Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Circular Thoughts

Back home, having come full circle from where we started 3 weeks ago. We could have stayed longer. This trip had all the elements of a great adventure and mind expanding experiences. There are some of us (read Richard) who have no desire or interest in reflecting on the past, but I'm not like that and I'm writing this blog. For me, words and pictures help me remember the times and laughs and add color to the experience to be savored later on. So this is for those who enjoy remembering the journey.

Monday - September 15th 2008 - Lisboa Airport

Our last night at Quinta da Luz was spent relaxing with Matt and packing up for our return home. Somehow, somewhere I picked up a vicious (good description) head cold that had the effect of tempering my normally very good and easy going disposition. Matt gave me some drugs before bed (a combination Claritin and Sudafed) that along with prestigious amounts of wine, olive oil, piri-piri and bread, had absolutely no effect. I am more impressed than ever that Zach was able to be his sparkling self while battling the same at the beginning of the trip.

Our last morning, I took some time to sit on the veranda. Have I mentioned the veranda? It is perfect. Built almost as a lean to off the end of the house, this exposed beam space deserves more attention. Accessed by french doors off the great room, this outdoor room commands a view of the pool, and down the hill to the praia and ocean. It has a southern exposure. The masonry wall that forms three sides is hollow and filled with various flowering vines, plants and herbs. There are parsley, mint, ice plant, and pepper trees with green and red fruit. The inside walls have built in bench seating all the way around and a hammock swings in the corner. This is where we have spent most of our time, and where I write in my journal. I sat there looking out at the same Atlantic view that Infante Henry, Diaz, and Columbus shared as they sailed looking for their circles. It is thrilling. Goodbye to the Algarve, you beautiful, palm treed, lush corner of the world.

Our drive to Lisboa airport was quick on almost deserted roads. We had an interesting discussion about cork trees, wondering about the life cycle of both the trees and the men (and women maybe?) who spend their lives stripping it's bark. We were rewarded with a close up view of cork bark as we passed a fully loaded truck making it's way through the Alentejo.

At the airport we returned the car and bid a fond farewell to Matt. More than anything I hope he didn't catch my cold. With hours to kill before our flight, we found a drug store for some also ineffective (and according to the counter clerk) super strong, one every 12 hours only anti-histamine. Bah. I like drugs you can take more often. While Kat did some souvenir shopping I sat outside in the strong sun hoping to absorb some health.

At 2:00 we ambled over to the SATA check in positions for our 6:00 Boston flight. Since there were two positions manned, I stood behind the yellow line at one of them and was surprised to have a short, stocky, balding, Napoleon-complexed Lisboan drop the DB tag on me for "cutting the line." Hello, where did that come from. He poked me in the chest with his fat little finger and told me that the Portuguese are very mild mannered on the surface but when wronged would not tolerate being taken advantage of.

In my doped up state, rather than Clint Eastwood crush his finger, I simply apologized for the perceived slight of his manhood. Looking to the side I realized why he was in such a foul mood. He was with his very ugly wife, and top of the Rock of Gibraltar Den-Baby, and figured I'd cut him a break. I was able to mention to him that up to that point the Portuguese people we had met had been very nice and he was the first rude one that we had run into. I just hoped we weren't sitting near them for the next 7 hours.

We weren't. We had the pleasure of sitting next to the front lavatory that was in almost constant use throughout the flight. Almost every user of the little room was non-English speaking, north of 70 years of age, and clearly struggling through their first experience with bi fold doors and a slide lock. Invariably they would pull the door out of the track on top, then go in and use the facility with the door not completely closed or locked. At one point we almost had two octogenarians in there at the same time, saved only by Kat's quick intervention. Between her, myself, and the guy in back of us we probably fixed the door 15 times. They also found the mystery of where Airbus hides the little flush button too much to overcome. Plus I think that ventilation thing only works if the door is closed, so between the smell and my cold, no solid food was going to be consumed. Have I mentioned my extreme dislike for Airbus planes. I find them noisy and uncomfortable - maybe I'm just in a bad mood.

Boston. Yup, nothing like those cheerful, helpful, polite, well intentioned Logan customs agents to slap a smile onto your "two o'clock AM body time" face. Oh how I miss the Azores. 57 Degrees is the coldest we have been in a half year. We courtesy bused over to the Revere Marriott for a nights sleep before our 11:00 am flight to Richmond.

Tuesday - September 16th 2008 - Studley, Virginia

OK, back in a good mood. Still loving Virginia and though the birds have deserted us due to empty feeders, the flowers, herbs, et al, have survived our absence. Our little hibiscus looks pitiful after the Azores. A good time to reflect on our trip and log some random thoughts:

There are fewer circles more enjoyable than the family circle. Other than that, my favorite was the large one Infante Henrique built at his navigation school.

After a couple of years of not watching the news, I realize that I haven't missed anything. Seems the same talking heads saying the same things.

Seemed to us that the Europeans are smoking more, clearly not intimidated by the big and not so subtle "SMOKING KILLS" imprint on the side of each pack.

We found in general the Spanish people speak loudly, often and seem impatient. Of course we don't understand what they are saying but we could read the body language.

Our best meal was the first night on Terceira, where we had the traditional family style dinner. The hostess, the company, the food were all exceptional.

Driving was generally good, though expensive on the toll roads. We liked stopping at the little roadside rest stops (much more interesting than our Burger Kinged ones here). It was a little disconcerting though to watch some of the truck drivers slugging down a shot or a beer for breakfast. Thank goodness there was a sign that said that no one under sixteen would be served.

Researching family history was much more difficult than I had anticipated. The language barrier didn't help, but the shear volume of records you have to dig through to find that one nugget can be daunting.

We stumbled across very few Americans while on this trip. I wonder if it is the time of year or the exchange rate of the dollar. Even the plane ride coming home had few Americans.

Olhao was my favorite Algarve coastal town. It sparkled with hidden gems. We didn't get to see Salema in the light however.

One particular favorite moment was watching Zach and Maria, Matt and Sarah get out of a cab at Lisboa airport.

I don't get the whole bull fighting thing. Sorry. Like soccer, it seems a waste of good oxygen that could be better spent aiding in the fermentation of something.

I will not soon forget that circle road around the lakes of tears and Richard's masterful navigation of it.

This fashion statement made by a young Azorean women seemed typical. Big circle wristwatch and sunglasses and let's not forget the Betty Boop handbag. Nice.

And finally, the three islands we visited were beautiful and I sense that we just scratched the surface. I would liked to have gone into one of those Sprito Santo buildings. There are flowers everywhere, and the people we ran into were gentle and life loving. We will come back.

ps. February 2009 - Watching the Anthony Bourdain show on his trip to the Azores I learned that those little buildings are not chapels to the Holy Spirit but community buildings where families can celebrate with Soupas dinners. Cool.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Coasting Home - Tavira - Salema - Olhao

It's nice to be pampered now and then and a four star hotel will do that after a Lisboa pensao off Rossio. Our needs are minimal and the luxury aspect is probably wasted on us. While we looked forward to getting back to the simple life in Luz we had been intrigued in our reading about a few small towns in the Algarve, so we decided to take a leisurely ride along the coastal route stopping for lunch along the way. We are left with pleasant memories of Sevilla and would rank it as our second favorite Spanish city after Barcelona.

Saturday - September 13th 2008

Leaving Sevilla on a Saturday morning was as easy as arriving, with very little weekend traffic and no last-minute-decision wrong turns that have plagued us in the past. The roads are well marked and easy on the nerves. We chatted about the intriguing set of emails that were in my inbox. Rich and Lu were safely back in San Diego apparently no worse for wear. Zach, Maria and Sarah were off gallivanting somewhere around Lisboa, and Matt was holding down the fort at the casa apparently alone as the owners in the "big house" decided to spend the weekend in the city rather than risk mingling with their daughter's folly at the Quinta. Sounds delicious and we are looking forward to getting the scoop from Matt.

Poking along the highway we decided on Tavira for our lunch stop. It is a quiet town nestled on the banks of the Gilao and Sequa rivers. It is an easy walk from the municipal parking lot, over the arched Roman bridge to the town square. We spotted a couple of young boys fishing from a window of their riverside home (that is a short supply chain). A warm, relaxing and lazy kind of day, the setting complimented our mood perfectly.

We lazed our way through lunch at the Pastelaria Alagoa (my pastry intake had been alarmingly low) in a charming little square filled with palms, hibiscus, and flowering trees, each breeze filled with fragrance. A delightful place. This area is known for it's fanciful chimney fretwork, and the craftsmen find fanciful ways to market leftover clay (Idle hands and all that).

We rolled into a very deserted Quinta da Luz about 3:00 and found a note from Matt saying that all was well, he was at the beach, Internet cafe, or the Duke of Holland restaurant watching the soccer game and would return at 3:15 - perfect timing. Moments later we spotted our nephew making the trek up the driveway. We brought each other up to date on our activities of the past couple of days, our feelings for Sevilla (Matt was toying with going there before heading back to Lisboa), and the saga of the dryer and the broken handle.

Matt and I made a beer run to the British market in Luz, and after some heavy contemplation on the veranda, with our feet up, he decided Sevilla could wait and he'd hang with us for a couple of days, then we would all head to Lisboa. We liked that decision as Matt is a joy to spend time with. Among the memorable decisions made that afternoon was to leave a note for Alexandria with 100 Euros to replace the dryer handle. (Seemed very generous to me, I'd suggested 50). We also decided on our dinner town, Salema, between Lagos and Sagres.

Salema is a small fishing town, with crooked little streets, and lots of restaurants. Because we got there after the sun had descended (we were very relaxed), we didn't get a good look at the place, but is on our list of things to do should we return to the area. The nets, boats and (supposedly) octopus trap pottery jars were packed along the seawall, ready for deployment the next day. The town cats were apparently happy with the fish haul that day. So were we. At La Casinha I had the best swordfish of our trip, Matt the fish and banana, and our daring Kat tried and enjoyed the rabbit.

Sunday - September 14th 2008 - Quinta da Luz, Portugal

We are going to miss this place. A sparkling Sunday morning, crystal clear, with mild breezes to keep you company on the veranda. Olhao (we pronounced it - Oh-Lowh, right or wrong) was our third and last sightseeing destination. It's about an hour to the east of Luz with an active fishing industry.

Known as an artist's favorite, this cubist town is splashy and commercial along the waterfront. There is a huge brick fish market that was just closing by the time we got there (just a few moray eel looking things for sale, and they didn't smell very good to me). Along the waterfront are manicured parks and beautiful tiled benches on which you can relax and enjoy the view.

We walked away from the water, really just a street in from the main drag and the contrast was amazing. It was quiet and there was a real sense of neighborhood, with kids running and playing and laundry hanging. The architecture is fascinating, and while the design choices may not be what we would pick, it does grab your attention. Check out the "baby ca ca brown" tile job on the front of this house, and if you zoom in, you can see that there are a lot of interesting details that add character. Even the door surround of marble on the grey house to the left. Style. It's a cool place.

We pasta-ed ourselves up at an Italian restaurant on the main drag. Like so much in Portugal, first glance things look a little shabby, but that is not the case. Elegant inside and the food was excellent outside.

Returning to Luz we realized we had not been to the Praia at all, in fact hadn't even seen it. It is a nice beach, very family oriented, and larger than I had expected. We sandy stepped our way down to the water and was surprised at how cold the water was. Quite a shock after the gloriously warm waters of the Azores.

So our time on the Algarve was complete, we had done and seen everything on our list, and the area left such a favorable impression on us, I could see spending a few months a year kicking it here in paradise.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Brides of Sevilla

Sevilla is romantic. It's in the air, all around you. The light is soft, the breezes gentle and warm, everyone seems relaxed, and for the first time on this trip into Spain, actually smiling. For a city of 700 thousand it feels small and manageable. This is the town of Carmen, Don Juan, orange trees, bullfights, flamenco, and great love stories. We are going to explore and eat, and soak it in.

Saturday - September 13th 2008 - Sevilla, Spain

The drive from La Linea to Sevilla is an easy hour and 50 minute journey over pleasant roads through pleasant countryside (This sounds like the beginning of one of those "Pleasant Family" bedtime stories Kathy spins for the grandchildren). It is such a stark contrast to the jagged edged rock we just left that it brings peaceful thoughts. We had no plans or accommodations, just drove along following the signs and suddenly we were over a bridge and in the city.

Normally we look for cheap accommodations on the outskirts of the city, but it seems there are no outskirts of this city. We were on a large very clean palm tree lined boulevard passing a beautiful, four star AC Hotel (I had never heard of them, but they are big in Europe), and decided to check the price, just for the fun of it. 100 Euros (about $140) for the night is twice as much as we usually spend but we felt extravagant and asked for the room key. I'm telling you, there is something in the air around here.

The city center was a short bus ride (reported to be 3 kms, but it seemed much less)down the avenue, and within minutes we were crossing large orange tree lined boulevards heading toward the Santa Maria de la Sede cathedral (sometimes called Cathedrale y Giralda for the weather vane on top). It is big (3rd largest in Europe), and took almost 120 years to build. There were three reasons we wanted to see this cathedral:

The levitated tomb of Christopher Columbus - Now this is a cool tomb. It's got just about everything you would want in a tomb. Colorful, up off the ground, nice spot in a busy church where it will be noticed, no doubt about that. Pretty impressive, all in all.

The Golden Altarpiece - I know it's a little gaudy, but where else will you be able so see 4,000 pounds of gold in one place. This is a little over the top. It is covered with 1,500 figures in various scenes of religious significance, and I couldn't make out any of them. Too busy. In the treasury around the corner is a great crown with the largest pearl in the world (it's part of the angel on the left). It's reported to have over 11,000 precious stones. We took a quick look at some relics but I'm not convinced some of those splinters came from either the cross or the table at the last supper. Maybe they did.

The Giralda Tower - No steps in this baby, just ramps once used by horses to take riders to the top. Nice wide ramps that are pretty easy to walk, but after 30 or so become monotonous. The views from the top are spectacular and worth the climb. You can see into the Alcazar (not much to see), the Jewish quarter, and down to the river and bull ring (outside of which is the statue of Carmen). A great way to spend an afternoon. While on the top we had the pleasure of hearing the huge bells clap out the time, up close and personal.

Dusk settled gently over the city, and the setting sun warmed the colors of the buildings. The architecture is Moorish/Spanish and the mix very agreeable. There is an above ground electric rail down the main avenue, and car free. We were hungry and sought out a small cafe in the Santa Cruz neighborhood. It seems that each little hidden square has 3 or 4 restaurants around it, each serving its own speciality under the stars. At 7:00 pm it was early for dinner in Spain, but we were not going to last long, and had no desire to start dinner at 10:00 pm. The Cafe Alianza was perfect, the hostesses were very pleasant (one was American we later found out), and the food was delicious. After dinner we took our time walking through the park, past huge old trees and tile covered benches, just wandering aimlessly. It was in the park that we spotted our first bride (and groom) marching merrily down the garden path.

As we headed toward the river we passed at least 3 more brides out and about, one getting off the electric train (with a fair amount of help from her attendants). How can you not be enamoured with a city where newlyweds wander the streets receiving the well wishes of strangers as they pass. Magical.

It takes a long time for the sun to set on Sevilla. We walked along the river Quadalquivir to the statue of Carmen. It is pretty well hidden by the foliage of the ubiquitous orange trees but it's right across from the entrance to the bull ring, and worth the walk. I like that they cast a statue to a fictitious cigar factory worker. As the city came alive, with lights sparkling in the parks and on the major monuments, we bucked the waves (no exaggeration) of people heading into the center while we made our way back to our hotel.

Seems so long ago that we were speeding toward Rota, and mixing it up with the apes on top of Gibraltar. That is the effect Sevilla has on you. Tomorrow we head back to Praia da Luz and whatever intrigue awaits.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Rockin With the Apes

I continue to be amazed at the number of things I don't know. For example, I didn't know that there were apes running wild on the top of the Rock of Gibraltar and that I can't tell the difference between a monkey and an ape, nor that you could take a fairly scary cable car to the top of said rock, nor finally that I would get suckered into another mediocre meal at another mediocre tourist trap. The view from the top, however was worth it. Live and learn.

Friday - September 12th 2008 - Gibraltar, United Kingdom (shouldn't it be Queendom?)

A good night's sleep does wonders for the disposition, and we got a fine one at the Rocamar. I take back everything bad I've said, but I sure wish the natives would lighten up a bit and smile. There is Internet access (for a fee, which is OK, but would have been perfect if they had taken pound sterling) and lots of emails from the rest of the Silveiras. A summary follows:

Rich and Lu got out of Rota aboard the cancelled/uncancelled, hazmat aboard (therefore no passengers allowed)/no hazmat aboard, delayed/very delayed original Las Vegas flight after spending 6 hours in the terminal. They had indeed "thumbed" a free ride from the gate and arrived a full five minutes before a "showtime" that was as imaginary as the Spain/Britain line in 1704. Good thing we broke the sound barrier getting them there.

They spent a mostly boring (it sounds) 13 hours flying nonstop from Rota to Las Vegas. I imagine the time that was not boring was the mid-air refueling part, somewhere over the Atlantic. And who says military flying doesn't have it's perks. They hitched a ride from Nellis AFB to Las Vegas and flew a commercial jet back to San Diego arriving home safe and sound. Wow.

Alexandra (of Luz fame) has been getting hourly/daily updates from her parents and/or the caretakers (I knew the old people were trouble from the start) about the hoards of people in and out of her house, and the extravagant, wild, energy wasting Americans who have taken over the compound throwing parties and cavorting in the pool. Rich returned a nice email to her, explaining the logistics and identifying the occupants, and all seems OK on that front for the moment.

The cavorters report that the old people are spying on them and skulking around. I know that Zach, Maria, Matt and the Princess are treating the house with kid gloves. You are not going to meet four nicer and responsible people no matter how long you look. They did report having a problem with the washer/dryer flimsy plastic handle (so did we) and we could help settle it upon our return later this week.

Back to Gibraltar - It was sparkling and cool, and clear as a bell on our second visit. We knew the routine, parking garage, disinterested border guards, fast walk across the runway (past the spike-stripped barrier and heeding the tri-languaged warning sign), and the very crowded bus around the peninsula (it feels more like an island). This time we got off the bus at the lower terminus of the tram line. The tickets are expensive, but beats the climb. We swayed our way to the top (not for the faint hearted, this ride, especially when it proceeds almost vertically at one point), listening to the operator tell us that the apes were wild, and they won't bother you if you don't touch them. He said that about 10 times or once a minute. There is an intermediate stop (you can walk part way down, and catch the return car), and were greeted at this stop by the news that a woman had been bitten a few minutes before, because she had (all together now) touched one of the apes. I had the feeling this was for effect, but we got the message. No touching.

We disembarked at the top station and sure enough there was an ape sitting right outside the door of the car, looking a little lazy in fact. We gave it a wide berth. It certainly was small, and I thought I could beat it in a fair fight if I had to. I thought apes were King Kong sized, but maybe that's gorillas, and I'm not interested enough to look it up. The little apes run around like they have no plan at all, doing what little apes do (I guess) and lounging in the sun making the tourist look a little stupid. They are kind of cute and to be admired for the making us look stupid part.

The little restaurant at the top served lousy coffee but apparently great tea, which is what most of our fellow cable car passengers had. There was stuff on the menu which sounded awful and looked worse as it grew old on the grill. I guess I am not a fan of British morning food.

The view, Oh, the view was spectacular. It is really misleading when you look toward the rock from Spain. I figured it was plopped there with shear sides coming down to the water. In fact there is a good sized land mass around most of it, and the northern part is crammed with high rise buildings (condominiums and hotels I imagine), and most of them look new. Also at the base is the town itself with warrens of small streets, squares and buildings.

To the south are the straits of Gibraltar and they were alive with ships. The port city of Algeciras clearly visible to the northwest was bustling. The planes landing and taking off from the single runway below us looked like toys. Really, really cool if you like that sort of thing.

We walked along the upper road, skirted the ape den (although I knew I could take them, why look for trouble), and checked out the various caves and fortifications. It was a few hours very well spent, and I would recommend it. The ride down was less scary than the ascent, and off we went to search out lunch prior to our departure for Sevilla. Crossing the streets takes a little getting used to. We found a pleasant looking outdoor cafe and had our second lousy meal of our short visit. Sorry to any Gibraltans who read this; you have a lovely unique place here, and I'm sure you are proud of it, and I bet if I had asked you for a good place to eat, you would have pointed me to one of the great culinary experiences of my life.

We made our way back out through the town, and it looks like it could be a great swinging place, all decorated with banners and British flags hanging beside laundry from windows of the high rise buildings (I think Gibraltar National day was this past week). We spent most of our pounds on souvenirs; like I said you've got to love the Brits. It was a good experience and we are glad we came, but the future beckons and we've never been to Sevilla. I'm hoping the food is better.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Rota Route and The Rock

I don't get it. The southwest edge of Spain has a lot going for it, with beautiful weather, fantastic scenery and one would imagine, a laid back Andalucian attitude toward life. What's not to be happy about? For some reason, and maybe it's just the places we hung out, joie de vivre must have taken a holiday. Perhaps seeing everyone else on vacation makes you remember that you are not. For whatever reason, most of the people we ran into seem dour. That's the best word I can think of to describe the attitude. I don't think it was anything we had done.

Thursday - September 11th 2008 - La Linea da Concepcion, Spain

Sometimes you should just follow your instincts and I don't know why I didn't push for an earlier departure from Luz. Google maps told us it was about 400 kms from Praia da Luz, Portugal to Rota, Spain, and about 4 hours driving time (I've found the mileage is usually right on, but either I drive fast or they calculate slow, because I usually beat the time estimate.) Leaving at 7:00 in the morning would get us there about 11:00 - 11:30 if we dawdled on the way, safely ahead of their 12:45 showtime. Military travel on space available flights would drive me nuts. Richard seems to thrive on the thrill of the unanticipated cancellations, delays, and heirarchical "bumping" that takes place. His military background is comfortable with the idea that if you are not physically there at the precise moment the clock ticks 12:45 you lose your seat, and you are now stuck at some air base until another flight comes along that is heading in the general direction you want, who knows how long later. According to Rich even if they could see you crawling to the door with a gut shot, but you were not quite across the threshold, too bad; next in line, please. Ugh.

Click for Entire Route

There were three things that I instinctively thought could go wrong: traffic around Sevilla, lack of specific directions when we got to Rota (Rich was sure he would remember where the airbase was when we got close), and something else. My instincts were 66% correct, there was no traffic around Sevilla, the least of my worries. We left Luz right on time, and made excellent progress heading east, into a beautiful sunrised morning. Deciding to postpone our breakfast stop until we got to Spain (as it turned out a good and critical decision), we cruised through this beautiful corner of Portugal, all being right with the world.

At the border crossing (Spain side) we spotted a petrol/restaurant and decided to stop for a little breakfast. It was a busy little place and 5 minutes standing unserved at the coffee bar was making me a wee bit antsy. Time is the one commodity you have no control over, and though we had plenty of it at the moment, there was no good reason to waste it. The wait staff showed no interest in serving us; in fact they seemed down right grumpy. Finally we were served and stood relaxed with our coffee and doughnut. That state of relaxation lasted as long as it took me to pay attention to the wall clock behind the bar (I haven't worn a watch since we retired). It was like one of those science fiction movies, or perhaps a Dali painting, where the clock was lying. I couldn't understand why the clock would lie to me. We could not have lost an hour, particulary not this specific calm producing hour. You lose an hour at 2:00 in the morning, fine, but not the 8:00 to 9:00 hour, and not just because you crossed an imaginary line on a map. Had we stopped on the Portuguese side we might never have known about our "lost" hour.

Looking back it seems comical, at the time not so much. We didn't spot a cop in Spain, and at the speeds we were traveling one would think they would have spotted us. Very little talking in the car, mostly probing of Richard's brain about the specific location of the airbase and the best route around a little city called Jerez (but not pronounced like that). Rich said go through the city, it looked small on the map, in at the top, out at the bottom, no problem. Big problem. Jerez is large, and crowded, and we were in Christmas mall traffic moving an inch an hour (not quite but it felt like that), and we were lost. Passing a TI on one of our loops Rich ran in, I crawled along, he ran to catch up and jumped into our still moving car. He was clutching a map of Jerez, and somehow had obtained pretty good directions to Cadiz (also not pronounced like that - what is with these people?). Ten minutes later we were out of the center and saw our first sign for Rota and cheered.

It was close. We arrived at the airbase gate (right off the main square) at 12:36 so they had 9 minutes to get to the air terminal, and a plan to Euro-entice any soul coming through the gate to give them a lift. We did the kissy-huggy-thanks thing in record time and asked if we should wait. A "No, we'll be OK" over the shoulder, and they were gone in 60 seconds. So were we. As the adrenaline seeped from our pores and pooled onto the hot Rota sidewalk we felt pretty proud of ourselves as we walked to a little cafe for lunch, imagining Rich and Lu safely booked onto some westbound troop transport.

Rota is cute but not picture worthy, not even the Rota sign in the town square. Now La Linea de la Concepcion is a postcard picture waiting to be taken. There are large fountained rotaries with "The Rock" as their backdrop. We ended up at Linea by whim and it was a good choice. Our only goals on this part of the trip were to experience the Rock and casually float through Sevilla. We had read nothing good about Gibraltar and nothing bad about Sevilla, which made each of them attractive to us. We scooted by Tarifa (the ferry departure point to Africa, and we weren't going there), and drove through Algeceiras, which was too busy, too dirty, and too crowded. We drove around the bay and liked the sound of San Roque, but there was road construction, and we couldn't find anything so we continued south. As we rounded a bend, there was the Prudential icon, right in front of us and the Rocamar (I'm guessing Sea Rock and thinking not all that creative given the monster outside the door) hotel to our left. They had a room and we had the afternoon in front of us.

La Linea means "the line" and if I've got my history right, it was the imaginary line laid down by the Spanish around 1700 across which the British colonists camped out on the rock were not allowed to step. They added "of the conception" in honor of the Immaculate Conception who was the patron saint of the infantry. The line of the Immaculate Conception doesn't make much sense to me, but they seem all right with it. In keeping with the general attitude of the people we've encountered in this area of Spain, the hotel staff was less then helpful in explaining to us how to navigate our way to Gibraltar. I guess there are still hard feelings.

We drove the half mile to a parking garage right across from the "Aduana" or customs gates. We did flash our passports to the Spanish agents on one side then the British agents on the other side, and noted that none of them seemed interested. The second thing you notice when making this trek (the first is the rock, duh) is that you have to cross an active runway and must therefore wait for any incoming or outgoing jets to clear it.

This is a first for us. Even a small Airbus looks huge and causes the ground to rumble when it goes screaming by you at full throttle on it's takeoff roll.

Our first impression of Gibraltar is that it is much more developed and crowded than we imagined. We followed Rick Steeve's advice and took the bus around the island to get our bearings, alighting at the souuthern point to take a picture of what seemed to be reachable Africa. It was warm and windy, and pretty much deserted at this end of the isthmus, peaceful in fact, as we watched the ships make their way through the straits. Conveniently this was the turn around point for the bus, so we were able to reboard and complete the circle back to the town area.

Ya gotta love the Brits. They refuse to switch to Euros, so everything is priced in pounds, you pay in Euros, and receive pounds in change. Their coins weigh a ton (has the queen gained some weight?) so you carry them or spend them on souvenirs. Once you cross the Aduana the pounds are worthless once again and I imagine many sink to the bottom of the straits.

One of the main reasons I wanted to come here was to get a good fish & chips dinner. We found a restaurant (there are many on the busy little streets) and it was awful (I've had the good stuff in Bournemouth, Poole, and London, so I know from whence I speak). The fish was greasy and the chips were soggy. The beer was good. We retraced our steps, recovered our car, returned to the Rocamar and figured we would give the local scene one last try. We headed to the hotel bar and after being ignored for a while somehow managed to convince the surly barmaid to serve us. We yield.

We headed upstairs and settled in for a well deserved night's sleep, wondering where Rich and Lu were, and looking forward to tomorrow and a fresh look at Gibraltar, this time from the top down.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Infante's Sagres

I think Portuguese is a beautiful language; there are soft endings to words that sound so harsh otherwise. Sagres is one of those. To an English speaker it has a clipped, blunt sound. When the Portuguese pronounce a word with a trailing S like Sagres, or Lagos, they sound like Sahgresh and Lahgosh, like a breeze. Ever since I saw the Portuguese ship Sagres sail into Newport harbor with it's beautiful crossed sails, I knew I wanted to visit the town. We were a short ride away.

Wednesday - September 10th 2008 - Luz

Another beautiful day in paradise. The slight rise that our villa is on provides a peaceful view to the ocean and the adjacent hills to our east. That view out our patio doors is somewhat obscured by another beautiful view, laundry drying. In the kitchen of our home is a combination clothes washer/dryer, about the same size as our dishwasher back home. We had no idea how to use it, and like the on-demand gas hot water heater we were intrigued by our lack of knowledge. (Perhaps we should have let grandma explain some of the basics to us after all, instead of shooing her out yesterday). We quickly managed to light the little heater after she left and were surprised and pleased with the continuous hot water it produced. It made me wonder why I was constantly heating and storing 200 gals of water in our garage. The washer/dryer was another story. One washer versus four fairly intelligent adults and after an hour of fiddling it yielded it secrets as well. We had clean clothes; we were rich. I'm still not sure it's prudent to combine a sloshing water device with an electric hair dryer type device.

While the clothes dried outside (why waste the energy with the dryer, plus we couldn't figure that part out), and Rich did some Internet stuff, Lu, Kat and I drove west toward Sagres and Cape Vincent the southwestern tip of Europe where in the 15th century it was believed the world really did end. Could have been true today.

It was windy, and foggy, and we were as cold as we had been since last winter. We stayed long enough to look through the gates of the closed lighthouse complex and have our picture taken by a fellow traveler, then we were out of there. We felt unfulfilled by our land's end experience, without the jolt that comes from seeing something really cool and locking the memory away to savor later.

Infante derives from infant, or child, however in Portugal it came to mean Prince, as the title given to the child of the king. In this part of the country there was only one Infante, and that was Henry (also known as "the Navigator"). His name is revered, and you know you are getting into Infante country when you see his profile on the highway signs, and his name on churches, schools and streets. He had a navigation school on Cape Sagres and that is where we headed. This was more like it.
The setting is spectacular, the sun was beating down on us, the ticket was half price, there was a great view of lands end, and you could make out the huge compass rose on the ground that he used as a teaching aid for future caravel drivers. (You can see the compass rose on Google Maps, it's pretty big.) We walked out to the lighthouse and stood what I thought was a little too close to the shear drop off at this end of the world. The ladies are more daring than I and wanted a picture of them "on the edge." We got the jolt here that we missed on Cabo St. Vincent.

Returning to Quinta da Luz, we picked up Rich and headed to Lagos, a short drive to the east of Luz. It's a pretty small town, with a train terminal, an old slave market and what is rumoured to be the most beautiful view of the coastline in the Algarve. Rich was full of news and plans. We like that. He and Lucy were as booked as you can be on a military flight from Rota, Spain to Las Vegas tomorrow. The logistics of making these arrangements is too complicated to describe, and for someone not involved not really all that interesting. However, he delights in the minutiae of when they had to physically be at the terminal (Showtime or show time), who can get bumped, what if it's cancelled, and on, and on, and on. My mind clicked off when he told me that we had to get him to the base by 12:45 tomorrow afternoon - not a minute later. All I needed to know. We can do that. The other news was that the four desperadoes were on the train south from Porto and would arrive in Lagos tonight about 9:30 and would like a ride to the villa. We were looking forward to that as we miss their faces.

We found the train terminal so that we wouldn't have to search for it tonight in the dark, then headed into the center of the city for lunch. We ate at an uninspired little place (there seemed to be a lot of them) along restaurant row, then headed down to the old slave market turned art gallery. (We had read that this was the first place African slaves were sold, back in 1441. They don't publicise it and it's creepy to think what went on there.)

About 2 kms. from the center is the Ponta da Piedade (Piety Point), overlooking the bay and beaches of Lagos. From the parking lot you follow a dirt path that leads to a plateau with a spectacular view. About 70 feet below small boats are available with guides who will take you around the outcroppings and into the grottoes. The water is a compilation of deep blue and vivid green patches. It looks great and Lu and Kat decided to descend the stairway and explore. Rich and I looked on from above, happy with our decision as we heard the boat people try every way imaginable to sell their tours to our wives. It was worth the price of admission.

The afternoon dwindled away as we headed back to Luz stopping at Cafe Jasmim and the British market for another round of fresh bread and beer. On our driveway road there are huge fig trees so we stopped the car and and picked a few for dinner. As we were picking we were eating. The only comparison I can make to the burst of flavor when I bit into one of those freshly picked figs was a similar experience in New Hampshire when it was a just picked macintosh apple. Intense.

After dinner and a cigar, Rich and I headed to the train station in Lagos. We were so pleased to see Matt, Sarah, Maria and Zach descend the stairs of one of the cars. They looked tired from what must have been about 8 hours of train travel (check out a map of Portugal and you will see it is a long way from Porto in the north to Lagos on the south coast). I'm not sure they would make that train trip again. We shared stories about the villa, the caretakers and Alexandra's secrecy as we made our way back to the villa. The four old people would head off to Rota, Spain tomorrow morning early (probably before the young people awoke), then Kat and I would return to Luz later in the week. We could communicate via email in case something went really wrong. They had no plans, but we imagined it would be rest, relaxation and the beach.

For us the immediate future did not hold that promise.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Letting Luz

Luz is why people love the Algarve. It is morning and warm, and sitting on the sun drenched veranda of our traded villa, I imagine what it would be like to live on this edge of Portugal. We are on a hill overlooking the beach and the little town of Praia da Luz (which sounds so much better than Luz Beach). There are flowers everywhere and the breeze carries their scents. To get to the house you pass through an old stone gate then proceed up a long (quarter mile) driveway. This dirt road is bordered by the owner's gardens and is lined with fig and pomegranate trees. Tasty.

Tuesday - September 9th 2008 - Luz

We began our day where we ended it last night, Rossio Square, downtown Lisboa. I find Lisboa fascinating. We had spent a couple of days in the city a few years ago, and it is lively and clean, and has a unique feel to it. It looks old and a little shabby, but there is a certain charm, little surprises (like the unique streetlights on the square) that are all around. The main street to the left looks interesting and I think heads down to the water, but that will wait for another trip because we are on a mission.

Our plan is to Aerobus back to the airport and pick up our rental car for the ride south. Rick and Lu were right on time, and they appeared to be pretty relaxed, no doubt glad that everything had worked out so well on the islands. Their planning and knowledge made the trip so easy and enjoyable for us. The bus came, the airport was crowded (and still confusing), but the car was ready and we enjoyed a very leisurely drive to the Algarve on new, fast roads.

Rich and Lu have a home in San Diego. Via the Internet they found a woman (Alexandra) who was willing to trade a week in her villa in Luz for a week (in the future) in their home. We did have a picture of the property, and emailed directions (four lines as I remember - south to Algarve, right to Sagres, left at stoplight, Quinta da Luz after campground), and Rich had told Alexandra that we would probably be there on Tuesday. Expecting a longer drive, we were very pleasantly surprised to find ourselves at the Luz campground shortly after noon (about 2 and 1/2 hours). Sure enough right after the campground was this beautiful old stone arch with "Quinta da Luz" right on the tiles. We're home.

We were less pleasantly surprised when we drove up this long driveway to be greeted by a non English speaking couple (old enough to be our grandparents were they still alive) who knew nothing about us, Alexandra, or any villa that was being swapped. After the requisite amount of sign-language the gentleman told us to follow him to "Quinta da Luz." Huh? What about the sign down on the gate? We headed back toward the highway and sure enough a sign pointed us up a hill to the Quinta da Luz resort. Fancy, manicured lawns, tennis courts, pool, the whole enchilada. Unfortunately it was clearly a private resort peopled by British subjects who explained clearly that this was not the place we were looking for.

We rechecked our directions, looked longingly at the big stone gate of the first place as we passed it again (and again), and headed into town to search out some Internet access to email Alexandra and hopefully solve our mystery. Cute little beach town, with a cute little beach church, but with nary a Portuguese person in sight. I was sure we had landed in a British enclave after spending a few minutes walking around. The homes are beautiful and the area seems a perfect getaway from England.

At the Cafe Jasmim we struck gold. Not only did they have Internet access where Rich pulled up the pictures of the house, the owners (a young husband and wife) ensured us that the first place we stopped was THE place. The rear of the house had an extended veranda and a pool. The wife, Claudia, could not have been more helpful, offering to take us back there at the end of her shift.

Off we went back to see grandma and grandpa, but they did not greet us in the driveway as before. We got out of the car and walked around the back of the house and sure enough, veranda and pool, as advertised. We decided we were staying. While Rich went to find the folks, Kat, Lu and I looked around for a hidden key, or note, or some indication that we had a deal on the place. Rich returned with Avo, and she unlocked the doors and made sure we understood how the appliances worked, where the laundry was, and how to turn on the hot water. Rich had somehow convinced her to contact the owner who explained who we were. The end of the story is that the old folks are the caretakers for the house, and live in the small detached cottage in front. The main house is owned and inhabited by Alexandra's mother and father, and the attached 3 bedroom villa is Alexandra's second home. She apparently made the deal with Rich but never told mom, dad, or the caretakers.

The house is beautiful, and ideal for the type of vacation that includes a lot of entertaining, reading, and contemplating. After the constant activity on the islands, this was the perfect counterpoint. We found the little supermarket in town, and bought the essentials for our feast: beer, wine, olive oil, sliced meat, bread, butter, cheese, fruit and some piri-piri. We gathered on the veranda late into the evening and enjoyed every moment and morsel, grateful for the experience and the pleasure of family.