Evora, the magical medieval city (Day 3 of the 12 days of Christmas in Portugal)

After looking at the boat in Portimão, we were full of unanswered questions. Rather than trying to force a decision, we elected to be tourists for a few days and let the questions roll around in our subconscious minds.

We were definitely not going to spend a second night in Portimão. It wasn’t as much of a dump as we’d expected, but there wasn’t much to see in the wintertime. At 20 Euros, the lodgings we’d found were cheap, but we got what we paid for: A sleepless night with no heat on two very lumpy twin beds. We were ready to move on.

We bought a couple of bus tickets to Évora and boarded a local bus to Albufeira, where we would transfer. I fought down my usual nervous what-if fears — what if we couldn’t figure out which bus to get on? What if we missed our transfer? What if we couldn’t find a place to stay?

But the first leg went smoothly, with the bus following the coastline of the Algarve and giving us lovely views of the blue Atlantic between clusters of high-rise condos and billboards in English.

Like our Florida, retirees from the chilly north — England and Germany, especially — have flocked to this region. The old buildings are bulldozed and replaced with high-rises, and there are more billboards in English than Portuguese. A few unspoiled villages remain, but they are at risk of being overrun as well. The money is much-needed, but the loss of the fishing villages and the old ways is sad, and lamented by many of the younger Portuguese people we met.

It’s probably lamented by the older Portuguese people, too, but fewer of them spoke English. So we were unable to lament with them.

On the bus to Évora, we met an exception, a middle-aged woman in the seat behind us who napped for the first hour of the trip. When she awoke, she was as friendly — and as persistent — as a puppy. “I love to speak English!” she told us. We soon realized that although she had lived in Évora her whole life, she was not a typical resident.

She told us that she loved the USA and visited there several times a year for “conferences.” She expanded on this, until we figured out that she was involved in a multi-level marketing scheme that she expected to provide a comfortable retirement when the Portuguese social security system collapsed. She was cheerfully insistent that although she never had to sell anything, she would be able to raise tremendous sums of money while “helping people.”

Over the course of the conversation, which gave me a crick in my neck from turning backwards, our seat neighbor told us her home was inside the medieval walls and had 37 rooms. She’d left her husband and mother at their beach house and was only coming up for one day to sign some papers. Although the 120-mile bus ride took almost four hours, she preferred it to driving, because it was much cheaper.

She was so garrulous that we soon learned about her husband’s health issues and the fact that he was now a vegetarian Buddhist. She had recently converted to Mormonism herself. I imagined that between their weird diets (how does she get along in a country where coffee or wine is served with every meal?) and the multi-level marketing scheme, they probably didn’t get a lot of dinner invitations from friends.

When we arrived at the Évora bus station, it was dark, we had no place to stay, and we were hungry. Our plans to read the guidebook had been foiled by our talkative neighbor. Luckily, she’d recommended a place to stay, so we were able to drop our bags and immediately go out exploring. We had no idea what we would find.

For dinner, we discovered a tiny jewel of a restaurant, where local folks sat laughing around tables with ceramic pitchers of local Alentejo wine. The vaulted ceiling hinted at the building’s origin as a cloister. We stuffed ourselves with migas, a breadcrumb dish with asparagus and cheese, and bacalhão, the ubiquitous — and tasty — salt cod. The place was so small, Barry was practically sitting in the dessert cooler. He salivated throughout the meal, so we had to order desserts, too. Chocolate mousse, bread pudding, cake made with corn flour — it was so hard to choose!

Leaving the restaurant, we began wandering the dark, narrow cobblestone streets with our camera in hand, flattening ourselves against the wall when a car careened through. We came around a corner and discovered the 13-century cathedral, dramatically lit with spotlights. I stood staring up at the portal in awe. In college, I’d once spent three months studying this sort of thing — three months of portals. I’d seen hundreds of photographs, and finally, I was seeing the real thing. I couldn’t believe I was here, seeing it, and that we had it to ourselves. Not a tourist in sight.
Evora portal, left jamb
[Photo: Left jamb of the main portal, Évora cathedral]

Barry set up our tiny tripod and was shooting photos when something caught my eye up the street. Whatever it was, it had spotlights on it, too.

“Come this way!” I said. I thought maybe it was another church.

Instead, we rounded another corner and found the ruins of a Roman temple from the first century. From a distance, the fourteen Corinthian columns looked perfect and symmetrical. Up close, the stones were pitted and weathered by a couple of thousand years. The columns were bigger than I’d ever imagined, towering 40 feet over our heads.

It was magical. And we had it to ourselves.
Roman temple, Evora
[Photo: Roman temple, Évora]

Évora is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, something that probably attracts lots of tourists. In the summer, that is. We did see a few of them when we returned to the cathedral and temple the next day. We saw the same tourists a few blocks away at the Capella dos Ossos, the Chapel of the Bones, where the walls and ceiling are lined with the bones of thousands of monks.

But when we went out on our nighttime photography expeditions, the tourists were absent. When we explored the local cemetery, there were no tourists. When we took our bread and cheese to the park for a picnic, we shared the place with a few birds and one butterfly.
Evora cemetery
[Photo: Mausoleums, Évora cemetery]

And when Barry found a crumbling medieval tower at dusk and dragged me to the top, we were completely alone. The staircase was grown over with brambles and weeds, as if no one had been up there in years. I was terrified, certain that I’d fall off the edge or the staircase would collapse under me.

Évora is a small town made up of layer upon layer of history, something I’d not experienced in North America. Standing alone in the medieval cathedral, I pictured the builders preparing the site in the thirteenth century. Craning my neck at the Roman ruins, I imagined the centuries of people who walked by this edifice every day of their lives, so used to it that they paid it no attention.

I paid it plenty of attention. For two magical days and nights, I passed it often. Every time, it transported me to another world, where my imagination could run free.

Junk for sale (Day 2 of the 12 Days of Christmas in Portugal)

This is the second installment of the 12 Days of Christmas in Portugal. I hope to complete the series in a couple of weeks, occasionally interspersed with more recent news from Barry. — meps

We traveled to Portugal for three reasons: To see what was there, to go to a kick-ass New Year’s party, and to look at a boat for sale.

Matanie in the boatyard
Our first view of Matanie in the Portimão boatyard (above right).

Of our three reasons, the boat intrigued people the most, and we had about a hundred different conversations with people about it during the Christmas party season. In every conversation, once we established that we were going to Portugal to look at a boat for sale, the immediate response was what I now call, “Question Number One.”

“But how will you get the boat home?”

Even when we returned, we still had the same conversation with new people. Last night, I had the conversation with my brother, who lives in Ohio. I told him we had not bought the boat, but that we had not ruled it out. No surprise, he then asked Question Number One.

I sighed, and I tried to explain the plan. This was followed by Question Number Two, in the most incredulous voice I’d ever heard from him:

“You mean you’d go and live there?”

Evidently, the thought of his little sister going to live on the other side of the world was completely preposterous and not a little disturbing.

His reaction illustrates why, for us, Question Number One is so hard to answer. As Barry says, it’s not how we’d get the boat home, but how long we would take to do it. At a minimum, years or decades, but who knows what other interesting detours life might provide in the meantime?

The problem with Questions Number One is that our lifestyle represents such a different paradigm that others can barely fathom it. For most people, “home” is the place from which everything else is measured. Everything you own, even if it’s a 6-ton, 33-foot floating object, has to eventually get “home,” right?

Not necessarily.

Interestingly, we talked with a couple of friends who did not ask Question Number One. Carlos did not ask us how we planned to get the boat home. That’s because Carlos calls Portugal home. He knows that his country has great sailing and wonderful people, and the cost of living is reasonable. If we bought a boat there, why would we want to leave?

Kris also didn’t ask. He has the same gypsy-vagabond-nomad tendencies that we do and understands that boats are to be used wherever you find them. He recently found a screaming good deal on a 35-foot Challenger in Florida and purchased it, no easy feat when you live in Capetown, South Africa.

So if we bought Matanie and we moved aboard, we could live in Portugal, or we could, slowly, take her someplace else. Matanie — and the whole world — would be our home.

Unlike Kris’ Challenger, however, Matanie is not a screaming good deal. She’s a little tired and a lot unusual — a junk schooner rig on a fiberglass production boat with an uncommon interior layout. When you throw in the lousy exchange rate and the steep European VAT tax, we can get a better deal closer to home.

That brings us back to the question of “home,” and whether we still live in the same paradigm as the people who ask us, “But how will you get the boat home?”

Severing our ties to the U.S. and moving aboard a boat that’s over 3000 miles from our nearest family member is akin to ripping off a Band-Aid. If we buy a boat here in the Northwest, or even in North America, we can say our goodbyes much more gently.

We want to buy a boat to see the world, not because we want to run away from home. We love the Northwest and we love our families, scattered across the U.S. If we can reconcile that with a boat on the other side of the world, we still might buy Matanie. So far, we haven’t been able to. And so the search — from our contented life here in the Northwest –continues.

To see a few of our photos of Matanie, go to www.mepsnbarry.com/pix
If you’re interested in more technical details about Matanie, please see the Yachtworld listing

A drunken sailor's walk (Day 1 of the 12 Days of Christmas in Portugal)

We flew to Portugal on Christmas Day, December 25th, and we returned on Epiphany, January 6th. So it’s only fitting that I write twelve essays about the trip, one for each of the Twelve Days of Christmas. This is not a one-a-day travelogue, though, so the essays won’t actually correspond to one specific day.

How do you prepare for a trip to the other side of the world?

What should you pack? How will you deal with food and lodging? How much money will you need? How many people will speak English?

All of the travels I’ve written about on this site have been random walks. For those of you not familiar with this mathematical term, it’s also called a “drunken walk” or a “drunken sailor’s walk.” If you take a drunken sailor and track his motion, you’ll see that at each point, he can decide to lurch one step in any direction. If he goes left one step and right one step, he stays in the same place. At any time, he might keep zigging left, taking more left steps than right steps. Or he might tend to the right.

When we travel by car, van, or sailboat in the U.S. and Canada, Barry and I might go any direction, at random. Still, traveling slowly means we won’t go to sleep and wake up someplace really, really far away. As a result, we explore changes in climate and culture incrementally.

Not so with a trip to Portugal. We would step onto an airplane, and about a day and 6000 miles later, would step off into a place completely unknown to us.

You’d think this would make us plan our trip carefully. We would do our web research, read several guidebooks, and talk with friends who have been to Portugal. Then we’d devise an itinerary with lists of attractions, book hotel rooms, and arrange our ground transportation.

Nah, that’s too easy.

We bought one guidebook — I selected the Rough Guide, because it was the only one that mentioned Portimão, the town in the south of Portugal where the boat we were considering purchasing was located. I picked up a 3-by-5-foot map, and we tacked it on the wall. Then we got distracted with head colds, winter storms, power outages, and holiday parties.

We did do a little shopping for the trip. Based on recommendations from friends who have lived and traveled in Europe over the years, we decided to buy some clothes that were a little less thrift-store and a little less bright than our usual wardrobes. We didn’t want clothes that shouted “American Tourists,” so we had to leave the hot-pink fleece (Barry’s) and the leopard-print top (mine) at home.

Based on our prior travel experiences, we decided to travel light, super-light even. The one aspect of our trip to Brazil that we regretted was dragging around big wheeled bags on cobblestone streets. In Alaska, we’d reveled in 5-underwear-and-sock travel (referring to the practice of bringing no more than five pairs of underwear and socks and hand-washing them every few days).

A couple of days before leaving, we picked up two Rick Steves backpacks for $99 each. They’re the largest size you can carry on a plane, so you don’t have to check them, and they’re rectangular, with wide backpack straps that disappear into a zippered compartment, turning them into small soft-sided suitcases. It was Barry’s idea to buy them, and as a result, I called him a genius throughout the trip.

Meps in her Christmas hat with her new Rick Steves' backpack Barry in his Christmas hat with our Rough Guide to Portugal
Meps and Barry showing off their Christmas goodies

We also picked up a couple of money belts that go inside your clothes, to protect passports and credit cards. As a result, we emerged unscathed, although shaken, from our one encounter with a pickpocket on the Lisbon metro.

We had planned to read the guidebook on the plane, so we’d have that rough itinerary by the time we got off. Instead, we napped, ate terrible airplane food, and watched movies.

When we arrived in Lisbon and Carlos met us, we still had only two items on our itinerary: See the boat in Portimão and attend Carlos’ New Year’s Eve party in Lisbon. As a result, our travels through Portugal, like our travels in the U.S. and Canada, became a random walk.

Carlos guided us through our first day in Lisbon and put us on the bus for Portimão. When we stepped off, without our friend to guide us, we needed two things: A bathroom and a place to stay. A stop in the local cafe provided the former, along with a pastry and a cup of lemon peel tea. While we sipped, we consulted our guidebook for a map and a place to stay. We were feeling confident; things were going according to plan.

The best travel stories happen when things do not go as planned. Both of the pensões in our guidebook were closed. It was night, and we had no place to stay. At least we didn’t have to pee.

Based on some well-meaning and poorly understood directions from a lady in a tourist office, we started walking down the quay away from town, wearing our packs, and we ran across two middle-aged Brits and a Frenchman. They had just come from the pub, and they were very merry. I mistook them for three drunken sailors.

“What the hell are you doing carrying those heavy things?” the British man asked.

When we told them we were looking for a cheap place to stay, the Frenchman jumped in. He knew just the place, but he very excitedly told us, using a lot of hand gestures, we were going the wrong way.

His English wasn’t very good, so he mixed it up with French and Portuguese. He took me by the arm and turned me around, back the way we had come. Then he gave me directions to a good, cheap pensão After that, he gave me a different set of directions to the same place — or maybe the directions were the same, using different words from different languages. He did this no fewer than five times, while Barry had an enjoyable chat (in English) with the British lady. The British gent got bored and wandered away (a drunken sailor’s walk).

Eventually, we made it back to town, went in a circles a few times, and discovered that we were walking under all kinds of cheap pensões, we just hadn’t noticed that a) all the signs were tiny and b) the signs up were up on the next floor, right above our heads.

Portimao cathedral at night
Portimão Cathedral at night
Portimao waterfront
Portimão waterfront

When we had chosen one across the street from the cathedral, paid our 20 Euros, and set down our packs, I kissed Barry and called him a genius. Although I had been carrying the 20-pound bag around town for a couple of hours, it hadn’t been uncomfortable.

So far, so good. It was looking as though our trip to Portugal would follow the random walk pattern of our usual travels, although the language and cultural differences would make it more challenging than usual. Actually, given the state of the Frenchman and the two Brits, maybe the other phrase is more apt — we might have been sober, but our travels would still follow the pattern of a drunken sailor’s walk.

Coming soon…the second installment of The Twelve Days of Christmas: “Junk for sale.”

To those who did not go (Day 0 of the 12 Days of Christmas in Portugal)

I’ve begun a great many books and not finished all of them. One of my favorite beginnings (from a book I keep meaning to finish) is from The Sea and the Jungle, published in 1912 by H.M. Tomlinson. His description of London before he sets off on his Big Adventure sounds just like Seattle:

[It was} a winter morning after rain. There was more rain to come. The sky was waterlogged and the grey ceiling, overstrained, had sagged and dropped to the level of the chimneys. If one of them had pierced it! The danger was imminent.

That day was but a thin solution of night. You know those November mornings with a low, corpse-white east where the sunrise should be, as though the day were still-born. Looking to the dayspring, there is what we have waited for, there the end of our hope, prone and shrouded. This morning of mine was such a morning. The world was very quiet, as though it were exhausted after tears.

Tomlinson started out as just an average guy with a desk job and a bunch of commitments. He dumped it all to be an Adventurer, and he went on to write many books and short stories throughout his life. He’s kind of a role model for me.

Barry and I are leaving on Monday for our next adventure, a short trip, but an important one. It’s our first trip to Europe, where we’ll be spending the Twelve Days of Christmas seeing Portugal. Why Portugal? Well, it started with a boat…

Back in March, I discovered a very unique sailboat for sale in Portimão, on the south coast of Portugal. It’s a junk-rigged Sunbird 32, and it has a few things in common with the 34-foot Badger we were planning to build. It’s about the same size, has the same rig, and it’s outfitted very simply.

But it was thousands of miles away, and in another country. We weren’t ready to consider boats in California, let alone Europe.

As we began our search to buy an interim boat, people asked if we’d seen anything we liked. “Just one, we said, “but it’s in Portugal, ha ha.”

The time came to make Christmas plans, and as usual, Meps has itchy feet and needs to go someplace exotic. Mexico? Peru? How about Portugal?

For, after all these months, Matanie is still for sale, and what better excuse for our first trip to Europe? A few days after we began considering it, stopped in to see Jacqui. Life’s little coincidences are strange — Jacqui is the person who bought Brian’s old Freedom 38, and got Meps and Barry as new friends in the deal. Her doorbell was answered by a young man with a Portuguese accent, which is how we met Nelson.

Nelson was studying in the U.S., but planning to be home in Coimbra by December. So we would have a friend in Portugal to visit! We bought the tickets.

Excited with our purchase, we mentioned our plans to Janine. “You should look up my friend Carlos in Lisbon!” she said, and introduced us via e-mail. Carlos is an architect (with a really cool website), and he’s putting together a New Year’s celebration for friends coming from all over the world.

Now we have two people to visit, plus a boat and a party!

We picked up a map and one guidebook, but we are taking very little else. We plan to just spend the time immersing ourselves in the place, enjoying the architecture and people and food.

And if we buy the boat? Then we’ll figure out the rest. But every time we tell someone about the boat, they ask the silliest question. “If you buy the boat, how will you get it back?” As Barry says, “Very slowly.” Or, as I say, “Back where?”

And so, on the eve of my next Big Adventure, I will simply copy the dedication from H.M. Tomlinson’s book:


Best wishes to you all, and a Happy New Year.