The Year That Was…

…2011 in photos….All these photos were taken in chronological order beginning New Year’s eve 2010 and ending with New Year’s eve 2011.

It was a great year…one of the best.

To all my beautiful friends and family who are part of my life, even if you don’t feature in this video, THANK YOU!

Click here for awesome homemade montage

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A Land of Fairytales

A land of castles, fairytales, palaces and princesses exists about thirty minutes outside of Lisbon. It’s a township called Sintra. It’s one of Portugal’s biggest and most popular tourist attractions and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Around the 9th century, the Moors built their castle (Castelo dos Mouros) on top of a nearby hill. In the 11th century, a lot of the town was built up by Arab geographer Al-Bacr. Hans Christian Anderson found literary inspiration here and Lord Byron christened the place “glorious Eden”. Later it became the residence of the Portuguese royal family, which attracted many wealthy aristocrats who built huge mansions in the area.

Looking up at the Castle of the Moors

It’s a mystical, romantic and totally extravagant place that you need at least two days, if not more, to see it properly. Not only are there many buildings (palaces, castles, chapels, monasteries) to see and explore but the gardens surrounding them are truly spectacular as well and you could easily spend a whole afternoon exploring just one of the many enchanted forests surrounding each palace.

Day 1 we started at Quinta da Regaleira which basically translates to Regal Farm. Hardly a farm, this place was spectacular, quirky and pure fantasy. It was built just before the turn of the 20th century in Roman, Gothic and Renaissance styles. It is also known as ‘The Palace of Monteiro the Millionaire’ named after the first owner António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro. The ‘farm’ contains a magnificent palace with beautiful turrets, gargoyles and towers. There are five floors within and there is also a separate chapel.

The Palace of Quinta da Regaleira
View of Quinta da Regaleira from the Castle

But for us, the gardens were the highlight with its mysterious wells, underground grottos, statues, lakes and gazebos. There are four hectares to explore and an underground tunnel system leading to different grottos, the chapel and a tunnel that opened out to the dubiously named ‘Initiation Well’. An immense stone staircase spiralled 32 metres skyward.

The Initiation Well
The Initiation Well

After many hours exploring the park, we went on to the next, to the Palácio de Monserrate (Monserrate Palace).

It was built in the mid-1800’s and they are currently renovating the inside of the palace. Its architecture is reminiscent of a combination of the Taj Mahal and the Duomo in Florence. It’s simply breathtaking. It was once the former private residence of an Englishman, Sir Francis Cook.

Again, the lush gardens were the highlight for us. There are fabulous pathways leading in many different directions to romantic subtropical gardens, lakes and waterfalls. It was a beautiful summers day and we just enjoyed the sunshine and getting lost in the 30 hectares of gardens.

It was an afternoon of fun in the sun but it nearly ended in disaster though as we took a short cut through the Mexican garden full of yuccas, palms and cacti. The tread of my shoes served no purpose as I lost my footing and went so close to tumbling down the decline covered in cacti.

Stay tuned for Day 2 of our visit to Sintra…..

Our Pilgrimage

Lucky for me, I was baptised Catholic and it has served me well since arriving in Portugal where 85% of the population are Catholic. Within two weeks of arriving in Portugal I had been to Mass twice. It had been about 7 years since I had last been to Mass. My father was adamant that if I went again, possibly the roof would collapse or I’d get struck by lightning.

In memory of Filipa’s dear father, who passed away 20 years ago on that day, we all made a trip to Fátima, a small but very famous town in Portugal and the most important place for all Catholics in Europe and worldwide, outside the Vatican. A trip here will really give you an insight in to Portugals’ religious culture. Every year, around 6 million people make a pilgrimage to this little town which inhabits only 10,000 people.

In particular, they come to the Basilica and the main square, very reminiscent of St Peter’s in Rome, to stand where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to three very surprised little peasant children on 13 May, 1917, out tending their parents sheep. The story goes that a bolt of lightning struck the ground and a woman ‘brighter than the sun’ appeared before them. The woman appeared again to them on the 13th day of June and also July. They were told to do penance and pray the rosary every day and they were entrusted with three secrets. News spread quickly around the town and the government accused the church of lying to revive it’s apparently flagging popularity. The children were even arrested and interrogated but they refused to change their story. Then on 13 October 1917, around 70,000 people gathered and witnessed the so-called Miracle of the Sun where the sun changed as if the people had taken LSD or magic mushrooms or something. Out of the three children, only one of them (Lúcia) made it to adulthood. The other two, Jacinta and Francisco died of the flu epidemic in 1918. Lúcia became a Carmelite nun, dying in 2007 at the age of 97. She revealed the first two secrets in 1941 but the final secret was not revealed to the public by the Vatican until 2000, even though she had written down the secret and given it to them in 1960. The final secret depicted a bishop dressed in white being killed by soldiers with guns. People claim that this was a prediction of the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981 (which coincidentally occurred on May 13!) Their knowledge of the secret apparently saved his life but like all good stories there are also some great conspiracy theories out there.

Believe it or not!?

I found this all very fascinating and really enjoyed the peacefulness of the Mass, which was held outdoors in the square. On the left hand side of the square there is a small chapel which marks the spot where the Virgin Mary appeared and it is the place where pilgrims devote themselves and do penance in return for help. Many pilgrims shuffle the entire square on their knees, along a vast marble aisle, which I found incredible. Some would wear volleyball knee-pads and others would endure the pain, as if this would be “better” for their prayers. Nothing like a bit of self-flagellation!

To the side of the chapel is a huge blazing fire and candle-lighting area which you can feel significant heat from and hear the crackling from quite a distance.  Here people light candles, leave gifts or throw offerings on the fire. There are many shops in the town of Fátima that sell interesting religious items like glow-in-the-dark Virgins, rosaries and busts of the Pope. You name it, they got it. I was perplexed by the shops which had wax arms, legs and even babies. When I asked Filipa about this she said it was for people to throw on the pyre, if they had a sick child or a illness in their arm or leg.

After Mass, we all enjoyed a long lunch together in a nearby restaurant. Filipa’s little 10 year old cousin Clarisse was incessantly talking about the ‘Museum of the Life of Christ’ throughout the entire lunch, begging us all to go. So, after lunch, we all took a visit to the wax museum which depicted 33 scenes from the life of Christ….kind of like a Madame Tussauds for Catholics, but more gruesome and with a bit of a bad ending! The only one of its kind in the world.

We almost were the first people to be evicted from the ‘Museum of the Life of Christ’, when Filipa decided she wanted a photo of herself in the nativity scene next to the donkeys and baby Jesus. Before she could get there, and more importantly, before I could get a photo, alarms sounded. We neglected to check for security systems prior to her jumping the barricade.

God sees all!

Village hospitality

Filipa’s village of Barriosa is in central Portugal, near the national park, Serra da Estrela and mainland Portugals’ highest mountain, Torre. Every year the village celebrates the summer holidays with a festival. This village, of about 500 people, knows how to party and for 4 nights they did. Every night there were different bands and a different styles and blends of music, either traditional Portuguese music, reggae or rock ‘n’ roll. Filipa and her cousin Sara manned the cocktail bar every night, making caipirinhas, mojitos and sangria for the masses. For 4 nights we got to sleep around 4 or 5 am and woke in the afternoon for a dip in the local river, in time to do it all over again. I’m sure the Portuguese are missing the ‘I’m sleepy’ gene as they never seem to want to call it quits. People of all ages know how to party. Within days of arriving in Portugal I had developed my addiction to the Portuguese bica – a strong short black coffee! Over the 4 days there are also activities and competitions between Barriosa and neighbouring villages in soccer, a card game played in pairs called sueca and a game similar to petanque or bocce called malha.

Barriosa village

We spent a very relaxing week in the village, swimming, sleeping, eating and drinking and it was also the perfect opportunity for me to meet Filipa’s entire family, as everyone was there for the summer break and the 4-day festival.

The first day I arrived it was one of Filipa’s cousins birthday, so we were off to a family dinner where I got to meet everyone in one go….roughly around 30 people – her mother, brother, aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, cousins, and more cousins. This is just the immediate family. The number grows to around 100 for the extended family. My first Portuguese birthday party was quite a head spinning experience.

Names – how am I ever going to remember them all?

The language – will I ever be able to understand or even speak Portuguese? Everyone sounds like they are arguing passionately with each other (although they are not) and everyone is talking at once. At times, the tones and sounds of Portuguese can almost sound slightly Russian. I was also amazed that not as many people as I thought could speak English and those that could speak English, are quite shy about it, so they don’t.

The food and wines – will my body go in to shock after living in Indonesia for 18 months, with the copious amounts of amazing meats, cheeses, breads and wines?

Okay, I won’t go in to too much detail now about the food because I could write a whole post just about each dish….and I will….. but one word about the food….delicioso!

Towards the end of the evening, the accordion was out and there was traditional singing and there was dancing and much hand clapping. No Portuguese dinner party seems to be complete without a group of family members surrounding the TV and shouting at a soccer game.

During that first week in the village I tried so many traditional homemade dishes and wines. Unfortunately not a lot of photos to show you due to only just having met all these people and I was feeling a little shy to pull out the camera, but I promise to post some photos and go in to more detail in later posts.

Just to name a few and whet your appetite…..leitão (suckling pig), frango grelhado (grilled baby chicken), bacalhau a murro (salted cod fish with smashed potatoes), arroz de marisco (seafood rice), sopa de caldo verde (green cabbage soup), canja (chicken noodle soup), vinho verde (green wine) and cabrito assado (roasted goat)…..and I haven’t even touched on desserts yet or the amazing local cheeses that are so creamy and tasty or the chouriço, the spicy Portuguese smoked sausage.

Filipa’s uncle makes local organic products and has won awards around Portugal for his foods and wines. I tried one of the spirits he makes called Aguardente de frutos vermelhos. It’s about 45% in alcohol and contains small red fruits. Aguardente is like the Portuguese version of the Italian grappa and it sets your throat on fire and your legs weak.

All of the dishes were made by Filipa’s mum, aunties or grandmother and lots of home grown vegetables and organic meats. So organic, I saw the cute little goats being led in to the backyard which were to be roasted later that day. Filipa’s grandparents have a shop where they sell a lot of produce to the village with an adjoining traditional Portuguese café (the only one in the village).

I also witnessed the annual Procession of the Saints through the village, which coincides with the 4-day festa. The patron Saint of Barriosa is Santo António, Saint Anthony. After Sunday Mass, four statues of Saints were carried through the entire village on the shoulders of the villagers. Each Saint had been decorated with flowers and the village streets had been decorated by the children with paper flags. It was beautiful just following the procession through the streets amongst the grape vines and feeling the community spirit and local pride.

I was welcomed with open arms and warmth in to Portuguese village life and Filipa’s family. It was a wonderful introduction in to Portuguese culture and one I will always remember with fond memories.

We stopped for one final look back over the national park as we were leaving to head back to Lisbon.  Farewell for now, Barriosa. What a great week.

Óbidos

Third day in Portugal, the jet lag had just subsided and we were off on our first adventure to Filipa’s village in central Portugal. On the way, we stopped at the beautiful town of Óbidos, about 100km north of Lisbon. It’s a gorgeous place surrounded by a fortress. Yes, about 3,000 people actually live here, with their very own 12th century castle and 45 foot wall around their town, which is high up on a hill. Oh my, it blew me away. The medieval architecture has been beautifully preserved and it’s so so quaint. I want to live inside a fortified city with my very own castle!! It’s incredibly romantic with its cobblestoned streets, whitewashed houses, bougainvillea and geraniums in windowsill pots,

Streets of Óbidos from the castle wall

It was my first real taste of Portugal outside of Lisbon and it was here I first saw the Portuguese tiles, azulejos. As you enter the town walls, you pass through the main gate where there is an outstanding oratory and the azulejos there date back to the 1700’s.

As we wandered the narrow cobblestoned streets, I saw snippets of daily life amongst the throngs of tourists – old ladies sitting in open windows talking to their neighbours, linen filled with freshly baked bread, pão, and tablecloths hanging out to air.

This tablecloth features the national symbol of Portugal, the rooster, Galo de Barcelos. The rooster goes back hundreds of years to a fable of a peasant villager in Barcelos, who was accused of stealing and was sentenced to death. He defiantly claimed he was innocent and pointed to a roasted rooster that was about to be eaten by the judge. He said “If I am innocent, that rooster will crow three times.” And the rooster stood up on the plate and crowed three times and he was set free.

In Portugal, the rooster symbolises honesty, integrity, trust and honour and everyone has one in their house to bring them good luck. You see them everywhere. Within 2 weeks, I was given an apron from an aunty of Filipa’s with the rooster on it. I took this as a good sign of acceptance.

We also sampled the local liqueur called Ginja, or Ginjinha. Now if you’re a fan of cherries, you will love this. It’s a liqueur made from infusing sour cherries with aguardente (a Portuguese brandy), sugar and cinnamon. Each region of Portugal makes it slightly different. You typically drink it like a shot, with a piece of cherry in the bottom of the cup but in Óbidos they drink it from a shot glass made of chocolate…..oh yeahhhhhhhhh!

If I wasn’t about to meet Filipa’s entire family in a matter of hours, I would have polished off the whole bottle! We’ll definitely be going back!

Loves of Portugal

It’s taken me a while, but here it is. My Portugal blog – “Pounding the Calçada Portuguesa“. We’ve been doing a lot of walking and the streets of Lisbon are absolutely stunning, if not a little dangerous at times. But I’m finding that the beauty of this art form definitely outweighs their slippery and perilous nature.

Calçada Portuguesa, otherwise known as Portuguese pavement, is a very traditional style cobblestone found everywhere throughout Portugal. Designs are usually in black and white using basalt and limestone, are still created by hand and are an important part of the nations identity and heritage.

Many beautiful afternoons have so far been spent walking and getting lost in the gorgeous and charming streets of Lisbon, exploring the narrow travessas (alleyways) and becos (cul-de-sacs) in Alfama, Graça, Bairro Alto, Chaido and Castelo districts. Calçada can be found everywhere throughout Lisbon from ordinary black and white square designs through to the more elaborate and artistic patterns.

I’m totally obsessed with the calçada in this country!

But I also have a growing obsession with the Portuguese tiles, the azulejos. Wandering the streets of Lisbon is a feast of colours and designs, not only at feet level, but also at eye level and above on the many traditional apartment buildings. The tiles are painted and made from ceramic. The artform date backs to the 15th century and can be found on just about every kind of building from churches, palaces, apartment buildings, train stations to the Metro.

In contrast, the city is also covered with amazing street art and graffiti, which I also love. The colour and the designs are unique and it is fast becoming a major attraction of Lisbon, so much so that the city council has started handing over abandoned buildings to artists, as they have realised that good quality street art might actually be an asset rather than a scourge on the city.

I’ve already been here six weeks and am completely in love.  I will have plenty to write about…..the food, the culture, the art, the people, the music, the language, the beautiful countryside….as we pound the pavements of Portugal.

And last, but not least, my other love in Portugal, and the reason I am here.

So stay tuned and please feel free to comment if the mood strikes you. It makes me happy to know you are out there reading.