Tuesday, September 7, 2010


Monday morning, we threw Rick Steves under the bus. The place we traveled to was not in his guidebook. We got up and ate a light meal of pastries and delicious cafe con lait. The miniature custard cups called pastel de nata were particularly good. Manny drove us to the bank, and I successfully used the Multibanco to get some euros for spending money. The final tally may not have arrived in my statement, but this appears to be the best way to get currency "exchanged", without fees or markups of any sort.
We drove north through the center of Portugal to Covilha, a small town which used to be a manufacturing center, but which is now mostly supported by the university here. After we got clear of the Lisbon metro area, the countryside turned mostly agricultural, with grape vines, corn fields and olive trees, and some very prosaic nuclear power plants. It was a warm summer day, and a very uneventful drive, aside from some very persistent gypsies at a petrol station who wanted to sell Manny an Iphone for a mere fifty euros. I am happy to report that service station facilities in Portugal are quite clean, though the hand soap needed to be refilled.

Upon arriving in Covilha, we first went to Manny's apartment, which he shares with several other students, and dropped off our rather minimal luggage. Then we went out for lunch at a great little restaurant next to the university, where we ordered a variety of Francesinhas, an open-faced triple-decker sandwich filled with various meats, topped with cheese and a sliced egg, and smothered in a spicy but simple sauce. I can't remember what mine was called, but it loosely translated as "I am Full", and had linguica, frankfurters, ham, and pork inside. It came with a side of fries that, unfortunately, had to remain untouched.

Manny needed to spend some time in line at the registrar's office, so he took us up to the old center of town and dropped us off, leaving us his cell phone so we could keep in touch.Michele and I spent several hours wandering through the maze of streets surrounding the town square and its city hall. There was a kiosk in the southwest corner of the square which sold cafe and juices, mostly, where the locals relaxed and the teenagers were skateboarding. This is probably the largest level area in town, which is built on hillside. Any direction you walk from here is at an incline, ranging from the mildly hilly to completely exhausting.

We poked our heads into many of the small local shops. My first actual purchase in a foreign currency was a small pocket knife, since I hadn't felt properly dressed since I had to leave mine behind to get on the plane back home. It ain't Toledo steel, but it will suffice to cut fruit, open packages, and sharpen pencils as needed. In general, prices were clearly marked in all of the stores we saw, and a smile and thank you were all the Portuguese we needed to make our purchases.

The town is a curious mix of old...and really old. There's a wonderful little park, Jardim de Publicos, on the northwest side, with some spectacular views and plenty of places to relax on a bench and enjoy a gelato. Near the park is a memorial to the veterans of WWI, which provided a great photo op.

Located about 300 km away from the more touristy areas of Portugal near Lisbon, not many of the locals spoke much English, though the younger store clerks and barristas gave it their best try. I did manage to gather from one saleslady's pitch before she realized that we didn't speak much Portuguese that they were having a 30% off sale on everything in the store, but I just couldn't see a need for yarn, so I was unable to boost the local economy for her.

There is a magnificent church right on the town square, which was covered up and undergoing major renovations, so we weren't able to see it, but the postcards of it were very impressive. Towards the end of our perambulations, Michele and I wandered uphill  past the town's rather gothic cemetary and found the Capela da Santa Cruz, which was built in the 1640s, and which is still in use today, apparently for weddings and other gatherings, mostly. Not gaudy or ostentatious in the slightest.

It took Manny quite some time to get through the registration lines, but around 1900 hours he called and said he was mostly done, and would meet us back at the town square in twenty minutes. We got a bit confused coming down the hill from the Capela, and after some twists and turns, ended up about a half block away from the university building just in time to see Manny, himself, walking along the street on his way to pay his tuition. One rather frustrating issue with the langauge presented itself when Manny's landlord, understandably anxious about when he was to get his rent, called on the cell phone I was carrying, and couldn't understand why an American was answering. He had no English at all, and I'm afraid his wife, to whom he passed the phone, probably will remain confused to the end of his days. We shook his hand and were introduced when he stopped by later to tell Manny about the improvements he had made to the place over the summer break, so at least he left with a face to go with the clueless voice.

We got our first taste of a big shopping center in a more level area of town when we went to pick up some salad ingredients for dinner back at the apartment, and sandwich fixings for our drive onward today. The Continente was a typical superstore, with a color scheme highly reminiscent of Target and a crowd of shoppers busily buying back to school supplies for their kids and grandkids. When we were entering the shopping mall, Manny stopped by the entrance to greet some former coworkers from his job at an appliance store there, and I was standing to the side, observing their European cheek kisses and managed to get smacked in the rear by the automatic door. The poor fellow who triggered the door apologized profusely, but both of our wives laughed at our embarassment unreservedly. When we got back to the apartment, Michele couldn't resist putting the Mom's touch to work on the place, and soon had the kitchen cleaned and organized.

Spent most of the evening sitting around the kitchen table chatting with Manny about his experiences in America and the friends he left behind there, and didn't get to bed until quite early this morning, which meant I could at least see that the Broncos were leading Va Tech by 10 in the first quarter on ESPN's web site, allowing me to sleep peacefully at last.

No comments: