Sunday, August 28, 2016

Europe 2016 Trip Notes # 5

Departing Vila Real, with a little trepidation about having more car issues, we continued on our road trip - destination: Salamanca, Spain.

Our three hour drive to Salamanca was without incident.  

The area east of Porto was quite pretty. We drove through beautiful mountain passes and large patches of vineyards. Then, about an hour into our three-hour trip, the terrain dramatically changed to desert-like areas intermixed with  huge granite boulders - some piled on top of each other (how did that happen?) and a few trees scattered about.

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Crossing the border from Portugal to Spain was like stepping back into time. Old, run down commercial buildings originally set up to inspect truck contents still exist. There was a gas station. The typical, rundown motel and vehicle gate areas for the (Pre EU) border police were still in place..

There is a big difference driving in the two countries. Unlike Spain, Portugal installed emergency phones about every mile of highway. Thank goodness we did not need to use them. However, Jerry kept a mental note as he passed each phone. Besides the phones, there are toll stations in Portugal that (on the average) are about a mile or so apart. Our car comes from a device that automatically is read by cameras as we pass through the toll stations. Lots of "Ca-ching" driving on the Portuguese highways. 

We Finally Made It To Our Hotel

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Salamanca can be better described using pictures than words. This academic and religious center is absolutely amazing. 150,000 permanent residents and 40,000 students live in this town. Other than the tourists, all of the inhabitants could fit into the Coliseum and Dodger Stadium. 

There may be more churches, convents and other religious facilities per capita than any other location. 

The size of these structures are huge. It's difficult to grasp the magnitude of these structures until there there is a relationship.

Door Size Is Difficult To Judge Until...

There Is A Reference Point!

Narrow, winding alley ways in the older part of town gave us a good feeling of what it would be like to try and navigate in this town 500 years ago.

Stairs Leading From Lower Level Alley To A Small Plaza

While walking down one of the alleyways, we happened to look up and saw a row of "Star Of Davids" on top of a small store.

This Storefront Was Probably A Small Synagogue Years Ago

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At the edge of the older, historical part of town is one of the largest plazas around. It is a gathering place to eat, socialize, be entertained or to simply be a people watcher.

Plaza During Siesta Time

Walkway During Siesta Time

A Few Hours Later: Tapa Time

Snacks (Tapas) During Quiet Time

Late Afternoon Tapas

Tapa Entertainment

Post Tapas: Yum!

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"Art" can be anywhere - one just has to look!

 Salamanca Manhole

Another Salamanc Manhole

Large Spanish cities like Madrid, Barcelona and Bilbao have a lot to offer. However, Spain, like other countries, have small, unique towns that truly "Pop!" Salamanca is definitely one of those "special" places to visit.

Convent Next To Our Hotel

 Convent Walkway and Intricate Ceiling

 Convent Patio

Beautifully Designed Structure
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 Salamanca Cathedral 

Rather Large!

Beautifully Designed Building

 Cathedral Pipe Organ

 Cathedral Ceiling 

 Time For a Sermon

 Music Anyone?
Notice The Large Print. 

Old Rope: Used To Build Cathedral

Two to three days in Salamanca is perfect to take in the major sites. More time translates into "ABC" - Another Bloody Church!

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Friday, August 26, 2016

Europe 2016: Trip Notes # 4 

Our Porto hotel's location is absolutely perfect for people watching. Although fairly active during the day, it is the late afternoon through late evening when this place truly comes alive. 

Bachelor-ette Festivities

It is not just the eating and drinking. It is also watching boats go up and down the river. It's watching street entertainers and looking at what the night market vendors have to offer. 

Portuguese Love Song

Restaurants Getting Late Delivery Of Potatoes
(Typical Local Meals: Fish, Octopus or Meat and Potatoes)

Iberico Ham: A Local Specialty

While walking around, we ran into the young man who helped with the luggage when we first arrived.

It turns out that he was very lucky and was able to get a "bellman's" job at a soon to be 5-star hotel. While living at home, he earns a slightly above minimum wage of 575 Euros each month + > 2000 undeclared Euros in tips. He plans to make hotel management his career.

The young man gave us some tips on nearby restaurants. We were lucky to get into a place that specialized in Portuguese tapas. This was a "WOW!" experience. "Carmen," the restaurant owner (nice lady) spent quite a bit of time talking to us. Her restaurant can handle about 24 guests/evening. (It's a hole-in-the-wall place that offers the most delicious tapas with presentations prepared in the most unique ways. 

Iberico Ham, Melted Cheese And Cooked Fruit

Melon, Cheese and Crisp Bacon Bits

Warm Asparagus and Cheese Over Toast

 More Local Cheese? Why not...

To Health And Happiness!

With the meal finished and with a sweet and sour pomegranate gelato desert from a place a few steps away from the tapa restaurant, what could be better!?!?! 
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With plenty of sustenance from a full breakfast and surprisingly easy to find our car in the parking structure, it was now time to try (again) the two malfunctioning GPS' that we brought from home as well as our i-Phone's (Google maps) as our back-ups.

Amazing! The GPS which was not working yesterday was a happy camper today. The other GPS (which worked reasonably yesterday) never acknowledged our existence!

Nevertheless, we arrived per schedule to our first destination (Guimaraes) - famous for its10th-11th century castle which was used to fortify the area, begin the nationhood of Portugal and to start the process of eliminating the Moors.

 Lucky Us - Very Few Visitors

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Many of us or even all of us have tasted Mateus wine at some time in our life. Our second stop was the "Casa de Mateus located near Vila Real - a sleepy town in the rural country-side. 

Remember The Bottle?

This place has a multi-century family history - a mansion filled with old and very valuable items, a small, ornate family chapel and pretty gardens. Not knowing what to expect, we were pleasantly surprised. We even were lucky enough to end up with an English-speaking guide.

A Unique Place Far From Urban Areas

Besides a library filled with "thousands of books," there were old prints along with the original copper plates, We've seen prints before; but, to go along with the copper plates? Amazing! (Photos not allowed!). Ming Dynasty (1600's) place settings, religious icons and priest's ornate (1700-1800's) vestments were also displayed.

 Actual Key That Opens Mansion Doors

Old Tech Vs. New Tech (Car Key)

Mansion Courtyard - Stables And Wine Pressing Area On Left Side

  Pretty Gardens, Pretty Lady

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Well ahead of today's schedule, we were looking forward to our next resting stop where we could simply kick back with a glass of local wine and not doing too much the rest of the day other than, responding to a few emails, go for a swim in the hotel pool and working on the next blog chapter. In fact, Jerry had an idea that he thought could be incorporated into a short story. We were happy with the day - until, getting ready to turn onto a small street and (only) going about 3 MPH, we had a major blowout with a rear tire!

Riding on the rim, we were able to maneuver the car up a hill and park it next to a curb that was somewhat out of the way of the town's few vehicles coming and going. We were stumped. What would we do? What could we do? There is no "AAA." No one was around. It was Sunday. Most of the stores were closed.

A young couple happened to come along. "Mark's" English was quite good and "Rachel's" command of our language was "passable." 

This couple:
·       called Europcar for us
·       got a tow truck (about 30 miles from this town) to come to the rescue
·       discovered that the car did not come with a spare tire.  (The car did not come with "Run Flat" tires.)

Confirmed - No spare!

(Notice The "Crowds" In This Town!?!?!)

The couple also:

·       worked with the truck driver (truck driver's English was so-so) to determine the process (with Europcar) as to whether or not we had to be towed back to the Porto Airport (to exchange cars) - we were about three hours away from the Porto airport.

    translated what the  truck driver concluded - that there were (also) some electrical / computer issues with the car

        drove with us to a COSCO / Pep-Boys type place

·       helped us buy two new tires (the bad tire could not be fixed and there had to be matching tires. Rip off!)

Not A Good Situation!

·       determine (from Europcar) who and how the new tires purchase would be resolved in terms of payment, (We had to buy the tires with an attempt to be reimbursed at a later time

·   and stayed with us while the tires were changed

·    and escorted us to our hotel so we wouldn't get lost!

This entire process took several hours. Besides giving the couple a PMI Frisbee, we slipped Mark some money so that he could buy his girl friend a nice dinner. They were taken back. They were embarrassed. They told us that they were not helping us for the money. We understood. However, we wanted to help them since they were both unemployed, couldn't find a job in this small town and they were both in a "lost" situation with the economy being as bad for them as it has been.

We said our good-bys - hugs and kisses.

We were in our hotel, getting unpacked and working on this blog when our hotel room phone rang. It was Mark. He felt very awkward with our "little gift" and wanted to share it, by the four of us going to dinner. We politely declined. We were very tired. It was a frustrating and emotional day. We wanted to get to bed early since tomorrow would be a long day of driving to Salamanca, Spain.

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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Europe Trip Notes # 3

Our next day of Porto touring had to be carefully planned due to the places we wanted to see were located apart from each other and in different hilly areas. To start, a cab took us to one of the highest points of interest - a small church (Ingreja Sto. Lidefonso) with a facade made with beautiful tiles. (We figured that it would be easier to walk downhill to a site than uphill).

A Small Gem

Next stop was to wander through a non-touristy neighborhood to look for a store that sold hair-gel. (The French airport security confiscated Jerry's hair gel). The big decision was to try and figure out which large tube of gel should be purchased - the $2.00 variety or $5.00 brand. With limited English, the sales clerk told us that it was all about "the label," not the quality. Jerry bought the $2.00 tube. He'll know right away whether or not it will work.

Following our "Gel purchase," we wandered down a main street and poked our heads into bakeries and watched people having a light breakfast. 

Our Favorite Egg White - So Light and Airy

After the "bakery run," it was a lot of fun to walk the streets, nod "Hello" to the locals and to get a feel of how "the normal people" live.

Mostly walking down hill, we came across a small fortress which appeared to be part of the cathedral.


While inside, we happened to see either a christening or baby naming.

View From Cathedral

Next was a quick walk onto Gustave Effile's bridge for a panorama perspective of the river below.

A Little Windy - Can't Wait For The Hair Gel!

Minutes away and a slight up-hill walk is Porta's train station known for it's interior - an amazing array of historical and religious pictures depicted on porcelain tiles.

Porta has interesting artwork throughout the town

Too far to walk and too many hills to navigate, we cabbed it to Kadoorie-Mekor Haim Synagogue. Until recently, there were only 50 known Jews left in the town. With the recent anti-semantic issues in France and other countries coupled with a 2013 law passed in Portugal inviting Jews to return to this country, many hundreds flocked to Porto (site of several religious conferences) seeking citizenship and/or (perhaps) even more than several hundred Jewish "visitors" arrived with a plan to remain in the area.

We wanted to go inside the synagogue. Unfortunately, a security guard was insisting that the place was closed because it was Saturday even though the Rabbi was standing on the roof's balcony. We did not want to push it so, "Thank you, Google!"

 Back in the cab, we headed off to Livraria Lello, a local book store and who some say is the world's most famous bookstore due to its architecture and interior decoration.

This place is so famous that tourists have to get a ticket and stand in line for an hour or so - just to take a look at the place. Not for us. Google pictures work fine - and, with little effort on our part!

Back to the hotel area we went for a walk along the river bank. We ended up at a small wine bar (that also served beer, a variety of different types of olives and a special type of bean.

In order to eat the bean (cured in a light brine liquid) , it is placed between the front teeth. Then, after a slight bite down motion, a sheath is detached from the actual bean inside the cover. (The restaurant owner had to teach us how to eat the bean). The bean was quite good and fun to eat. Also, Sagres beer is one of the best - ever!

 After the beans and beer, it was time for a little creativity.

Jerry Is Drawing a Picture With Watercolor Pencils.

With drawing finished,  we found ourselves back at a small cafe that serves a delicious desert. They call their concoction, "Molotov" - not the bomb but baked egg-whites- not meringues - dripping in honey, a sugary syrup  and their secret ingredient. My-oh-my-oh-my...

Sharing  a piece of our favorite dessert...again!

The cafe's name is, "Casa Lopes," we have spoken to each family owner member in hopes that they were a relative to Cecile (our daughter-in-law) or they might know of her relatives. They did not know her relatives. However, buying things at their store so often (not just sweets but also water), making friends and simply saying "Hi," we were gifted with a small bottle of local wine. A real nice touch!

Everywhere we have gone so far in this trip, we have met some really nice locals that have made this trip (even at its beginning) - special!

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