Friday, June 3, 2022

Quarteira to Lisbon to California

Yesterday we took the train from Quarteira (actually Loule) to Lisbon. It was supposed to be 3.5 hours, but for some reason the train just sat at a station for close to an hour, with no explanation. We came into the Oriente station in Lisbon and took the redline (vermelho) metro to our new place. This place is more like a boutique hotel. It has a communal kitchen and three shared bathrooms. It’s really pretty and the people working here are nice. The only complaint I have is, I chose this place for our last two days because they have a breakfast included. I asked what time breakfast would be served and they said, “Oh no, we can’t do that right now because of Covid-19.” What a crock of sh*t. We have shared bathrooms and a shared kitchen, but we can’t have a cold-cuts and fruit set out for us? No, it’s just an excuse to save money. Plus, we didn’t get the room shown on Airbnb… it was smaller with one window instead of two french doors, and it was on the ground floor (sidewalk level). That being said, it was clean and comfortable.

Our time here in Portugal is coming to a close. I have mixed emotions. Usually, by now, I am really looking forward to getting back to America. Often our trips are to places more dangerous than the US, albeit much cheaper. Portugal is much, much safer and it’s much cheaper. We’re trying to prepare ourselves for the sticker shock when we get home. A dinner costing $80-90 back in the States costs us about $25 here. But the safety is what I’ll miss the most. The people here are just so mellow and friendly.

I’ve been struggling with how to describe Portugal. The easiest part is the beauty of the landscape. Being a Californian, I define beauty by my standards—it varies from lush greenery to rocky mountains to arid inlands to majestic beaches. But really it’s the culture that won us over. Portuguese are very earthy and straight-forward. They believe in God, family, and fitness.

The government as a culture seems to look at every problem at its source. Here’s a few examples. Health care is important and expensive, so they have free fitness areas everywhere and wide-open, well lit walking areas. Crime is bad. Why do people commit crimes? Their approach was to look at the family unit and make sure that all children have a male and female role model (by indoctrinating the culture to take care of the children).

Drug addiction is bad. They legalized drugs, all drugs. And spent a ton of time and resources determining what is the cause of addiction. The answer? Loneliness. So, when a person is identified as being an addict, they have a system in place to alleviate the loneliness and disconnectedness. A few years ago wild fires swept through the mountain wine country and destroyed much of the crops. Typical Portuguese-style they asked what caused the fire to burn uncontrollably. The answer; eucalyptus trees. So, they made eucalyptus trees illegal to plant. 

I’ve never been anywhere that was so carefully designed to be enjoyed… trees, benches, walkways, grassy areas, cafes, and fountains make people want to be outside. Interesting, huh?

Today we took the metro to the airport to get our Covid tests. We had our results in twenty minutes—negative. Part of me was wishing it would be positive just so we could stay another couple of weeks, but of course that wouldn’t be very fun… they’d probably make us quarantine. We decided to head down to the river area from there and breathe in the fresh cold air. Up here in Saldanha it’s a bit muggy and overcast. We ate lunch down there and discussed the outcome of our trip. If we move to Portugal, which part would we move to? This isn’t the first time we’ve had this discussion, but we felt like we’ve rounded out our time here with some good info.

If we move here, I think we’ll start in Lisbon. We like the Alameda and the Avenida da Liberdade areas the most. Our first couple of days were spent in the Alameda area. It’s nice and open with a big beautiful park.

Liberdade is a tunnel of giant trees with little kiosk cafes everywhere. Even though it’s a main street, it feels peaceful and cool. 

It leads up to a park like what you’d expect to see in Washington DC or something. But then again, it is the capital of what was once a world power. A wonderful mall is right at the top of the avenue on the right. Inside are two levels of open restaurant seating (somewhat like a food court but different). It’s full of people working at their laptops and sipping coffee. A slice of heaven to me.

Speaking of writing, I have been doing some writing on this trip (besides this blog). I’m writing a very complex novel. It’s my first attempt at fantasy. Of course it’s still a crime story, but with a twist in time or place or something… kind of like a portal. I don’t want to give it away completely, but the main character, a detective, falls in love with the girl reading the book. :/ Weird, huh? I figured that readers always fall in love with the main character—what if it was the other way around?

Back to reality; One reason for wanting to move to Lisbon is its ease-of-access to the rest of the country. Another is the airport is here, so when you come visit we can come pick you up. The other reason is because of the services. We’ll probably join a gym with a lap pool. The smaller towns don’t have lap pools, and because of my spinal problems that’s my main workout.

I doubt we’ll permanently settle here in Lisbon though. We like Sesimbra a lot and Ferragudo (though I think we’d probably choose Alvor instead of Ferragudo itself). Quarteira was too mellow and Porto was too crazy. We need to travel around some more and decide.

So we fly home tomorrow—God willing and the creek don’t rise. I’m looking forward to seeing our cat, Loca. I had my friend’s son come over every day and pet her, but apparently he’d only pet her with one finger. She gets frustrated with us when we pet her with only one hand… I can imagine Loca was confused!

So, I’m sitting here in my kitchen in California. A delicious flower-laden breeze is flowing through the house. I’ve concluded that I must have a garden of some sort in Portugal. I love my yard. We came home to a little surprise—a giant branch broke off from our Chinese Pistache tree. My neighbor and cat-sitter cut up everything he could without a chainsaw, which was incredibly nice of him.

Our experience at the Lisbon airport left much to be desired. If you’re going to be flying out of that airport, you need to pay attention to this part because we came very close to missing our flight. Normally when you go to the airport you first check in. They have a set of kiosk computers, which were easy enough. Then instead of going to a ticket counter to drop off your bags, you’re pointed in a mysterious direction to drop the bags off. We searched around for a few minutes before an employee took pity on us and pointed to a bank of conveyor belts. So, we cautiously approach this new entity. First you have to scan your plane ticket, next you place your bag on the belt, only to be rejected, and to try again, and be rejected again. This goes on for several minutes until you accidently hit upon the perfect… something. I don’t know what it wanted, but it finally accepted it. Now repeat with your other bags. Then head upstairs for security check-point. This line was about 400-500 people long. Once through that, then you head off to your gate. If you’re flying locally within the EU, this is probably where your troubles stop. However, if you’re going to the international gates you’re far from done. This is why I’m warning you. We found the “N” gates and stopped to have breakfast and buy food and water for the flight (remember they only give you two very small meals in 11 hours on TAPair). It was getting close to time to board so we gathered up our stuff and headed off to our gate—News Flash!!! We still had to go through another passport check-point before we could get to the international gates. It was at least 1000 people long and was identical to the process of customs on arrival. It took us an hour to get through the line while listening to everyone else in the line panicking about missing their flights. We got through it with about two minutes to spare, and our gate was the furthest one. So, Joe and I jogged/walked to our gate with backpacks on. Not fun. Then when we got there an airplane employee told us we had to fill out a 6-page attestation of our shots, boosters, and negative test results for the USA. Unbelievable!

Anyway, the flower-laden breeze is gently telling me to calm down.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Quarteira; Unexpected Things.

We’ve truly visited a wide variety of places here in Portugal. Starting with Lisbon, which surprised us how much we liked the area we were staying in—Alameda. Next we went to Porto. That was non-stop action. Within a couple of days we discovered the relative peace and quiet of the Gaia side of the river. Then we moved down to Sesimbra, which was a pretty amazing place. With it soft sandy beaches and winding cobblestone streets. It was so much more low-key than Porto and Lisbon. Next we went further south to Ferragudo—an absolutely unique town and extremely quiet and elegant. We water-taxied over to Portimao, which was not quiet nor elegant. It’s the perfect place for a weekend of senseless drinking and flirting all with as little clothing as possible—not really our thing. Now we’re in Quarteira, and it is a big sprawling beach town with Sesimbra’s family vibe and Portimao’s beach chairs and umbrellas. Next week we head back to Lisbon for a couple of nights.

A lot of things have happened on this trip we didn’t anticipate, which is half the fun, right? For example, the day after our arrival was May first… Portugal’s Labor Day. It took a little skill to navigate what was open for business. In Porto was college graduation… the first in many years. What we didn’t know was that every class celebrates with the graduating class—a lot! I can’t tell you how thankful we were to not be trying to get around the city in a car. The traffic jam was so bad that people were sitting on the hoods of their cars chatting and smoking cigarettes while they waited for what seemed like hours. Then when all seemed back to normal, the Porto soccer team won the Portugal national title. The entire city went into convulsive fits of joy. Nothing unusual happened in Sesimbra, but on the day we left they had a rare train strike. That was chaos. Oh, and don't forget the motocross race in town.

The alternate route of going by taxi-metro-bus-taxi sucked. Ferragudo was calm except the rare weather condition of warm water being pushed up to the southern coast of Portugal and cool weather coming down from the north caused chilly foggy weather for a whole day. You’d have thought the locals were going to keel over and die. To me it felt like the northern California coast, but to them it was freezing. Via taxi-train-taxi, we’re now in Quarteira.

This may sound odd, but Quarteira is almost too perfect. It doesn’t seem possible that people actually live like this. I’ll take this moment to give kudos to the Portuguese government. It’s amazing how well maintained the public spaces are. They have these nice boardwalks everywhere (I mean everywhere we’ve been on this trip, not just here). The beaches are kept immaculate as a matter of national pride. 387 beaches in Portugal have been awarded the coveted blue-flag for cleanliness in 2020. The promenades are wide and well maintained with artistic designs on the tiled walkways. 

The most unusual feature we see in all public areas, is workout parks. They are clean, neat, and used. Honestly, I don’t think public gyms like these would last five minutes in the States before someone either vandalized them or sued the government because they hurt themselves. Some of these gyms (and playgrounds) are in the sand… not wheelchair accessible to say the least. 

So, in the US, nobody should get to use them. In reality, it’s not the government, but the citizens who make this lifestyle possible. Their patriotism and desire to have good quality things is universal. What they have, they take care of.

I’m sitting on my deck writing this. I keep stopping and leaning back in my plastic chair to stare out over the sea. I know Africa is just over that horizon and wish I could see it. Our condo is at the very end of the beach condo strip. We’re on the fifth floor that overlooks both the Atlantic and the parking lot. It’s a hub of activity here all day long with families eagerly scrambling out of their cars with all their gear, only to return hours later with sandy feet and wet towels—exhausted.

Yesterday there was an awning attached to a van (right in my line of sight) selling beachwear. A constant stream of women wandered through it. This morning I watched as the van pulled up. I sat drinking my coffee while marveling at their determination to get that awning back up again and to pull all the dresses and flowy things out of the back. It was like a magician’s hat they pull rabbits out of. I can’t understand how all that stuff came out of that van. But today the wind wasn’t cooperating and it kept snatching the dresses off the racks and flinging them on the ground as soon as the vendors turned their backs. This went on for a good twenty minutes. Finally the wind knocked over a huge rack with 30-40 dresses on it. The couple gave up and put everything back in the van and drove off.

I made a food ordering mistake today. We stop and check out the menus of all the restaurants along the promenade until something appeals to us. Today I saw a Chef Salad on the menu. We promptly sat down and I ordered the Chef Salad. Oh boy was I excited! I was bitterly disappointed when they brought me a gorgeous salad with no egg, no meat, no bacon. I asked the waitress where the meat was. She looked as baffled as I did. A chef salad simply means the chef makes it with whatever is available (it really was a great salad). The lady said she’d bring me some chicken. Ten minutes later she scooped a perfectly cooked and thinly sliced chicken breast onto my salad… and she didn’t charge me because she said she just wanted me to be happy.

The customer service here is a little awe-inspiring. The other day I went to the pharmacy to get cough medicine since Joe and I both caught a cold. I didn’t have enough money. I was short by 75 cents. A guy in line offered to pay the 75 cents. The pharmacist told me I could come back later when I had it and give it to her then. I told her how nice that was. She shrugged and answered with a smile, “I trust you, and it’s only 75 cents.” I paid for it with a card, but it was so nice of her.

Speaking of medical care, the guy across the street from us back in Ferragudo was saying he just had a knee replacement. He has private Portuguese healthcare insurance, which is one-thousand a year for him and his wife (they’re in their 80’s, from Sonoma). They kept him in the hospital for a week and did physical therapy… the bill came to 400 euros! His wife had cancer on one of her kidneys and had to have the kidney removed. A week in the hospital and 400 euros. “We couldn’t believe it, and they saved her life!” He and his wife decided to come to Europe and move from place to place. Portugal was their first stop (they’d visited before). That was 14 years ago and they never left Ferragudo. 

He lives on the third floor of a triplex on top of the hill (remember—148 steps) and he’s in his eighties. I commented on how youthful he looked and he just waved his hand to encompass the beauty around us. “It’s because I live here.” I wish we’d met him before the end of our time there.

I’m sipping the most expensive wine I’ve purchased since we arrived. I struggled with the purchase and left the store without it. That night I went back and bought it. It was the second most expensive bottle in the store. It’s a beast of a wine at 16% alcohol made by Convento da Tomina—it’s luxuriant and velvety… it was twelve euros. :) Most of the wine in the store was under five euros, but those wines tend to be dry. I don’t like dry wine.

Now it’s the next morning, Wednesday. Last night Joe was feeling crummy and exhausted, so I went to a restaurant on the promenade to get take-out. It was 9:30 at night, but remember the people don’t start eating dinner until 8:00 here. Anyway, I went by myself. As I walked along in the dark, I kept thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m safe.” Everyone whom I passed either ignored me or politely said hello. When I got to The Shaker to order my beef burritos, the waitress brought me a blanket because I looked cold. I almost ended up with two mojitos, but thankfully I caught her words when she repeated my order. Everything went well until I got back to our high-rise. I got the key to work to let me into the interior, but I couldn’t get the stupid condo door to open. Finally, Joe hunted down his key to unlock it from the inside. That’s so unsafe! What if there was a fire? You’d have to keep a key in the door at all times. The beef burritos were great and we watched yet another episode of The Chosen.

One of my true disappointments on this trip is the pool here. For three weeks I’ve been unable to get in the ocean because it’s too cold for me. But I knew the last week in Quarteira would be the warmest weather, so I chose (and paid more for it) a place with a pool. The big bummer is they are renovating the fa├žade of the building right in front of the pool! The pool is open, but there’s cement dust (my allergy) and little chunks of tile everywhere. Out of shear stubborn determination, I marched through the construction debris and got in the pool yesterday. It felt so good, but the curious stares from the construction workers six stories up and the ugliness of it sent me back inside. But, I did get in the pool.

Saturday, May 21, 2022

Algarve and lots of Photos

This post will be mostly pictures. I have a desire to communicate the beauty of this country, but words aren’t enough. Hard to believe, huh? When I describe a narrow cobblestone street with bougainvillea draped over ancient doors, it just doesn’t do it justice.

I’ve always loved flowers. This place has flowers everywhere. Even the weeds are pretty flowers.

The lighting is also hard to describe in words. How do you explain it?

The moon! Have you ever tried to take a photo of a huge moon looming on the horizon? It almost always looks like a dot.

I had fun with posing the moon on my husband’s nose and in his mouth… he’s so patient.

Vast beaches are another tough thing to portray in a photo. I try to get different angles and closer to the ground, but it never looks as good.

One thing I managed to capture was the stunning caves of the Algarve. We went on a boat tour. I chose a smaller boat because I heard it could fit in more of the caves then regular boats. Our captain loved making us gasp as he charged into a cavern carried on the surf.

The light coming in from various holes was stunning.

One of the caves was actually a tunnel and we came out on the other side.

We really saw his mastery at work in the Benigal Cave. This world-famous cave is absolutely amazing. It’s the only tour Joe actually asked for. It is huge and has an enormous hole in its roof. A beach is on the inside and seems in photos like a peaceful bit of sand. Far from it! It was absolute mayhem. The people on the beach had mostly arrived by kayak. 

A team of guys inside the cave helped them escape… barely. The whole time our captain kept our boat (like a Zodiac) hovering inside the surf—never going forward or backward. When I say inside the surf, I mean we were sitting on the cresting waves. Pictures can’t show that, but I will never forget it!

Another thing difficult to describe is the agony of climbing 148 steps to our room after a long day. We stop over and over again, gasping and laughing at each other. And that’s just from the town square.

We have to descend our hill, climb another hill, and descend a long stretch of stairs to get to the beach. We figured out a way to get to the town from the beach without climbing an extra flight of stairs. Unfortunately, today we mistimed it and the tide came in, blocking our path in front of the castle. Up the stairs we went.

These old cities are like a maze of alleys and stairs.

Thursday, May 19, 2022

Ferragudo and Travel Tips

Since you are reading this, you can assume we survived our trip from Sesimbra to Ferragudo. My plan-B went fairly well. The taxi picked us up and hauled us to the metro. From there we went to Sete Rios metro stop, walked one minute and arrived at the bus depot, and there we sat for 2.5 hours. Fortunately they had a snack bar outside, so I spent my time watching a lady working the crowds for a hand-out. A man came up to me and asked if I spoke English, then he said he was  from the Ukraine, hungry, and needed money. Yeah, right. 

Generally, if some scruffy person asks for money for food, the person they asked buys them some food. They gratefully accept it and eat it. Not like in the States, when the bum gets mad because they really wanted the money. I’ve also seen lots of people give cigarettes to each other. Can’t say I approve of that plan, but they seem appreciative. This seems to be a pay-it-forward culture.

The bus ride was an uneventful 4 hours. Then we scrambled off the bus at the big depot in Portimao. Turns out we should have stayed on for a few minutes longer to be dropped right at the shoreline… next to the taxis. I didn’t know that. After waiting in the sun in an empty bus-lot for a non-existent taxi, we called a taxi number from the web—the number was no longer in use. I finally texted my host at the Ferragudo Airbnb. She promptly came and got us… that’s way above and beyond.

Our place is a two-bedroom two-bath house with a balcony overlooking the valley. Honestly, it’s as big as my house in California. The kitchen is big enough for a table and chairs, whereas the front-room is huge with two loveseats, a dining table, and room to spare. The downside is we are top of the hill that Ferragudo is built upon. The upside is we are able to burn off the calories we consume at the restaurants.

Today our plan is to take the ferry over to the neighboring town of Portimao. There’re two reasons; one, we want to see this high-rise condo city with its giant beach. The other reason is we want to do a trial run at using the ferry because we have to do it tomorrow for a tour going on to the Benagil Caves. (p.s. we didn’t go because we are lazy bums. We'll just wing it.)

For the mundane things I can give a little travel advice for self-care. For your skin you should bring whatever sunscreen you like. But for lotion, just buy a little bottle of olive oil. Its molecular structure allows it to soak into your skin and keep it luxuriously silky without feeling oily. In Portugal, there’s no need to buy drinking water. The tap-water tastes fine and has no health issues. We bought a bottle of water and refill it with tap-water for taking to the beach.

What to wear: Start with the shoes. Shoes are incredibly important for hilly travel, which is all of Portugal. I’ve found it’s not the bottom of the shoe that is important, but the length. I recommend going a half size bigger than normal because as you go downhill your toes ram against the shoe and it’s painful. If weather permits, use a high-quality sandal instead. Bring bandages for the chaffing. Pick out the very best pair of shoes and the best sandals you own, then go from there. 

Pick clothes that dry fast. Don’t bring white clothes—It’s not that you can’t wash them, but it’s difficult to do small loads (all washers are small here). I have one white tank-top that I keep having to wash separately because I don’t want it to get grey from all the dark stuff. Try to imagine throwing everything in your suitcase in one load of wash.

Washing your clothes can be a challenge. Either make sure your place has a washer and a drying rack, a laundromat nearby, or bring your own detergent and wash your stuff by hand. For the washing machine: The machine is almost always in the kitchen here. They use these little pods that disintegrate in the machine. Unfortunately, you usually have to buy these at the local market in a container of at least ten. That’s way too many. I suggest you bring a small hard container to take the number of pods you think you’ll need for your trip from the box you had to buy. The clothes washing machines take a PhD to figure out how they work, and they run like a jet engine warming up for flight. Washing by hand is easy enough, but after awhile it gets harder to do bigger stuff like jeans, but certainly doable.

Here's another tip. Buy a sim-card in Europe. I’m not sure if this is possible for phones with a locked sim-card (That means the entire phone service through a cell company like Verizon or T-Mobile is locked into a contracted service plan). We choose to use the pay as you go service… like a phone card which has an automatic payment to reload. The sim-card is not locked in that case and it can be removed in another country and replaced with their sim-card—then you have full phone service. It cost us 40 bucks and now we have local service. Beware!... Do not lose your sim card from the States. You’ll need it when you go home.

Joe is changing his facial hair almost every day. I don’t know why he only does this on vacation, but he likes to try new things. Last time, in Italy, he grew a beard. This time, he shaved it off to a goatee. After a couple of days he shaved off the goatee. He’s teased me that the moustache is next. That would be a miracle. He’s had that moustache since he was a teen. I’ve never seen his upper lip, and we’ve been together since 1979.

The Ferragudo beach is beautiful with a castle clinging to its cliffs. There’s a couple of beach restaurants and a place that rents lounge chairs for 15 euro a day (a rip-off). The little commercial area of this town is adorable. They have a town square packed with tables and umbrellas and a dude playing a guitar. Last night we went down one of the back streets to a packed local’s place and had one of the best meals so far… two huge kabobs loaded with chicken and pork, and French fries. I had my glass of wine and Joe had his two stout beers—$32.00.

My first impression of the Algarve is hot Mediterranean sun. It cools nicely at night and we’ve been sleeping with our windows open. But during the day it’s hot, not Sacramento Valley hot, but it’s got that closer to the equator feeling. The ocean is slightly warmer than Sesimbra. I think if I get hot enough, I’ll get in. We’re going to head over to the castle beach now and see. For some reason I like the cheap little snack bar on the right better for beverages than the nicer places to the left and above. It just seems more real, but the food is mediocre.

It's difficult to put into words how safe it is here. I’m sure there’re streets and alleys that are dangerous, I just haven’t found them yet. We walk around at all hours of the night along with all the grandmas and grandpas. Even when we’re walking deserted streets, there’s no sense of danger. Yesterday, our neighbors across the street got into a rip-roaring yelling match. A teenage boy was seen marching up and down the stairs with his stuff—yelling the whole time. From inside the house came the answering shouts. I have absolutely no idea what it was all about, but it felt localized to that family dispute. When I went outside our front door to see what the fracas was all about, the pissed off lad made eye-contact with me. I saw no threat at all on his face. He was mad at someone inside the house… not me.