Thursday, September 14, 2017

Killarney Provincial Park


It fades all together too quickly
those rocky, sun-warmed shores
smooth stone, endless underneath me
feet in cool water, Tom Thompson’s trees still, beckoning
from across the far-reaching blue.

Let me away from all these office doors,
down flights of stairs,
out into the end of summer’s soft breezes.

Let me close my eyes, seep through these
open-less windows,
away from lamplight and into the sun.

There was a frog.
He sat, still, half-floating in a small pool of warm water,
out from under a small crack in the same rock we both shared.

I sat, just as still.
Georgian Bay lapped against my feet;
he leapt.  Swallowed an ant.
Bounce, splash, slid -
back under the rock.  Vanished.

I want to remember his eyes.  Brown, shiny, unblinking.
I want to keep that startling moment, of stillness, sudden life, then vanishment.

Pink granite shores.  Green jack pines.

*

A blinking cursor pulses.

*
Forever unfinished longing.


Saturday, July 1, 2017

Day 15: Last day in Lisbon; saying goodbye to Portugal

This morning, we woke later than we intended, yet nevertheless managed to pack our suitcases, shower, check-out, and eat breakfast, all before the free walking tour was scheduled to start.

Of course, everything is on Portugal time and we ended up waiting for half an hour, only to be told by the hostel staff that while we were waiting, the walking tour guide must have missed us and left without us just five minutes prior.  We were told that if we hurried we could still catch up with the group at a nearby subway station, so we dashed out of the hostel and quickly made our way to the meeting point.

Thankfully, we saw the tell-tale guides with their yellow shirts and ran up to the group, relieved we had not missed it after all.  Our guide was a young and energetic history and art major who has a clear passion for Lisbon and all of its intricate cultural and historical influences.  She took us on a tour of the Mouraria neighbourhood.

The streets of Mouraria neighbourhood
This is another of Lisbon's oldest neighbourhoods.  Historically, even before the earthquake, it was where all the "non-Christians" lived - the Jews, the heretics, the prostitutes.  To this day, it remains a vibrant multi-cultural hub for people from all over the world - India, Pakistan, China, Africa - and our guide excitedly described to us her favourite markets to go to, spots to hang out with friends and grab drinks, as well as pointed out all the interesting architecture, the unique and quirky features of the very small and narrow homes that have been standing for hundreds of years, showing us a hidden palace, and taking us to some of the area's most interesting street art along the way.


Something in her passion and excitement for this vibrant mosaic of cultures, peoples, and histories all layered over each other in beautiful and unpredictable ways gave me a fresh perspective on what it means to be a young person from Portugal today.  Like the woman in the bookstore in Porto who passionately took me around and showed me all her favourite writers, I felt another sort of connection to this girl who was our tour guide.  A reflection of myself, in a way, for I am just as passionate about all the neighbourhoods and layers of culture and history in Toronto as she clearly is about Lisbon.

For there are two Portugals for me - the one of my parents' youth, which they carry with them always and remains alive in their hearts, unchanged, despite the impossibility of them ever finding it again; and the current, modern Portugal, which neither my parents nor I really know.


This trip was a taste of it - I saw so many parts of the country I had never seen; that my parents, or even our passionate tourguide had never seen.  I flowed among the different places and peoples, never quite belonging as either a local or a foreigner.  One foot in each world, I still feel the internal struggle to understand myself as part of some larger whole of this culture, and figure out what it really means to me.

It's an on-going journey, and I know I'll be back many times still.  As our tour ends at one of our guide's favourite viewpoints over the whole city, with the castle clearly visible in front of us, I feel a deep sense of calm.  Usually when I leave a country it feels very bittersweet, for I never know if or when I'll return.  In the case of Portugal, it will forever belong to me in some way, and I know the ties I have will inevitably keep pulling me back over my lifetime.  It's a temporary farewell.

street art painted on ceiling of old archway
Portugal surprised me.  The variety of landscapes and expressions of humanity and the natural world packed into such a small country was fascinating - mountain ranges, wild horses, bustling cities, multi cultural neighbourhoods, people living in ancient stone houses, endless flat fields of olive and cork trees, ruins left by peoples who have spanned centuries, monuments, breathtaking limestone caves and beaches, wild waves, rugged coastlines, boulder-strewn hills, lush waterfalls, gut-wrenching performances of fado, decadent wines and cheeses and fruits, ancient libraries and universities, street festivals; old and new, wild and human, living side-by-side in an intricate balance... it was if I visited a thousand countries, a thousand peoples.

I'll end this final post with a poem I wrote three years ago, after the last time I went.  Even though I learned and saw and felt and experienced more about this country than I ever knew, the words still vividly capture the emotions I feel when I am here.

Adeus, Portugal.  Até a próxima.

***

Souvenirs from Portugal

You say you want to travel the world
but there are some places you cannot go even if you travel there.

Here I am, nestled in the small village of Tojal,

wondering what I can bring you, a piece of somewhere you’ve not yet been; a placeholder; a rain cheque;
something to keep the longing at bay.

If I could, I’d bring you the taste
of one of my late-grandfather’s sun-warmed oranges just picked,
or the subtle scent of pine and eucalyptus that permeates the hot air, or a bite of fresh bread from the baker down the road that appears as if by magic on our door handle every morning, or the sound of roosters singing not just in the morning but whenever they so please. 

I’d bring you the juice of my uncle’s sweet peaches dripping down your fingers.

I’d give you the feeling of rough bark under your feet to reach the ripest figs in the tree behind the house as you look down at stalls that used to hold chickens but now hold only memories of clucking

I’d give you thirst from the hot sun on your head as you walk dusty paths through vineyards until you finally reach the spring and cup your hands under the small stream and sip the water cool and clear as the day my grandfather first discovered it.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

Then I’d take you down the roads and hills to Batalha and give you the sounds of gypsies shouting prices in the market, the taste of fresh goat cheese cool and soft, vibrant colours of scarves thimbles wooden spoons fish beach towels baby chicks plums lettuce more fish leather shoes cheese walnuts rabbits pears...

and the sight of the Mosteiro
towering
full of history
echoes
ancient memories of kings    and queens      and battles

I’d give you the sound of your footsteps against smooth stone from centuries of footsteps I’d give you
the eerie feeling of walking amidst the past and the present at the same time

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

And then, Nazaré

Would that I could bring you the feeling of wildness
frigid waves crashing against your entire body

I’d lend you
my stirred soul
for just a minute
if there was a way to give you         memories of myself as a child being tumbled
          a small bundle of limbs salt water rough sand

but no fear.

I’d give you salt-coated fingers from thick pumpkin seeds eaten while seated on grainy sand
I’d give you salt-sprayed hair I’d give you salt-coated fish I’d give you salt-covered skin from white foam

I’d bring you
the crash of ocean echoing against cliffs

I’d give you
for a second,
the beating of my heart in perfect rhythm with these waves
and the ache of leaving them.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

There’s no novelty mug
that could capture the feeling of watching my mother sift through
old boxes stuffed with letters in her own handwriting
addressed to people no longer here

no postcard I could send that would give you
the sense of saudade
that seeps from the unused tractor still sitting quietly in the shed
       the little windmill that no longer spins
       the fields of corn and grapes and olive trees now covered in weeds
       the attic full of broken furniture with locked drawers of old black and white photos
       the missing love letters from my grandfather that my grandmother burned after he died                    
                                               
no keychain I could bring you
that would tell you what it’s like to be a child of people that left this all behind but still search for a place that no longer exists and hold it in their hearts and tell stories of the way it used to be, freedom and poverty and hard work and forever roaming and stealing fruit and and drinking homemade wine and friends and family long passed away and hunger and meeting companions in the fields and making their fun out of sticks and grass and imagination and then growing up and longing for escape and a bigger world and taking a plane across an ocean to make a life somewhere else and have children in another land who would never really

belong here

and yet somehow still
belong here.

Saudade is a birthright. Inherited.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

There’s no souvenir I could bring you
of a decades-lost Portugal
for there are some places you cannot go even if you travel there.

view of Lisbon and S. Jorge castle

Days 14: Lisboa de mil amores (Lisbon of a thousand loves)

Last night, we arrived in Lisbon and safely returned our car to the rental place in order to spend two days in Lisbon without it. 

My uncle welcomed us to "The country of roundabouts" when we first arrived, and he couldn't have been more right.  Despite his very detailed instructions when we first arrived in the village, we still had more than one time where we exited at the wrong place and had to circle back around or take highly detailed and unnecessary tours through neighbouring towns.

We eventually got the hang of roundabouts in small towns (the ones in major cities were still quite terrifying - double lanes and traffic lights!), and figured out the other idiosyncrasies of driving in rural Portugal.  (For example, their yellow lights repetitively flash at you rather than hold steady.  Sometimes, that means "slow down, prepare to stop," but other times it can change from red back to flashing yellow,  meaning "there's a pedestrian crossing here or some other unknown reason you should be cautious".  And other times, according to my uncle, it means "the traffic light is in a controlled speed zone that will immediately change to red if you go too fast, but if it's malfunctioning it will just flash yellow indefinitely so you can go through it anyway."
Tower of Belém

Windy mountain roads, roundabouts, flashing lights, rural road construction zones, tight parking spaces, and 2100km later, we nevertheless made it safely from top of the country to bottom and back again.

Free of our vehicle, we set out to explore as many of Lisbon's hidden nooks and charms as we could, while also hitting some of the most famous historic spots.  Our first stop was the neighbourhood of Belém.  It is here that Portuguese navigators set off in their ships during the age of discoveries, following the river Tagus (Tejo) out to the sea and to unknown lands.  The tower of Belém was built in 1515 as an important fortress to guard Lisbon's harbours.  We waited in the line to go inside, and while we were waiting admired the twisted, intricate stonework detail and the arched windows, balconies, and domes that dominate the Portuguese-unique "Manueline" style of architecture.  The top (after climbing 93 stairs) gave us great views over the city and the river Tagus, and I sat in some of the smaller turrets, trying to imagine what it must have been like to look out these windows long ago and keep watch over the harbour.


A few minutes walk away, also along the river, is the Monument to the Discoveries.  This beautiful monument was put up in 1960 to commemorate 500 years of Portuguese discoveries.  The tall ship is lined with important Portuguese navigators and other figures who were involved in the age of discoveries (cartographers, poets).    The ground in front of it is a huge mosaic that depicts a beautiful compass rose and a map of the world in the middle, highlighting all the places that the Portuguese went to.  I know history is complicated and often romanticized, but looking at all the places Portuguese ships touched - Newfoundland, Brazil, Japan, India - after harrowing voyages and many failed attempts, it is no wonder to me why the people of this tiny country have such fierce pride in


Mosaic mural on the ground in front of the Monument
to the Discoveries
their past.
Close-up detail of some of the mural on the ground

The other major monument in the area is across the street - Monastery of Jeronimos.  It was built in 1502, again in the Portuguese-exclusive "Manueline style".  Vasco da Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer, came here to pray on the evening before what ended up being the first successful sea voyage to India.  This impressive feat of discovering the maritime route to India gave Portugal a monopoly over the very lucrative spice trade for the next 100 years.  His tomb is located at the front of this monastery, and so is that of Luis de Camões, one of Portugal's most famous poets from that same time period.

Walking amidst all this history related to the age of discoveries made me feel even more connected to the country that anything else we had yet seen.  As I saw with my own eyes the tomb of Vasco da Gama, ran my hands along the intricate stonework of the tower of Belém, and contemplated each of the historical figures on the Monument to the Discoveries, something stirred in me.  For lack of a better word, it was saudade, again.  Perhaps I feel so connected to the history and mythology surrounding the Age of Discoveries because there is something powerful in the spirit of a people who get on a ship and sail to unknown lands, and in some small way, this is what my parents did as well.  They got on a plane and flew across the ocean, in their early 20's and 30's, looking for something.  What that something is (besides the usual reasons for immigration), I cannot really say.  You have to be brave enough, or
Vasco da Gama

crazy enough (or both) to leave everything you know behind and set off into the unknown.

Perhaps I inherited my wanderlust, passed down through generations of ancient explorers. 
Lisbon is alive with history, and I am immersed in it.  I look out at the river, and imagine tall ships with unfurled sails, slowly sailing away.  Somehow, in my mind's eye, part of me is with them, off in search of unknown shores.



close-up detail of Vasco da Gama's tomb

 ***

After our history-filled morning, we walk over to the oldest pastel de nata shop in Lisbon - Pasteis de Belém.  Using a secret recipe that dates back to 1837, they make the tarts by hand, using traditional methods, and sell thousands of them each day.  J is a pastel connoisseur at this point, and we of course must try these, so we join the line (which thankfully isn't too long) and get 8 of them to go.  We head across the street to a park and sit in the sun, eating the deliciously flaky and nutty crusts filled with creamy sweet custard.  It's hard to decide which of all the pasteis we've eaten is the best, but this one is definitely up near the top.

Next stop is a ride on the historic 1930's electric tram.  These vintage vehicles are still in use along one of Lisbon's main routes through the city, as they are the only ones that can navigate the steep and narrow roads of Lisbon's old quarters.  The wood paneling and seats inside are very 1930's indeed, as is the rickety, jerky feeling of climbing those steep hills in a vehicle that's almost 90 years old, as you watch the driver turn a metal crank and perform almost a dance of coordination with his different cranks, wheels, and dials.
Tram 28

Large parts of Lisbon were destroyed in a massive disaster that occurred in 1775 - an earthquake who's epicenter reigistered at 8.7.  Because it happened on a holiday, the Day of All Saints, everyone was in churches that morning, and every space in every building was covered in lit candles.  This caused the second disaster of the day - as people were trying to recover from the massive earthquake, Lisbon was now on fire from all the candles which had fallen over.  Then came the aftershocks of the earthquake in the form of huge tsunami waves that covered the city. 

This massive tragedy destroyed much of Lisbon's old monuments, neighbourhoods, and historic documents.  Much of Portugal's history, poetry, and music was lost.  Thankfully, a few neighbourhoods were spared, like Alfama, and that is the area we rode the tram through.  The narrow streets, very old buildings with unique doors, windows, railings, and colours were quite fascinating to look at as we rode up and down the streets.

After this, we decided to go back to our hostel and rest for a short while before heading out to experience Fado.

Fado is a unique musical style that was born in Lisbon.  This passionate, often melancholy, heart-wrenching music is said to be the soul of the Portuguese people, and we were eager to hear it performed live in its natural element. 

We found a small bar called A Tasca do Chico, and hesitantly made our way in to the very crowded space.  There was no more sitting room, so we ordered a pair of sangrias and stood against a wall, waiting for something to happen.  Soon enough, the lights were dimmed, the doors to the outside were closed, and a young man went to the middle of the small space.  The sounds of the Portuguese 12-stringed guitar filled the air from his masterful accompanist, and the voice that came out of him immediately grabbed our full attention.
Fado singer at Tasca do Chico

Fado is not something that can be described; it can only be experienced.  There was a quote on the wall saying that you are a 'fadista' not only if you sing fado, but also if you know how to listen to fado.  And listen we did, hearts attentive to every quiet phrase that suddenly swelled into passionate melancholic longing. Poetry spilled from his skillful story-telling, and he sang mostly head down or turned away, and eyes closed, clearly lost in his own turmoil of emotions, channeling them for us through song so that we could all somehow have a joint experience of longing, saudade, grief, hope, secrets, joy.  Fado is not just 'sad music'.  It is the soul, given voice.

We stayed there for a little over an hour, as three other singers took turns going up and giving us their own versions of fado.  Old and young, men and women - it was a beautiful evening in the heart of Lisbon's culture, and we soaked up every moment of it.

***

Around midnight we left the Fado bar and wandered the streets of Lisbon's Bairro Alto neighbourhood - where the famed night-life happens.  Things don't really get started in Lisbon until at least midnight, and we were surprised at how the streets had filled up with people drinking, eating, and laughing.  Drinking in the streets is legal in Portugal, and alcohol is cheap (think 1 Euro beers), and clearly the night life crowd knows how to party.  2 am is when things really start happening, though, but our travel-weary selves only made it until about 1:30 before we decided to call it a night.

Lisboa de mil amores... thank you for showing me at least some of your secrets.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Days 11 - 13 - The Algarve (Benagil & Marinha beaches, Sagres, Cape St. Vincent, and Odeceixe)

For my birthday, we headed to Benagil beach - a gorgeous, small beach surrounded by limestone cliffs, and famous for its series of limestone caves.  We booked our boat tour of the caves when we arrived, and as we had several hours to wait, we headed to the beach.









This stunning beach captured my senses as soon as I arrived.  The dozens of yellow-orange hues of the limestone cliffs caught the sun and made a vivid contrast to the sparkling blue and turquoise waters they sheltered.  We didn't waste any time and quickly made our way into the famed warm waters of the Algarve.  The waves were gentle here, and we were able to relax and swim leisurely back and forth, looking up at the cove of limestone cliffs that surrounded us.
Soon we noticed that there were some people swimming around the corner of the cliffs.  Aprehensive at first, we decided to follow them into the deeper, slightly more churned waters and peek around the corner. 
The incredible beauty inside
the cave we swam to

It was the caves!  Even though we were taking a boat tour to them later, we wouldn't get to get out and experience them, so we were very tempted to swim the rest of the way in.  Everyone else was doing it - surely it was safe?

My heart wanted it and my mind didn't - but J was already ahead of me and the heart won out.  We swam through the bouncing waves (not really too bad, in the end - you just need to be a strong swimmer) and pushed our way against their pulling until we finally were able to step onto the shore.
These incredible caves have a soft sandy beach inside - and a hole in the top to let in the sun.  Fascinated, we walked through the caves and joined some of the people that had set themselves up under this large circle of sunlight.  We warmed ourselves up and rested in this spot, while looking around at the utter, eerie beauty of the caves. 
One of the caves you see on the boat tour

We did a lot of things in the Algarve, and saw a lot of beaches, but those fifteen minutes we spent in the caves were by far my favourite part.  Something about swimming to the caves and 'discovering' them ourselves made them feel even more special than they already were.
Opening in one of the caves

The boat tour was also incredible - one hour of being taken around the various caves in the area by a very skilled boat driver.  I will admit I shrieked more than once and clutched the railing unnecessarily tightly as he wove in and out of caves at sometimes terrifying speeds, but it was all worth it for the experience.  We were driven through tight, narrow spaces and emerged from the dark on the other side; we saw caves with holes in their ceilings, from heart shapes to two 'eyes' looking down at us; we saw secluded limestone beaches and other beaches full of people that had many caves to explore.

   
Being taken through a cave...












***

Marinha beach from above
After Benagil, we headed to the nearby beach of Marinha.  It's only a five minute drive from Benagil, so it's easy to experience both in a day.  Marinha is also a beach of limestone cliffs and caves and has been voted one of Europe's ten best beaches and one of the world's top 100 most beautiful beaches.
As we descended the long steep steps and slope to the beach, we could see why.  This incredible beach is scattered with cliffs, rocks, and caves everywhere you look.  At high tide, you have to wade through the water around a part of cliff that sticks out, in order to access the rest of the beach on the other side.  Backpacks high on our back and timing the waves just right, this is what we did.  What emerged was even more beautiful than what we had seen from above.


People were swimming amidst the large formations, lying in the shade in nooks and crannies of the cliffs themselves, hopping from one rock to another, exploring small caves, crawling up and over the rocks and under an archway to access yet a third part of the beach, and generally just enjoying this little slice of paradise.
You can swim amidst these at Marinha beach

Entranced, J and I slid into the water and swam around, unable to keep our eyes off the pure beauty that surrounded us.


Photos don't really do these places justice.  I fear my words don't, either.  I'm absorbing so much beauty that I fear my ability to translate it just isn't coming across the way I want it to.

Come to Portugal, and experience it for yourself. 

***
Compass rose of stones

The next day, we drove an hour west and visited Sagres and the nearby Sagres Fortress.  It is thought that Prince Henry the Navigator's navigation school from the 1400's was located here.  There are many historic bits and pieces located here, from a small church still standing from Prince Henry's time, to various other buildings and fortress details that were built over time.  My favourite was a 43m in diameter compass rose made out of perfectly arranged rocks embedded into the ground. 
The views from here were incredible - wild waves off one side of the cliffs, and calm, barely moving waters on the other side.  There was even a small beach at the bottom of one that you could carefully hike down the cliffs to access, but by the time we finished our walk around exploring, the tide had come in and the small little 'beach' was almost gone.  We headed to another nearby beach instead (Martinhal), which also had fairly calm waters but heavy, relentless winds.  The locals had set up elaborate shelters of umbrellas half-burried in sand, but we weren't so lucky.

Sand-covered and cold, we nevertheless made our way over to the south-western most point of Europe (Cabo S. Vincente, or Cape St. Vincent).  The views from here were also breath-taking.  I can't help comparing some of these places to what we experienced in New Zealand.  Some of the landscape is similar, but the way that countries deal with them are very different.  While in New Zealand most of these places were remote, wild, inaccessible, and protected, Portugal does things a little differently.  Fisherman perch themselves over the fences that say "Danger - cliff erosion" with little concern and set up their rods for the day; fences have intentional breaks built into them so you can go past them to the 'dangerous' part and look over the cliffs if you wish; and small carts are set up cliff-side to sell you pasteis de nata, blankets, and even postcards.

Cape St. Vincent


We of course get the obligatory tarts, and perch ourselves on a rock looking over the never-ending ocean.  I read bits of translated Portuguese poetry, history, and legends to J while we sit on the wind-swept cliffs and try not to get blown away.

This place has been used for spiritual purposes since Neolithic times.  Ancient people's would gather here; Romans and Greeks set up temples and believed it to be the "end of the world" - with the infinite sea beyond; monks have even set up a monastery here.

Today, it is simply a place to come and visit, take walks around the cliffs, enjoy the views... and, if you stay late enough, enjoy the sunset.

That had been our plan, so we set about finding a good spot to sit.  We found one as close to the edge as I would allow us to sit, and wrapped ourselves in sweaters and beach towels to await the sinking of the sun into the sea. 
Sunset at the end of the world

Gulls floated up and sank down at dizzying speeds; the wind fluttered our towels and blew our hair around, and more and more people started to arrive.  It was an interesting phenomenon - all these people driving to the tip of a country, perching themselves on cliffs, simply to watch the sunset.  There was laughter, eating, drinking, but also a lot of quiet.  There were at least over 100 of us.
Something about this communal gathering of people to witness something like the simple setting of the sun really moved me.  You could hear various different languages being spoken; people were of all ages; all cultures.  And yet there we all were, silently united by this one simple yet incredible thing - watching our sun slowly disappear into the endless sea.

When the sun finally did set, glowing orange and large, then the last sliver slowly disappearing into the blue horizon, another curious yet moving thing happened - all around the cliffs, from end to end, people started spontaneously clapping.  A little taken aback, J and I looked at each other, then started clapping, too.
People gathered on the rocky cliffs to watch the sunset

Usually applause is meant to indicate appreciation, celebration - but there is an intended listener.  In this case, there was no listener.  It made me think back to the Cromlech/standing stones that we saw near Évora.  In ancient times, people who gather with those stone circles and celebrate the solstice and other important movements of the sun.  And here we were, a spontaneous assortment of humanity, tourists and locals from all over, gathered at the 'end of the world' to watch the setting of the sun.  Perhaps our applause was simply that - a spontaneous expression of our unity with each other and with the beauty of the world we were all witnessing together.

And yes, I had tears in my eyes.  I couldn't help it.

***

Our last day in the Algarve found us back at Marinha beach.  The warm waters and incredible limestone formations beckoned us once more, and we couldn't resist another swim before heading on our way back north to Lisbon.

We did make one more final stop on the border of Algarve - the beautiful beach of Odeceixe, where a large beach of pillowy-soft sand stretches between two towering rocky cliffs, and you can walk right up to the nearby river and watch it empty itself into the sea.

The waters were very shallow but the waves incredibly strong; we spent our last beach day trying to catch these waves as they crashed and pulled against us.  We rode them with varying degrees of success, laughing and giggling at them and each other.  It was a moment of pure joy, where all our senses were focused on nothing but crashing water and staying upright.

We reluctantly pulled ourselves away from Odeceixe beach and said goodbye to this beautiful province that gave us so much more than we ever expected.  Until next time, Algarve.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Day 10 - Évora & the Cromlech of the Almendres

Today's mission was to drive from Serra da Estrela all the way down to Algarve, the most southern province.  We wanted to pass through the historic town of Évora, though, which we knew was going to take more time.

We left the mountains as early as we could, and headed south.  After descending the mountain range, we eventually reached the flat terrain of the Alentejo provinces. 
The difference in terrain is a surprise, after so much mountain driving, and we can't take our eyes off the seemingly endless fields of olive trees and vineyards. 

After a few hours of this, we eventually reach Évora - the walled city.  In the medieval era, the city was entirely surrounded by walls.  Much of these walls are still preserved, so driving into the city feels quite special and unique - as if you are entering a fortress still frozen in time.

Scattered in the heart of the city are buildings of varying ages and periods in history.  We only have a few hours to spend here, so we don't go in any of them, but rather wander around the intricate streets and alleys, lingering here and there and simply stumbling upon bits of history.  A chapel here, a few old stone arches there.  There was even, behind a chained fence, a handful of mysterious, un-marked columns and other clearly very old crumbling ruins.
Ancient archways in the way?  No problem, let's just
build our homes around them.

The city is alive with layers upon layers of history.  We don't have time to learn and aborb it all, but as we walk around, we definitely feel it.

The crowing jewel of these various historic remnants is the Roman Temple built for the goddess Diana.  There in the middle of the city it lies, quietly, standing tall and proud, despite its state of disrepair.  It seems oddly out of place, with the bustle of modern-day pedestrians walking around taking photos, a small outdoor cafe just steps from it, and various vehicles parked nearby.

To me it felt strangely sad and beautiful at the same time; remnants of an ancient civilization, standing here untouched in the middle of modern-day Europe.  So many other peoples have come and gone through here over the centuries, and yet Diana's temple remains, though so far away from its former glory and purpose.

As I stare up at those intricately designed columns, I again try and imagine it the way it may have once been.  Today it's harder than usual, it feels.  Especially with the chattering of coffee drinkers at the cafe behind me.  I can't make up my mind on whether it's beautiful that this is still preserved here, amidst the modern city that must go on, or sad that it is not somehow more secluded and set apart from the mundane of every day life, the way it once may have been.


But that is Portugal, it seems.  There is so much physical history everywhere that sometimes you feel as if you can't turn around without stumbling over another ruin, another plaque reminding you of what was once here.  Not everything can be preserved in a vacuum, and Évora, at least, does a fascinating job of integrating the old with the new. 

Another highlight of the trip into Évora is the Fabrica dos Pasteis (Custard-tart factory).  We wandered in to a small front shop that serves only pasteis and a few other Portuguese tarts, fresh out of the oven.  We ordered a selection of a few.  The custard tarts are so fresh that the woman serving us can barely touch them as they are so hot.

We sit down at one of their cozy tables with our box of treats and an espresso, and dove in. 

The pasteis were... magical.  While most non-Portuguese people seem to be obsessed with them, they're not my first choice off any desert table, but these were something else entirely.  The crust, still hot, flaked perfectly in layers as you bit into it, and the custard itself was thick and creamy, oozing out softly as you bit into it.  The taste was subtly but deliciously different than any other pastel either of us has ever eaten.  To quote J - "This is the best place to have pasteis de nata in all of Portugal."
As we've tried one in almost every town we've been in, she may very well be right.

***

Another place we visited while near Évora was the Cromlech of the Almendres - in other words, Portugal's "stonehenge".

Yes, you read that right.  The UK is not the only place in the world to have these fascinating and ancient arrangements of stone circles.  The ones near Évora are dated back to 6000 - 4000 BC.
We walked around them slowly, taking in the presence of these large rocks, placed upright by people from a time and world so much different than ours.  The people and their histories and spiritual beliefs are long gone, erased by time, but these stones remain.  The whole space seems sacred, somehow - especially since this little spot is so out of the way.  A handful of people wander by and take a few photos, but they quickly leave, and we have the stones to ourselves for a long period of time.

I try and imagine people gathering here, to watch the sun during the summer solstice.  Were they quiet?  Did they joyfully celebrate?  Did they eat, or sing, or dance?  Did they say anything to each other?  These are impossible questions.  Still, we ask them, and imagine... I place both my hands on a stone and lean in, trying to feel the answers, perhaps, but none come.

We reluctantly walk back to our car, while a solitary man goes into the centre of the stones and sits on a flat one in the middle, just looking up at the sky.  We leave him to his imaginings, for it's his turn to have the circle to himself, and make his own connection, as we did, to people from long ago.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Day 9 - Serra da Estrela

We left Porto on a quiet Saturday morning and headed inland towards Serra da Estrela.

When I was a child, my Portuguese teacher would talk about this place as if it were a magical land of legends (or so it sounded to my young ears).  It impressed upon me a desire to one day see it in person - how could you not want to visit a place that translates to "Star Mountains"?

The roads, like the ones in Gerês, were full of sharp turns and snaked increasingly upwards.  In certain parts they were narrower than we would have liked, but J is growing increasingly comfortable with Portuguese driving and we smoothly rose further up into the mountains.

In winter, the landscape would be covered in lovely snow caps, but summer brings its own treasures.  Our first stop at a viewpoint revealed not only a breathtaking landscape of jagged peaks, lush green plants of various shades, and a sparkling blue sky, but also delicate and colourful mountain butterflies that flitted everywhere we looked.  Buttercup yellows, white with intricate black streaks, and even tiny rainbow-coloured ones fluttered around us from flower to flower.  Entranced, I chased them around for a bit with my camera, trying to capture their ephemeral magic, before I reluctantly returned to the car.

Our accommodations for the night were in Manteigas, a small mountain town, so we headed there to drop off our bags and then continue on to one of the trails.

Poço do Inferno (a waterfall) was our target, so we acquired a trail map from the hotel front desk and were on our way.  The start of the trail was well indicated, so up we went - this time, with hiking boots... lest this be another flip-flop fiasco!  The terrain grew increasingly more challenging, and we straddled boulders, balanced precariously on steep inclines and tried in vain to find the trail.

We had read on the internet that Portugal is notoriously bad for trail markers, and we seemed to be experiencing it already.  No more than a few minutes into the hike and we were already likely off the trail and just wandering in the mountains.  I did hear the sound of falling water, though, so I persisted in forging some sort of path where there was none, and J followed cautiously behind me.

I stood up on a boulder to get a better view below.  And there it was - something that looked indeed like the Poço do Inferno.  The small waterfall tumbled over boulders and into a lovely clear, green-coloured pool.  We perched ourselves on some nearby rocks and enjoyed taking off our hiking boots and letting our feet dangle in the cool water.  We didn't really feel the need to go any further, and spent a good half hour just sitting in the mountains.  We felt very far away from the reset of the world.  Our secret little waterfall.

Later, we descended back down the way we came instead of trying to locate the non-existent trail markers, and explored a bit further down the road from the parking area.  We discovered the real poço do Inferno - very similar to what we had found, but a bigger version.  We took the stairs up for a better look.  There were large boulders around this one that made perfect seats, so again we set up camp on the boulders and just sat watching the water fall and enjoying the bright green pool it was pouring into.  Tourists came and went - snapped their photos, took their selfies, and moved on, while the waterfall remained ours.

We've found that if we wait long enough, we can wait out whoever is briefly visiting whatever spot we happen to want all to ourselves.  It gives us a slower, deeper appreciation for where we are.  Sure, we take the photos too - of course.  But there's more than that.  I want to memorize the sight of fluttering rainbow butterflies landing on pale lavender wildflowers; the sound of water tumbling from high in the mountains into a crystal green pool; the scent of pure mountain air.  I want to take more than a photo, I want to somehow capture the entire experience and take it home with me.  And the only way to do that is to immerse ourselves - so we do.



After this low-key afternoon just experiencing the mountains, we took the drive back to our accommodations in Manteigas and spent some time relaxing in the room before dinner.  We had a beautiful view from our windows; a fantastic landscape of jagged layers of grey and black rocks, white houses with red-clay roofs, evergreen forests on the hills, dancing butterflies, and the scent of fresh, crisp mountain air.  In my mind's eye, I try to go back in time and tell that small child who I used to be, that she will indeed get to visit 'Star Mountains' one day, and that it will be more wonderful than she could have imagined.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Day 8 - Porto

Porto.  A city of romance, of wine, of impossible dreams.

 We wandered around all day, taking little alleys and exploring old Porto.  Ambling up old stone staircases, drinking spring water from springs, looking out at the replica old fishing boats carrying port wine.  Dreams of centuries ago.
Even the graffiti here is romantic, prose and make-shift poetry transcribed in thick white ink on the edges of the towering bridge that goes overtop the Douro River.  We are entranced, engulfed by this lively, passionate city.  It's also the eve of one of the city's biggest holidays, the festival of St. John.  The streets are lined with vendors, music blares from all corners, streamers line all the streets, and the feeling of joy is in the air.

We wandered into an old bookstore - over a hundred years old.  The wooden twisting staircase is in the centre of the shop, and the bookshelves are deep and high.  I meander slowly, ignoring the English books and heading towards my native tongue - my true native tongue.  Until I was five, I knew nothing else.  Portuguese was the only thing that existed, for I didn't even watch television until I was in kindergarten.  My school report cards from the first few years say I was a struggling ESL student - a shock to me once I discovered them.

I don't really remember not knowing English.  Nevertheless I have always been proud of my Portuguese.  Especially now, I can understand and communicate fluently and with ease.  J is fascinated by my seeming secret power, as I translate conversations of passers-by.
I picked up a Portuguese book with short stories about saudade - that longing that is uniquely Portuguese, a kind of ache of missing someone or some thing that is unlike any other feeling.  It's a word that is un-translateable.  In English we say "I miss you" - "miss" is a verb.  In French you say "Tu me manques" - literally, "you are missing from me".  In Portuguese, you say "Tenho saudades," - "I have saudades."

The feeling, the sentiment, becomes a noun - something present, heavy, almost tangible, yet achingly untouchable despite its noun-status.

I felt that way in the bookstore, today.  I had saudades of something I've never had, never possessed.  I had saudades of my own culture.
All bookstores should look like this.

It started innocently enough.  I asked one of the women who worked in the store if she had any books from a particular author.  She checked, but she didn't. She then noticed the book in my hand, and excitedly told me about her favourite authors who had contributed to the anthology.  She then took me around the bookstore, passionately telling me about this or that book that I might enjoy, showing me different collections and recommending them for one reason or another.  I told her I was from Canada, that my parents were from here, and that all the Portuguese books I had access to were my mother's old school books.

I felt in her what Anne of Green Gables would call a kindred spirit, someone so passionate about the same things I was.  She could barely contain her passion about literature and the world as she showed me books of poetry and told me all about the Portuguese psyche, how they are one of the world's largest consumers of antidepressants and no one knows why, about how even she herself hasn't taken them yet but feels the tiredness, the vague aches and pains, that seem to be almost a rite of passage to being Portuguese, at this point.  In her young voice telling me these things I saw and heard my own mother, the ache and the saudade, the longing for something indescribable and never possessed (so how could it be missed or longed for?).  I heard and saw myself, too.

She then told me that my Portuguese was very good for being a foreigner, even though she could tell that I was from abroad because my Portuguese has an accent.

Someone had said that to me last night too, at a restaurant.  An accent.

A dead giveaway that you are from elsewhere.  That you don't belong.

To my ears, my Portuguese sounds the same as my parents and all the Portuguese people I know back home.  It's a little startling to be told your own pattern of speech betrays you as a foreigner.
Perhaps it shouldn't have affected me as it did, but as I exited the bookstore with the two recommendations the kindred spirit had given me, I felt such a sense of loss and buried my head in J's shoulder.  You cannot explain saudade in words.  It is something you carry with you, that makes you who you are and colours everything about what you do and how you feel life.

I was born abroad.  This is not my country.  As much as I hold it dear and feel a connection to so much of it, I grieve a loss of something I never had - a culture that in some other life, some other parallel universe, would have been intimately mine had my parents not boarded a plane and started their life in a new country, so far from everything they knew.  In some ways my saudade is theirs, too.  The Portugal I know and love is not the Portugal that exists today.  It is the country of my parents' stories, the slower, different times from long ago.

I remember as a child, my parents took us on a hike to the big natural spring that everyone used to get water from.  The way was covered in brush and difficult to access (unlike the easy access from long ago when people tended the paths because retrieving water here was a necessity), but we finally got there.  As we drank water from the spring, I remember my father saying to my mother, quietly, in such a still, aching voice that even I felt the sadness of it:  "This isn't the Portugal that we left."
"No, it isn't," my mother said equally as quietly.

Nothing else was said, but it made a deep impression on me.  What they left behind can never be regained - not by them and not by me.  Culture does not stand still.  It moves and grows and changes.  If you are in it, you don't really notice.  If you leave it and then return... a different world awaits you.
This is saudade, too.  The culture of a Portuguese-Canadian is one of perpetual saudade, a longing for a home that is not only far away geographically, but also in time.  A longing for a place that can no longer be accessed, no matter how many times you get on that plane and go looking for it. 
As children of first generation immigrants, this is our birthright, too.  This saudade is almost inherited.  As young people we vary in how much we embrace our culture and try and hold on to our roots.  Those of us that try harder can make ourselves believe, in the heart of Portuguese Toronto, amidst bakeries and sports bars and church festivals, that we are part of where our parents came from, immersed and indistinguisheable.  Yet that sense of loss, of saudade, is always there, an underlying current.

Perhaps it's saudades, and only saudades, that we share across geographical and generational boundaries.

***

After leaving Old Porto, we walk back across the bridge, enjoying the stunning views of the river and surrounding towns from high up.  We make our way to Calem, an old Port Wine cave where they've been making Port Wine for over a hundred years.  We take a tour through the caves and learn about how they make the different types of Port, and get to see the large casks that hold impossible amounts of fermenting wine.  When the tour is over, we get to sit and taste three of the ports - a dry white, a Late Bottled Vintage red, and a ten year old tawny.  The tawny was my favourite - very sweet, but with an incredibly complex aftertaste of hazelnuts from being in an oak cask for ten years.

After the wine tasting, we headed outside to the streets, where most of the roads were already closed off and people were starting to fill the spaces.  Everywhere we walked, we could see the smoke from dozens of barbecues set up on the side of the road and smell the delicious scent of barbecued sardines.

We had been forewarned by my uncle about the tradition of being hit on the head with (plastic) hammers, so we weren't surprised to see almost every other person carrying around a plastic hammer and bonking random strangers on the head as they walked along.  After receiving a few dozen bonks ourselves, we decided to purchase our own hammer from one of the street vendors and are now armed and ready for the party.  J takes to the practice with surprising ease, and soon she is happily walking along and bonking men, women, children, the elderly - and they're bonking her right back.  After a while of this, I shyly try my hand at it. It takes a little while to get over the utter ridiculousness of it, and pretty soon I am furtively tapping people's heads and leaping away giggling.  The best part is the small children, though - desperate to bonk adults on the head, they wave you over and you can bend your head down for them to tap with their hammers.
View from our window. 
And this is the non-crowded
side of the river!

Apparently this tradition initially started with long, five or six foot tall wild garlic flowers and their bulbs, but being whacked on the head with a garlic bulb hurts a lot more than a plastic hammer, so I can see why they switched over.  (We did see some older women still carrying around the traditional garlic flowers and sticking them in your face to smell, instead of whacking you).

We walked through the crowded streets of Porto, music filling all the street corners, and Portuguese street food enticing us from all sides.  We had barbecued sardines, traditional beef sandwhiches, chourico in bread, and of course pasteis de nata.  There were parts of the street we could barely push through the crowds, and the plastic hammers raining down on our heads were relentless.  Everyone was smiling, shouting to each other, and having a great time.

They say that Coimbra studies, Porto works, Braga prays, and Lisbon plays... but tonight, Porto was alive with the party spirit and no one held back.  Portuguese religious festivals are really not religious at all, but rather a curious mix of secularism with the sacred as fringe.  Some traditions, like the hitting on the head with garlic bulbs, are even said to reach back to ancient pagan rituals, their origin long forgotten.



Eventually, we pull ourselves away from the festivities around 11pm and head back up to our little apartment to get ready to watch the fireworks.  Most people have secured a spot near the river, but we are fortunate to have a very strategically placed accommodation.  We head up the stairs and open the windows that look directly over the Douro river.  The sound of the crowd's excitement, as well as the music, can be heard easily from up here, and we still feel like we're part of all the joyous celebration.  Around midnight, you can hear an announcer on the loudspeaker say that the fireworks will be starting soon.  The crowd cheers, and the street lamps are turned off.  We wait excitedly from our bird's-eye viewpoint.  Finally - the first sparks of light are thrust into the sky.

We sit, mesmerized, as spectacular fireworks like I've never seen are shot into the sky from three barges strategically placed in the river.  The fireworks are timed with a musical soundtrack of different popular songs, and the next half hour is a true culmination of all the joy and excitement we felt in the city all day and evening long.

 
Porto... thank you for giving me a deeper understanding of myself.  I'll be back.