Drinking porto in Porto

Porto, Portugal

This city’s love affair with wine — and specifically, the namesake port — dates back to the 18th century. Grapes grown in the Douro Valley, an area blessed with just the right mix of rain, soil composition and sunlight, were cultivated and brought into Porto by boat, where they were processed and subsequently aged.

On the other side of the river, in Villa Nova de Gaia, about 60 lodges continue to make port this way today. This morning, with the sun shining again, we set out to do some tasting.

Our first stop was the smaller, independent Cálem, that wasn’t running another English-speaking tour for an hour, but had a Spanish speaking guide available immediately. Which meant it was time to brush off those Español skills.

DSC_0035

Port itself is made in about the same way as wine, with the key differences being length of fermentation as well as the other ingredients, like brandy, that are occasionally added. We got to check out the oak barrels, where porto had been aging for 10, 20, 30 years or longer.

DSC_0035

Then, to the matter at hand: tasting. For those who haven’t imbibed, port is a sweet dessert wine, best enjoyed in limited quantities, like, well, a glass. The older the port, the lighter the color and more refined the taste (apparently).

DSC_0035

With a few tastes under our belt, our next stop was Ramos-Pinto, another quiet spot where we had a chance to taste most of their line, including a delicious 20-year old reserve.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

Two tastings were really enough for us, so we made our way back along the shore, checking out the old boats used to transport grapes into the city — and now largely to haul camera-totting tourists around.

DSC_0035

With the weather approaching 32 degrees, we needed to escape the heat and our hotel recommended a popular beach just about 20 minutes away. Checking out all the Europeans sunning themselves there, it felt only appropriate to don my new Euro suit (courtesy of C&A).

It took a little while to get used to but I’m now quite sold on the benefits of the Euro suit! Needless to say, Charlotte got a kick out of it, too.

Advertisements

Hills, heights, hills, help

Porto, Portugal

We spent an hour driving from Luso to Porto, the country’s second largest city, and then about the same amount of time desperately trying to follow Google Map’s complicated directions down narrow one-way European streets. Finally, we found Eurostars Das Artes, parked the car, checked in and set out to explore the city.

DSC_0035

The last few days have brought unseasonably warm weather to Portugal, which sounds great — until you realize that Porto is built on one giant hill. We started by climbing the Torre dos Clerigos, a 225-foot tall tower (tallest in Portugal) designed by Italian Nicolau Nasoni in the mid 1700s. From its top, we took in the sweeping views of the city and the Rio Douro before Charlotte had a minor panic attack and we quickly descended.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

After a pricy burger at the city’s best café, Majestic, and some window shopping along the pedestrian drag, we stopped at the Sao Bento Train Station, completed in 1903 and showcasing some 20,000 painted azueljos of historic scenes.

DSC_0035

Nearing the river, we passed the former stock exchange and made our way into the Ribeira district, a zone of winding lanes, tiled churches and cobble-stoned streets lining the riverfront.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

A beer was needed before tackling the climb back uphill to the hotel, towing shopping bags from C&A (second favorite European department store after Corte Inglés). Back at Eurostars, we searched for a truly local haunt for dinner and found a small outdoor café. Nearby, two women were wolfing down the day’s special, which without really knowing what it was, we ordered.

How about a puff pastry encased hotdog covered with cheese and special sauce?

Yeah, it hit the spot.

Royalty (for a night)

Luso, Portugal

Today’s goal was to make our way northward — but not without several pit stops along the way. Cruising up the A2, we learned why this country’s roads are so well-maintained: exorbitant (and frequent) tolls. Our first was about 4 euros, which at the time seemed like a lot, although it wouldn’t once we had some more kilometers under our belt.

About an hour north of Sabugo was Obidos, a small village of about 3,000 residents sitting inside the remains of a castle wall. There were lots of whitewashed houses, accented with vibrant blue and yellow paint. Unfortunately, the town itself caters largely to tourists, with most overpriced shops offering porcelain, lace and Portugal shot glasses.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

We headed to walk those 13th century castle walls — which without hand railings and its uneven cobble-stone paths, meant balancing precariously close to the edge.

DSC_0035

Thirty minutes later, we were in Alcobaca, home of the country’s most prominent Unesco World Heritage Sight. The Mosteiro de Santa Marie was founded in 1153 by the first king of Portugal.

The surprisingly quiet cloister offered a momentary respite — no tour groups — and for a minute, we could almost envision the silent monks shuffling around among the soaring carved archways and weighed-down orange trees.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

After a light lunch, it wasn’t much further on the A2 to Batalha, with its own impressive abbey (Mosteiro de Santa Maria da Vitoria) that dates to 1434. Here, we found the stained glass windows were the real draw.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

Feeling a bit mosteiro’ed out, we cruised another 90 minutes north to Luso. In the middle of the Bussaco Forest, we arrived at the Palace Hotel do Bussaco, a palace originally built in 1907 as a royal summer retreat on the site of a 17th century monastery. Now, it’s been converted into a hotel, complete with rose garden, period furniture, spires and turrets.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

Outside, our Opel Corsa fit right in. Can’t you imagine it next to a horse-drawn carriage a hundred years ago?

DSC_0035

We splurged on dinner at the hotel’s restaurant — an absurd 7-course affair complete with a salad trolley and grilled wild boar with garlic and rosemary.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

We felt like royalty. At least for a night.

Tree house in the She Pines

Sintra, Portugal

Sintra, set among mountains, forests and the sea — with its intoxicating combination of quaint and magical — is one of this country’s must-see cities. With the sun shining, it was only about a half hour drive from Cascais to our hotel in the neighboring town of Sabugo.

When traveling, many factors — location, cost, amount of mid-century-modern furniture in the lobby, etc. — go into deciding where I’d like to stay. This, I’m excited to report, is the first time that I’ve picked a hotel based on its name alone.

While it took some careful navigating to locate, we soon found ourselves at the door of “The She Pine Tree House Hotel,” a small bed and breakfast. We were greeted by one of the friendly owners, Luis, who brought us into the bizarre living room, decorated with just an overwhelming amount of stuff. Drawings, books, pillows, plants, overload.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

With a big day in Sintra planned, there wasn’t much time to take it all in, so after dropping off our bags, it was back in the car. Twenty minutes later, we were in the heart of the old town, dodging massive tour groups all jostling for entrance to the Palacio Nacional de Sintra.

Of Moorish origins, the palace dates to the early 13th century and is best known for its conical white chimneys. It houses quiet courtyards filled with orange trees, some of the oldest azueljos (relief tiles) in the country and the Swan Room, adorned with Manueline frescoes of 27 gold-collared birds.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

The crowds were a bit much to handle, so we made our way through rather quickly and then embarked on our climb to Castelo dos Mouros, a mist-enshrouded ruined castle from the 9th century. Rising 1,200 feet above us, the walk was a bit intense, although we felt more deserving of the experience than those bus-bound other tourists.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

From the Great Wall of China-esque walls, we spied the Palacio Nacional da Pena sitting on a nearby hill. Passing through a park of the same name, we hiked to the entrance and, after a quick lunch of warm goat cheese salad, were completely blown away.

While the colorful and detailed exterior was impressive, it was the interior where this palace really shone. Room after room featured centuries old porcelain, furniture and oil murals. It was as if Queen Maria II, for whom the place was commissioned around 1840, was still living there.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

Continuing on our palace binge, we hopped in the car for one last stop that our hotel keeper said should not be missed: Quinta da Regaleira. This villa was built in 1892 for a Brazilian coffee tycoon who clearly had a thing for crazy carved stone structures.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

Back in the Corsa, our whirlwind day in Sintra continued west to the sea. Cabo da Roca, a sheer 450-foot cliff, is the westernmost point in Europe, and as Charlotte so acutely pointed out, I’ve got a serious need for geographical tourist sites.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

Back at House of She Pine Tree, Luis made a nice home-made meal that we enjoyed with some of the other guests before retiring to that bizarre living room with a carafe of red wine.

A stop in the Costa del Sol

Cascais, Portugal

With a slight headache, we caught a taxi to the airport this morning to pick up our rental car. Neither of us can drive stick, which left limited options. In fact, only one agency (a German company called Sixt) had a car to offer — a hot blue Opel Corsa 1.2, an engine, we would learn, that might have had another life in a tractor or lawn mower.

Our destination for the day was Cascias (pronounced Kush-kaish), a town that has skyrocketed from sleepy fishing village to a popular summer destination for the residents of Lisboa. In most major capital cities, escaping to the beach and ocean can make an afternoon’s drive. In Portugal, it takes about 30 minutes to reach the Costa del Sol.

We parked and checked into Hotel da Vila, a super colorful place in the heart of the old town.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

The receptionist pointed us toward a lively pedestrian drag nearby where we found a touristy seafood restaurant with outdoor seating. A grilled piece of swordfish and bottle of water later, my hangover had magically vanished.

DSC_0035

An Audi-sponsored regatta race was wrapping up on the waterfront, so we walked down to the shore to check it out. Charlotte, with her impeccable fashion sense, wore just the right outfit.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

Although town and the marina was bustling, many of the shops were closed since it was Sunday. So we settled for walking around, resting with gelatos on benches and enjoying the warm sun.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

Our dinner at a local Thai place was questionable — was there tomato sauce in our pad thai? — best to just stick with the local cuisine. But sunset drinks at the uber-trendy Farol Design Hotel, with its whack chandelier and sweeping views of the Atlantic, proved the perfect nightcap.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

Really. Perfect.

DIY: Steak edition

Lisbon, Portugal

After a solid 12-hours of sleep, we were up early this morning to take Tram 15 into the city center. We had two strong bicas and a pastry at Confeitaria Nacional, a pasteleria that has been around for a couple of years (well, since 1829). At this early hour, it — as well as the surrounding Praca da Figueria — was just waking up.

Outside, we hopped onto vintage Tram 28, for a rambling ride up one of Lisbon’s many hillsides to Miradouro da Senhora do Monte, the city’s highest lookout. From this vantage point, we could take in the red tile rooftops, the Golden Gate-esque bridge crossing the Rio Tinto, the tolling of church bells. Essentially, Lisbon.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

It was hard to overlook the iconic Castelo de Sao Jorge sitting on a nearby hillside, so after quick stop at the Saturday morning Feira da Ladra market, we made our way in that direction.

The castelo dates back over 1,600 years. It was used by the Visigoths in the 5th century, Moors in the 9th century and royals in the 14th to 16th centuries. We explored the shaded courtyards, cobble-stoned streets and towers, staying far from the unprotected edge.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

Back outside, we got lost among the Alfama district’s back alleys and unmarked streets. This is an area that shows working-class life in the country’s capital, with old women hanging laundry to dry and children playing in the small, leafy squares.

We managed to find the , the fortress-like city church built in the 12th century, that was still decoratively festooned from a visit a few days ago by the Papa.

DSC_0035

It was time to refuel — and our guidebook suggested Pois Café, an Austrian-run neighborhood spot with a kind of Village bohemian feel to it. After a couple of sandwiches and Coke Lights, we continued descending downhill until we hit the waterfront and sprawling Praca da Comercio.

DSC_0035

Deciding where to head next, we realized that our city map was sponsored by El Cortes Inglés, the amazing Spanish department store that required a visit. A short metro ride brought us to the 8-story behemoth, where we ended up buying a nice vino roja, freshly baked rolls, goat’s cheese and Jamón ibérico to snack on later.

DSC_0035

Back at the hotel, we rested up for what we knew might be a big night. We started by taking the gold-plated elevator to the trendy lounge of the Bairro Alto Hotel, with its view of the twinkling lights of the riverfront. A couple of beers later, it was onto a dinner at Sul, hyped by Lonely Planet as a “fixture on the late-night dining circuit.”

The dish of choice was an essentially “grill your own steak.” Ingredients: raw filet, salt, seasoning and a hot as heck stone. Result: Completely delicious.

DSC_0035

In the center of Lisbon’s social scene, we hit several (many) of Bairro Alto’s bars, staying out too late and more than making up for last night’s weak performance.

Óla, Lisboa

Lisbon, Portugal

With the threat of another ash cloud shutting down Europe’s airports having temporarily subsided, we boarded our flight for Portugal a little after 8 p.m. US Airways was flying a jet from what felt like 1980, with seats crammed into every space and no entertainment options (three old school televisions hanging from the ceiling). Still, the flight was cheap and left on schedule.

We arrived in Lisbon just about 6.5 hours later, at 8:25 a.m. local time, not having slept much thanks to the talkative family sitting behind us that was oblivious to the fact that maybe other passengers might want to get a couple minutes of sleep. At the carousel, my bag was possibly the last off – but thankfully made the connection in Philadelphia.

(Side note: props to US Airways! Their planes suck, they charge for headphones and beers, don’t give out any sort of amenities like eye masks or earplugs, but are cheap, arrive on time and get bags to their final destination.)

We hopped in a cab for the 20-minute ride to our hotel in Belém, a pretty, seaside neighborhood on the city’s outskirts. Our room at Jeronimos 8 was on the small side, but we didn’t anticipate doing much in it besides sleeping, so it was fine. Plus, the lobby had a lounge-like space and there were some recliners outside on the patio for us to chill out on.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

Battling jet lag and a line snaking out the door, we started our morning at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, a bakery dating to 1837. It’s best known for the pasteis de belém, crispy pastry shells filled with custard cream, baked at 400 degrees then doused in cinnamon and powdered sugar. After demolishing four of them and some bicas (espressos), we were tempted to order another round but held off.

DSC_0035

Just down the block was Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, which was commissioned to commemorate explorer Vasco de Gama’s discovery of a sea route to India in 1498. The first monastery of many that we’ll visit in this country, it was impressive, with intricately carved stone columns (that Charlotte loved) and a serene cloister which monks used to cross in silence.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

A short walk to the shore, we visited the Padráo dos Descobertas, a monument inaugurated in 1960 on the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator’s death. Standing 150 feet tall, it features all of those textbook explorers that departed not far from here, including da Gama.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

Passing fishermen, we walked further to the Torré de Belém, a World Heritage-listed fortress that epitomizes the Age of Discovery (according to Lonely Planet). It was built back in 1515 and has survived the years to offer tourists like us panoramic vistas of the sea today.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

With the lack of sleep starting to catch up on us, we blazed through the Museu Coleccao Berardo, a free contemporary art museum with some bizarre exhibits, and the Museu Nacional Dos Coches, a sweet place with a huge collection of dank old school carriages, including some seriously blinged out rides.

DSC_0035

Back at the hotel, we decided to take a nap. It was around 5 p.m.

Little did we know that we wouldn’t awake until the following morning.

Escape to ancient Bhaktapur

Kathmandu, Nepal

With egg sandwiches and cups of coffee from Pumpernickel Bakery, we set out today — the last day of our trip in Nepal — for Bhaktapur, once a competing capital of medieval Kathmandu Valley. This small city of 65,000 has been wonderfully preserved by a hefty $10 USD entry fee for tourists that goes toward restoration and maintenance.

Our cab driver from yesterday, Diamond, took us on the 1-hour drive beyond Kathmandu’s maddening traffic and dropped us off just before Bhaktapur’s vehicle-free zone. “We’ll meet you here in 2-3 hours,” we said. “Sure, no problem,” Diamond replied.

We were met with a tout for a guide, Horry, who spoke surprisingly good English. He was willing to show us around for just about $1 USD per person, which we happily agreed to. Horry brought us around the city’s three squares — with towering temples set against a rural backdrop.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

Wandering the narrow cobblestone streets brought us past countless vendor stalls, temples, statues, cisterns and wells. And as promised, the city’s squares were filled with fantastic architecture — exquisite wood, metal and stonework detail.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

As was somewhat expected, Horry also brought us to a few workshops of painters, potters and woodworkers – those which would provide him with a kickback for any purchases. We negotiated with the artists and ended up buying a few small items.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

With far fewer tourists to work with, Bhaktapur’s shopkeepers and touts were far more aggressive. A young boy tried to work his pickpocket magic but Ray stopped him from ripping off his wallet. In response, the boy claimed to put some enchanting curse on him.

We decided that was enough and it was time to go.

Back at the taxi park, there was no sign of Diamond. We searched the lot for his signature white Toyota. We hadn’t yet paid him so there was no reason for him to leave. Meanwhile, other drivers started to aggressively market their services.

Convinced that he hadn’t left us (and hoping that he hadn’t taken my Patagonia fleece which was still in the car), John called the guesthouse from a small bodega. In turn, they called Diamond who said that he was sitting in the lot waiting for us.

We walked back into the parking lot and realized that Diamond’s cab was grey — not white.

At the guesthouse, we grabbed a late lunch, burned through the remaining of our rupees with some last minute purchases, including a couple of thangka paintings from a sustainable shop, and got a $7 USD back massage. Soon, Diamond was driving us again, this time to the International Terminal for our flight back to the Carolina, via Abu Dhabi and New York.

As the city’s power cycled off and we weaved through the dark, chaotic streets, barely avoiding animals, vehicles and people, Mike turned to me.

“I’m going to miss this place,” he said.

America’s gift to Nepal

Kathmandu, Nepal

Given our experience flying into the Himalayas two weeks ago, we were all a bit worried about the weather and its potential impact on our return to Kathmandu this morning. Thankfully, the skies were crystal clear as Dawa confirmed that we would be on the 7:30 a.m. Tara Air flight 2.

Just after dawn, the first plane began its terrifying take-off down the short runway.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

Sitting in the airport lounge, we reflected on squat toilets, sleeping bags, rice and freezing cold. Nearly everyone in the group had developed some type of Trail Cold — after days of breathing in dust and dung, there was lots of sniffling and coughing going around. Our bodies were hurting.

How we felt now though didn’t detract from the overall experience. In fact, the accomplishment was just starting to settle in. We continued to ask ourselves: How did we ever do this?

Back in Kathmandu, we transferred back to the Hotel Manang and said goodbye to our guides and some members of the group. Given the lousy accommodation, most of us booked additional nights at the Kathmandu Guesthouse, a well-known institution located just down the road, with a sunny garden courtyard. Perfect for post-trek lounging.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

But we couldn’t rest long. After showers, there was important business to attend to. Namely, food, food and food. Deprived of meat, flavor and any sense of satisfaction on the trek, we had decided our first stop would be an institution guaranteed to provide all three.

DSC_0035

Strangely enough, KFC is actually an upscale eatery in Nepal. My three piece meal with a tiny flat Sprite and handful of fries was about $7 USD. Was it worth it though? Absolutely.

DSC_0035

The chaotic streets of Thamel were surprisingly welcome after nearly two weeks in the mountains. We took in all it had to offer — the ceaseless touts, confined streets overflowing with vehicles, exposed electric wires, even infants dangling off the backs of mopeds.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

Having lounged off lunch, we gave our Lonely Planet a quick read and got motivated for a trip to Pashupatinath. This is Nepal’s most important Hindu temple, sitting on the banks of the holy (highly polluted) Bagmati River, just a few hundred meters from the end of the airport runway.

We took a taxi driven by Diamond there and survived the gauntlet of religious stalls selling all types of paraphernalia: incense, beads, conch shells, rainbow colored powder. Many of the site’s temples are off limits to non-Hindus. But on the riverbanks is an amazingly unique and interesting ceremony that can be viewed in its most authentic form.

DSC_0035

Eight cremation ghats line the Bagmati River for open-air cremations that take place continuously throughout the day. It all happens in a very automated business-like way. Local onlookers sit and chat from the other side of the river.

Simply, this is a part of life and death here in Nepal.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

We wandered around for about 45 minutes and then Ben got some ash in his eye and we decided that might be a sign for us to leave. Diamond was waiting for us and took us back to the Guesthouse, where we cleaned ourselves up and then headed out to dinner at Fire & Ice, which served up Kathmandu’s most authentic pizzas.

Topped with mozzarella, olives, ham and artichoke hearts, mine was easily the best meal that I’ve had since arriving in this country.

Day 11: Namche Bazaar to Lukla

Lukla, Nepal
9,380 feet above sea level; 71% oxygen

This was it. Our last day.

“Everyone always thinks that it’s the easiest,” Dawa said, as we packed up our bags and loaded them onto the yaks. “They forget.”

And with that encouragement, we began our final descent, retracing the same steps that we took last week. The trail was filled with yak and donkey trains and overburdened porters heading to Namche for the Saturday market. There were also far more trekker groups — making us thankful that we had left just before the start of the high season here.

The 12 miles silenced the group for most of the trip. Again, my focus was on one thing: getting home. So, while my camera sat idly in my backpack, luckily Ray felt better about taking in what continued to be one jaw-dropping vista after the next.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

After lunch, the skies began to darken and the wind picked up. It seemed only appropriate that we end this trek in the same way the we had started it — by dealing with terrible weather woes. Alas, there was little more than a drizzle as we began our final ascent up what seemed like an interminable set of stone steps back into Lukla.

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

DSC_0035

And then, in what felt like a strange time warp, we were suddenly back where we started. We collapsed into our beds, had a final bland dinner and then made our way to the village’s only bar. Ordering up Everest beers, we sat inside Wave’s while a cricket match played on a television behind the bar. We raised and clinked our cans in celebratory exhaustion.

This we had earned.