Sunrise on the Dunes

So, yesterday after arriving at our camp after the sandstorm, we hoped that the wind would die down enough to allow us to take a camel trek out to view the sunset. No such luck. There was enough wind and sand kicking up to obscure any view.

In fact, we learned over dinner that another guide had gotten lost in the sandstorm. Our guide and some others went out to try to locate them. We got a report this morning that they were finally able to locate them at about 3am. I can only imagine how panicked the tourists in the lost car were!

I know I’m grateful that we got safely settled into our camp, even if we didn’t get to see the sunset. fortunately, later in the evening, the sky cleared and we were treated to an amazingly starry sky. There were only six guests total at the camp and after the others (including Jeff) went to bed, I went out and did a little meditation and yoga under the stars. It was so quiet and peaceful — something I’ll always remember.

Then, this morning, to make up for our missing the sunset on the dunes, we were escorted by camel out to the dunes to watch an amazing sunrise. Pictures don’t do it justice, but it will give you a taste of what we saw.

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8 Things I Loved in Portugal

It’s been a more than two weeks since we left Lisbon and I’ve been thinking about the things I will remember most:

1. Pastéis
Every time I go for dim sum, I’m most excited by the little custard cups you can get for dessert. I’ve even found great little bakeries in the San Francisco Richmond district where I can buy them. In reading about Portugal before we left for the trip, I was stunned to learn that the Chinese custard evolved from a Portuguese pastry: Pastéis de nata.

These were at the top of my “must try” list and I was not disappointed. I had made a list of a number of cafés that reportedly made good ones. I tried as many as I could and was never disappointed. Then, on our last day, we made it to Pastéis de Belém — supposedly the originator of this lovely little treat.

Now, had I gone there first, every other version of the pastéis would have disappointed me. The crust at Pastéis de Belém was unlike any of the others: light, flakey layers almost like phyllo dough. The custard also was different, richer perhaps. And, since they were made on site, they arrived at our table still warm and fresh. Not sure any other pastéis will do now. I wonder if they ship?

2. Cascais
When we were preparing for the trip, Jeff only had one item on his “must see” list: Estoril and the Cascais region. For those of you who are James Bond/Ian Fleming fans, you may know that the Estoril casino was the original inspiration for Casino Royale. Additionally, in his reading, Jeff learned that this coastal region was a hotbed of spy activity during WWII. Neither of those facts really made me excited to explore the area, but this was my new husband’s one wish for our honeymoon and I was pretty sure I couldn’t refuse.

I’m grateful that I didn’t.

After arriving in Lisbon, we dropped our luggage at Traveller’s House (great hostel, BTW), grabbed our swimsuits and hopped on a train that would take us up the coast. Even once we were there, the spy intrigue didn’t pull me in, but I must say that the beaches were beautiful and inviting. After our very long flight from SFO, it was nice to spend a couple of hours relaxing on the beach and wandering the streets of a very charming town. I could imagine returning there for a beach vacation.

3. Fado
Jeff and I were both interested in hearing Fado when we were in Lisbon. Fortunately, Jeff did his research and found a great spot. We ended up in Atasca do Chico, arriving as an older man was singing. The bar was standing room only and all we could do was hover close to an open window and peer in. Fortunately, once he was done, lights came up and the crowd shuffled. We squeezed our way in and found some open seats.

As the night progressed, different singers performed. I could hear various people talk about one young woman who would slip behind the bar and then walk out into the alley. One man noted that she was an amazing fado singer. Eventually, she was up and the man was right. Her name was Inés Pereira and as soon as we had a wi-fi connection, we downloaded her music from iTunes.

I had been standing at the bar as she began singing and when she was done, I was was touched by the fact that the older man who had been singing when we arrived stood up from where he was sitting and ushered me to take his chair — not realizing that I had a chair on the other side of the room. That sweet gesture is one of my favorite memories of the trip.

4. Hole-in-the-Wall Restaurants
Our first night in Lisbon, we took so long deciding where to go to dinner that by the time we reached the place we were looking for, the kitchen had closed. Without a plan, we started wandering the streets of Bairro Alto at 11pm in search of someone who would feed us. We stumbled upon a bar called Zapata that happened to have a window full of fish. We poked our heads in and asked if they were still serving. The bartender gruffly pointed to the next room and we wandered in and found a table. A waiter (who thankfully spoke English) brought us a menu and a plate full of breads and cheeses. We decided to try Alentejana pork and clams and a shrimp dish — shrimp cooked with olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes. Both were great.

The next night we went in search of Caldo Verde, a Portuguese soup that Jeff makes at home. We checked out the menus of about a dozen restaurants before finally finding one that had it. I’ll admit, I didn’t take notice of the name of the place, but loved that there were less than 20 seats in the place. We took it as a good sign when a little old woman came out from the kitchen, left the restaurant and came back about five minutes later with a bag full of vegetables.

Now, as for the Caldo Verde, I must say that I like Jeff’s version better, but we also tried Alentejana soup and I may have a new favorite. It was very basic: a very light, garlicky broth with toast and a poached egg. We also had what maybe the best lamb I’ve ever had. Very simply roasted with herbs and some potatoes. I do love simple food.

5. Alfama
The Alfama district is the oldest in Lisbon. Buildings with beautiful tiled facades cover the hills of this district. My one regret from our trip to Lisbon is that we didn’t find an antique tile to bring home with us. We saw some while wandering through the Alfama district, but didn’t have the foresight to get one there. Next time.

Though we were warned it would be very crowded with tourists and pickpockets, we wanted to check out the 28 Tram. Once one finally stopped at our tram stop, we climbed on board. It was packed and not very pleasant. However, we did get the opportunity to watch two trams do battle with one track. As we worked our way up the hill, we came around a corner to find a tram coming our way.

The two drivers stopped (we were never in danger), then gestured at one another a bit (apparently trying to decide who was at fault), and then us tram driver got out and backed us up to the switch. Three trams passed us going down hill, then our tram and one that came into the switch as we arrived, were able to make our way up hill.

Once we’d made it a bit further up hill, I’d decided I’d had enough of being crammed into a box with way too many people and we got off. We spent the next hour or so exploring. Wandering up and down streets, particularly enamored by the tile facades. Eventually, our legs wore out and we needed to find our way back. Jeff spotted a 28 Tram stop and fortunately, it wasn’t nearly as crowded as the first — I even got a window seat from which I got to snap lots and lots of pictures.

6. Cafe Culture
We like coffee. Before leaving, I’d compiled a list of a number of cafés that I wanted to try. We made it to a couple, but most of all at the ones we went to, we got our first dose of cafe culture. Sitting down to have a coffee at any hour and just relaxing. By the time we’d got to Spain, we’d defined it as getting our cafe lizard on — hanging out in a cafe like a lizard hangs out on a hot rock.

We, of course, went to A Braisliera, which was cited in every guidebook. But we found lots of little ones too. Our favorite was a place called Pois Cafe. It was on my list due to a comment by a WSJ reader an alternative to A Braisliera and, by chance, was a recommendation of the manager at our hostel. I ordered a cappuccino (or two) there and it may be the best I’ve ever had.

7. Stairs at Sao Jorge Castle
Before finding the 28 Tram in the Alfama district, we climbed the hill to Sao Jorge Castle. The ruins of the castles were fascinating to walk through and he views of the city were stunning.

At every turn as we explored the grounds, there was another set of stairs. Some up and some down. I’ve never wanted so much to be wearing a FitBit. What I wouldn’t give to know just how many flights of stairs we climbed that day.

8. Belém
I’ve already written about Pateis de Belém, which is reason enough to go to Belém, but there is more.

In particular, the Jeronimos Monastery was remarkable. It is an amazing example of Manueline design, which apparently is uniquely Portuguese. The intricacy of the carvings and the beatyty of the archways resulted in us taking a lot of pictures. Additionally, both Vasco de Gama (the famous explorer) and Fernando Pessoa (the revered poet) are buried there.

We also walked to Belém Tower. This tower also is an example of Manueline design. Like the monastery, the intricate carvings on the facade were beautiful. Inside, we were able to climb the narrow spiral staircase that led to the top of the tower and get a sense of the defensive value of the tower itself.

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Traveling without the Extra Pounds

Nearly two years ago, I began to pay attention to my weight. The scale (and my doctors) told me I was definitely overweight and my BMI told me I was bordering on obese. On Christmas Day 2011, I started a food journal. I recorded everything I ate and did my best to estimate the calories. It worked. Over the course of about 9 months, I lost 45 pounds — reaching my target weight. Happily, I’ve kept them off.

Since that time, people have often asked me if I felt different. In all honesty, most days I don’t notice. However, this week, I’ve noticed.

There have been multiple times over the last couple of days as we’ve trekked through Lisbon and Madrid when I’ve realized I would not have been able enjoy this as much if I was still carrying those 45 pounds.

There are some simple and basic things that have made me take notice of the advantage of being smaller, notably many European water closets are quite tiny. This trip I’ve realized exactly why they are called water closets, since I’ve been in many that clearly used to be closets! They are a tight squeeze the size I am now, it would have been downright uncomfortable to manage before.

And, don’t get me started on the shower stall in our train cabin! I remarked to Jeff this morning that our cabin would have been impossible to maneuver and truly miserable if we hadn’t both lost the weight we had.

But most notably, my ankle has not locked up.

My right ankle was reconstructed when I was 16 and I have fairly severe arthritis. Two years ago, had I been walking even half as much as we’ve walked the last three days, I would have required a day of down time to recuperate and I would have been searching for the nearest soaking tub in the hopes hot water would loosen it up.

No doubt, my legs are sore, tired and I desperately need to do some yoga hip openers, but my ankle has held up remarkably well.

I’m grateful to be at a healthy weight and able to squeeze in as much exploration as possible.

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Exploration and Invention in Portugal

On our final day in Lisbon, we set off to Belém to learn more about Portugal’s explorers. In particular, Vasco de Gama, whose explorations led to the creation of a spice route that led to Portugal’s economic dominance for many years.

We visited his tomb at Jerónimos Monestery, which is a beautiful example of Manueline architecture. But while in the neighborhood, we also learned more about an invention of the monks who lived in the monastery — the pastéis de nata. While in Lisbon, we had more than our fair share of these yummy little custards cups, but apparently we saved the best for last. Apparently the original and secret recipe of the monks of the Jerónimos Monastery is handed down now through Pastéis de Belém. I’d heard a lot of hype about this little pastry before we went and I was prepared to be disappointed. Boy was I proved wrong. Not only was the custard perfect, the crust was surprisingly crispy and flakey.

After enjoying that tasty treat, we learned more about Portugal’s leadership during, the Age of Discovery. Quite a lot to be said for this relatively small country.

We left Lisbon Wednesday night to take a train to Madrid. We crammed a lot in three short days, enjoyed every minute, but know there was so much more to experience.

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A Day of Music

This morning, I awoke to the sounds of Fado on the street beneath my window.

As I slowly came into consciousness, though I could not understand the words of the singer, I was moved by the passion and emotion behind each note. Once I figured out what was going on, it became clear that a street performer was piping pre-recorded Fado to draw an audience in. It didn’t matter, I was hooked.

That voice and emotion became a theme for our day.

As we finally ventured out, we landed at Pois Cafe and had what perhaps may have been the best cappuccino I have ever had. But while there, we meat Santos Cabral of the band Guents dy Rincon. He hit us up to listen to his CD (on an old school bright yellow Discman, of all things). With just a few notes, we were hooked and shelled out real cash to take the disk with us.

After a long day exploring Castelo de São Jorge and the hills of Alfama, we ultimately ventured back into Bairro Alto to hear some Fado live. Following a tip from Anthony Bourdain, we ventured into Tasca do Chico and got our first taste of live Fado.

Somewhere along the way I read something that said that you could judge the quality of Fado by whether or not it brought tears to your eyes. Though we heard some lovely artists this evening, only one made me sob. Within the the first notes she vocalized, Inés Pereira surprised me and showed me the power of Fado. Needless to say, given the power of the Internet, before we even left the bar, we’d found her in Google and iTunes.

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Week Thirteen: Rodeo Beach

On Sunday, April 1, Ethan and I were on our own. After a torrential downpour on Saturday, when I spotted blue sky on Sunday morning, I was anxious to get out and take advantage of the weather.

Ethan and I hopped into the car and drove over to the Marin Headlands. Fortunately the weather held and we were treated to a lovely morning out at Rodeo Beach. We wandered around Rodeo Lagoon, played on the beach for a bit and then checked out the Marin Headlands visitors center. Following the storm on Saturday, the surf at the beach was rough. You could see the waves breaking not just on shore, but out at sea. I was happy to be on the beach and not in the water.

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Week Nine: Exploring Cambridge

On Saturday, March 3, I was not home, but in Cambridge MA. I am at Harvard for a two-week stint studying at Harvard Business School. I did not really get a change to get away from the city, but did spend about three hours on Saturday afternoon exploring Cambridge.

I met up with a friend of my sister’s and he took me all over Cambridge — from Harvard Yard to Radcliffe to Cambridge Common. We explored buildings and cemetaries as we came across them. The highlight of our wandering was stumbling upon Longfellow House/Washington’s Headquarters. I was surprised to learn that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had selected the home that George Washington selected as his headquarters and home in July 1775 as he began to build the Continentental Army.

Sadly, the house was closed for renovations, but we did get to wander through the grounds and the brochure shared this lovely Longfellow quotation:

Once, ah, once within these walls,
One whom memory oft recalls,
The Father of his Country dwelt.
And yonder meadows broad and damp
the fires of the besieging camp
Encircled with a burning belt
-from To a Child by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1845
 

Lovely day and a great reminder for this California girl of just how tangible US history in the east.

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Week Eight: A Suburban Hike

So, my eighth weekend became over scheduled.

On Sunday I was scheduled to fly to Boston to participate in a two-week training program. As a result, my Saturday got filled with family obligations, including Girl Scout cookie deliveries, before I left town.

By the time we got to my sister’s house (our last stop) Saturday afternoon it was getting dark. As I expressed my disappointment that I had not gotten my hike in, she lit up and said she’d go for a walk with me. Both the dog and the kids were excited to join us.

We went on a 45-minute walk through her neighborhood on well-lit streets. Though we may not have communed with nature, I certainly was reminded how grateful I am to live where I live and to have my family so close by.

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Week Seven: Mt. Tamalpais

On Saturday, Jeff and I took a day hike on Mt. Tamalpais. It was a great day to try out the Matt Davis-Steep Ravine Loop. Starting at Pantoll Ranger Station, we took the Matt Davis trail over to Stinson Beach (where we had a late lunch) and then took the Dipsea Trail over to the Steep Ravine trail.

To say the scenery was beautiful would be an understatement. When a day includes both sweeping views of the Pacific and secluded redwood groves, it’s easy to be grateful to live here in the Bay Area.

The only downside of the day was when I misstepped and twisted my ankle. That wouldn’t have been so bad if I didn’t have another mile and a half to go. Despite my whining, I survived and by the next day, my ankle was doing fine.

  • Weather: Sunny, but with an ocean breeze and a bit chilly in the shaded areas.
  • Distance: 7  miles
  • Time: 5 hours (including an hour for lunch in Stinson Beach)
  • Highlights: Amazing views of the Pacific. Waterfalls. Lush redwood forest.
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