Wednesday, March 25: Laguardia and Ipad Problems

We had a nice day in Laguardia yesterday even though it was still raining and continued to most of the day. It was also very cold.

We were able to have a tour of a winery <the Fabulista> in English, and it was just a small group of us <five> so it was particularly enjoyable. They seem to have set up for groups of up to 50, which will probably be happening all summer. I am so glad we have beat the tourism rush. There have been no crowds anywhere we have visited.

We also had a nice wine tasting and it was a surprise that the bottles of the red and white wine they sell are about three to ten euros.  I mentioned that in the U. S, three dollars would hardly cover the cost of the glass bottle, or that any wine at that price would not be considered worth drinking. Of course, their wine was very good.

We spent some time checking out the walled village and had lunch at a small wine bar where we pointed to the tapas we wanted. It was good, and also fast and easy.

I am disappointed that my iPad wont start and is in the Recovery Mode. I cannot access my pictures or turn it on to write a blog post. <i wanted to check out the origin of the Fabulista winery, since the woman giving the tour said it has to do with the person who orginated fables and was not a form of the word fabulous, as I thought.>

This hotel computer is set up to type in Spanish and is tough to work with = no apostrophes or parenthesis, for examples. We are leaving here shortly and driving toward Barcelona, and maybe there will be an Apple store there <there was a big one in Madrid> where I can get them to restart it. Otherwise I will plug along on hotel computers.

Adios,

Susan

Monday, March 23: Laguardia, Spain

I had heard it raining overnight, but was surprised to see it was snowing this morning. Yesterday it had been sunny and warm south of us and now, in the Rioja wine region of northern Spain, it was much, much colder.

I haven’t bought any clothes for below-freezing temperatures, but bundled up with what I have. Our plan was to walk to the gated entrance to the village (it turns out our hotel is right outside it, maybe a ten-minute walk) and check out Laguardia. We couldn’t do that because the snow turned to pouring rain. We waited it out, then drove to the entrance and dashed in through a gate.

Laguardia is over a thousand years old and is like another world. Surrounded by huge stone walls, it is easy to see how it provided the people of the city safety from attack. What is remarkable is that 1,500 people live there in these modern times.

It is a totally inclusive walled village made of blocks of stone. By “totally inclusive” I mean that the people never have to leave the walls of the city and few, if any they have cars. There are shops, restaurants, bars, services – it seems as though they have anything they need.

As soon as I dashed in, I marveled at the narrow stone-lined streets. I couldn’t take pictures since we were running in the rain. We were not really sure where to go since there are just doors within stone walls. Everything looks very similar. Some doors are people’s homes, others are businesses. There are no storefront windows, so you have to know where you’re going. This posed a problem because of the rain, since we couldn’t just walk casually around. And of course we had no idea where we were going.

We ducked into one tiny shop that had some nice sweaters displayed near the open door. The saleswoman/owner was nice although she spoke almost no English. She was able to direct us to a great restaurant after I bought a sweater there, and we dashed up the street because it was still raining.

After a delicious lunch, the waiter suggested we check out the restaurant’s cellar. Underneath the entire walled city are wine cellars. They have been separated under businesses and homes now, so are not connected as they were when they were first built as one huge place to safely store the village’s wine. It was interesting to see the small connected rooms that snaked underneath the building.

Tomorrow we are going to tour a winery and check out more of the inside of the walled village. We are hoping it is not raining or snowing so we can walk around.

Adios,
-Susan

The old and grand restaurant where we had lunch today.

The old and grand restaurant where we had lunch today.

The wine bar was not open when we were there in the late afternoon, but it was interesting to see the setup. We may go back tomorrow evening to see what it's like with people there.

The wine bar was not open when we were there in the late afternoon, but it was interesting to see the setup. We may go back tomorrow evening to see what it’s like with people there.

A sweater and pashmina I got today in the walled city

A sweater and pashmina I got today in the walled city

At lunch today

At lunch today

The caves underneath the restaurant. Wine is stored there, but it is also a wine bar at night.

The caves underneath the restaurant. Wine is stored there, but it is also a wine bar at night.

Sunday, March 22: Laguardia, Spain

Today was long and uneventful. I really hated to leave Portugal and hope to be back – aside from it being a beautiful country, the people there are extremely kind. They seem to not have a care in the world. (They may not.) It would be great to live there a few months a year.

We left Sintra, Portugal at about eight this morning and drove all day to reach Laguardia, a small city in northern Spain, at about eight this evening. We stopped just for gas, and for lunch mid-afternoon.

Laguardia is in the Rioja wine region, and it still has its medieval entrance gates and walls. As of this evening, we have seen none of that (we probably didn’t come in through the entrance) and I was just thrilled we found our hotel in the dark on the long and winding roads. It’s very easy to miss road signs even when it’s light out.

Tomorrow we will go on a wine tour and walk around to check out the city. We are staying here three nights, because it’s a really nice hotel and because we don’t want to drive anywhere any time soon.

Adios,
-Susan

Wine from the Rioja region, and Cantabrian anchovies = I am content.

Wine from the Rioja region, and Cantabrian anchovies = I am content.

Saturday, March 21: Sintra, Portugal

The past 24 hours have been terrific. Last night’s dinner was good, but the restaurant made it very special. First, it had two gigantic dark green doors in front, and a small sign with the name, Mesa de Frades. There was no way to open the door, and we stood there for a couple of bewildered minutes. A guy who had been talking on his phone out in the street walked over and showed us a small button to press. Soon, the owner opened the door a slight crack and asked (in Portuguese) whether we had reservations. I said we did and he ushered us in. I felt as though I was in a movie.

It was a tiny, dark place, five small tables against the wall on both sides of the room, each for two people. A few tables were pushed together. The place was ancient and we later found out it had survived the 1755 earthquake. All the tables were full once we sat down and since it was super-small, it seemed packed. The kitchen was at one end, partially exposed. It seemed that the cook was the owner’s wife or girlfriend, and he handled the tables.

Dinner was a set menu (cod fish) because the place is known mainly for its fado performances. Fado is the soul music of Portugal, we learned, and is mostly sad love songs sung with a lot of emotion. The show started at 11:15 and was to have 3 performers. Adding the three guitar players plus a singer to the front of the room by the door was an amazing feat of space utilization. We stayed for the first singer, and she was very good – young, beautiful, and so talented. We were very tired and left at about 12:30. I chatted with the singer outside about how much we enjoyed her performance. “This to me was all no problem,” she said, smiling. I love how some people here string English words together as best they can.

I later learned (from a couple we met on the tram today) that this particular place is the best of its type in Portugal and where the professional fado singers often get their start. It was an extraordinary experience.

This morning we reluctantly left Lisbon and drove an hour to Sintra, a city with beautiful architecture, some castles, and spectacular views. We walked around for a while, then looked for the tram we had read about. Soon, a group of cute, young, uniformed scouts approached us and asked whether we would buy a … pen. I said sure, but we needed directions to the train station. The scouts escorted us the three blocks to the station, chattering in English with us the entire way. They were the real deal: kind, fun, poised, and so polite. When we got there I suggested that we’d buy another pen (each scout had a fistful) but one boy said “We wouldn’t think of it,” so sincerely that I did want to hug him.

We didn’t realize the tram didn’t leave from the train station at all, although when we asked at the Information booth, it sounded as though we were close: go out the door, make a right, then a left… but we didn’t see tram tracks anywhere.

We walked past a museum and decided someone in there could probably direct us. There were three women at the front desk, which had a few people lined up to buy entry tickets. We stood aside for a second, then one of the women asked if we needed help. We mentioned our tram problem. She paused and then said something to the other two women and it looked for a second as though she was going to take us to the front door and point out where we should go.

Even better! Another woman from the counter joined her, and the one who spoke English said “Follow us!” Down some stairs, up a street, around a block, and there we were at the tiny, hidden tram station. With the two museum workers! We thanked them and presumably they headed back to work.

We took the tram ($3) to the end of the line and hung out at the ocean, then had lunch and caught the last one back at 4. We sat with a guy and girl from Lisbon who were amazed we had gotten a table at the fado restaurant last night and who loved hearing about the U.S. We hardly looked out the tram windows to appreciate the rambling beauty of Sintra, one big reason to take the tram in the first place – but that was fine.

We are staying in a very charming old hotel in the center of Sintra tonight, then heading out in the a.m. although we don’t have a solid plan yet. We have reservations in Barcelona for Thursday through Sunday, but are free to motor around until then.
(See photos on post that follows- they wouldn’t upload here)

Adios,
Susan

Photos from 3/21

The sign on the huge, old restaurant doors

The sign on the huge, old restaurant doors

Very dark picture, because it was a very dark, very small, very cool restaurant.

Very dark picture, because it was a very dark, very small, very cool restaurant.

Travesseiros: traditional pastries that originated in Sintra. The name means "pillow," and they're stuffed with an almond, egg, and naturally sugar mixture. They're very good (again: stopped at one, could've had more)

Travesseiros: traditional pastries that originated in Sintra. The name means “pillow,” and they’re stuffed with an almond, egg, and naturally sugar mixture. They’re very good (again: stopped at one, could’ve had more)

We took the tram from the center of the city to the end of the line- the beach. It's a pretty 45-minute trip

We took the tram from the center of the city to the end of the line- the beach. It’s a pretty 45-minute trip

We had lunch in this perfect location, and tried caldeirada, a fish stew with mussels, clams, shrimp, sea bass. Tons of them. Delicious!

We had lunch in this perfect location, and tried caldeirada, a fish stew with mussels, clams, shrimp, sea bass. Tons of them. Delicious!

Friday, March 20: last day in Lisbon

..

Today we planned to take a tour of the old and grand opera house, the National Theater of Sao Carlos. The opera house was rebuilt almost right away after the 1755 earthquake that leveled Lisbon (and killed 30,000 people). The king tried to rebuild most of the city within a year, and the original theater had only opened months before the quake. So this one was built in 1756 (and took just six months!) and it’s magnificent.

Our hotel tried to arrange our visit, but didn’t get a response to two emails. The tour started at 11, so it was suggested we get there early and see if we were able to get in. They gave us a copy of the email they sent, thinking it might be helpful to have.

When we arrived at 10:30, all the doors were locked. I stopped a woman standing near the place: she spoke English, she was in charge of the guest relations, and she welcomed us with open arms. It turned out that the email address the hotel was using had a letter missing so she never got either of them. She seemed so concerned for our happiness that it was astounding.

She told us the group at 11 was made up of German and French visitors, and that we wouldn’t get anything out of it since she wasn’t going to repeat the information in three languages. So she let us sit in one of the viewing boxes for just a few minutes and watch a rehearsal in progress. We were content with that unique experience but then she said we could come back at 3 and watch the whole rehearsal of the opera that’s opening 3/25, La Cenerentola.

We did go back and we sat in a box with her friend, Maria (who quickly became my best friend in Portugal) and watched and listened to the rehearsal. It was quite a thrill to be sitting in almost the best seats in the house and watch opera stars from around the world (there’s an American in the orchestra and we were asked if we knew him, as though all of us from the U.S. know each other.)

Then she gave us a backstage tour, snapped a few photos of us, kissed us goodbye, and we were on our way – four hours later. Maria has invited us to her home in Belem, the area we visited yesterday, on our next trip – which could be soon because I love it here.
—-
(Yes, those are new spring pants and a new top seen pictured. I may have enough clothes now, but will still probably do some shopping in the week ahead (why not?!)

There’s no talk of food today because I am writing this before we go to dinner. 9:30 reservations are late for this girl but that’s what our friends from last evening arranged for us, since the live music doesn’t begin until 11. So by the time I get back to the hotel, it will be very late. )

Adios,
Susan

.

At the opera house. That's the President's box/viewing chamber behind us - it used to be for the king.

At the opera house. That’s the President’s box/viewing chamber behind us – it used to be for the king.

It was a beautiful spring day here. I shouldn't have brought my jacket since I had to carry it around all day.

It was a beautiful spring day here. I shouldn’t have brought my jacket since I had to carry it around all day.

Another view of the magnificent opera house. You're not allowed to take pictures of the stage, so I didn't dare. I'm trying to be a great ambassador!

Another view of the magnificent opera house. You’re not allowed to take pictures of the stage, so I didn’t dare. I’m trying to be a great ambassador!

Thursday, March 19: Lisbon

Today was a wonderful day!
I had read an article that suggested a number of must-see places here in Lisbon. Yesterday we went to that crazy bar and today I wanted to visit the Pasteis de Belem, a bakery that sells the traditional Portuguese custard tarts. Although these can be found all around the country, this particular place is supposed to make the best ones. They have a secret recipe that only three people know in its entirety and the exact ingredient list is in a safe with “100 keys,” as a woman told me today.
We got there at about 11 and there was a long line out the door and into the street. I noticed that there was a sign for Table Service and an arrow to go indoors. We found an empty table and enjoyed a snack of the delicious tarts. They are small pastries filled with a lemon/vanilla custard, and served warm, right out of the oven. I could have eaten 10 easily and understood right away why people queued up for these tarts.

President Silva’s house is not far away on the same street and it was amazing to see, with guards in uniform standing at attention in front and police directing traffic in that area. I think this was because he was there, at home today. There were demonstrations across the street but it was nothing like Washington D.C.: much smaller and generally calm. Portugal is a peaceful country and seems remarkably safe. This feeling of safety is noticeable right away (although there are pickpockets like any big city, of course).

Next we went to the Conserveira de Lisboa, a little shop that sells a variety of canned fish: salmon, octopus, tuna, mussels, sardines. They are canned in Lisbon, then labeled and wrapped in the shop. I enjoyed this unusual place and got some tuna, octopus, and mussels to (hopefully) bring home. (I read up on the customs restrictions just now and fish products seem ok to transport.)

We did some shopping and I got running shoes but no bathing suit. I still hope to swim while I am here but at least I can run now.

We went back to the seafood restaurant on the water for dinner tonight, mainly because we loved it for lunch yesterday. I had grilled squid. We met a super-nice young couple there who live in Lisbon. They made reservations for us for tomorrow night at one of their favorite traditional Portuguese restaurants that plays live fado – music of their culture. It sounds like fun.
We are also taking a tour of the opera house here tomorrow . It is hundreds of years old and still used during their opera season.
I am loving Lisbon!
Adios,
-Susan

…..

It is remarkable that the city keeps these stone sidewalks maintained. Laying rocks seems so tedious but two workers were adding rocks very quickly.

It is remarkable that the city keeps these stone sidewalks maintained. Laying rocks seems so tedious but two workers were adding rocks very quickly.

The Conserveira de Lisbon

The Conserveira de Lisbon

Pasties de Belem! Two coffee, two bottles of  water, two pastries =a bargain

Pasteis de Belem! Two coffees, two bottles of water, two pastries =a $6.25 bargain. Everything here is very inexpensive

The cans of fish are all wrapped by hand.

The cans of fish are all wrapped by hand.