Off We Go … to Portugal, a pleasant surprise

By Dave Azwell

122814-PORTUGAL-04Off we go … and off we went for one more adventure. Just can’t seem to shake the travel bug; still healthy and upright, so we opted for one more riverboat cruise this last November. Been trying to make it to Portugal and the Douro River, but they always seemed to be booked. Finally, about a year ago, there was an opening. We bit the bullet and signed up.

Departed for Lisbon via Kansas City to Philadelphia to Munich to Lisbon. Whew. Kind of tiring, but it went very smoothly. Particularly since the overnight flight was only partially full. Everyone had plenty of room.

Arrived in “Old Town” Lisbon and checked into the Tivoli Lisboa hotel which was a grand old hotel built in the 1800s. It’s been refurbished with all the bells and whistles of a first rate hotel and it was very comfortable. We met some of our fellow passengers and proceeded to get acquainted. We spent the next day and a half touring monasteries, museums and various landmarks. Got a glimpse of the famous tiles that Portugal is known for, and the wife (Tara) and I even got to make some tiles to take home. I would say we’re not a threat to Portuguese tile makers.

We proceeded up the coast to Coimbra, birthplace to six Portuguese kings and home to one of Europe’s oldest universities. Had some lunch and got introduced to “Fado” which is Portugal’s contribution to the music world. Continuing up the coast, we came to Porto where we ultimately boarded the boat which would be our home for the next seven nights.

Porto is a classic old Portuguese city featuring a town square, narrow streets, palaces, monasteries and is home base to the port wine making region of Portugal. Across the river in Gaia (Guy-ya), huge port wine storage facilities house the port wine shipped by the wineries to start the aging process which takes years before it’s ready to be bottled and sold. In the old days, the wine was shipped in barrels by small boats to Gaia. Now it’s being shipped by large tanker trucks.

A day trip to Salamanca, Spain, turned out to be a wonderful excursion. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A combination of old world charm and a new world cosmopolitan, multicultural city, Salamanca has a large international student population at its 13th century Salamanca University, monasteries, castles, and a variety of shops and cafes. Our lunch featured an exciting Flamenco show of song and dance. What more could a tourist ask for?

On a mesa located way up in the mountains, we paid a visit to an old, old town called Favaios (Fav-yosh). A local baker provided insight to centuries-old bread making. Some 8,000 loaves a day of distinctive four cornered bread that looks like a fat bow tie is made by a few local bakeries using the traditional wood burning ovens. A few samples with butter and homemade orange marmalade made happy campers out of the group. The local wineries specialize in a variety of port wine called Moscatel. It’s a product of this particular region and provides livelihoods for most of the residents. Good stuff to say the least. Before we left, a local winery hosted a traditional five-course Portuguese lunch with entertainment provided by a “polka” band made up of a squeeze box, drums and a tambourine. It was siesta time on the way back to the boat.

Portugal is a mix of many things. Centuries old, it had colonies around the world in Africa and South America. It was controlled by the Moors for hundreds of years and the Spanish folks didn’t like them either. They still don’t; certain amount of animosity still exists. It’s got mountains, almond trees and olive trees, century-old monasteries and buildings, wineries located 1,000 feet up the sides of mountains, beautiful tiles, good roads, fresh seafood and friendly people.

Took a side trip to Madrid on the way home. Visited one of our former exchange students, Alex; met his wife and our three Spanish “grandchildren”, visited with his mother who is in her 80s and sister Angela who was visiting from Burundi, Africa. Alex set up a lunch with Fernando and Pancho, former exchange students at Mission Valley and Northern Heights who ran around with him. They lived within blocks of each other in Madrid, but never met until they came to the states. Had some brews and lots of conversation. It was well worth the extra time.

Flew home from Madrid to Philadelphia to Kansas City. Much better!


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