Portugal: Uniquely artistic

Lisbon’s enormous statue of Christ, standing 18 meters tall atop a square base that soars to a height of 82 meters, is impressive from the air. With arms outstretched toward the city, the figure stands adjacent to the beautiful red suspension bridge that spans the River Tagus.

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The National Sanctuary of Christ the King took more than a decade to build, and was initially dedicated in May 1959, although it was first conceived in 1940 as a supplication to keep the country out of World War II. Inspired by the similar Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the shrine was completed following the war to express Portugal’s gratitude at being spared the devastation that war brought to other countries.

On the shrine’s 25th anniversary, the first of two chapels housed within its base was dedicated. Since the beginning of the 21st Century, restoration and additional improvements have been made, and a second chapel was dedicated in 2008. From the viewing platform at the base of the statue, visitors get a panoramic view of the city and surrounding countryside.

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Flying into the city on a clear day, I was awed to immediately recognize it as our plane made a turn over the river, bringing both the statue and the bridge into clear focus. But the modernist concrete statue looms even larger as one traverses the river by car.

Portugal surprises in many different ways, with much to enchant the traveler, and the scale of public art is one of the more obvious ways. The art that’s free for viewing is as exciting as it is available.

Here is a sampling:

Flowers, too, qualify as art: In public squares and private gardens, the natural and the manmade coexist for the delight of both local residents and visitors. It may be an expectation that greenery and vibrant color will punctuate the landscape, but the same plantings bring color and natural beauty to town squares, narrow streets, cafe interiors and marketplaces, even highways.

Art adds to the enjoyment of life. Art stands as a tribute to the human need for beauty. It celebrates history, encourages joy, adds meaning, can be quirky and irreverent or breathtakingly realistic. It transcends place and time. It exists in many forms: Architecture and massive sculpture, religious and military statuary, landscaped parks, graffiti and street art, sidewalks and plazas, decorative address tiles, lacy bridge railings, unique street lights, utilitarian manhole covers, multi-colored buildings, and signs.

Even a pedestrian walkway over a busy highway can be unexpectedly colorful, looking every bit like modern sculpture. Lisbon’s massive Airport, despite its emphasis on function, also boasts its share of eye candy! Then, flying out of the city, we once again saw, from the air, Portuguese art in the form of two very modern, and artistically-designed sports stadiums!

In Portugal, clearly the society thrives on artistic expression. Each place we visited told a different story. From crowded Lisbon to the smallest village, along the highways and in backyard gardens, the nation is filled with art — in all its various forms, new as well as old.

Invariably, it’s unique. Always it’s worth a second look. It’s remarkable.

Great Portugal Excursions: Tour a Cork Forest

Even though five generations of his family have held title to the land that claimed Phillip Mellon’s heart, his own journey to living on that land was circuitous. The attachment, though, is obvious and strong.

On a two-and-a-half-hour classic Jeep safari of the 540-hectare (more than 1,300 acres) Portuguese farm that he occupies with his wife and two young boys, he recounted the story of how his passionate love for the land unfolded. He admits that he is the first of his family to actually live on and work the land. His forebears, he explains, were “gentleman farmers” who held the property as a sort of vacation retreat from life in the city and other professional pursuits, hiring caretakers to tend the cork oaks, supervise the harvest and care for grazing animals.

Learning from the Land

During the tour, Mellon tells of the farm’s history, how it was that he found his way home, literally, to build a new life on his land, and of his hopes for the future. It’s a fascinating story of adaptive land use, and a continuing effort to build reality from a dream.

Phillip Mellon is a totally modern man, with deep Portuguese roots and ties to the culture. He was reared in the city, near Lisbon and the sea, but he says his happiest times were the school vacations and summers he spent at the farm in the country’s Alentejo region.

Mellon’s father, an attorney, still lives in the city, as do his siblings. Phillip himself had no early intentions of becoming a farmer. He was educated in England, then lived and worked both in Australia and Canada before finally returning to Portugal to settle on the family land. Noting that he really knew little about farming at the time, he has seized on opportunities as they presented themselves, learning by doing, and not averse to trying out new ventures.

In the year 2000, he embraced the idea of planting grapevines; today the vineyards produce award-winning wines. He says, laughingly, that he is a bit undisciplined in his pursuits.

Cork: A Major Industry

Driving east from Lisbon, we did not at first know what to expect. The scenery is dramatically beautiful, pastoral and calm, with scattered small towns punctuating the green hills. Large trees became more common, but we did not immediately recognize them as cork oaks, until we spotted large stacks of bark drying in the sun.

Luckily, our rental car had a superb navigational system; we were to meet our guide “in front of the museum in Redondo.” After only a few wrong turns and some good-natured advice from local residents, we arrived right on time, met Jose Inverno and our tour-mates, and were escorted to the farm for a sip of strong espresso in the sunny courtyard of the main farmhouse.

The surrounding forests in the Alentejo region and further south in Algarve province have been producing Portugal’s noted cork for centuries. The story of cork is a fascinating one. Portugal is the world’s major supplier, now accounting for approximately one half of the annual global harvest. A tree must be at least 20 years old, often much older, before it can first be harvested. It is said that the best bottle corks come from trees at least 50 years old. Then, by law, the bark of a cork oak may be stripped only every nine years. At this farm, Herdade da Maroteira, the rotation is once every 11 years. It is not a pursuit for the impatient!

Today, Mellon not only supervises the annual cork harvest, but is also planting new grape varietals. The farm offers informational walking treks and motorized tours through a subsidiary company managed by Jose Inverno, and has recently ventured into agri-tourism, with simple, but charming, accommodations available by the night or for an extended stay.

In addition, there are olive trees that produce oil for the farm and some limited sales, as well as beehives to supply fragrant honey. Sheep and cattle graze on the land, and Mellon partners with an Iberian black ham producer, allowing the distinctive long-legged pigs to fatten, during season, on the nutritious acorns that fall from the abundant oak trees.

The pigs, however, had not yet arrived on the land; the sheep seemed shy, but the cattle were unfazed by our presence. Farm dogs accompanied us everywhere.

An Individualized Tour Opportunity

Our Jeep safari followed dirt paths winding through the oaks, past fields of lavender, yellow and white wildflowers, adjacent to vineyards planted with a variety of grapevines, and across the hillocks of the foothills of the Serra D’Ossa range. At the highest point, we breathed in the spectacle, as Mellon pointed out the boundaries of his working estate down below.

We passed other groups of trekkers, each one accompanied by a congenial guide, and Jose also escorted a second driving tour in his car. We made frequent stops to listen to Mellon’s dialog, and the photo ops were superb!

The area invites exploration, from the evidence of ancient settlements to scattered ruins and well-preserved medieval walls and churches. The time passed all too quickly, and following a visit to the farm’s small shop, we returned to Redondo for a long, relaxing, traditional country lunch, included as part of our tour.

Sunday Dinner Far From Home

It was a Sunday and Restaurante Serra d’Ossa was filled with locals, all genial and smiling as they were greeted by Mellon. They, in turn, greeted us warmly, and we felt at home. The proprietors took care of us as if we were family, and the bountiful food and wine was brought to our table family style. We had a wonderful time getting to know our fellow “trekkers” better, and the food itself was delectable.

The menu included a variety of interesting appetizers served as traditional Portuguese “couvert,” followed by amazing tomato soup with poached eggs, and “green soup” for one of our group allergic to tomatoes. The entree was a mixed platter of pork prepared several different ways, and fresh salad, followed by a selection of tempting desserts, all of which disappeared quickly.

We assume that the cadence of life exists in this small town much as it always has, and we were delighted to be a part of it, if only for a day. Mellon told us that few of the other cork farmers have an interest in opening their forests to visitors or in diversifying into other enterprises. So, for the time being at least, Herdade da Maroteira offers a unique experience for travelers to Portugal. It is one that we will long remember, and one we highly recommend.

Because we were there in late April, we missed the harvest, which typically occurs in late June or early July, but we can visualize the buzz of activity it must generate at the farm.

Other available treks and tours take visitors to explore the ancient “dolmens,” burial mounds in the surrounding hills, on leisurely countryside walks and birding tours, and to visit the museum and ancient buildings of Redondo.

Perhaps one day we’ll return to do it all.

*Note: Some Portuguese cork factories also welcome tourists, but we chose to forgo the opportunity because of time constraints and distance. We left Alentejo headed south to the Algarve for a week near the sea. In future posts, I’ll chronicle other wonderful excursions for Portugal travelers.

Meeting a Queen

We saw the looming hulk on a Long Beach pier long before the cabbie dropped us off across the parking lot from a recreated English village. The scene, we decided, is meant to recall the waterfront in England when Cunard’s RMS Queen Mary plied the world’s seas. The hour was early, and the village was quiet, and there were few visitors.

A last-minute decision about how best to occupy a slice of time between disembarking from a short cruise and our flight home brought us to the pier to explore this iconic ocean liner now permanently berthed in Southern California. She had a long run on the waters of the North Atlantic, from 1935 through 1967. 

But the ship’s renown extends far beyond that of a luxury liner.

From luxury liner to war service

Converted to serve as a troop carrier during World War II, the ship known as “the grey ghost” transported Allied forces for the duration of the war, along with her sister ship, the RMS Queen Elizabeth. Launched in 1936, and “drafted” for the war effort in February 1944, the Queen Mary received her makeover to Navy Grey in Australia. The Queen Elizabeth first wore the grey coat, and was not repainted with the distinctive Cunard black and red livery until after the war.

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My father, as a member of the 364th Fighter Group of the U.S. 8th Air Force, arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, in February 1944, aboard the Queen Elizabeth. The seven-day unescorted journey from New York Harbor was a perilous one, but the ship arrived safely. My father always spoke of her affectionately as “the Lizzie.” After approximately 18 months of service, he returned to the United States aboard the Queen Mary, expecting to be reassigned to the Far East. Thankfully, the war was over before his new orders arrived, and he returned to his home in Montana for the winter of 1945. 

The Queen Mary, however, proceeded on to the Pacific and was reported, mistakenly, to be sunk by Japanese forces on three separate occasions. Following the Japanese surrender, the ship continued to ferry servicemen and war brides for nearly a year after the cessation of battle. She was returned to passenger service in July 1947, following an extensive retrofit that included numerous upgrades. The two Cunard Queens dominated Transatlantic sea crossings for the next 20 years, joined between 1952 and 1969 by the SS United States, of United States Lines.

The age of sea voyages

Other great passenger liners of the time included the France, a French line vessel that sailed the route from 1962 through 1974; Holland America Lines Rotterdam, Nieuw Amsterdam and Statendam; Cristoforo Colombo, an Italian Line ship, carrying passengers on the northern route between 1954 and 1973 when she was reassigned to a more southerly route, and several others that beckoned the adventurous prior to the days of regular intercontinental flights.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and accepted as a “historic hotel” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Queen Mary’s existence as a tourist attraction has been in jeopardy several times.

The ship currently is, once again, in need of some serious repairs and restoration. Today, her interior looks slightly shabby, not nearly as glamorous as a modern cruise ship. But there is an aura of elegance and grit about her that draws crowds.

The Queen Elizabeth, sadly, caught fire and sank in Hong Kong harbor in 1972, after a brief and unsuccessful stint as a hotel and tourist attraction in Florida.

The SS United States is moored at a pier in Philadelphia, awaiting her ultimate fate. Efforts continue to refurbish the ship and preserve it as a combination living history museum and learning center. It would be a fitting testament to the engineering prowess and the vision of naval architect William Francis Gibbs. Built through collaborative effort between private enterprise and the U.S. Navy, the “Big U” also had the ability to serve as troop carrier if the need every arose. It was not necessary. 

The great liners of the past no longer sail the world’s oceans, replaced instead by massive cruising “destination resorts” and fast airliners. Another Cunard ship, the QE2, was launched as a combination liner and cruise ship in 1967; it is now a floating hotel in Dubai, opened just over a year ago in 2018, a decade after being pulled off active service. 

Echoes of long ago

It was both exciting and nostalgic to stand at the pier next to this historic liner. As we boarded, I could almost hear the sounds of laughter that drifted from her decks during her heyday as an ocean-going vessel. I also sensed how confining her below-deck bunks must have been for the thousands of troops she carried to and from war.

The visit was all too short, but it was memorable. The Queen dwarfed the Russian submarine Scorpion, berthed alongside. She lacks the imposing massive girth of today’s cruise “cities,” with their rows of balconied staterooms, upper-deck pools and entertainment regalia. Instead, the vessel appears sleek, elegant and purposeful, designed to plow through the waves with grace.

The interior seems a little dark and somber, but modern shops beckon visitors with ship memorabilia. Polished metal elevator doors are slightly incongruous in tandem with gleaming paneling and muted floral carpet. Numerous wall sconces provide bright spots of light for the subdued interiors. Public spaces are comfortable, but far from dramatic.

The ship has been altered somewhat to serve as a hotel, but many original salons and lounges are intact, along with an iconic writing room that boasts multiple desks. I can clearly envision travelers writing postcards to friends back home!

Wood-floored decks prompt visions of well-dressed passengers enjoying the ultimate “good life on long promenades,” taking advantage of the opportunity to see and be seen while crossing the Atlantic.

Running on raw power

It was standing in the belly of the ship, in the cavernous original engine room, however, that the massive ship became real. It captured our attention, our imagination, and our hearts.

Today’s cruise ships generate more power, to be sure, but they move no faster and do not require the same kind of focused teamwork, the constant human energy that carried the Queen on her journeys. Old steamships are something to behold, even when at rest.

I have no idea how many crew members labored in the multi-story depths of the ship. I do know that the staircases and catwalks, the controls and gauges, the gleaming equipment, the bells and whistles (yes, really) were enough to confound us. It must also have been deafening down below, requiring hot, tedious and exacting work.

The ship was originally fitted with four turbines in two separate engine rooms, and 24 boilers in four boiler rooms, all designed to turn four propellers.  During sea trials in 1936, the ship recorded a speed of 32.84 knots, or nearly 37.8 mph.

The ship captured the Blue Riband speed trophy for Atlantic crossings in August of 1936 from the French ship Normandie, but briefly lost it the following year, only to regain it once again in 1938 with an eastbound speed of 30.99 knots, and a time of 3 days, 21 hours, 48 minutes.

That record held for 14 years, until the SS United States broke the record with a time of 3 days, 10 hours and 40 minutes, at a speed of 35.59 knots eastbound, and 34.51 knots on the westbound leg. The return trip, which also set a record, took only about 2 1/2 hours longer, due to prevailing currents.

That record-breaking event began, incidentally, on July 3, 1952, when the ship left New York Harbor on her maiden voyage. 

Past glories live on . . .

Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to take the guided tour, nor could we see the full video presentation that was offered. We did not have time for lunch aboard ship, and we did not make the trip up to the bridge. But our brief visit to the Queen Mary was well worth the itinerary detour. It was educational and emotional, reminiscent of bygone times that now are recounted only in the history books. 

We spent more time in the model room than we had intended, comparing features of many of the well-known liners, including the ill-fated Titanic, Lusitania, and Andrea Doria. We were entranced by the detail.

Today we cross the Atlantic in modern aircraft in mere hours. We cross it in floating entertainment palaces with more amenities, attractions and activities than many land-based resorts. We have options. But the refined elegance of travel on these iconic ocean liners, when options were limited and it was all about the journey, has been forever lost.

It’s good to step into the past, if only for the brief reminder of what once was.

Graffiti: Art free for all

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I may represent the minority, but I am enthralled by street art and graffiti. I always have been. Wall murals attract my attention, and I secretly believe that the cave drawings and petroglyphs we work so hard to protect were simply the graffiti of past times.

Fanciful expressions of modern culture that grace rail cars, empty warehouses, bridge girders and old water towers, decaying barns and even bus stop benches, and the colorful tags and “signatures” along highways and byways never fail to attract my attention. Portugal was a visual feast!

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In urban settings, I adore oversize murals on random buildings. They add color and design to sometimes bland and boring walls. Occasionally, advertising masquerades as art, and it’s true that graffiti speaks a message all its own. But, more often than not, graffiti is just for fun. And I like it!

When I travel, I typically have a camera in hand; I come home with as many photos of graphic graffiti scenery as of people, historic sites and natural beauty. I snap the shutter from a moving vehicle window, a building’s balcony, or when out for a stroll.

While traveling in Portugal, I was amply rewarded. Graffiti seems almost a national pastime; in my eyes, it’s a national treasure. Nowhere else in my previous experience has the graffiti been so pervasive, nor quite so memorable.

Sometimes obvious “tagging,” Portuguese graffiti is, seemingly, respectful of both private property and public monuments. Although it is clear that graffiti sometimes supports a cause or is otherwise prompted by local issues, we saw little that could be considered outright defacement or the work of vandals. There seems to be no concerted effort to paint over or erase existing graffiti.

Sometimes it is hauntingly beautiful. Occasionally simple and childlike, the work can be stunning in composition and in execution. There are true artists at work along the highways, in small towns and large cities, in farm country and in fishing villages. And, while larger than life murals are not graffiti in the strict sense, they are certainly unexpected; sometimes they are inspiring.

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I know that not all the graffiti is officially sanctioned, but we were told that local and national authorities grant permission in certain areas for graffiti artists to transform crumbling walls and cracked stucco into something more interesting and colorful. Driving along freeways bounded by industrial-grade barriers, the graffiti was welcome, a colorful display of creativity for what would otherwise have been mile upon mile of sameness.

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Portugal has other art as well — serious art — statuary and sculpture in city squares and parks, in front of public buildings and private apartment complexes, in gardens and on the beach, as well as dramatic, oversize centerpiece art in vehicular “roundabouts.”

It’s a phenomenon. There is little need for visitors to pay admission fees to art museums: The best art is free for viewing all around!

If pictures are worth a 1,000 words, this is a “book’s worth” of my favorite images.

I hope you enjoy them as much as I did. In a future post, I’ll share some of the notable public art we encountered throughout this unique country.

Filling up on island time . . .

Note: A previous post, about a stopover in the Azores, was the first in a series of posts that chronicle a recent trip to Portugal, heavy on relaxation and good food, undertaken as a sort of “experiment” by two couples. As cousins, we have more than just family ties in common, but had no previous experience traveling together. It was a unique adventure.

We had embarked on the planning with gusto. We all agreed that daily schedules and strict timetables would not govern our trip. We would take the days as they came, giving in to whims, and choosing to explore both together and sometimes separately. We also agreed that picnics and snacking would be every bit as welcome as “reservations-only dinners,” and that off-the-beaten-path attractions held more appeal than guided tours or noted museums.

I hate to admit that our appetites guided our island activities, but that’s pretty much the truth of it. We heartily endorsed seaglass expeditions100_2530 on lonely beaches, long lunches with accompanying local beer or wine, and lazy afternoons with our books, sometimes interspersed with naps. Even though early dawn light was beautiful, we felt no compunction to be overly active early each morning.

We overindulged in fresh fish and seafood prepared in traditional ways, and we sampled sardines, octopus, local mussels, sheep’s cheese, and plenty of olives. We did, unfortunately, miss the experience of eating cozido, a meat or chicken dish slow-cooked underground in the hot volcanic soil. And we did not venture a soak in the mineral-laden volcanic pools, although they are a highlight of the visit for many tourists to Sao Miguel Island.

The marina drew us . . .

After spending a morning exploring the town, we were drawn by the water, and the prospect of having a view to accompany a light lunch. We were walking along the rocky shore in what will someday be a revamped marina district of Vila Franca do Campo. Deadlines seem both non-existent and unimportant on this island, so there are no signs proclaiming a targeted completion date. 100_2211

With a couple of eateries to choose from, we picked the one closer to the water, Atlantico Restaurante & Grill, and were ushered upstairs to a pleasant dining room with a stunning view. It was late by island standards, apparently; other diners were close to finishing their meals, but we were welcomed nonetheless by a server who smilingly said we had plenty of time. The kitchen would not close until 3 p.m.

And so our first encounter with Portuguese dining began:

First the obligatory sampling of bread, olives, cheese, and this time, paper-thin sliced ham and a tasty sweet jam. Our orders came and were consumed, along with a bottle of chilled white wine, and the minutes ticked by.

 

It was well after 3 p.m. when we finished, and we bade goodbye to Michael, our waiter, who had spent time in Chicago, as we recall, and spoke perfectly idiomatic English. He seemed not to mind being kept after “quitting time,” and actually invited us back for dinner, but then told us the restaurant would be closed for the next couple of days due to an annual — and, apparently, quite raucous — fisherman’s celebration. Indeed, while we ate, workers continued to decorate the street outside; we suspect it was quite a party!

Another day, we visited Mariserra, once again for a late lunch, in Sao Roque, nearer the large city of Ponta Delgada. We had yet another delicious taste of island life, this time highlighted by a shareable fish stew, served with pasta in a tomatoey sauce, as well as perfectly-prepared garlic shrimp (two orders) and flavorful mussels.

 

Crafting a memorable visit . . .

We kept busy, but we relaxed completely, interspersing long beach strolls and walks along cobblestone streets with short excursions to the market and a day trip to Sete Cidades at the far end of Sao Miquel Island. We drove winding switchbacks to the rim of the now quiet volcano, and marveled at the sight of twin pristine lakes, one blue, one green, that fill the caldera. There are numerous hiking trails, with plenty of scenic overlooks for photo ops. 100_2257

We acted as “traffic cops” when a mama duck and her brood strolled through a lakeside parking lot, and we stopped to gaze in awe at an abandoned structure. Now covered in graffiti and spreading greenery, it must have once been an architectural gem. We never learned its history.

 

Another day we visited another shore, thoroughly enjoying a leisurely excursion to Cha Gorreana in Ribeira Grande. Family-owned and operated since 1883, the only surviving tea plantation in all of Europe is still farmed and harvested by time-honored methods, completely organic and pesticide-free. The tour and tea samples were free of charge, and we lingered at the site.

 

The story of how tea farming came to the Azores is fascinating, affirming that a volcanic island in the North Atlantic was a well-known destination to voyagers from the Orient and India, and by dealers in exotic spices and fruit, long before any of us might have guessed. Tea plantations arrived later, however. The tea harvest and processing is still done by hand, labor-intensive and a labor of love, as well as a booming business. Both black and green teas are wonderful.

A simple question . . .

“Meat or fish?” the proprietor asked, after he had brought our wine to a table perfectly situated near balcony windows, open just enough to let a light breeze waft through. 100_2440

We chose fish, but the meat platter served to nearby diners looked equally tempting.

We had stumbled, quite by accident, upon Fim de Seculo Restaurante in the heart of Maia, a coastal village not far from the tea plantation. We had hoped for a quiet late lunch in a cafe along the shore, but instead we found this charming upstairs dining room, accessed via the outdoor patio and ground floor bar, complete with blue and white tile murals, white linen tablecloths and a dark wooden staircase that has borne its share of footsteps over the years.

 

This was to be a leisurely lunch, punctuated with laughter, good wine and interesting conversation with the proprietor and his daughter, who, we learned, had just graduated with a degree in hospitality management. It ended on a sweet note: a platter of freshly-sliced Azorean pineapple, perfect in its simplicity.

We will not soon forget the experience, and we did not eat again that day!

Three days on this island only whetted our appetite. A twist of scheduling became a highlight of our trip. We boarded our flight to Lisbon with a twinge of regret, at the same time looking forward to a planned cork forest tour and some highly-anticipated beach time on the mainland, in addition to more good food in faraway places.

The Azores: Volcanic rocks in the pond

It was a spectacularly gentle touchdown on the runway that stretched along the coast of Sao Miguel Island. So smooth, in fact, that it prompted applause from the passengers as a slightly-longer-than-four-hour non-stop flight from Boston set us down on a small volcanic island in the Atlantic still about 900 miles from mainland Portugal.

It was also only 6:30 in the morning local time, and the island looked sleepy in the slightly drizzly dawn. We had boarded in Boston at 9:20 p.m. the preceding evening, thinking that we could get some sleep on the flight, but dinner service with complimentary wine and coffee, along with a growing sense of excitement, combined to keep us awake. Any nap would have been brief.

We looked forward to picking up our rental car and were hoping to enjoy a traditional Portuguese breakfast prior to making our way to the lodgings that were to be our home for the next three nights.

An unexpected greeting . . .

Our plane stopped on the tarmac some distance from the terminal. Surprised to realize that there would be no modern jet bridge, we gathered our belongings and deplaned down the aircraft stairs, walking through the drizzle to retrieve our checked luggage in the still quiet terminal building. Even customs and immigration officials seemed less than fully awake, but they obligingly stamped our passports as they welcomed us to their island home.

A row of smiling men with hand-lettered signs awaited our arrival, and our group was transported quickly and efficiently by mini-van to pick up our rental vehicle. Once there, we were offered a home-baked treat — a cross between pound cake and tasty breakfast bread. Our hopes for a nearby eatery and a hearty early-morning breakfast, however, were dashed.

Island life, it seems, does not begin early. And, by any reckoning, 7 a.m. in vacation land is early! However, other delights followed in quick succession as we were invited to follow the man who had greeted us at the airport. He willingly led us in his own vehicle to our reserved seaside villa, even transporting some of our luggage and waiting with us until someone with a key could be located. “No problem,” he insisted, “I live nearby.” We felt welcome and already “at home.” We were charmed by the accommodations, the lush landscape, the seaside view, an outdoor covered patio, and a resident rooster!

When Afonso Mela, who manages the family-owned property, arrived, he won us over by also bringing juice, milk, crackers and local beer along with iconic Portuguese WP_20190428_07_08_50_Pro (2)pasteis de nata to accompany our morning coffee. For the next two weeks, those custard treats would be a staple of our daily diet, for breakfast and at other times during the day.

Unfolding an adventure . . .

The four of us had picked Portugal as a vacation destination for a long-awaited “cousins trip” because neither couple had been there before. It was as simple as that; akin to the way we traveled in our younger days, choosing destinations by throwing darts at a map. We knew only that Portugal is still relatively inexpensive, and that English is widely spoken.

The reason for a stopover in the Azores was equally simple. It was a logistical solution to the dilemma of getting two couples, one from Texas and the other from Maine, to a destination half a world away at the same time. In checking flight schedules, we found that Azores Airlines allows a no-extra-charge stopover in the islands for travelers who book a flight from Boston to Lisbon. We couldn’t say no to that! Besides, we knew no one else who had previously visited the Azores.

About these islands . . .

It is said that each of the nine islands in the archipelago has a distinct personality, as well as the similarities of black volcanic stone, pleasant climate, hot springs, whales and dolphins in the surrounding waters, and no shortage of friendly people.

The Azores are part of an island group that stretches across about 370 miles in the North Atlantic. They have been known since the 14th Century and were depicted on early navigational charts, notably the Catalan Atlas, drawn in 1375.  Today, the Azores constitute an autonomous region of Portugal, as do several other island groups.

Life is lived simply on this island. Tourism is increasingly important to the economy; some major cruise lines have added calls to Ponta Delgada to their itineraries. Traffic is manageable, even in the largest city. Ubiquitous “roundabouts” regulate the flow of vehicles, rather than traffic lights. Driving the island’s highways and back roads, we never heard a horn; nor did we see an accident, or encounter any speeding.

The architecture is unique. Black and white churches seem unlikely and jarring at first encounter, then beautifully appropriate. They are visible from far off in the craggy landscape, even on the slopes of steep hillsides. Every village has at least one, and they seem just waiting to be explored.

Apart from the churches and an occasional impressive municipal building, predominantly low-slung homes and buildings grace narrow streets. Some have colorful stucco walls and clay-tile roofs; others are white with simple metal roofing. Most homes and public spaces display colorful, lush flowers and gardens. Commercial buildings are typically functional and nondescript. Congregated in larger “warehouse-like” structures, “one-stop shopping” seems convenient and efficient for groceries and the basic needs of daily life, including clothing, electronics and banking.

A charming introduction to Portugal

Green hillsides, terraced and manicured, grace the landscape; the sea is everywhere close at hand, and there is an almost total lack of hustle and bustle.

The cadence of life is comfortable. People stop to chat along the streets, or sit on seaside walls and benches just to enjoy the sunshine and the sounds of crashing surf. Locals smile at strangers, and everyone we encountered was helpful, despite our trouble with pronunciation of Portuguese words. Diners linger over lunch, and waiters never present a bill unless asked for one. Restaurants close for the afternoon, reopening again around 7 p.m. for dinner. Getting around is easy, if confusing at times, but getting lost on a small island is almost impossible.

Three days on Sao Miguel were not only a suitable introduction to Portugal, but an open invitation to return. Because of the location along the Atlantic gulf stream, the climate is moderate, and Azorean vacations have been perennially popular with British and European vacationers. Although we did not see all that the island offers, we understand why travelers return again and again to savor island life.

The appeal extends beyond the natural beauty and the welcoming vibe. There is an ambience that exists only in rare places. We all felt privileged to enjoy a few days on a unique volcanic island. I, for one, would be happy to return to the Azores, and I heartily endorse the stopover offered by an accommodating airline.

Note: We arranged our stay at Casa da Cancela in Vila Franca do Campo on San Miguel Island through booking.com, and found the property to be exactly as described. Based on comments by other guests, it consistently lives up to its ratings, and we do not hesitate  to recommend it. Although I book lodging often with this company, I am in no way connected, nor do I receive consideration in any form from them, from the airline, or in any other manner for the mention. 

Old Salts, Salt Licks and Pretzels . . .

They may not actually have much in common, but there is a common thread — Salt constitutes a ribbon of continuity from ancient times to the present, and beyond. It is essential for life. Luckily, salt in its various forms is abundant on earth. Processing techniques have been employed for millennia, and salt as a commodity was once prized as much by nations as by individuals.

Today, the love of salt extends to specialty varieties, including Himalayan sea salt, black salt, Celtic salt, smoked salt,  and rare, expensive Fleur de Sel from Brittany, among others. Every type of salt has its dedicated advocates. 100_2120

But who knew that pretzel salt comes from a small East Texas town?

It’s true. Every pretzel consumed all across the United States has salt crystals extracted from the massive salt dome situated deep below the Texas prairie about 75 miles east of Dallas.

Salty Travels and Tales

I had heard of Grand Saline, but I never — ever — gave its name much thought until I learned last year that it has been the home of a Morton Salt mine for nearly a century.

In the mid-1990s, I had the privilege of visiting the planned nuclear waste repository (WIPP Site) near Carlsbad, N.M., prior to the time it received its first shipment of  radioactive waste. I treasure a large chunk of salt that I brought up from that salt cavern almost half a mile underground. Now I also have two small rock salt crystals extracted from below the earth’s crust in Texas. They are much harder; and they are clear.

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I also remember sailing around Salt Island, in the British Virgin Islands. My companions and I didn’t dive the wreck of the Rhone, nor did we step ashore on the island, but we were enthralled to learn that current inhabitants still pay an annual rent to the Queen — a one-pound bag of salt.  Traditions die hard!

Then, just a year or so ago, I visited Ston, a small town in Croatia, where salt has been harvested from the shore of the Adriatic for centuries. Of course, I brought home a bag of Croatian salt. I regularly buy unusual salts at the grocery store. We enjoy cooking with them, and sampling the various textures and flavors.

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In addition, my husband and I were recently gifted with a beautiful book, “Salt,” by Mark Bitterman, along with a Himalayan salt slab, designed for grilling; it is supposed to embue meats and vegetables with natural salty flavor. We are eager to test it!

So, it was with a sense of expectation that we took a day trip recently to Grand Saline. Its history extends back in time to about 800 BC, when the local Caddo Indians collected salt from surface marshes. Those same drying flats supplied Confederate soldiers with salt during the Civil War.

The salt flats still exist on the mine property, but are no longer publicly accessible. But evaporative salt is still processed in much the same way, although on a much larger scale than formerly.

To my disappointment, tours of the mine itself were discontinued, because of federal (OSHA) safety regulations, in the 1960s, but visitors to Grand Saline can learn the history of the mine through exhibits and a 14-minute video at the Salt Palace, a funky little building right in the heart of town. It actually boasts salt block siding, but licking it is not really encouraged!

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About that Pretzel Salt

The underground salt dome, said to extend downward at least 20,000 feet from the surface, is vast. It is said that this single salt deposit could supply this country’s needs for many thousands of years. At a level 750 feet below the surface, where mining 100_2124operations take place today, the salt dome measures approximately 1.5 miles in diameter. The “mother bed” of salt is said to be a remnant of an ancient sea. Underground temperature is a constant 75 degrees.

Each underground salt “room” is about 75 feet wide and 25 feet high, with solid salt pillars for support that measure 130 feet square. Future expansion will enlarge existing rooms to 75 feet in height from floor to roof. Trucks and all mining equipment are brought from the surface in pieces and reassembled in the mine. Approximately 100 miles of roadway wind through the caverns, and mining operations continue underground 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The salt deposits are 98.5% pure NaCl. Grand Saline is one of only two Morton Salt plants to produce both rock salt and evaporated salt; it produces all major grades of evaporated salt, including dendritic (flaked) salt, and is the company’s sole producer of shaker products and salt substitute potassium chloride.

Salt, of course, is not just for eating. Because of its purity, the salt extracted from the Grand Saline mine is also earmarked for pharmaceutical use. Salt is, after all, salt — but what is taken from the earth at Grand Saline mine is deemed unsuitable for most industrial uses because it is too pure. Although it could be used to melt snow, that would, in effect, seem wasteful! 

Our visit to the Salt Palace was enlightening. Poking around Grand Saline on a beautiful early spring day was pleasant, although there’s not much there other than the Salt Palace. But it’s an easy day trip from Dallas or Fort Worth, and it’s always fun to get out on the back roads; you never know what you might find!

I will never again take salt for granted, but will instead savor the many varieties that are available. And, for sure, I’ll continue to collect salty stories.