w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
This next part involves a ridiculous amount of time spent driving around Bilbao looking for food with a desperate run to a basement supermarket located within a shopping mall, many really long lectures, numerous bathroom breaks and a seven hour drive up and down the mountains through sun, snow and rain to Porto, Portugal. And dude, I’m gonna admit it: it just wasn’t worth it - maybe.
Porto in a nutshell - ugly, sad, still scrappingly poor concrete jungle doused in overtly sweet booze, but saved at the last minute by surprising bursts of colorful tile and super nice people. Jury is still out on whether I liked the city or not. And frankly, while Portugal remains a favorite, it’s really for the Algarve coast. Hang out down south and you are guaranteed to have an amazing time.
Nonetheless we gave ourselves up to the weather, ducking out to Livrari Lello & Irmao bookstore with its gorgeous curved staircase and detailed wooden ceiling (inspiration for the Harry Potter wand shop), the Porto institution Café Majestic for a traditional Francesinha sandwich, and a port tasting in Calem during the downpours. In the brief dry spells, we climbed the 255 steps to the top of Clerigos Tower to glimpse the city from above, and walked across Dom Luis I Bridge to the Wine Cellars. The kids were surprisingly cooperative despite the dreary rain and grown-up focus of the day. They were especially tickled when an older woman, hopped up on too much port at Calem walked into a glass wall and gave herself a concussion.
If you’re ever in Portugal, you should know that the internet is very fickle here. Thusly we spent 40 minutes driving around a rotary in downtown Porto trying to pick up Googlemaps. The kids would occasionally look up to ask, “Wait, didn’t we pass this already?” to which Chris and I, in near hysterics, starving and desperate to pee, would laugh, “Look kids, Big Ben!”
Livrari Lello & Irmao
Views from the top of the tower. Literally the intersection of Old and New Porto - the second story Praca de Lisboa.
There is a lot of this kind of thing. Crummy Porto.
Redeemed by beautiful tile work.
Across the river in Porto's Wine Cellars where all of the top port producers showcase their varietals. It used to be that the port was shipped down the Douro Valley River in boats such as these. Now the port is transported via climate controlled trucks. But once a year, on June 25th, each of the producers race a boat down the river in homage to tradition. Calem, the port producer we visited came in dead last.
Singing and dancing in the rain. Making the most of a dreary day.
WHERE WE STAYED:
Super spacious, super cheap 2-bedroom mid-century modern apartment in a residential area near central Porto. Our hosts Miguel and Helder were fantastic; they thought of everything to make us feel at home. The kids were relieved to find that all Portuguese apartments aren't like the crap shack we rented in Lisbon.
WHAT WE DID:
Livrari Lello & Irmao
J.K. Rowling lived in Porto for 10 years working as an English teacher in the early 1990s. It's rumored that she taught during the evenings and wrote during the days, nursing a cup of coffee in the second floor tea shop of this gorgeous bookstore. Livrari Lello & Irmao is said to be the inspiration for the wand shop in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
Just €2 gets you fantastic views of Porto and a good little workout climbing up this baroque tower.
Sao Bento Train Station
"Even if you don't have anywhere to go, you must stop in for a look," commanded Helder. A former Benedictine monastery, the huge lobby features three floor to ceiling blue and white panels comprised of 20,000 tiles depicting traditional Portugese life. Breathtaking.
Dom Luis I Bridge
This huge, double decker arched iron bridge connects Porto to the Wine Cellars region where Lisbon's major port makers store, taste and sell their bottles. The upper decker runs the metro, the bottom, cars. We walked across the top for nose bleeding views and back across the bottom for a different perspective.
I don't care much for sweet wine, but with all this depressing weather, we needed to raise our spirits (har har). We originally sought a tasting at Dom Cellars, but was told that despite what was reported on the website, we had to wait hours before the next tour. Evidently, the tours don't depart until there are enough English language speakers willing to sit around and wait till they hit an undesignated minimum. Sort of inconvenient and not terribly tourist friendly. Calem's timing worked best for us. While the port itself was not to our liking, the tour was pretty informative.
Oona samples a taste.
Casa de Musica
I really wanted to get inside of this concert hall designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, but due to timing issues with the port tasting, we missed the daily tour. The two auditoriums are said to have been designed to enrich the acoustic and listening enjoyment of concertgoers. I have no idea what this means and sadly we couldn't attend the night's show, but I did manage some shots of the cool exterior.
WHERE WE ATE:
Churrasqueira America Paraiso Do Churrasco
After a long day's drive the last thing we wanted to do was get back into the car and sit in a restaurant. Chris picked up take-out chicken and ribs from this traditional Portuguese grill house. Not as good as Casa de India, but pretty tasty.
I am a sucker for historical restaurants, even if Chris hates them and thinks they are overpriced tourist traps. He's right of course, but it started to pour just as we got to the door so instead of just sneaking a peek at the menu, we made ourselves comfortable in a corner booth. Chris couldn't resist trying the Francesinha, Porto's traditional sandwich made of bread, ham, chorizo and steak and then covered in melted cheese and beer sauce served alongside fries. It was pretty gross, but in the name of archeological research Chris managed to finish it.
The Francesinha. Enjoy your heart attack!
After a full day of walking around in the rain all we wanted to do was snuggle up on the couch with some good Chinese take out. This was not it. But as Chris pointed out, "At least it was better than the Chinese food we had in Ireland."
Our last stop before heading to Morocco was Evora, Portugal, another place we had heard about through the Year to Think Blog. I had spent a couple of days researching hotels, but kept circling back to L’AND, a vineyard just outside of town in the hamlet of Alentejo. Designed by the Portuguese firm promontorio, the hotel is made up of a central house with spa, indoor pool, winery facilities, award-winning restaurant and lounge, as well as 22 separate villas flanked by an outdoor pool, vineyards and a made make lake. The kids can have their Marriott Marbella family resorts with screaming kids and chicken nuggets. This was the kind of place Chris and I love, beautiful architecture, great food and wine, and lots of quiet unspoilt nature. It was also twice the daily budget, which meant it was definitely out of our bounds. But after our bout of fast travel, with the insanity of Marrakech looming in the near future, I figured we could all use a little decompression so I went ahead and bit the bullet, booking us a two bedroom villa.
It was everything I’d hoped. The grapes had already been harvested and the sky remained reliably gray, but the white concrete hotel still managed to stand stark and stunning. Our huge villa was a study in restrained mid-century modern design, with a dining/living area separating two luxurious suites. While some of the smaller villas offered private plunge pools and sky views (retractable bedroom ceilings so you can sleep under the stars), we opted for the huge private terrace and outdoor fireplace. We had a great time. Oona loved the black tiled indoor pool. Isoo loved birding the vineyards. We rode bikes around the grounds and played pick-up sticks by the fire in the lounge. Chris and I were treated to a private wine tasting. After our delicious multi-course dinner we retired to our villa.
Earlier that day, Oona had called from the bathroom, “Um, can someone please come here? I think there’s something wrong with the toilet.” No good ever comes from these words. Chris called Not It!, but it turned out nothing was wrong. The toilet was one of those smart thrones with heated seats and multiple washing and drying functions. As I unpacked the kids’ toothbrushes, I couldn’t resist giving it a try. I hollered and squealed from the bathroom, which of course, made the kids come running. For the next half hour, the kids took turns getting their butt sprayed and dried, giggling like mad as they roasted their thighs on the warm toilet seat. When Chris came in for the third time, he was pretty annoyed. He hollered something about it being 11pm and didn’t I think it was about time I stopped messing around and put the kids to bed? To which I hollered back something about him being a spoil sport and it not being 1952 and if he wanted the kids to go to bed he could you know, maybe have a hand in it instead of just sitting by the fire. He hollered that he had made the fire in the hope that we could enjoy it together after the kids were in bed. I said something about maybe wanting to spend more time with him if he helped out everyone once in awhile by unpacking the pajamas. You can see where this is going. In its most heated moment, Chris put on his shoes, threatened to get another villa, and in the morning, put us on another plane without him. The kids cried so loud I’m sure it woke up every last grape on the vineyard.
Lillian writes, “I just caught up with your blog last night…I love reading it, but it does make me wonder how you ‘really’ are.
It's true. This blog has not been up to my usual standards of full disclosure. I’ve sat down multiple times to write, and then end up scrapping all of it, opting instead to post pictures. Writing has become a painful process for so many reasons, least of which is that I don’t quite know how I ‘really’ am.
I do wonder at the wisdom of this trip. What made me think that I would have the stamina to be rootless for so long? How did I think Chris and I could grow closer when we have so little private time together? What made me think I’d have time to write when I’m full time mom, travel agent, tour guide, housekeeper, teacher, playmate? Why did I think I even wanted to write when clearly I’d had years of time and material and never opted to produce a single thing? What if I’d spent all these years thinking that a life of travel was what I wanted, only to get it and find its not what its cracked up to be? What if all I really want to do is go home? Am I just one of those people who can never be happy? What if three months into this adventure, I still have no idea who that person in the reflection is supposed to be? What if I come back as the exact same person I was before we left?
You can see now why I prefer to just post pictures.
So Lil, how am I really? Sometimes I’m homesick, desperate to wake up in my own bed and open my eyes to see the trees outside the window of our old house. Sometimes I hate every member of my idiot family. I really miss running. I miss being alone. I miss eating whatever kind of food I want in the best freaking country in the world. I miss supermarkets and having a stocked fridge and stupid stuff like Grey’s Anatomy. I miss having six hours of no one talking to me five times a week. I miss not having to worry about a budget. Sometimes I wonder if this was worth having cashed out our savings. But most of all I know I am incredibly lucky, something I constantly have to remind myself. And most of the time, I truly believe it.
By the time Chris and I made up, the fireplace was bone cold. The kids had fallen asleep on their tear-stained pillows. As we sank our war weary bodies into 1,000-thread count sheets I realized that it was the longest uninterrupted talk we’d had in months. In the heat of battle, I had told Chris that I was sick and tired of planning the whole trip and taking care of everyone. I accused him of ruining what was supposed to be the one rare (incredibly expensive) perfect retreat. "One day, I’m going to remarry a fat, old dude who’s going to take care of me and we’re coming back here!" I'd threatened.
In the morning, we slinked red-cheeked to the dining hall, sure that all of the other guests had overheard our argument. We ate our breakfast quickly and packed the car for the drive to Lisbon airport. Slamming the trunk shut, Chris turned to me, grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “I would like to be the fat, old dude that takes care of you. We’ll be back, OK?”
So, till next time, L’AND Vineyard. Meanwhile, see you in Morocco.
L'AND Vineyard Main House
View from our villa.
Our terrace with the fireplace (which I hear is very nice).
Our living room.
It's all your fault!
Riding around the vineyard.
Reading by the fire.
Almost got a bite.