Apache Junction Seekers

Al and Linda enjoy visiting new places and having new experiences. In 2006, we spent 4 months in Europe and originally created this blog to keep friends and family informed. After a long delay, I'm trying to catch up with what we've been doing since then and hope to carry on into the future.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Here we are in a little town in Spain in the office overlooking the warehouse section of a brico-mercado, otherwise known as a vastly scaled-down Home Depot. We have had a great deal of difficulty trying to locate internet access and it is only through the kind graces of our hostess for the next two nights that we have been able to use the office of the business that her family owns. I have yet to find a way to upload pictures, so I apoloogize for this un-illustrated blog.

The weather gods told us that we needed to go south from the Lisbon area, so we went down to the Algarve, which is Portugal´s equivalent to Spain´s Costa del Sol or NYC´s Coney Island. We arrived the weekend of Potugal´s answer to the annual motorcycle get-together in Sturgis, SD· The motos were out in force as were the policia· Everyone including all the tour busses were driving out to the end of the same road at the very SW tip of the country, the only difference being that the motos were passing everyone on the center line even with on-coming traffic. Quite the thrill· Other than that, we have decided that Portugal is the place to have a second home· Wonderful people, many of whom speak some English, lovely tile decorations on everything, good food at reasonable prices and good scenery· Just don´t judge the country by a tourist area like the Algarve, which is actually quite scenic, just way, way overcrowded even in the off-season.

So what did we do next? Went to another tourist area on the beach, of course· Linda had wanted to go to an area called the Donana National Park in Spain, about 90 km east of the border with Portugal. This is supposed to be the largest roadless area in Europe and a great place to go birdwatching· The little town of El Rocio is mentioned in all the guidebooks and you can really tell it--lots of backpackers (it has marvelous bus service!), tour busses, camping cars from Germany and the Netherlands with many people wandering around wondering what they are supposed to be seeing--kind of like any national park in the US· We opted to stay at the local beach resort about 15 km to the south where we found a wonderful room with a large balcony in a quiet 12-room hotel· Then we had to proceed to remind ourselves how the Spaniards exist in a different time zone than the rest of the world· If you go into town between 3 pm and 8 pm, it looks like a deserted Mexican village· At 8 pm, things start happening and by 10 pm every restaurant is mobbed. We have not yet been able to adjust to eating lunch at 3 and dinner at 10, so we sneak in a large early lunch at 2 pm and get a snack from the grocery story for dinner· The food is not quite as good as in Portugal, but the big surprise was what they call Iberian meat, which is from the local pigs who free range among the oak trees. They use the legs for those fantastic hams but then there´s the rest of the pig to get rid of, so they cut it up into slices and grill it· In the US, pork is "the other white meat" but in this part of Spain, it is almost as dark as beef and a whole different flavor· In the park we saw flamingos, spoon-bills, azure-winged magpies and lots of other neat birds. And of course many many storks· Every power-line tower has a special platform on it for the stork nest, and you see a stork on each tower off to the horizon in many places· For such awkward-looking birds, they are amazingly graceful flyers, but they must have a terrible infant mortality rate because every nest seemed to have three chicks in it and they can´t all survive or the country would be wall-to-wall storks.

Tomorrow we are going to take our first train ride on an old mining railroad associated with the oldest still-active mine in the world. This mine predates the Romans. Should be interesting.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Getting out to pick up our car was an adventure since we had a poor map and the only non-English-speaking cabby in Lisbon. I was prepared for a huge bill but since it was midday, it was less than the night-time fare in from the airport. The glum driver perked up considerable when Al gave him a large tip as apparently one doesn't necessarily tip cabbies here.

Al fell in love with the car at first sight. It is gun-metal gray with a sexily-sculpted hood and the latest in headlight design. It also has a sunroof that doesn't open but which has a cover that retracts for the entire length of the front and back passenger areas. Should be great in the mountains. Lots of legroom too. Much better ride than we have at home.

We had reservations at a B&B in Cascais, which turns out to be an outlying suburb of Lisbon and quite the day-trip beach destination. After milling around in the mist (yes, the weather has gone bad) we finally found the place which is a three story house in a residential neighborhood. Our hostess recommended a restaurant that is literally around the corner where we had a wonderful midday meal of grilled swordfish and grilled squid for me (yes, again--I love it!) A glass of the house wine was 1.2 euros and was wonderful. After a nap, we headed west to the Atlantic, just a few kilometers away, and followed the winding road to Cabo Rocas, the western-most point in Europe. All of Europe had also made their way to the point in private cars and tour busses and were making the short walk in the rain out to the monument, a pleasure that we skipped. The coastline here is quite dramatic, alternating between steep hills and deep ravines, all traversed by a narrow winding road. This must be close to the peak of the wildflower season and the hills are covered with blooms in all colors from white through yellows to blues, pinks and bright reds.

Driving back south, we found a beach off which dozens of surfers bobbed, waiting for the perfect wave, which apparently never came since hardly anyone bothered to get up on their board.

Despite a noisy house, we slept well enough and at breakfast enjoyed conversations with two couples from Germany, one of whom is originally from Kerala, India. All speaking good English of course. After a few hard showers, the sky cleared so we drove down to the touristy part of Cascais and never quite left all day. We walked along the beach and enjoyed the people watching. There were a few topless females which added to Al's enjoyment.

We found the marina where Al critiqued the boats, none of which were very large. We selected one of the bazillion outdoor restaurants and enjoyed more good seafood. Then we found a bench along the beach and just sat. And sat. What a way to spend the day along with half the population of Portugal and a significant percentage of Great Britain. On the way back to the car, we discovered that there was an hipermercado (supermarket on steroids) across from the train station where we found the rest of the Portugese population. Surprisingly considering that the aisles were literally so full you couldn't move at some points, we didn't have to stand in line for more than a couple of minutes. Al experienced a bit of sticker shock when he paid the parking bill, but when he realized that we'd been there for seven hours, 9 euros wasn't so bad.

After breakfast, we took the German-Indian couple to the train station for their excursion into Lisbon, then drove along the beach. We parked at one place where we could see divers in the water fishing for something. When one returned to the truck next to us, I managed to ask him what he had in his bag. He said chocos, which translates as cuttlefish in my book, but they sure looked like squid to me (which are called "lulas") although larger than what I've been eating. Anyway, even though I'm sure I sounded like an idiot trying to speak Portugese, he was very friendly and managed a little English himself.

Today is Easter and we celebrated by returning to our neighborhood restaurant for their advertised special of cabrito asseado, or roast kid. It was truly wonderful, although looking at the tiny legbone I almost felt guilty at eating such a baby animal. Almost.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Our trip began with a very long day. We arrived early at the Phoenix airport which was a good thing because it soon got very busy and crowded. Not much sleep on a full 747 to London. The weather at Heathrow was vile which explained the number of Brits who had been visiting Arizona. We had to deplane in the middle of the tarmac and dash to a waiting bus in the wind and rain, then repeat the dash when we arrived at the terminal. What a welcome! It was a long layover made interminable by a delay. By the time we arrived in Lisbon we had been traveling for over 24 hours. Then the cash machine would not accept our debit card. Oh no--this was the last straw!

Fortunately, this is the point at which everything got better. The Lisbon terminal was unbelievably crowded at 10 pm on a Tuesday, and the tourist desk was still open. The lovely young lady who spoke perfect English knew at once why our debit card was rejected. It seems that since we were here last, Europe has gone to a 6-digit PIN and of course ours is only 4 digits. The trick is to push "OK" twice and the money comes out. The taxi driver spoke good English and was full of tips for seeing the town and the country. When I went into the hotel while Al settled up, as soon as I said that we had reservations, the desk clerk said "Oh yes, Wendler." Wonderful.

One benefit of a long travel day is that we were so tired that we slept for 8 hours and awoke on Lisbon time. The breakfast buffet at the hotel consisted of, among other things, yogurt, fresh fruits and juices, four kinds of wonderful bread, croissants, ham, jam, cheeses, and Starbucks quality coffee. Al immediately slipped into his European mode, almost purring with delight. Did I mention that the sun was also shining and that our hotel room had a view of the Rio Tejos in the distance?

On with the walking shoes and off to the Avenue Liberdade, a couple of blocks away. This is a 90-meter wide street with a broad tree-lined pedestrian walkway in the center, punctuated by water features and cafes, flowers and benches. The walkway, like all those in the Lisbon, consists of small irregularly-square paving stones, 2 to 3 inches on a side which must be brutal on the stiletto heels worn by the oh-so-fashionable women. Al kept up a running commentary on the women (bare midriffs, footwear, red haircolor), automobile models that are not seen in the US, the pastry shops, and the monumental sculptures in each of the successive squares that we encountered as we made our way south to the river over a period of about an hour. It is Easter Week and the town is full not only of Portuguese on holidays but Brits and northern Europeans looking for the sun.

At the last plaza down by the river, the Praca Comercial, we hopped onto a double-decker bus for a tour of the city. Lisbon was largely destroyed by an earthquake 200 years ago but by our western USA standards, the town still looks pretty old. A late lunch of grilled sardines and grilled squid at an outdoor cafe topped off the afternoon. We have commenced eating our way through the Continent and it's pretty doggone good.

On our second day in Lisbon, the number of tourists had at least tripled. I knew just how the grilled sardines felt as we joined the hordes heading west on the number 15 tram toward Belem. After half an hour of increasingly sweaty and intimate contact with fellow tourists we all spilled out at the same stop, the Monasteiro Jeronimo where the line into the former monastery was truly awesome. We admired the intricately carved limestone entrance portal and then strolled down to the quiet end of the building to see the Maritime Museum. If you remember your history, Portugal was once the premier country in naval exploration of the world and the most wealthy colonial power. All this ended in the 18th century, but they haven't forgotten a thing. The Maritime Museum is a tribute to Portugal's former glory and is chockfull of more ship models than a person can look at in a lifetime. Glassy-eyed, we stumbled out past the full-size royal barges (dating back to 1720) for a delightful lunch of a bacalhau (salt cod, better than it sounds), potato and cheese casserole at the museum cafe.

The tram ride into town was worse than the ride out but I finally figured out why everyone speaks English to us, as if we have this sign saying "American" on our foreheads. It's not that we are so much American as we are "not Portugese". I watched a young Portugese woman strike up a conversation with another woman her age. When the Portugese discovered that the other was Spanish, she switched into English so they could converse. Most signs and many of the billboards are in both Portugese and English, thus it appears that the non-native default is English. We later found out that this year they started teaching English as early as kindergarten.

Back in town, we viewed competing "living statues" in adjacent squares in the pedestrian-only district. One of the statues had a sign boasting of his multiple world records and his inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records. Now there's a career path that your high school counselor never mentioned!