Thursday, October 2, 2008

Three Coins in a Fountain...

Well, I'm not Audrey Hepburn, but I did see the Trevi Fountain today. Ron and I took a sightseeing bus around Rome today, and managed to walk a few kilometers as well. I left you all in Braganca. A lot has happened since then, and I thought I'd try to recount some adventures since then.

The note I sent you from Braganca was from my Blackberry. Blackberry service in the northeastern reaches of Portugal is pretty iffy, so that message did not actually get you to guys until early this morning, after Grace had flown home to Chicago, and I'd arrived in Rome. So sit back, and here's some news....

Before we visited Braganca, we stayed the night n a small high desert town of Vila Nova Foz de Coa, which is the gateway to a national historic park. Originally the area of the park was going to be underwater in a hydroelectric project, but in the process of doing environmental assessments, paleolithic etchings were discovered in the valley, in fact, over 17,000 have been catalogued ranging from 20,000 to 5,000 years ago.

When Grace read about the site in our guidebook, she really wanted to go, so we reserved our tickets, then aimed our car in that direction, drove 150 miles through some beautifully mountainous country, and ended up in a remote Portuguese village. We went into the park in a guided tour. The guide not only told us about the etchings, but told us a lot about the theories about the earliest inhabitants of the valley, their way of life, and talked with us about why they would create these drawings, and the mysteries and questions that the drawings raise. For example, etchings are often done on top of each other, and a single rock canvas may contain sets of drawings that span thousands of years, and next to this jumble of etchings will be a clear, flast rock surface with nothing on it. Why didn't the later artists etch on the unused surfaces? It is a pretty incredible place, and you should add it to your list of places to visit.

So the next day, we finally got to Braganca. I wanted to go there, because Braganca is where the third Portuguese royal dynasty came from. It in the far northeastern part of the country. The area is very mountainous, and the climate is probably a lot like Moscow's. Almost immediately after getting to town, I hit a curb, and gashed the sidewall of one of the rear tires. Oops.

We went to a tourist office to find where we could get the tire repaired, and after that, I drove the car to a traffic circle, because it was about the only flat place in Braganca, and I changed the tire amidst the whizzing traffic of the circle. My life was never once in danger, but it really looked dramatic. Just ask Grace.

At that point, we headed off for the garage, which was closed for lunch, so we had some ourselves at a pastry shop. The owner's daughter came out to take our order, and we proceeded to have this wonderful conversation. The Portuguese are exceedingly friendly, and she was so happy that we were visiting her country. She also gave us a free dessert and coffee, so We were very happy to visit her country, too.

We were first in line when the garage opened. When the attendant saw our car, he immediately knew the problem. He put us on the lift immediatley, removed the temporary tire, and haulted the injured tire out of the trunk. He then stuck his finger through the hole in the sidewall, and gestured that we would need a new tire. He didn't speak English, but we quickly found ways to communicate that left no doubt about what needed to be done. He was a very nice fellow, and went out of his way to help Grace and I get through the whole ordeal, even granting us a lot of dignity in the process. It was almost as if everyone we ran into wanted us to think the very vest of Portugal. I was touched by the generous nature of the people we met.

Well, we got our wheels back, we went back to our hotel, and then set out for the town's museum and castle. The museum featured masks that are used in the winter festivals in this region of Portugal and Spain. Grace and I enjoyed the museum and the gift shop next door. The masks incorporate many different materials and style. I'd like to see some of the festivals in which the masks are worn. Next, we walked over to look at the castle. By this time, it was late in the day, but I told Grace that I wanted to come back the next day to go inside the castle.

And that's what we did. This was a true fairy tale castle. Prince Valiant could live here. And it comes complete with armor swords and a couple of howitzer guns downstairs, because the castle is a military museum, too. The museum is housed in the keep, which rises at least a hundred feet over the other battlements. We climbed up to the roof, and had a majestic and commanding view of Braganca. We also walked along the battlements, and pretended it was 500 years ago. This castle was was built in the 1200s to protect Portugal's northeast corner from the kingdom of Leon.

On Saturday afternoon, after the castle, Grace and I drove into the national park, north of the city, and drove through a half-dozen ancient villages. It is like nothing I've done before. We are in such a different place here. This is not Kansas anymore. The beauty, the differene of place deeply moved us both. It is difficult for me to express how special this trip was for Grace and me. I think we will remember it for many years, and you all will probably get tired of us talking about it.

So the next day, it was time for us to say goodbye to Braganca, and get on the road to Guimaraes, which is the birthplace of the Portuguese state, and believe me, the town wants you to know that! I'm going to save that description for another day, because I know you all want to get to the end of this email.

Ron and I send our love. Tomorrow, we're headed off to see the Sistine Chapel. We saw the Pope today at St. Peter's Square. So did several thousand other people. We also saw the Coloseum, but no gladiators, although lots of guys dress up as Romjan soldiers, and want to have their picture taken with you. Cheesy. Very.