2011: Return to Iberia

n March 2011 we revisited two cities and countries where we had lived and worked, and still had friends.  Most of the time was spent in Portugal, as we’d hoped a friend who spent several years that would be able to join us.  So another trip to Spain is called for!  The time was spent in the two capitals, Lisbon and Madrid, and in southern Portugal and Spain.  The two countries are so close, with histories intertwined, and yet so very different.

The morning of our trip we heard the news of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan.  Lisbon had its own devastating earthquake and tsunami in 1755 – and was saved by the strong-minded Marquês de Pombal – whose policy was to “bury the dead and feed the living.” He did not accept opposition well and his subsequent efforts to modernize Portugal, including the abolition of the Jesuit order, included the execution of most of the aristocracy.  Lisbon was completely rebuilt by Pombal, and much of it seems as though it has not changed since then; other parts are completely new and modern, such as the waterfront development where the World’s Fair of 2000 was held.  It’s a wonderful mix.  

Rain had been falling in Lisbon as we arrived (El Paso to Dallas to Madrid to Lisbon – much easier than trying to go directly US to Portugal) – but it stopped as we landed! Despite the forecast of a rainy week, the next four days we saw rain only at night, and I never had to open my umbrella in Portugal. 


We were tourists, but not very determined ones; there is not much we hadn’t seen many times before, and it is an enormous pleasure just to be in this somewhat beat-up old city.  At night it is gorgeous, with lights on the castle on one of the seven hills, and on the Romanesque cathedral below (which survived the great earthquake).  Daylight reveals that the beautiful city is older and sadder than it looks by starlight, but still fascinating, with hundreds of buildings covered in tiles of varying styles and ages.  Getting up and down the streets is a good workout, and driving them is a roller-coaster ride.  Most streets are too narrow for more than one lane of traffic, and even then you have to watch for the side mirrors on cars sticking out too far – we saw one inattentive pedestrian get whacked this way.  The sidewalks are fascinating, each with a different pattern of the black and white dragon’s teeth paving blocks.  

So we wandered around Lisbon, up and down the hills, helped by the “elevadores” or funiculars that climb the steepest slopes; there are also hundreds of flights of steps everywhere.  We visited friends and special places such as the ceramics museum (an industry raised to a fine art by the Portuguese) and the fine arts museum, and just looked out over the city from the various viewpoints.  (One odd highlight was a trip to the Spanish department store, El Corte Inglés, established in Lisbon in the past decade. It has simply everything you can imagine in a store, from groceries to sushi bars to luxurious jewelry. Shopping at the Corte in Madrid was one of the pleasures of living there.)  We were in a small apartment in the Chiado, one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, and so we could pretend we were residents.  The view was included both the Cathedral, or Sé, and the castle.

Lisbon Castle Sm

We ate enough seafood to stock an aquarium that first week, but were just getting started!  Among the memorable restaurants we explored is Tagide, with a lovely view over the city.  Tagide is the spirit of the Tagus – or Tejo – River visible from the dining room.

In the second stage of the trip we drove to the Algarve, the southern region of Portugal (there is a train, but we also wanted to go into southern Spain, and that’s very complicated to do by public transport).  The road is very good – and should be, the toll for using it for about 200 miles is $26.  Basic gasoline was about $9 a gallon; US drivers have no idea!  On the way down we saw the first of many stork nests – love those birds, so comical when stationary and elegant in flight.  


Our stop was Faro, on the coast, in the section where the beaches are separated from the mainland by extensive stretches of “mud flats,” revealed at low tide.  The great earthquake and tsunami wrecked most of the coast, but the old walled town survived, and it is very pleasant strolling around inside.  Orange trees are everywhere, and plants from the Americas – huge agaves and prickly-pears, are thriving in this warm maritime climate.  They seem to like the briny air!

In Faro we dined at the Naval Club, whose restaurant looks out over the shore – no mud visible at night! – and the fish are displayed on ice for your selection.  This is very common in Portuguese restaurants; if it’s not available fresh, it’s not available.  Then the next day we explored Tavira, a town about 20 miles east, which was founded several thousand years ago.  A river runs through it, and restaurants are sprinkled along the waterfront and on surrounding streets.  (We chose the Imperial and had a fine meal, while watching the antics of the 20-person Yamaha racing team at the next table.)  The remains of a castle crown the hill, with pleasant gardens in the ruins.  A former convent is now a new component of the state-supported chain of inns or pousadas -with startling prices for what was a “bargain country” not long ago – rooms start at 188 euros, or $260 in the low season and rise to 450 euros/$630 in high season.)  Our small room in the Sol del Algarve hotel at Faro, for 70 euros with breakfast, suddenly looked good.

From Faro we drove to Cádiz, an ancient town on the coast of southern Spain.  Founded by Phoenicians as Gades, it is perhaps 8000 years old; the Phoenician origins resonate in the name for citizens of Cádiz, “los gaditanos.”  The walled old city is truly magical.  First, however, we stopped at an Argentine restaurant just around the corner from our hotel (the Argantonio – very nice for the price), and had a great time talking with the owner  – and the food was good, so we ate there again.  Then we tried an incredible tapas bar, Show de Tapas, with an extraordinary menu of 61 tapas, including foie gras and other delights, and another menu of dessert tapas.  

We’d thought of going to Jerez de la Frontera to explore sherries, but it appeared that once you got there you would have to visit numerous bodegas by car, and there was no “Sherry Institute” to sample sherries.  Happily it turned out that Cádiz has a Museum of Wine and Bulls, the wine being sherry, where we were able to not only explore the history of sherry but sample some as well.  And then the charming guide said they also sold sherries, and we emerged with a bottle of Pedro Xímenez, retailing for $50 in El Paso (before tax), for $11!!  

Faro Fish Display Sm

The highlight of the stop in Cádiz, however, was definitely the lunch at El Faro.  This restaurant is a landmark for seafood, and the only regret is that we didn’t eat there several times.  It offers seafood items that most of us have never heard of and for which there are no equivalents in US waters; and while you might not be anxious to eat sea urchin, how about rockfish with pine nuts and raisins in a Pedro Ximénez sauce, or a rich fish soup, and then some Pimientos de Pequillo filled with seafood, and covered with a lightly gratinéed hollandaise; and a delicious orange and coconut flan to conclude! 

The next morning we departed Cádiz…perhaps to return for a cruise to the Canary Islands?  After navigating around Sevilla, we bore west through cork and ham country, stopping for lunch at a small town in the Jabugo district, home to the finest hams in Spain.  Indeed, a world congress of “dry-cured hams” was held there last year.  Should you be in Higuera de la Sierra, lunch at La Colmena is a must.

During this drive the scenery changed dramatically, to rolling hills – although the agaves and prickly pears did not disappear.   The stork nests seemed to multiply, and along some stretches there were twenty or even fifty in a row, each atop a utility pole.  We stopped for the night in Serpa, a small town in the middle of the Alentejo, and stayed in a Casa Rural, the Casa da Muralha, a home built over a century ago next to the many-centuries old aqueduct.   A very nice room and breakfast for 65 euros.  Inside the old walls was, of course, a castle, pretty much in ruins, from which you can see how unattractive many modern buildings are!  The chief attraction here was sitting in the town square and watching the locals interact, and having a pleasant meal at the Mulhó Bico restaurant.  


Driving along to the airport the next morning we encountered a donkey-drawn cart (another was seen earlier near Tavira).  Portugal is a disconcerting mix of modern and ancient.  On the same road the SOS phones are powered by solar panels and small wind turbines, just a small part of the program that enables Portugal to produce almost 50 percent of its electric power from renewable sources (by contrast, the US only intends to get to 20 percent by 2020…).  There are fewer “little old ladies in black” to be seen, but they are still around – this lady was my favorite, practically a riot of color!

A short flight from Lisbon to Madrid took us to the final stage of our trip.  Madrid was mostly grey and chilly, and for the first time we really needed an umbrella.  We spent our two days doing a little shopping (including Corte Inglés!) and just wandering, eating in several former favorites – all of whose prices have gone up substantially – and visited the Prado and the Naval Museum, both greatly expanded from previous visits, and the Sorolla Museum, a longtime favorite.  We encountered an interesting couple from the US at the last and invited them to join us for lunch at the Centro Riojano, another old favorite – whose prices have gone up!  I haven’t looked up the inflation rates but I’d guess that they are higher than those of the US for the last five years.  

Madrid Post Office Sm

The final day we had lunch with four friends from the Embassy whom we’ve kept in touch with over the years.   I attended a piano concert sponsored by a Spanish foundation, and visited an exhibition of Romanesque art at another.  (Museums are closed but it’s worth checking the events schedules for activities on these foundations; they often sponsor outstanding exhibits and concerts, generally free, to carry out their cultural missions, and generally are open for at least Monday afternoons.)  We dined – early, for Spain, at 8:30! – at a Catalan restaurant, and so to bed.  

The next evening we touched down at 9 p.m. El Paso time, exactly on time, and 30 minutes later opened the front door of our home.  Glad to be home – despite the mounds of laundry  to do – but ready to think about travel again – for nothing else to add to our compilation of strange English translations of menu items. This trip yielded “ Barbecued Board, Monk on the Spit, Stoved Kid, and soup “a São Crouton.” My absolute favorites are Rape Sailor-Style (fish in marinara sauce), and Vegetable Gargoyle (spinach and cheese cannelloni!).  ¡Buen viaje!  

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.