Oh, Porto

The most recent of our near-monthly travel adventures was a four-day trip to Porto. Portugal is the Mother Land for my husband; his grandparents hail from the Azores, the gorgeous volcanic islands far off Portugal’s coast. We visited and enjoyed Lisbon and the Azores several years ago, but Porto had long called to me, with its promise of hillside towns along the Duoro, and its place as the home of port wine.

image

After the rain…

As a holiday destination, Portugal always seems to take second place to Spain. That’s just fine with me, if it means that Portugal’s streets will remain uncrowded, the terraces inviting and the people friendly and helpful.

We were joined on this trip by friends from the U.S. Last year we met up with them in Italy, and when we suggested Portugal to them several months ago, they were more than happy to join us. (Their trip started in Lisbon and continued on after we returned to Amsterdam. And they were quick to tell us that Portugal had overtaken Spain on their list of favorite vacation spots.)

Our itinerary was loose and flexible. On most days our only plan was dinner, and the restaurants had been well-researched by our traveling companions. I’ll admit that when traveling with these friends I tend to take a back seat in planning. We’ve never had a bad meal with them (at least if they selected the restaurant), and their traveling habits include frequent breaks for coffee or a cocktail. It’s a needed balance to my tendency to overdo, over-schedule.

Our first full day in Porto dawned grey and rainy, with a spectacular thunderstorm that literally shook the windows in the hotel dining room. We had a lazy morning and finally headed into the city center when the skies cleared…or so we thought. No sooner had we started to explore then we were hit with a wind-swept rainstorm that turned ourimage umbrellas inside-out and soaked our sporty summer shoes. We ducked into a church to wait out the rain, and not 10 minutes later, we emerged to blue and sunny skies.

Our strategy for the rest of the day was to be sure we were never far from cover. “Cover” in this case generally meant an alcove, awning or tasting room where we could avoid the rain while drinking port wine. It was one of our better plans.

We started at Sandeman’s and seated ourselves outside but under the cover of the portico. Just in case. One whole page of the menu was devoted to port cocktails. Now, I know to some purists this might be a sacrilege.  But I was curious. And my curiosity was rewarded when I was presented with a beautiful port and whisky cocktail with a spiral of orange zest. Delicious. A perfect start to a day of port tasting. Next up was the well-known Taylor Fladgate, which had a lovely tasting room, a English-style rose garden (complete with a peacock family!), and a grassy terrace to enjoy our drinks. We tasted two types of port, complemented with almonds and chocolate. But we weren’t done yet…

Several steep hills and some wandering later, we came across Cockburn’s (pronounced, we quickly learned, as ” Co-burns”). We signed up for a tour, but to pass the forty minutes until the start time, we settled in to the comfy couches and shared two rounds of tastings and some cheese. The tour was ok, manageable mostly because we knew we had two more tasting flights waiting at the end. (For those of you keeping score, that’s three full drinks earlier in the day, plus another 12 glasses of port at Cockburn’s, shared among 4 of us.)

image

The rooftop view downhill.

The smooth-talking tour guide may have also been monitoring our intake, as he was easily able to sell us on a 6-bottle assortment. It’s being shipped directly to Amsterdam and should be here next week. An excuse for another party, perhaps?

We eventually wrapped up the port adventure and headed back to the hotel to rest before dinner at the extraordinary, Michelin-star Pedro Lemos. (I feel a sequel coming on. “Porto 2: The Things We Ate”)

What I learned about port – and what I like about it – is its versatility. Port can be enjoyed with chocolate or cheese, paired with nuts or blended with whisky or other liquors. It’s a drink for a cold evening by the fire, or a not-yet spring day on a terrace overlooking a river. It’s an all-purpose pleaser. It’s wonderful on it’s own. And it makes the things you already like taste better and more complex. It’s a sipping wine, the enjoyment of which is not to be rushed. Port is for holidays, for vacation days, and for any days (every day?) you just want to slow down and be transported to a hillside town on the Duoro.

Advertisements

Finally: Berlin (part 2)

There are places in the world that grab you right away. Places where the beauty or energy, or maybe just the light, captures you from the start. Marseille tops my list. Paris. Amsterdam. Other places sneak up on you. Make you work a little harder, look a little more carefully.

For me, Berlin falls hard into this second category. I had built it up in my mind, based mostly on old images from news broadcasts and a lot of personal research and reading. And then I arrived there, armed with my imagination, and tried to make the imagined Berlin and the actual Berlin square with each other.

038Berlin is not charming. It is not quaint.  Traveling from the airport to our hotel by train, I began to grasp the size of the city.  When we started walking, this sense of scale was confirmed. Berlin is sprawling, urban, complex. The architecture varies between 18th century neo-Classical and the more austere, functional design of the Communist era.

It was difficult to orient myself to the layout of the city and, more so, to order my own priorities. Everything felt steeped in significance. Every building, every plaque, every bit of graffiti seemed meaningful. It was like walking through a riddle, unable to crack the code needed to have it all make sense.

The obvious thing to do while I puzzled out Berlin was to have lunch, and drink some German beer. Most of our first day in the city was spent eating, or walking in search of the next snack, the next beer garden. There are worse ways to orient oneself to a place.

The next day, after a failed attempt to have a good German frühstück, we started out to see some of the remnants of the Berlin Wall. Our first stop was the East Side GalleryEast Side Gallery Berlin construction, a 1.3 kilometer stretch of the Wall with murals painted by dozens of artists, first in 1990, with several restorations done since. It sits oddly juxtaposed with a new luxury  apartment tower. Construction cranes and ads for Turkish Airlines provide a somewhat surreal backdrop, and tourists take selfies in front of the graffiti-covered back side of the Wall.

Next we went to the Berlin Wall Memorial, which was, in a word, excellent. The majority of the memorial is located outside, on a 1.4 kilometer stretch of Bernauer Strasse. In 1961, what became the Berlin Wall began as a barrier of barbed wire running down Bernauer Strasse, so low that residents could – and did – jump over it.

Berlin Wall Memorial

The historical and interpretative elements of the memorial are very powerful, and you understand immediately the effects that the Wall had, on families, on neighborhoods. Where the Wall once stood is now an installation of thousands of rebar-like markers. Nearby are the foundations of homes that were evacuated and later destroyed, as many served as escape routes to the West.

The continued “strengthening” of the Wall was necessary to prevent escapes. By the 1980s, the Wall was actually two walls, an inner and outer barrier, with a range of deterrents in the middle section, commonly known as the “death strip”.  The Memorial shares stories of those killed in this section as they attempted escape. And then, as if to highlight the incredible changes since the Wall opened in 1989, two little boys arrive with their parents and start playing soccer. In the shadow of the Berlin Wall. In what used to be the death strip.

Berlin Friday 025 (2)

For the rest of our weekend in Berlin we balanced our somber experiences with relaxation and fun. We ate our way through the city on a “Beer and Currywurst Tour” led by Berlin Food Tours, sampling Berlin’s famous street food and enjoying beers at breweries and charming old neighborhood bars. The tour was excellent and our guide, Bastian, also showed us some street art and took us to the only known David Hasselhoff shrine in Berlin. The others on the tour – Australians, Brits, Brazilians, and an American couple on a round-the-world trip – were so much fun that we hung out with all of them again, some during the weekend and the Americans when they came through Amsterdam a few days later.

Berlin Friday 033

At the Pug Pub for a pilsner.

A more traditional walking tour gave us a good overview of the history of Berlin and allowed us to see all the major sites. (While very informative, that tour would have benefited from a beer or two.) I could have easily spent another week in Berlin, exploring museums and  absorbing the history, and then enjoying the sun in a park or a beer garden.

This interplay between the past and the present is what made me fall for Berlin. The past is present – nothing of Berlin’s history is forgotten or white-washed. But Berlin is also very much living in the now. The city has an energy and an attitude that just captures you.

That might be the appeal of Berlin: the knowledge that what you see and feel now was created by Berlin’s people. In the aftermath of division, there came freedom and, ultimately, reunification. But in between those historical markers, there was unknown sacrifice, loss, struggle, joy, heroism. Those experiences created Berlin today. And the creation continues – no city, no society is ever done evolving. To witness that evolution, even for a few days, is to be inspired and encouraged about what is possible.

 

Finally: Berlin

Years ago, probably in the late 90s, I spent several weeks working my way through Peter Wyden’s incredible book, Wall: The Inside Story of Divided Berlin. At 762 pages, the hardcover edition made for difficult reading on my morning commute on the T. Still, I couldn’t put it down. Wyden’s writing and detailed knowledge of Berlin were compelling, but I was also captivated by the fact that what I was reading was so current, so vivid. Not even history, yet. Barely even past.

I remember watching the news reports from Berlin in 1989 when the Wall – suddenly, unbelievably – came down. My father had spent time in Berlin during his stint in the Army in the 1960s and his experience colored the otherwise dull history lessons that I had learned by then. I struggled to understand the geography – to say nothing of the geopolitics – of the whole arrangement.  West Berlin was inside East Germany? How could this tiny, isolated pocket of freedom survive inside a Communist country? Who would allow that? For an American child growing up near the end of the Cold War, it was another mystery in another unknowable country.

And yet. There we all were, watching on TV as the Germans helped each other to the top of the wall. Watching ordinary people armed with hammers and chisels, literally dancing in the streets, a city-wide celebration. It made such an impression on me, one that has stayed with me to this day.

On Thursday we leave for Berlin for a long weekend. In my mind, Berlin seems to carry memory, weight, nostalgia. There is no explanation for this, since I have never been there. Rationally, I know that the Berlin of my imagination ceased to exist 25 years ago, if not more. But I suspect that in a city so rich with history and so committed to modernity, there will be more to discover than I have imagined.

More to come, from Berlin. Finally.

London and back again

Last weekend we made our first trip of the new year…a long-overdue return to London! It had been more than 15 years since our last visit to London, which was, actually, the first trip my now-husband and I took together. After so many years, it was as if we were exploring the city for the first time.

image

Warmed by the sunshine, chilled by the wind…

The focal point for this trip was the theatre. Although I don’t know that “Book of Mormon” qualifies as theatre in everyone’s estimation, it certainly does in ours. We’d wanted to see “Book of Mormon” for years but never managed it, not on our visits to New York nor when the show came to Boston. It took a move to Europe and a flight to the UK to finally get us there! And it was worth the wait – it is clever and well-written, and very, very funny. Capped off with a late Chinese dinner (no ambiance, but great food), it made for a wonderful first day back in London.

The only other thing I really wanted to do was make a visit to the Churchill War Rooms. I struggle sometimes with art museums, but I really love museums that give me a view into history. The War Rooms did not disappoint in that regard. The exhibits demonstrate the activity of the early days of the war, and the tension and fear of the Blitz. The space itself – narrow, windowless hallways, cramped bedrooms – brings it all to life.

image

Wool wins wars! Scenes from the Map Room.

It is a fascinating place, made more so by the very human stories that filled the rooms for so long. And by the fact that, the day after V-E day, the lights were turned off – for the first time in 6 years – and the rooms were simply closed up, with everything left just as it was. Years later, sugar cubes left by RAF Officer John Heagerty were discovered, still in the envelope in which he hid them to prevent others from “borrowing” such a precious commodity.

The adjoining interactive exhibit about the life of Winston Churchill was also a joy for my nerdy little heart. If there was ever a man meant for a moment, it was Churchill. He was a singular person, fully aware of his role on the hinge of history. In his own words:

“I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial. I was sure I should not fail.”

Tremendous care, forethought, and commitment went into the creation of the Churchill War Rooms, and those who now have responsibility for the museum are carrying on in the same spirit.

So, thanks, London, for full and fulfilling weekend. To laugh, stroll, eat, learn, drink, (eat some more), and rediscover makes for a great return visit. Until next time…

 

 

Catching up

Catching up: that’s what this post – and this whole week – is about. We’ve been in the U.S. since last Tuesday. We’re a bit displaced in our own home, living out of suitcases and digging through boxes that we packed away months ago. We’ve had 60 degree weather and now, our first snow of the season (which is quickly turning into a slushy mess).  Our schedule has been full with holidays, and lunches and dinners with family and friends.  We still have a few days and a few more celebrations before we return to Amsterdam.

It has been wonderful to spend time with people we love and get caught up. Even with all of the available technologies for staying in touch, there’s no substitute for being present with people, face to face. For a long-overdue hug. For a slice of Dad’s famous cheesecake. For sharing a memory and a good laugh.

In the days before our visit to the U.S., we spent a weekend in Paris. To catch you up on that adventure, it was great. Since we’d been to Paris before, and since this trip was so short, we didn’t feel any pressure to see the sights or do anything in particular. Happily, Paris is perfectly willing to accommodate the desire to stroll and eat. And repeat.

I’m proud to say that I did stick to my resolution to speak French while in Paris. And for the most part, the French went along with me. Once, the concierge at the hotel switched into English but I just barreled along in French. No surrender!

The weekend in Paris helped put me in the holiday mood – the city was alight and festive, even though it was unseasonably warm. We didn’t put up a Christmas tree in Amsterdam and we don’t have a tree here in Boston, either. I didn’t do my usual shopping or cookie-baking – many of the markers of the holiday were missing this year. But the spirit in Paris was contagious and made it, finally, feel like Christmas.

And so here we are, on the brink of another new year. The time has gone by so quickly – the year itself and this short stay in the U.S. With any luck, I’ll use the flight home to do some more reflection on all that’s been and all that’s to come in the new year.

To all of you, a happy and healthy new year. May 2016 bring you the best of all things…

Me? Afraid? Of birds? Don’t be ridiculous

Import 6 Dec 066

Hanging with Dexter, a Harris Hawk.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been afraid of birds. Like a lot of fears, this one is irrational and hard to explain. I’ve never been attacked by a bird, though I have been “lucky” enough to have birds poop on me more than once. There’s just something about birds that makes me uncomfortable.  Their aggressiveness. Their unpredictability. Whether it’s ravens, crows, pigeons, or seagulls (ok, and sometimes ducks and geese), I would rather just avoid them.

And avoid them I do. I’ve been known to walk in a wide arc through a pigeon-filled square rather than cut through the center of a kit of those rats with wings. My family will tell you that I spoiled many visits to the beach, hiding from the greedy seagulls under the umbrella or my towel.

With this bit of background, you’ll understand why it was a BIG DEAL when we signed up for a falconry “experience” during our recent trip to Malta. My dear husband was very excited about this element of our vacation. (I think he sees a falcon as the necessary first step to having a castle with a moat, and henchmen to do his bidding.) We booked the full 5-hour experience, which would let us handle the birds and fly them.

We arrived at the Falconry Center and were told that due to the high winds, it was not safe to fly the birds. They offered us the half-day experience, about 3 hours, which would still allow us to handle the birds. We got started right away and met Warren, our wonderful guide, who is himself a falconer. He walked us through the aviary, where some beautiful (but not for handling) birds are kept, including a Golden Eagle and a number of vultures. After that, he took us to the area where the smaller birds are tethered, historically referred to as the “mews”.

Import 6 Dec 086

Dexter in the foreground, with his siblings, in the Mews

Equipped with our heavy leather gloves, we learned how to move the birds on to our hands. We were able to handle three owls, a hawk and a falcon over the course of the day. With each bird, Warren shared information about both the species and the individual animal. Some had been “imprinted”, raised by the Center’s staff, often for the animal’s own protection. We learned about how and what the birds hunt, and how their physical features – feather shape, coloring, and face shape – give them advantages as predators.

I had confessed to Warren early on that I was afraid of birds. His somewhat puzzled response was, “Why would you be afraid of birds? Be afraid of people.” By the end of the day, Warren admitted that if I hadn’t told him of my fear, he wouldn’t have known I was afraid at all. This is in part a credit to Warren, who was so calm, confident, and knowledgeable that he made the day a delight, and made the animals so interesting that I forgot to be afraid. Most fears are, one way or another, based in ignorance. A little information (no, the birds aren’t going to peck your eyes out) can go a long way towards reducing fear.

Import 6 Dec 095

My husband also gets credit, since this is something I would NEVER have done on my own. His love of animals and his excitement for the falconry experience were encouraging. I wanted him to enjoy the day, and not have to deal with me whimpering or freaking out.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not about to race into Trafalgar Square with a handful of bread and let pigeons land on me. They are dirty, dirty birds. And I’m probably not going to become a full time falconer. Still, I’m proud of myself for using the opportunity as well and as fully as I could.  It’s not every day you face a fear head-on. I was able to literally take my fear into my hands, and examine it up close, and maybe come to understand it – and myself – a little more deeply.

Words and pictures

image

The Blue Mosque seen from a window at the Hagia Sophia

Thanks to the brilliant Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings, I recently started reading David Whyte’s gorgeous book Consolations: the Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. Whyte, an English poet, has selected 52 words, from ambition to courage to procrastination, and offers brief but profound reflections on each. And there, in the middle of the table of contents, among virtues and vices, I see this word: Istanbul.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to make my first visit to Istanbul, meeting up with a dear friend at the start of her 6-week travel adventure (hi, Ellen!). It is a fascinating place, unlike anywhere I’d ever been before. The mix of secular and religious, the astounding history, the sounds of the call to prayer, the ancientness of it all – these combine to create a sensory experience that requires your full attention. It threatens to overwhelm but can also be sheer delight, (especially if you wander into a hamam).

image

Istanbul from the rooftops of the Grand Bazaar.

Istanbul is a place that is hard to describe, hard to summarize or explain to others. But Whyte manages to do it beautifully:

image

Galata Tower (in the distance) and the changing Istanbul skyline.

“The piles of pomegranates, the heaps of turmeric and the wafted scent of saffron from the stalls remind us we are never just one thing, never just one set of senses, that we are no one name, we are Constantinople and Istanbul and even Stanboul and we have carried the frontier between the past and the present with us all our lives…we live now but all our history and even our future is already occurring even as we walk the street, fading into the jubilant evening light of a day, strangely and even reluctantly, already beginning to end.”