May is pilgrimage season in Portugal

A floral pattern on the paving stones in the village of Chaõs in central Portugal. Foral patterns are a common site during the many religious festivals and processions that occur during the summers in Portugal.

Pilgrims were on the move this week in Portugal. Huge crowds of walkers, clad in high-visibility vests lined the country roads heading to the town of Fatima. May 13 marks the day in 1917 when the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to three shepherd children in a field outside of the town. The children; Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco said they saw her several more times. The last time was on October 13, reportedly witnessed by 70,000 people.

Nowadays, the ornate Basilica of the Rosary of Our Lady of Fatima dominates a vast plaza around the site of the original apparitions. Hundreds of thousands of visitors come here each year.

This week I was on a cycling trip through an area of central Portugal near Fatima. My fellow cyclists and I saw several pilgrim groups. They were happily chatting and laughing, waving at us as they strolled along the country roads in their brightly colored vests.

My Portuguese teacher, Helena, recalls making the pilgrimage in her youth. She said she and her parents walked “dozens of kilometers”. They had to reach Fatima by the night of May 12 so they could take part in the traditional candlelight procession. She mostly remembers how cold and exhausted she was during the night spent there.

Many Ways

There are several “official” routes waymarked with blue signs. The 141-km Tagus Way starts at the Parque das Naçoes in Lisbon and continues along much of the same route as that which leads toward Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The Northern Way is a 260-km route beginning in the town of Valença on the Spanish border. The 111-km Coimbra route begins in the university city of Coimbra. The Nazaré Way starts in the coastal town of Nazaré which has a shrine of its own to Our Lady.

Olive trees and poppies are a common sight along the pilgrimage routes to Fatima in central Portugal.

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It’s “Carnaval” time in Portugal

A little boy drummer leads his school friends in the carnival parade in Ferreira do Zezere, central Portugal.

It was “Carnaval” time in Portugal last week. Yes, that is how they spell it here in Portugal, where every town and city around the country was celebrating with music, dancing and parades. The carnival tradition supposedly originated hundreds of years ago in Italy. Catholics were not supposed to eat meat during the season of Lent which begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts until Easter Sunday. So, they began the custom of holding a lively costume party festival on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. They called the festival “carne vale” which means “put away the meat.”

Here in Portugal, the tradition goes back to the Middle Ages. The oldest known carnival celebration started in the thirteenth century in the city of Torres Vedras, about 43 kilometers (27 miles) northwest of Lisbon.

Often groups in small villages all around a larger town will get together to create a float or parade group around a theme. Movies, popular bands and local sport clubs are frequent themes. Sometimes the floats have highly political messages, with signs or costumes satirizing current issues or poking fun at well-known government personalities.

Maybe Celtic origins?

The village of Podence in the Tras os Montes region of far northeastern Portugal is known for its unique colorful costumes and the bizarre antics of the revelers, called “Caretos.”

Men from the village and surrounding area are clad in home-made woolen costumes in red, green and yellow. They wear red masks made of wood or leather. They hang metal rattles and bells from their belts and often carry a wooden staff.

These “Caretos” go round the village shaking their rattles and bells at any women they find. Supposedly it’s all about spring, fertilization and new growth after the long winter. The festival in Podence and Macedo de Cavaleiros nearby, has been designated as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Some historians believe the festival is linked to ancient Celtic fertility rites.

My village celebrated with a carnival dance “Baile Carnaval” in the local association hall. There was plenty of traditional Portuguese music, which sounds to me a lot like polka tunes or the kind of Mexican “rancheras” I was used to in New Mexico. A lot of local people showed up and danced enthusiastically or joined in the conga line if they couldn’t find a partner.

The nearby town of Ferreira do Zezere held “bed races”, where teams competed in pushing a steel framed bed on wheels up and down the main street. One member perched on the mattress and clung to the headboard for dear life while team mates pushed and hauled the unwieldy bed down the street, trying not to crash into the sidewalk or the onlookers.

Local musicians bring a carnival spirit to the local market in Chãos, central Portugal.

In the US, the carnival tradition is observed in New Orleans as “Mardi Gras” or Fat Tuesday. The days-long festival in Rio de Janeiro is world famous for its samba bands. My nearby town of Tomar also spread the festivities over several days with parades for children and night time concerts in the main square. On Tuesday, the actual carnival day, many businesses observed a holiday as the streets became choked with onlookers watching the parades.

Revelers crowd the streets of Tomar, central Portugal to watch the carnival parade.

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Portugal is great for hiking

Hikers walk beside a flower-covered stream in near Alvaiazere in central Portugal. The white, red and yellow marking on the tree is a symbol to guide walkers on the trail.

Springtime in Portugal is a wonderful time to enjoy the countryside on foot. Whether you walk by yourself, take your dog with you or join and organized hike, there are endless trails to choose from. Of course there are the famous hiking experiences; the Camino de Santiago and the Rota Vicentina. The Portuguese Camino traditionally begins in Lisbon and continues about 660 kilometers into the Spanish province of Galicia to reach Santiago de Compostela. But many people chose to start in the northern city of Porto

For those who want a day hike, many municipalities regularly organize events which are popular with participants of all ages. Even in my small village, several dozen people showed up for a hike during the fall.

Last Sunday, two friends and I joined a hike set up by the municipality of Alvaiazere. The event advertised a 10 kilometer (6 mile) hike or a 14 km run. We opted for the walk. We had to sign up online and pay the princely sum of five euros. When we showed up at the meeting point in a tiny village, it looked like a fairground. There was a bright green inflatable arch, lively dance music and a crowd of about two hundred walkers plus dozens more runners. We had to check in and get a number.

The runners set off first. Then came the walkers. They ranged in age from gray-haired grandmothers to a little kid who looked about six years old, plus a couple of well-behaved dogs. Our group proceeded at a pretty leisurely pace and dozens of hikers soon passed us. No problem, it allowed us more room to enjoy the trail. The route took us through woods, past tiny villages, through a rocky dry stream bed, up two steep hills and along a beautiful stream.

A popular destination for hikes in Portugal is to visit one of the many giant swings (Baloiço) that have been erected on hilltops all around the country. They provide a great lookout point to view the surrounding landscape. It’s also fun to indulge your inner child and get on the swing.

A giant swing or “baloiço” looks out over the countryside in central Portugal. In the background you can see one of the many windfarms that dot the landscape. Wind energy makes an important contribution to the electricity grid in Portugal.

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The hike organized by the municipality of Alvaiazere took us over this old stone bridge and on to a magical spring called the Olho do Tordo, or “the eye of the thrush”.

Of rain and Spain and the train!

The Puente de Palmas, the Bridge of Palms over the Guadiana river in Badajoz, was originally built in 1596.

A trip to Spain is easy by train from central Portugal. I recently discovered that there are two trains daily to the Spanish city of Badajoz from Entroncamento, an important rail hub about 35 minutes south of where I live. The trip takes about 2 hours 45 minutes, stopping at multiple towns along the route, including Abrantes, Portalegre and Elvas. The cost is 12.45 Euros, or about $13.20, each way.

My friend and I decided to take the early train, which departs from Entroncamento at about 9:30 in the morning, reaching its destination at about 1:15 p.m. Spain is in the European time zone an hour ahead of Portugal so this “adds” an hour to the outward trip and visa versa. When we found our way to the appropriate platform we did a double-take. The train for this international journey consists of exactly one carriage. Most of the trains in Portugal are electric, but this one sounded as though it ran on diesel.

One carriage diesel train that runs from Entroncamento to Badajoz.
The single carriage train travels twice daily from Entroncamento, Portugal to Badajoz, Spain.

Why travel to Spain when there is so much to see in Portugal? Well, it’s an easy trip and I love a sense of adventure.

Badajoz is in the Spanish province of Estremadura. It has a rich and varied history as we discovered. After checking into our hotel, we crossed the Puente de Palmas over the Guadiana river and found ourselves at the Puerta de Palmas. This was the huge door of an old wall that formerly surrounded the city of Badajoz. From that point, streets to the left lead into a more historic area while heading to the right will take you toward the more modern shopping district.

When we visited Badajoz, the Puerta de Palmas was surrounded by roadworks and Christmas decorations.

We wandered through the historic district and found the Museo de Bellas Artes (MUBA) which offered free entry. Of much more interest to me was the Museo de la ciudad “Luis de Morales”. From the exhibits in this museum you get a real sense of the city’s past under the Romans, the Moors and the decades during the 17th century when Portuguese and Spanish forces fought over possession of the city. British visitors may also be interested in the city’s role during the Napoleonic Wars when an Anglo-Portuguese army under the then-Earl of Wellington laid seige to Badajoz in the spring of 1812 and forced the surrender of the French garrison. According to several sources, it was one of the bloodiest battles of the Peninsular War.

We were fortunate enough to only have half a day of rain while we were in Badajoz. After a long dry spring and summer, the rains hit Portugal in mid-October and have barely stopped since. We returned from Badajoz on 7 December and it seems as though the rain has fallen non-stop since then. Tropical-type downpours have filled the depleted reservoirs but also caused widespread flooding and misery. In the Lisbon area many neighborhoods were flooded and one woman died. We all knew we needed the rain, but sometimes you can have too much of a good thing!

Follow my blog to learn more about life in Portugal, and check out my novel “The Power of Rain” available in paperback or Kindle format on Amazon.

Enjoying the writing life in Portugal

Livraria Lello & Irmão in Porto is frequently called the “most beautiful bookstore in the world.” Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling lived and taught English in Porto in the early 1990s and was a customer of the bookstore. It is rumored that Lello was the inspiration for Flourish and Blott’s bookstore in the Harry Potter series.

Portugal is a book lovers paradise. Everywhere you go, you see independent books stores. There are books for sale in the post offices, books for sale at one of the main train stations in Lisbon. I’ve even seen a library on the beach!

So, what is it like to be a writer in Portugal? Well, I retired and moved to Portugal in 2019 shortly after I finished writing “The Power of Rain” my first novel. I had spent the last twenty years in the USA as a journalist and since I moved to this country I have continued writing. In addition to this blog, I mostly write freelance articles for Portugal Living, an online lifestyle magazine.

That is the fun part. The hard work has been getting my book published and trying to market it. It’s a mystery set in New Mexico where I used to live. So the target market is in the US, but I am in Portugal. Add to that, I am new at this and finding your way around the publishing industry is a steep learning curve.

The good news is that I have met wonderful people who are helping me on this journey. In Albuquerque, I was part of a writing group for a couple of years. The group was what motivated me to keep writing and to finish the book. We met twice a month and shared what we had written and gave each other critiques and suggestions. Having other people read your work is invaluable. They can see what works and what doesn’t work, what is confusing and what could be improved.

Friends who read the manuscript of “The Power of Rain” said they wanted to know what happened to the main characters: intrepid reporter Digger Doyle and her girlfriend, the artist and activist, Maria Ortiz. I wanted to know what happened to them as well. So, I started working on my next novel. It’s called “Sunshine Dreams.” I won’t reveal anything about the plot here, but I will say that I am about two-thirds into the writing.

Writing group support

Mindful of my experience in the US, I decided I would put feelers out to start a writing group where I now live. I was hoping that it would provide the same kind of support and valuable feedback. Thank goodness for Facebook groups. I put a post on the local FB group, I Love Tomar asking if anyone would be interested in forming a writing group. I had a great response! Beginning in July, four of us have met fairly regularly in the lovely atmospheric Cafe Paraiso, in Tomar, to talk about our work and give each other moral support.

It’s an interesting mix of writers. Englishman Bob, writes “urban fantasy” and has self-published several books in that genre. Alex is a novice writer working on a historical fantasy, Ana is a highly successful romance writer who has had around twenty books published and has a couple more releases in the next few weeks! She has been a fount of knowledge on all aspects of marketing.

Now, I am working with a couple of local cafes in Tomar to hold a book signing event. One of the hurdles however, is getting copies of my book. I self-published through IngramSpark which makes my book available in paperback and Kindle format to retail stores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. As the author, I can order books at a much lower price than retail. However, IngramSpark’s European distributor is in the UK. Since Brexit, items sent from the UK into Portugal are subject to customs duties which can add up to 50 percent to the original cost! As I said, it’s all a steep learning curve! All I really want to do is to keep writing and have people enjoy reading my books.

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My novel, a mystery set in New Mexico, USA

Finding your future in Portugal

The red roofs in the center of Lisbon with the Castelo São Jorge on the hilltop above the city.

Portugal is getting a lot of attention as a desirable place to live, mostly for retirees but also a lot of people who can work remotely.

The headline of a Wall Street Journal article that ran in April this year claimed Americans were moving to Portugal “in droves.” According to the story, “Retirees are drawn by a low cost of living, healthcare, a sunny climate and tax incentives,”

The same month a New York Times travel story drew readers in with the headline “A Portugal of Pristine Beaches, Tiny Villages and Little Else.” The article sang the praises of beaches like Comporta in the Alentejo region a short distance south of Lisbon.

Early this year, Momondo‘s Work While Traveling Index ranked Portugal a top place for remote working, based on its climate, social life, relatively affordable cost of living and availability of visas for digital nomads, according to The Portugal News, an English language news source in Portugal. Momondo is a global travel search site that compares flights, hotels and car rental deals.

So, are lots of Americans really moving to Portugal. The answer is yes and no. According to SEF, the Portuguese Immigration and Border Service, the number of Americans who moved to Portugal in 2021 was up 45 percent over the previous year. But they are still a small percentage of the overall population of foreigners living in the country– at the end of 2021 there were about 7,000 Americans living in Portugal, according to a CNBC story about “Burned out millennials flocking to Portugal.” By comparison, SEF figures from June this year show there are nearly 700,000 Brazilians and nearly 42,000 British people living in Portugal, according to the blog site Portugal Resident.

Anecdotally, I am meeting a lot more Americans who have chosen to live in or around my nearby town of Tomar. It’s a charming small city of about 22,000 in the center of the country about 90 minutes by car from Lisbon. People I interviewed for an article in the online lifestyle magazine Portugal Living say they chose Tomar because of its size, its history – the town was a center for the Knights Templar in the Middle Ages – and the location relatively close to the coast, the university city of Coimbra and a direct rail link to Lisbon.

Me, I’ve been living here for a little more than three years and I moved here for all the above reasons, except to work remotely. I am just enjoying retirement and writing this blog!

Tomar castle and the associated Convento de Cristo, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Follow my blog to read more about daily life in Portugal. And don’t forget to order a copy of my book, “The Power of Rain”, available in Kindle or paperback from Amazon.

Cycling adventures in Portugal

bicycle riders
Cycling on the Portuguese coast near Figueiro de Foz

Before I came to Portugal in 2019, I had been an enthusiastic cyclist in New Mexico. Every weekend saw me out riding with the New Mexico Touring Society bike club. Rides were great opportunities to see parts of Albuquerque I would never have explored by myself, or get out of town on rural routes. We shared coffee, lunches and many social occasions. The club became my extended family.

So, when I moved to central Portugal I hoped to find kindred spirits. Unfortunately, it’s been hard. But through the wonders of modern technology–think Facebook groups–and sheer persistence, I have found a few cycling companions. It has meant driving a lot farther than I was used to in Albuquerque, but it has given me the opportunity to see different areas of the country, like the coastal town of Figueiro de Foz and the mountainous region around Figueiro de Vinhos, near Coimbra. Some of my best rides have been with Jean-Remi Chapelon who runs an adventure tour company called My-Green-Break.

Challenging Terrain

I live in a hilly area of central Portugal which means lots of climbing if you’re on a bicycle. As you can imagine, this poses a challenge to the legs and lungs. I mentioned this to my brother, who is also a keen cyclist. His response was, “Oh but you used to live near the Sandia mountains, so what’s the big deal?” True, I did live close to the Sandias, which are part of the Rocky Mountain chain, but the difference is that there are hills everywhere here. They may be short, but they are very often steep–an 8 percent to 12 percent grade is not uncommon!

Nevertheless, I have grown to love the different style of cycling I can do in Portugal. I have met some wonderful people, enjoyed some great coffee, pastries, lunches and conversations. I have also learned to appreciate that a bike ride doesn’t have to be about killer mileage or training for some exhausting event like a century or the Iron Horse Classic, all of which I did while living in New Mexico.

Bike Friendly Drivers

Portuguese drivers are tolerant of cyclists, something I very much appreciate. Even though I ride mostly on narrow, winding country roads, there is so little traffic that I never feel in danger. Another wonderful thing about Portugal is the absence of broken glass on the roadside. Drivers in New Mexico had a habit of tossing beer bottles out the window. And, there are no goat heads, those nasty little seedpods with the wickedly sharp thorns that were deadly to bike tires.

National Cycling Guidebook

My interest in cycling also gave me the change to pitch a story to Portugal Living, the online lifestyle magazine I have freelanced for since 2021. On page 26 of the summer issue of the magazine is my article about Paulo Guerra dos Santos and the Ecovias Portugal, National Cycle Tourism Network. Dos Santos, a 49-year-old engineer with a passion for cycling, has created an online guidebook which has downloadable maps of cycling routes throughout Portugal. He researches the routes and updates the guidebook annually. The 2022 edition of the guidebook now has maps of more than 6,400 kilometers of bike routes.

There are 19 long distance routes complete with maps, advice on towns and accommodation and cycling specific technical information. Cyclists can follow trails that take them to historic towns,  past rivers, beaches, through hilly areas or the gently rolling countryside of the Alentejo south of Lisbon or among the orange groves of the Algarve. Santos divides the routes into segments of 30 kilometer s (18.6 miles) to 50 kilometers (31 miles), so cyclists can have ample time for sight-seeing and enjoying a coffee or meal along the way.  

The National Touring Guidebook is available online and appears in Portuguese and English. The 2022 edition sells for 64 Euros or $70. (Purchasers get an 80 percent discount on future guidebooks.) The guide is downloadable as a ZIP document which includes the road book and GPS tracks, there is also a PDF file with a general map of the network. Each route section can be downloaded to a smartphone and used with a GPX-capable app.  

Paulo Guerra dos Santos

Why I love Lisbon, Portugal’s gem

A scene in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto where street decorations are a string of colorful bras!

I first fell in love with the city of Lisbon when I came on vacation in 2011. I am convinced the city enchants everyone who visits because of it’s easy charm, its mix of grand plazas and rabbit-warren streets and, above all, the welcoming attitude of the Portuguese people.

That wonderful first experience planted the seed that would eventually motivate me to move to Portugal full time. I cherished a fantasy of living in a quaint little apartment in the Alfama district with a view of the Tejo river. Alas, the reality is that prices in Lisbon were out of range of my meager budget. On top of that, a Lisbon native warned me that those old buildings in the Alfama usually needed extensive and expensive repairs. So, I settled in the country.

But a trip to Lisbon is still a source of great pleasure. I had the opportunity to visit over the Valentine’s weekend and fell in love with the city all over again. What’s not to like when you can stroll through the geometrically laid out streets of the Baixa area and browse the fancy shops or be amused by street performers in the pedestrian Rua Augusta. The grid pattern is thanks to the Marquis de Pombal who oversaw reparations after a devastating earthquake in 1755 destroyed much of the city.

A visit to Lisbon always means climbing. From the sea-level Baixa neighborhood you wind your way up through steep and narrow alleyways towards the Castelo de São Jorge and into the Alfama. This is the oldest area of the city, inhabited by the Romans and Visigoths, then developed by the Moors in the early Middle Ages. The name derives from Arabic meaning “hot fountains”. Wandering the Alfama you can enjoy peeking into the myriad tiny restaurants and shops. Many of them sell tourist souvenirs, but you will also find the hole-in-the-wall stores that sell basic groceries to the locals.

I’m not a big fan of Fado music, but it is an integral part of the Portugues culture. The Museum of Fado in the Alfama district is definitely worth a visit. You might even find out what the essentially Portuguese term “Saudade” means!

A crown for each! Statues adorn the top of the Arco da Rua Augusta on the Praça do Comercio.

After a trip to the Alfama, you can descend and take a stroll through the Praça do Comercio, one of the grandest city squares in Europe. It faces the river Tejo (Tagus) and a series of steps leading down to the water forms the perfect hangout spot on a sunny day.

One of the things I noticed about Portugal when I arrived here, was the number of independent book stores. For anyone who loves books, like me, the sight of so many book stores was a joy to behold. I’ve even seen one on a beach in the Alentejo and at Lisbon’s Oriente train station. In Lisbon, the Chiado district has so many little bookshops you could spend almost a whole day browsing from one to the other.

My favorite Chiado bookstore is the historic Bertrand Livraria. Founded in 1732 by two French brothers, it claims to be the oldest continuously operating bookstore in the world. Drifting slowly through the seven consecutive rooms of the bookstore, you can feast your eyes on a huge array of titles, authors and subjects. Most are in Portuguese, but there is also a wide selection of books in English, including many translations of works by prominent Portuguese writers like Fernando Pessoa and Jose Saramago, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998.

The Bertrand bookstore in the Chiado district of Lisbon was founded in 1732.

And of course, if you have the time, climb to the Bairro Alto where the densely packed streets are full of restaurants, bars, night spots and a lively fun atmosphere!

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