I did not go to Porto or Lisbon. I did not see one tourist attraction. And I had the best Portugal trip ever, exploring the mountain villages of northern Portugal. This trip was amazing because of encounters with an old shepherd and his flock and the “Portuguese Mafia” who knew America better than I did, run-ins with wild cows and horses, a death-defying walk across a medieval aqueduct, and a random meeting with a swinger couple in an ancient town that looks like Bedrock, home of the Flintstones.
You’ll find really fascinating Portuguese history intertwined with adventures in towns you’ve probably never heard of. But that you should visit. This was the first leg of a three week adventure, followed by a special father-son trip visiting World War I sites in northern France and Belgium.
Day 1: Roman-Norse-African-French town of Bordeaux
The change in plans gave me an opportunity to see parts of France I’ve never experienced. I picked up my car at the Hertz counter at Paris CDG Airport. I love Hertz at home because they give me good discounts and free one-way rentals with points. But at this location, they always, without fail, tell you your car class is not available and try to upsell you. And I heard another agent trying to sell two American girls GPS for $20.00 per day. Maybe I was cranky from the overnight flight, but I spoke up and said, “That’s not right. You don’t charge other people that amount.”
Unlike other people, I get along just fine with French people and love their country. Just not the French Hertz people :). Onward.
One would be tempted to think of Bordeaux as a quintessential French town. Until you dig deeper. And realize that the Romans were here. So were the Goths, the Moors (remember the Muslims from Northern Africa with the amazing mosaics in Spain?), and even the Vikings.
While the concrete pillars of my condo need to be repaired after 20 years, the remains of this Roman Coliseum are 1700 years old.
This rich Bordeaux wine I had with my prosciutto and melon (the salt of the Italian-cured ham is amazing with the sweetness of the melon) was the perfect light lunch. It’s actually pretty Italian given that the Romans planted this hearty vine in the rich French soil two thousand years ago.
The city has a lovely waterfront where over 100 people were doing salsa dancing at 11pm. This water and location in southwestern France gave the city prominence as a shipping hub. So in the 1700 and 1800’s, when your organic growth at home fades, what do you do? Colonize other countries to appropriate their resources, of course!
So Bordeaux became wealthy from the shipping of spices, sugar and other valuable items from Africa and India. And then an even more valuable “commodity”: slaves from Africa.
Another curious thing happened about that time. The French Revolution. The populists overthrew the monarchy. Only a funny thing happens when revolutionaries topple the authority figures–they become the ones in power. And throughout history, the populists have often created worse bloodbaths than the evil rulers they overthrew…because they are the ones now in power! So Bordeaux sent moderates to Paris to have a calming influence. They were called the Girondins.
Why is this monument to the Girondins such a prominent part of the city? Because the humanist leaders “of the people” promptly severed the heads of the Girondins via the guillotine. Lesson: never trust people who put “the cause” ahead of the people they supposedly represent!
Disheartened by the suffering, I sought solace in chocolate. And found it. This eclair was especially delicious because of the little chocolate chunks on top–I like the added texture against the creamy chocolate mousse inside. Hard to hate the French when they give you this!
After my best flight ever with minimal anxiety, I wanted to power through to get on my new time schedule. If you stop moving, you fall asleep. So you tell yourself you don’t believe in jet lag. And then you walk 10 miles all over the city, stopping in little grocery stores to get snacks for picnics over the coming days. It’s hard to find public toilets so you kinda have to buy a beer for access to the bathroom. The only problem is beer goes right through me so it’s an endless cycle, which is okay because it’s so cheap!
So I get this great Belgian beer in a cool old bar, plus the bread and crushed olive spread, for $3.80.
It was my first night ever in an Air B&B, a new experience for me. I had a private bed and bath in this young couple’s apartment by the river. The hostess shows me her furniture designs–she’s very creative and sweet. I ask her where she holidays. “Anywhere French people aren’t.” She’s French. She’s likes Italians and their food better. She’s probably not alone. But I prefer France.
So the best part of the day was my nighttime walk. Past the salsa dancers. Past people eating outside at 11pm. I was determined to eat at the best French restaurant in town. But it’s tiny. Only holds 22 people. They squeezed me in at the bar, where I could watch them prepare the food.
I order Le Canard. Who would have imagined the pickiest eater in the family would ever eat duck? It is delicious precisely because the French are genuine artisans with their flavor combinations, subtlety, and minimalism. Just interesting flavors in every bite. In honor of Mom, I get the chocolate mousse for dessert.
I get to talk to the girl who runs the place, and she teaches me about French food and wine, and what it’s like to run a restaurant. A great way to end the first night.
Goodnight from this Roman-Norse-African-French town of Bordeaux, France. Love to all!
Day 2: Surprising, Sunny San Sebastian, Spain
I wasn’t expecting much of this city. I thought it would be over-hyped and too “touristic” as the Europeans say. I was wrong. I felt joyful all day.
San Sebastián is firmly in the grips of Basque Country, a fiercely independent and often times separatist culture in northern Spain and southern France around the Pyrenees Mountains.
I had cause for concern. This is Jeff Spicoli, perpetually stoned surfer dude from 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Below is his Basque brother, Nicolas, my host. When I arrived at 12:30, he had just woken up from partying last night. Bro.
Nicolas seems perpetually high. And nice. This place has four bedrooms and a shared bath. Feels kinda like a hostel or frat party, and I’m the Dad visiting the campus. Not my comfort zone. But I’m happy. And it’s only $90 versus $225 for a hotel. Plus I wanted to know the best bar where locals watch the World Cup games. And I could count on Nicolas to know!
This white sandy beach is spectacular. It’s a little cove with blue-green water surrounded by two large hills. A monstrous statue of Jesus stands high above the castle where Napoleon’s cannons once pounded this city.
The views are amazing as you climb this hill. Boats are anchored in the harbor. Hundreds of people are swimming. A palm tree-lined promenade circles the beach with people eating ice cream and enjoying vacation.
This is the beach in 1887. And now. So you can imagine women in white dresses and parasols strolling the promenade 130 years ago.
I met the Spanish version of Mr. Bode at a little tapas bar close to my place. Same mannerisms as Pop Bode. Gentle, kind (talkative) man. I always ask locals what they like most. Mistake this time. He gave me two plates of food. Both smelly fish and sardines. Ick. I didn’t want to offend him so I gave him the thumbs up sign and asked for a piece of chocolate cake. Then I closed my eyes, put a bite of sardines into my mouth and washed away the taste with chocolate cake before gagging. But I did it!
Great experience with a kind soul. I changed into my swimsuit, threw all my valuables into a bag because there’s no lock on my door, and walked 10 minutes to the beach. I found a spot away from other people where I thought my bag would be safe while I went in to swim. That’s the perpetual problem of swimming alone. But the water was great–warm with little waves you can catch and ride. Very pleasant and fun.
I didn’t want to walk back and change, so I just walked dripping all the way to the local bar. Three fantastic tacos and a Guinness for $8.50! So I got a second round of tacos, which still left me with change for a hazelnut ice cream.
The bartender said the Spanish are his worst customers because they complain about how expensive it is. He likes Americans because we tip when no one else does. I asked if Portugal was a natural enemy of their soccer team. He waved his hand dismissively. “People only know Portugal because it’s our tiny, forgotten step-brother.” Tuck that away for future reference.
I ended up watching two soccer games here. It’s fun to watch with Europeans because this is the sport of their continent, really of the entire world. They were loud and yelled at the refs because the favorite team lost. I somehow got trapped by an obnoxious Canadian who couldn’t stop bragging about himself–until I learned it was his wife who was so successful. I rarely do this, but I faked like I was getting a call from Casey so I could step outside…and then I disappeared! Check this out below. It looks real, doesn’t it?
It’s an illusion In the sand by a super interesting guy who fled a civil war in Africa, sailed away for three weeks in a makeshift boat to escape, settled here and taught himself six languages. Made me feel like a schmuck! But that’s why I come here. To meet interesting people.
It’s hard to explain how beautiful it is here. There’s a bustling old town filled with people. Views from everywhere. Nice breezes. No, it’s not Nice. But it’s extremely affordable, not too crowded, and just a pleasing place to spend a couple days relaxing.
There was a gorgeous red and purplish sunset tonight between the two hills. Hard to see but it’s just captivating with the white sand beaches lit up, people swimming at 11pm, outdoor cafes full, people enjoying vacation.
Today was a day filled with joy. Two full, rich and memorable days. I’m grateful. San Sebastian will be a new go-to stopping place whenever I am near this region again. Love to all!
Day 3: Magnificent Manteigas & Brief Portuguese History
Traffic. Traffic. Left turn to the mountains. Peace. Alone. Bliss.
This is the impossibly charming little village of Manteigas, nestled in a glacial valley. It is tourist free. It is sadly becoming almost people free as there are more deaths than births here each year. Young people are fleeing for opportunity in northern Europe.
You can hear the breeze as time stands still here. The only frustrating part? Incredibly steep, narrow streets you have to navigate in a stick shift with no working GPS. I stopped the car in the middle of the road to ask for directions to my Air B&B and a gentleman came out of his store to help me, but I drove in circles until I discovered that Google Maps works when Apple doesn’t/ Other than a few curse words driving, it brought me great joy.
I shall intersperse Portuguese history with these photos taken while flying around wonderful curves up a mountain. I was able to climb on rocks and slide on snow to get this picture. Again, blissful.
So you’re a tiny country in the Middle Ages with few natural resources and terrible soil. How do you make your mark? Well, you are born fisherman and know the sea. Fortunately, you have the precursor to Peter the Great (Russian czar obsessed with boats) in Prince Henry the Navigator.
He assembles the wisest men of his time to learn about science and navigation. Including the Jews, excellent cartographers and scientists, who will later be shamelessly and stupidly exiled in 1492, robbing your empire of bright minds.
The Portuguese build the best ships and spend nearly a century figuring out how to get around the Cape of Good Hope. Everyone else hugs the South African coast and is shipwrecked. One adventurous Portuguese captain sails away from the coast and discovers trade winds that ultimately open up India and the Middle East to Portuguese domination. Gotta love the fortitude.
The result. Fabulous wealth beyond description in the 1400’s and 1500’s. Tiny Portugal is awash in gold. And power. And prestige. It’s the golden era of exploration lead by Vasco Da Gama, Magellan and others. (Many homes here are built in this style below. A little different.)
The downsides? As we will see later, the wealth corrupted their society. And this recurring theme in human nature doomed them. Who has the courage and tenacity to face down death by the sea or natives in other countries? Captains who are arrogant, hate authority, and use power to dominate others. The very seeds of greatness necessary to explore and conquer new lands are the seeds that would sow their own destruction.
Portuguese captains were the first to use cannons effectively on their ships. In the name of Jesus, they spread needless destruction on Muslims, Indians, and others. And it came back to bite them. They have been asleep for the past 500 years, virtually irrelevant. But in their day, the Portuguese were captains of the earth and heralded great advances in science, oceanography and other disciplines.
If you zoom in, you can tell this is a catholic country! I found the people here to be kind and humble. I’m learning a few Portuguese words, but they have their own dialect here in the mountains. So you kinda just smile and point at stuff.
I ate at a family run place for both meals. No one spoke English. No English menu. So you smile and point and pantomime for them to bring you what they would eat. They smile. It’s awkward and uncomfortable and marvelously wonderful all at the same time.
Tender pork marinated in garlic for lunch. Veal with friend eggs and fries for dinner. Plus bread, olives and wine for $10 each meal. Abrogado!! While I was eating dinner, a little girl walked up and just took fries off my plate. Adorable. This is where the family lives and eats. Simple life.
The hosts of my place were there for dinner and invited me to sit with their friends. Couldn’t be nicer. Came back to my room and had this view out through the terrace. All for $70 because that’s all the Portuguese can afford.
I loved this town and experience so much. I think I’ve grown quite a bit in handling stuff over here, which guarantees I’ll freak out tomorrow! But I’m happy with growth in confidence. And I think I’ll be back here to hike for three days next time. It’s spectacular. Thank you for joining me. Love to all!
MORNING HIKE WITH A SHEPHERD
This is Mr. Augosto. He’s 74 and has been a shepherd his entire life. Every morning, after milking his cow and taking care of the other animals, he leads his flock into the highlands to graze for two hours. They know his voice and he knows theirs. After the morning walk, he puts them in a shaded building to stay cool. And then takes them for another evening walk.
Twice a day. Every day. Rain. Snow. Sunshine. Heat. He doesn’t take Sundays off. No days off, really, for 74 years. Why? “Because my sheep need to eat.”
I had the amazing opportunity to accompany him on his morning hike. You see he’s in long pants with the traditional coat, tattered shirt, hat and staff. These hills were steep and yet he was never out of breath.
I discovered him through Air B&B Experiences after booking my cool apartment here in Manteigas. Local ecotourists are trying to promote the art of the shepherd to preserve and pass down the heritage.
Mr. Augosto is a dying breed of man. Young people don’t have the skills, endurance, or desire to live this way. Even his kids have left Portugal to seek more prosperous jobs in Germany and France. Mr. Augosto and his wife live completely off the land–between their garden, pigs, cow, and sheep, they have plenty to eat. His wife sells the goat’s milk and soft sheep cheese.
It was a rare experience that I was thrilled with, walking so closely to all the sheep, having an opportunity to learn what his daily life is like. He has a kind and gentle nature, I guess as you’d expect from a good shepherd. And his little dog is always by his side, except when he’s rounding up the sheep or playing with the little ones.
We stopped at the top of the hill to enjoy a picnic with homemade bread, bacon, sausage, cheeses, jams, figs and wine.
You can hear how Mr. Augosto communicates with the sheep in this short video.
There was a cycling competition happening in the mountains and one of Mr. Augosts’s challenges was getting his flock across the road without causing a cyclist to crash!
We walked down to the cool, shaded pen where he keeps the sheep for the afternoon. You can sense his weariness, but it’s all he’s ever known. Except for his military service in a losing effort to keep Angola from winning its independence in 1974.
He expressed his gratitude by giving me some fresh cheese to take with me on my road trip. I saw a sheep bell hanging by the house as I left and asked if I could buy it from him–he said it was his grandfather’s. But he graciously offered to sell it to me. I will treasure this memory! The sheep bell is hanging on my closet door to this day.
Very grateful for another amazing day. And it’s only just begun! Love to all.
Day 4: The Flintstones Lived in Monsanto, Portugal
Look closely. This massive boulder is actually the roof of this home in Monsanto, Portugal. As you walk the cobblestone streets that have not changed much for the past 400 years, you’ll see homes sandwiched between, under and on top of two-ton granite boulders. This one uses the boulder as a wall.
The entire town, set on a steep cliff with those narrow streets I love, is made of granite. It’s a huge maze and no house is the same as everything is built around the boulders.
You can imagine Fred and Wilma settling down here. With a boulder through their roof like below.
The Romans and Muslim Moors did. And once you climb to the 11th century castle built by the Templar Knights (more tomorrow) after dislodging the Moors, you can see why.
It’s difficult to capture on camera, but this village sits high atop this plateau that affords magnificent 360 degree views. At sunset, a red ring alights the entire rim of the horizon. Why is that important?
Look where Monsanto sits, in the central crossroads for any advancing armies looking to capture a port city. From high up in this castle (which looks kind of like a Stonehenge of ruins), you can see approaching armies dozens of miles away. And this place is fairly impenetrable.
Here’s a fun local legend. Monsanto’s citadel had been under siege for over a year and was down to its last sack of grain and one calf. Knowing they were on the brink of surrender, the village leader decided to feed the entire bag of grain to the calf, which he then threw over the castle walls. When the cow exploded in front of the enemy soldiers, they were amazed at how much food the village still had and abandoned their siege.
I stayed with a warm, older Portuguese couple whose grandparents owned this old stone house dating from the 1800’s. It’s got these wide granite stairs and a lovely terrace where I dozed off for a bit. Plus killer AC on an 88 degree day in this little bedroom with a killer view.
The grandson (10) knew a little English and walked to the bottom of town to help me drive my car up to the right spot. I think he was happy to meet an American since this place doesn’t get a lot of overnight tourists (it’s usually a daytrip).
I had a brief scare at dinner. I gave my last cash to Mr. Augusto and my debit card isn’t working. After eating tomatoes, chorizo, cheese and olives on this terrace, I went to pay. Cash only. I don’t have any and don’t want to land in a Portuguese prison. I offered the owner US dollars at a very favorable exchange rate (for him) and now have about 50 euros. Close call.
I’m glad Casey taught me early on not to be a day tripper (cruises and tour buses typically dump people into cities between 10-4) because you miss the best times to explore–in the morning and evening around sunset. When there are no tourists and it’s cooler. And you have the best light.
Goodnight from Monsanto, Portugal. Love to all.
Day 5: Where Time Went Backward (Lunch at Mel’s Diner)
It’s like a lunar landscape in these ruins. People were here 800 years ago. Watching the same sun. I’m sitting on a boulder that’s been here for millions of years, listening to a rooster’s morning welcome carried on a gentle breeze up from the valley.
You close your eyes and imagine who walked and lived and died in this spot 800 years ago, still in the clutches of the Dark Ages. We forget that time actually not only stood still–it went backwards. There were literally centuries upon centuries in which technology and knowledge regressed after the Roman Empire collapsed.
We take it as a given that technology and progress keep speeding up because this is what we’ve known. With AI, it’s mind boggling. But the soldiers and townspeople living here 800 years ago would have come upon massive aqueducts and thought, “What giants must have lived here!”
The idea of drawing with a vanishing point, of building using arches, the accumulated knowledge of the Greeks and Romans, disappeared for centuries. Most of human existence has centered on one thing: mere survival. We are so far from that.
So after a reflective morning, I set out to see the coast. More specifically a coastline known for having monstrous, 50 foot waves. I wanted to see surfers disappear into the curls and listen to whitewater crash down. Alas, it was not meant to be. It was a sort of ugly drive, clouds hovered over the Atlantic, and the tide was out. So I crept away and less than a mile from the coast I found this reindeer in this park. Just odd. But it was an odd day.
I had a couple little towns listed as worth seeing on my list and decided to give it a try. One had an old city wall you could walk on top of, but I pulled up, saw the tour buses, and made sure I spent less than an hour there. Complete tourist trap. So now I’m kind of meh and really hungry. And there’s this dinky little town and I don’t know how parking works and don’t want to get towed and am kind of flustered. There’s nothing open for food. Until I walk into this empty diner and feel the stares like I’m from the Twilight Zone.
They don’t speak any English. Flo points at three options. I point to lamba and then regret ordering lamb (If that’s what it was) from freaking Mel’s Diner. Flo, Vera, and Alice are sitting at the counter eating their lunch and I’m the weird foreigner. Notice the picture on the wall of the diner like it was back in the 50’s–all that’s missing are autographs from Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr. like in a good Long Island diner.
Whatever that meat was, it was good! So I utter “muito bom” (very good!) with a smile and out comes the warmth from the old ladies. Then I say chocolate with my best French accent for some reason and get more smiles. And this. I’ll get three servings out of that! All for only $8.80.
I did find a castle on top of the hill in this town, but it was closed. Kind of how the day went. Still, you’re in a foreign country exploring so it’s not all bad.
So I headed to Tomar, where I’m staying in a 2-BR apartment with living room, kitchen, AC, and washing machine for two nights for $90. Only if you run the AC and washer at the same time, you blow a fuse. The hardest part about Air B&B’s so far is the logistics of finding the actual apartment building (there are no big obvious hotel signs or parking) and meeting the owner at the right time.
I had a restaurant all picked out for dinner. Really excited. But it’s not open tonight for some reason. So I walk over the bridge and through the slightly cute town, hungry, mildly irritated, not sure what to do. I look up and see the castle on top of the hill that I want to see first thing in the morning. With my crappy sense of direction, I decided to find the walking path tonight so I’d be prepared.
So I wandered up to the castle around sunset. But then I kept walking for some reason, maybe because I saw everyday neighborhoods and love to see how people live, hang their laundry, etc. And during this walk, I discovered something way cool, just by walking and walking some more, that may be slightly dangerous. I’m gonna try it at sunrise. I like those random, unexpected discoveries.
Like this meal to end the night at 10:30. Prosciutto and figs. Yeah. They are huge and delicious. And in season, so every dish features figs. Like asparagus in Germany!
I don’t know why I think this way, but sometimes when a day hasn’t been super great or even disappointing, a memorable meal like this, along with a friendly waiter, can kind of salvage the day. Sometimes I even seek out that kind of meal if there’s nothing really interesting in a town.
Excited for good history stuff and a big adventure tomorrow. Goodnight and love to all!
Day 6: Tomar–5 Reasons Knights Won The Day
Sometimes the greatest problems create big opportunities. Sometimes not having a benefactor is a gift because it forces one to become resourceful, creative and resilient.
I’m not a big fan of knights or medieval renaissance festivals (or sweater vests) because I value being wanted by a woman. But I was fascinated by this tiny inland town that I believe should be the Mecca of Portugal.
This is the ancient home of the Templar Knights (Knights of the Temple), established in 1120 originally to protect vulnerable Christian pilgrims traveling to the Holy Land. They were to have an inordinate impact on Portuguese history, which is why I chose to come to this small town of Tomar. In between historical notes are pictures of this imposing cathedral fortress and gorgeous rotunda chapel modeled after the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
5 Reasons the Templar Knights are Important.
1) As an order sworn to personal poverty and devoid of official funding, they were forced to be creative. Their adroit administrators developed the first real banking system known, effectively creating American Express Traveler’s Cheques 800 years before AMEX. This allowed Christian pilgrims to travel across hostile territory without getting robbed.
2) They pioneered property management and became innovative in launching businesses across the known world, and are considered the world’s first multinational corporation.
3) Their Knights were storm troopers, effectively a Special Forces unit who would break through enemy lines to create chaos and surround opposing armies. This was Napoleon’s favorite tactic 600 years later.
4) The Templars were critical in helping Portugal fight for independence and the Reconquista, taking back lands from the invading Muslim Moors. I love that Spain and Portugal have honored the Moorish influence by keeping the open courtyards and mosaic tiles in their buildings. Also lemons and orange trees.
5) The Templars were officially disbanded 200 years after inception, but just gained a different name headed by Prince Henry the Navigator. He’s the one who spearheaded tremendous learning and advances across the sciences in pursuit of navigational dominance. It was these Templars who funded the Great Age of Exploration in the 1400’s and 1500’s, leading this tiny nation to become among the world’s wealthiest and most influential.
That’s why I wanted to stand in the same places they did 800 years ago. I almost had the place to myself and it is impressive. I especially liked this courtyard used for meetings that had no roof.
They incorporated new technology into their castle, building out the base to prevent enemy siege machinery from getting too close.
It was a cool experience partly because it wasn’t overrun with tourists. If you look closely throughout this area, you will still see some of the Moorish influence in the open courtyards with orange trees and geometric mosaic tiles that we saw throughout southern Spain.
It’s funny what can turn an otherwise somewhat boring town into a favorite. One is food and a friendly waiter who recognizes you when you walk by, invites you in, and recommends a killer meal. Pizza with arugula, goat cheese, and prosciutto.
This happened to me at lunch today so I actually ate three meals at the same restaurant. It’s that trade-off. You stretch yourself in one area like a death-defying walk (next post), but then seek comfort and routine and normalcy in other areas. Like a familiar waiter and meal. And chocolate.
I especially like Air B&B places because it feels like home. It’s the first time I’ve had two nights in the same place, with a living room, a kitchen, a real washing machine (rather than the sink) and an awesome dryer rack!
Upon leaving the massive fortified church this morning, it was evident that they had built an aqueduct (right of picture) to bring fresh water inside in case of a siege and for the rulers’ comfort.
And it is that aqueduct that would lead me to one of the best adventures of the trip…
Crawling Across An Aqueduct 100 Feet High
This aqueduct was built starting in 1593 using technology and building materials invented over 1,000 years prior. Can you imagine modern architects even imitating a style from a few decades prior, let alone centuries?
It was built to provide water to the cathedral and monastery in Tomar, Portugal, home of the medieval Templar Knights. It runs for 4 miles with exacting precision over uneven terrain. Just think how it had to be build perfectly with no modern instruments or computer calculations. Can you imagine me trying to build something like this? I’d have water flowing backwards and have to tear it all down.
It’s not really a touristy place, though it’s fascinating to discover this just popping up over a roadway like it’s just another billboard or something. Virtually no one comes here. Or they stop and snap a picture.
And to be honest, I never would have found this if I hadn’t ventured out last night past the castle. There’s a special joy that comes in walking and walking and seeing nothing, save how everyday local people live, but then you take a chance crossing a dusty field with thorn bushes and scrub brush, and then up ahead you see the outlines of this magnificent structure. Darkness is closing in, so you head home thrilled with the anticipation of finding it the next day. And so you wake up and begin the long walk, and as you walk toward it, it becomes bigger and bigger in your sight.
You’re not just driving up and snapping a picture and moving on (checking off the box), you are literally getting hours of enjoyment and anticipation, and it becomes an experience you remember.
They say you can walk the expanse, but it’s a long freaking way!
And there is no ledge or lip. It’s even worn away in places. Meaning it is actually crumbling.
Plus it’s almost 100 feet high. Above concrete. And I have a fear of heights. Death would be probable.
I walked 3 1/2 miles to get to this spot this morning. And it was worth it.
Because with sweaty palms, I walked (and practically crawled!) across the entire expanse!! As motivation to overcome this fear of heights, I told myself I would regret my life and ruin this trip if I chickened out. But it would make my day to do it. Slowly but surely, I did it. And there was no one else in sight.
I took this rare selfie on the “safe” part of the journey because I knew there was no way I’d be letting go of the crumbly inner part of the aqueduct that had rainwater in it. So I was pretty happy right here. But then I got around the bend and saw the straightaway, with no ledge, at its highest point. And this is when I inched across.
The views were spectacular and it was one of the highlights of my trip. I don’t think I would have done it if other people were around. There’s something about the solitude that enables you to go inward.
I am grateful for this opportunity to explore, this moment. Thank you for sharing it with me. Love to all!
Day 7: Bizarre Day with Swingers in Soajo, Portugal
Today was just a bizarre day. Good. But bizarre.
I drove three hours north to a tiny mountain village in a national park called Soajo. It’s really tucked back in the mountains here and feels like you’re traveling back to 1860. I was virtually the only one on the mountain highway coming in. Wonderful.
On the outskirts of town, at a high point dominated by a large granite outcrop, is a communal threshing terrace, an impressive group of twenty-four stone espigueiros (granaries), dating from the 1700’s and 1800’s, where the community stores its corn. The crosses at the top represent divine protection of their contents, survival of the community, “our daily bread.”
It has this weird Stonehenge feel to it, but the mountains beyond are beautiful. I came here to experience Portuguese living in a different era. And I did.
They still have their version of the Amish in traditional dress on a hot Wednesday afternoon.
Check in was weird because there are no street names or numbers really. The hosts give you a dot on Google Maps and a picture. But they are all old stone houses, in narrow non-linear alleys, that look alike! So I stopped for a $1.20 beer looking up at the granaries.
And then I decided to just walk. Not hike a trail. Just pick a road and walk. And so I did. Which led to some off the beaten path up past people’s back yards above town. The views are spectacular.
You see lots of flowers and flower pots. People’s laundry hanging outside near their personal granary.
I felt like a stranger from another time walking literally through their tight little community. There are no established boundaries in a sense, the homes and granaries build hodgepodge next to and around each other, and you can see how they must all know each other too well.
So I follow this narrow trail with rushing water through a ravine. I like water. But then it narrows too much and drops off. So I turn back and as I’m beginning to think about dinner, I see this massive steer walking toward me. Just freely walking. Look how big those horns are. I ducked behind a corner. He’s massive.
It’s so bizarre how the sheep and cows here roam freely. So I watch the cow walk exactly down the path where I just was and simply plop down to enjoy a gorgeous view. Had he been three minutes earlier, I don’t know how I’d have gotten around him! A guy told me later they just roam and know the smell of their owner’s corn so eventually come home. So I sit with two old Portuguese men and watch the World Cup for a few minutes. But it’s getting dark and I need to eat.
So I walk to the recommended restaurant. It’s closed. I have a mini moment of anxiety. What will I eat if the town is shut down? So I pop into a cafe and buy two stale croissants. I can slab butter on them for dinner. But I haven’t given up. I eventually find one of the three restaurants in town and sit down next to a mom and son who moved from Bremen (west) to Dresden, Germany. The kid (22) tells me that in school in Dresden (formerly East Germany, authoritarian), the students all had to stand when the teacher entered the room and bid him hello by name in unison.
The owner is a young guy. Speaks English. I ask him to simply bring me whatever the locals would eat and drink.
The sausage appetizer is spicy. And the beef is from the brother of that local steer I encountered earlier! Very tender. The salad even has amazing flavor with peaches and all local vegetables. I stay afterward and watch the end of the match with he and his father. Such interesting history. I go to pay but I am out of cash. He says to come back tomorrow night and bring cash. I don’t know if I can get any!
So it’s dark now. I get lost. It all looks the same. I’m standing in the middle of the road. A young couple asks if I want to grab a beer with them. No. I want to find my house! Björn is Norwegian. His apparently swinger wife is Guatemalan. She makes weird, suggestive comments. He eventually finds my place. “We’d love to see the inside,” they say. But that means I may not be able to get rid of you. “Plus you have wine,” they say.
So I invite them in to my admittedly cool stone cottage built in 1840 and pour them wine. They are nice and he gives me interesting insight into Norwegians. Kinda stuff I like. But she’s odd and the situation is weird. I’m 52. They are like 28 with a toddler who’s with his mother back at their place. Which is where I want them. So after they drink their wine, I say I’m tired. They leave.
I step outside to call Mom and I hear clacking down my little alley.
And what’s lumbering through? A huge freaking cow again. Just right through these crowded streets as if he’s an old man taking an evening stroll at 11pm. It’s just bizarre. I see him again taking another round right below my bedroom.
He’s snorting and then making loud noises. Dogs are barking. There are animals making noise all night. I’m afraid cats or dogs or weird mountain children are going to climb through my open windows so I don’t sleep much. But I awake to a beautiful day out through the same window.
Now let’s see if my ATM card works! Thanks for sharing this experience with me!
Day 8: Hiking & Swimming in Soajo, Portugal
The second happiest part of the day was a hiking experience with Manuel, a local guide who is passionate about his village and preserving their traditions. He is a wealth of insight as we hike up an old Roman road on granite stones that are 1,000 years old.
He points where a fire swept through the forest last year. Why? Because until recently there were so many cows and goats and sheep (they say sheep as “ships”) grazing on the underbrush that fires couldn’t take hold as easily. Now it’s overgrown. One source of protection is cork trees (cork for wine bottles) that resist fire.
He points to the complex water system that sustains this town. Water runs down through the stone ravines built by their forefathers hundreds of years ago. You can see those little rectangular huts are old mills. When he was a kid, your family would have a set number of hours in which you had access to the mill to make your cornmeal, flour etc. Everything was communal.
So the water runs down now into the village. Homes are above the fields below that need to be watered. Each family has a designated time when they turn on the water for their fields. He says it runs like clockwork even though it’s so complex.
We walk by old shepherd’s huts and he tells me why they don’t want France to win the World Cup. It’s because the French treated Portuguese immigrants like dirt. I’m learning that the Portuguese are very sensitive to this because in order to make money, they’ve all had to go to other countries.
We find this mill where he used to come with his grandmother as a kid. He speaks wistfully of his childhood. Then he cuts off the main trail deep into overgrown woods filled with thorn bushes you have to duck under and around.
“I am taking you to natural swimming pools only the locals know about. We do not tell the government because they will ruin it, build bridges, and charge money. We do not even tell many Portuguese because they are sometimes dirty and leave trash around.”
It’s worth the trek. The water is crystal clear. I wish I could capture it better. I jump off a rock into this little cove and swim for a bit. Cold but not frigid. But so clear.
We sit on a bank and eat sandwiches of ham and bacon. It is super salty because until the 1970’s, people didn’t have refrigerators. The dictator Salazar liked keeping them backwards, even refusing to allow Coca-Cola into the country. So they salted everything heavily as a preservative.
We see a calf blocking our trail. Rather than scare it, we find a way up and around. I like the way the young people respect the animals, the nature, the traditions.
He points out the stones marking this trail. Thousands and thousands of them everywhere. All laid by their forebears hundreds of years ago.
You’ll be walking in this narrow, remote path and find splats of cow**** everywhere. So you know they are close by!
It was a fascinating four hour hike. I thanked him and he said, “It is my pleasure. This is not work to me.” It’s cool to see anyone with that kind of passion for what they do. After that, it was time to eat some cow, a fried egg, and local tomatoes.
I’m glad I took a nap because the first favorite part of the day was hanging with the locals until midnight. What a great day. What fond memories of this little mountain village. I will miss it.
Wild Horses & The Portuguese Mafia
I find myself in this tiny mountain village of Soajo, Portugal surrounded by three old Portuguese guys sharing a lifetime of wisdom and experiences. Only they are telling me stories about America.
You’d swear you were in Little Italy in Brooklyn listening to these guys talk, with their gesticulating arms and heavy accents. My hiking guide’s father used to pay local thugs $10 a night as protection money to watch his delivery truck.
Until one day, “I come out carrying a shot gun over my shoulder and tell them, ‘If I see a piece of dust on my truck, I’ll kill every one of you m*****fers. Now you’re the ones who need protection.'” They never bothered him after that. They apparently didn’t know what to make of these Portuguese guys and thought they had their own little mafia family.
They tell me what it’s like to be a poor immigrant in need of a job. You fill out your paperwork and finally make the boat ride over, knowing nothing about your new country. But you’ve got the daring, entrepreneurial cousin who came over first (possibly running from the law!), who says there are jobs in America. And soon you’ve created a little Portuguese community in New Jersey.
These guys worked hard in America and use the word freedom like it’s sacred. They all grew up under a dictator who ruled Portugal for four decades. So they speak, and live and love, freely and boldly. Proud mountain folk. Rich families.
Last night was one of the most memorable nights of my life. I had hiked with a guide, Manuel, during the day. After dinner, I was talking to Mom and passing through the old part of the village when I came across Manuel. Neat to see someone you know! So I decided to stop by his father’s cafe for the heck of it.
There are a ton of locals standing around. Manuel’s father (truck driving NJ guy) sees me and buys me a beer. Then the other old guys join in. I get a PhD in life. Then Manuel comes by and says, “Tell my sister to let you through the back door. We are grilling out.”
So I get invited to hang out with Manuel and his friends and family around a little table behind the cafe. We share stories and food and wine. I discover why everyone in Portugal wears shirts with the Levi’s logo emblazoned. It is a fashion statement in the small towns. Like 30 years too late! $30 jeans in America are $100 here. And Levi’s are an old symbol of American wealth. I’m gonna fill my suitcase next time.
But mostly we just share stories and life, struggles and hopes. I felt like family. It was the kind of connection you don’t normally get on trips and I’m exceedingly grateful for that.
Shortly before midnight, you hear the local musicians playing their folk music in the cafe. Everyone is stopping by on a Thursday night. These are people who have to rely on each other because there’s no one else up here in a remote village.
I think I’m going to start traveling more like this, trying to soak up these rich experiences. I’ve been invited back to stay for three months whenever I want. For $10 per night. 🙂
Here’s a quick video showing the wild horses. In the other picture above, you may be able to see two colts. It’s just weird to be that close to wild horses.
Thanks for sharing these experiences with me. Love to all!
Final Thoughts on Portugal
Someone asked me if I regret not going to Lisbon and Porto on this trip. Not at all. I know that Porto and Lisbon are amazing cities with a lot to offer. I will visit them one day, likely in the off season when it it cool and not crowded, when I can stroll the streets and soak up the vibe.
This is one of my favorite weeks ever. The only change I would make it spending an extra day in Manteigas hiking. I was able to get a feel for the people, the culture, the food in a way I’m not sure I could have in the larger cities.
My favorite moments that will stay with me forever are the discovery of gorgeous mountain towns where it seems I’m the only tourist, spectacular drives in the mountains, encounters with wild horses and sheep and cows and Portuguese Mafia, being welcomed into a small community, and walking across that aqueduct.
I am thrilled and grateful, and leave Portugal this morning a little sad. But now I am off to meet my son for a special father-son experience in France and Belgium. I hope you’ll join us for that adventure. And if you want to travel like the Europe Nerd, contact me and I’ll help you plan for memorable experiences like I had this past week.