In search of sunshine, late last year I began planning a trip to Belgium (for the sunshine of my heart) and Portugal (for a dose of Mother Nature’s sunshine).
I spent the first part of my vacation babysitting granddaughter Lais with the help of Tante Marina. Introducing Lais to Raffi on YouTube was my transatlantic icebreaker. Lais loves music (like her great-grandmother) so we watched a video of Raffi singing “The Wheels on the Bus.” Lais clapped, whispering, “Encore” (again, more). “Baby Beluga” played. “Encore.” And then “Down by the Bay” and another quiet command, “Encore.” What a joy!
Granddaughter time, ever so short, included the Marche de Charleroi, est. 1709, with Easter bunnies, baby radishes, foraged mushrooms, Belgian endive, Brussels sprouts, lettuce seedlings, and blooming Lenten roses. Sabine and I took Lais for her first haircut. We visited her crèche (daycare) and enjoyed brunch and a stroll in Gent with Marina and Koen. I reveled in the sunshine of a glowing face whose favorite word at 18 months is “No.”
Then, off to Portugal with Marina and Koen. We selected Portugal for its sun, low cost, and because none of us had been there. I prepped by reading Jose Saramago’s Blindness and Journey to Portugal (the author is Portugal’s recipient of a Nobel Prize in Literature) as well as Lonely Planet’s Portugal, which I unfortunately left in State College, complete with penciled-in notes and dog-eared pages, on my beside table.
Before Koen made our flight reservations he asked if I wanted to see the countryside or cities. I told him I wanted to see cork trees and flamingoes, but couldn’t imagine going to Portugal without visiting Lisbon. However, I am practical and realized 10 days wouldn’t be time enough to see the upper two-thirds of the country, including Porto. Portugal is the size of Maine, but, as Saramago himself pondered: “How can such a small country be so big?”
Slowly our travel route materialized. We would start in the south, drive northeast to visit the largest man-made lake in Europe (Koen’s request), then head west, through the cork forests (yes!), to Lisboa, and then travel down the Atlantic coast (Marina loves her beaches) and across the Algarve coast back to Faro. Marina and I tag-teamed on the overnight reservations, lining up Airbnb stays for the first week, leaving the remaining nights open as the trip progressed.
We flew into Faro and rented a Peugeot that would soon enough be christened “Tinto,” for the vinho tinto (red wine) we ordered with many meals. We put about 1,200 km (a mere 750 miles) on the odometer as we drove through villages and past vineyards, castles and cork trees, olive groves and megaliths, cliff-side fishing villages and crashing ocean waves.
With 18-22 C (60-70 F) sunshine all but one day, we sought out a “terras” (Dutch for terrace or outdoor café) at every stop were we could watch the old Portuguese men smoking and chatting on every corner (I’m assuming all the womenfolk were at home cooking and cleaning) and just soak in the colors, tiles, arches and vistas of each town.
Even the memory of the view from an outdoor terrace at Monsaraz—of the Grande Lago Alqueva–takes my breath away. Although a man-made lake, there is nothing artificial looking about it as the waters glisten and sparkle between green pastures of grazing cattle, their bells playing a calming melody. The lake is 250 sq-km, borders Spain, and was completed in 2002. It provides a reservoir for drinking water, farmland irrigation, recreation, and hydroelectric power. The area is also UNESCO’s first designated Starlight Reserve. Hello Big Dipper! I’d return in a heartbeat. “Encore.”
A Portuguese woman we met in Monsaraz asked us our next destination. Evora (Ee VOR ah, I said.) “Actually, it’s pronounced “Ev Rah,” she corrected. The song “Ave Cesaria” on the Stromae CD Richard gave me is about a Cape Verdean singer, Cesaria Evora (Ee VOR ah), who was known as the “barefoot diva.” Each time I play the lively song, although it’s about the woman and not the city, I’ll think of the Franciscan Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones), the ruins of a Roman temple, and sipping cappuccino from Delta coffee cups in the morning sun. “Encore.”
Like Rome, Lisboa is said to be a city of Seven Hills, although some claim there are actually eight. All have cobbled, mosaic sidewalks that are hell on old feet but a visual delight. There are twisty, narrow passageways, canaries in cages singing to café goers, fado whining from open doorways, miradouros with buskers and balladeers, and too many Selfie-Stick hucksters and Facebookers. A bright yellow tram runs past our Alfama apartment and Tuk-Tuk three-wheeled auto rickshaws zip up and down the hills. So many neighborhoods to visit. So many treats to sample.
We borrowed a Lisboa guidebook, written in Dutch. It warned not to go to Sintra on a Sunday because it is a favorite outing for families and can get crowded. Laurie the Fado singer whined that we had to see the gardens of Sintra, where well-to-do Lisboetas of the past summered in their palaces. Koen, who steers clear of mob scenes ”bit the bullet” (I’m not sure what the expression is in Dutch) and relented. The palaces and gardens, stones and lichen, ferns and follies, and swans–black swans–are the stuff of fairy tales. We saw Sintra when the magnolias and camellias were breaking into bloom. I’d love to see it in late spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Next trip, I might even skip Lisboa and stay in Sintra. “Encore.”
That’s the first half of the trip, but I’ll end with one more Lais story. After she warmed up to me, I reached down and gave her a goodnight bisou, and I heard it. “Encore.” Another bisou. “Encore.” Another bisou. My heart swelled to the size of the Atlantic. “Encore.” But it was time to help Maman get Lais off to bed. I laughed and ended the game saying, “Bonsoir.” Laurie Lynch
Written on Slate: “We do not remember days, we remember moments.” Cesare Pavese
About Brussels: I left 48 hours before the bombs went off at Brussels Airport. Everyone I know and love in Belgium is safe. In just three months, senseless bombings have killed scores of civilians in Istanbul, Bagdad, Brussels, and Lahore. I don’t have an answer, except to pray.
Coming Up: In the next days/weeks I’ll blog about the beaches and cuisine, flora and avifauna of Portugal. Stay tuned, if you like.