Playing tourist in Porto, a must in Portugal

One of the traditional “rabelo” boats used for transporting port wine on the Douro river in the foreground, with the Dom Luis bridge in the background.

Porto is Portugal’s second largest city and a very popular place for tourists. I went there last week for the first time since shortly after moving to Portugal in 2019. Even in November, the city is thronged with visitors from all over Europe and the United States.

But the amount of tourists doesn’t detract from the city’s charm. It is built on the hillside above the Douro river. On the opposite side of the river is the city of Vila Nova de Gaia. Exploring the Porto side inevitably involves lots descents along narrow winding streets to the riverside, and then climbing stairs or narrow streets back up to the main part of the city. But that is all part of the charm.

Along the riverside on the Porto side, you will find many restaurants and bars, all of them catering to tourists with tourist-type prices. There are also many stands offering river tours. I did one in 2018 when I first visited the city and I can highly recommend it as a way to see the city by river and learn a little about the port wine trade.

On the south side of the river are the famous port houses; like Calem, Sandeman, Taylor, Kopke, Grahams etc. If you take one of the open-topped bus tours available in Porto, you can see the huge warehouses used for storing the famous port wines. Port wine as the fortified wine that we now know has a long history. Part of it is about the name of the city, which is often called “Oporto” which really means “the port” in Portuguese. The city is on the mouth of the Douro river, downstream from the numerous vineyards which produce the wines.

Touring port houses

One of the most touted tourist activities in Porto is to do a tour of the Port houses on the Gaia side of the river. This time I did a tour of the Ramos Pinto port house. It is one of the smaller houses, but the tour is fascinating. The company was founded in 1880 by Adriano Ramos Pinto (https://www.ramospinto.pt/en/verify/?next=/en/) who was initially a trader. He eventually got into his own port wine business and developed the first links with shipping port to Brazil.

Barrels of port wine in the cellars at the Ramos Pinto port house in Vila Nova de Gaia.

The tour includes a visit of the old company office which is full of the old advertising posters, Adriano was quite a character and the artwork features a lot of naked nymphs with tantalizing glasses of port.

A 3,000-liter vat of port aging. Some of the vats hold up to 15,000 liters.

The tour costs 15 euros and at the end visitors can taste three ports; a white, a ruby and a tawny port. Our guide told us that the white ports go darker with age while the red ports become lighter. Some of the vintage ports, which must receive that name through a special process, can be aged for decades. Once opened a bottle of decades old port must be consumed quickly. Less special type of ports can be opened and kept with a specific type of cork top.

White, ruby and tawny port wines at a tasting after the tour of the Ramos Pinto port house in Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal.

Follow my blog to learn about daily life in Portugal. And look for my novel, “The Power of Rain” a mystery set in New Mexico, available in Kindle and paperback on Amazon

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Pamplona pulsing with pilgrims on the Camino

I arrived in the city of Pamplona, Spain, last night and am amazed at the numbers of Camino pilgrims. It seems like there are many more than when I walked the Camino in 2015.

I’m hanging out and exploring the city today while I wait to meet up with Andrea, an acquaintance from the experience seven years ago. I recognize many of the narrow streets from before and even found my way to the cathedral of Santa Maria. I couldn’t go inside but ran into an Irish woman sitting on a bench in the sun outside. We started talking and it turned out she is from County Leitrim, the home of my mother’s parents. You can’t be lonely on this Camino.

City Hall in Pamplona.

I had heard that September is one of the busiest months on the Camino, but I still got a shock when I arrived at the Albergue Jesus y Maria just after it opened at noon and found a huge long line of pilgrims waiting to check in. I waited almost an hour to be assigned a bunk. I may have to make reservations going forward. We never had to do that before, until the last 100 kilometers.

Ancient fortifications outside Pamplona. In some places they look more than 100 feet high.

I will be posting every day during my walk. Follow my blog to experience the journey.

Oh for just a drop of rain, please!

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The curled leaves of this orange tree show the effects of prolonged drought in Portugal.

The weather app on my mobile phone is telling me that there is a chance of rain this coming week. I’m looking forward to hearing the sound of it hitting my roof, maybe even using the windscreen wipers on my car – if I remember how to turn them on.

It’s been about two months since we’ve had any rain here in central Portugal. All around me there are signs that nature is suffering as a result. Leaves on the many fruit trees are parched and drooping. The apples, pears and persimmons, normally so abundant at this time of year, are scarce and tiny. Vineyards which have been irrigated sport clusters of grapes that are already dark and ripe; weeks earlier than normal. On the vines that haven’t been watered the grapes are just wizened raisins.

This is my fourth summer in Portugal. Up to now, the summers haven’t been as hot as those I was used to in Albuquerque. All that changed this year. July was the hottest summer on record, with the temperature hitting an all-time-high of 47 Celsius (116.6 F) in Pinhão, northern Portugal on July 14. We endured many days of 38 C-plus, (triple-digit temperatures in Fahrenheit.) I don’t have air-conditioning but I was thankful for my stone house and the ceiling fans I had installed.

The blistering heat followed on an abnormally dry winter. By early July, 45 percent of the Portuguese mainland was in extreme draught. Then came the fires!

Smoke billows above the horizon just a few kilometers from my village, signaling yet another wildfire.

Every few days for about three weeks I would look out and see huge plumes of smoke billowing nearby. Thankfully the Portuguese firefighters, Bombeiros, respond rapidly and sound of helicopters or fixed-wing aircraft bringing water to douse the flames was almost a daily occurrence.

So now it is September and the prospect of rain is tantalizingly real. It can’t come soon enough for many people. A friend of mine who lives in the Alentejo region, south of Lisbon, depends on wells which are almost dry. She’s been forced to ration her showers to once a week and is contemplating having to buy bottled water for her horses!

My novel getting great reviews

The cover of my newly published novel “The Power of Rain”

It has been brutally hot in Portugal in the last month and the weather reminds me of New Mexico. That’s where my newly published novel, “The Power of Rain” is set. Like New Mexico, it has been very dry here in Portugal and a little rain would be more than welcome. Especially as we have had many wildfires burning uncomfortably close to where I live.

My novel became available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle format in early June and I am thrilled each time I see a review appear on Amazon or Goodreads. These days authors have to do almost all of their own marketing, so I am hoping to get more reviews (hint, hint) so all the more people will get to enjoy the book.

Here is what some of the readers have said so far:

Page Turner

The Power of Rain is the first of what is hoped will be a series of Digger Doyle mysteries. Set in a city in the New Mexico desert, this novel has all the characteristics of a page-turner –romance, underhanded or bewildered City officials, journalists at work to shine light on bureaucratic dealings, nefarious developers and the power of local people who keep showing up and speaking the truth. Digger Doyle is a journalist who, true to her name, digs in and doesn’t give up. I hope the author is working on the sequel – so many mysteries that need sunshine, and stories that need telling.

 Beautiful cultural insight

This novel brings alive culture and life in New Mexico and puts forth connections between politics, ethics and love. Recommended!

 This is such a fun read!

It’s a treat to follow the beautifully drawn character, Digger Doyle, in her investigations. Wonderful to see New Mexico, with it’s unique culture and magical landscape, shining so brightly. Can’t wait for the next one. And by the way, this would make the first of a perfect Amazon Original series. Just sayin’.

This Goodreads review from a Dutch reader living in Portugal

As a resident in a region in Portugal that is upset by developers that had support of a mayor that didn´t factor in drinking water (of which there is an enourmous shortage), not to mention the damage to nature, this story resonated with me. 
The main characters are likable and developed, the story is multi layered, the pace is fast and as a reader you go through all kinds of emotions. I especially appreciated the wittiness. I laughed out loud several times when the author described people.
Can´t wait for the next book in these series!

Famous Portuguese book store

A couple of days ago I learned that the historic and very famous Portuguese bookstore Livraria Bertrand, is now selling the book in English. Livraria Bertrand was founded in Lisbon in 1732. The original store in the Chiado district of Lisbon has been declared by the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest operating bookstore in the world. Livraria Bertrand also has branches in Coimbra and Leiria.

The entrance of the original Livraria Bertrand bookstore in the Chiado area of Lisbon. The store has a wide selection of books in English as well as Portuguese, French and other languages.

The novel was inspired by a lot of the weird and wonderful experiences I observed as a reporter in New Mexico. Now I am retired in Portugal, I am working on another Digger Doyle mystery. Follow my blog to learn more!

Portugal burns as temps soar

Half-burned oak trees are all that remain on a scorched hillside in central Portugal.

Portugal, like much of Europe, has been sweltering under a prolonged heatwave for most of the past two weeks. Temperatures remained over 38c (100F) for days and soared in some parts of the country as high as 47C or 116F. With the hot temperatures came the wildfires.

Fires are common in Portugal each summer but they popped up with a vengeance in July this year. Each time I spot a plume of smoke billowing in the distance I worry. During two decades living in New Mexico I saw the smoke from several deadly fires that consumed tens of thousands of acres and took weeks to extinguish. And this spring there was the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon which become the biggest fires in the state’s history.

But the Portuguese seem to have learned a valuable lesson from a disastrous fire in 2017, which claimed dozens of lives near the central town of Pedrógão Grande. The Portuguese firefighters, Bombeiros, spring into action almost as soon as the smoke appears. Usually all signs of the blaze are gone within a few hours.

This year has been a test

Between July 5 and July 11, multiple fires broke out within 5 km to 15 km of where I live near the towns of Ferreira do Zezere and Tomar, in central Portugal. Bombeiros units from all over the country rushed to the scene, officers from the Guarda Nacional Republicans (GNR) controlled roads near the area. They even closed some major highways temporarily.

Thanks to the swift response, most of the smoke would be gone by the next morning. But as the temperature rose again and the afternoon winds kicked in, the ominous clouds of grey, brown and dirty yellow smoke would reappear. News reports attributed the new blazes to wind-blown embers which ignited tinder dry vegetation in the surrounding areas. At one point, I drove toward a nearby village and saw a line of cars stopped by the roadside. The occupants were standing watching the flames burn a hillside about 2 km, roughly 1.5 miles away.

During the evening, friends and neighbors sent messages back and forth checking on each other. Two of my friends had to evacuate for a couple of nights because the flames came within a half mile or so of their homes. I kept a suitcase packed with vital papers and other important items by my door in case I too had to leave. Luckily it didn’t happen.

Aircraft bring water to extinguish the fires

The drama in my area of central Portugal lasted for about four days. During that time planes and helicopters rumbled overhead all day long, carrying precious water from a nearby reservoir to douse the flames. I say precious, because Portugal is in a drought situation. Everywhere the lakes, rivers and reservoirs are seriously depleted.

Thankfully, the fires have now calmed down. A friend of mine who lives near a forest that has been mostly obliterated was deeply grateful to the Bombeiros when they told her that her home was safe. The Portuguese regard their firefighters, most of whom are volunteers, as heroes. I wrote about them in a recent article in Portugal Living, the online lifestyle magazine I’ve been freelancing for.

A burned hillside near the villages of Travessa and Quebrado do Cima, in central Portugal.

Life in Portugal: where push means pull and a dog is a cow

A sign outside a house in my village in central Portugal warns people to beware of the dog. Cão, pronounced ”cow” means dog in Portuguese.

I have been living in Portugal for almost three years now and I still hesitate when I come to an entrance door and see the sign ”puxe”. You see, the letter ”X” in Portuguese is pronounced ”sh”, so if you say the word ”puxe” it sounds like ”push”, but really it means pull!

The Portuguese word for push is ”Empurre”. To the native English speaker, this is so visually confusing. So I stand at the door and think ”push or pull?”

One of the other words that just seems weird is the word for dog; ”cão”. It is pronounced “cow”, or more correctly, pinch the top of your nose as you say cow and you will get the proper nasal sound that is used when you see the letter combination ”ão” in a Portuguese word.

Portuguese is full of nasal sounds. Bread is ”pão” which sounds like pow, again, holding your nose. Hand is ”mão”, pronounced mow, to rhyme with a nasal sounding “wow”.

You get the idea.

I’m fortunate to be one of those people that loves words. Learning languages is kind of a hobby with me. Some people like knitting or quilting or cooking. I like learning how to communicate with people in the countries I visit or have the good fortune to live in.

In my experience, the English speakers who come to live in Portugal tend not to become very proficient in Portuguese. Probably because many Portuguese are only too willing to speak English. Often when they say they only speak a little, you find they can quickly wax eloquent on all kinds of subjects. The Portuguese are good at explaining things in great detail.

English speakers often say that people who speak a different language talk so fast. We forget just how fast we normally speak. Try watching an evening news broadcast on your local TV station. We also forget how many variations of English there are. Think about the differences between “British” English and ”American” English, and then break those huge generalizations into the innumerable local accents in the UK and the US. Add in Canada, Australia and New Zealand–remember listening to Jacinda Ardern– and you’ve got a vast range of linguistic variations.

I went to University in Dublin, Ireland, and a lot of my friends were from Belfast. I can’t even begin to try to give a phonetic rendering of how people from Northern Ireland say ”cow”! Watch ”Derry Girls”.

The Ascensor da Glora in Lisbon. Emblematic of a scene in the Portuguese capital city.

My novel hits Amazon! Woohoo!

Cover of my newly published novel The Power of Rain.
“The Power of Rain” is a political mystery set in New Mexico

It’s been a long journey with a lot of ups and downs, but seeing my novel finally up on the Amazon website is a thrill! It’s a mystery set in the fictitious city of Las Vistas, New Mexico where hotshot reporter Elizabeth “Digger” Doyle has a nose for exposing intrigue at City Hall — And there’s plenty of that in a city where politicians are cosy with developers whose projects damage the environment.

I’d like to thank all the friends who helped encourage me to keep writing, and those who read the manuscript and gave me invaluable feedback. All those comments helped me keep working to come up with better ideas and to polish the writing.

A bit about the author

I’ve wanted to write ever since I can remember. When I was a little girl I used to tell my brother stories as we walked the few blocks to elementary school in El Cajon, Calif. I had freelance articles published when I was a student at Trinity College Dublin. I got my first real job as a journalist when I lived in Norway, writing and editing for the English language newspaper The Saga Weekly. Later, when I had children, one of my favorite things was to make up stories for them at bedtime. They always preferred my made up stories to books.

I was fortunate enough to land a job as a staff writer with the Albuquerque Journal, New Mexico’s largest daily. During the 18 years I worked there I wrote thousands of stories covering an array of business, political, environmental, police and feature topics. Some of the shenanigans I observed provided the initial inspiration for this novel.

It is now available in paperback and kindle format from Amazon. If you live in Portugal you can get it through Amazon.de. I hope you will enjoy it!

And you can find out more on my Amazon author page.

Thoughts on Uvalde, from afar

Morning Glories in my Portuguese garden.

LOSING A CHILD is the most gut-wrenching experience that can happen to a parent. It isn’t supposed to happen. Your children aren’t supposed to die before you. But it does happen sometimes, and we become members of a club no one ever wants to join. 

Their little faces remain forever young in the photos that surround you, haunting you, like phantom pieces of your heart.

I lost my 11-year-old son to a rare and devastating illness many years ago and I am still haunted.

There are so many emotions; pain, despair, rage. The questions; why them? Why now? What did they/I/we do to deserve this terrible thing happening?

When numbness finally comes it is a relief from the pain, but it is always with us, like a severed limb that will never regrow. 

I write this not to gain sympathy but to draw attention to what the parents of those 19 children in the small Texas town are facing. It will affect not only them, but their other children, their nieces and nephews, their grandchildren. It will ripple out throughout the families and neighborhoods, and eventually to the next generation.

The parents in Uvalde will live the rest of their lives asking the questions. And the terrible thing is; that despite so many of these hideous incidents, and their increasing frequency….. NOTHING substantial has been done to prevent them. Why the lack of courage to make change? Americans pride themselves on living in the land of the free. Where is the freedom in having to go to school surrounded by armed guards? Having to live in constant fear?  Is that freedom? 

I moved to Portugal three years ago and feel safer and more free here than I ever did in the US. 

My son Max: February 18, 1988-June 6, 1999.

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

I keep on writing, in Portugal!

I have been fortunate enough to find opportunities to keep my writing skills honed while learning more about my newly adopted country, Portugal. The online magazine Portugal Living Magazine has a wealth of articles with useful and fascinating information for those interested in moving here or people who can glean practical tips for everyday life.

The latest issue is now available and below is a glimpse at the recent piece I wrote about Coimbra, Portugal’s third largest city, one-time capital and home to its oldest university. (page 44 in the current issue.)

Another of my articles that appears in the current issue of Portugal Living focuses on a unique type of team-building called Equine Assisted Training. Individuals and groups benefit from learning leadership techniques and group management styles through a series of exercises with horses. Working for the folks who run the EAT courses was what brought me to this part of central Portugal as a Workaway.com volunteer in 2018. A year later I was lucky enough to find my dream house in the same village. I still help out with the horses. (on page 32.)