Flor da Laranja, Lisbon, March 2018

On our last night in Portugal we had the pleasure of dining at Flor da Laranja, a Moroccan restaurant in the Bairro Alto district of Lisbon.

Morocco and Portugal have a history that goes back to the eighth century.  Moorish influence can be seen in architecture and art (Portugal’s famous azulejo tiles are of Moorish origin) and heard in place names throughout the country.  Despite this history, Moroccan restaurants are relatively rare in Portugal.

We asked our hotel to make reservations at the restaurant, which was fortunate, because without a reservation you will not get in.  The owner keeps the door locked and you must ring the doorbell to get in.  If you don’t have a reservation, she turns you away.  There was never more than three groups dining at one time, which allowed for a very personal and intimate experience.

Stepping out of the night and into the restaurant was our first indication that this would be a unique dining experience.  The interior is bright, with lots of flowers and candles, and Moorish-influenced art and furniture.  Moroccan music added to the vibrant atmosphere.

Flor da Laranja
Flor da Laranja

Flor da Laranja is truly a one man- or in this case, one woman show.  The owner, Rabea Esserghini, does it all, from waiting on the tables, to cooking the food, to answering the door.  I asked her about doing everything herself and she replied that it’s not much different from cooking dinner for her family.  A native of Casablanca, she loves sharing her country’s food with her guests.

And the food is really good.  We started with a glass of white vinho verde, or green wine.  The wine gets its name from the fact that it’s made from young grapes, not from its color.  It’s a bit sweet and slightly bubbly.  With dinner Sra. Esserghini recommended a bottle of rosé vinho verde, which was very good.

For the entrees, I chose a stuffed pepper and Ann Marie chose chicken with preserved lemons.  There were several small plates of eggplant, spinach, chickpeas and potatoes, which were all very good.  Sra. Esserghini made sure I didn’t forget about the sauce from the pepper, actually scooping it up and pouring it over the pepper.  She was right.  The sauce was awesome.

We enjoyed our dining experience at Flor da Laranja.  The food was outstanding and it’s obvious that Sra. Esserghini loves to share her culture and cuisine with her customers.  If you’re in Lisbon I recommend you make Flor da Laranja a stop on your journey.  But don’t forget the reservation.

 

 

Portugal, March 2018

We had an ulterior motive for visiting Portugal.  We are considering retiring there. Our trip included meetings with an immigration attorney and a solicitor who has experience with helping expats immigrate to Portugal, but most of our time was exploring the country and trying to get a feel of what it’s like to live there.

There’s a lot to recommend a retirement in Portugal.  First, let’s get the basics out of the way.  Portugal is inexpensive.  According to Numbeo, a website that compares cost of living data from around the world, the cost of living in Portugal is over 30% less than the United States.  Our retirement nest egg will go much farther in Portugal than in the United States.

Healthcare in Portugal is good yet inexpensive.  Citizens and residents can take advantage of the national healthcare system at little or no cost.  In addition, there is private healthcare and insurance for those who choose this option.  I received a quote for private health insurance in Portugal.  By comparison, the cost for my wife and myself was about $1,400 per year.  That’s about what we would pay for health insurance in the United States per month.  I could never afford to retire in the United States, but with the national health system and private health insurance in Portugal, retirement becomes a possibility.

Portugal is quite safe as well.  Violent crime is very low in the country.  They’re ranked number three on the Global Peace Index.

Now for the good stuff.  Portugal is a beautiful country, full of historical and cultural places to explore.  Their history goes back many thousands of years and everywhere you look there are monuments and museums honoring their history.  From cave paintings to Celtiberian ruins to Roman bridges, history is everywhere.  A beautiful example of this is the Carmo Convent in Lisbon, built in the 14th century.

Carmo Convent
Carmo Convent, as seen from the Santa Justa Lift.

The convent was heavily damaged in the earthquake of 1755, which destroyed much of Lisbon.  Rather than tear the convent down and build a replacement, portions of the structure were rebuilt, with the arches left as a monument to the earthquake.  Today the convent houses an archeological museum and the arches are evidence of the earthquake.

Art is everywhere.  In Portugal, you don’t have to visit a museum to see a beautiful work of art.  Whether it’s a statue in a roundabout, azulejos on the side of a building, the painted prows of Aveiro’s moliceiros or even graffiti on an old wall, the Portuguese people value art.

Santa Joanna Statue
Santa Joana statue, Aveiro

The weather is very good.  While it rains a lot in the north of Portugal during the winter, we still enjoyed the weather.  Temperatures were in the 50s day and night and about half the days were rain free, with most of the remaining days experienced intermittent rain.  By comparison, lows in North Carolina were in the 20s and 30s, and it actually snowed one day.

The food in Portugal is great.  Half of Portugal’s border is coastline so, naturally, seafood is a big part of the national cuisine but no matter where you are you’ll find excellent food in Portugal. .  Each region has its specialties- ovos moles in Aveiro or francesinhas in Porto, for example.  Fresh fish, meat and vegetables can be had at the groceries or markets and wine is exceptional and inexpensive.

Francesinha AM
Porto’s famous Francesinha

The one negative, I guess, is that gasoline is very expensive.  That cost can be offset by the fact that most of the cities we visited were very walker friendly or had excellent public transportation.  Portugal also has an extensive train and bus system, so you can get anywhere in the country at a reasonable price using public transportation.

Portugal has been singled out as a great place to retire by International Living, Forbes and AARP, as well as many other organizations and publications.  There’s a lot of information available on the Internet; we did a lot of research prior to our visit, so we had an idea of what to expect.  We also had an idea of where we wanted to look and what we were looking for.

We were not interested in Lisbon because it’s much larger than what we’re looking for and it’s very expensive.  We also eliminated the Algarve because it’s a very popular vacation spot, which meant that the summers would be crowded.  We wanted a more peaceful place to spend our retirement years.  So we limited our search to towns and cities north of Lisbon, along the Silver Coast and north to the Green Coast.  We found many things to enjoy about each of the cities and we have a lot to discuss, but we were able to determine one thing.  We want to retire to Portugal.

Jeffrey’s Hook Lighthouse, NYC, 2004

In September 2004 my wife and I spent a week on Long Island and made a couple visits to New York City.  One one of the visits we took the Circle Line tour, a boat tour around Manhattan.  One of the landmark+s we passed was Jeffrey’s Hook Lighthouse, a small lighthouse located along the Hudson River and under the George Washington Bridge.

Little Red Lighthouse HDR Detail and Darken

The current lighthouse was built in 1921.  The George Washington Bridge, completed in 1931, passed right over the little 40′ lighthouse.  The bridge’s navigational lights made the little lighthouse obsolete and it was decommissioned in 1948.  The Coast Guard had intended to dismantle the lighthouse and auction off the parts but public outcry saved the little light, largely due to fans of Hildegarde Swift’s children’s book, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge.

Little Red Lighthouse CFX Early Morning Light

Jeffrey’s Hook Lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and was designated a New York City Landmark in 1991.  In 2002 the lighthouse was relighted by the city.  The little red lighthouse was operational once again.

 

 

Anchorage, Alaska, May 2016

The final stop on our Alaska cruise was the city of Anchorage.  Established in 1914 as the terminus of the newly established Alaska Railroad, Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska, with over 40% of the state’s population living in the city.

Anchorage 4th Ave HDR Outdoor 2

On Good Friday in 1964, much of the city was destroyed by the second strongest earthquake ever recorded.  Downtown Anchorage sustained much of the damage, but many areas of the city were destroyed.  The Turnagain neighborhood was destroyed when the land it was built on dropped seven feet and then slid into Cook Inlet.  The destroyed area was turned into Earthquake Park and can be seen from the Anchorage Trolley tour.

While we’re on the subject of the Trolley tour, our tour guide had an interesting account of the earthquake.  Her husband, a kid at the time, was at the dentist on the day of the earthquake.  When the earthquake happened, the dentist grabbed the child from the chair and they climbed out the first floor window.  The young boy, having never been anesthetized before, thought the shaking was the result of the novacaine.

Despite the extensive damage, Anchorage was quickly rebuilt and today is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever visited.  Monuments and art, including several totems,  are everywhere.

There are murals everywhere in Anchorage, even in back alleys.  The largest and most beautiful is Alaska’s Marine Life, the 54th of artist Robert Wyland’s Whaling Walls.  Other standouts are the Iditarod mural on the side of the Alaska Experience Theater and a small mural on the side of Kobuk Coffee.

We had roughly a day in Anchorage and we made the most of it.  We like to research restaurants we’d like to visit before we visit a place and the place we chose for dinner was Glacier Brewhouse.  The place was packed when we stopped and we had to wait more than an hour to be seated but it was worth it.  The food, the beer and the service were all great.

The next morning we took a walk to Snow City Cafe for breakfast.  Another popular spot with both locals and tourists, we had about a half hour wait.  While we waited we wandered across the street to Resolution Point and the Captain Cook monument.  Resolution Point gave us a great view of “the Sleeping Lady”, Mount Sisitna.

After a wonderful breakfast at Snow City we wandered back to the Anchorage Visitors Center for the Trolley Tour.  The Visitors Center is a cute little “cabin” with a sod roof.  The Trolley Tour took us on a very informative tour of the city.  We visited Earthquake Park, Lake Hood, some of the oldest neighborhoods in Anchorage and saw Engine No. 1, the first locomotive of the Alaska Railroad.

Lake Hood was interesting. We learned that 1 out of every 60 Alaskans have a pilot’s license (the national average is 1 out of 400).  This makes sense when you find out that roads reach only 30% of Alaska.  We also saw the iconic de Havilland Beaver airplane.  Only 1,600 of these airplanes were built between 1948 and 1967.  Despite the last Beaver rolling off the assembly line 50 years ago, hundreds are still operational and are so popular in Alaska that they pass down from family member to family member.

After the Trolley Tour we took a leisurely walk back through town, eventually stopping at Town Square Park for a reindeer sausage.  The weather was great and the park was a wonderful little place to enjoy the day.

Anchorage Park HDR Outdoor 1

Eventually it was time to get to the airport.  Ted Stevens Airport was pretty interesting with a lot of art.  The ducks and geese were quite striking.

So, after twelve days, it was time for the flight home.  We enjoyed everything about the trip and will always look back on it as a trip of a lifetime.

Portugal, March 2018

My wife and I spent the first two weeks of March exploring Portugal.  It’s a beautiful country and we enjoyed our visit immensely.  I’ll go into our journey in more detail over the next few weeks, but for now here’s our itinerary.

Lisbon

Se de Lisboa

All flights from the U.S. fly into Lisbon, the largest city in Portugal.  It’s a beautiful city with a myriad of cultural and historical sites to visit.  It was our first taste of Portugal and we were impressed, but our plan was to explore some of the smaller cities and towns along the Silver Coast.  We picked up our rental car and headed north.

Nazaré

Nazare from Sitio

Our first stop, after Lisbon, was the beach town of Nazaré.  Nazaré is one of the most popular beach towns on the Silver Coast.  It’s famous for it’s world class surfing at Praia de Norte, where waves can reach huge heights.  In 2011 Garrett McNamara surfed a world record wave of 78-feet.

Aveiro

Moliceiros

Aveiro was one of my favorite cities on our tour of the country.  It’s a beautiful place.  It’s also the home to a vibrant university, which probably contributes to the youthful feel of the city.

Porto

Praca da Liberdade 2

Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and is a wonderful place.  One of the oldest cities in Europe, Porto has been around since the Romans founded it as Portus Cale.  Porto has an international feel.  Its most famous export is port wine and people from all around the globe visit the port wine cellars every year.

Viana do Castelo

Praca da Republica

Another favorite stop on our tour, Viana do Castelo was an important port during the 16th century when it was a major entry port for Portuguese explorers during Portugal’s great Age of Discovery.  It’s still a vital seaport and a beautiful city.

Ponte de Lima

Ponte de Lima

Ponte de Lima was not on our original itinerary but, after being mentioned several times during our trip, we decided to stop in the town after leaving Viana do Castelo.  A small town of only about 2,000, Ponte de Lima is a fantasticly beautiful little village that feels much larger than it is.

Braga

Street Scene

Founded by the Romans as Bracara Augusta in 20 BC, Braga is the historical and cultural center of the Minho region.  It’s a beautiful city.  It has long been a religious center of Portugal.  It seems that everywhere you look there’s a church and it’s biggest annual celebration is Semana Santa, or Holy Week.

Guimarães

Guimaraes Castle 2

Guimarães is considered the birthplace of Portugal.  That’s because it’s the birthplace of the first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques.  It was named the European Capital of Culture in 2012.

Coimbra

Downtown.jpg

Another city that has historical ties going back to the Roman Era, Coimbra has for centuries been a cultural center of Portugal.  That’s because it’s the home to the University of Coimbra, the oldest academic institution in the Portuguese-speaking world.  It’s also famous for its version of Fado, the Portuguese music that was named to the List of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2012.

After our two week tour we returned to Lisbon and then flew home.  It was a great trip and we returned with memories that will last a lifetime.  Over the next few weeks I’ll share the various aspects of our trip.  Stay tuned.

Alaska Railroad, May 2016

Our trip from Denali to Anchorage was aboard the Alaska Railroad.  The bi-level, glass-domed McKinley Explorer cars were perfect for viewing the extraordinary landscape of Alaska.

Denali Train Depot CFX Help Me Rhonda

The Alaska Railroad’s routes are entirely contained in Alaska and the railroad carries both passengers and freight.  While the railroad depends heavily on tourism, inland residents of Alaska depend on the Alaska Railroad for supplies and transportation.  But our experience is as passengers, so we’ll focus on that.

This is not your average passenger train.  The lower level is the dining car and, from our experience, the food is quite good.  The upper deck is glass-domed, which gives the passengers great views of the passing landscape.  There’s a full-service bar on each passenger car.  Here’s a view of the beautiful yellow and blue engine from the passenger car.

Alaska RR engine from dome car 2 HDR Deep 1

The trip was around eight hours and we passed through some beautiful country.  Inland Alaska is sparsely populated, so much of what we passed was wilderness.  We never tired of watching the mountains, forests and rivers pass by.

One of the highlights of the trip was Denali.  Few visitors to Alaska get to see the Tall One.  Denali spends most of its time hiding behind banks of clouds that hide it from most people.  We among the fortune few.  The weather was perfect, with few clouds.  Denali was in sight from the train for over an hour.

Best Denali CFX Detail

Denali was the icing on the cake.  The rest of the trip to Anchorage was pretty uneventful and relaxing.  Each car had a guide who pointed out interesting facts and, in general, kept us entertained.  We enjoyed a nice lunch, a drink or two, and a beautiful journey.  Soon we would reach our last stop on our Alaska journey, Anchorage.

Tundra Wilderness Tour, Denali, May 2016

Easily the best excursion we took on our Alaska cruise and trip to Denali, the Tundra Wilderness Tour was a seven hour trip into Denali National Park.  Since we visited early in the season our trip was a little shorter than it could have been, ending at the Toklat Ranger Station.  That being said, I think the early visit actually worked to our advantage.

The buses were not much at to look at but they were retrofitted with a fantastic system with zoom camera and video screens.  When the driver spotted wildlife he could control the camera and zoom in to a remarkable closeness.  At the same time video screens would drop from the ceiling in front of each row of seats.  The camera system allowed us to see wildlife that we could barely see with binoculars.

Tundra Tour Buses HDR Deep 2

Our driver was great.  He said he had come to Denali in 1996 to study wolves and has been there ever since.  He was very knowledgeable and loved to share that knowledge with his passengers.  For example, he gave us the odds of seeing various species of wildlife- 9% to see a moose, 30% to see a brown bear, 100% to see Dall sheep, etc.  We were fortunate enough to see all of these and many more.

One thing that worked to our advantage was that we were visiting just after the bears were coming out of hibernation and just before all the foliage had leafed out.  That meant the wildlife was there and the foliage would not interfere with our ability to see them.

The first animals spotted were a few Dall sheep in the distance, but shortly after that we spotted our first moose peeking out from the trees by a small pond.

Moose Color Efx Ektachrome 100 and Detail Extractor

The moose at Denali grow to huge sizes.  This is because the primary food source for moose is willow, and willow is abundant in the park.  Denali moose have been known to grow to over 1,000 pounds and even brown bears think twice before challenging one of these behemoths.  Later we would see a cow moose with a new calf.

The next sighting was a ptarmigan.  The ptarmigan had begun shedding its white winter feathers to its brown summer coloration.  Known colloquially in Alaska as the “snow chicken”, it’s about the size of a small chicken.  One funny story one of our bus drivers told us was that there’s a town in Alaska named Chicken.  The residents liked the taste of ptarmigan and decided to name the town after the bird.  Unfortunately, they couldn’t agree on the spelling so they agreed to name the town Chicken instead.

Ptarmigan Color Efx Fuji Velvia 100 Foliage

Brown bears, or grizzlies, are the preeminent predator in Denali.  Because the environment is quite harsh the inland bears of Denali are only about half the size of the coastal bears, between 400 and 500 pounds.  Denali’s bears are very territorial and solitary, so you won’t see bears very close to each other.  We saw six brown bears, including a mother with two cubs.  Most were in the distance but we had the rare opportunity to see a brown bear up close.

Grizzly in Road Revealing Detail Foliage

Next up were a herd of Dall sheep.  Dall sheep are quite common in Denali.  They spend most of their time on steep rocky slopes, which allows them to easily move away from any approaching predator.

Dall Sheep HDR Outdoor 2

Wildlife wasn’t the only attraction of the tour.  The rugged landscape was breathtaking.  One of the high points was Polychrome Pass.  Ancient and vast, Polychrome Pass was typical of the sights along the tour.  The pass gets its name from the variety of colorations in the rock faces.

Polychrome Pass HDR Deep 2

Caribou are quite common in Denali.  We saw several herds but most were either too far to photograph or blended in with the surrounding landscape.  This was the best I could do with the Caribou.

Caribou Ektachrome 100 and Foliage

We turned around after a short stop at the Toklat Ranger Station.  The Toklat River is a braided river, so called because it’s made up of many channels that intersect at various points.  From the ranger station we could see mountain goats on the mountain sides across the river.

Tundra Tour Landscape Detail Extractor

In all we saw three moose, six brown bears, a couple ptarmigans and countless Dall sheep, mountain goats and caribou.  But shortly before the end of the tour we passed a porcupine beside the road.  After such an eventful and successful tour, we were surprised when, after spotting the porcupine, the bus driver shouted “this is the best trip ever!”

All in all, this was the best excursion of our trip and seven hours well spent.  If you visit Denali I highly recommend the Tundra Wilderness Tour.