Thursday, April 28, 2016

Porto in pictures

Colorful tiled buildings overlook the Douro River in Porto.

Our visit to Porto comes as we are homeward bound. After three weeks on the road, we are a little travel-weary and have begun to believe that we've seen more than enough (for now) of Portgual. However, a three-day stop in Porto turns out to be a highlight of our trip. The city is, in fact, the first city we've visited where we think, "Yeah, we could live here." If only my Portuguese didn't sound like Russian with an Italian accent ...

A traditional boat called a Rabelo was used to transport people and port.

Porto, in northern Portugal, is located on the Douro River at the mouth of the Atlantic Ocean. Way up river lies the Douro Valley, the only place to grow grapes for port. A tour of a port lodge of Vila Nova de Gaia, located across the river from downtown Porto, supplies me with this tidbit: The valley is uniquely qualified for growing grapes for port because of its bitterly cold nights and hellishly hot days. Drink a glass of port with me and I'll probably repeat that, since much of the rest of the port education I receive during the tour goes straight out of my head.

Port tasting at Ferreira lodge in Vila Nova de Gaia

We're staying in a room in a modern high-rise apartment in the Gaia district. A map supplied by our hosts suggests we start our visit with a walk to the river. The steep streets challenge us, but it is after all, downhill. It's Sunday and sunny, and it's bustling along the river. Families, couples, and fellow tourists pack the lanes lined with cafés and street vendors.

A steep street in Gaia leads to the Douro River and Porto.

To get to Porto-proper, we walk across the Ponte de Dom Luis I. This double-decked metal arched bridge was designed by Téophile Seyrig, a partner of Gustave Eiffel. We'll cross this bridge several times while we're here via the metro that runs along the top level.

Porto as seen from the Ponte de Dom Luis I

We linger over a cold beer along Cais da Ribeira before setting off to explore the beautiful city of Porto.

Street music and refreshments in Porto 

Inside the Estação São Bento (train station)

Interior Igreja Clérigos in Porto

Sé Catedral in Porto

Fancy McDonald's in Porto

Tiled-covered rock serves as a bench in Porto.

Lunchtime shopping along Rua da Bandeira in Porto

Statue along Avenida dos Aliados in Porto

After eating nearly no meat for three weeks, I succumb to this: Francesinha,
a Porto specialty.

Fishing boats at the mouth of the Douro River in Porto

Forte de São Francisco Xavier, or Castelo do Queijo, is located on the
Atlantic Ocean in Porto.

A little rain doesn't spoil our seaside promenade in Porto.

Statue along the Atlantic Ocean in Porto

Do I really need to explain this?

Porto monument to Raul Brandão, Portuguese journalist and soldier

Roofs of the port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia

In the Jardim do Morro in Gaia

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Climbing the walls in Óbidos

Skyline of Óbidos, Portgual

It took me more than a week in Portugal before I tried ginja, the yummy cherry-flavored liqueur, and now I'm sorry that we only brought back one bottle. In the charming village of Óbidos, it's the official libation with shop after shop along Rua Direita offering ginja shots served in chocolate cups. Since our visit to Óbidos is a morning one, and since we have the drive to Porto ahead of us, we pass on the ginja and turn our attention to the village sites.

Ginja is a regional specialty in Óbidos.

The village of Óbidos was a wedding gift from King Denis to his bride Isabel of Aragon in 1282. At the time, the village was a thriving port, but this part of the Tejo River eventually silted up. The town is a beauty, notable for its white-washed houses and red-tiled roofs.

A small rua in Óbidos

Óbidos's main gate, Porta da Vila, contains an azueljo-adorned chapel. The blue-and-white tiles date from the 18th century.

Porta da Vila is the main gate in the village of Óbidos.

An ancient stone wall completely encircles the town. Hearty visitors can walk along the somewhat treacherous perimeter. (I climb to the top of one of the lower walls, take a few selfies, then carefully ease myself down the steep steps.)

A view from the wall that completely surrounds the village of Óbidos

Castle walls in Óbidos

Dominating the skyline is the castle, built by the Moors and later rebuilt in the 12th and 14th centuries. It is now a luxury hotel, or pousada.

Exterior detail on a church in Óbidos

The tiny village has several notable churches, including Igreja de Santa Maria, which was where the future King Alfonso V (age 10) married his cousin Isabael (age 8) in 1444. Nearby is the church of São Pedro, where the artist Josefa de Óbidos (1631-1684) is buried. The pillory Pelourinho em Óbidos was a gift to the local fishermen from Queen Leonor to thank them for recovering the body of her son Afonso after he died (under mysterious circumstances) in 1491.

Igreja Santa Maria in Óbidos

Igreja Santa Maria in Óbidos

Óbidos enjoys steady tourism traffic all year round (I imagine the summer months are a crowded mess), but its largest annual event is a chocolate festival held in March — alas, that's two weeks after our visit.

Home on a hill in Óbidos

Two towers —  castle and church — in Óbidos 



Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Pena Palace overlooks sensational Sintra

Of the many places Ken and I enjoyed on our month-long trip to southern lands, Sinatra, Portugal, may be the most awesome. The day is crisp and clear when we arrive by train from Lisboa. I've done my research, so we bypass the private tour hawkers and instead board the local bus that offers a circular tour of the hilltop town. For 5 euros, we can stop, tour and re-embark. Walking is an option, but it's a long, long way up to our destination: Palácio da Pena.

Palácio da Pena in Sintra, Portugal

Pena Park is spread over nearly 85 hectares. Through the years, the once-barren hill has been transformed into an arboretum and gardens, beautiful and scientifically significant. After we buy our tickets to the palace, we still have a half-hour leisurely walk to its doors, which allows time to admire our surroundings and views along the way.

View from Palácio da Pena

Palácio da Pena is relatively new, (although it was constructed on the site of a medieval convent). Considered the finest example of 19th-century Portuguese Romanticism, the castle was built under the reign of Queen Maria II and her husband Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gothra, who personally had a hand in the design. (Ferdinand was known as the "artist king." His cousin was Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria.)

Ferdinand and Maria must have been happy folks. Rising up beyond the trees, we spot a burst of color: Bright yellow turrets embrace pale pink palace walls. Upon arriving at the courtyard, we climb a small tower, take in the views and catch our breath before going inside.

Palácio da Pena appears through the trees on our approach.

Palácio da Pena in Sintra

The last royal who called Palácio Pena home was King Manuel II who lived here from 1908-1910, when the site was converted into a museum. Today, visitors can explore the various cloisters, watch towers, chambers and even have lunch on one of the palace terraces.

Smiling in Sintra

Inside, my mouth drops upon entering the Arab Room with its amazing trompe-l'oeil fresco-covered walls and ceilings. Even more awesome is the grand hall with its stained-glass windows and life-size statues wearing turbans and holding candelabras. I also love the well-appointed kitchen.

Turbaned torch-bearer in Palácio da Pena's hall

Dining room in Palácio da Pena

Palácio da Pena's kitchen

Just one day in Sintra isn't nearly enough time to explore the other sites including Palácio de Monserrate, Palácio de Queluz, Palácio de Sintra or the Moorish castle ruins. I'm looking for an excuse to go back and see more. Want to come along?

Originally built by the Arabs, Palácio de Sintra was the residence of the
Portuguese royal family in the Middle Ages.

Palácio de Sintra window detail

Ruins of the Moorish castle as seen from the town of Sintra

Igreja São Martinho in Sintra

Interior Igreja São Martinho in Sintra

Tiled fountain in Sintra

Friday, April 15, 2016

Prayssac is a good rest stop when visiting the Lot

My friend teaches an after-school art class in the village of Prayssac and recently invited me along to keep her company and to share some of her vast knowledge about this area. I always enjoy spending time with Viviane and eagerly replied oui! when she asked me to join her.

Design detail in Prayssac
Located in our neighboring department of the Lot, Prayssac is located about 20 km east of Fumel in the Lot-et-Garonne and 20 km southeast of Villefranche-du-Périgord in the Dordogne. While Viviane and ses jeunes élèves paint, I spend an hour exploring the medium-size village, pop. 2,600.

From the tall statue prominently located in the central plaza, I soon meet Prayssac's most famous son; Jean-Baptiste Bessière (1768 – 1813), first Duke of Istria and one of Napoleon's officers, was born here. 

Jean-Baptiste Bessière (1768 – 1813) was born in Prayssac.

The tourism office is located nearby and just down the block is St. Bartholomew's, a simple, but pretty church. 

Exterior of L'église St. Bartholomew in Prayssac

Interior of L'église St. Bartholomew in Prayssac

Prayssac's tourism office

The village has ample amenities including une bibliothèque and a movie theater named for filmmaker Louis Malle. 

Cinéma Louis Malle in Prayssac

With its assortment of restaurants and cafés, Prayssac may be a good place to stop en-route to popular destinations in the Lot including Cahors, Rocamadour and Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, or midway through a Cahors Malbec tasting trip.

Tile on the exterior wall of a café in Prayssac

One of several restaurants in Prayssac

This area also offers lots of opportunities for biking, horseback riding and hiking as well as boating and fishing on the Lot river.

Flowers in Prayssac

Friday is market day in Prayssac, and upcoming events in the village include Prayssac Musette concerts on April 19, May 10 and Juin 14; a theater performance on April 23 and 24; and a gospel concert on May 7. For details. visit the Prayssac website here or call the tourism office at