It seems like an eternity since we left Thailand but really it was only a little over a week ago. Having to go through so many changes such as climate, culture, and time zones, has put our minds and bodies totally out of sync. However, now that we are settled in Portimao in the south of Portugal for the next two weeks, I am at last beginning to feel a sense of satisfaction and some anticipation for what lies ahead.
I must confess that it’s taken some getting used to being back into the western way of life again. It’s always comforting to be back in the midst of the orderliness and cleanliness of life in this part of the world, but it’s been tough dealing with the high prices and the cool temperatures. It’s a real challenge to keep within our budget when the cost of each Euro is now $1.60 Canadian. Moreover, with the temperatures hovering around 15 degrees and our fair share of rainy overcast days, which we are told is unusual for the Algarve this time of the year, adequate clothing can be a problem if one doesn’t relish wearing the same thing every day. Truth be told, I am missing those hot, humid Thai days where sandals and shorts were the order of the day. The one thing I don’t miss though is the dirty air in Chiang Mai which is becoming more of a problem for me every year. I can now revel in Portugal’s clear, crisp air wafting in from the Atlantic Ocean, a little reminder of home and Nova Scotia.
Now that we have put in roots for a while, I’ve had time to reflect on just what we have accomplished in the past ten days since we left Chiang Mai. We flew down to Bangkok and stayed at a hotel near the Sukhumbhumavarni Airport where we prepared for our twelve-hour flight via Air France to Paris. Graham always manages these long hauls with lots of wine which puts him to sleep. I don’t fare so well since I can’t drink lots of wine, and I don’t sleep. My choice is to either read or watch movies. I always opt for the latter as I find this much easier, and it often gives me an opportunity to catch up on some of the latest flicks. I was delighted to see 12 Days a Slave, which I had heard so much about, and another recent release with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts titled August: Osage County, a fairly heavy drama about a very dysfunctional family. After all of this and just one meal, I even managed to squeeze in those old favourites Annie Hall and The Graduate. Whew, by the time we landed, I was exhausted and famished as we only got one full meal during that whole 12 hour trip!
Since our flight to Lisbon wasn’t scheduled to go until late in the afternoon the next day, I had booked us into another airport hotel near the Charles De Gaulle Airport in the suburb of Mesnil-Amelot, a fairly quaint little French village with large cathedral and all. I loved our brief time there. Not only were we treated to some sunshine, but clear blue sky and fluffy white clouds, something we hadn’t seen for a while. Every thing was green and spring flowers were popping up everywhere. Unfortunately, all the pictures I took were lost somehow in my travels.
We arrived in Lisbon that night after a short two-hour flight. Casa Santa Clara, the place where we stayed, couldn’t have been in a better location. It’s an old Lisboan house which has been totally renovated and sits next door to a huge cathedral not far from the Tagus River. We were in the old part of Lisboa known as Alfama, which is noted for that soulful type of singing called Fado.
We spent three days in Lisbon just getting to know this beautiful city built on seven hills on the Tagus River with the Atlantic Ocean looming in the background. Thus, it has a distinct Maritime feel. Our first day was last Sunday, and since museums all have free entrance on that day, we decided to take advantage of their generosity. There are numerous museums to choose from in this historic city, but we decided on the most significant, the Calouste Gulbenkian, named after an Armenian oil magnate, a passionate collector of artifacts encompassing the entire history of both eastern and western art. His collections begin with ancient Egyptian art, then on to Classical Greek and Roman art, to the great treasures from the Islamic and Oriental cultures, and finally the great masters of European art. Never had we seen such an extensive collection of art all in one building! The Portuguese are very lucky to have had all of this bequeathed to them.
Our second day presented us with some very iffy weather (rain and sunny periods) so we decided to take a tour on one of those ancient tram cars for which Lisbon is so famous. In fact, we took tram No.28 which our guidebook told us was a ‘ must do’. So we did and got to experience what a really bumpy ride up and down very steep hills is like and to see just how narrow the streets are in the Alfama district.
Our third day started off sunny, so we opted for another touristy activity that had been recommended not only by our guidebook, but everyone we met, and that was a train trip out to the town of Sintra which was once the summer residence of the kings of Portugal. It’s now a UNESCO site meaning that entrance fees and transportation costs require that you take lots of Euros with you. By the time we got there, the weather had changed and not for the better. Due to weather and the horrific prices, we decided to limit our sightseeing to the castle which dominates the town and just one of the many palaces. The one we chose was the last to be constructed in Portugal by Ferdinand II who pulled out all the stops in having his German architect make it the most fantastic of palaces. There were gargoyles, and chandeliers galore in addition to beautifully landscaped gardens. The whole place had a definite fairy tale aura to it.
The following day, we travelled by train down to Lagos. The trains here are wonderful: fast, efficient, extremely comfortable, and cheap! This, we decided, will become one of our chief modes of transportation while here in the south. We stayed two days in Lagos at a hostel/hotel with shared bathrooms. We aren’t big on sharing bathrooms, but in Portugal in our price range private baths can be difficult to find. Lagos turned out to be a pretty little seaside town near the Atlantic Ocean making it a prime resort area for Europeans, mostly Brits. For this reason, I found it difficult to find a small studio apartment with kitchen facilities to fit our budget, so began to look elsewhere. Fortunately, I lucked in to just what I was looking for: a clean, fairly new one bedroom apartment with a modern kitchen, big bathroom, private balcony, and all that we need to make some of our own meals. This little gem is in the small city of Portimao once the sardine capital of the world. Portimao isn’t so touristy as Lagos or Albufeira as it caters more to the working class rather than the tourist ,but it still has its own charm, such as a nice older part of town, extensive ocean frontage, and a beautiful beach just 2 km. away. I still can’ believe that it isn’t even mentioned in our tour guide-book! To make life even easier, we have a shopping centre with a huge supermarket nearby. An added bit of interest is a nearby camp of gypsies who were here long before the apartment buildings that are starting to crowd the hill.
We’re keeping our fingers crossed that this cold, wet front will soon pass over us so we can get out to explore some of the many smaller villages and towns along this beautiful coast. Since I am now feeling settled into some kind of routine, I hope to get a better feel for the people of this beautiful country and in future posts be better able to give some impressions of the Portuguese way of life. At last, I am prepared to leave behind Thailand in the east and open up to Portugal in the west.