Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Along the Portugal

Jerome and my flight to Lisbon, a red eye, was fairly uneventful after a tablet of Dramamine and a beer in the airport I don’t recall much of the flight. The food, which we supplemented with our own local fare, was unmemorable and I medicated my body with plenty of water during my waking hours.

When we arrived in Portugal around 8 am local time, I was disoriented, tired and lost. The customs checkpoints and baggage claim were fairly simplistic as was finding the Hertz rental car pick up. But, arriving in a new airport, in a new country half awake can certainly disorient a girl. But armed with Internet maps, and googlemaps driving directions to our next destination I felt secure…until we got on the roads.

Partially because Jerome thinks I’m a crazy driver and partially because he’ architect he decided to drive. While I’m not exactly a stellar ‘map-girl,’ I had come prepared and printed out directions for our 5-hour drive from Lisbon to Porto days in advance (placing all my trust in Googlemaps). I even worked in several stops along the way, which I centered around breakfast, lunch and rush hour traffic. Our maps and directions worked well, although the hidden freeway signs and uniquely lettered or numbered highways sent us in the wrong direction more than once.

Luckily, our comical 4-volt car which I lovingly named Wee-Man (although Jerome wouldn’t stop calling him Man O’ War after a Portuguese jellyfish) made it safely onto the correct freeway and topped out around 80 MPH.
Our first stop was Obidos ( in the Estremadura region, which we reached about 10 am. After reading about it’s romantic past, as a medieval walled city gifted from King Dom Dinis to Queen Dona Isabela in 1228 and it’s divine annual chocolate festival, I was eager to add it to our list of ‘must see cities.’ The city was everything I wanted for our first stop, historical but not overwhelming, quite but open-for-business and big enough to offer options but perfectly walkable. We toured the small city by foot and saw it’s churches, schools, shops, omnipresent castle and aqueduct before we sat down for a snack of homemade hummus noodles. It was a sweet city and a great first stop just a hop, skip, and jump away from Lisbon.

Our second stop, a short time later was the inconspicuous city of Alcobaca, which I choose based on the description of its monastery, Mosteiro de Santa Maria de Alcobaca Some of my favorite travelers reviewed this 12th Century monastery as one of the main architectural and historical wonders in Portugal. It also held one of Europe’s largest kitchens, the tombs of star crossed lovers Dom Pedro and Dona Ines and the sleeping quarters for 999 monks which was more than enough to entice me to visit.

Traveling in the off-season has its perks and here, in the monastery, the lack of tourists and the beauty of silence was the most obvious. Jerome and I wandered from room to room through the abbey completely alone; fully armed with our maps and history books we took over the entire place for a few short hours. As we entered the nave of the church the doorway put us in our place, towering over us in a frightening way that only gothic architecture can do.
Once we entered and paid the small fee we began our circle through the interior corridors of the cloisters, which took over 40 years (and thousands of monks) to build. Although I can still remember each room clearly I’ll just tell you about my favorites so you don’t have to skip over this part.

The Portuguese are well known for their blue and white paintings on Azulejos, or ceramic tiles. The first room we entered was covered in beautiful Azulejos paintings from floor to ceiling and told the story of the Portuguese kings, prices, and warriors in the 12th and 13th Centuries.

The next on my list of favorites was the kitchen and refectory, which came alive before my eyes. It’s massive size, which apparently came from alterations made to the abbey in the 18th Century must have allowed from some extravagant meals. They even included a water channel which runs directly through the center of the room, suppling the entire kitchen with drinking water at their fingertips (or fee as the case may be.) The spit and open air chimney (see photo) was big enough to fit Jerome in….not that I tried. The hidden staircases leading up to the refectory were almost enough fun as the refectory itself. And the pint-sized doorway between the kitchen and refectory is said to be the monastery’s size-meter. If a monk was unable to pass through the doorway due to his weight, he was forced to fast until he was thin enough to move through the doorway with ease.

My last, but not least, favorite room was the main chaple. The nave of the chaple houses the tombs of Dom Pedro and Dona Ines, which gives the entire church an overbearing sense of sadness and betrayal. Their tombs, both intricately designed, feature guard dogs, angles, and thorny crowns which tell the tail of their dark past and hopefully bright future.

The story of the star crossed lovers:
Prince Dom Pedro, the son of Portuguese King Dom Afonso IV, fell in love with Dona Ines who was his wife’s ‘lady-in-waiting.’ Due to her families Spanish ties the Portuguese king would not allow them to marry. So, as any crazy young couple in love would do, they snuck off and got married secretly under the moonlight. In 1355, still unaware of his son’s secret marriage, the king sent his men to kill Dona Ines based on his advisors urging. Once Dom Pedro was crowed king of Portugal he ripped the hearts out of Dona Ines’ killers and forced his court to kiss Dona Ines’ decomposing hand to pay respect to their queen. He requested that their tombs were positioned foot-to-foot so that when they wake up they can rise and see each other immediately.

After leaving the monastery we had our first Portuguese meal at a local restaurant. We shared a fish stew with delicious chucks of hearty white fish, shellfish, bread and a light tomato broth. The fish and spices differed significantly from Chippino, which I’d grown to love when I lived in Italy. It was just different enough to make me feel like I was traveling but familiar enough to make me feel like I was at home.

Our last stop before Porto was Coimbra, which was a couple of hours up the road in the Beiras region. The Romans founded Coimbra but were forced out by the Moors who prospered in the city before they were evicted in the 12th Century. The city’s rich history is topped off with a towering university, situated atop the city’s steep hilltop. The university was the first in Portugal, founded in 1290, and brought many teachers, artists and intellectuals to the city making it a cultural melting pot. By the time we reached the city center the light rain that had been following us around all day had turned to heavy showers. Unfortunately, we had to cut our tour of the city short but still had enough time to see the grand Universidade de Coimbra.

The cobblestone streets and piazzas leading up to the university created the perfect setting for the beautifully constructed school. The original university, including multiple buildings that are still completely in use, is centered on a traditional square. The square, of course over-shadowed by a statue, is so high above the city it appears to be floating on thin air. The historic buildings surrounding the square including a library, an overwhelming clock tower, and multiple museums flooded my senses. Each building, unique in its architecture and culture, drew me in through the rain. Despite the pending sunset and rush hour traffic we spent some time getting to know the University and it’s cobblestone streets before heading off to Porto…

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