Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Have fun in a storm in the castle

We got ourselves together in the morning and left Manny's apartment, then stopped at a little cafe and had a very milk-y espresso and some tasty flaky pastries for breakfast there. Fueled up, bought some water bottles and headed north and westwards, intending to do a little sightseeing on the way to Coimbra. The best laid plans, you know...

Somewhere in the countryside, when a "Monumento" sign appeared, Manny said he had no idea what it was, but that it meant that there was something interesting and historical that direction, did we want to check it out. Being the bold and intrepid sorts, we of course said "yes", and we were thereby able to encounter our very first Roman ruins, Quinta de Fornea. The signs were all in Portuguese, but we had Manny to translate, and got to enjoy wandering through them.

Heading further north from there, we saw another "Monumento" and pulled off the road at the little city of Belmonte, where we found our way to the tourist information booth after a bit, and got a nice orientation on the local sites from a worker who spoke English quite well. The town had a castle, several old chapels, and an old Jewish quarter, synagogue and museum.

We started with the castle, which turned out to have its interior courtyard full remade into an ampitheatre for musical or stage productions. We were still able to clamber around on its walls and take some pictures of the views from there, though the weather had gotten a bit cold and nasty, and began to drip rain on us. There were other tourists coming and going at a fairly steady pace, when a women came in and shouted at all of us that the castle was closing for lunch, and we'd need to leave. Manny engaged her in conversation, and we found out that all of the attractions there would be closed for the next hour and a half, so we never got to see the Jewish quarter.

Heading further north, we saw another can see how the day is going. At this town, we pulled off to look at some more Roman ruins, Torre Centum Cellas, this time containing a tower that may have dated from Roman times, as well, but there were no placards posted with anything about the site, so we just had to guess. The north central portion of the country is "heavily" forested, and reminded us a great deal of some portions of Idaho. The scent of the pine trees made us feel right at home as we drove, turning west to make a "brief" stop in Viseu. Manny phoned a friend of his from college whose home is there to ask her about the local attractions, and she told him that there were "some churches" we might find interesting near the center of town. While he was talking to her, I took a photo of a very interesting pizza place (left), which unfortunately is no longer in operation, so we weren't able to go inside.

We found a parking spot near a historical-looking convent, and headed for one of the local cafes  for a quick pick-me-up espresso before exploring. The espresso, by the way, was twice as good as Starbucks' and only cost .60 euro or 78 cents! We followed the signs to find the local tourist information office, where we found a very chatty Portuguese girl, (for a mental image think Joan Jett) who has lived off and on in New York for the last twenty years, and who told us what route to walk to see the really important stuff, and a map of the downtown area.

Most guidebooks will mention these tourist information offices and suggest you stop by them for help. However, they're listed in the books as TIs, and the signs that point to them say "Tourismo i", and are very difficult to follow, as they assume that when you're within a couple of blocks of the office, you'll be ok. Great sources of information, usually with English/French/German/Italian speaking employees, but in my small bit of experience so far, tough to find. The one at the castle was listed on the large site map, but had been moved sometime after the sign was created, and the one in Viseu suddenly was across the street and down the block without any signs about the change in directions. Worth the hunt, though.

We stopped at an art museum, Museu Almeida Moreira, which displayed some lovely pieces of (mostly) Portuguese artwork from the collection of Moreira, who was a wealthy military man and art collector, curator of the Grao Vasco museum at the Se, which we visited next, and died without children, so he left his collection to the people. I understand there are many many artworks stored there, but the funding so far has only allowed them to display a small sample. My favorite painting was one of a ship on the high seas by Luis Ascencio Tomazini. I gotta remember to google him later.

Unbeknownst to any of us, Viseu was once the heart of Catholicism in Portugal, and the Holy Se, residence of high church officials. The Misericordia church and museum, pictured above, were closed for renovations, but the Cathedral and its museum were not. We sort of poked around one old portion of the cathedral for a while, taking some pictures, then wandered over the the cathedral proper, where we were totally blown away. It didn't look like much from the outside, but the splendour inside was absolutely crazy. I was muttering to myself, variations on "Holy Moley" the entire time we were there.

The cathedral began construction in 1092, finishing early in the 12th century, and is still in operation today. There were plenty of black clad blue-haired old ladies coming and going, spending time there in prayer, as we and others toured. Immense vaulted ceilings, with massive knotted ropes carved in stone. Gold leaf covered ornate altars and shrines to the Virgin Mary. You know the drill, but you never really "get it" in your gut until you stand in the middle of one of these places, and everywhere you turn your eyes, there's some new piece of holy artwork. The lighting inside made it very difficult to get good pictures, unfortunately, so I ended up buying a postcard from a souvenir store a bit later.

At the front of the cathedral, near the altar, there was an unadvertised doorway with stairs leading upstairs, and I could see an attended counter at the top, so we headed that way. This turned out to be the entrance to Tesouro Meseu da Catedral de Viseu, and for a 2.50 euro fee we were given brochures and the chance to view the holy relics there. Again, words do not properly express the time, detail and expense that must have been spent on creating these expressions and trappings of worship. There were many statues of saints, including several, such as Loyola and Augustine, that I recognized.

There was an amazing carving of the nativity scene (18th century?) perhaps four by four feet, with far more attendants at the Christ child's birth than I remember being in the story, including a man from the tropics in a plaited skirt and an elephant, as well as some folks in tophats and suits. Illustrated manuscripts, a gynormous hymnal of Gregorian chat from which Michele was able to hum the tune, priestly vestments embroidered in gold, massive golden rings and jeweled crucifixes, ivory carvings from the time of the Portugese explorers.

Around 5:30 in the afternoon, we made the decision to skip Coimbra, as we'd arrive there very close to dark the way things were going. There was a big fair going on on the far end of town, which was supposed to have plenty of booths filled with local handicrafts, so we set off to find the Pavalho MultiUso. The local handicrafts, however, were limited to some glazed terra cotta pottery and embroidered linens, mostly, and the fair was filled with the usual junk that we'd not be surprised to see at the Western Idaho State Fair - a much shorter journey. We did have a nice simple meal of traditional bifanas, pulled pork meat with a light sauce, wrapped in buns with a crispy crust, before getting on the road and heading more or less directly back south to Cascais, a three hour drive.

When we got home, we got to meet and talk with Lucy, Manny's older sister. A very nice young lady, who studied music, she and Holly would get along quite well. Off to bed way too late for this old man, and I actually ended up sleeping in till after 8 this morning.

1 comment:

B Fuller said...

Love your narratives, Jon! Keep 'em coming! And it sounds like you're all having a great time!! The first of many European trips, I hope! We're off for Montana today....not nearly as exciting....I hope