June 2011
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Our Northern Trek

June 30, 2011

So we are back from the northern border, a tour that took us through the mountains and the northern villages. It was both beautiful and adventureous, a perfect combination. For the most part the travel seemed much more relaxed, though that could be that I slept most of the time in the car. Seriously though, we had lots of time to stop and make small detours - there was never a rush and almost no other tourists. We had the world to ourselves.

Our first stop was to see some of the original grain silos. These ones were grouped togehter in a community bundle, which is only duplicated one other location (that we know of). You could see some slight changes in designs over time, though it was just impressive to think they moved and cut the stones for this use. Later on the walls become just wooden and the structures were individually placed at the different houses. Another interesting thing we noticed during our explorations was that these are still in use today, names are marked on the doors and inside you see grain and brooms. Incredible!

After some lunch, we continued on and found an arched bridge, which is unique in its construction due to the type of material combined with the rounded archway.

We attempted to take a dip in the water just below the bridge, but the stream was just a little cold for the boys.

There are times in life where you just feel the urge to move the world!

After a stop for some coffee Luis and I decided to take on the challenge of climbing the hill right near the shop! So leaving the boys with Patricia, Melissa, Luis, and myself headed up on our "15 minute hike" to the top.

And really, it only took us about 15-20 to get to the top of the first peak ... then another 10 to get to the next ... and I just HAD to climb up a final stage. And coming down proved a little slower than going up.

The final stage

The view from the top was incredible and well worth the hour and a half adventure.

Besides spotting a deer at full gallop on the hills, we also saw a couple of the cows in the area. The boys like to call them "Gazelle" cows, I called them tasty steaks that evening at dinner.

Nice cow ... tasty too!

The hotel that evening was really quite interesting as it was situated right next to an active church right below some mountains. Was so peaceful it was hard to get up the next morning.

Our second days journey started out with a stop for a café at a little village, but things seemed to be closed so we just took a look around.

What we found near the old water-wheel mill was just what we were looking for on a hot day. It just seemed to call to the boys...

The main destination of the day was the northern border and Fort Valenca, a fortress from the 13th centural that played a pivotal role in ensuring that Portugal's borders remained.

The walled city was home to many shops and restaurants, in which we pulled up a chair for lunch. One drink that Luis has been looking to introduce me to was what he calls "Fire Water", the liquid used to stop the fermentation process. But for some it is also a drink, or in our case added to our café.

Amoung the shops we found that the area had been overrun by forgeiners, but of the friendly kind!

Since Spain was "right there", we took a small trip across the bridge and across the border (and a time zone). We returned on a second, much older bridge.

Our last stop was at Ponte De Lima, the oldest Vila (town) in Portugal. While likely large enough to become a city it has held its current status since 1125, when it was decreed a town by the queen.

Ponte Da Lima, which means "Bridge of Lima" (Lima being the river), is obviously named. And this is that bridge.

While there was lots more to see and lots more pictures to take, the boys where tired, it was hot, and it was time to head home and get a good nights sleep. For tomorrow comes another adventure.

Posted by csb at 6:00 PM


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Day of Palaces

June 29, 2011

Our trip home from Lisbon took up through the historic village of Sintra a location in which Lord Byron wrote in 1809 "I must just observe that the village of Cintra in Estremadura is the most beautiful in the world." - he isn't wrong.

Our first stop was the Pena National Palace was last used by in the early part of the 20th century before the overthrow of the monarchy. This palace represented a lot of what you would imagine a palace to be; beautiful courtyard, large grounds to walk, and great views. The inside rooms all seemed connected and were actually typically smaller than I would have thought, but far more functional.

We spent hours exploring the palace, which sits onto a mountain that is just ripe for exploring. The palace actually sits near the old Castle of the Mouros (Moors), which was built in around the 9th century.

Quinta da Regaleira

Next up was the Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire, built in the late 19th and early 20th century with with the styles from the romantic era. The house was just one building on the entire grounds, which was the true canvas for this architectural artistry.

What was most interesting is the fact that the site if full of underground tunnels, and wells that offer sub-terranial access. There was no obvious purpose to these accesses, and the rumors are that the owner used them for ritual practices.

What they were fun for was exploring and it was a highlight for the boys who dragged us into every cave they found.

A day of adventure would not be complete without some dramatics, and we got that today. We first left Patricia's bag at the coffee shop and had to return to get that, and then at the end of the day we left my wallet in one of the tunnels. Note: never use a wallet as a camera tripod in a damp, dark, cave. Just happy my passport was not with it and only a few dollars were left - the gardeners are looking but nothing yet and nothing expected.

So, with all our excitement over the last few days, all the tours, hikes, walking, it has been hard to keep the kids engaged. You can only tell them "don't touch that" so many times!

So we took our day back in Porto a little easy and headed down, just the family, to a park to blow off some steam.

After that we attempted to go grocery shopping for dinner which was an adventure. We first had to find a grocery store, then order meat by the pound (really helps if you know your numbers), and then learn the different procedures in buying vegetables (which you have to get weighted BEFORE going to the cash register). We made it through and enjoyed a relaxing evening of stir fry and beer.

Now it is to the North that we travel next and the smaller mountain villages.

Posted by csb at 2:18 AM



June 27, 2011

After a good nights sleep and some breakfast we headed out to see the sites of Lisbon. Our first stop was the monestary of St. Jeronimos. This was a large and impressive santuary, a place where you could sit back and just imagine quiet and solem. First commissioned back in 1452, it was paid for through the explorations of the world and took more than a hundred years to build.

As a mark of 500 years of exploration back in the 1960's, a monument was errected in Prince Henry's honar. Prince Henry the navigator is the recognized brains behind portugal's explorational aspirisions.

Depicts all the major players during the last 500 years.

Melissa getting in a little exercise

The Torre of Belem was constructed as one the main defensive structure for the river entrance.

The view from the top of the tower provided a great prospective of the city and the river. While the day was mostly cloudy, it was still hot. We saw one sign with the temperature at 85 degrees Celsius (though we think that was a bit off). So we headed back to the hotel room for a little rest and cooler air.

Got the European vibe

For dinner we headed back downtown and wondered the streets a little more.

Canada House

The city was destroyed in an earthquake back in the 19th cenury and rebuilt under the a new design pattern, the city grid. This offered larger streets and easier movement, a pattern replicated in other areas of the world.

The was the city of Lisbon, seen in one day. It was obvious that there was so much more to the city. There was a castle on the hill behind the city that just looked massive and several more churches and streets to explore, unfortunately we do not have the time on this trip to take it all in. So until next time...

Posted by csb at 3:42 AM


On to Lisboa

June 26, 2011

As we entered the weekend it was time to turn our tour south towards Lisboa (Lisbon). While the trip from Porto to Lisbon is only 3 hours, we would be taking the whole day and be making a few tourist stops along the way.

The first was at the Batalha Monastery where we visited a monestary that started construction in 1386 and was completed in 1517. It took the reign of seven kings and fifteen architects to complete the job (over 100 years) and really it was never truly finished.

Our next stop was for lunch, just outside the Catholic church at Fatima. This is a very active church that still sees regular pilgrimages. It is famous for a couple of visits from Mother Mary back in the 1920's, which has now been recognized as official miracles by the church and is visited by the Pope on his stops to Portugal.

The one things about this place was the shear size of the area. The courtyard was huge and made you feel very small, the inside of the church was excusite and, while modern, was filled with all the splendar of cathedrals of the past.

As the day wore on the heat continued to build pushing into the high 30's and low 40's by mid-afternoon. So while the first few days were a perfect temperature, we started to see much warmer weather today which is expected through tomorrow as well. The benefit to the warmer weather?... ice cream stops are far more frequent and today would be no exception!

Above is a castle on our tour that we ended up skipping to ensure we made the final castle of the day, looked very interesting and we ended up passing closer than we were expecting. Instead we continued our trek into history...

... and the footprints that were left behind! This prehistoric path was discovered in 1994 by John Carvalho (STEA) and shows some of the oldest and longest sauropod tracks anyways (longest being 147 meters). Originally made in carboneted mud which later transformed into limestone which was quarried at this site until recently.

In fact, for the casual observer, the pathways are actually quite difficult to see. They have a walking path that leads around the main footprint set across the limestone. The entire time we could not see what they were describing, even after we viewed an overlay on the site infront of us we could not really make out the paths. However, once you got down on the limestone you could clearly see the define pattern of the footprints, though still not quite what our imaginations had conjured. The footprints were smaller and not quite as deep, though, as you can see, compared with Owen and Joe they are still rather large. What an experience, and now we also have a few dozen rocks (err, fossils) coming back for further examination unless customs (mom and dad) get to them.

The last stop of the day before preceeding onto Lisboa was Castle Almouro. Completed in 1209 (1171 A.D.), this was a military outpost along the river. Accessible only by boat today, we caught a ride from Captain Joe there and from Captain Owen on the way back - and while difficult to top the dinosaurs I think this did in the short term. Then again, who doesn't like driving a motor boat! The castle was very raw, as you would expect from a military post but the boys managed climbing the steep ladders to the top which offered a great view of the area.

Later that evening after my grilled octupus (yum), tuna salad, and some great fish the kids went to bed and Luis, Patricia, and myself went out in search of Fado. Fado is a traditional Portuguese musical style and something Lisboa is famous for (see wikipedia). So, nestled in a side ally (a cultural experience in an of itself) was a small bar/cafe, and as we entered the sorrowful sounds could be heard in the dim-light. The lady on stage was a master and dragged you into the emotion of the song even though you could no understand the lyrics (well, I couldn't). It was apparent there was an intimacy between the artist and the crowd, and after a second song she had completed her set and the lights came up. The bar was small and full, the singer had taken a seat at one of the tables and we ordered some wine, sitting back to discuss the control she had of her voice and the traditional Portuguese guitar used in Fado music. Then, from the seat beside us arose the next singer who introduced some pieces he wrote played next to standardized music. It became clear that this was more like Karaoke, with individuals who want to present their work have a couple guitar players at their disposal. It was one of the most interesting cultural experiences I have had, and it gave us all an appriciation of the music that could not be obtained in any other way.

Posted by csb at 1:59 PM


São João

June 24, 2011

Yesterday was a busy day, as you can probably tell from the large posting and numerous photos (which is really a small subset). On only our second day we were completely overwhelmed with stories, sights, sounds, and culture. Maybe it was just that Thursday was the São João festival (Festival of Saint John, the patron saint for the city of Porto).

I got a real sense of the Catholic influence walking the streets today. Not only historical influence, but a modern vibe of the religion from the people. One thing that helped was a procession that we witnessed that had both a traditional and modern vibe among the participants.

Beyond that, the associations were everywhere and churches or cathedrals were on almost every street. We found one in a side ally that we were allowed to enter and take a couple photos:

These side streets that we walked were just wide enough in places for a single car, in others no car would pass. There is a funny catch-22 here in the streets of Porto, the current tenants of the apartments don't have modern amenities and are in deterioration, however, the rent is very cheap and the inhabitants are older and can't afford the increase in rent required to renovate the buildings. Since long contracts are in effect and, I think, the general social culture of the area things carry on as they are.

One stop on our walking tour was the train station which, built in 1910 (Inaugurated in 1916), is one of the older stations in the country - at least on this size.

The tiles on the wall of the entrance are the main significance as they date back to the early construction and tell a number of stories. The one side wall of the entrance has a mural showing a family sacrificing themselves to the king.

This depicts the major historical event for the country of Portugal. In a quick brief, following the crusades the Spanish King granted some land to one of the main Knights. When his son took power he declared this land an independent Kingdom, this land would become the northern area of Portugal. The mentor for this new King offered himself and his family in hopes of sparing the new Kingdom, which was eventually done ... hence the country today.

We continued on our tour through Batalha (Battle) square and enjoyed some espresso at a the Majestic (a very nice café in town). We met up with Patricia's sister in Liberdade Square before heading off for some Bifanas. Now, a Bifana is a pork sandwich where the meat has been dipped in some hot sauce. The sandwich itself is not large but inexpensive and very delicious; and I would think it would do really well in the cities within North America (though Patricia tells me that is has not really entered that market).

One thing we did see was that many of the building lay in ruins, some due to impact from the more recent economic crisis here. Though, it appears like this has been longer in the making. Luis tell me that they did not fair well with the conversion to the euro as many jobs moved to other countries and nothing replaced it, but I am left struck with the impression of potential. There are numerous buildings that offer what, on initial impression, would make great hotels or restaurants. Others would offer more tourist destination spots, while other spaces could be cleared for new housing. Yet, the cost of rent or sale is so high due to location and land value that combined with the cost of the renovations no one can afford to take the projects on.

After ice cream, which of course follows lunch on a sunny day, we walked past the Clerigos Tower, which Luis had not climbed before. So, we thought we would climb the 240 stairs and 75 meters to the top and take a look around. Completed in 1763, it was an impressive structure with a very steep stone stair case that took us past the device used to play the bells and up to look out balconies. Which, yes, I did get to though I must say that I was nervous of not only myself by of Joe and Owen who seemed to love being so high and had little safety restraints to protect them (historical building and all). The top offered us some fantastic views of the area and was well worth the climb.

Below the tower was a shop where we bought some fresh fruit. This small market is one of the older markets in the city dating back to 1918.

Other street sale items today were these plants with flags containing poems and hammer noise makers. Evidently, the hammers were for the festival this evening which we headed to after meeting up with Patricia's mom and dad and enjoying yet another fabulous meal. I think we headed out around 10 or 11 after it finally got dark, and while we got home around 1am there we saw one party that was still going on this morning.

One of the big traditions for the festival is the lighting of hot air balloons, heated from a candle. While our first balloon was destroyed before lift-off (burning candle + fabric sides = major flame), our second lasted much longer before finally dropping into the river. Apparently it can be a very busy night for the firemen of the area.

But, those hammers were the hit of the evening. The idea is, on this night only, you can go around and bonk people on the head with these hammers - you WILL be bonked so you might as well join in the fun. And both boys enjoyed it (duh!), and also later enjoyed using them as swords in a battle with another youngster who had a standard sword - and thus obviously needed to be attacked!!! They really had a great time.

So with some fuse-ball games, dancing, and even some fireworks we called it a day. Only to wake up late the next day and start all over again.

Day 3 - A "day of relaxing"

Today we decided to take things a bit easier since this weekend we are headed out of town to Lisboa (Lisbon) and the surrounding area. So, once up we headed down to the river Douro and took a boat tour of the bridges that span the river. While the tour itself was not overly compelling it did offer an excellent view of the riverbanks along the city and some great photo opportunities.

The bridges themselves are impressive, with two having been record holders (one recently). One was designed by Eiffel and another from one of Eiffel's partners, while the other bridges represented major leaps forward in bridge design and construction.

On the other side the the Douro is the Caves do Vinho (Wine Cellars), which is the founding industry of the area. The Douro region is one of the worlds best regions for Port wine and it was brought down from the wineries along the river for storage and transport here in Porto.

Traditionally the wine was transported along the river in boats, however, with the addition of dams and increase in productivity transport was switched to trucks in recent years. A tour of the cellars offered some great history and insight into the making of Port wine.

On a quick side note, the cellars offered a perfect representation of the old and new mixture we have been seeing a lot of:

Back on the Porto side of the river and as we headed back to our cars, we passed the church of Saint Francisco.

This is an impressive cathedral, and while we were able to enter we could not take any photos so will have to describe, though maybe another day. Check out this link for now.

Beyond the sanctuary, the church offered a look at their catacombs which were placed throughout the floors and in the basement. After learning of this you really started to watch where you walked. And in the basement, you could see the piles of bones of history. Was a very different experience.

Posted by csb at 7:00 PM


Over the sea and far away

June 22, 2011

With our bags packed, we left our place at 8:00am Tuesday and headed to Tampa for our flight out of town. By 10:30am we were in-flight to Newark where we had a couple hours for lunch before leaving North America. The flight, on the Portuguese airline TAP, was smooth, comfortable, and friendly. We played video games using the in-flight entertainment system, did some last minute language cramming, and managed a little shut-eye.

Over 6 hours and 5400 km later we arrived in Lisboa. After a few language mis-steps and confusion at the airport coffee shop we enjoyed our café and moved into the puddle jumper for the trip north to Porto where we met up with our wonderful and gracious hosts. We arrived to their home at 12pm Wednesday after almost a full 24 hours traveling. Then with lunch and a nap out of the way it was time to walk off the airplane legs and see a little of our surroundings.

What I can say just does not say enough. The streets and buildings are what I would expect from a european city, a typical mixture of old and new. A feeling of well used streets and a history yearning to be told from every brick we passed.

We stopped off first at a little café for another espresso before wondering the streets towards the Crystal Palace and Gardens park which was originally conceived in 1861. The main palace structure was replaced in 1952 with the Pavilhão Rosa Mota, but the gardens still have a very british feeling and style to them.

We spent hours just wondering through the gardens and enjoying the view of the Douro river. We then capped it off at the Solar do Vinho do Porto before returning home for dinner and wine. This was a older british style house or mansion converted to a museum upstairs and a wine bar on the ground floor. This is a hidden gem of the area, locals either don't know or don't bother and typically only the wine-touring tourists make it a stop - a very nice and relaxing atmosphere was only improved on with a perfect glass of local port.

Dinner this evening, as so much of the day, was an introduction to many traditional dishes from Portugal, all of which were wonderful. So we sat drinking our wine, and nibbling the food, and learning as much as we could absorb of the area and the nation.

Couple things we should note, the climate is perfect and reflects a lot of what we would be expecting this time of year in Victoria. It was a gorgeous sunny day; not too hot, too cold, or too windy ... but just right. The kids wore jackets (Floridians) while I was completely comfortable in a t-shirt and jeans. The geography is of rolling hills though the sidewalks are all cobble stone or broken stone - which has a nice characteristic but you wouldn't be able to roller-blade it. While we had heard how "european" Victoria felt from others, we really noticed that today. We felt completely comfortable and at ease with everything around us.

While it is only 9:10pm EST, it is now 2am here and I must get some sleep. Boa Noite!

Posted by csb at 8:14 PM


And he turns 4

June 13, 2011

Owen about to ride Thunder Mountain for the first time

As is typical when you have children, every once in a while you do a double take realizing just how old they are getting. Just how much they have grown. And just how much they are learning from you.

Just like his old man ... the bigger the challenge the better!

These last few years have seen many an adventure, Owen never being out-done by his brother, not that Joe would ever leave him behind. While we had decided that a two year spread was a good choice, we never really imagined the two of them being such close friends. And seeing Owen grow into the boy he is today has been a real treat.

Happy Birthday Owen, where to next?

Posted by csb at 4:58 PM