I love the calçadas Portuguesa, or Portuguese pavement that is so common throughout the country. The tradition goes back to Roman times when the Romans used stone laid in patterns to pave roads, plazas and even floors. The Roman mosaic style of pavement can be seen in Conimbriga and on the ancient road turned walking trail located at Alqueidão da Serra.
The years of Moorish occupation had an influence on the pavement as well. Many of the calçadas Portuguesa feature geometric patterns and designs that show the Arabic influence.
Several earthquakes in the 16th century and then again with the 1755 earthquake that destroyed much of Lisbon, were great drivers for the use of Portuguese pavement. Many of the streets were paved this way after the 1755 earthquake. General Eusébio Furtado used Portuguese pavement to transform the grounds of São Jorge Castle into walking places using the mosaic pavement. He was also responsible for “Mar Largo” at Praça do Rossio, as well as Camões Square, Principe Square and Town Hall Square, all in Lisbon.
The stone is predominantly limestone quarried from the Aire and Candeeiros mountains of Portugal. Black, white, grey and occasionally red stones are commonly used. While geometric patterns are most common there are examples of the stones being used to display floral patterns, symbols and even portraits. Most of what we saw was geometric patterns.
Much like Portugal’s azelejos, the stonework has become a part of the cultural identity. Unfortunately, the future of the art form is at risk. It takes years to learn to cut and lay the stones and there are less expensive forms of pavement available. I hope that the cultural value of the Portuguese pavement outweighs the economic cost and the tradition continues.
The little town of Ponte de Lima was not on our original itinerary, but after several people we met on our trip suggested we make it a stop on our tour, we did just that. A half hour drive from Viana do Castelo, the town with a population of 2,800 was a nice stop on our way to Braga.
Ponte de Lima is one of the oldest towns in Portugal, beginning life as a Roman settlement on the road between Braga and Santiago de Campostela, Spain. A popular spot with Portuguese tourists, the village is full of charming shops and restaurants. Historical towers and walls are integrated into the newer buildings.
The most famous attraction, and namesake of the town, is the ponte, an ancient stone bridge that crosses the Ria Lima. The bridge was extensively rebuilt in the 14th century but the north end is still of Roman origin.
The local legend is that when the Romans first reached Ria Lima they mistook it for the River Lethe, the river of forgetfulness and one of the five rivers of Hades. The soldiers, afraid that the water would cause them to lose all memory, refused to cross the river. The Roman commander, frustrated that the river was impeding his military campaign, rode across the river. The soldiers were not convinced until the General, now on the opposite bank of the river, called each of the men by name. Today the legend is celebrated by a display of statues along the river banks- the troops on the near bank and the general on the opposite side of the river.
Another interesting little legend is the story pictured in azelejos on the Torre that now houses the Tourist Information Center. The azelejo is titled “Cabras São Senhor!” (They’re goats, M’lord!) The story goes that King Afonso Henriques, Portugal’s first king, mistook a herd of goats for Moors and nearly attacked the herd. Fortunately for the goats, the king called off the attack once he realized his mistake.
There’s a lot of artwork, including several sculptures like this one celebrating folk life.
Walking through town is like walking through a park. There’s a lot of green space, monuments, and artwork. We spent time exploring the streets and stopped for coffee and cake in one of the cafés in town. It seemed that everywhere we turned we found another beautiful street.
Could we live in Ponte de Lima? Definitely, yes. For such a small town there are a lot of things to see and do. The one drawback would be that we’d have to drive more, as amenities are a little more limited than in larger cities. We enjoyed the short time we spent in Ponte de Lima and have this fantastic little town in our top three of places we’d like to live in Portugal.
Aveiro was one of my favorite stops on our visit to Portugal. It’s a beautiful city with a long history. It also has a lively feel, which I think can be at least partly attributed to the University.
We stayed at the Suites and Hostel Cidade Aveiro, a beautiful little hotel next to the Aveiro Museum and just a few minutes walk from the canals. It was a great location for exploring Aveiro on foot.
Aveiro is known for its canals, on which moliceiros, formerly used for harvesting seaweed, now provide tours of the city. Once a thriving seaport, 16th and 17th century storms blocked Aveiro’s access to the Atlantic Ocean. Access to the ocean has since been restored and the city is once again an important seaport.
There were a lot of things to see and do and we didn’t let periods of rain stop us. Next door to our hotel was the Mosteiro de Jesus, the beautiful 15th century convent where Princess Santa Joana spent the last years of her life. It’s now the Museu de Aveiro and home to the princess’s tomb.
Next to the convent is the Sé, or cathedral, of Aveiro. The 15th century baroque church is quite beautiful and has been a Portuguese National Monument since 1996. We spent quite a bit of time exploring the church, its bookstore, and the incredible cemetery behind the cathedral.
As I said, Aveiro is a beautiful city. Like a lot of Portuguese cities, Aveiro has some great displays of azulejos. A prime example is the estação, or train station, of Aveiro. Opened in 1916, the station is covered with the famous blue tiles, which display scenes from around the Aveiro region. It’s undergoing a renovation, but it’s still quite a sight.
There are also very nice art nouveau examples throughout the city. This building was across the street from our hotel, and has some beautiful tile work as well.
Another Portuguese architectural tradition I really like is the use of patterned stone to pave roads and sidewalks. Known as calçada Portuguesa, the tradition goes back to Roman times and is common throughout the country. Praça da República is a great example of the art of the pavement.
There are a lot of beautiful parks in the city as well. Parque Dom Pedro Infante, or the City Park, is a great place for a walk. It has a lot of interesting things to see as well as duck ponds, benches and walking paths. Ann Marie took this beautiful photo.
There’s a lot of street art in Aveiro as well. Graffiti and street art are common in cities throughout Portugal. Here’s an example from near the Aveiro train station.
We really enjoyed our time in Aveiro. It was one of our top stops in Portugal. While the canal area is quite touristy, most of Aveiro is quite nice. It’s very walkable, with lots of nice restaurants, shops and things to do. It’s just a few minutes from a couple beaches and less than an hour from Porto or Coimbra. And, to top it off, it has some spectacular sunsets…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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
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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One of our favorite excursions was also a free one. We took a shuttle from McKinley Chalet Resort to the park to visit the National Park Service sled dogs. The NPS sled dogs are quite different from the racing dogs we saw at Caribou Crossing in the Yukon. The NPS dogs are working dogs and, as such, are not built for speed but for endurance. Because of the harsh winters virtually the only way into the wilderness is by dog sled. The rangers can spend weeks in the the wilderness and depend on the dogs to get them in and around the park. During the spring and summer, though, the dogs take it easy and provide an opportunity for tourists to interact with real working sled dogs.
As part of the visit to the dogs, the park rangers put on a short but informative sledding demonstration. It’s obvious from the demonstration that the dogs love what they do.
A few words about the dog sled team. Each dog on the team has a job and they’re assigned that job based on their physical abilities and their personality. Here’s the team from our demonstration.
The front row contains the lead dogs. Lead dogs steer the team and set the pace. Qualities of a good lead dog is intelligence, initiative and the ability to find a good trail in bad conditions.
The second row are the swing dogs. These dogs help swing the rest of the team along the turns of the trail.
The dog closest to the sled is the wheel dog. The wheel dog needs to be calm and intelligent, so that it is not startled by the movement of the sled. They also need to be able to help guide the sled around tight turns.
So that’s the team. The sled they pull during the demonstration is an actual working sled, but without the couple hundred pounds that can be loaded on the sled for long excursions into the Alaska wilderness. The all wood sled has not changed much since men began using sleds and dogs for transportation in Alaska.
The actual mushing demonstration only lasted a minute but it was obvious that the dogs enjoy their job. Once they were done with their 60 seconds of work the dogs were rewarded with a treat and laid down to enjoy it while a park ranger explained the ins and outs of the life of an NPS sled dog.
In case you’re interested, the NPS sled dogs are retired at age nine. By that time they’ve traveled more than 8,000 miles under harness. So what happens to the dogs once they’re retired? They’re adopted to suitable homes. Keep in mind that the years of sledding have kept these dogs in top condition and the energy and intelligence of the dogs may not be a match for the casual dog person. But if you’re used to high energy and intelligent dogs and can give one of these dogs the home it needs, please consider adopting.
Our final port on the Alaska cruise was Seward, a town of just under 3,000 residents on the Gulf of Alaska. Seward is the ninth most lucrative fisheries port in the United States and the harbor was full of fishing boats.
Seward is also the beginning of the Seward Highway, one of the most beautiful drives in the United States. Our trip from Seward to Denali would begin along the Seward Highway.
Fifty years after the 1964 earthquake that devastated Alaska from Anchorage to Seward there are still signs of damage. The land dropped six to eight feet and was flooded with salt water. Along the highway you can see “ghost forests” of trees that were killed by the salt water.
Just five miles from Seward the highway passes through the Chugach National Forest. Alaska. The trip to Denali passes through some truly beautiful wilderness areas. The largest state in the country, Alaska is also the most sparsely populated state, and has relatively few highways. Most of the population of Alaska live in the coastal regions, so much of the interior of the state is wilderness. It seemed that everywhere we looked there were beautiful vistas.
Our trip took us along the Turnagain Arm, a waterway running inland from Cook Inlet, and the location of the second highest tides in North America. Tides can reach forty feet and come in so quickly that they form a wave called a tidal bore. The bore can be dangerous if you’re caught unaware when it comes in, but it is also a favorite with kayakers and surfers who like to ride the wave as an extreme sport. Our trip did not let us witness the tidal bore but Turnagain Arm is quite beautiful, with high and rugged lining the north side of the Arm.
We stopped for lunch in Palmer, Alaska, in the Matanuska Valley. During the Great Depression the U.S. government began offering families the opportunity to move to the Matanuska Valley as a way out of the hardships of the depression devastating the country. Each family who relocated was offered forty acres of land. All they had to do was build a house and farm the land. The valley is well suited for dairy farming and vegetables such as potatoes and cabbage grow well in the valley.
The experiment was not very successful. The climate, while mild by Alaska standards, was much harder than many of the colonists were used to, and by 1940 over half of the original families had returned home.
We still had a few hours before reaching Denali. This final stretch was where we saw our first moose, two of which came out of the woods and ran along the highway for several yards. We were to see several more moose at Denali.
Finally, we reached our destination, the McKinley Chalet Resort. Located along the Nenanha River, the location of the resort is quite beautiful. The cabins were rustic yet comfortable and the scenery was awe inspiring. The land around us changed literally overnight. When we awoke the after our first night the mountains behind our cabin were covered with a fresh snow. It was beautiful.
Denali is pretty remote as far as destinations go, but we were to experience firsthand how small the world can be. The first evening we went to Karsten’s Pub, a new restaurant at McKinley Chalet. Our waitress was a young lady from Marietta, Georgia. Marietta was our home for many years before we relocated to North Carolina.
While our Alaska adventure was nearing its end, we still had two days and enjoyed two great excursions, a visit to the National Park Service sled dogs and the Tundra Tour, a bus excursion that took us deep into the park.