Sunday, June 11, 2017

Portugal, the Final Narrative

Franchesca, our faithful virtual navigation talking head, accepted our request to guide us to our apartment rental in Porto, a 4 hour drive to the north.  Although she didn't have much to do on the highway, she kept reminding me of the speed limit when I would inch upward on the speedo.  It was when we actually arrived in the metropolis that she began her urgent commands.  True to form all three passengers chimed in with differing opinions on what she was directing.  Turn left in 300 meters, "not this turn, it's not 300 meters yet".  "Yes, it's this turn because I don't see any other turns".

With several "redirecting" utterances from Francisca, we arrived in front of our digs for a week in a truly beautiful spot directly overlooking the Douro River.

Our landlady was very accommodating and gave us information about where to eat and shop. She even provided a nice cinnamon cake and a decanter of port wine for our enjoyment.

 Just a couple blocks off the main riverfront tourist area was a fantastic local restaurant where, on the several times we visited, never saw a tourist.

The main city was just across this bridge just 100 meters from our front door.

The view from the apartment gave us a  relaxing panorama of the Douro River and the main city across the way.

The streets on our side of the river are steep and wind aimlessly up.  The main streets of Porto proper are also steep, but lucky for me there is a funicular that gets one up pretty high to start a walking tour so its not so strenuous.
And now a word about port wine:

It was the English who started importing wine from Portugal because of feuding with France in the early 1600's.   In the beginning the regular wine from this area, the best in the country, couldn't stand
the long travel time by boat to England, so they discovered that by fortifying the wine with added alcohol, the wine could easily be transported.

So the fortified wine became to be known as Port named for the region. "Moonshine" or other high alcohol medium of 77 % alcohol, which is typically called "Brandy" is used to bring the port up to 20% alcohol which stops fermentation. Stopping the fermentation leaves the residual sugars in the grapes intact which makes it so sweet.Interesting, the fortification alcohol for port comes from South Africa.

We took and all day boat trip 100 kilometers up the Douro to see the growing area.  Our relaxing trip included breakfast and lunch on the boat which transited two enormously high locks. The return trip to Porto was by train which gave new views of the countryside since it didn't follow the river.

There are 14 grape varieties used for white port and 15 varieties are used for red port. Red is divided between Ruby and Tawny.  Ruby is young, typically only a couple years old. Vintage Tawney can be up to 20 to 50 or more years aged in the bottle. 

Each vintner employs their own cask makers which make typical barrels to thousand gallon holding tanks 20 feet tall.  Portuguese oak forests have been decimated, therefore American and French oak is imported for cask making. Casks last 100 years or more and can be used after port making for French cognac, then for Scottish whisky, then for Cuban rum, although apparently shipping of casks is prohibited under international law.

Cork is used for capping, so far no screw caps.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Spain and Portugal Blog #2

I left off of the previous blog with a question which has since been answered (at least to my satisfaction).  I mentioned our Norwegian flight went directly over Iran and Iraq.  I have found that U.S. airlines do not overfly these countries and other carriers are mandated to fly higher than ground-to-air missiles can reach.

So now our troupe of 4 have reached our lodging (and the picture above is not it).  Pictured above is a "castle" inside the grounds of a natural park with extensive gardens which even included a couple Giant Sequoia trees.

We rented a 3 bedroom house several miles west of Lisbon in order to be out of the fray and still near the coast.  We had a full kitchen, outdoor barbecue, and even a small pool.  The owners were very accommodating and gave us some pretty nice wine.  He is a stamp collector and I promised to send him some stamps from Thailand for which he was very excited.  Coastal access from our place was a short car ride and some even walked it for exercise.  One lucky stroke of luck was when food shopping we stumbled on to the wine buyer for the supermarket who, in his knowledge of wine, guided our hanging out tongues to several really nice selections.  On subsequent shopping trips all we had to do was duplicate our list.

This area where we stayed was a virtual warren of small villages and narrow streets with an occasional connecting road between them.  Fortunately I had downloaded Spain and Portugal on my "Open Street Map" phone navigation which guided us through the labyrinth, although there was much discussion in the car about how far "300 meters"was, or where the "next right" was.  We named our navigation's voice Franchesca and alternately praised her when we got it right and cursed her when it was obviously our own stupidity.

This stretch of the Atlantic seemed somewhat rougher than my experience with the Pacific of California.  It was kind of fun to point out to sea and say "there's New York over there", but of course you couldn't even see the Azores 700 miles distant.

My housemates, determined to walk distances as they always are, took a long coastal trek while I drove further up the coast and then back down to a predetermined meeting up spot.  We ate a nice fish lunch, which we did on multiple occasions, overlooking the ocean.

Something I learned is that Portugal is the largest consumer of cod (fish).  Not fresh cod, but dried and salted cod.  More interesting is that there has never been any cod in the waters off Portugal.

Here's the (short version) cod story:

In the 10th century, the Vikings were the first to dry cod which enabled them to sail great distances landing in Greenland, Iceland, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and even as far south as Maine. In more modern times, cod was fished down as far as Boston and the Gorges Banks off Massachusetts was teaming with the fish.  Hence the name "Cape Cod".  It's no coincidence that this is the natural range of the North Atlantic cod.
Vikings "freeze dried" the fish since the climate was so cold.

Centuries later the Basques began bringing in cod and their fishing grounds were kept a secret, which turned out to be the Grand Banks off Nova Scotia.  The Basques, unlike the Vikings, had access to salt, and so, learned to salt the fish before drying which made it last longer.  Cod is the perfect fish to dry since it only has .3% fat and the fat is what degrades dried fish.  The Basques became rich from the cod industry and especially since Catholicism all but mandated people eat fish on Fridays.

So today "salt cod" is ubiquitous throughout Portugal, Spain, much of Europe and even Brazil.  It now comes exclusively from Norway and Iceland.  In Portugal alone there are no less than six grades of salt cod for sale depending on such things as how they are cut, the size and other factors I am not privy to.  I saw many cod shops in Lisbon but, alas, didn't buy any.

Lisbon for me was not as exciting as the first time I was there years ago.  It is very touristed and overcrowded and consequently I only spend an afternoon going there by train.  The picture above is the famous convent where the nuns used egg whites to starch their habits.  With the leftover egg yolks they made a tasty little treat of egg custard called pastais de Belem.  Belem being the neighborhood where the convent (and the pastry shop) are.  They are pretty damn good with an espresso!

Having enjoyed our time on the coast of southern Portugal we now ask Franchesca how to get to our apartment in the northern city of Porto.   To be continued in blog #3.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Spain and Portugal Getaway

In March, April, and May as the temperatures rise and the air quality declines here in Chiang Mai , I typically try to schedule some away time. Mid April is also the Thai new year and "Songkran Festival" where the tradition of gently pouring of water on the hands feet of elders has morphed into forcefully throwing water at traffic and flaneurs.  Sometimes ice cubes are included in the thrown water making the practice even more dangerous and unpleasant, especially for motorcycle riders.

This year I planned a trip to see some longtime friends who live near Seville and meet-up with a friend living in the U.K.  Our plan was to sojourn by car from Spain through the length of Portugal spending a week near Lisbon in the south and a week in Porto in the north.

My flight from Bangkok to Malaga, Spain was on Norwegian Shuttle because of its no-frills cheap fares.  It was $300 one-way and $300 returning from Madrid plus about $35 for hot food service that I consider essential on a long flight.  Lots of folks brought their own food on board for the savings. On Norwegian, you pay for any extras you want such as food, baggage, seat selection, etc. The only drawback is that the flight flew north to Oslo before the connecting flight flew back South to Malaga. On the the plus side is that Norwegian uses the new Boeing Dreamliner for its long-haul flights.

Yes, it's about 10 hours to Oslo, but it was a very comfortable flight with lots of leg room  and the lighting system on the Dreamliner helps to reduce jet-lag because after cabin service is completed the cabin goes dark which calms the passengers so sleeping is easier.  A couple of hours before landing the lights gradually and gently replicate sunrise and a final cabin service is completed before landing.

One thing that interested me is that we flew directly over Iraq and Afghanistan.  Are passenger airliners immune to air attacks?  Or as one friend speculated "It wasn't a U.S. carrier".

Once in Malaga. I gave myself a few days to recover from jet-lag and explore one of the oldest cities on the Spanish coast, the "Sunshine Coast".  It's an obvious old fort-protected city as evidenced by the tangle of narrow streets, many of which are pedestrian only.

The train trip north to Seville took about 4 hours and the highlight, besides going through vast orange orchards, was the spectacular canyon with vertical rock walls reminiscent of the rock walls in Yosemite.  As a popular climbing and trekking site the view from the train revealed a hanging walkway built of wood.  Apparently this was access to an original water flume that in decades past delivered water to distant towns.  The walkway is miles long and is a favorite among Spanish trekkers.

This trip only allowed a couple hours in Seville, which I have explored in greater detail in the past.

This, the Guadalquivir, is the river Columbus used to get to the Atlantic Ocean, nowadays plied by tourist sightseeing barges.

And now on by bus an hour north of Seville to the property of my U.K. friends, Nicholas and Caroline.  They have what looks like about 10 acres to me, all very natural as Nickolas, the botanist prefers a natural flora and fauna setting to trimmed, manicured trees and bushes.  Caroline is growing a few non-native plants and flowers near the entrance and of course they have an extensive garden.  The "finca" (ranch in Spanish) is a great place to hang and relax listening to native birds, the most recognizable were the two cuckoos on either side of the property.

Sunsets were a favorite time on the west patio with guacamole, chips, olives and of course cheap and abundant wine.

While visiting with Nicholas and Caroline we explored some nearby hill villages both on foot and by car.

This is the untouristed town of:

You can see the nesting black and white stork on the church steeple, but what you can't see is how steep the hilly streets are!

Throughout the mountains of the Extremadora area are cork oaks that have been harvested as this photo shows.  It takes about 9 years to grow enough new bark to harvest again.  Some oak forests have been planted and managed and other oaks grow wild on private land.  There are occasional bands of harvesters who systematically pass through and will harvest the cork on your property and pay a percentage of the harvest.

One of my favorite hill towns pictured here is called Cartegena with the requisite castle.  It is relatively small, but large enough to have a couple banks and grocery stores.  It also has two "casinos" which are social clubs, one of which is pictured below.

This idealic town just might be on my short list for spending a month or more next year during Songkran.

One more thing before leaving the finca is the cave system in the nearby town of Arecena.  The caves are actually in the hill underneath the castle and are quite extensive and beautiful.  Many movie scenes have been shot here including Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  The guided tour takes about 90 minutes, so be sure to pee before hand.

OK, enough for this blog.  To be continued where I learn about cod (yep, the fish) and port wine.......