Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Lisbon, Portugal: Hunting for Azulejos

We approached Lisbon from the south, leaving the hills of cork forests for one last day of cycling a stretch of flat and not-so-inspiring agricultural landscape to the town of Montijo. We were accompanied by a steady stream of traffic and trucks of pig can't see it but you know it's there.  From Montijo it was a short and cheap ferry ride (3.25 euros apiece, and the bikes for free!) and, boom, we were in the busy transportation hub on the shore in the heart of Lisbon.  It was like an ant city, people and cars in constant motion, tourists with cameras everywhere.  Such a contrast to the rural country that we passed through in the last few days.

Cork trees are a variety of oak, and are harvested every nine years. The trees are widely spaced and it is as peaceful as a park, with not much going on other than bark growing.

The trees are marked with the last digit of the year it was harvested.  Can you see the digit indicating that this tree was stripped just last year?

Our first view of Lisbon from the Montijo, across the very wide River Tagus where it flows into the Atlantic Ocean.

Making our way along the riverfront on the Lisbon side.
From a distance Lisbon looks flat, but it really is a jumbled network of winding streets that go up and down steep hills.  There are similarities to San Francisco:  a big earthquake in 1755 that almost totally destroyed the town, a commanding suspension bridge, and old electric cars to take you up and down those hills.

John peeking out the door of a small flat in the heart of the city through AirBnb, our first experience with the service. It was at the top of an incredibly steep hill that was a grade too intimidating to ride up or down.
Our first day we visited the Museu Nacional do Azulejo, which to revealed to us how tile differentiates Portuguese culture.  Centuries of evolution of the art were on display, all housed in a converted convent which was a museum in itself.  It was a great introduction that shaped our subsequent exploration of the city.

Insanely beautiful azulejo, which is more than just painted tile.  It is cultural identity.

Blue and white azulejo developed in the 18th century with pastoral themes painted by professional artists.

In the gallery of the cloister of the old convent a space is dedicated to cataloging and restoring old tiles.  There are boxes and crates stacked high with tiles and shards waiting to be put back together, a rather overwhelming task.

The most impressive piece was this 36 meter-long mural depicting Lisbon before the 1755 earthquake. 

Looking west over the rooftops of Lisbon from high in the Alfama district.

Hardly space for a pedestrian when a streetcar passes.

We rode the streetcar to Belém to visit the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, a former monastery and now tourist mecca.  But deservedly so.

The cloister is all sugar-spun ornamentation.

And if you look closely you can see carving marks and little men's faces among the flowers.

The architectural style of the cloister is Manueline, a Gothic style from the early 16th century unique to Portugal.
Lisbon is a mature tourist destination.  It is a cruise ship port, and we saw at least five floating hotels docked on one section of shore.  There is a broad walking street leading from the docks into the city that is cafes and shopping all adapted to the roaming tourist.  There are sightseeing buses, little motorized carts to take you up hills, restaurateurs handing out menus and nearly pulling you into their establishment .  We found the main center a bit overwhelming and lacking authenticity.  But Lisbon is a big city with a bus and subway system, and we took advantage of that to break out of the touristy core.

Since the beginning of the construction of the subway system in the 1950's, artists have been commissioned to create azulejo art in each station.  So on our second and last afternoon we rode the rails and got off at numerous stations in a scavenger hunt of sorts, looking for azulejos, both old and new.

Subway azulejos!

We saw an aqueduct marked on the tourist map, but we did not have the energy to go down to see the foundation.

But we did come across a segment right in the middle of the city next to a lovely little park.

And the bonus was azulejo embedded in the foundation.

If you understand the meaning of the monkey and these women in this subway station, please explain it to me.

We ducked into a hotel lobby and found this wonderful mix of furniture and azulejo and leaded window.

Our favorite installation was this station...

...with its modern disjointed interpretations of old azulejo themes.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Évora, Portugal: Wanderings in an Old Town

We knew it would be a long day to get from Elvas to Évora. The persistent low spinning off the coast of Ireland that has been pumping wind and rain at us for the last week was due to send its next wave at 1pm (according to this app which we can't help ourselves from obsessively checking). The morning was fine, and after our quarry-gazing we even found a picnic table for lunch, which always puts a cherry on top of the best meal of the day. But as if an alarm went off high in a cloud, a brief downpour happened as we packed up our gear. It was a warning shot, and we continued until about 10 kilometers short of our destination when the clouds united and a big dark wall of water descended on us. We found a tree and huddled under it and watched cars pass by for a good 45 minutes. One woman actually stopped and offered us a ride, but we would have to leave the bikes behind. Not really an option, so we cycled in the rain to town, arriving dripping wet and cold at the grocery store. After stocking up we peddled into the old town and found ourselves a nice guesthouse.

Évora is a medieval hill town still still surrounded by 14th century walls. The streets are impossibly twisted and narrow, and the town is not too big to walk around and explore in a day. And that is just what we did, umbrella in hand. By afternoon the sun came out and we had good light for photographs.

Here are a few of our favorite images from our day of exploring.

The roof line of the most famous church in the town, Igreja Real de São Francisco

The church has lovely turrets, not unlike a soft-serve cone.

The architectural style is describe as Manueline-Gothic.

Many of the alcoves in the church were covered with Portuguese tiles, known as azulejo,


Bright and welcoming buildings.

More marble!

An alley in any other place, but in Evora it is a street.

There are also some Roman ruins.  Here are some of the columns of the Temple of Diana.

A couple of guys just hanging out on top of the Church of Nossa Senhora da Graça.

Remnants of the aqueduct have been adapted to housing and shops within the the city walls.

We followed the aqueduct as it grew taller and taller...

...until we were outside the city walls where the aqueduct arches were just about the right width a lane of traffic.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Borba, Portugal: Shopping for Slabs

Some things really excite us. Like ancient engineering marvels that move water. So on the day we left rain-soaked Mérida to continue our journey west to Portugal, we were treated to not one, not two, but three superb examples.

The Aqueduct of San Lázaro in Mérida, built around the first century BC to bring water to the Roman city from a reservoir to the northeast.

A small section of the mighty Amoreira Aqueduct in Elvas, Portugal, built in the 15th century.  It was truly massive.
We entered Portugal at the town of Elvas, and the landscape from Mérida to there is rather flat and uninspiring.  Lots of agriculture, goats, and sheep.  The persistent low spinning off the coast of Ireland that did its best to keep the wind in our face, so John and I amused ourselves by counting down every five kilometers to switch lead and draft positions.  It slowed us down enough that our entry in Portugal was late enough in the afternoon that there was little time and energy to get us and the bikes up to the fortress town.  We headed for the campground, only to find it was not yet open for the season, so it was another hotel night.  It was a very nice hotel, and reasonably priced (45 euros) like what we have found so far everywhere.  

The next morning was sunny and bright, but I could not say the same for my dear John.  Add to the list of lessons learned -- don't buy a nice prepared salad and then keep it in a warm pannier for four hours before you eat it.  It will result in enough bacteria growth to put down a strong cyclist. So an extra day at the lovely hotel with the beautiful marble staircase.

The marble staircase was our first clue that we were in a special area.  The next clue was when we rode into the town of Borba, and the sidewalks were paved with marble, the curbs were marble, the park benches were marble, and there were smooth rounded sculptures carved from marble on the street corners.

Sidewalks of mosaic granite and marble, and the classiest curbs I have ever seen.

As we left town we began to see on either side of the road manufacturers of granite and stone products, and stacks of marble blocks just left to themselves.  Most of the marble we saw was white with a pink veining, but also beautiful gray and white marble in the neighboring town of Vila Viçosa.

And a bit further down the road we were separated from the chasm of a quarry by just a slack cable.  Something even more exciting for these two geologist that aqueducts!  Little did we know that there were craters like this all around us, as seen in the photos at this link.

The quarry was humming with activity, and workers down in the pit looked like little toy soldiers.

I think I could find something for our kitchen remodel here.

Leaving Borba, the town of beautiful sidewalks.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Mérida, Spain: It Falls Mainly in the Plain

Over the Sierra Norte de Sevilla we did ride, uphill for two very long days. This range is dry, and as we crawled up the steady grades there was not much more to look at than stately cork trees evenly spaced on the hillsides on either side of the road. Other than the occasional farmhouse, there was not much in the way of campgrounds, so we kept our eyes open for stealth camping opportunities. I was a bit worried most since impenetrable fences separated us from sneaking into the forest. But the mantra in my mind of "something will present itself" prevailed, and a most lovely campsite on a ridge in an abandoned olive orchard with an odd cork tree was our reward.

Sleeping among the olive trees.

Stork nests seem to be common, particularly at the top of church steeples.

Winding our way up through the cork forest.
Once we dropped down the north side of the range we were in gently rolling plains with olive trees instead of cork, reaching up the steepest of slopes into the horizon. We seemed to be in the heart of olive production. We filled our water bottles at one gas station in a tiny outpost of a town, and next to the potato chips and candy were gallon jugs of the stuff for sale. Soon after we crossed into the pork belt, with really big hogs standing guard outside little doghouse-like structures.

Weather moved in, and our final day of cycling into Mérida was like flying -- all we had to do was sit it the saddle as the wind pushed us. Mile after mile of vineyards and olive trees, with much activity as workers bladed the earth, trimmed the branches, and burned piles of debris. And with the wind came rain, and we checked our chilled and wet selves into a great hostal in the city from which we could explore the many Roman sites of Mérida. 

Below are a few of our favorite images from our day of exploring the city, umbrella in hand.

Puente Romano, the longest bridge from Roman times.  It is now dedicated to pedestrians and cyclists only, and this was how we entered the city from the west.

A few of the sixty arches supporting the bridge.
Only a small tour group explored the Amphitheatre with us in the morning rain.
Much of the Amphitheatre is constructed of concrete binding large cobbles.  Time has eroded what must have been smooth benches to a rough surface.
Adjacent to the Amphitheatre is the Roman Theatre, where performances are still staged today.
Smack in the center of town is the Temple of Diana.

Many artifacts are preserved and displayed at the wonderful Museo Nacional de Arte Romano.  It is four stories tall with natural light flooding the space with arches that mimic the Roman style.

Just two guys hanging out on what was described as a harness ornament.

There must have been a dozen mosaic floors on display throughout the museum.  This one was the largest.  The variety and level of preservation in which these floors were found astounded us.

And a bit of fun is your reward for making it to the end of this post!

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