Stones and Bones of the Alentejo

Castle of Arraiolos

Castle of Arraiolos

Driving through the Alentejo, it’s one of those experimental travel days when we leave our itinerary entirely up to choice and chance. The only thing we know for sure is that we need to reach the Algarve by nightfall. What happens between now and then, here and there … who knows? Who cares? It’s a beautiful day in Portugal.

We arrive in Arraiolos, drawn to the town by its history of rug making. But first, we’re drawn to the decaying stone castle on the highest hill. We take a left turn and drive up to investigate.

A modest stone wall trims the hill around the Castle of Arraiolos. The wall feels proportional and reasonable — as if the architect was motivated more by aesthetics rather than fear. The castle was built between 1306 and 1315, and shows its age in partial walls and missing cornices. A few beautiful details remain like the keyhole window and castle keep. According to the plaque at the entrance, D. Nuno Alvares Pereira, a Portuguese commander who was eventually beatified and canonised, lived here at some point during his life.

We get back in the car and roll on down the hill to Arraiolos. It’s a sleepy town. None of the shops are open yet but we arrive at the central plaza where a gaggle of men is stationed along a bench, ready for whatever the day brings.

We walk to the Arraiolos Rug Interpretation Center which tells the story of the region’s history of rug making from the 16th to 19th centuries. Arraiolos rugs are hand-embroidered rather than woven, with a thinner profile than traditional carpets. Early Arraiolos rug designs were influenced by Oriental and Persian carpets but this was followed by a transitional design period in the 17th century. According to the Center, “Arraiolos embroidery was always a freely practiced craft that fell between the scholarly oriental form and the popular concept influenced by local traditions and artistic freedom.” Arraiolos rug making nearly died out in the late 1800s but visual artist José Queiroz revived the craft through classes and a dedicated workshop in Évora which resulted in new appreciation and demand for Arraiolos rugs that still exists today.

One of the most interesting things about the Arraiolos Rug Interpretation Center is what was found underneath and outside of it. The plaza became the subject of an archaeological dig when a centuries-old dying complex was discovered just below the surface. As you can see in the photo above, large circular vats were used to dye the wool for the rug embroidery. The dying vats have since been covered up and in their place is a decorative stone mosaic.

Cork trees in the Alentejo, Portugal

Cork trees in the Alentejo, Portugal

Back in the car, we aim for Évora but yet again we’re intrigued by what we see on the map. We make a few quick turns down a few small roads and arrive at a cork tree forest. I’ve never seen a cork tree before. Mature and evenly spaced, the trees have wide, wandering canopies above their trunks which have been stripped of their bark. The bark regenerates every 8-10 years, making it a sustainable resource. Portugal is the wine industry’s leading cork supplier, exporting a quantity valued at more than US $1 billion in 2016.

Just past the cork trees, we arrive at Cromeleque dos Almendres. This place is a bit of a mystery — kind of like Stonehenge. It’s a megalithic complex with 95 granite stones set in a circular arrangement, possibly related to the vernal equinox and winter solstice. The stones were placed between 6,000 and 3,000 B.C. Truly ancient! I had no idea that such a place existed in Portugal. The countryside is loaded with history.

We arrive in Évora and park the car just inside the fortress wall. Walking into the town center we come to the Igreja de Santo Antão. A Canterbury cross marks the front entrance of this 16th century church. The vaulted interior suspends elegant chandeliers above a beautiful runner extending through the nave.

We stop for lunch at Café Alentejo. This is not grab-and-go cuisine for tourists. This local hangout has a cozy interior where an afternoon could easily slip by with the help of a couple bottles of Portuguese wine. I decide to be adventurous and try the fish casserole — a stick-to-the-ribs dish that could feed an entire family.

Ceramics are everywhere in southern Portugal and as we wander Évora’s streets we see lots of colorful pieces with intricate patterns and signs of Moorish influence in geometric patterns.

We arrive at the Cathedral of Évora. Initially built in the late 12th century, the cathedral has been the subject of continual architectural additions during the centuries since then.

The cathedral’s full mass becomes evident as we climb the stairs to the rooftop terrace and lantern tower — the highest point of Évora. We descend to the cloisters and view the grandeur of the main chapel. My own faith is of no particular type or description, but I never tire of experiencing the magnificence of divine spaces such as this.

Back on the streets of Évora, we hurry to see one more sight before it closes for the day: Capela dos Ossos. This is one of Évora’s most popular sights but I haven’t read much about it or prepared myself for what we’re about to see. The art museum is nice, but the 16th century chapel below it is a rather creepy experience.

Capela dos Ossos is an ossuary. The bones and skulls of more than 5,000 people are stacked and stuck at every turn, even lining the arches of the vaulted ceiling. I can’t imagine that any of the people whose bones and skulls are here would have expected this to be their final resting place. The purpose of the ossuary isn’t entirely clear, at least from what I’ve read about it.  It may have been built to encourage self-reflection about our mortality or it may have been a solution to overflowing graveyards of the time. Either way, I feel lucky I can walk out of here, unlike so many others.

It’s late in the afternoon so we find an outdoor cafe near Evora’s stunning relic of a Roman temple, where we stop for a cold beer and contemplate the scenes of the day — including this poem at Capela dos Ossos (translated by Father Carlos Martins):

Where are you going in such a hurry traveler?
Stop … do not proceed;
You have no greater concern,
Than this one: that on which you focus your sight.

Recall how many have passed from this world,
Reflect on your similar end,
There is good reason to reflect
If only all did the same.

Ponder, you so influenced by fate,
Among the many concerns of the world,
So little do you reflect on death;

If by chance you glance at this place,
Stop … for the sake of your journey,
The more you pause, the further on your journey you will be.

Architecture
A Grizzly Weekend in Bella Coola

A Grizzly Weekend in Bella Coola

Flying over the Coast Mountains, British Columbia

Flying over the Coast Mountains, British Columbia

We depart for Bella Coola from the south terminal of Vancouver International Airport, where the old-school spirit of travel is alive and well. We’re aboard a twenty-seat prop plane but we never cleared security and our bags were never x-rayed. We’re flying into the wilderness on the honor system — something that feels uniquely Canadian and appropriate for the weekend.

With just four people on our flight, we can see out every window around us to the earth below. On the left side, a series of islands and waterways. On our right side, a magnificent display of mountain tops and glaciers with ribbons of blue ice leading downhill. We leave the summer heat behind and float into oncoming rain, descending deep into the gray. For five minutes we’re suspended in a disorienting cloud layer until the yellow meadows of Anahim appear below us. This was not our intended destination. Fogged in and surrounded by mountains, the approach to Bella Coola airport is too treacherous to take a chance on today so Anahim will have to do.

We taxi over to the airport office and I suspect the yellow school bus parked next to it may be our golden chariot to Bella Coola. When weather shuts down Bella Coola’s airport, you have to go by bus — they just never said it would be a school bus.

We get on the school bus and Doug introduces himself as the driver. For the next two hours we wind along the dirt road to Bella Coola, topping out on Heckman Pass which has just one lane, with a terrifying drop-off along the south side. Doug tells us this “Freedom Road” was built in the 1950s after the government failed to fund its construction so locals took on the project themselves. They worked from both sides — Bella Coola and Anahim — until the roads connected in between at Heckman Pass.

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

At 6:00 p.m. we arrive in Bella Coola (population 2,000) where we pick up our rental car from Steve. No need to show a license — the honor system works here, too. We drive a few minutes up the road to the Rip Rap Campsite where we find Amber and Jim in their home office, ready to check us in while also celebrating their anniversary. Happy anniversary! Jim suggests we hurry up and head across the road for hamburgers at the Legion — the only place open for dinner tonight. Friday nights are busy and they only keep the grill going until they run out of burgers.

After our epic school bus ride, burgers sound amazing but we’re momentarily caught up admiring our accommodations for the weekend. The Cedar Cabin at Rip Rap is more than 100 years old, with logs two feet wide and a front door so thick we can rest assured no grizzly bear will ever enter from the front porch. With two beds, one bath, an open plan and a wood-burning fireplace, we have more than we need to make ourselves at home.

We walk across the road to the Legion where we queue up for burgers and help ourselves to corn, which is free with a donation. Bus Driver Doug is leaning into a plate of food and tables of locals smile at us as we find our way through the ritual. This is Friday night in Bella Coola … small town life at its best. We hit the Shop Easy after dinner to pick up some groceries, build a great fire at the cabin and simmer in the warmth until the next morning.

Atnarko River :: Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, British Columbia

Belarko Wildlife Viewing Platform :: Tweedsmuir Provincial Park, British Columbia

At 6:30 a.m., I can hardly contain my excitement about the day. We’ve come to Bella Coola because the salmon are running and the grizzlies are feeding along the Atnarko River in Tweedsmuir Provincial Park. We’ve booked a half-day float on the river with the hope of seeing these bears in their native habitat. It’s pouring down rain outside so I’m covered head to toe in rain gear with a dry bag for my camera.

By 7:45 a.m. we’re on our way to the river with Fraser. If you book a bear tour in Bella Coola there’s only one question people will ask you: Are you going with Fraser? He’s a biologist, bear expert and long-term Bella Coola resident with a great reputation for float tours with Kynoch Adventures. But as we arrive at the put-in, there’s been a small mix-up with some late arrivals and we have too many people for the small raft. We’re gonna need a bigger boat. Fraser works it out, stationing us at the nearby wildlife viewing platform while he goes back to Hagensborg and gets a bigger raft. This minor inconvenience is not an inconvenience at all, and our late timing works magically in our favor all day long.

The land we’re standing on is territory of the Nuxalk First Nation and a Nuxalk man welcomes us to the Belarko Wildlife Viewing Platform, which is managed in cooperation with B.C.’s provincial park service. As grizzly habitat, the area is closely monitored for everyone’s safety. We’re escorted up a path to an outdoor shelter and plateau surrounded by an electric fence. I feel pretty electrified about potentially, hopefully seeing my first grizzly bear ever.

And after waiting and looking for about 15 minutes, we spot one down river.

A rustle in the bushes gives way to a dark shadow and then I see the big front feet of a grizzly bear making his (her?) way up the river. He moves quickly, easily, until he stops on a log and bends down on his forearms to have a look at the fish in the water, just like a dog might look after a tennis ball floating beyond its reach. He gets up and returns to shore and then, within seconds, gracefully swims to the middle of the river. He stops, stands up, has a look around, grabs a fish and moves to the shore, beyond our view.

In three-minutes, this distant grizzly encounter has already revised my expectations about these incredible creatures. They move with such ease, such grace, from land to water and back again, without hesitation. Nimble, not lumbering, with purpose and power.

The bigger raft has arrived so we return to the shore and find a place to sit among the swivel seats on the raft. Rain pours down. It’s going to be a soggy pursuit today but no one is complaining. We push off from the shore and start drifting down the Atnarko, past the Belarko platform to a wide, deep pool in the river. We stop and wait in silence. Hundreds of salmon swim past us, heading upstream. We scan the shores but see nothing so we move on.

As we round a bend in the river, we see a grizzly standing on a huge tangle of trees and logs. He steps off the log, out of view. Fraser steers the raft toward the opposite shore and hops onto a shoal to see where he’s gone. No luck so we keep floating down river and eventually catch up.

It’s time for breakfast. This grizzly catches and eats a fish before moving upstream toward our raft. He catches another fish and deftly picks it apart on the shore with his claws — skin first, then the flesh. He changes directions, walking back downstream so we follow in the raft. He pays no attention to us as we drift past him in faster water and stop next to a big boulder where we get a great view of him coming straight at us.

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

More fish, more breakfast. It’s easy on the Atnarko, with an estimated two million salmon heading upstream. It’s a much better run than last year. It’s still pretty early in the season so seeing a few bears is pretty lucky. Later in the season, Fraser has seen up to 20 bears on one float.

We’ve followed this bear for an hour so we give him some space and float on in the rain. My supposed waterproof layer has succumbed to the relentless pour and I’m soaked all the way through my thin down jacket underneath. My shoes are waterlogged and it’s a constant battle to keep my camera and lens dry. I put it back in the dry bag only to pull it out again when we round another bend and see a mother bear and cub. She’s leading the way up river and stops to catch and share a fish on the opposite shore.

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly bear on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

The mother pays us no attention but the cub occasionally looks right at us. I see a little curiosity in his eyes but I also see a directness I would not want to confront face-to-face. Yet not one of these bears has shown any aggression, not even while fishing — they make it look so easy. I think that’s what makes grizzlies so intriguing. Their confidence is clear and ever-present. Their power to kill is unquestioned but, at ease on the river, they are nothing but calm.

Grizzly mom and cub on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Grizzly mom and cub on the Atnarko River, British Columbia

Mom and cub swim to the shore near us. I’ve put my camera away (of course) when there’s a sudden commotion in the bushes. I capture one more rainy, grainy moment with my phone as mama bear stands on her hind legs to see if she can get a better look. No threats detected so they keep wandering up river as we float on to the Belarko pull-out where our tour comes to an end. It’s been an amazing morning, with most of it spent in the company of grizzlies.

Back at the cabin, we get out of our wet clothes and set out to explore Bella Coola. This tiny town only has a few stores and a dock where you can catch a ferry to Port Hardy. The Bella Coola Valley Tourism office is located in the Copper Sun Art Gallery with drawings, paintings and carvings by artists of the Nuxalk Nation.

We stop at Mountain Valley Organics where we meet the owner, Abra Silver. Everything in her shop is local, organic or handmade including fruit and veg, spices, snacks, meat and fish, baskets, knit hats, soap and home cleaning supplies. Her shop is next to her house of sixteen years — a charming cottage with flowering plants sprouting from every pot and planter. Although Bella Coola may feel a little trapped in time, Mountain Valley Organics feels hip and cool as a vital resource for sustainable mountain living.

Back at the Rip Rap Campsite, the sun comes out shedding light on everything there is to love about this place including an awesome little cabin full of games, books and flags from around the world. Amber and Jim have meticulously groomed the Rip Rap while retaining all the character that makes it super Coola.

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British ColumbiaRip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

We spend the afternoon at the Rip Rap’s viewing platform on the Bella Coola River — the icing on the cake at the Rip Rap. I don’t think I’ll ever stay anywhere else in Bella Coola. With a bottle of wine and some good company, there’s no better place to be for those golden hours before sunset. The river is running fast from today’s rain and we spy a black bear on the far shore.

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Sunday morning, with no tour to pull us out of bed, we sleep in and then head back out to the Belarko viewing platform. We talk with a few folks who were on the afternoon tour yesterday. They didn’t see any bears. We were lucky to be out in the morning. But here at Belarko now, we don’t see any bears either although, according to a ranger, a “big guy” wandered through this morning.

We leave after an hour and start driving back to Bella Coola. But a little voice inside my head says maybe we should make a quick stop at the pull-out where the tour ended yesterday. We turn into the parking lot, do a quick scan of our surroundings and walk to the river’s edge. That unmistakable rustle in the bushes is back, just to the left! This is a popular fishing spot and bears have the right of way. Everyone stops what they’re doing and waits.

Mama bear and her cub are coming down the river.

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

She’s swimming while the cub makes its way along the shore. With poised strength she pulls herself out of the water, takes a moment to shake it off and continues across the log back into the river.

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Shake it off

Shake it off

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mom and cub fishing for lunch on the Atnarko River

Mama bear fishes with her nose and eyes underwater until she snatches a Pink with her claws, puts it in her mouth and returns to shore where she can share it with her cub. Satisfied for the moment, they continue down the river out of view.

Grizzly bear on the Bella Cool River

Grizzly bear on the Bella Cool River

We head back to the Rip Rap where we’re looking forward to another afternoon at the viewing platform. The sun is out and we’ve got another bottle of wine, and right on cue a grizzly bear wanders into view along the far shore.

For the next hour, we’re captivated. We watch this bear splashing, pouncing and playing a long game of catch and release with an occasional stop to eat. He spends the afternoon in solitary playfulness like a cat with a ball of string. The moment is elemental, so far removed and blind to everything happening in the world. Just the bear, the river, the fish, the sun, the fog gathering and the cycle of life in the wild of Bella Coola.

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Rip Rap Campsite :: Bella Coola, British Columbia

Bella Coola River, British Columbia, Canada

Bella Coola River, British Columbia, Canada

Monday morning we take in one last view from the platform before leaving Rip Rap for the airport. The grizzly is out for another frolic on the shore. As I watch the sun light up the river, I can’t believe what an amazing trip we’ve had to this tiny town called Bella Coola.

Remarkable weekends like these are really having an effect on me. Vancouver has been slow to grow on me, mostly because I’m living here right after loving another city so completely (Singapore). It’s a bit like a rebound relationship. But the deeper I venture into British Columbia, the more I like it. Canada is expanding, if not entirely redefining, my definition of wilderness and my relationship to it. This is beautiful, vast, wild country that is winning my heart, one adventure (and grizzly bear) at a time.

My paternal grandfather had roots in Canada. Maybe it’s closer to home than I ever expected.

Miscellaneous Nature Outdoors Travel

Sintra: A Tale of Two Castles

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

We’re standing on a mountaintop west of Portugal. We’ve lucked out. It’s one of those perfect days when the blue sky extends all the way to the horizon.

To get here, we drove west from Lisbon to Sintra, parked the car, walked partially up the hill, stopped to think about it, hired a mototaxi, arrived at the ticket booth of Pena Palace and climbed the final path to the entrance. This is not an easy place to get to but no good view comes without a cost.

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

According to the experts, Pena Palace is an example of Romanticism in architecture. It’s definitely romantic and inspires visions of Rapunzel unfurling her hair from the turrets. With its fanciful spires and crenellations, it looks more like a castle than a palace to me. But either way, Pena Palace is a Unesco World Heritage Site that was built as a chapel, developed into a monastery in the late 1400s, destroyed by the earthquake of 1755 and rebuilt in the mid-1800s by King Ferdinand as a residence for Portugal’s royal family. It became a national landmark in the early 1900s.

The palace’s madder and yellow exterior projects happiness but I imagine all the history, all the love and fear, all the sunny days and terrible storms, all the glorious moments and sad departures that have happened at this mountain monument throughout the last 600 years.

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

The interior tells less of a fairy tale and more of a biography. Weathered tiles cover the interior courtyard and residential spaces display the furnishings of the day. The dining room drips with character and I imagine a royal dinner for twelve or a candlelight tryst between two lovers with Madeira wine and the silence of the stone walls. The kitchen, bright with sunlight and an enviable range of copper cookware, feels almost luxurious with its farmhouse style and arched ceiling. But there’s no refrigerator, or dishwasher, or even running water back in the day.

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

I remind myself to mind the gaps here at Pena Palace. The battlements are thick but plenty of precarious viewpoints will be death drops for anyone who gets carried away with photography or a quest for the perfect selfie.

Mythical Triton at Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

Mythical Triton at Pena Palace :: Sintra, Portugal

And then there’s this guy — a mythical Triton on the front of the palace. I’m not sure what he’s doing in that clam shell but he’s eternally posed and begs for a photo.

Sintra, Portugal

Sintra, Portugal

Sintra, Portugal

Sintra, Portugal

We mototaxi back down the hill and find some lunch in the lovely town of Sintra. We tuck around the back of Lawrence’s Restaurant and have the balcony to ourselves.

After lunch we debate about driving back up the hill to see Castelo dos Mouros, the Moorish Castle. Can it really be that spectacular after seeing such an overwhelming example of Romanticist architecture? We drive up the hill, park the car and follow the path.

There are no pretty colors or spires, just old stone walls and staircases following the contours of the mountain. Archaeological evidence reveals this site was occupied as long ago as 5,000 B.C. The castle we see today was built by the Moors in the 8th or 9th century. It’s far less comfortable than Pena Palace but just as strategically positioned.

The Castle Keep, Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

The Castle Keep, Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

The entire castle is open for exploring so after walking through the entry we turn right and climb up to the Castle Keep. Much like Pena Palace, Castelo dos Mouros requires careful steps along the narrow wall-walks and parapets throughout the site. High on the hill, the Castle Keep was one of the prime places to watch over the land for approaching invaders.

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

We descend the north side of the castle and climb the south side to the Royal Tower. The staircase is like a ribbon of stone up the mountain and turning around to see the view is truly breathtaking. The village of Sintra sits directly below us.

Sintra, Portugal

Sintra, Portugal

The Toyal Tower :: Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

The Toyal Tower :: Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

The Toyal Tower :: Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

The Toyal Tower :: Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Looking south we see a complete view of Pena Palace that was impossible to see when we were standing there looking up at it. From here it looks proud and less of a caricature as it catches the thin fog that’s drifting around the mountain.

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

These sites are so close to each other yet they have such different stories to tell. I can’t help but wonder, was there ever castle envy as the shiny new Pena Palace took form in the 1800s while Castelo dos Mouros looked on with its raw fortitude? We’ll never know.

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Castelo dos Mouros :: Sintra, Portugal

Miscellaneous Travel

Lisbon Life

Praça do Comércio, Lisbon

Praça do Comércio, Lisbon

Portugal sits at the western edge of Europe, with Spain along one side and the Atlantic Ocean along the other. With a stunning coastline, beautiful capital city and world-class food and wine, it has all the elements of a perfect European destination. But in the world of travel and tourism, Portugal is almost always overshadowed by its more popular neighbors. Spain and France together attract more than 150 million foreign tourists every year while Portugal only recently surpassed 10 million in 2016.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

This is good news for anyone going to Portugal, as we discovered last spring. We enjoyed uncrowded streets and affordable accommodations throughout our trip. We started in Lisbon, where the history is serious but the attitude and terrain feel a lot like San Francisco. The city clings to a hillside overlooking the mouth of the Tagus river. Coming and going from our apartment in the Chiado district, we were always walking uphill or downhill on our way to the next stop.

Through the centuries, Lisbon has succumbed to the control of Berbers, Arabs, Norwegians and Spaniards, as well as the destructive forces of fire and earthquakes. All of these influences are still visible in Lisbon’s architecture, tiles and cracks in the walls.

The city’s location on the Atlantic seems to have influenced its color palette, with all the soft shades of water, sky, sunshine and sunsets applied along every street. The joy in the colors and patterns feels unique to Lisbon. A lot of time and thought has gone into embellishing this city.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Stepping into Palácio Chiado for lunch was unexpectedly cool, not only for the unique dining areas arranged on two floors but also for the contrast of chic and antique interiors among them. Lisbon’s casual style is an eclectic mix of old and new. It never feels constructed or fake, and whether you’re dining at an up-and-coming restaurant of a Michelin-starred chef (Mini Bar; José Avillez; wonderful) or just having an afternoon beer at the Praça de São Paulo (on draft, with service and good people watching), you’re welcomed with genuine hospitality.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

With so many hills, Lisbon has lots of viewpoints where you can take in scenic views of the city. A walk up the hill to Miradouro de São Pedro de Alcântara gave us our first vista across the city toward Castelo de Sao Jorge.

Feira da Ladra, Lisbon

Feira da Ladra, Lisbon

Feira da Ladra, Lisbon

Feira da Ladra, Lisbon

We took a Sunday stroll around the Feira da Ladra, Lisbon’s twice-weekly flea market. Any good traveler knows that market days are the best days to see local color, and the Feira da Ladra was no exception. Locals were out with a million things for sale including clothing, dishes, artwork, antiques, old tiles and Barbie dolls. I picked up a pair of Roy-Bom (Ray-Ban) sunglasses and an old brass plate with an etched design.

Lisbon Taksi

Lisbon Taksi

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Another walk took us up another hill to Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte where we could look west across the whole city to the l bridge, the largest suspension bridge in the world (and very similar to the Golden Gate).

Castelo ds Sao Jorge

Castelo ds Sao Jorge

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon, Portugal

Back down the hill and around the Castelo de Sao Jorge, we arrived at the edge of the Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest neighborhood. Buildings are packed onto the hillside with narrow walkways leading down to the main street bordering the river. This is the best area in Lisbon to experience Fado, the historic art of singing traditional Portuguese songs with trademark melancholy.

The Alfama, Lisbon

The Alfama, Lisbon

At the Praça do Comércio, the sun finally burned through the haze and brightened up the afternoon. With baton twirlers and bubble blowers around, we sat and rested our feet before continuing on to the Time Out Market.

Time Out Market, Lisbon

Time Out Market, Lisbon

Madeira Wine

Madeira Wine

What would a visit to Portugal be without a little Madeira wine? How amazing to see such a wide range of vintages at the market. We enjoyed a small sample poured from a bottle that was corked in 1972, the year my grandmother was traveling Europe.

The Time Out Market opened in 2014 after renovations to the complex, which has been around for more than a century. It’s a great place to grab a coffee or a gourmet bite to eat after picking up some local produce or flowers at the mercado next door. Kitchens in the market cook Lisbon’s authentic, best food (as tasted and confirmed by local experts), for affordable prices, under one roof. You can also find fresh seafood and really good charcuterie among the many delectable things to eat.

The concept has revived the neighborhood and given tourists and locals a communal place to experience Lisbon’s characteristic cuisine. And this is really at the heart why we found Lisbon so livable and lovable. The city has loads of history and beauty, but the focus really seems to be on enjoying some very basic things in life: a nice view, a good glass of wine and a great meal with friends. Who doesn’t love that?

Miscellaneous

World Textures

Gathering of Nations :: Albuquerque, New Mexico

Gathering of Nations :: Albuquerque, New Mexico

This week’s photo challenge: textures, one of my photography addictions. Hope you enjoy this amuse-bouche of textures from around the world. Next post on Portugal coming this Friday! See you then!

Bali

Bali

 

Yogyakarta

Yogyakarta

 

Vietnam

Vietnam

 

New Zealand

New Zealand

 

Oman

Oman

 

Vietnam

Vietnam

 

Vietnam

Vietnam

 

Bhutan

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France

France

 

Bali

Bali

 

Hong Kong

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Myanmar

Myanmar

 

Vietnam

Vietnam

 

Cambodia

Cambodia

 

Maldives

Maldives

 

Borneo

Borneo

 

Morocco

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Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka

Miscellaneous wpc
Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

The Kanheri Caves of Mumbai, India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Rajesh and I choke along the highway in his rickshaw, breathing in the air pollution as we zip past the slums bordering the highway. I probably should have taken a taxi, but driving in a rickshaw is so much more fun with the noise, the air, the essence of Mumbai right in my face. I lean out the open door and try to photograph what I see while clinging onto my camera, my backpack and my life in the precarious frame of his vehicle.

Mumbai, India

Mumbai, India

The traffic heading south is at full stop — everyone trying to get to work — while we head north, away from the jam. I expect the drive toward Sanjay Gandhi National Park to be easy and green, with signs that we’re heading toward nature. But nothing in Mumbai is easy or green. The ragged edge of life extends as far as I can see. We make a crowded right turn off the highway to the park entrance.

Through the gates, I finally find the peace and quiet of nature which is interrupted by a driver who wants to charge me 2,500 rupees to drive me 10 minutes farther up the road to the Kanheri Caves. He assumes I don’t know there’s an hourly public bus for far less money, but with the sun rising fast I decide I’d rather go now than wait for it. I negotiate to 1,000 rupees and we’re on our way. Ten minutes up the dirt road we arrive at the ticket booth where I climb the stairs to the caves.

The Kanheri Caves are among the oldest in India, used for Buddhist life and meditation from the first century B.C. to the tenth century A.D. Carved from the basalt of the surrounding hills, the caves are surprisingly angular in design with simple stone benches cut along the interior walls of many of them. Several caves have columns at the entrance and beautifully carved figures posed in various mudras.

The Kanheri site holds 109 caves, each numbered with a stencil outside the entrance. Cave 3 is a prayer hall, with remnants of a stupa in front of it and a smaller cave to the left of it.

Walking up to the entrance of Cave 3, I’m struck by the size of the columns and figures at the doorway. I feel tiny — reminiscent of the feeling I had when I walked into St. Paul’s cathedral in Rome. To the left and right, larger-than-life Buddhist figures watch over the entrance.

For the moment, I have the prayer hall to myself. I feel a sense of awe and a sense of loss at the same time. It’s clear this was once a very significant space and it hums with the subtle energy of a dying life force, but a few bits of trash on the ground and noisy tourists approaching the entrance interrupt the reverence this prayer hall deserves.

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

I wait in the hall until I’m alone again in silence. I wish I knew more about what happened here, how long it took to carve the prayer hall, how the design originated, who carved the columns, what the purpose was of the notches on the ceiling. It’s a maddening paradox that today we so easily record such endless, useless details — what we ate for lunch, which handbag we bought over the weekend — but here, old and vital details are lost. Historic places like this hold incredible stories we’ll never, ever know.

Outside the prayer hall, I climb the steps up the hill toward the other caves. Mumbai’s skyline pokes above the treetops behind a veil of pollution.

View from atop the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

View from atop the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Hilltop path at the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Hilltop path at the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

I reach the next caves which are carved on the right and left banks of a natural ravine between two hills. An archaeological team is repairing a walkway next to a series of irrigation chambers leading downhill to larger cisterns. I try to ask questions about what exactly these holes in the ground might have been used for but we share no common language.

One of the men on the team recognizes my curiosity and manages to communicate to me that there’s a painting inside the cave where he’s working. He waves me toward the interior and points to the ceiling.

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

It’s very dark but I can just make out the lines and shading of the art. I sit on the ground, put my elbows on my knees and point my camera up. I adjust my camera settings. Since I don’t have a tripod, I exhale and hold as still as possible as I try to capture a clear image without using a flash. After a few tries, I get a decent shot and discover that the painting is done in tints of red, probably with madder root. And it’s just pretty amazing to be sitting here looking at someone’s skill and creativity from hundreds — or maybe even thousands — of years ago.

I thank the man as I leave the cave and turn my attention across the ravine. Deep and square, more caves lead to more mysterious chambers inside. I take in as much as I can for the speck of time I’m at Kanheri, in awe that these ancient caves have been sitting here quietly through world empires, dictators and revolutions… old and new.

Miscellaneous Travel

Streets and Markets of Mumbai

Crawford Market, Mumbai

Crawford Market, Mumbai

Our taxi stops in the middle of traffic and we step out into the mayhem of Mumbai at rush hour. Across the pulsing artery of cars and pedestrians, I see the ruddy stone exterior of Crawford Market with its clock tower silhouetted against the hazy blue sky.

Crawford Market opened in 1865 and in 1882 it was the first building in the city to be lit by electricity. The market goes by two names : Crawford Market (the original name, after Bombay’s first Municipal Commissioner Arthur Crawford) as well as  Mahatma Jyotiba Phule Market (the current name, after Indian activist and social reformer Mahatma Jyotiba Phule).

There’s a bust across from a small shop in the market where we stop to buy water. I have no idea what the inscription on the bust says, but I think this is Mr. Mahatma Jyotiba Phule himself.

The order and color of Crawford Market is a nice relief from the chaos just outside the entrance. Fruit is arranged in piles, big and small. A pineapple vendor is totally surrounded. Which ones are new? Which ones are old? It’s a secret only he knows. The watermelons are bright green and stacked with such precision it seems like removing one would release the whole pile into a rolling mess.

Betel nut seller, Crawford Market, Mumbai

Betel nut seller, Crawford Market, Mumbai

Behind the fruit stalls, the betel nut seller sits on a stone step with his basket full of concoctions. He’s a willing subject when I motion with my camera so I crouch down and see the leaves, the white lime residue and the intensity of his stare. Even now as I edit these photos, I’m struck by the directness — not only in his eyes but in the eyes of a number of men in these photographs. Sometimes people smile with uneasiness when photographed, but in Mumbai there is fearlessness… a willingness to engage. He asks to see the photo and is happy with the result.

I watch the porters who work for hire carrying heavy loads for shoppers and shopkeepers. Dressed in plaid sarongs and sandals, they come and go with their big circular baskets — hoisted up high with one hand, placed on the top of the head or at rest on the ground.

Crawford Market, Mumbai

Crawford Market, Mumbai

In between loads, the porters hang out together. Maybe he’s checking the score of the cricket match.

This is a spice market, too, where we find jar after jar of exotic smelling masala and curry powders. There is no such thing as a teaspoon here. The spice sellers place heaping scoops in shallow dishes and we inhale the complexity: vindaloo curry, chicken tikka masala, green curry, madras medium curry, tandoori chicken masala, hot curry and even just “normal curry.” And then there’s the Special Spice King Masala 96 — a proprietary blend. With their intense, earthy hues, the spice powders look as rich and powerful as they smell.

We leave Crawford Market. The displays of fruits and vegetables continue on the street. We wander through Mangaldas textile market (where a female officer warns me that I can’t take photos) and emerge on the other side. Cows wander the street, a guy roasts peanuts over a fire on a wooden cart, and another guy stirs the pot… making big swoops with his ladle through a steaming pot of dahl while he stares at me with all the intensity of Mumbai.

Flower Market, Mumbai

Flower Market, Mumbai

Big, beautiful baskets of color greet us at the flower market. We duck into a narrow alley where men sit on elevated platforms, fulfilling orders for customers. They string flowers together in fragrant garlands used for festivals, marriages, rituals and to honor deities at temples.

Bees buzz around the piles of blossoms, the aroma of jasmine lingers in the air and life in Mumbai carries on.

Selling Roses at the Flower Market, Mumbai

Selling Roses at the Flower Market, Mumbai

Miscellaneous Photography
Maldives

My Top 12 Travel Experiences by Month

Happy New Year everyone!

Thinking about where to go in 2017? Here are my top twelve travel experiences (ever, not just this year) by month. I hope you find some ideas among these journeys. Thank you all so much for reading, following, commenting and being such an inspirational community!

January: Finding Zen in the Maldives

If you want to forget about everything except the horizon in front of you, this might be the place. Yes, it’s painfully expensive but if you can get to the Maldives you’ll find every tint and shade of blue within an intense peacefulness that will inspire you to do nothing but stare at the view, put your toes in the sand and maybe swim around with the resident tropical fish.

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February: Longtail Boating Through the Canals of Bangkok

This was a short but sweet experience that I’d love to repeat someday. Hop in a longtail boat at the edge of the Chao Praya and ask your captain to take you on a tour of the canals of Bangkok. You’ll get to see a different side of the city with a much less frenetic pace from a cool and relaxing perspective. Don’t forget to stop at the floating market for a bite to eat.

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March: Touring Bagan’s Temples by Horse Cart

If you like history and architecture, you’ll love Bagan. The landscape is crisscrossed with paths from one ancient temple to the next. A good local guide with a horse cart can take you to the most notable temples, or you can follow your whim by looking for spires and biking your way around. It would take months to see them all, but don’t miss the Shwezigon Pagoda — covered in gold and by far the most opulent.

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April: Safari in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is one of my favorite destinations of all time. With temples, history, tea country, train rides through the hills, lush jungles, pristine beaches, friendly locals and abundant wildlife, Sri Lanka has a rare combination of everything that makes traveling wonderful. My favorite experience was a three-day safari at Yala National Park with its incredible diversity — elephants, sloth bears, water buffalo, deer, wild boars, foxes, crocodiles, hornbills, and leopards that are bigger in size and more densely populated than anywhere else on the planet.

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May: Chasing Waterfalls in Yosemite National Park

When the snow stops and the spring sun shines, Yosemite National Park is in its prime. Venture to the valley floor where you’ll feel like a tiny human in the context of the thousands of years of geology surrounding you. Yosemite’s waterfalls — Upper Yosemite, Lower Yosemite, Bridalveil, Nevada and Vernal among them — usually reach peak flow in May. From the road, from the trail and from Glacier Point especially, they are spectacular in their power and beauty. Just don’t get too close!

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June: A Homestay in Borneo

Saloma shares her family home with anyone seeking an authentic experience in the jungle of Borneo. We spent a few days with Saloma and marveled at her way of life and knowledge of the land. From cooking rice in a stalk of bamboo, to foraging for plants and enjoying a barbecue lunch in a hut deep in the jungle, to walking through a longhouse and meeting the neighbors, this homestay was a direct connection with a way of life unfamiliar to us but hundreds of years old in tradition. Saloma is a real-life Queen of the Jungle.

***

July: Following the Tour de France Through the Alps

Fly into Geneva, rent a car or a camper, buy some wine and cheese and hit the road into the Alps. The Tour de France is a road trip party with people from all over the world. It’s so much fun that loving the sport of cycling isn’t even necessary (but it does help). There’s a lot of waiting around partying and when the péloton finally shows up it blows past in a matter of minutes. But seeing all the pretty French villages on the route, being able to camp anywhere you want, having cheese and wine every afternoon and and doing it all over again the next day … Mon dieu! C‘est magnifique!

Runner-up for July: Carnaval in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

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August: Car Camping Through Italy

Che cazzo! I don’t have any photos of this trip since it happened way back in 2001. But if you’re looking for slow travel through Italy, car camping might just be the thing. We rented a car in Milan, drove to Florence and Rome, cut east to Francavilla, stopped in Vieste and ended the trip in Bari (before catching the ferry to Greece). We car camped the whole way, astounded by the comfort of the campgrounds — many with markets, pools, laundry facilities and restaurants. Among the best was camping on the beach in Vieste (aerobics every day at 4:00) and our spectacular campsite across the river in Florence (best view of the Duomo anywhere). Why August? Nearly all the shops and restaurants of Italy are closed in August since everyone is on vacation, but this means you’ll be immersed in local culture, make new friends and see the refined art of Italian family camping. Quite an experience — just make your campsite reservations well ahead of time.

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September: Trekking Nepal’s Khumbu Valley

This is a true journey of a lifetime. Trekking farther into the Himalayas each day gets progressively harder and being in tune with your body is especially important. Each step and each breath gets you closer to Mount Everest and on some mornings those are the only two things you can even think about. But when you crest that mountain and see that view of Everest from Kala Patthar, there is nothing like it in the world. Mother Nature sits right in front of you with a greeting that took millions of years to get to you.

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October: Seeing the Fall Colors from a Ryokan in Kyoto

Japan is art. There’s no other way to describe it. Immerse yourself in the composition by staying at an authentic ryoken and venturing around Kyoto’s many landmarks and gardens to see the bamboo forests and changing colors of fall. We stayed at Seikoro Ryokan and loved every minute of our stay. From the tatami mats to the sliding screen doors to the unknown dishes of our Japanese breakfast, it was a visit that has inspired us to return to Japan whenever we can to unlock the meanings of its many customs and traditions.

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November: Touring Sa Pa’s Weekend Markets

If you want to find culture then find the night train from Hanoi to Sa Pa. Plan your visit around the weekend so you’ll be there for the market when minority hill tribes come down into Sa Pa from their surrounding mountain communities. Textiles, clothing, embroidery, beading and color give subtle clues to hill tribe identity. One of our best experiences was sharing a beer and hot bowls of pho with a hill tribe woman at the main market. And discovering the sewing shop and buying a quilt and a custom pair of pants — made overnight. Visiting Bac Ha, the Sunday market in the neighboring village, takes the whole experience to the next level.

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December: Desert Camping in Oman

December had a close runner-up: Christmas markets in Germany. Whether you sip glühwein while eating a bratwurst and shopping for ornaments, or drive your 4WD vehicle into the uncharted desert to drink Omani coffee and do some sand dune sledding, you can’t go wrong. Both experiences are unique, memorable and evoke a sense of place that won’t be forgotten. I still think about Oman’s desert silence, the unexpected cold of the morning, the sunsets and shadows, and the feeling of being very far away from everything.

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Wherever you are in 2017, I hope you find yourself in love — with life, with yourself, with each other, with the world, with the kindness and beauty that persists and will always be there for discovery. Happy New Year!

Miscellaneous Travel