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.