Portuguese Wine Country: Alentejo in All Its Splendor

I was discussing Portugal and all there is to discover with some friends recently. We decided that this is a good time to explore some of the places we have not yet visited. COVID-19 cases are way down in Portugal. This was a fairly impulsive trip with very little planning, save for the hotel in Vila Viçosa (booked on Hotel.com) and one restaurant reservation (see below). I was with friends that are adventurous, flexible, and enjoy a good gin & tonic now and then. Traveling with others is not always easy, therefore, it’s a pleasure to be with friends who enjoy similar experiences. Meet Richard and Tina from the UK.

Keep reading, they’re pretty, but what’s to come is prettier.

[As always, I will only mention restaurants and experiences worth noting.]

Alentejo is 12,182 sq. miles (see map below). It can be hilly in some places and then fairly flat in others, but the roads are excellent and for the most part, your GPS system will help get you to where you want to go. Many of the vineyards were closed to the public. It’s harvest time for white wine; my guess is that they do not want to expose their staff to the virus. I would imagine COVID-19 could ruin the harvest. We managed to find two vineyards that were open to the public. Both were exceptional and had safe practices.

The Alentejo includes the regions of Alto Alentejo and Baixo Alentejo. It corresponds to the districts of BejaÉvoraPortalegre and the Alentejo Litoral. The main cities are: ÉvoraBejaSinesSerpaEstremozElvas and Portalegre.

It has borders with Beira Baixa in the North, with Spain (Andalucia and Extremadura) in the east, with the Algarve in the South and with the Atlantic OceanRibatejo and Estremadura in the West. (Wikipedia)

Map of Portugal

Note: I live all the way down south in the middle of the Algarve. That’s the Atlantic Ocean in blue. Nothing like pointing out the obvious.

Our first stop on our three day road trip was Beja. Beja is a pretty little town, not that different from any other small Portuguese town; an old town area you need to walk into. We had a coffee at a café and strolled for a bit. Nothing special, but we only visited as a quick stop so that we would not arrive too early for our lunch reservation. Tina made us a reservation at a vineyard restaurant: Quinta do Quetzal (click for website) is the name of the winery. Quetzal Restaurant served up a memorable meal. Once again I did not take a lot of pictures because I truly wanted to savor the moment with my friends. We all had dishes we thoroughly enjoyed and wine was outstanding.

Lamb, sweet potato, and spinach

Honestly, COVID-19 has truly had me down in the dumps, but sitting at an outside table enjoying this food, lifted my spirits and returned me to a time before this virus when the splendor of the world could be fully enjoyed. We will get back there soon I hope.

We arrived at our hotel later in the afternoon.

Hotel Solar Dos Mascarenhas

Vila Vicosa

I booked through Hotels.com. I would have gotten the same great rate through Booking.com, but I get rewards through Hotels.com and a free night after 10 nights is very attractive. The hotel is nothing fancy, however, very comfortable (save for Tina and Richard’s squeaky bed. I only know this because they told me). A delightful pool and a pretty view from my room make it all worthwhile. Tina’s opinion of the hotel: “It was fine.” I give it a 7 out of 10.

Hotel Solar Dos Mascarenhas, Vila Vicosa, Outdoor Pool
Hotel Solar Dos Mascarenhas
Hotel Solar Dos Mascarenhas, Vila Vicosa, Hotel Interior

Vila Vaçosa

Two days in this beautiful and welcoming town is more than enough. The historical significance of the area will astound and delight. We got lucky with the mildest August weather imaginable. I must have down something good . . .

I’m going to stop in the middle of this blog to make a very big statement: Portugal is one of the world’s best kept secrets. I think it’s intentional. The Portuguese people would prefer to keep it all to themselves. Seriously, every part of this country that I visit is special for a different reason. The beauty of Alentejo is unmatched and fortunately for me, it’s only a few hours from home. [It should be noted that you cannot explore this part of Portugal without a car. Unfortunately, this is true for most of Portugal. You will find car rentals to be fairly reasonable.]

I was unaware of the famous marble quarries throughout the area we visited. The pink marble is what they appear to be best known for. We were struck by the amount of marble everywhere; even the sidewalks were lined in marble. On one of our gin & tonic stops, we learned that one of the quarries was shipping to New York City for a Sixth Avenue skyscraper. Apparently, much of the marble from this Alentejo is exported to the U.S.

The 14th century Vila Viçosa Castle was worth visiting and the Palace was beautiful, but the Palace did not open during our visit — the hours on the door said otherwise. Unfortunately, this is a frequent occurrence in Portugal and nothing can be done about it. A small price to pay for splendor.

Vila Viçosa September 2013-15a.jpg
Ducal Palace of Vila Viçosa

We had cocktails and tapas at several cafés in Vila Vaçosa and found friendly staff, a nice variety of cocktails and good food. There was a sophistication that I do not always see in the Algarve; I was pleasantly surprised.

J. Portugal Ramos Wines, Estremoz

We were fortunate to book a tour and tasting with Lúcia Coimbra at João Portugal Ramos Wines. The tour and tasting was 14.23 Euros (discounted after purchase) and lasted a couple of hours. We were able to see most spaces (not all because of COVID) and ended the tour with the tasting. Lúcia was a delightful and knowledgeable guide. J. Ramos is a family business; their history is rich and interesting. What has been created from nothing but land, since only the late 80s, is very impressive. They have vineyards in several parts of Portugal and partner with one other winery in the north of Portugal. Most J. Ramos wines were a treat to taste. I asked about wine awards and was impressed to learn Robert Parker scored most of their wines in the 90s (out of 100) and many have won many top awards. I was surprised to learn that the U.S. is one of their largest customers. They also export to several other countries. They make a delicious olive oil as well (sampled at the tasting and purchased).

The Estremoz location (the one we visited) is where all the wine ends up for bottling and quality control. I believe Lúcia told us that they can bottle 6,000 bottles an hour. The numbers of bottles produced for each label depends a lot on the harvest and some labels are intentionally small batch. I stood close to João Ramos’ private collection with awe and envy.

I’ll let you read about them here: https://www.jportugalramos.com/en/homepage/

At the end of the tour you can purchase wine, fire water (similar to cognac), olive oil; all at a 10% discount. I won’t say I got any bargains, however, I walked away with two large shopping bags and a big smile.

Lúcia made a reservation for lunch for us at Gradanha, Mercearia and Restaurant in the center of Estremoz, only a few minutes driving from the vineyard. We were fortunate to secure an outside table (the weather was perfect for al fresco dining). The restaurant and shop were beautiful. We enjoyed the food very much; however, our initial greeting was less than cordial. They were bombarded by new customers at 1:00 p.m. and they were clearly flustered and not very friendly. The food did not come quickly, but it was excellent. Tina and I had a shrimp and clam risotto and Richard’s black pork steak was outstanding. After a taste of his pork, I regretted my order — black Iberian Pork in Portugal is usually a sure bet. We had exceptional Portuguese pork more than once on this trip.

Évora

Tina suggested we stop in Évora for sightseeing and a coffee on the way home. It was about 30 minutes southwest of Vila Vaçosa and it is the center of Alentejo and its largest city.

Évora is the capital of Portugal’s south-central Alentejo region. In the city’s historic center stands the ancient Roman Temple of Évora (also called the Temple of Diana). Nearby, whitewashed houses surround the Cathedral of Évora, a massive Gothic structure begun in the 12th century. The Igreja de São Francisco features Gothic and baroque architecture along with the skeleton-adorned Chapel of Bones (Wikipedia).

Evora was considered a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1986. According to this organisation, Evora is a museum-city with roots dating back to roman times. The golden age happened in the 16th century, when the portuguese kings lived here.

What There is to See

The Top Ten Places to Visit in Alentejo — we only got to see a small part of this beautiful, culturally rich, historical region. The Pousadas (government owned and operated hotels — usually beautiful and worthy of a visit). They might all be closed because of COVID; I couldn’t tell from the site. We were disappointed that we didn’t think to check them out for availability.

I am looking forward to returning to this region often; certain to see and experience something new each time I visit.

Two things I see wherever I travel in Portugal:

  1. The Portuguese love to smoke. They can be steps away from you while you are eating outdoors and light up without any consideration. I find this all over Portugal and it makes me crazy.
  2. Dog poop is everywhere; all over the sidewalks, wherever you walk. I will never ever understand why these very polite, very reasonable, usually very considerate people, leave dog shit on the ground so that others accidently step in it. I sometimes confront people when I see it happening in front of me. A few have become very angry and tell me that there are people who are paid to clean it up. I assume they are talking about the street cleaners and to that I say, bullshit! They should not have to clean-up your dogs crap and besides, it might be hours or days before they get around to doing it. I remember this was the case in Brooklyn when I was a child, however, new news and fines have made this practice a thing of the past (for the most part). I wish this would change here. I’m tired of having to look down at the ground when there is so much beauty all around me. Okay, I feel a bit better now. If you live in a Portuguese town that doesn’t have this issue, let me know.
Venting Quotes Funny. QuotesGram
I’m sure this also applies to YOU

The Pros & Cons of COVID-19 Travel

Photo by Soumya Ranjan on Pexels.com

I’m feeling a bit anxious about writing this piece. Whether or not to travel at this time is a highly subjective decision. Most governments are imposing COVID-19 travel restrictions that are somewhat ambiguous and I believe that is intentional. Human lives versus economic collapse: this is an impossible conundrum. Add to that the “Unknown” factor around COVID-19 and you’re left with a whole lot of speculation.

Personal Choices

When Portugal eased lockdown restrictions, I decided to take a train trip north to Cascais. I felt train travel would be safer for a number of reasons. I knew the Portuguese government was requiring masks be worn throughout the trip and I also knew that few people would venture out. I have mixed feelings about having taken the trip. Not seeing other tourists in an otherwise tourism driven town, was somewhat depressing. Strangely, I came home wanting more.

I’m not going to site articles about the safety of travel because there are as many telling you it’s safe as there are advising you to stay home. This is a very personal decision, however, there are many people out there who believe that when you travel you are endangering lives. Yes, they believe you are risking catching the virus outside of your community and taking it back to where you live. It would be wrong and dishonest to say that there isn’t some truth to those sentiments.

My argument is that life is full of risk at every turn. You get behind the wheel and there is a risk you could accidently kill someone else on the road; do you stop driving? You light up a cigarette outdoors knowing you are exposing people to carcinogens, do you only smoke in your own home? You consider sending your children to school knowing that there is a possibility that another student might open fire on school grounds, do you keep your kids home where it’s safer? You know where I’m going with these questions. One can rarely be 100% safe.

As you sit in judgment against others who exercise their personal freedoms, it doesn’t hurt to consider your own decisions and personal habits. Does anything you do endanger the lives of others in any way? Do you take every precaution to keep others safe? Doesn’t just being alive carry risk and uncertainty?

I realize that many will argue that travel is putting others at risk — if you were to contract the virus, you could potentially be exposing others. This argument also has validity; however, it takes us back to risk. If you are a responsible person who takes every precaution, are you not minimizing the risk for everyone else? I would use the analogy of driving: cautious drivers are doing everything possible to minimize the risk of an accident that might harm or even kill someone else on the road. Do not forget, driving is a choice.

Why You Might Want to Stay Home

  • There are few places safer than your own immediate environment. There you have almost complete control.
  • If you are in a high risk group (underlying medical conditions, age)
  • If you will have anxiety while you’re traveling, you have to ask yourself if it’s worth it.
  • You can wait it out
  • When flight circumstances change, you may not get a refund from your airline. Some are only offering future travel vouchers.
  • The numbers of confirmed cases and deaths around the world is staggering. This might be your barometer.
  • Your value system does not allow you to put others at risk.

The Upside of Travel

  • Some people are in serious danger of losing control of their lives and possibly losing their lives. The psychological and emotional impact of this virus is difficult to measure. Travel to be with a loved one or being outside of their isolated environment, could be a life saver.
  • If you can be disciplined and super careful, it could be fun.
  • This virus could be with us for a long time. Some of us feel that we need to adapt and adjust our lifestyles to cope with this new normal.
  • My flight was only 5% full going to England and 30% on the return. It was easy enough to social distance — something to consider.
  • You could also consider going to a place where they have controlled the virus.
  • For some people, it is important to exercise their personal freedoms.
  • There are lots of deals out there right now.
  • If you feel less safe or exposed on an airplane, you might consider staying local. I recently took the train to a resort town and truly enjoyed the quick and easy getaway.

There are more reasons to stay home and many more reasons to travel. Feel free to share them in the comments section.

From the UK since I was in Manchester (from the NHS) when writing this piece:

The main symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19) are a high temperature, a new, continuous cough and a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste.


The main symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19) are:a high temperature – this means you feel hot to touch on your chest or back (you do not need to measure your temperature)a new, continuous cough – this means coughing a lot for more than an hour, or 3 or more coughing episodes in 24 hours (if you usually have a cough, it may be worse than usual)a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste – this means you’ve noticed you cannot smell or taste anything, or things smell or taste different to normalTo protect others, do not go to places like a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital if you have any of these symptoms. Stay at home (self-isolate) and get a test.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto on Pexels.com
Photo by Yamil Duba on Pexels.com

Life Without A Car — reblog

Also: Traveling to Manchester, England during COVID-19 Lockdown

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

My love affair with the bicycle goes back to my paper boy days in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. I was ten years old and I went to my dad and asked him for a bicycle. My dad had nine children and he was a blue-collar worker, so asking for anything made me feel guilty and ungrateful. This was different, I told him that I had applied for a paper route and I needed a bike to deliver newspapers in South Brooklyn. My dad had a very surprised look on his face; wondering if I could rise before the sun and handle the elements. Looking back I realize just how much faith he had in me.

I got a shiny new red bike with a big basket in the front for my papers and I started earning my own allowance. I held onto that bike for a few years, but clearly it was worse for the ware and by the time I was a teenager, it was time for a new bicycle. My sister Debbie and I ended up at a bingo hall one Saturday night. I can’t tell you how we were allowed to gamble at ages 14 and 15, but we were and we did. I managed to win the big jackpot of the evening: a whopping $75 and with my winnings, I bought my sister and I used bikes. Mine was a yellow Schwinn with a white seat and my sisters; well I don’t recall. That Schwinn took me to Coney Island, our neighborhood bowling ally, the community pool, and on really hot days, for a bag lunch under the Verrazzano Bridge — that had to be the coolest spot (windy and 15 degrees cooler) in all of Brooklyn.

That bike was stolen a couple of years later and I was so angry about the theft I refused to purchase another bike. I realized that this personal protest was not hurting anyone but myself, so I decided to upgrade to a really nice blue ten speed. I don’t recall much about this bike except that my tire got caught in a trolley track and I went down hard. In fact, looking back I have had three or four bad bicycle accidents throughout my life. Still, bicycles have been a means for me to do great things and see so many interesting places. I may need to admit to myself that I might be accident prone. Still, I ride.

I did the Boston to New York AIDS Ride three years in a row and was able to help a great cause and meet new friends. I completed a week-long bike ride through Provence I will never forget. Biking through Tuscany was fantastic and the list of places goes on. Despite the aforementioned serious accidents, I am committed to riding for as long as I possibly can. In order to stay healthy in the Algarve and reduce my carbon footprint, I have decided not to get a car and to do more cycling and walking. Buying a used bicycle has not been easy in Faro. I ended up buying a mountain bike last week, only to hear from the owner of a bicycle I really wanted the next day. A bike rental shop in Tavira was selling 10 gently used bikes and the style and price were exactly what I wanted. I decided to buy one of these used bikes and sell the one I had just purchased. I must have had good karma last week because the owner of the bike agreed to deliver the bike to my apartment and when he arrived he said, “I brought you a new one.” Honestly, brand spankin’ new, right out of the box, and I got myself quite a deal (see photo below).

I’ve learned my lesson, albeit the hard way, and I have purchased a good helmet. I’m excited to see Faro and the Algarve by bicycle. I’ve already mapped out a route to the beach and the cinema, and I’m certain I’ll be using it for trips to the mercado (market).

Not having a vehicle is sometimes frustrating:  waiting for trains, complicated transfers, the loss of spontaneity, the freedom of mobility and the joy of a stick shift. If I’m going to be honest with myself, I love having a car and I love driving a car. However, this is a time in my life where being practical and smart takes precedence over convenience. Truthfully, I can and will survive without a car. Waiting for the train will teach me patience; I can plan trips to IKEA and the mall; walking and riding has far greater health benefits; and the money I save on gas, insurance, and maintenance will help take me to places far more exotic than the grocery store — a short walk or ride from my apartment.

Riding in a foreign country is a bit scary, but fear can get in the way of true adventure and I won’t allow this to happen.

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The mountain bike I purchased for 70 euros and then sold two days later for sixty euros — not a very lucrative proposition.
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My new Orbit. The right price, the right height, the right color, perfect handlebars for an old guy, fenders, kickstand, a light in the front, a cool bell, and a rack above the back tire. I’m good to go!

Update (July 5, 2020): I gave up the Orbit because it was difficult getting it in and out of the elevator. I purchased a smaller folding bike (pic unavailable) and it fits perfectly. Sometimes I find myself making several attempts before I get it right. Hopefully, I learn something in the process and I congratulate myself on being diligent.

When things are easier, you tend to do/use them more often. Easier isn’t always better for you.

I am reblogging from Manchester, England. I’ve been here since Thursday and happily returning home tomorrow. I had no problem getting here, only to learn they are doing “Track & Trace.” I can’t go into pubs because Big Brother is tracking my whereabouts. Portugal was not on the UK’s list of safe countries. I know it’s political and I’m caught up in the middle of it. The good news is that I have a beautiful one bedroom on the 19th floor right in the center of town. I have floor to ceiling windows and the sun is shining as I type this. Today I am going out with a tour guide to visit little known treasures. I’m hoping the sun stays out because it’s been mostly dreary since I arrived. I have reservations for dinner at Salvi’s Mozzarella Bar, an upscale Italian restaurant, this evening — a good way to say goodbye to Manchester.

It should be noted that RyanAir would not issue me a refund or a travel voucher; COVID-19 did not exist when I did my initial booking. Needless to say, I would have come at a better time had I known. I did not want to lose my ticket, and so I made the trip. I’ve been known to be fairly stubborn and righteous. No regrets, but I wish things were different. I also miss Paco. I wish that I could always have him with me. Patricia took this photo of him sunning on my terrace yesterday. I’m sure he’s wondering where I am and why I left him.

Cascais, Portugal and BelPonto Sushi

It’s been so long since I last traveled, I completely forgot that if you want an easier experience, you must pay attention to details before you leave. I’m not sure I was psychologically ready for this trip. I knew that I had to be careful because there were a lot more COVID-19 cases in the north of Portugal than there were in the Algarve where I live. After being confined to a square mile radius for three months, I thought a trip would do me good.

Fortunately, traveling is a lot like riding a bike: once you get going, your muscle memory takes over. In my case, my brain needed a bit of a kick start. I got on the train from Faro okay, but did not realize there was more than one first class car. A little bit of shuffling and I found my seat. I was on the right train and that’s all I cared about. Thinking that all trains to other places left from Oriente in Lisbon, I overshot my stop and lost about an hour. I found my way to the station where I needed to be to get to Cascais and ended up having a delightful lunch on the waterfront while I waited for my train. I had good grilled pork ribs, but not good enough for a mention.

That’s a statue of Jesus with his arms spread out in the distance (off-center left).

The train to Cascais runs every 20 minutes and my timing was fortuitous, so I only had to wait on the platform for a minute. I remembered to validate my ticket on the platform; something you do not have to do in the Algarve. Oddly, I did not have to wear a mask on the Faro to Lisbon train, but I did have to wear one on the train to Cascais; some authorities seem more relaxed than others. I immediately noticed that people in Lisbon and Cascais were taking the virus more seriously and that’s a good thing.

I stayed in a beautiful apartment with a view of the sea and an outdoor swimming pool. It was very windy and that made it a bit chilly when you were not in the sun; I swam anyway. I was told that one of the reasons the wealthy built holiday homes in Cascais after WWII, was the magnificent weather and beautiful sandy beaches. The breeze provides a respite from the brutal heat present in other parts of Portugal in the summer.

One of the reasons I traveled to Cascais was to visit a restaurant I had heard about in Faro. The owner, Mr. Thomas Schurig, owns Shiraz in the Old Town (marina) and I was anxious to try his restaurant in Cascais (see blog table of contents for more about Shiraz). I needed an excuse to see Cascais and to travel. I had very few options outside of Portugal, so why not. I’ve been trying to be more spontaneous anyway.

Spending time with Mr. Thomas was quite special for me. He was born in Iran and left for Germany when he was 14 years old. With $500 in his pocket, he set out to begin a new life. Mr. Thomas studied and practiced law in Germany. He met his wife there and then moved to Portugal in 2008. I didn’t want to pry, however, he shared that he had several careers before he opened his first restaurant; he has three restaurants, one in Cascais, one in Lisbon (Shiraz), and another Shiraz in Faro; I love this restaurant. Anyone who knows the restaurant business can attest to the challenges, financial and personnel, that keep one up at night. I listen to people in this business talk about feeding people and hospitality and get a glimpse into what drives their passion.

Mr. Thomas knows almost everyone who walks into Belponto. He thanks his staff often and smiles no matter what issue he might be dealing with. His menu at Belponto is mainly sushi and Persian cuisine. He told me that sometimes he does special German dishes for his regulars. He has a relaxed easy way about him, but getting him to stay with one topic is nearly impossible. It’s obvious that he has many things going on at the same time; he manages them all with charm and a cool demeanor. I was also taken by how sweet and reverential he was whenever his wife entered the room.

The food at Belponto is beautiful, fresh and delicious. Prepared by Mr. Thomas, Helena, Mr. Prem (sushi master) and Arjun (sushi chef) with love and expertise. The sushi was creative and melt in your mouth good. They also do several special curry dishes and a homemade Naan bread that blew me away. It is baked in an authentic tandoori clay oven. Paired with good Portuguese wine and excellent service, I was bowled over. The restaurant is also stunning; minimal in decor and tastefully done.

Mr. Thomas lit-up when talking about a fish tank that was to be built for the center of the restaurant before COVID-19 struck — COVID-19 has spoiled so many things. It is obvious that the virus has, like so many others around the world, taken its toll on Mr. Thomas. However, he remains optimistic and positive.

If you are a sushi lover, and who isn’t these days, Belponto’s is the place to eat in Cascais.

I had a delightful lunch on the ocean at Restaurante Mar do Inferno. It’s a family run business that has been successful for many years. The place was full to capacity (50% permitted); apparently always the case. It’s located in the Boca do Inferno part of Cascais — a must see if you’re visiting. The waves are usually big and spectacular; not so much for my visit.

Boca do Inferno without the big waves crashing on the rocks. Apparently, after they crash water flows out of the holes in the rocks making it look like a waterfall. Next time.
The fish is fresh and prepared to perfection

I don’t think it would be fair to comment on the quality of a Cascais visit during this time of COVID-19. It’s a beautiful part of Portugal. A walkable town with beautiful homes and a magnificent coastline. I felt badly for restaurant and shop owners. They have worked hard to create a gorgeous tourist destination and people are staying home. It’s understandable; however, I hope this changes soon or so many will completely lose their livelihood. My recommendation is to go and take precautions.

A Night in Lisbon

I left Cascais for a night in Lisbon before heading back to Faro. There was a lot more activity in Lisbon, but many hotels were still not open. I stayed on a beautiful two bedroom houseboat on the Tagus River. I booked it through hotels.com for 75 euros (breakfast delivered to your door for an additional 8.50 euros). Book directly using http://www.tagusmarina.com. You can book a one or two bedroom houseboat. It was a fantastic experience. The houseboats are only a 12 minute walk to Oriente train station. I highly recommend this accomodation. The Tivoli in Lisbon cancelled the reservation I had made the day before. I’ll make a point not to stay there in the future. I’ve had other bad experiences with this chain.

A room with a view

Expat Life in Portugal Two Years In

“It is wiser to find out than to suppose.”

— Mark Twain

 

 

 

It’s been close to two years since I acquired my residential visa and boarded a plane to Faro, Portugal. Three bags containing all that I chose to keep and my furball companion, Giorgio. I had no idea what awaited me, but what I did know is this:  I knew that life in Portugal would be extremely different in just about every way, I knew there would be challenges to overcome, I knew that it might at times be lonely, I knew that because I was too young to “officially” retire,  I would be living on savings for quite a while, I knew that good friends would come to visit, and I hoped that I would never experience another snowstorm or see my nextdoor neighbors in Portland — the ones I shared a condo wall with. There is nothing worse than bitter, unpleasant, holier than thou, neighbors.

What I didn’t know:

  • that the weather in the Algarve is near perfect.
  • that fish straight from the ocean could be that good and so affordable.
  • that Portuguese wine is delicious and a true value
  • I didn’t know what social democracy looked like.
  • that if you look hard enough you can find just about anything you “really” need.
  • that your neighbors could be so kind and caring.
  • that out of despair can come truth.
  • that people in your life who truly love you will be there for you no matter how far away you are.
  • that you can live on a whole lot less than you ever thought possible.
  • that there are toxic people who will make their way into your life no matter where you live or how hard you try to keep them away.
  • that you can do just about anything you put your mind to.
  • that forgiveness is the best medicine.
  • that it is okay to miss what you once had so long as you embrace what you currently have.

 

The Best Parts of Living in Portugal

One of the things I didn’t realize before I moved to Faro was how perfect the location is for travel. Portugal is your first stop in Europe and from here, you can travel to many different places. There are several budget airlines flying in and out of Faro to different parts of Europe. I hate connecting flights, so I try my best to visit places where I can take a direct flight. I’ve been to some beautiful cities in France, Great Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands. It’s quick and easy and my cell phone still works in all of these places. Apparently, there are some pluses to being a part of the European Union. I’ll be traveling to Manchester soon and I’m not quite sure if Brexit has spoiled my cell service there. I’m sad about Brexit for reasons I won’t go into here. I’ve enjoyed conversations about British and EU politics with my British expat friends in Faro. The United States is not the only place on earth — I wish I had been more aware of global politics in the past. Our influence is vast and more significant than I had ever realized.

I knew that the cost of living would less in Faro than it was in Maine; however, I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that certain taxes were very reasonable. For example:  my property taxes on my 1100 square foot, two bedroom, three bathroom condo, are 350 Euros a year. I paid more than that per month in Maine and my apartment was smaller. I cannot help but wonder why that is. What does your money pay for in the U.S.? Taxes are automatically added in at the grocery store, restaurants, department stores, etc.; therefore, you don’t really feel it as much. Groceries are usually about a third lower than what I paid in the U.S. even with the added taxes and in some cases, food cost even less. Fresh fish is inexpensive; therefore, my diet is much healthier and tastier. Fresh vegetables are, for the most part, local and free of toxins. It’s great not having to break the bank on organic food. Laws prohibit antibiotics in animals raised for food and green growing methods produce grapes used for winemaking that is far better for you.

The weather in the Algarve is absolutely phenomenal; 300 days a year of sunshine phenomenal. Even when the weather is bad, it’s good. Summers are warm, but there is a wonderful breeze off of the Ria Formosa (the body of water near my home), with fall comes relief from the warm temperatures; a bit of rain; when it comes you want more, winter is cooler, but a sweater is more than enough to warm you, and spring (now) is glorious:  birds chirping, warm sunshine and a sense of renewal. When we do have humidity, it’s during the cooler months so you welcome and embrace it. I cannot overstress the power of all of this vitamin D and the joy of not having to shovel snow. No wonder Portugal has been the #1 place to retire for a few years running.

The warmth and sincerity of the people is not to be taken for granted. There is a reason there is so little crime and and virtually no homeless people in the Algarve:  people here take care of one another. I think that this pretty much sums-up social democracy:  people take care of people; they don’t gripe about it or show any signs of regret, they genuinely care about humanity. Sure doctors make less money and people in general pay more taxes, but the quality of life is so much better for a greater number of people. That is not to say that they don’t care about humanity elsewhere; I can only speak to what I have experienced here in Portugal.

Portugal is not a wealthy country. There are pockets of wealth, but I chose to live in Faro, a working class, mostly Portuguese city. I have never for a second regretted this decision. When I want a bit of luxury:  Quinta do Lago, Vilamoura, Porto, I go to those towns. For the most part, it’s the gastronomy that might draw me to these places. This is not to say that Faro isn’t a beautiful city with great food; plainly speaking, it is special in its authenticity — there is no pretense or putting on of airs. There is history and culture in Faro and it is preserved, however, not widely promoted. The food is fresh and fairly priced, and as I mentioned earlier, the location is ideal for travel. In so many ways, that is just about all I need.

The morning has been glorious for me in Faro. Early morning has always been my favorite part of the day. I find it to be peaceful and hopeful. Every day is a new day after all. Aside from the ability to sit out on my terrace with a cup of Joe in the morning almost year-round, there is the fact that the United States is five hours behind and I rarely, if ever, hear from anyone from back home until noon at the earliest (except for my brother Leo who calls at any hour). It’s almost like being in a state of meditation; I can breathe, think, and enjoy the quiet with little interruption. I feel so much healthier not having frantic morning telephone calls due to work or family issues. Then there is the morning walk with Paco in the park across the street from my apartment; I rarely see another soul as the sky goes from fiery red to bright blue — it’s poetic and sublimely peaceful.

 

The Challenges

Language remains a bit of a challenge for me. I have learned a great deal from Memrise (a language app), a tutor at my home, and Portuguese subtitles, but I still have so much to learn. Although many people speak English well, I believe strongly, that if I am going to reside here, that I should speak the language as much as and as often as possible. I’m at a place where I get by with my limited Portuguese. I’d like to be able to watch the news in Portuguese and have a clearer picture of what is happening in Portugal. I’ll get there; however, getting over my shyness about pronunciation is essential. I need to realize that when I say something and someone laughs, they are not laughing at me; they are more than likely laughing at the meaning of the word I just uttered by mistake and there is a big difference. And if they are laughing at me, so what. My neighbors and friends are delighted that I have committed to learning Portuguese and most people are helpful.

I have to be careful about how I talk about middle aged men in the Algarve. Careful, because the last thing I want to do is offend the people I am living among. Generalizations can be unkind and unfair; therefore, I want to express my thoughts without prejudice. What I have noticed are merely my own observations — they should not be regarded as fact. Some men have a difficult time with me; questioning who I am and why I am here. I am careful in how I approach men I do not know. The gym has become the easiest place for me to learn more about the culture and why I am sometimes misunderstood.

Women here are very open, friendly and genuine. They have been gracious toward me and helpful in so many ways. Of course there have been exceptions. As a sociologist, what I have observed is mainly cultural. Men here seem to be very masculine and reserved; women seem to be more progressive and open to societal changes. I believe that behind the scenes they are quietly persuading men to be more tolerant and modern. By seeing it through this lens, it helps me to understand that when I sense a barrier or resistance, it is probably not due to anything I have said or done.

Older and younger men are similar in their dealings with me; however, I have less interaction with these two groups. I have often complained (when blogging) that young men smoke too much and overuse cologne and I stand by these thoughts. I live next to a high school where my sample group gathers daily.

[This is one of those times when I have to tell myself not to be judgmental.]

You know how much I love to complain about food; please, please, please bring more ethnic (world) cuisine to Faro. I just keep telling myself it will come. Too few countries are represented here. However, I have noticed things are changing in a more positive direction.

Pastry is sublime. It’s not quite as decadent as it is in France, but I love it just the same. What I like most is that a good deal of the baked goods here are not terribly sweet. It’s dangerous to be around so many bakeries. I have blogged about the bread so I won’t belabour the point. What I will mention is that I love French bread and it’s not that easy to come by in the Algarve. I have to go out-of-my-way to snag it and I do — in fact I’m going to Loulé today and I intend to pick up a baguette. This bread freezes well, which makes having it when I want it fairly easy. I’ll be in Toulouse in two weeks and I’ll load up on some good bread before I leave France. Portuguese people love their bread; I respect their opinion and I have found some Portuguese breads that I do like. This one will definitely get me in trouble.

Portuguese people are proud and stubborn and often refuse to admit that they might be wrong. I was at a self-checkout counter at the grocery store recently and the machine flashed a “printer not-working message.” I left the machine and walked to another. A staff member came over to me and said, “Please use the machine where you started.” I told her that the printer was not working and she said it was. Sure enough when it was time to get the receipt, which you have to show before you leave, the printer was not working. When I went over to her to inform her, she shrugged and went to the machine to fix the roll of paper for the printer; offering no apologies. I know this kind of thing happens everywhere, but I noticed it happens a lot in the Algarve. There is some expat resentment.

 

The Surprises

I had no idea that Portuguese cotton was so cool and soft. One of my three suitcases when I arrived had two sets of cotton sheets; one set for my bed and one set for my guest bed. I have been searching for the perfect set of sheets my entire adult life. Egyptian cotton is usually a good bet; however, this bedding can be very experience and sometimes a higher thread count doesn’t necessarily translate to comfort.

Giving up having a car in Portugal was a big, scary decision. It was the one thing I was truly concerned about. Using public transportation has been easier than expected. It’s certainly not perfect, but neither is being in a car. Reducing my contribution to the carbon crisis is rewarding and fiscally smarter; although Uber has benefited greatly. The walking and cycling are also beneficial to my overall wellbeing. There is a fairly long and steep incline when returning to my building from shopping or walking. I consider the health benefits as I climb; the sweets in my bag seem less threatening. Still, there will always be guilt.

I will not lie and say that I do not miss the city. Cluttered sidewalks, honking horns, packed public transportation, and the odors of an ethnically rich urban city, remains one of the great loves of my life. When I’m feeling the loss of grit and sirens, I board a train for Lisbon and I am at once returned to my city roots. I have learned how to mitigate any yearning that rears its head — feed the beast and it will simmer down.

Gay life has been a bit challenging, it gives me a reason to travel and I know that it will improve in time — Portuguese men in my part of Portugal are more closeted than what I’m used to.

There’s more . . . but there are some things that I prefer to keep to myself.

 

To Sum Up

I am hoping that I have conveyed that the pluses far outweigh the minuses. Living in Europe was a dream I never imagined possible. My friends and family often remind me that I took a risk and they are proud of me for it. When my visitors walk out onto my terrace and light up, I know that I made the right decision to be in Faro. I also know that I can leave whenever I choose to do so. On my walk with Paco this morning, I noticed how fresh and fragrant the air was. I took in the light, the sounds, and the scents and I embraced my good fortune. I’m not sure how long I will remain in Faro, but I know that for the first time in my life, I am at peace.

 

What Happens When Your World Expands

Travel to faraway places expands your mind; how could it not. You see and experience things that you might never have imagined possible. The impact this has on your thoughts and beliefs should not be underestimated. We are the sum total of our experiences. You can read it and hear about it your entire life, but until you see it up close and touch it, you cannot appreciate its effects.

 

 

 

 

Looking Ahead

I need a hobby. It used to be poker and now it’s not — and not because I don’t want to play either. I refuse to play online, I need to look into the eyes of my fellow players. Paco is helping to fill my day in wonderful ways:  walks, playtime, training. I’ve always been a voracious reader and the ability to sit with a good book for hours at a time has been a true gift. Then there’s the improving of my cooking skills:  24 Kitchen is a 24 hour cooking channel here in Portugal and I love it for so many reasons. I especially like the Portuguese shows, they don’t have all that yelling and screaming I used to experience. They’re quiet, instructional programs. It’s a great way to learn Portuguese because the chefs and home cooks speak slowly and it’s fairly easy to follow. When the say “faca,” they pick up a knife, so you learn that faca means knife.

A part of me believes I still have another big move left in me. I have dreamed of waking up to the sound of ocean waves and I believe I can make that dream come true. I guess I need to see how life plays out; so much can happen between now and whatever lies ahead.

A crazy world full of languages — “panda’s holiday” is a series of posts for when...

 

Paco Update

Paco has now had three visits to the Vet in less than two months. He is up to six pounds, but still way too thin. His immune system is so badly compromised, there is not much he tolerates.

The vet recently informed me that the Portuguese government has to be sure no one is looking for him before I can officially register him as mine. This angers me because he was clearly abused as a puppy. No dog who had love, kindness, food, disease prevention, etc. would have been found in his condition. I was told that if someone did come forward, I’d have to battle it out in court and I would.

Paco is one of the sweetest, most appreciative pets I’ve ever encountered. He wants to shower me with love and kisses whenever I allow it — his wet nose is very cold. He’s super smart:  he’ll learn a trick on the second try and repeat it the next day without review. He’s never once made a mistake in the house and he doesn’t mess with my things. He knows his toys and loves sunning on the terrace. I sense his loving gratitude. I know that he wants to stick around for awhile and he’s trying his best to recover . . . I’m convinced he will.

A good article on why yelling at your dog is a bad thing:

http://www.you.co.uk/never-shout-at-your-dog/

We’re in the training phase of our relationship. Paco was clearly traumatized early on in his young life. The best thing I can do is show him lots of love and patience. Gaining his trust is essential for good behavior. Learning tricks is good for dogs; they want. to please you and they love treats. He’s testing me right now — he’s exploring how far he can push me and how much he can manipulate me. When I show him that I make the rules, he becomes passive and loses his alpha male persona. In my world, there is no other way. Fortunately for Paco, he’s 100% on board.

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May 21:  Paco is fully recovered, weighs almost nine pounds, has been neutered, and he couldn’t be happier and of course, that makes me happy.

My Last Meal Imagined

Some people will find this thought morbid or difficult to digest (sorry). Not having a fear of death allows me to consider my last meal if, and that’s a big if, I was in the position to choose said meal. The photos below are not the actual dishes I would order; just having fun with stock photos.

 

My Choices

I will not go over possible scenarios that might get me to a place where I know that my last meal is a foregone conclusion. Let’s just imagine that it is a possibility. I think about these things, I do.

By the way, I won’t be cooking my own last meal. Although I like my own cooking immensely, I would rather imagine that a professional chef is part of my fantasy.

I’m going to order more than one appetizer, entree, and dessert because this is my fantasy and I can. I have a few thoughts about each savory dish:

  1. The food will be uncomplicated.
  2. It will be fresh.
  3. It will be mildly spicy.
  4. It will be served at around 6:00 p.m. I don’t like to go to bed with a full stomach and I assume I’ll want a full night’s sleep before I die.
  5. I will have a white tablecloth and white soft cotton napkins.
  6. I will have one person dining with me. I am not revealing who I would want that person to be (unless you’re a really close friend and you promise not to say anything). I can tell you it would not be a politician or religious leader.
  7. It will be hot; cold food can be delicious, but not for my last meal.
  8. There will be no photos taken.

No rules for desserts.

 

Appetizer

I love appetizers. I like that I can take a few small bites and I like knowing that there will be a break before the next course. I usually allow myself to indulge in something richer knowing that it will only be a couple of forkfuls of deliciousness. Of course for this fantasy — I know fantasy seems more like a positive, but since none of this is real — I’m well enough to enjoy food in this fantasy. Who knows, I might be 95 years old with a great appetite, deciding that I have had a good run and it’s time to rest. These are the dishes I might hope to be served:

Selections:  pan seared foie gras with some sort of fig compote on the side, grilled garlic and scallion marinated king prawns, fettucini arrabiata, Korean style chicken wings (drumettes), chicken based broth with ramen noodles and other goodies (paitan), and baked clams oreganata. They would be served with some time to savor and digest in between servings.

Caveat:  I may change up or a add a dish or two. I want to leave things fairly fluid knowing that anything can happen between now and then.

Fettuccine arrabiata

 

Entrees:  Grilled T-Bone (dry-aged, grass fed beef). I love that you get two cuts of beef:  a strip of top loin and tenderloin. I want it charred on the outside and medium rare on the inside (just salt and pepper). Perhaps a fresh rosemary rub prior to grilling. I make no apology for my choices.

How to grill t-bone steak

More entrees and sides:  A whole steamed lobster with clarified butter for dipping, creamy mashed potatoes and parsnip with a little bit of roasted garlic, sauteed broccoli rabe, turkey stuffing cooked in the cavity of a roasted turkey. I want the crispy part that was exposed during cooking. Buttermilk fried chicken — a thigh please. I might ask for seafood paella, I’m not sure yet. Not because I don’t love it; there are capacity issues to consider.

Dessert:  white cake with dark chocolate frosting (accompanied by a glass of whole milk), Toll House chocolate chip cookies with walnuts, pistachio ice cream — two scoops with nothing on top. I usually like to end the meal with something lemony. I’m thinking either lemon meringue pie or a French lemon tart topped with fresh whipped cream. I’d probably be happy with either. If key lime pie is possible, I’d go with that, also with fresh whipped cream. I know, it’s a fantasy, I should be able to have anything I want. I cannot help being practical; even when I fantasize.

By the way, I would do tastings; I wouldn’t want to be so full that I can’t eat dessert.

 

To Drink:  

I would start with a palate cleanser:  Ouzo with ice cold water

Paired with Appetizers:  a chilled French Sancerre

Entrees:  Louis Latour Corton Domain Gran Cru — the best vintage to found the wine sommelier I have employed for this occasion. If this is to be my last red, it had better be the best. I would be open to suggestions. If you’re reading this and judging my choices, you would be wise to keep in my that this is my fantasy and my taste buds; consider your own selections if can go there.

Dessert:  A very small glass of Italian Moscato d’Asti (lightly sweet, gently effervescent and low in alcohol, is mainly produced in the hilltop town of Asti, and in the nearby provinces of Alessandria and Cuneo in the north-western region of Piedmont).

When everything has been cleared away and right before I retire to my bed:  French Armagnac — the best available; I’m not that fussy. Served in a large brandy snifter.

Image result for brandy snifter glass

 

I have to say this was more fun than I thought it would be. My mouth watered the entire time I was blogging. I came to this conclusion:  I should eat these dishes more often than I do. Although I always go back to one of my college professors who started each lecture with:  “All things in moderation.” I wouldn’t want to hasten my demise.

 

What I Vowed to do this Week and How it Played Out:

I find myself very angry and upset with social media and the news. I get all caught up in drama with family and strangers over words; words worth fighting over, but it takes its toll. I decided to give myself a week away from all social media and the news.

It’s day two and it’s not working. I’m afraid the Corona Virus and American politics keeps me wanting more. I turn it on for a few minutes and then turn it off. It’s an addiction I cannot deny cold turkey. I’m telling myself that smaller doses are probably better for my state of mind. I spoke to friends over the weekend who are in a similar place. I cannot help but wonder what will come of this.

Day three:  it’s getting easier. I guess like any addiction, time and patience will prevail. A little bit of news because of the virus and the democratic primaries, but I’m rationing myself.

Day Seven: Unsuccessful experiment on the news side; I couldn’t stay away. Definitely a lot less social media and that was a good thing. I feel like I experienced less angst. I’m going to try to cut back. I’m going to cut back.

I have also developed some sort of ache in my abdominal area. I’m not sure if it’s psychosomatic or real.  The anxiety has to live somewhere; my head and stomach seem like obvious hosts.

Admittedly, I could not write about food when my stomach was bothering me. The good news is that I think I figured out that it was a machine I was using to stretch out my back at the gym. One of the staff members showed me an alternative machine that I believe will do less damage to my abdominal area; I’ve switched machines. It might also be a hernia — I’ve had two and it’s uncomfortable surgery to repair them.

 

Paco Update:

Paco has been with me for over five weeks now. He has completed his pack of antibiotics and his tail rash is getting better (difficult because he wants to lick the area and I refuse to put a cone on his head). He’ll have bloodwork done in 10 days to determine whether or not he beat the virus. On his last visit, his red blood cell count and all other readings were normal. He is animated, playful, sweet, has a great sense of humor and eats well. When he first arrived he was anxious and skittish; for the most part he’s a well-behaved,  “normal” pooch, with above average intelligence.

He a bit overly generous with kisses; a habit I may have a difficult time breaking.

I imagine I will always wonder if the people (person) who abandoned him will resurface and want him back, but I worry less each day. I have grown quite attached to my 3.5 lb. roommate.

He’s quite handsome, is he not? I intend to spoil him rotten. My

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Being Less Cynical/Shiraz Has Arrived in Faro

This week, I would like to explore the topic of cynicism.  I hear this out of Chris Cuomo’s mouth as I type, “You are so cynical.” He’s talking to Stephen Colbert on The Late Show. They’re in the middle of a playful repartee about the impeachment trial. I turned up the volume to hear what they had to say. Two intelligent and refreshingly sane men, talking about the current state of political affairs in the United States. Americans, people in general, have always been cynical, however, it feels as if cynicism is currently at an all time high. I’d like to explore my own cynicism and how I might become less so.

sky clouds cloudy earth

 

This is a difficult time for many of us. Sorting through truth and lies is never easy, but it seems as if conflicting news dominates the airwaves. Listening to individuals you thought you could trust, spin lies, makes it difficult to believe in justice and honesty. Trying not to be political here, because in truth, I’m not certain this is about politics. I think the problem is systemic and I can’t help feeling like we might be headed for the moment in time when it all comes to a head. I ask myself if what I am feeling is cynical or mistrust and what is the difference.

cynical
/ˈsɪnɪk(ə)l/
adjective
  1. 1.
    believing that people are motivated purely by self-interest; distrustful of human sincerity or integrity.
  2. 2.
    concerned only with one’s own interests and typically disregarding accepted standards in order to achieve them.

I cannot help feeling that a lot of what I’m hearing from our leaders is rhetoric which promotes a personal agenda. I don’t want to believe this; I want to see the best in people and believe they are sincere.

Image result for cynicism quotes

 

Why I Care 

When people say derogatory things about me, they probably say I’m controlling, opinionated, way too liberal, stubborn, talkative, dismissive, and possibly that I am self-indulging. I’m not sure I could argue about these character traits when they are applied to me. I’m being honest with myself; it’s not cynicism, I know who I am and I know that I can be controversial. People cannot truthfully say that I am cynical and I’d like to keep it that way. And I don’t mean occasionally cynical; there is a difference.

I am concerned about my own health and wellbeing. Doubting other people’s intentions stresses me out. It causes worry and anger and none of that is good for me. When I erase these doubts and tell myself that people are inherently good, that we all go adrift or make mistakes, I tend to feel better. It’s obviously a defense mechanism, but we possess these tools so that we can work on ourselves and be happier people.

When I start to think unpleasant thoughts about friends or family members, it changes how I feel about food, drink, travel and the rest of the things I love — my taste buds are soured and all things become tainted. I’m not as profoundly affected when I’m cynical about politicians; these days I almost expect them to lie and push their own agendas, no matter what the cost.

 

How Do I Prevent Myself From Becoming Cynical

If I have learned anything since I relocated overseas, it is that I need to be patient with myself. With good intention, I’d like to think that I can be a better version of my former self, if I truly put my mind to it. What it takes is practice and patience. When you repeat a behavior or practice over and over, it will become part of your automatic, natural reflexive, go-to, inventory of responses.

For example:  I’m at a dinner party and a friend announces that she is going to organize a fundraiser for children with cancer. She talks about a grand venue and the “who’s who,” who will be invited, the table centerpieces, etc. My mind might go to the reason she is planning this event. One might cynically believe that she’s doing it to make herself look good. It’s unfortunate that this is where your mind might go. In truth, does it really matter? If the end result is that a million dollars will go to help those children and their families, how you got there (as long as it’s legal) is irrelevant. I’d like to instead, go straight to the positive and praise her for her good work. We never truly know what motivates people, so why not think the best of them in all most cases.

 

Next Steps

Mindfulness — awareness of a problem or issue is a huge part of correcting the problem. Now that I am aware of my unintentional cynicism, I can work on moving toward a different way of being:

  1. Identify the pattern that causes a cynical thought or response (e.g., questioning another’s motives).
  2. Break down the cause. Did you ever discover that someone you cared a lot about, had self-serving motives? Did those motives affect the final outcome?
  3. Explore your feelings. Not as easy as it sounds; it means facing your skepticism and demons.
  4. Try out alternative responses and find one or two that serve you better; cause you less heartache or discomfort. Create a toolbox and learn how to retrieve those tools.
  5. When you immediately go to cynicism, push that thought away and use one of your new tools or thoughts. This tool is extremely effective — give it a try.
  6. Practice this over and over again until you go in a positive direction without having to think about it. Practice, practice, practice.
  7. Take inventory of your responses every so often. Sometimes we take two steps back without realizing it — as you well know, old habits are hard to break.
  8. Consider how your positive outlook and behavior has influenced others. How has this new way of looking at life affected your health and well-being? How has this affected your relationships?
  9. Celebrate your success.

If you have another way of dealing with this issue, I’d love to hear about it.

 

When People Are Just No Good

Sorry is that sounds cynical. Seriously though, there are people in this world that are just plain evil. I’ve come across a few in my life. When you discover this to be the case, my advice is walk away and don’t look back. We are sometimes cynical for good reason. Bad actors usually show their true colors over and over again. Cynicism can be a useful mechanism for defending yourself against these individuals.

 

Shiraz Has Finally Opened and You’ll Want to Visit

Shiraz Restaurant in Faro, Portugal (Pre-opening visit previously blogged)

Just a reminder that I am not a food critic and that my intention is only to promote good food.

I love the food in Faro, however, I often complain that there is not enough variety here. Prior to eating at Shiraz, I had never eaten Iranian (Persian) food; or at least I don’t believe I have. I have eaten dishes from that part of the world; however, as you well know, each country has its own unique cuisine.

Shiraz adds another interesting dimension to the Faro food scene and that makes me very happy. When the Portuguese locals experience how good it is and see for themselves the number of tourists eating at Shiraz, they will be more open to other ethnic cuisines coming onto to the scene (e.g., Korean, African, Malaysian, Turkish — to name just a few).

Shiraz has been plagued with issues that prevented an on-time opening. I have heard that it’s difficult to open a new restaurant in Faro:  work permits, old infrastructure, contractors, etc. Mr. Thomas, owner, persevered and I belief his tenacity will pay off. He recently shared that it took him three years to make it happen. I only met Mr. Thomas a few months ago, however, I find his patience and positive attitude refreshing. He is pleased to be working with Chef Ram.

Chef Ram specializes in Kababs and there are several to choose from on the menu. There are a few different preparations and meat choices featured. Simple dishes such as basmati rice topped with saffron are delicious and beautifully presented. I had a Kabab Negini (pictured below) which is made with chicken and grilled tomato sauce. The Baklava, which I learned is made with 21 layers of puff pastry, was the best Baklava I have ever tasted. Toasted almonds, pistachios and a caramel sauce made this delicacy a standout dish.

Chef Ram is extremely talented and has a smile as big as his heart; stop by the kitchen and say hello.

 

Córdoba, Spain

 

Friends were visiting from the States and it was their first trip to Europe. Over the past few months we have spoken about what we might do together during their time in Portugal. It probably would have been enough for them to stay local, however, it wouldn’t have been enough for me. I wanted them to fall in love with my country and that meant seeing the country that borders Portugal to the east. We decided on two days in Sevilla (two hours by bus — see blog from 2019) and two days in Córdoba. Why Córdoba you might ask?

Not too long ago I made a decision that has proven to enhance my life and make for a better experience for my guests. Whenever friends or family visit me from the States (or anywhere for that matter), we go someplace I have never been. If I keep going back to the same towns and cities, I will resent my guests and be bored to death. Don’t get me wrong, there are places I love to visit over and over again:  for example Tavira, a town about 30 minutes away from where I live — a French bakery, La Baguette Artisan Boulanger Français, and a pottery shop, Aroma Ceramics. These two places alone make Tavira worth a visit. There are also several restaurants I never tire of. My guests are rarely disappointed; of course, that makes me happy.

So Michelle, John and I did some touring around Faro first. They arrived New Year’s Eve day. To my surprise, the long journey from New York to Faro did not stop them from wanting to explore and sample the food of Faro.  I cooked, certain that they’d want to remain home to rest. The idea of staying up to bring in the new year seemed out of the question. I was shocked to see that they were perky and eager to stay awake and enjoy their first New Year’s celebration in Europe.

They dragged me kicking and screaming to the Faro marina where a lively band played and a fireworks display did not disappoint. I was surprised to see a few thousand locals enjoying the night together.

 

 

Being the morning person that I am, I’m not sure how I managed to stay up for the count. I spent last New Year’s eve in Morocco with friends and I still can’t remember whether or not we brought in the new year together. I’ll have to call Patrick and Sue to ask them.

Back to Michelle and John . . . After a few days staying close to home, we headed for Spain. I won’t be blogging about Seville because I have been there several times and although I love the city, I do not have much to say this time. I will mention that it was colder there than I thought it would be (close to freezing at night) and that Airbnb Adventures offered a paella rooftop experience that was outstanding. We had a challenging time leaving our Airbnb to get to the rooftop location. Our key got stuck in the door and we had to figure out a way to leave the key in the door, leave the door open and escape through another opening. I’m not sure why these things happen to me, but I’m beginning to wonder if I bring them on myself. No matter, we got out safely, made it to our dinner on time, and dealt with the lock issue later in the evening. I must admit I was a bit cranky, but my friends know how I am and put up with me.

 

Córdoba

The first thing I want to say about Córdoba is that everyone should visit this magnificent city. It has a rich history, it is walkable, it is breathtakingly beautiful, and it is very affordable.

 

 

We took a bus from Sevilla to Córdoba. It is an easy and comfortable two hour ride at about 24 euros round trip. The bus takes you to the city centre and then you can either walk or Uber to your destination. Google maps showed that we were about 23 minutes from our Airbnb by foot, so we decided to walk. Technology is only great when it works and this time it did not; we were taken about 1.5 kilometers from our Airbnb and I had to find another means of getting there. About 10 minutes later and none the worse for the wear, we arrived at our Airbnb. This two bedroom, two bath apartment was on four levels. We had a cozy living room and kitchen on the first floor, a bedroom and bath on the second and third floors, and a rooftop terrace on the forth. Honestly at $217 for two nights (all total), I think the place was a find (click for listing).

 

Salón con muralla Romana auténtica

Casa de diseño a 200m de la Mezquita

Casa de diseño a 200m de la Mezquita

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That stoned wall you see in the first picture is actually the original wall built by the ancient Romans — it is the wall that borders the Jewish Quarter and built in the first century; how’s that for experiencing history.

I will once again reiterate that I am not a travel writer, therefore, I will not share the history of this beautiful city or everything we did while visiting. There were some highlights in our 2.3 days in Córdoba and I am happy to share those with you. Part of the reason travel is so much fun for me, is that I do not chronicle every moment. I am happy to pass along details to any of you, please ask.

Staying in the centre of Córdoba, in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, was a good call. We were minutes from everything you’d want to see and experience while visiting. Arriving on a Sunday made it somewhat difficult to shop for groceries (eg., coffee, milk, wine), but with perseverance, we did find a Chinese all-in-one shop. To our pleasant surprise, the shop even had an Iberian paté we all three thoroughly enjoyed. We were also smart enough to bring some cheese, jamon and crackers from Sevilla. We were hell bent on enjoying our rooftop terrace while the sun was shining and we could experience the tiny bit of warmth we had left. It was all glorious:  our friendship (over 20 years), the view from our terrace, the historical significance of the place, the sun, and the fact that we’d made it there. These are the moments in life we live for.

We had tickets for a genuine Flamenco concert — music and dance — that evening and we were priming for it. We had dinner at a beautiful tapas restaurant close to our Airbnb. It wasn’t the best meal I’ve had, but I certainly enjoyed the atmosphere and the Spanish wine John selected. The Flamenco concert,  was to be performed within the Arab baths of Santa María dating over one thousand years.

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The concert was about 90 minutes in length, the performers were all sick with a cold (except the guitar player), and we had front row seats (there were only 9 people in the audience). I have often wondered if I would enjoy a Flamenco concert and it would be unfair not to comment:  I will say that first of all, I’m glad we did it and second, I would not do it again. I might also add that John caught whatever germs were spread that night.

The next day was very special and truly unforgettable. It would be our only full day in Córdoba and I was determined to make the most of it. I woke up early and went straight to The Mosque-Cathedral of Córdoba (Mezquita-Catedral de Córdoba).

 

If you do nothing else in Córdoba, you must visit this significant landmark. It dates back to the 12th century and it is Islamic, Roman, Byzantine, and Christian, all rolled into one truly magnificent place of worship. You can spend hours and hours exploring this historic site. Afterwards, I ventured out to see the city by day.

The Roman Bridge may have been my second favorite site.

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The bridge flows over the Guadalquivir river; grand and gorgeous is all I can say about it (last photo from stock pics on the internet).

After a bit of lunch back at the Airbnb, I walked about three minutes to a hammam where I had an appointment for a warm bath, a sauna and steam, and a massage. The Hammam Al Andalus, is one of the most beautiful I have ever been to and worth every euro I paid (70).

 

I returned to our Airbnb just in time for a pre-dinner cocktail. We had reservations at Casa Mazal Restaurante Sefardi; Middle Eastern, Jewish, Spanish and very authentic. We did the tasting menu and once again John chose the wine — I can pick a good wine, but John knows wine better than I do. The restaurant was quaint and the service excellent. I would have to say that I enjoyed the appetizers far more than the main dishes, but overall, this restaurant did not disappoint. My friends usually claim that they will only take a small taste of dessert and more often, eat at least their share; I’m used to that.

It was an unusually chilly night is Spain, so we hustled back to our apartment and headed straight for bed; very comfortable beds I might add.

Córdoba is a place I will someday return to. I could have spent a week walking, exploring, eating and drinking. It’s only four hours for me by bus (3.5 hours by car) and I know there was more to experience. The history and the melding of so many cultures over the last two thousand years, makes Córdoba a city to behold and cherish. It’s Unesco World Heritage Centre will be forever etched in my travel memories.

 

Paco

This is Paco, my new companion. Paco is a rescue dog; I will be officially introducing him to you next week. The importance of adopting a pet, rather than purchasing one, has been an urgent message I have been wanting to relay for quite some time.

 

 

Tips From A Seasoned Traveller — Part II

Tip #6 — Traveling solo is a great opportunity to meet people. Strangers seem to be drawn to someone sitting alone; especially if you’re smiling.

I was forced to meet people wherever I went because I had forgotten my laptop charger (grabbed the wrong cord actually). I was struck by how friendly people were and how much they truly wanted to help me. One guy on the train to Bordeaux, held my laptop on his own lap for an hour while it charged (stop those dirty thoughts, his wife was the one sitting next to him). I was almost pleased to have had to ask for help — something I’m not very good at I’m afraid.

 

 

This event was a beautiful gesture in Bordeaux on Christmas day. Bodega, a restaurant in the city centre, was feeding the homeless. Festive music and good food was provided. They served wine and passed foie gras. I was extremely humbled by what I saw. I was also invited to join in, so I stayed for a bit.

Tip #7 — Money:  don’t carry huge amounts of cash; use your debit card for purchases and use ATM machines to get cash. The conversion rates are usually reasonable (TD bank boasts reimbursed ATM fees for certain accounts). It is safer all around. Check with your bank.

Tip #8 –Tell your bank and credit card companies where you are traveling.

It’s no fun getting denied use of your card when it’s for your own protection.

I had a bit of a conundrum this year:  do I visit someone I know for Christmas, stay at home in Portugal, or do I extend my U.S. travel plans to Europe and go someplace I have never been? I decided that I have grown quite a bit over the last few years and that I would be fine alone over the Christmas holiday. I was not alone before Christmas and I would not be alone after Christmas. I had spent a little over a week with friends and family before Christmas eve and friends came from New York on New Year’s eve. I have never seen Paris during the holidays and I wanted to be there when it was all lit up and festive. It’s not my favorite city, so I didn’t want to be there Christmas eve or Christmas day. I researched cities within three hours of Paris and I decided it was time to experience Bath Spa and Bordeaux. Bordeaux wines are some of my favorite wines and I had heard about the wine museum there.

Tip #9 — When you’re travelling through Europe or anywhere for that matter, take the train as much as possible.

Train travel was once very inexpensive (in fact in Portugal it still is), however, the cost of  has gone up quite a bit in most parts of Europe. Still, the train is the way to go. It’s less of a hassle than air travel and much more comfortable. Move about, see the countryside and get there on time (most of the time).

 

Next stop:  London, England

When you live in Portugal there are very few options for direct flights to the U.S. TAP flies to New York and Miami, but if you’re headed to Baltimore, you’re going to have to fly to France, Germany or London first. These countries are all east of Portugal, making it a bit frustrating. I imagine there will be more options out of Lisbon and Seville in the future. But this is how I ended up in London on the outbound flight. Knowing I had to return to London inbound, I decided to spend a few days there and I’m really glad I did. I’m not a frequent visitor. My main reason for going is the theatre and there was always plenty of that in New York City. This time around I would not be going to NYC and there were a few plays I wanted to see in London.

First I want to tell you about a hotel I thought was perfect if you’re looking for something inexpensive and centrally located. I found this hotel called Motel One London–Tower Hill. I’m not sure why they put “motel” in the name of the hotel because it’s nothing like a motel. Small but with an excellent mattress and great linen and wired for every device. I was close to the Underground and several excellent eating spots. By the way, the Underground is working well these days. I was able to get everywhere quickly and efficiently. It isn’t so cheap anymore at almost 5 quid a ride.

Back to my main reason for going. I wanted to see Sam Tutty in Dear Evan Hansen. I got a center stall seat (orchestra in the States) for 100 pounds. I’m not sure how that happened. I bought the ticket on-line and there were only four seats left; the other three tickets were almost twice the price. Sometimes being a solo traveller pays off. The play was wonderful, my seat was perfect, and it made London worthwhile. I also saw Ian McKellen’s one man show; all I can say is if you get an opportunity to see it, go. I saw Come From Away on the same day; although it was somewhat enjoyable, I have to say I didn’t love it — no memorable tunes and a bit campy.

I ate well, but it was more about the theatre. There was a bit of rain (it was London), but I had some sunshine too. I found a great Columbia jacket while wandering around between shows. It was about a third the original price and ended up being my “find” of the trip. Sometimes I purposefully leave articles of clothing at home so that I will have no choice but to buy whatever I need while I’m away. That was the case with a windbreaker/rain jacket.

No stories of dred to share; all went well in London. I hear that Big Ben is up and running again, so if you find yourself there, go and see it. I have decided that since I am now living in Europe, I will make a theatre trip to London annually and see several shows over a few days. I have a love/hate relationship with New York City and now I can add London to that short list.

Tip #10 — Travel is a good excuse to leave negative stuff behind.

I watched and read very little political news while I was away and I found myself in a much better emotional state of mind.

 

Bath, England

Bath is a place I have wondered about for many years. I took the train from London and arrived about 90 minutes before I could check in to one of the most most beautiful Airbnbs I have ever stayed in. It was in a 260 year old building with gorgeous views of the countryside. With time to spare and a rainy day, I found a brick oven pizza place not far from the train station. The chef was Neopolitan and the pizza was outstanding. I later learned that Franco Manca is a chain restaurant; you could of fooled me.

My friend Rachel was coming from South Wales the next day, so I was alone the first evening. Six weeks prior, I had made a reservation at The Olive Tree Restaurant, the only Michelin star restaurant in Bath and the food was exceptional. I then dropped some pounds off at the casino, met some really nice locals at the blackjack table and went back to my beautiful apartment.

 

Rachel joined me the next day and we did the Thermae Bath Spa, which was a two hours of pure bliss. There was a rooftop nicely heated pool which was great for my sore muscles. We went out for cocktails at a very upscale bar and then Rachel treated me to a terrific Italian dinner at Martini Restaurant. The entire experience was delightful in every way and it made me want to return to Bath often (and I will). It also made me want to see more of Rachel (and I will).

 

Paris, France

I had taken the Eurostar to Paris a number of years ago and I thought I should take a short trip to Paris on my way to Bordeaux. This time the boarding process was much more efficient. It’s a 3.5 hour journey; comfortable and fast. I got lucky and didn’t have anyone sitting next to me.

There were announcements about the Metro strike at the train station in London and all I could think was that the French were going to mess with my travel once again. Sure enough I arrived at the train station in Paris and there were hundreds or thousands of people everywhere. Gypsy taxi drivers were asking for crazy fares to wherever and on principle, I wasn’t having it. I decided to use Uber to get to my hotel. I can’t say how many people had the same idea, but I can tell you that there were many, many, many people outside the station looking at their phones and looking for their Uber.

Tip #11 — Do yourself a favor and do not overplan. Allow yourself the luxury of free time.

Leave your hotel or Airbnb and wonder around. I always seem to discover something wonderful or unexpected. It’s honestly one of the best things about traveling to a place you’ve never been. Get out and explore.

The metro strike forced me to stay local and that turned out to be a good thing. I discovered an outdoor food market that went on forever. I spent quite a bit of time there and enjoyed it.

I had to take a very expensive Uber share to the train station. Traffic was terrible and the Uber driver was agitated; seemingly trying to make as much money as possible during the strike. We arrived at the train station, I exited his vehicle to get my luggage and he drove off. I chased him, banged on his back window and he stopped. I went over to the driver’s side window, he rolled it down and I told him that my luggage was still in the trunk of the car. He got angry at me for some reason that I still do not understand. Needless to say, he only got one star and no tip. Another wild day of travel.

Tip #12 — Allow yourself plenty of time to get places.

Have a good book and relax when you get to where you’re going.

 

Bordeaux, France

I chose a hotel right in the centre of the city because I love walking. The Quality Hotel was very central and super affordable. The desk staff seemed to be very sensitive to my solo status and they made me feel welcome, comfortable and at home; an especially nice since it was Christmas. They even upgraded my room. I think the mattress and linen were the most comfortable for any hotel I have ever stayed in or perhaps it was just my satisfied frame of mind.

 

 

The day I arrived was dark and dreary and I was fairly spent. I got to the hotel, unpacked and set out to find a place for dinner. I found a fantastic ramen restaurant, Restaurant Fufu. To say that I was pleased is an understatement. Saki and hot soup on a rainy night . . . ah. And the last seat at the bar too. Had this place been open Christmas day, I would have returned for more.

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Cité du Vin the Bordeaux wine museum was the main reason I wanted to visit Bordeaux. It was a fairly new, high tech experience, very close to the center (about a 30 minute walk) and right next to a very cool (newish) food market with restaurant vendors. The museum boasts an innovative way to learn about the history of wine and the different varieties of wine from all over the world. You can do it at your own pace, but I would recommend a minimum of eight hours. After you’ve explored the museum, there is a beautiful space at the time of the museum where you get to choose a lovely glass of wine and take in a spectacular view of Bordeaux. Get Your Guide offers tickets in advance at a discounted price.

The next day was Christmas day and I was a bit concerned because I had attempted to make a reservation for dinner months prior, only to discover all the restaurants I tried were closed. I decided to just leave it and find a restaurant while in Bordeaux. Christmas morning I walked around town and found a man cleaning a restaurant in one of the main squares. He told me the restaurant would be open for dinner and he noted my reservation in a book. I was pleased that that was taken care of. I had dinner at Le Noailles Restaurant next to the Intercontinental Hotel and the food was traditional French cuisine; beautifully prepared and presented. I paired the food with a 2015 Bordeaux (1/2 bottle, see pic below) and the whole meal was wonderful. I need not have worried because unbeknownst to be, there was a large food festival with music right across the street from the restaurant. No regrets though, I loved my dinner and I was glad that I had made a reservation because they turned many people away.

I took a slow walk back to my hotel and had a delicious nights sleep.

Home on the 26th. I flew back to Faro; on time and uneventful, the way one hopes it will be.

Tip #13 — Expect that there will always be a few bumps in the road and breathe.

I committed to adopting a pooch last week. We’ve met, he’s just under a year old, and I have named him Paco. Paco will be joining me at home in a few days. After a bath (or two), I will blog a photo.

Tips From A Seasoned Traveller — Part I

Tip #1:  If you can fly non-stop and it doesn’t cost you an arm and a leg, do it.

These days connections are killers. A delay in your first flight can mean hours of stressful time spent in an airport; sometimes even overnight or if you’re lucky, in an airport hotel. Keep in mind that the airline will not put you up overnight if the travel issue is beyond their control and just about everything is beyond their control.

 

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I recently acquired this Pan American Airlines  (iconic airline that went under in 1991) travel guide published in 1970 (7th ed.). Fun reading.

 

It’s good to be home after several weeks away. I had a five city, three country holiday and it was exhilarating and exhausting. French air traffic controllers and French metro workers managed to mess up my travel on two separate occasions; not in a minor way. These days travel can take its toll on the body and mind; add disgruntled workers to the mix and you’re in for some major stress.

How airlines, hotels and Uber, handle these delays and glitches is key to how well we cope. I thought I might share some stories:  how I reacted to people along the way and how they responded to me. I’m going to name names because I think you should know how some businesses handle customer service. In a couple of cases I believe my reaction was justified and in other cases, I may have overreacted. I tend to judge myself harshly.

Tip #2 — You have to be your own advocate.

Being quiet and meek is not the way to go when you’re either on a schedule or you have been treated poorly. Many airlines or countries today have rules about delays and compensation. The airlines are responsible for providing “passenger rights” either in writing or on-line. It is well worth your time and energy to become familiar with these.

 

Prior to setting out for my long journey, I decided that I would not blog about the cities I visited — sometimes it’s more fun to just experience a vacation and keep the memories to yourself. I’m going to stick to this decision, however, there were some highlights that warrant mentioning. I also captured some moments on camera that I am pleased to share.

Tip #3 — When you travel by plane or train, always have your confirmation/reservation numbers handy. The same is sometimes true for hotel reservations.

If you need to rebook, revise, reschedule, or reference your booking, it’s a whole lot easier when you have this number handy.

 

My journey began in Lisbon with a text from British Airways sometime in the wee hours of the morning. I usually fly in and out of Lisbon because it is cheaper than flying from Faro; 3.5 hours away by train. The BA text let me know that I might have flight delays due to the French air traffic control strike. I was unaware of this strike because my news is all Trump, all the time.  Sleep was impossible after reading the message and so I decided to be proactive and call the airline. I was able to connect with a customer service representative fairly quickly due to the hour of the morning. I explained that I would like to be rerouted in order to avoid flying over France — it was after all east of Lisbon and I was headed west to Baltimore. The very cordial representative explained that she had limited options for me. She told me that the best she could do would be to put me on a later flight from London’s Gatwick airport. It would provide a cushion in case I missed my connection to Baltimore. She was fairly certain that I was not going to make the connection. I would have booked the later flight, however, that flight would take me to Dulles airport in Washington, DC; a minimum of 80 minutes by car to Baltimore. She informed me that I would have more options working with an agent at the airport. I thought there might be a more direct option. In fact, I knew there was, but would I get it.

Since sleep was elusive, first because of the possible delay and second, because I had discovered I had brought the wrong computer charger and I was wondering how I was going to be away for over two weeks without use of my laptop. I packed up and went to the airport, arriving at about 7:15 a.m. A very kind British Airways agent informed me that the agent I needed to speak with would be at the counter at 8:25 a.m. I took a deep breath and waited. At about 8:20 a.m. the original agent walked over to me with good news. He said the delay to Gatwick had been reduced from two hours to 45 minutes and that I should have no problem making my connection. He said that I would be landing in terminal 3 and I need to go to terminal 5, but I “should” have enough time. Minutes later the check-in desk opened and I handed a different agent my passport. She called her supervisor over and told her supervisor that she was concerned that I might miss my connection because I was landing at terminal 3, not 5, where my connection would be.

The supervisor said, “No, you will be landing at terminal 3 and your connection will be at terminal 3.”

I replied, “Are you sure because your agent (I pointed to him) told me my connection would be at terminal 5.”

She said, “He doesn’t know.”

I walked away confident that even with a delay, I would make my connection. You know what I’m going to tell you next, don’t you? The pilot came on the loudspeaker and greeted us warmly. He said that he was glad that we had received an opening to depart and that we would be leaving soon. An hour later he greeted us again, telling us that he was cleared and then uncleared, three times. I was concerned at this point, however, I chose to remain calm, knowing that being anxious wouldn’t get me there faster. The flight finally took off about an hour and 15 minutes after it was scheduled to leave. When the pilot spoke to us again, he told us that we were landing in terminal 3 (by this time I had learned that my connecting flight would be at terminal 5). The flight attendant calmed me and said that I needed an hour to make the connection and although it would be tight, if I was fast, I’d make my flight. For the next hour I took about a hundred deep breaths. Just before the plane landing the flight attendant came over to speak to me, informing me that the pilot had contacted the connection flight’s pilot and that the Baltimore bound pilot would wait for me. I was impressed with how I was being treated and sat back and relaxed. Planes that were landing in London were backed up and we were an additional 20 minutes late landing. At this point I had exactly one hour to make my flight. I hustled, followed the purple signs to “connecting flights,” and made it to terminal 5 in 30 minutes.

When I got to terminal 5 I had to use my ticket to gain entrance to the terminal’s check in area. I attempted to gain entry and was denied. The readout said that I needed to see an agent. Two minutes later I was speaking with a British Airways agent and I explained what just happened. She informed that I was re-booked on the Dulles flight. I pleaded with her to allow me to try to make it to the gate. No can do, there are rules you know. She told me that I needed at least 35 minutes at that point to make the flight and that I only had 30 minutes. I put on my best “you cannot do this to me face” and told her that I had to get to Baltimore in time for dinner. She handed me a meal voucher and apologized.

Curious to see whether or not I would have made it to the gate for the flight I was originally booked on, I headed that way. You guessed it, I made it to the gate with time to spare. I didn’t even approach the desk knowing that my luggage was on the plane going to Dulles. The gate was open for at least another 20 minutes. One more reason to do carry-on if you can. I’m not sure they would have reticketed me anyway.

I proceeded to head toward my new gate. I wanted to drink alcohol, but I thought it might prevent me from getting some much needed rest on the flight. The departure time was “on time” and so I waited at the gate. Just when they were about to board the computers went down and they were forced to board manually; more delays.

I landed in Dulles three hours later than I would have landed in Baltimore. The passport line was over an hour long and I knew a car was waiting for me on the other side — dollar signs flashing before my eyes, I was beyond exhausted. My friend Adam had said he’d pick me up, but he wisely sent a car instead; he had three days of his daughter Emma’s Bat Mitzvah festivities ahead of him.  I stupidly totalled the hours I had spent getting to Baltimore and it was just under 24 hours. I cursed the French, British Airways and my anal retentive personality. I walked into the arrival area searching for my name on a big card. The area was swarming with people waiting for their loved ones and there were many men holding up cards with last names on them . . . none of them mine. I was about to contact the car service, but decided if I didn’t pee first, I would wet my pants. Standing by the bathroom was a massive human with my name across his tiny iphone — I should add that my name was spelled correctly for a change.

I said, “Hi, I’m the guy you’re waiting for.”

His reply, “I’m Nick, can you wait right here while I go pee. I’ve been standing here a long time.”

Of course I let him go first. You know when you’re weary and angry and blurry eyed and you just want to go to bed; decisions are never easy — we could have peed at the same time. The 90 minute trip to Baltimore is just a blur. It was 4:00 a.m. back home and I couldn’t keep my eyes open in the car.

We arrived at the hotel and I asked Nick if I was supposed to tip him. He smiled and said it was all included. I didn’t want to think about what “all” meant. I dragged my bag and backpack to the hotel door and the door was locked. I looked for another entrance and that one was locked as well. I stood in the cold — a lot colder than what I am used to — and started thinking about how I might contact the hotel desk. I had no phone service in the States and I didn’t know if I’d find an internet supplier out on the street. Defeated and at a loss for solutions, I was about to sit on the curb when a gentlemen opened the doors and invited me in. They could have stuck me in a closet or office and I would not have noticed. Fortunately, it was Hotel Revival (a Hyatt property) and the room was very nice.

The next day I wrote to British Airways needing to share my story. It was a two paragraph complaint and I included every reservation number, flight number, times, details, the size of my underwear; hoping for some compassion. The reply was laughable, but expected. “You’re flight delay was due a problem with the handicap ramp.”  What? I wrote back and asked if they had even bothered to read my email. The second reply was a bit more thorough, basically informing me of time restrictions and airport travel time, yada, yada, yada. I wrote a third email and finally got somewhere. Even though “it was beyond our control” they were willing to reimburse me for the car service to Baltimore. I did not know that an airline can redirect you up to, I believe, two hours from your destination airport without being responsible for getting you to your original destination.

I got the receipt for the car service from Adam and I discovered why Nick did not expect a tip:  $211 for my ride to Baltimore. The receipt has been submitted and a reimbursement is in the works . . . pending any unforeseen delays.

None of this was made up. Well maybe the underwear comment.

Tip #4 — Unless you want the added expense of a rental car or lots of taxis/Ubers, choose a hotel in the centre of town. If you can avoid a main street or bar/restaurant street, you’ll have a quieter night.

Walking around a city or town is the best way to get to know the landscape. I use Hotels.com and they do a good job of sharing which sights they are close to and how far they are away from the airport and other forms of transportation.

Tip #5 — It seems as if delays are inevitable these days. If you are checking your bags, make sure you have a carry-on bag which will have your necessities:  water, snack, phone charger, laptop charger, lip balm, travel itinerary, passport, make-up, reading glasses, a good book, a small pillow (there are some nice inflatable pillows on the market), etc.

Purchasing some of these items can be expensive (an Apple laptop charger can cost you up to $80). The more you have at the ready, the more comfortable you’ll be.

 

Baltimore was my first stop. Emma’s Bat Mitzvah, good eating, time with friends and family, two very nice hotels, a bit of gambling, and my delay a distant memory; all made for a very pleasant first five days in the States.

Next week:  London, Bath, Paris and Bordeaux. Stories to share from the same holiday.

 

Sharing:

I am not opposed to sharing recommendations for hotels, Airbnbs, airlines, restaurants; however, I prefer you send me a message with any specific requests. I did not keep copious notes this time, but I’m happy to rely on memory and an internet search or two. As always, I must mention that these are only recommendations and my needs may differ from yours.