Usually we travel during the Christmas holiday season. At home this year, I've felt caged and uneasy. As a travel substitute and to get my mind off my cat, currently in the hospital, I'm reading through old travel journals to remember other Christmases on the road.
In 2005, on Christmas Eve day we drove from the south coast near Faro, Portugal, to Evora. The roads were empty. Miraculously, we found our hotel “Albergaria Do Calvario” effortlessly for a change. The hotel was excellent; comfortable, small with only 26 rooms.
After settling in, we strolled around the town - an easy walk, visiting the Temple ruins, the Cathedral of Evora, the Church of St. Francis (with it's macabre bone chapel) and enjoyed the ambiance of the narrow cobble stoned streets. The bone chapel was created from the bones of 5000 people and you've got to give the folks credit for originality and for recycling. Even though it's creepy, it seems a far better attraction than the ridiculous icons that are the claims to fame of so many churches and cathedrals.
|Creepy bone chapel|
All the restaurants were closed; Pousada dos Loios, an upscale, expensive hotel (one of the state-owned Pousadas de Portugal group) was the only choice for dinner later.
It took imagination to cobble semi-decent clothing together. We piled on all our outerwear, including hats, scarves and gloves and walked over to the hotel for our 7:30 reservation. You know how it is in Spain and Portugal - dinner before 9 p.m. is for children. Luckily the Pousado hosts many Americans and the staff is accustomed to old farts like us asking for the earliest seating.
The loggia where dined was lined with glass doors which looked out onto a beautiful, romantically lit courtyard. Large candle stands were piled with big, fat candles melting into each other like liquefying wedding cakes. Decorations consisted of an abundance of pine boughs piled everywhere, tied with satiny ribbon swags. From the set menu we chose soup, roast turkey with pureed spinach, roast potatoes and giblet stuffing; we ordered a half bottle of house red wine. They must have guessed half a bottle wouldn't do it, because they brought us a full bottle which we promptly drained. There was a groaning board dessert buffet loaded with beautiful concoctions. Unfortunately, they all tasted the same - riffs on custard: eggs, butter, flour. For most of the dinner we shared the dining room with a couple of parties of women, singles and pairs, but around 8:30 couples and families started drifting in. By the time we left, the place was full.
As we've traveled around, we've run across a disproportionate number of women traveling alone or with a girl friend/sister/mother. They all have the same story: "My husband doesn't like to travel." I've yet to run into a man traveling alone who makes the same claim about his wife.
On the walk home, the streets were deserted and still; a light snow was falling. We passed one solitary bundled up young woman who said “Bon Natale”. Christmas lights hanging above the streets were festive. As we neared the hotel, we saw a small white cat, plump but scruffy looking, ducking into a hole in the road, squiggling into the space; we assumed it might be looking for rats or mice. It wasn’t a bit afraid of us. We thought it odd that it would choose this road hole that would normally get a lot of traffic. It's not likely we'd notice a similar little cat detail if we were at home. One of the joys of traveling is that you notice things - everything because of your heightened attention.
At 10:00 in the morning, we woke up and rushed down to breakfast which ended at 10:30. The buffet was hearty and included cereal, pound cakes, a variety of breads, croissant, scrambled eggs, bacon, ham, cheese, coffee and tea. As we were the last guests to eat, the staff was waiting for us to finish so they could clean up and go home to their families. Sometime overnight the snow turned to rain so we used the car to drive over to St. Francis for the Christmas mass. The church was half full, warm and nicely decorated. Choral music was lovely with unusual (for our ears), beautiful harmonies. The organist was a stand-out; he seemed far too good for this parochial setting. At the end of the ceremony people lined up to go up front where the priest held up a plastic baby Jesus for people to kiss. Struck me as strange and almost creepy, weird. Richard didn’t agree – he thought it was fine.
After the ceremony, we drove around trying to find someplace open either for coffee or lunch. Finally we stopped at a gas station and had a coffee for 50 cents out of the machine. It actually wasn't bad. The things you do while on the road!
By evening, it was pouring but we'd discovered that the Chinese restaurant was open - isn't that true all over the world - the one place you can rely on for Christmas? We donned our rain gear and jogged to "O Geraldo" , a block from the hotel. As we turned the corner we could see the red Chinese lantern's light reflecting on the wet cobblestones. We crossed the threshold into a warm steamy, room. One large round table was occupied with a lively party. A young Chinese woman was standing up, arms crossed, engrossed in a TV mounted up on the wall. The menu was extensive; there were 5 or 6 pages of the usual options. Richard chatted with the waiter in Chinese (they asked if he was a teacher). We ordered a house specialty – squid with green peers (we imagined eating the squid midst many envious equals). It was very pleasant to eat while “agglutinating” – a term used in the Evora official brochure to describe socializing. The food was fine: wonton soup, squid and peppers, chicken with noodles, fried rice and 2 Chinese beers. With our 16 euro bill (a real bargain), they brought us 2 small cups of a delicious plum flavored Chinese liqueur.
Merry Christmas! Bon Natale!
|Christmas tree in Lisbon|