Monday, February 28, 2011

Campo Real

I kept repeating to myself, "This is the reason we came to Portugal, this is the reason we came to Portugal."

We had finally made it to Campo Real for the summit that Jason was attending. After being submerged in this fantastic culture where everything is so rich with character, so lived in, maybe a little dirty and dilapidated, but very comfy, kind of like your favorite pair of old jeans, we had to spend four days at a brand-spanking new golf resort, in the middle of nowhere. Ugh. On the first day, for the first few hours, I thought I might die. But then I shifted my mental attitude and embraced it as an opportunity to rest and recover from the preceding weeks of intense activity, though I couldn't help but to keep stopping by the front desk to ask them "Are you sure there isn't any place that I can walk to?" They were very elusive whenever I posed this question. They seemed like they would very much not like me to walk anywhere, but they could get me a car or a taxi. I didn't want a car or taxi. How about, "Could I walk to the resort's stables so the kids could see the horses?" The front desk replied that it was too far and they would get me a car. Again, I did not want a car. So I resigned myself to leisure activities. On day one, we played an hour of, I use this word loosely here, "tennis." The next day we played a little soccer with a soccer ball that was a lot flat, frayed everywhere, and sporting a huge hole. It was actually quite fun. The next day, after being informed that we needed to be certified in order to play golf, we hit 200 balls at the driving range. Interesting side note, on the way out the door to the driving range we saw a full page of rules on proper golf attire and realized that we were dreadfully underdressed to perform such tasks as golf. It was on this afternoon that we made our great escape! I figured that if we wandered around the outskirts of the resort maybe we would find the stables, or, even better, our way out of the resort. My devious plan worked! We wandered out of the resort and immediately after setting foot outside, we magically returned to Portugal again. Broken walls emerged out of the ground leading us to an old arch which framed a vineyard. It was really astounding to see the difference between the real and the not real. We wandered down the narrow country road (only occasionally having to dive into the grass to avoid cars speeding by) past orchards and vineyards and gardens and more vineyards. I could feel my soul returning. Aaron, of course, had his heart set on getting to the top of one of the hills nearby ever since we had arrived so we took another road heading up. At the top of the hill we found a little village where the villagers watched us through windows as we walked by and then emerged from their houses to get a better look at the blond strangers. A simple "Bom dia" melted the ice immediately and they would smile, return the greeting, and usually start speaking to me. At which point the gig was up and I would have to tell them that I did not actually speak Portuguese. Even though we didn't speak a common language, we got our points across and we would all depart smiling. We finally topped out and found ourselves next to one of the picturesque, old windmills we had seen dotting the countryside. Mission accomplished. 

Even though in the first few days I was a little daunted trying fill our time, the evenings turned out to be actually quite interesting. We were dining with all of the summit attendees who are the brightest minds in software security in the world. We were the only family there so lots of people were curious and came over to talk to us. We talked with so many fascinating people from all over the world: Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambridge, Singapore, Ireland, Israel, Germany, Netherlands, Switzerland. During the day I made friends with other wives who had tagged along, all of whom, strangely enough, were women who were born in one country but now lived in another. Martina from Germany but lives in London, Christina from Egypt but lives in Ottowa, Nishi from India but lives in New Jersey, Jane from China who lives in Mexico. It was really eye-opening to have the opportunity to speak with all these people from all over the world. In the end, not only did we survive Campo Real, we walked away with a lot of interesting experiences and I am glad we went.

Click here for photos.

Super Mercado

I have been frequenting the fresh food market lately and am lucky enough to have been taken under the wing of the owner/fish-lady after a long conversation about fish, cathedrals, and interesting thoughts on the United States. Upon entering the first time, I was clearly an outsider and everyone watched me from afar, but, at the same time, were very helpful when I nervously approached them. After repeatedly showing up, I have learned that I am somewhat of a mystery to the people who work there. They cannot understand why an American keeps coming 3-4 (ok, maybe five) times a week to buy fresh fish, chicken, bread, fruits, veggies, cheese, butter, almonds and various other food stuffs for making dinner. It doesn't seem to fit their normal experience of what a tourist does. I am getting to be well known there now and am met with smiles and ólas, or if they are feeling extra ambitious, a "good morning" in their best English, as I walk in. On one of my last visits their curiosity piqued when I showed up with Aaron in tow for the first time. As I was buying frango (chicken), the frango guy was trying to teach me the word for leg (I am finding that I am incredibly bad at pronouncing Portuguese words, as when I repeat back what they said, they always shake their head and say no and we go through many more rounds usually with some random bystander joining in before they give up) when the bread guy took this opportunity to come over to help out with the lesson and pepper me with questions. The conversation went kinda like this, bearing in mind that the bread guy left several times to take care of customers at his stall in the the process of our erratic conversation.

Bread guy asking about Aaron: "Is he your brother?"
Me: "No, my son."
Bread guy: "Your cousin?"
Me: "No, my son."
Chicken guy to bread guy to chicken guy to bread guy: A whole bunch of incomprehensible Portuguese.
Bread guy to me: "He says it is impossible. You have the face of a sixteen year old."
Me: "Ah, shucks obrigada (thank you)." Although, part of me is thinking that maybe he is just buttering me up so that I will buy chicken from him and not the other chicken guy.
Bread guy to Aaron: "Do you live here?"
Aaron: "What?"
Bread guy to Aaron: "Are you Portuguese? Are you Portuguese!? Do you speak Portuguese?"

I am thinking that he is thinking, "Aha! I have her figured out."

Aaron: "No."
Bread guy with a sideways look: (here he thinks he really has it!) "Is your dad Portuguese?"
Aaron and me: "No."
Bread guy throwing up his arms: "Then why are you here?!"

At this point I sputter and do a very poor job at trying to explain that Jason has two meetings in Portugal roughly seven weeks apart and we decided that we would just stay the whole time and check out the country. He still does not understand. We move on to other things.

Bread guy: "Do you cook every night?"
Me: "Yes."
Bread guy in disbelief: "That is good. No woman cooks every night any more."
Me: "I just like to cook. I like to eat."
Bread guy matter-of-factly with a solid nod: "Then you know where your food comes from."
Me: "Exactly."

At this point the owner/fish lady comes and grabs my arm, telling me excitedly that she used Google translate yesterday to learn the names of the fishes in English and leads me away to the fish room to show me, gabbing the whole time. She walks me through the list and shows me as many of the fish that she can. Shrimps. Black swordfish. Hake. Grouper. Sea bass. I can't believe that she took the time to translate all of these fish for the crazy American. I was touched.

On the next visit, the bread guy sees me sans Aaron. 
Bread guy: "Where is your son?"
Me: "He is at home with my husband."
Bread guy: "You live here?!"
Me: "No. He is at the apartment where we are staying."
Bread guy, still baffled: "Why Sintra? Why not Caiscais or Estoril (two other towns that are much more glamorous where we could go to the spa and gamble and shop)?"
Me: "Because it is beautiful here and there are castles and palaces and we like hiking....walking."
Bread guy, head cocked, lower lip out, nodding thoughtfully: "I guess we do have a lot of walking."

Monday, February 21, 2011


Absolutely, smashingly, wildly, beautiful. I have never seen ocean like this before, with waves so dwarfingly huge and powerful. I feel very small. Mesmerized by them, I could watch the clear water wash up onto the golden beaches for a really long time. Now layer in the quaint, white-washed houses with their red roofs marching up the cliffside on a gorgeously sunny, sixty degree day and I am in love. Today we walked along the cliff tops over the Atlantic ocean looking out towards home, starting on a horseshoe beach flanked by a village clinging to the cliffside. Excited, we ran down to the empty beach to take it all in. Given the size of the waves, Jason pulled the boys close and talked to them about never turning your back on the ocean, while I absent-mindedly shot photos. In the distance I saw Jason and Isaac headed for the rocks on the edge of the beach, so Aaron and I slowly grabbed our lunch and followed dreamily, snapping photos along the way. Believe it or not, I had my back turned to the ocean when a big wave came in. At first I thought it was like all of the other times I have been chased by a wave, no big deal, I'll run backwards a little bit. Ok, maybe I should move faster. Yikes, Aaron and I need to get up on these rocks. Needlessly to say, I ended up soaked, to midthigh. As I was climbing out of the water and checking on Aaron, who was actually paying attention to the ocean and remained bone dry, panic hit. PIKA! Pika was with us, and off-leash. I was sure, as I whirled around that she had been swept out to sea, never to be seen again. Thanks to the Guardians of Chihuahuas Everywhere, there she was shivering on a rock, looking, literally, like a drowned rat, coughing and sputtering, covered in sand. I am a bad, bad, bad chihuahuha owner. Always, never take your eyes off the chihuahua when you aren't paying attention to the immensely powerful ocean. We quickly made the decision that, perhaps this was not the safest of beaches when the waves are so big with the tide rising, and that we should make a hasty retreat. The rest of the day was much more peaceful and relaxed as we lazily walked along the cliff tops, soaked up the sun, allowed Pika to air dry, and enjoyed the spectacular view as we hiked from beach to beach.

Click here for photos.

Afternoon Tea

Always never let our family join afternoon tea. We visited Setais Palace, a palace built for a delighted wife who gasped "ais!" so loudly when she saw it for the first time it echoed seven (set) times, thus it was called Setais. It is now the most expensive hotel in Portugal and we happened to wander in just before their afternoon tea. After much debate if we should splurge, we decided that we would partake in the tea rather than dinner. Afterall, it is not often that you have the chance to indulge in an extravagant afternoon tea at a palace in Portugal, and we only live once, right? Thus began the smorgasbord of eating cake and pastries for dinner and washing it down with hot chocolate. I will spare you the details, but I will tell you that we ended up deliriously full, with serious giggles, which made it much harder than is comfortable to keep down all of the sweets that we had just consumed. I am proud to report that no one threw up.

Monday, February 14, 2011


On a day that was not supposed to be quite so rainy and cold, but turned out to be much more rainy and cold than we anticipated (except for sunny breaks when we were in cafés eating lunch or drinking a hot beverage), we decided to go to Monserrate Palace which is supposed to have the most splendid gardens of all. After walking through several downpours and braving a foggy-windowed taxi ride on an impossibly narrow road, we arrived at our destination. Following the path, we wandered past huge aloe-like plants, waterfalls, exotic trees and ferns, birds of paradise flowers, and a romantic ruin of an old chapel where an epic palm tree branch battle took place between Isaac and Jason. I shudder when I think of the details, so I will spare you. After slogging through the mud to the palace we entered to see a work in progress. With the outside looking pristine after restoration, a large portion of the inside was heavily damaged by water and time and has been closed to the public. As we walked through, it was interesting to see a few of the rooms in disrepair with before and after examples, allowing us a glimpse into the very labor intensive restoration process.

Click here for photos.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Regaleira Palace

What I am about to describe is going to sound like pure fabrication, but here goes. We visited Regaleira Palace, built in 1918 by an opera-loving royalist with a lot of money, who loved mystery and intrigue. On the outside, it is very Halloween-esque, the classic palace imagined on spooky, stormy nights being lit up by lightning with perhaps, dare I say, a howl in the distance. In the entrance, you are greeted by the cross of the Knights Templar tiled into the floor, flanked with red velvet-covered, silver-latched doors, which contrast quite nicely with the creamy, yellow walls. Very lovely, I would definitely let this opera-loving royalist choose a color scheme for my house. After winding through many rooms with beautiful wood-carved ceilings and up spiraled stairs we are spit out into a dark library. I was tailing behind, as always, due to my incessant need to photograph everything, not just once, but maybe three or four times, when I reached the book-filled room. Jason immediately warned me to be careful because there was a large drop around the entire perimeter of the room. My stomach lurched as I examined the room seemingly suspended in mid-air with both of my kids standing in the middle of it. I carefully stepped in and examined the drop to find that it was only an optical illusion pulled off with mirrors and a half foot drop. Very cool. I think we might need one in our house. The boys, at this point, decided that Rigiliera was kind of like disneyland where you can get hurt. After spiraling up a tiny staircase, we peaked out on a tiny spire just barely big enough to hold the four of us and soaked in the views of the Moorish Castle, Pena Palace, and Monserrate Palace. Time to explore the grounds with its chapel, ponds, gardens, wells, plethora of towers and.....the underground network of cavernous tunnels. This part was very, VERY cool. We came upon a beautiful little pond covered in tiny, green seeds making it look like it was carpeted with moss, complete with stepping stones, emerging from a craggy, pock-marked limestone cave. At the end of the path, we climbed into the cave and wandered through the dark to the other side of the pond where we could complete the loop with those oh-so picturesque stepping stones across the water. Again, due to the photography, I was left behind as Jason and the boys made their way through the passage and as I stumbled alone, I unknowing stepped right into a pitch black underground pond, soaking my foot and ankle. Luckily, I remembered after this, that I was carrying a flashlight in my bag. So began the cave exploring. With excitement building, we entered another cave and ended up in the bottom of a rough well encircled by a lovely stone staircase. After winding up from the depths of this well, we discovered a secret door (secret door, does it get cooler than that?) built into the rock that spun if pushed on, opening up to the top of a beautifully-finished well where we peered down to the patterned tile floor and the stairs spiraling its circumference. Down the stairs we excitedly ran in dizzying circles to more labyrinths of caves to be explored leading to towers and grottos, to an underground aquarium and more towers, and onto winding, narrow pathways in the forest where each turn was met with locked doorways mounted into the hillside which we were sure had hobbits living in them. If you choose not to believe any of this, I won't hold it against you.

Click here for photographic proof.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Palácio Pena

I wasn't sure what I was going to think about Palácio Pena with its bright, candy-colored walls visible from Castelo dos Mouros. I really dig the wild organicness of the the rocky castle perched amongst the boulders, so the pink and yellow palace from afar made me wonder, but I decided to withhold judgment until we visited. Pena is a Middle Ages chapel dedicated to Our Lady Pena, turned monastery in the 1500's, turned royal summer palace in 1840, keeping this identity until 1918 when the royal family fled in fear for their lives a year after the king was assassinated and Antonio Salazar came to power. Because the royal family fled in such a hurry they left all of their amazing, royal stuff behind and it was immediately turned into a museum and left as it was. After hiking up to the palace, we entered the impressive, ornate walls. In the last palace we visited, the rooms were bare except for, perhaps, a few era-appropriate antiquities. Inside Pena, it was fascinating to see the rooms full, exquisitely decorated with all of the necessities of daily royal life. Intricately carved furniture, silver hand mirrors, sumptuous linens, dressers and desks inlaid with beautiful designs of mother-of-pearl, a palm frond the queen had worn to palm Sunday service in the headboard of her bed. I can't fathom people really living so extravagantly. After touring the inside where photography is forbidden, we turned our sights to the extensive grounds. We took paths through the woods to the top of a hill where a stone statue soldier overlooks the palace. Up another hilltop we climbed to a spiraled, white cross with breathtaking views towards the ocean with Pena at our backs. Descending down the hill, we followed the winding path through the queen's garden inhabited by exotic plants, past the Moorish castle, back through the winding streets of Sintra, and home again. Turns out I like hiking to candy-colored palaces.

Click aqui for photos. 

Monday, February 7, 2011

Palácio Nacional

Palácio Nacional sits at the heart of Sintra. Originally built by the Moors in the 10th century, it was extensively renovated in the 14th and 15th centuries and remains the one of the best preserved medieval palaces in all of Europe. Nacional is our first taste of a palace and it was fascinating to wander through its mixture of Moorish, Gothic and Manueline styles. From the Christian chapel, with a very distinct Islamic flair, to the swan room with its ceiling entirely covered in swans as ordered by a sad king who desperately missed his swan-loving daughter, to the magpie room whose ceiling is painted with magpies chattering "por bom" (for the best) to teach his court a lesson about gossiping about the king after he was caught kissing a lady-in-waiting, it was a very eclectic experience. After meandering our way through the entire palace we reached the highlight for me, a huge kitchen with the two towering chimneys that make it so distinctive from the outside, completely equipped with the state of the art cooking tools of the time, including huge copper pots, a gigantic spit for roasting a whole cow, and a plate warming cupboard. 

Click aqui for photos.