Sunday, October 19, 2008

What Really Happened in Portugal

One of the most satisfying accomplishments of the Portuguese vacation was having the confidence to talk with the people we met. My sister, Grace, and I gained that confidence because we had taken an intensive language course the first week we were in Portugal. It didn't get us even close to conversing in Portuguese, but it provided enough language for us to survive, figure out, and listen. The class was also valuable for us because it provided lots of information about Portugal's culture and history.

We also used an exceptional phrasebook, Lonely Planet's Portuguese Phrasebook. The book was extremely useful, especially for its Portuguese/English, English/Portuguese glossary. The book was well-thumbed by the end of the trip. Here are the basics: 1) learn Hello, good day, good afternoon, good evening, excuse me, and thank-you. 2) Learn the present tenses of to be, to have, to go, to see. 3) Study the menus, and order off the Portuguese part of the menu. 4) Learn directions, (right and left) prepositions (in front of, behind, next to, in, on, under, etc.). 5) Learn some help phrases: where is..., how much..., how many.... 6) Figure out bus schedules, subway maps, etc. If you can understand or hear this range of vocabulary, you'll do very well, even though you can't speak the language.

We found out very quickly that if we started conversations with "Excuse me" everyone we talked to wanted to help. The Portuguese are a very friendly people. After a "Bom dia!" it was easy to say, "Fala ingles?" (Do you speak English?) If the person didn't speak English, it didn't matter, because he or she was bound and determined to help you anyway, and if the new found friend did speak English, well, these American tourists were an excellent opportunity for language practice!

For much less than the price of the language class (it was expensive), I could have hired a tourguide, and probably gained much the same information, but this approach requires some discipline. I would have needed to have studied the phrasebook in some depth before going to Portugal. The language course was very intense, but its biggest problem was that we were in class from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. so our sightseeing on class days was limited to the evening. Some days we were so exhausted (from class and jet lag), that we simply went back to the hotel and crashed. I think next time, though, I'll hire the tourguide, and study the phrasebook before travelling.

My sister and I were touched by the friendliness, and graciousness of everyone we met. We loved the food, although after having many bacalhau dishes, I decided that my taste buds needed a break from salted cod. Another travel tip: we soon discovered that sharing an entree and a salad was more than enough for both of us to eat, and we rounded out the meals with soup and dessert. Don't skip dessert!

I am already thinking about where I want to go when I go back to Portugal. We spent six days in Lisbon (at school), sightseeing in the evenings. We rented a car, and headed onto Óbidos for a few days, via Sintra. Sintra was the summer home of Portuguese royalty. The palace is quite a nice pile of bricks. High above the town is the old Moorish castle. Don't miss going to the castle. It's a romantic ruin, and be sure to hike up from the town to get the full effect.

Óbidos is a walled town set on a hill. It used to be on an estuary that opened into the Atlantic Ocean, but has silted up over the centuries. A major battle of the Peninsular War was fought on the plains outside the town. We stayed here for two full days, taking in the life of a very touristy town. Óbidos is beautiful. We wandered through most of its streets and walkways. Several kilometers from Óbidos, is the sea town of Peniche. During Salazar's regime, the town had a notorious political prison, which today is a museum. The area has some beautiful beaches, and we spent a quiet morning, walking the beach picking up pebbles.

From Óbidos, we headed up to Porto for a couple of nights. On our way, we toured the Roman ruins at Conimbriga. The site has been extensively excavated, and it has a good museum that explains the site.

We arrived in Porto at rush hour. We had no clue where our hotel was. We ended up stopping at a gas station to ask for directions, and also purchased a comprehensive city map. It was a little bizarre, we knew we were in the right neighborhood, but finding the street was difficult. Also, even though I didn't know where I was going, all the drivers behind me knew exactly where they were going. A lot of honking, gesticulating, and a couple of evil eyes ensued. It took us about two hours to find the hotel and park the car. This was after racing down narrow one way streets, and not being able to pull over to read the map, or read the street signs. I was pretty much of a wreck by the time I got the car parked.

A word about driving: nobody obeys the speed limit. Tailgating is a national activity, but you get used to it, and that's just the way it is. After a couple of days, it didn't bother me, but the first day, it raised my blood pressure considerably.

The Lonely Planet folks also have a pretty comprehensive Portuguese Guide. In the description of Porto, it had a walking tour of the city. We followed the guide, and took a wonderful walk in an old historic city, appreciating its place in Portuguese culture and history. Porto is a real working-class town. It's proud of its heritage. We had a port tasting (of course!), visited several over-the-top barouque churches, and saw the birthplace of Henry the Navigator.

I handed the guide book to Grace and told her to tell me where she wanted to go. So from Porto we headed to Vila Nova de Foz Côa. This village is near a valley that is full of paleolithic etchings - the largest collection in the world, about 17,000. The etchings are in a national park that is protected. You can only go into the park with a guide, and that is what we did. It's mind-boggling to know that this area had been inhabited 20,000 years ago. There's a lot of anthropological mystery surrounding the etchings, a lot of unanswered questions.

It was also in Vila Nova de Foz Côa that our credit cards didn't work. For some reason, our MasterCards weren't being accepted in the ATM machine at the town's bank. I was a little unnerved (maybe the financial crisis was getting personal), thinking we might be stranded in a small town in the middle of Portugal, but a couple of hours later, I was able to use the ATM. As it turned out, Grace was never able to get her MasterCard to work, and mine was not accepted everywhere, but I had no problem with my Visa card.

The next day, we drove north to Bragança. It is the seat of the dukedom from which the fourth dynasty of the royal family took its name. The town has a citadel sitting on a high hill that contains the old town, a church, a keep, and the oldest municipal building in Portugal. Climb to the top of the keep. You'll get an impressive view of Bragança and the surrounding country. Also, take a drive into the national park north of the city. You'll have the opportunity to see some ancient villages pretty much the way they've always been.

Bragança was the place of our flat tire incident. For your information, traffic circles are about the only flat places in the city, so that's where I changed the flat tire. And you don't have to speak Portuguese to negotiate the purchase of a new tire. Finally, if you stop at a patisserie while you are getting your tire changed, it puts you in a much better mood.

Our final destination was Guimarães. I wanted to go there because it is the birthplace of the Portuguese state, and it had a castle and a palace. The palace is one of the official residences of the President of Portugal. Salazar used it as one of his residences when he was Prime Minister. We took the tour of the palace, and like all the palaces we visited, made me appreciate the creature comforts of 2101 Bucknell Terrace. The palace (built in the style of a French chateau) contains some beautiful tapestries and life-size angel candleholders among other treasures. Above the palace is the local castle. Originally built to protect a monastery from Moorish depradations, it was later fortified by one of the Dukes of Bragança, so that he could prevent the King of Leon from reasserting control of the duke's fiefdom. That act of independence was the beginning of Portugal. You can also climb to the top of the keep in this castle and get quite of view of the city.

Guimarães is a city of about 50,000, but the old town is much smaller, and very walkable. It has exceedingly narrow streets, and a one-way grid that makes a compelling case for parking the car and walking. We stayed at a cozy residencia overlooking two streets, and were greeted by the recycling truck at 2 a.m., the garbage truck at 3 a.m., and a little barky dog in between.

This summary only hits a few of the highlights. We had a swell vacation!