, and along the way Ana did some research on restaurants and found the highly rated Batista do Bacalhau, which we eventually found in a residential neighbourhood after twisting and turning through a dozen roundabouts and tiny streets, having no idea where in Aveiro we were.

Although the staff were enthusiastic and the venue was decent, the meals just weren’t that good. I ordered the cod house specialty, expecting it would be some sort of casserole, but instead it came out as a dry, baked cod fillet, standing in half an inch of olive oil with chunks of raw garlic and raw onion on top. The cod was ok, but that’s all there was to it - no spices, no pepper, no pimiento. And worse, the raw garlic was stingingly powerful and the one piece I accidentally ate caused me to reek of garlic the entire next day. Ana and the kids meals were ok, but not great, so we were disappointed. Cod is just not the sort of fish that should be served as a fillet - way too chewy.

But there was a huge treat after dinner. We had ordered a bottle of Portuguese white wine (vinho verde) to share but Ana only drank about a glass and a half and then started topping me up, so by the end of the meal I wasn’t feeling too capable of driving. Fortunately, we realized that our house was only about three blocks away, so Ana agreed to drive the manual transmission car home. Ana does know how to drive a manual, but she doesn’t like it because one time in Saskatoon she was driving my mom’s manual car and got stuck on a hill and couldn’t get the damn thing moving. It traumatized her severely.

So we all got in the car, buckled in, and let momma take us home. I gave her a quick briefing, saying this car had a very forgiving transmission, was easy to drive, and otherwise reassured her how fun and simple it was going to be.  She stomped the gas, popped the clutch and we lurched out of the parking spot, but then stalled out right in front of the giant window, with the patrons looking out from the restaurant. She started it back up and tried to go but it stalled out again.

“Give it some gas!” I said.

“I am!” She yelled.

“No you’re not, hit the goddamn gas pedal” I yelled back.

She gave it gas, but not enough, and as she released the clutch the car started jerking forward erratically, then stalled. And this horrible, burning smell started to waft into the car, which really heated things up.

“Give it some goddamn gas!” I said, “Or don’t let the clutch out so fast. One or the other. The damn car is burning up!”

“I am!! This car sucks. I hate manuals!” She said, as the car once again jerked back and forth, with our heads bobbing forward and back, and the restaurant heads also bobbing forward and back, watching us, mesmerized, probably speechless. I was hoping the horrible smell of burnt clutch hadn’t penetrated the restaurant walls.

“Floor the goddamn gas now. Then pop the clutch!” I urged, which she did, and the car lurched forward, leaving two black skid marks on the asphalt, but getting us successfully out of the vantage point of the patrons, and out of earshot of their uncontrolled laughter. I started to think that me driving slightly drunk might have been the better option, but nonetheless, we made it home just fine and Ana swore (for probably the 9th time in her life) that she would never drive a manual transmission car again.