PART 1: PORTUGAL
We travelled back to 13th century Portugal and Spain without having to step foot in a time machine or imbibing in mind-altering drugs. The trip began simply enough with an overnight stay at the Corinthia Hotel Lisbon, the first stop in our two-week trip with Odysseys Unlimited’s tour of historic lodging and architecture.
The tour is billed as Paradores & Pousadas, which means luxury accommodations resurrected from ancient monasteries, castles or city halls by governments eager to restore iconic structures reflective of the area’s past while enticing tourism markets. Paradores are in Spain; Pousadas the equivalent in Portugal. It was our first tour directly booked with Odyssey but our second experience as they were the travel organizers for our Smithsonian Expedition to Patagonia last year.
Typically, my husband Russ meticulously plans all our travel, but the advantages of being with a professional touring company when you don’t speak the language, wish to travel vast distances across multiple countries, or want fast-pass access to popular destinations, are enormous. It was also our first trip during peak season. The major advantage: great weather. Major disadvantage: enormous crowds.
Odyssey’s Tour Directors and local guides are first-rate. On this trip, our Tour Director was the amiable and capable Elena Gonzalez, fluent in numerous languages, proud and knowledgeable of both countries, passionate about flamenco dance (which scored high with my dancer side), generous with her attention, and was fastidious in ensuring we were prepared at each location with maps, language translations of common phrases, and suggestions of what to see and do in each city during our free time.
The cities we visited, some for mere hours, others for several days, included Lisbon, Monsaraz and Evora in Portugal. In Spain: Merida, Carmona, Cordoba, Seville, Cordoba, Ronda, Granada, Toledo and Madrid. We added a three-day non-guided extension tour of Barcelona. Our transportation to Barcelona, hotel and transportation back to the airport for departure was arranged, but everything else was up to us. As dynamic as Barcelona is, the focus for Russ and me was drinking in the historic richness these two countries did, and do, contribute to architecture, cuisine, wine and culture.
Lisbon, the capital of Portugal
Where we stayed: Corinthia Hotel Lisbon, a contemporary hotel on the outskirts of downtown, with bouquets of potted white flowers literally adorning all the counter tops and tables in the lobby. If airport security was as conscientious as the safety policies of the hotel and its staff, there would be fewer incidents.
What we saw: Belém Tower or the Tower of St Vincent, a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its vital role in Portuguese maritime Age of Discoveries. The beige-white limestone structure was commissioned by John II to be part of a defense system and was completed in 1519.
The nearby Monument to the Discoveries commemorates the 500th anniversary of Henry the Navigator‘s death. Finished in the 1960s, the sail-shaped statue is lined with notable Portuguese figures from throughout history, including other navigators, artists and King Manuel, but it’s remarkable in how their likenesses and placement signifies their importance to Portuguese history of that time.
The Jerónimos Monastery or Hieronymites Monastery, built in 1501, is near Belém Tower and the Monument to the Discoveries. Built on the ruins of an existing church, it was here in 1497 that Vasco da Gama said his last prayers before setting sail around the Cape of Good Hope looking for India with his four ships and crew of 170.
We visited the 18th century Palace of Queluz, one of the last great Rococo buildings to be designed in Europe.
What we learned: Before jumping on the first of many tour buses, we had to test our whispers, the ideal device for groups for audibly difficult environments, when the group is so massive (ours was limited to 24) that anyone not immediately near the speaker won’t hear, or when quiet voices must be used, such as in a church. Guide speak into their microphone, but the whisper around our necks and plugged into our ears, kept us together and engaged in the entire lecture.
Tour buses are governed by mandatory seat belt laws. We were warned that if stopped by police for any reason and someone wasn’t wearing one, the tour company, driver and Tour Director would be in hot water.
Wine is quite inexpensive, as is often the case in European countries where it is produced. We bought the most expensive bottle of cabernet at one restaurant and it was $14.9 Euros, about $16. Before this trip, I rarely found a Spanish wine I enjoyed, usually thinking them too earthy for my tastes (or in wine world vernacular: pissy). On this trip, I didn’t find one wine I didn’t love! The first bottle of wine we were lucky to have at dinner in Lisbon was a Julian Reynolds Reserva 2011 from the Vinho Regional Alentejano area.
Monsarez, a city of 150 occupying the ruins of a medieval castle atop a mountain. We stopped for a lunch break and to take in breathtaking views across the valley from this small community of restaurants, wine shops, and shops selling handwoven blankets, colorful pottery, and warm clothing. For lunch we had a main entrée choice of cod (the number one favorite across Portugal) or braised lamb, the favorite meat. All provided meals are served with wine, something Russ and I never turn down.
What we learned: portions at every restaurant throughout the trip are enormous. It saddens me to waste so much food. Cod may be the number 1 fish option, but sea bass is not far behind.
Évora (City of Wheat) has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1986. The famed city contains some of Portugal’s most renowned ancient architecture.
Where we stayed: Pousada dos Loios, a converted 15th century convent. While some of our tour group stayed in rooms that were formerly monk’s cells, ours was luckily larger. Each room is identified by a cell # above each arched stone doorway of the guestrooms. Surrounding the hotel is São João Evangelista Church and a castle, parts of which still belong to the family line bequeathed the properties in the 14th century. Our hotel ran as a monastery until 1836, was left to run until the 1950s when it was taken over by the government to be renovated. Most hotels are now managed by the Pestana Hotel Group. For meals, we descended wide marble steps to the former cloister, where the dining area forms a square around glassed-in gardens, creating an ambiance of tranquility.
What we saw: The church’s doorframe is a layered effect of five stone arches set into one another surrounding a massive dark wood door. In the plaza fronting the church and pousada entrance, Roman Corinthian columns are what remains of the Temple of Diana, acknowledged as Évora’s most famous tourist attraction. Dedicated to Diana, the goddess of hunting., the temple is regarded as the best preserved Roman structure on the Iberian Peninsula. The Romans built it and the Visigoths destroyed it in the 4th century. Each set of invaders covered the original structure with walls until 1873, when the walls were removed and the original columns preserved. At nights, Hollywood style lights emit a soft glow around the columns.
Our first local guide was Maria Pires, whose depth of historic knowledge was only surpassed by the human perspective she noted and sense of humor, the latter which was apparent as soon as she said, “If you don’t know a woman’s name here, just say Maria. Chances are you will be correct.”
As you might imagine, churches are rampant across Portugal and Spain. Each one we saw gave way to another more elaborate in carved saints, statues or portraits of Jesus on the cross, gold gilded decorations and stained glass windows. What set St Francis Church apart from any other is the Chapel of Bones. Guidebooks will tell you that buried in the walls of the chapel are the skeletal remains of more than 5,000 of Évora’s past inhabitants, buried in the 16th century. Maria said the Franciscans collected the bones of the poor in the late 1500s and created this chapel display to show that everyone is equal when dead. “They wanted to promote the belief that it’s the soul that matters most, not the physical body,” she explained. That soothed my feeling of unease looking at tiny skulls and body parts laid into patterns in every inch of the chapel.
Across a small street from our pousada sits a building built in the 16th century for the Spanish Inquisition. We did not go in.
Directly behind the hotel is the largest cathedral built in the 12th century, a monument to the power of Christianity. Inside the church is a pipe organ built in 1562, one of the oldest pipe organs still in use today.
What we learned: Like many other cities across Portugal and Spain, when Catholicism took root, it became The Religion. In Évora only papists were allowed inside the castle walls. Looking over the walls you can see how the city was built up; dense areas of housing for Muslim and Jewish communities.
Everywhere you look, the sidewalks and streets are composed of stone tile or rock patterns. In Portugal, they are roughly 2’ square shaped tiles. Many streets and sidewalks were originally laid in the 1700s. On the narrow, curving streets where cars now drive now, the stone patterns are eroded, but others look recently laid. Many designs are inlaid into sidewalks or patios, often outlined in black basalt. Only place we didn’t see the tiled sidewalks and streets was Barcelona, which considers itself so separate from Spain, that the people are continually seeking secession.
Across both countries, whether in urban or rural areas, houses and buildings are white, with golden yellow used as decorative trim. We’re told the white is to reflect the intensive heat, which we are repeatedly told can reach 125 in July and August.
Coffee is strong, even in the hotels, with the strength being somewhere between Starbucks and Cuban or Turkish coffee. We found that to be true everywhere except Barcelona.
The two countries histories are similar. Rulers such as the Moors, Romans, Jews, and Spanish have left their marks. Today when foundations are dug to expand or erect new structures, Roman ruins are often discovered. Then all construction must cease until archeologists have fully excavated.
Food is often not what you think it is by the menu description. For instance, in Évora I ordered a pork chop with asparagus. Turned out to be quite tasty barely-breaded spiced chunks of pork served atop an enormous mound of coarsely mashed asparagus. It was likely the best asparagus I’ve ever eaten. When you order a Spanish omelet, it is always a potato frittata, but it’s never prepared the same.
Most cities have a signature pastry. Évora’s is a custard tart. Only ingredients accessible in those past centuries were eggs, sugar and flour. The silky smooth tarts taste like crème brulee in a crimp-edged pie crust.
IN PART 2: SPAIN FURTHER AWAKENS OUR SENSE OF HISTORY, FROM CASTLES TO ICONIC CHURCHES
All photos are by Russell Wagner.
Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries. She is an active member of ILEA and MPI and is now serving on the 2016 – 2017 MPI Global Advisory Board for The Meeting Professional Magazine for the second consecutive year. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists. Karen writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, she has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. email@example.com; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.