Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

Author: Meg Noble Peterson Page 1 of 28

THE EYES OF THE STUPA ARE UPON US!

To say that my arrival in Kathmandu, my entrance into the small familiar airport, my standing in a long line to pay for my visa, and my being greeted by Ramhari, the manager at Crystal Mountain Treks, made me feel that the world was, once again, normal, may seem crazy after four long years of a reality that has been turned upside down by politics, pandemic, and war. But here I was, bumping over Mahankal Road, still unpaved, and immersed in chaotic traffic unlike anywhere else in the world. And I was happy!

Soon I was unpacking and settling into my home-away-from-home, the Shechen Guest House, next to the Shechen Monastery, where my spacious room cost 2450 Nepali rupees ($18), and I was surrounded by beautiful gardens and a peacefulness tantamount to my fondest dream, the Garden of Eden.

Those of you who have followed me and my travels over the years know all about this oasis near the Boudha Stupa. You know about the great vegetarian restaurant and the folks from around the world who come here. On any day you are likely to bump into Italian ayurvedic practitioners, French Buddhists, dentists working for an NGO, or a venerable monk like Matthieu Ricard, meeting with colleagues or teaching at the Monastery.

But don’t misunderstand me. There were changes everywhere and many for the better. During the pandemic, major improvements were made at the guest house and next door at the monastery. The damage that we saw after the 2015 earthquake had been repaired. The monk’s housing to the left of the temple was completely removed, and a grassy field planted, which opened up the view to the stupas celebrating the Eight Miracles in the Buddha’s life. New dorm rooms were built as a third floor on top of existing housing. Even the walkways and roads leading to the Boudha Stupa had been improved. But just so you know that all was not perfect, we still had to dodge the wild frenzy of noisy motorcycles threatening our very existence every time we walked to the stupa. I do not exaggerate!Of course, our first day was spent at the Boudha Stupa, doing kora. We also discovered great lattes at the Himalayan Java Cafe. How wonderful to enjoy them while looking out the window at the stupa!

 

 

Cary and I spent our first full evening having dinner with Jwalant Gurung, Director of Crystal Mountain Treks, at the Roadhouse Café, also overlooking the stupa. As you know, we’ve taken many marvelous treks with Jwalant’s team. Not only did Jwalant help rebuild destroyed schools and houses in the aftermath of the earthquake, but during the pandemic, he raised $150,000 for medicines and protective gear, as well as for setting up a COVID ICU at a free clinic. I encourage you to click HERE to read about these activities, sponsored through his charitable organization 3 Summits for Nepal.

Ten years ago, I was first charmed by Aashika, the daughter of Pasang Lama, a guard at the Shechen Guest House. She was into everything, a charming scamp, eager for the chase and eager to speak to me in English. As years went by our friendship grew and she began showing me her school work, which led to our reading books together.

Time passed and Aashika’s sister, Asmika was born.

Pasang delighted in our friendship and I was always invited to their home, simple, small, but loaded with books and efficiently organized. I soon realized that education and excellence were the goals of this family. Pasang is devoted to his wife and children, and they’ve been able to survive and flourish during the most difficult of situations… a Nepali virtue.

Both girls have now qualified for private school and talk, excitedly, about their future goals. This year Cary and I walked up the steep stairway to their small apartment to be greeted by Pasang’s wife, Ranjita, who prepared a feast for us while we conversed non-stop, using Aashika as our interpreter. I am amazed that someone so young could have such a grasp of our language. She used words that are complicated even for an American student, and her thoughts were beautifully formed. We had such a wonderful time together, and we plan to see each other again before we leave.

As we left to take what seemed like a 20-minute ride back to the guest house, a trip through circuitous, congested alleys, we asked Pasang how long it took him to walk to work every evening. His answer… “10 minutes!”

You can go anywhere in Nepal in 10 minutes!

Good heavens, you mean it took us all this time to learn this simple truism? Suddenly we realized that this was not the first time we had heard this answer, and thought back to all the times we had been told that the place we were going was a mere 10 minute walk. In fact, the very next day we fell for it again when the ticket agent at the Qatar Airlines office where we had gone in the hope of getting an upgrade on our return ticket (no chance!) told us it was just a 10 minute walk to the CIWEC clinic in Lazimpat. After the harrowing taxi ride to the airline office, I was pretty exhausted and said, Are you sure? Oh yes, m’am, he answered. And off we went.

Walking on the sidewalk next to the Palace wall, with the road packed with cars, trucks, buses and motorcycles cheek by jowl, a traffic situation that would have Americans in apoplectic road rage, I was the apoplectic one. Thirty-five minutes later, Cary is desperately trying to keep me from becoming completely hysterical, especially when we had to cross an impossibly busy street to get to the clinic. There was no traffic light or crosswalk, and I said I’m not crossing the street. Cary said, yes you are, whereupon she stepped off the curb and waded out into the middle of traffic holding up her hand and making direct eye contact with drivers. I’ve never been closer to freaking out in my life! We made it across the sea of motorcycles swarming toward us. They seemed to magically part, and let us through with nary a glance. I needed every doctor in that clinic by the time we reached the entrance. 10 minutes, yeah, right.

Having survived, we returned to Boudha. Next we will head off to the Prakriti Resort and Organic Farm in the foothills of the Himalaya.

BACK IN NEPAL, AFTER FOUR LONG YEARS

Cary and I arrived in Kathmandu and returned to the Boudhanath Stupa on November 11th after four long years punctuated by COVID. Here are a few photos to let you know where we have been. We’ll have lots of details to share with you, soon!

Here I am in the foothills of the Himalayas enjoying tranquil mountain views at the Prakriti Organic Farm Resort. This is the extent of our high-altitude trekking for the moment.

A selfie in front of our cottage at Prakriti

Before and after our week in the mountains, we had whirlwind visits with friends in Boudha and Dhulikhel.

On November 25th, we flew to Lumbini, birthplace of the Buddha. We are taking a week to see the sacred sites here, including stunning temples built by the myriad Buddhist traditions from around the world.

Here is the site of the Buddha’s birth in the Maya Devi Temple.Much more to come….

FAREWELL TO SEOUL, A CITY OF CONTRASTS

Shawo, our good friend and willing guide, showed us the University where he is completing his studies. Sungkyunkwan University was founded in 1398, and is the oldest university in East Asia. Sungkyunkwan means “make harmonious institute” in Korean. It was founded in the 14th century, and think how relevant its name still is today!

We visited Shawo’s flat at the University and toured the University grounds, a combination of contemporary buildings and historic ones. Lucky for us that the historic buildings were open on this day. And the gingko trees were especially spectacular in their fall color.

Click on photos to enlarge.

On our way to the University from Insadong, we walked through the Changdeokgung Palace. The grounds are famous for their beautiful gardens integrated into the landscape, and it was a royal residence until recently. It was so extensive we had to pay two entrance fees to get through the entire area. The architecture was grand, stocky and ornate.

Other vast palaces we visited were the Gyeongbokgung Palace where we arrived too late to enter. It was interesting to notice how much space in the center of modern Seoul was dedicated to the ancient culture. Notice Bugaksan Mountain rising in the distance.

Adjacent to Gyeongbokgung Palace is one of the largest boulevards in the heart of Seoul, where democracy expresses itself with many protests on the wide plaza. There are large statues of important historic figures, one of them King Sejong, who created the Korean Hangul script in 1443. Hangul only became the main script after Korea’s independence from Japanese colonial rule in 1945. Notice how King Sejong is flanked by the iconic Mt. Bugaksan and a massive high-tech digital display. How about that for contrasts…nature, ancient history and digital prowess.

One photo that got away from us showed an archeological dig that revealed the floor plan of a old village, centuries before the modern city arose. It was uncovered while excavating to build the skyscaper next to it. You can look down through glass panels and see the remnants of the village.

On our way to a coffee shop one morning, we enjoyed a walk through the Jogyesa Buddhist temple grounds. This temple was an important bastion of Korean Buddhism during the Japanese colonial period. It was Sunday, and many of the congregation were chanting outside. Very colorful with all the flowers!

 

Here are a few more scenes of our wanderings in Seoul.

 

This time, we decided to eschew the labyrinthian 1 1/2 hour subway ride to Incheon Airport and take a taxi. We were wowed by its design and amenities. The restroom in the round near our gate was by far the most impressive! We enjoyed one last latte with Shawo, and the last of the red bean jellies! We don’t know where our next visit with Shawo will take place, but we are looking forward to it!

I guess by now you recognize the approach to Kathmandu. Nepal, here we come!

Kudos to my wonderful daughter, Cary, who is the technician behind the posting of these blogs!

I’VE HEARD KOREAN FOOD IS DELICIOUS…IF ONLY I COULD EAT IT!

Here is the third post of our visit to Seoul from Nov. 4 – Nov. 11.

There is nothing more colorful or appetizing than a South Korean restaurant with eager eaters hovering over gigantic spreads of numerous varieties of beautifully prepared vegetables and meats, rice, and noodles… only to sit down and find after the first bite that I have burned out my palate for the meal. Since each day is a new day, and hope springs eternal, I walked into each fresh situation convinced that surely somebody would understand the phrase “Please no spicy!” After all, there are, according to TripAdvisor, 23,616 restaurants in Seoul! The Koreans love to eat!

My entire experience was reminiscent of my first trip to India in 1986, when I was so worn out from fighting spicy food that a waiter in Delhi, seeing my plight, served me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It saved my life. As much as I loved India and as much as I enjoyed South Korea, I may have to look elsewhere if I am to survive.

There is something about Korean chefs that cannot resist a tiny bit of hot spice in the dish as their signature trademark. Shawo did a yeoman job of trying to find a prepared salad that would be suitable for me and even when he went to the western-style Paris Baguette bakery and bought a green salad, tucked in the corner underneath the lettuce leaves were those hot green peppers. Dang, foiled again!

We tried a vegan restaurant where we sat on the floor, with, alas, too much spice for me. We thought Vietnamese Pho would be safe but those hot green peppers had been sliced into the soup, impossible to avoid. Eventually, one evening, Cary and Shawo slipped away for a delicious seafood pancake, notice the ubiquitous kimchi, while I stayed at the hotel catching up on writing, and finishing off safe leftover noodles. Thank God for oranges, grapes, and those wonderful in-season persimmons I fell in love with.

Shawo saved me with the breakfasts he brought to our picnic table outside the hotel, which included omelets, fruit, and gimbap (kimbap), all without spice, to get me started in the morning. Gimbap was a wonderful discovery…very similar to sushi and a real treat! Once only made by hand at home, now it’s a low-cost, convenient take-out food. It fills the niche in Korean eating similar to sandwiches in the US. It is portable, tasty, and a great picnic and snack food. Gimbap doesn’t have the raw fish of Japanese sushi and there are hundreds of varieties. Bring it on!

One evening, Jieun, who had given us the red bean jelly gift, was our guide to a massive covered street food market. The variety was mindboggling. I had never seen anything like it in all my travels. The hall with dozens of densely packed food stalls was immense and crowded, filled with small eating stands with narrow benches.

Click on the photos to enlarge.

There were lots of stands specifically for seafood. Cary had been hankering for some Korean seafood, but once she saw the tanks full of little baby octopus, she couldn’t bear to eat them. We missed that photo, but you can see large octopus, sea squirt, cockles, eels and flounder in the photos below, often served raw on large lettuce leaves.

The food variety ranged from vegetables to caterpillar larvae and everything in between. Outside the hall, we ended our culinary journey with a sweet treat made of waffle batter encased red bean jelly and a walnut! Really delicious and, to us, very exotic, just like most everything else we had experienced that evening!

Finally, two days before we left, we found a really neat and airy western restaurant in the Bokcheon-dong district, that was named of all things, The Restaurant. It was actually better than most restaurants I’ve experienced in the US. We had superb pesto pasta, lasagna, and the best mushroom soup I’ve ever tasted.

Unfortunately I poked the top crust before we took the picture, just to see if there was really something underneath. It was so good, we came back the next day. Shawo was agog with his aglio e olio pasta, Cary had roasted veggies with balsamic drizzle, and I had an avocado/veggie sandwich with green salad and french fries. Shawo greatly enjoyed the crusty rolls and butter, not typical of Korean food, but which were like Amdo bread, the region in Tibet where he grew up.

As a celebration for finding food I could finally eat, I treated myself to something I had never experienced: a glass of Bulgarian white wine. I was elated! It didn’t matter that it couldn’t compare to the vino verde from Portugal.

A little aside: The Restaurant had by far the most high tech restroom we had encountered. When you opened the stall door, the lid rose up to greet you. Watch for the youtube video when I have better wifi. Like many Korean toilets, the seat was warm and toasty, but you needed prior training to manage the bells and whistles built into the toilet operation. I was afraid to touch anything for fear I’d end up taking an unexpected shower.

 

We did have a wonderful meal of galbitang (beef rib soup), and mandu (dumplings), which we enjoyed the last evening with some of the traditional distilled Korean soju to celebrate our week-long stay in Seoul. You can see that we kept forgetting to take photos of the meal before we consumed it! Upon returning to our hotel, we ended a perfect day with another of Jieun’s red bean jelly bars.

The final unexpected and unusual goodie that Shawo gave us was a tasty powdered Korean tea made from Job’s Tears and nuts. He gave us enough for an army, so come over for a cuppa when we get home!

Now that we have shared our food adventures, our final Korean blog post will be an informal architectural tour of our wanderings in Seoul.

EYE GLASSES AND NEW FRIENDS!

I am writing this from Nepal, where Cary and I are enjoying the peace and quiet of the Prakriti Organic Farm Resort in the foothills of the Himalayas in Shivapuri National Park.

Who would have thought that I would have to go to South Korea to get a pair of reading and distance glasses? For three years I have been unsuccessful with any of my doctors in the U.S., but found an optometrist in Seoul, thanks to San Yi, a student of Dza Kilung Rinpoche, who is also Cary’s Tibetan Buddhist teacher.

Geun Oh Song, the owner of the glasses shop, found the secret to my problem. It was a hoot to read the letters in both English and Korean, and gave us a great many laughs, but we couldn’t have navigated it all without the excellent translating of San. The price of the examination, and two pairs of glasses and frames, was $150 and the next day I was given another pair by San’s mother Hyejo Gong, who had come with us to the store. This was a most unexpected, and very much appreciated gift! Koreans are known for their generosity!

If you are in Seoul, and need a pair of glasses, you can find them at Yonsei Glasses, 4th floor, Tong-il building, 77, Jong-ro, Jongno-gu, Seoul.

Cary and I, San, Hyejo and Yujin Seong, also students of Rinpoche, spent a delightful afternoon together. They treated us to an excellent restaurant with a banquet of traditional Korean food, none of which, alas, I could eat, but which Cary greatly enjoyed. (More on my food adventures with spicy Korean food in my next post…) Afterwards, we had delicious traditional Korean herbal tea in a tea shop snuggled in a magical little forest in the densely built up Insadong district.

San, MP, Hyejo, Yujin, Cary

It was wonderful for Cary to spend this time with San, as well as her mother and Yujin, all of whom organize Kilung Rinpoche’s Korean sangha, and help fundraise for the Kilung Shedra in Dzachuka, Tibet. Cary and San also work together on dharma texts.

We made other new friends during our visit. In our previous post, we mentioned Lhamo Owser, Shawo’s friend, who met us at the airport. We had dinner at a Mongolian restaurant for some not-too-spicy, but definitely hearty and heavy Mongolian food. Lhamo and Cary had fun interspersing English with Dutch as Lhamo is fluent in Dutch from her years of living there. She currently is taking a gap year and working in Korean restaurants to earn money to travel. We hope our paths cross again!

Yokan is a Japanese sweet made of red bean jelly that the Koreans love. It is exquisitely packaged in special boxes wrapped in fabric. In Insadong there are stores that sell these artistic boxes, elegantly displayed. One of Shawo’s Korean friends, Jieun Yi, gifted us with one of these boxes filled with 6 little packages of red bean jelly of different flavors while we had tea at the same Korean herbal tea shop we visited with San. It was so special at night that we wanted to revisit it during the day.

Offering these red bean sweets, opening the fancy wrapping and carefully slicing the jelly treats to share, is a special Korean tradition we were delighted to experience.

 

After our tea party and red bean treats, Jieun was our tour guide to a big street food market, and that brings us to more about food, which is the subject of our next blog post!

FIRST STOP, A WEEK IN KOREA!

The first stop on our 7-week journey was a week in Seoul to visit Shawo Choeten, our long-time friend since his days at the TCV Suju school in India. It was hard to believe that it had been four years since we last visited him in Gyeongju, South Korea, where he was studying at Dongguk University. Now he is finishing his Masters at Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul.

We arrived at the modern Incheon Airport on November 4th to be greeted by Lhamo Owser, a delightful Tibetan friend of Shawo’s, who had moved to Amstelveen, Holland, from India in her teens. Shawo had an important class to attend at the same time as our arrival. Thus began a hour-and-a-half sojourn by multiple subways to the heart of Seoul. We met Shawo at one of the connecting stops. After 24 hours of traveling, it was all I could do to get settled at our hotel, Mini-Hotel Insa, in the heart of the Insadong district, and stay awake through dinner.

 

Cary and I tried to write a post while in Korea, but were so exhausted from our wanderings through Seoul from morning ‘til night that we decided to wait until we reached the relaxed “atmosphere” of Kathmandu. I know, that sounds like a contradiction, but the simple airport and bustling streets of our favorite city soothed us after a week in spotless, organized, peaceful and QUIET Korea. Korea was so first-world that I often felt as if I had stepped into the future, except that right next to a modern glass building could be nestled an authentic relic from the distant past. Note the Baskin Robbins ice cream store built in traditional architecture!

Click on photo to start slideshow.

Ancient palaces, archaeological digs… pristine subways with white walls and murals. Everything new. Modern shops, and parks whose walkways wound between gingko trees with their falling yellow leaves, and elaborate gardens. And colors? A festival for the eye. A funny contrast, however, is that the women dressed mainly in fashionable black and white garb, whether dresses or pants, so different from the colorful, traditional, glittering and glamorous dresses rented to the tourists for a “selfie” walk around town. While visiting one of the palaces, we met a lovely and accomplished woman from Saudi Arabia, a cost engineer working for Aramco, who was enjoying several hours wearing the Korean traditional dress, and shared with us the advances women are making in her country.

And while I’m talking about contradictions, 99% of the citizenry in the open air of the streets of this expansive city were wearing masks (except for me), only to be removed the minute they entered a crowded restaurant. I thought it was hilarious. Compare this to Nepal, where for six months nobody has been required to wear a mask!

I loved our hotel in the Insadong section. It was reasonable, the owner, Daniel, was a gem, and it even had a picnic table with a huge umbrella out front, which we used every day. Peaceful streets led from our doorstep to every part of this vast city like the spokes of a wheel. It couldn’t be better. Activity started after 10 in the morning and gathered momentum until late at night with stores, restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops going full stop. And lights! Every street seemed ready for a New Year’s celebration, full of happy, laughing pedestrians. But people’s thoughts were also not far from the tragedy that happened on Halloween when 150 young people lost their lives in a crowd crush on one of the small alleys.

Two days into our stay, Daniel moved us to a much larger room with a large table, two huge beds, a kitchen, and a heated floor. We were in heaven! I might add that for the first time in our Asian travels we had access to a washing machine. How cool is that?

I’ve decided not to try to give you a daily rundown of our activities, but to highlight our various adventures. Now, you might not think that getting a cup of coffee is an adventure, but this is a big deal in Seoul. Up until a decade ago there was hardly a coffee shop to be found and now there are several on every block, some right next door to each other. Since no restaurants were open until well after ten AM, we decided to nose around and watch the city come alive. We also found elaborate opportunities to satisfy our craving for delicious Korean coffee.

First stop, a fifth floor coffee shop in an elaborate high-rise with a spectacular view of the city (see panorama above). We tried to have our first breakfast there but the only food was specialty cakes, but the choice of coffee styles would put Starbucks to shame. And probably did! The few of the iconic Starbucks that we saw were rather plain and couldn’t hold a candle to the garden-like cafes with trees growing inside, reached by walking down several steps below the sidewalk into an open-air garden…or the high off-the-ground palatial spaces with gleaming windows and marble floors and a few tables resting on an artistic wooden outdoor veranda. Just a side note on our first breakfast, Cary rustled up a egg salad/jam/coleslaw sandwich at a western style coffee shop… nothing we’d ever seen, but tasty in an unusual way nevertheless.

 

Part of each day we passed the time roaming the streets and ferreting out special coffee environments, often meeting other tourists for an international cup of java. This has changed my whole attitude toward that simple cup of coffee, which can be the social glue that leads to fruitful conversation brimming with new ideas, or just a peaceful break in the hustle and bustle of life, or a meditative moment at the beginning of the day.

We are sending this blog post from an organic farm resort in the Himalayan foothills above Kathmandu, and will follow with more vignettes of our lovely time in Seoul.

 

NEPAL, WE’RE COMING BACK!

As I sit on my upstairs deck in mid-October, reveling in the glorious sun, loving the patterns made by the lacy cedar trees, listening to the squawk of the tree frogs and the chirping of the birds, and, later on, the owls as they teach their little ones to hoot, I wonder if I’ve died and gone to heaven. This can’t be! Whidbey Island in the Fall and no rain? And we’re still having potlucks outdoors at Cary’s house every Sunday evening.

Well, that will change when November rolls around. Two days after the traditional All Soul’s Eve at the Langley Woodmen Cemetery, Cary and I will leave for a week in South Korea, to visit our Tibetan friend, Shawo, then on to Nepal, returning on December 27th. We’ll be writing posts of our travels as we explore places where we haven’t been before…an organic farm resort in the Himalayan foothills, Buddha’s birthplace in Lumbini, our first Nepali Air BnB near Swayambhunath…and still two more weeks to figure out. It will be a different kind of exploration, unlike the previous treks in the Himalayas.

In the meantime, let me catch you up on a few special events that took place this summer. The Island Shakespeare Festival is always a treat, which occurs every summer and now has returned after Covid. This year included excellent productions of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Titus Andronicus, and a new version of Cyrano de Bergerac.

In August we were treated to a superb concert by Don Slepian at the Ambient Church in Seattle. Don is a dear friend, and former neighbor when our family was growing up in Summit, NJ. At a young age he played the electric piano and synthesizer, for which he has written remarkable music, and continues to be a pioneer in electronic and ambient music. He is a consummate musician and performer, and a devotee of a new kind of musical expression. His harmonies are lyrical, ethereal, imaginative. romantic, and moving. Check out his performances of the following titles: Sea of Bliss, Sonic Perfume, Rhythm of Life, the delightful and whimsical Duel at Sunrise, plus a plethora of magnificent pieces for electronic orchestra.

One other highlight of the summer was the stage reading at Langley’s Outcast Theater of the play I wrote with Lynne Warrin, Thank You, Dear. The director, Patricia Duff, and the cast were first class and the reception was over the top (all shows sold out!). Thank you, producer Ned Farley!

Three sisters meet at the family’s summer cottage to be together with their mother, Alice, for the 4th of July weekend, and, unbeknownst to her, to decide what course of action should be taken to ensure her wellbeing. With years of family emotional baggage in tow, each assumes her role in the family weekend. The complexities of family life come to the surface, and old tensions erupt. Alice, meanwhile, in enough mental control to make decisions, has her own ideas about her future.

Rachel Carey, Shelley Hartle, David Ossman, Joan Rosenblum, Jane Bothel, Christina Boom, Patricia Duff, Director, and me.

We’ll be thinking of you as Thanksgiving and Christmas roll around, and hope for all of us a more peaceful world as we move into winter. We’ll be back to wish you a Happy New Year!

A few weeks ago, I saw my final sunset of the season at Maxwelton Beach. A sunset is inspiring wherever you see it…on the Iberian Peninsula, in the Himalayas, or on Puget Sound…and makes you grateful for the never-ending beauty of nature, and for your own good fortune.

 

PORTUGAL: JOURNEY’S END….

Part 3, Sintra and Lisbon.

The minute we arrived in Lisbon, we grabbed an Uber for Sintra. Oh, Home Sweet Home! Martha had gotten a charming Airbnb in the middle of town with a magnificent view of the water, but it was incredibly difficult to find our way to the doorstep. The driver was using google maps, which failed to advise her about the one-way streets. She dropped us off at the bottom of a hill, and we finally located our destination. With the help of Louisa, the owner of the house, who helped drag our bags up the steep cobbled incline, we arrived at her spacious house located in a small courtyard. Wow! Yet another adventure.

(Click on photo to open slideshow)

 

We had one more steep climb to the main road, and came out around the corner from the Lawrence Hotel, only to find that Carlos was off today. Drat! But, fortunately, we had one more full day. So, down the street we went to our favorite tile gallery, Olaria de Sao Pedro, and found some wonderful tiles and tiny boxes for gifts. Also discovered another shop that sold different kinds of tiles left over after demolishing very old buildings. The work was unique.

For the rest of the day and the next, we caught up on the places we had missed on our first trip to Sintra.

Early the next morning, day 12, we grabbed a tuk-tuk and started up the hill to the medieval Moorish Castle, Castelo dos Mouros. The ruins stand high above Sintra, and during the Moorish era (8-12th century), this once mighty castle defended the entire region.

Our driver, Delicio, an interesting and well-spoken young man, insisted on stopping at historical and unusual places along the way, even ‘though we only asked him to take us to the castle. “Oh, no, this place is in my blood,” he said.

And what a tour we got! Along with some regional gossip. We gaped at a huge 1880 mansion, the Biester House, which Madonna had wanted to buy, but soon realized it wouldn’t be private enough. The house went up for sale for around $900 million, but soon settled into being a favorite tourist attraction after Johnny Depp made the movie, Ninth Gate, on its premises, directed by Roman Polanski.

After saying goodbye to Delicio, we entered into a vast expanse of green. Looking out over the trees, we could see the stately castle on the hill.

A winding path afforded numerous views as we approached the formidable fortress. Walkways soon led to massive stone steps (no railings!) as we made our way upward to the top level, a large square open space with fortified walls. In the distance were several other smaller sections of the fortress with picturesque stairways leading to the top. Photos will describe this outstanding site far better than I.

(Click on photo to open slideshow)

While roaming around and checking the view from the top, we met two charming Palestinian ladies, a mother and a daughter. The daughter, a scientist, lives and works in Geneva, Switzerland, doing environmental and ecological experiments. The mother is still in Palestine.

We left the castle gates and started walking up another steep hill toward the famous Quinta da Regaleira Gardens, attached to the eccentric and extravagant neo-Gothic mansion, Pena Palace, described in my first Portugal blog. These were the famous gardens we’d missed on our last trip to Sintra. Martha insisted that it was close, but after about ten more minutes of walking I was doubting it. Suddenly a tuk-tuk with several people in it stopped and the driver yelled, ”Hey, how are you?” He was the jolly fellow who had taken us up to the castle a week ago, when we bounced all the way as the wind nearly blew our hair off. Evidently, we were all too recognizable! He laughed and said, “Get in, I’m going to the gardens. It’s too far to walk. Boy, was I glad to see him and we hopped right in. How about that for a Good Samaritan?

It was clear when we first entered the gates that this was no traditional garden. There were hidden caves, secret passageways, spiral staircases leading down wells, and a host of mystic symbolism. We didn’t see the caves, because the line for tickets was too long. But we could discern some of the underground features from a distance. The garden was so intense, however, that we could barely absorb what was right in front of us!

 

I could get used to this!

We made sure to have our final meal in Sintra inside the Lawrence Hotel. They couldn’t use the outdoor patio because two clients had come down with Covid and were quarantined in the room above. It was great to chat with Carlos, again, and he made our meal very special with several exquisite dishes and his incomparable sangria.

The next day, day 13, we hailed another cab and, by noon, were back at our original hotel, the Dom Sancho, in a much better room. The rest of the day was spent roaming around Lisbon, or waiting in the main square near the railroad station for the results of my Covid test. Martha didn’t need one to go to Spain, where she was headed. As usual, we met a lot of interesting people with myriad tales of their stress over these tests. So, you can imagine how jubilant I felt to have tested negative and not be faced with a quarantine!

We were lucky to locate a charming Vietnamese restaurant for dinner. Then it was off for an early evening. NO SANGRIA. Have to wean ourselves and get ready to face the future sans Portuguese wine!

It’s obvious that we fell in love with Lisbon, but that was also true of Sintra, Porto, and Nazare. There are many other places and areas of Portugal we wanted to visit, like the Algarve, it’s caves and beaches, Peniche, Obidos, Braga, and Fatima, but we wanted to do it in a leisurely, thoughtful way. So, for these two glorious weeks we took our time, breathed in the atmosphere, and felt like compatriots, not tourists.

On day 14 we said a tearful goodbye at the Lisbon airport. We had gotten so used to each other, and comfortable with our almost carefree routine, that we knew how difficult this goodbye would be. During our time together we learned when to talk and when to remain silent. Our enthusiasm needed no words. And lying on the beach our silence brought forth memories and precious secrets that we had never before shared. I was so proud of my daughter. She did the heavy lifting, literally and figuratively, did the online work that got us from here to there, and, in the end, kept it all together. I am so grateful.

PORTUGAL: THE ADVENTURE CONTINUES….

PART 2, Porto and Nazare

Here I am at the end of a glorious summer that overflowed with visits from friends and family (Whidbey Island is where you want to be in the summer…not too warm sunny days, cool nights, and verdant forests), two monumental birthday parties, and enough potlucks to go on Ripley’s Believe It or Not. When the weather gets foggy and the rains descend, I may just pull out pictures of a few of the joyous celebrations to share with you and lift my spirits, but, first, I must get you through Portugal! After all, this is not a family album, but a travel blog. And we’re open for business after far too long a hiatus.

I left you as we were getting ready to take a train from Lisbon to Porto on May 10, day 5. We arrived to find our spacious Airbnb waiting for us in a beautiful section of town with winding streets, steep climbs, and tiled houses, higher in many cases than Lisbon, where the limit seemed to be five stories. We immediately bought two three-day tickets for casual tours on the blue bus…casual meaning that we could get off at any stop, check out the area, and get back on the next bus when it came along. We realized that this was the only way we would get a comprehensive view of Porto and its environs.

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Each morning we treated ourselves to a sumptuous breakfast at a charming restaurant near us. Enjoyed the waitress and the wall decorations. AND the food!

Our first day in Porto, day 6 of our trip, the blue bus looped around the entire city and dropped us off at Vila Nova de Gaia. This is the hub of the port wine industry, peppered with cellars offering tours and tastings. Alas, we never did make it to a wine tasting. We got too lost in the labyrinthian streets and bridges! Nor did we hit the sandy beaches of Gaia.

However, we did visit a gorgeous church, Igreja de Santa Marinha. We called it the Golden Church. From the outside it seemed so simple, but check out the gold filigree inside. I have never seen such elaborate gold artistry or intricate metal and stone carving anywhere in all my travels, including the Vatican.

Afterwards, we took a 50-minute trip on a river boat up the Douro River. We were required to wear masks, as on all other vehicles, but the wind made it almost impossible to keep them on! We had earphones during our tours with a genteel Englishman explaining the sights in exotic rhetoric.

It was past six by the time we reached town, again, and we started walking back over various bridges, hoping to find one of the famous wine-tasting cellars. We went back and forth, being waylaid by numerous construction sites. Evidently, the underground (subway) was being repaired, and google did not relay that information to us.

Finally, we wandered the beach and, without any help from google, came upon a terrific restaurant, met two delightful women from Canada, and spent the evening getting acquainted and discussing how to save the world. This conversation seems to be unending, but looking for solutions is better than giving up and spending your time complaining!!

The next day was every bit as exhilarating as the previous one. It was crisp and sunny as we waited for our blue bus to take us to another section of the city, passing a huge beach with rocks and surf, and surfers stretched out along the horizon. Only a few were braving the choppy waves. The bus drove further along the shore and stopped at another beach next to Fort de Sao Francisco Xavier de Queijo. Unfortunately, the sand was too gritty for my ancient feet, so we eschewed a walk on the beach and went directly to the old fort. I was immediately struck by how much it reminded me of Fort Casey near Coupeville on Whidbey Island. Old canons, chains to pull up the equipment, windows broken, thick walls, and a scary stone staircase with no handrails. At the bottom of the staircase was a small coffee shop where we sat and drank coffee with an Englishman and his Japanese girlfriend. We never failed to meet interesting travelers!

Back in town, we grabbed a quick pizza at a small Italian restaurant, while enjoying superb violin music played by a local busker. Relaxed, we walked to a place that intrigued us every time we passed it…the Church of the Clerics, Iglesia de los Clerigos, a Baroque-style church built by the religious brotherhood of the “poor clerics” on a large piece of land donated to them in the 18th century.

Its 75-meter-tall bell tower, the Torre dos Clerigos, can be seen from various points in the city and is one of Porto’s most characteristic symbols. This time we decided to enter….

The tower was incredible and scary! There were 220 steps to the top and it started with a very narrow, winding staircase with no handrails. You felt like pressing your shoulders against the sides for safety. Believe me, nobody was going fast! At each level were several rooms, and ever-higher views of the sanctuary. In one large room there were paintings of Christ’s crucifixion lining the walls and in others a plethora of saints. As we started up the final section of steps, I was greatly relieved to see that there had been metal handrails added. Unfortunately, they were absent on the last small segment to the very top, so I elected to wait while Martha scaled the heights and viewed the vastness of Porto. I am not good with extremes of elevation. Never have been!

Be sure to visit one of their train stations before you say farewell to Porto. We were enthralled by the tile work (1905-1916) that greeted us in the Campanha station. Over 20,000 of the famous blue and white tiles (azuejo) were used in making the magnificent panels that line the walls and depict the rich history of Portugal.

By seven we were racing up and down the hills, once again, looking for a restaurant that was open and served something besides fish. Found a perfect place nestled in a small square with a superb saxophonist, who soothed us and deepened our gratitude for the day.

On May 13, we said goodbye to our spacious Airbnb and headed for the bus station situated next to the beautiful Campo 24 de Agosto Garden. We sat in the park next to a small pond and watched the modern buses come and go. Such a progressive country and such friendly people. In no time Martha had loaded our bags into the bus storage compartment and we were off to the coast and the famous surfing town of Nazare.

Upon arrival in sunny Nazare we collected our bags and walked up and down through alleys and in front of the ocean until we found our gorgeous Airbnb on a narrow, winding street near the beach. Like the one in Porto, it was beautifully appointed and outfitted with kitchen utensils, coffee pot, microwave, dishwasher, and washing machine. We noticed that white seemed to be the decorating choice in the places where we stayed.

What a greeting we received from Carla, the rental agent!

We were on the third floor and the apartment had two balconies entered through glass doors on the front and the back of the building. We lived in the spacious rooms  in between. We enjoyed sitting out on either balcony and watching the activity down below. There were also metal hangers attached to the front railings for drying clothes. The back balcony was a bit smaller and you were almost close enough to touch your neighbors across the way.

The alleys were all paved in small diamond-shaped tiles with borders, and street names were written on the side of the building.

After settling in, we took off to the beach and walked barefoot, reveling in the warm sand and crystal water. Martha ran to the water’s edge and collected miniature shells and colorful stones strewn here and there. A handful of sand held untold surprises. Later we bought some gorgeous tiny boxes made of tile to house our treasures.

Fortunately, we had brought a perfect blanket for sun-bathing, but after dipping a toe In the water, eschewed swimming! Anyway, even if it had been warm enough at this time of year, the tide was too unpredictable.

This evening our search for a restaurant on the beach produced a gem (Tabernasse). Jose (pronounce Joe-say) became a favorite next to Carlos at the Lawrence Hotel in Sintra. Martha was skeptical of the menu at first, one taste of the sangria (with red wine and loads of fresh fruit) and she was sold! We returned for another treat the next evening.

Our days in Nazare were our most relaxing. We lay on the beach until the wind became too brisk, we poked around the many open-air stores facing the shore, and we wandered around the narrow streets at all hours.

Our biggest adventure was taking the modern funicular from the beach up to the small city of Sitio.

Buy tickets here

Since 1889 the funicular has connected these two communities: Nazaré…down in the center by the beach…and Sitio, up on the cliff. It departs every 15 minutes, and offers a gorgeous panoramic view along the way. It travels up 318 meters (1042 feet), and is used by both tourists and locals. I found it fascinating and a bit scary as it slid up the steep hill, but the locals treated it like a mundane trip on the Times Square shuttle to Grand Central Station in NY City. The station we entered was spacious and modern, decorated with the typical elegant tiles of Portugal.

The huge square at the top was rimmed with small shops and vendors selling souvenirs, but we were more interested in the view overlooking the craggy cliffs, where 100 ft. waves smashed the rocks during prime surfing season. Small houses were nestled in some of the crevasses, but it was hard for me to believe that anyone could live there, safely. Made me dizzy just looking at it!

At intervals along the beach and in front of shops, elderly men would sit and carve swallows, a symbol of home and solidarity, and small boats, celebrating Portugal’s sea-going heritage. Wherever I travel I always bring back one small souvenir that speaks to me of that particular country. This year I brought back two.

For the rest of the day, we continued our exploration of Nazare, going up and down hills and bumping into people from around the world. One such group was a caravan of young people from several countries: Montenegro, the U.S (New Jersey no less), Germany, and Holland. They were all traveling together, having hooked up along the way. They were staying in hostels, and doing their various jobs online. How about that? I hope it was a while before they were required to return to the office, as has happened, recently, to several of my friends and relatives.

On our last evening in Nazare, we decided to go wild and try something different…an Indian restaurant, Little India, located on a narrow street not far from the beach. It was dimly lit, so we asked if we could sit outside in the sun.  A table and chairs were hastily assembled and out we went into a back alley. We realized, immediately, that this was definitely makeshift, for the laundry from the apartment above was hanging low over our head. Not exactly optimal for a fancy dinner. Chuckling to ourselves, we headed back inside, only then realizing how beautiful it was. The walls were all tiled, and colorful decorations hung like clouds from the ceiling. It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable, interesting, and informative evenings of our trip. The Indian food was excellent! The portions were small and tasty, with ample choices. Palak paneer with garlic buttered naan, an unusual eggplant dish with creamy vegetables, and a traditional lamb curry with Greek yogurt. And, of course, Portuguese white wine! Had a great time talking with the waiter, Mo-Rizwon Kabir, who turned out to be the manager and part-owner of the restaurant. He reminded us of our many years traveling through India. And we were impressed hearing his experience of setting up an establishment in another country. An example of “if you don’t take chances, you won’t succeed.” How true.

Early the next morning, May 16, day 11 of our journey, Martha made the most wonderful cheese omelet, and served it with the remaining Kangaroo Coffee she had brought from Colorado. As we boarded the bus for our return trip to Lisbon, we knew for sure that we would survive until lunchtime.

Thank you for all your patience as I struggle through the end of summer and make plans for the coming year. Stay tuned! The end of our trip is in sight and you will be treated to an extensive meander through the world’s most exquisite garden, Quinta de Regaleira in Sintra.

PORTUGAL, AT LAST!

Stepping onto the plane to Portugal on May 5th!

Part 1, Lisbon and Sintra

Ever since I studied the early European explorers in grade school, I have been drawn to Spain and Portugal. I managed to get to Spain during my early days in Europe before I became fascinated with Asia and trekking in the Himalayas, but there has always been a subliminal longing for Portugal that has hung over me all these years. Here was a country about the size of Indiana, which had ruled the waves and sent out explorers in the 15th and 16th centuries long before the New World, as we know it, had been discovered. Portuguese explorers led the way in European overseas exploration. They reached India, established multiple trading posts in Africa and Asia, and settled what would become Brazil. It’s hard to believe that the peaceful little country I wandered around had at one time created one of the most powerful empires in human history.

When Covid finally lifted her heavy veil, my daughter, Martha, and I leapt in. Hooray, we made it! On May 6 we settled into the Dom Sancho Hotel in the center of Lisbon for the first four days of our two-week exploration of Portugal. After that it was Airbnb’s all the way.

How changed travel had become. I felt that I had just emerged from the Middle Ages and there was no going back. Everything, including the search for restaurants, could be done on the phone (I guess the expression is “digitized”). This is something we spent hours doing, since I’m allergic to fish and we had to find places that served interesting alternatives to seafood. All you needed was the $10/day purchase of data, and you were good to go. You could buy tickets to a funicular, tour bus, river trip, or train, and just show the ticket on your phone to enter. As long as you were a technical genius, the world was at your feet. Well, I should say Martha’s, because I just tagged along and let her do the work. How on earth did I circle the globe three times solo those many years ago with only a backpack and a camera…no internet or cell phone?!

This, my first overseas trip in three long years, was one of exploration, discovery, and appreciation. I was immersed in a land of friendly, happy people, who savored their ancient landmarks and thrived on beauty, both natural and creative. An atmosphere of relaxation prevailed. It was palpable! If we misjudged the time of a castle or a palacio opening, we laughed at our mistake and sat on a bench or the grass and watched the sea, talked, and grooved on the gorgeous balmy weather and lush scenery. We did not rush, we set no strict caveats. If we dawdled and missed a tour bus, we explored the town and took the next one. Seldom have I felt so free, so unburdened by schedules, and so at ease.

Imagine emerging from your hotel on the first day, still jet lagged at 10 am, just as most restaurants or cafes are opening for breakfast, and walking onto a magnificent boulevard lined with apartments, many of which were brightly painted or decorated with colorful tiles  (azulejos), a famous specialty of Portugal. Some facades told a story in murals while others specialized in mosaic or neoclassical designs. Our eyes were popping as we walked down the elaborately-tiled sidewalks and roofs, past busy outdoor cafes…yearning for our morning cup of coffee.

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We noticed that the buildings in Lisbon are mostly limited to five floors, each floor with a different style of window, uniformly artistic whether oval, square, rectangular, curved, or tapered. Sometimes the top floor looked like a series of single dormer rooms. The variety was intriguing and the artistry stellar. Beauty reigned. And with the buildings so low, this gave us a chance to walk around town and groove on the sun, clouds, and blue sky.

Lisbon has an elaborate system of walk and don’t walk signs regulating its labyrinth of streets and boulevards, which takes a bit of getting used to. But after a few days we became free spirits like the rest of the populace ignoring the signs when it was safe!

After a sumptuous breakfast (my favorite was a poached egg dish called avocado smash served on nut bread and accompanied by a large latte), we wandered the back streets, and made our way to the Central City. It was amazing to me how many different sizes of tile and designs and colors were used as pavement. Here is just one example.

Thus began four days of our love affair with Lisbon. Naturally, we had to get used to the difference in eating habits in Portugal. It reminded me of Spain. Meals were slow and casual. Never a rush. They were a social experience. A time for conversation and connecting. Breakfast started around 10 am, which was hard for us. The only help for early morning coffee was from Google, whose information was often not up-to-date, one of our only frustrations. We sometimes skipped lunch due to getting immersed in a bus tour or other activity, so that by 6 pm we were desparate for dinner. It didn’t take more than a day to realize that most restaurants didn’t open for dinner until 7 pm, so we’d better grab something at lunchtime (2-3 pm) if we wanted to survive. Each night was a new gustatory adventure and chance to reach out and connect with others, and each day was the unfolding of a new area to explore.

The remainder of our first day was spent roaming the boulevards and side streets, walking along the river, and enjoying the numerous wide staircases leading from one street to another.

 

By 5 o’clock we started to look, with great urgency, for any restaurant open for dinner. We ducked into a small bistro and were greeted by a jolly bartender and an hospitable waitress who sat us down by the front window and proceeded to set the table. How lucky can you get? It seems that they had just finished a big party, which is why they were open for business. The bartender brought two medium-sized bottles of white wine and in perfect English said, “You will like this!” He wasn’t kidding. And here began our romance with Portuguese wine! As Martha put it, “I never used to drink white wine, but this goes down soooo smooth….” We didn’t even ask the price and it was incredibly reasonable. Best fish in years and a special salad for me.

It’s interesting that the wine in Portugal is identified by the region where it’s grown, not its type, such as Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, or Riesling. And each region has its specialty. I’m sure you’ve heard of some of the most famous, Vinho Verde (from the Vinho Verde [Green Wine] region in northern Portugal), and Douro, centered near the Douro River Valley. And when we got to Porto it didn’t take us long to discover where Port wine is from. Nor how powerful it is!

As I’ve mentioned, we could buy tickets at many locations for whatever mode of transportation we desired. Here we are waiting in the center of town for the popular 28 tram to take us on a steep and winding journey to the Alfama district, overlooking the ocean, where we got off to view the Costa de Lisboa, the varied and extensive coast of Lisbon. At any stop along the way we could get off the tram and get back on when the next one came along, thus giving us a chance to explore a variety of interesting neighborhoods. Whenever we got onto any tram, bus, train or taxi we were required to wear a mask and this was strictly enforced.

 

Take a look at some of the glorious views from our walk, beginning in the historical Alfama area.

 

On our wanderings we came upon Largo de Carmo Square with the entrance to Carmen Convent and the famous Archaeological Museum, the gothic ruins of the 14th century Igreja (church) Convento do Carmo. It is a lively square, known for its terraces and full of happy people and historic landmarks. It is also a very important place in Portuguese history where, on April 25, 1974, Arcela Coetano, the replacement for former dictator Antonio de Olveira Salazar, was defeated in a bloodless coup called the Carnation Revolution, which introduced democracy to Portugal. He stepped down after taking refuge in the main Lisbon military police station in the square, and General Spinola took over. After 50 years of Salazar’s rule, a democratic government was finally installed.

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After we came out of the ruins we were greeted by lively break dancers in the square.

For me, the highlight of the Lisbon area was Sintra, a World Heritage site with majestic forests and amazing wildlife. On our third morning, we took an Uber from the center of town and in no time arrived in Sintra. We were able to grab an open-air tuk-tuk to take us to the famous Palacio Nacional da Pena, which included an extensive park. The ride, alone, would have made our day! A steep road winding through what seemed like miles of lush forests, deep and dark…a forest primeval right out of Longfellow’s Evangeline. And we were being blown by the wind as we bounced over the rugged road, laughing with our fellow passengers and hanging on for dear life.

How could such a fancy edifice be hidden so deep in the forest? Check out the color and artwork. Hard to believe!

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Unfortunately, we stayed too long in the palace so arrived too late to enter the park grounds. But that would come another day. We had to return to Sintra!

We took a leisurely walk down the road, enjoying all the sights we couldn’t see on our bumpy drive up the hill.

Near the middle of town we happened upon the Lawrence’s Hotel, the oldest hotel on the Iberian Peninsula. And there was a charming outdoor restaurant open for dinner. Here we discovered another specialty of Portugal…Sangria, red or white, fashioned by the delightful manager, Carlos, and served by charming Joana. It was not to be believed and fit perfectly with the accompanying Magret de Canard and seafood dishes.

I never knew that a true sangria included not only wine but Cointreau and brandy!

On our final day in Lisbon we concentrated on the beautiful area of Belem, one of Portugal’s most historic districts, filled with monuments and located on the bank of the Tejo Estuary to the west of Lisbon. It’s the location of Lisbon’s shipyards and docks, and it was here that the 16th century explorers set sail and discovered the sea routes to East Africa, Brazil, and India, routes that brought incredible wealth to Portugal.

The Belem Tower and fort was closed but we had a wonderful time lounging around on the grass and people watching.

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Belem is also the home of the Pastel de Belem, the original Pastel de Nata custard tart. We stopped in a cafe and bakery known for serving this Portuguese specialty, and waited, patiently, with other curious tourists who longed for a taste of the famous confection. And it was definitely worth the wait! The outer layer was a flakey crust that we had watched being made, and inside was a creamy, but not-too-sweet custard unlike any I’ve ever tasted. Superb! There is a lot of folklore around this delicacy. Seems that only three people in the world are allowed to know the recipe. It’s a fascinating story.

Jeronimo’s Monastery is one of the most prominent examples of the Portuguese Late Gothic Manueline style of architecture in Lisbon. It was classified a UNESCO World Heritage site. We walked all around it, but it was on a Monday, and we didn’t get to see the famous cloisters. Next time.

By late afternoon we had already walked our usual 6-8 miles up and down tiled sidewalks, and finally found a restaurant that was open. As so often happens in these cozy outdoor restaurants, we connected with people from many countries, swapping stories and broadening our horizons. This evening it was a most congenial couple from Germany, Hildegard and Siegfried, and Margaret, a woman from Bend, Oregon. What fun we had getting acquainted! Coincidentally, they were all celebrating their 32nd wedding anniversaries. Margaret’s husband became ill and couldn’t come, so she was seeing Portugal for both of them. What a great way to spend our last evening in Lisbon before leaving for Porto the next morning.

 

In my next post, we visit Porto and Nazare, and then return to Sintra to roam through the spectacular Quinta da Regaleira for our last day.

 

 

 

 

 

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