June 2005

Cup of Soup

Thu, Jun 2, 2005

Play Nice

Tomorrow I leave for my "last" big vacation. I've said "last" for my other two, but somehow found an excuse to jet off again each time, so here I go.

I'm off to the homeland, seeing the sights and visiting family in Portugal, preceded by another Contiki tour, this time of Tuscany, for a "vacation away from the family vacation", so to speak.

Massively long and massively entertaining journals and pictures will once again follow my return at the end of the month. Everyone play nice while I'm gone.

Fri, Jun 3, 2005

Toronto to Rome

I must be getting used to packing, because I left practically all of it to the morning before I left. Last nights with friends, soccer games, and hockey games only left me the hours between midnight and late morning to do my packing. Either that, or I have gotten especially lazy and procrastinated. At least that means I am still in tune with my old student lifestyle, and will therefore easily adjust to the hectic and energetic pace of another European tour.

We got to the new Terminal 1 at Pearson International Airport, marvelled at its madness, and got checked in. I headed for the gate a good hour before the flight time because I had little else to do, and it was a good thing I was that early. Due to the ongoing construction, I had to catch a shuttle bus that took me here, there, and everywhere before we finally got to the other building that actually housed the gate. For a while, I expected we would be driven all the way to Rome.

This was my 29th commercial flight. After that many plane rides, you'd think I'd be used to flying. You'd think I wouldn't get nervous and clutch the armrests at every takeoff and landing. You'd think I would know all the safety regulations off by heart. You'd think I'd be able to fall asleep.

If you think any of those things, you'd be wrong. I still get the shakes at every liftoff and landing, I still can't sleep, and as I would soon find out, I apparently don't know the safety regulations, either.

I prepared for yet another vain attempt at napping at 30,000 feet. I got my silly-looking neck pillow, blankets guarding the most uncomfortable areas of the seat, and my MP3/CD player ready with a wide selection of calming music for sleep. Then, I was promptly told that CDs are not allowed on the flight. Despite the wild and varied efficiently interworking technologies all around the aircraft, tests and redundancies to account for any conceivable failure, and security measures to guard against supposed threats to our safety from terrorists the world over, the great and powerfully unstoppable force that will lead us all to our fiery deaths is a little laser reading information about the acoustic version of The Corrs' Somebody For Someone.

I should have known. Those CD lasers have been the cause of all the world's problems for decades. Struggling economy? Caused by the economic drain of an abundance of CD player lasers. Global warming? Too many laser beams escaping from CD casings and flooding our atmosphere. George W Bush? He doesn't really exist; he is merely a hologram produced by the strategic placement of hundreds of CD player lasers, constructed by the secret Stonemason and Low-Powered Laser society with the aim of ruling us all.

"What am I to do now?" I thought. "I need that CD player to pretend to sleep. The airline radio is no good; I have better taste in music than they do. My only hope is that a really bad movie will be played that will knock me out. Let's see... After the Sunset. Well, if that doesn't do it, nothing will."

Indeed, nothing would, as I sat dazed but awake the entire time until an episode of the Flintstones caught my attention. I then noticed the pair of people in the aisle across from me. They had kept complaining to themselves about the poor quality of service and the rudeness of the flight attendants. As they continued to discuss this, one of them opened a bag containing a standard issue airline blanket, and threw the plastic bag in the middle of the aisle. I looked back to the screen at the animated Stone-Age family and wondered which people were more civilised.

And so, another overnight flight with no sleep sucked eight hours of my life away. This Eternal Day landed me in the Eternal City - or at least the nearest town pretending to be. I already knew that Rome's airport was an ungodly distance away from the city itself, but as I would soon find out, if I had that airport, I, too, would want to tuck it away somewhere hidden in hopes that no one would find it.

Sat, Jun 4, 2005

Tuscany Day 1

Douglas Adams's book The Long Dark Tea-Time Of The Soul opens with the line "It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression 'as pretty as an airport'". I am convinced that - even though London Heathrow was the setting of the scene - Rome's Fiumicino airport is the classic inspiration for that thought. It is a sharp contrast to the shiny new Terminal 1 in Toronto's Pearson. Where Pearson has windows overlooking a field of sleek jets and commercial aircraft, Fiumicino has windows overlooking greasy taxi drivers with beat-up automobiles looking to scam their next American victim. Where Pearson has helpful staff that are tired but still helpful because they know their job requires it, Fiumicino has tired and surly staff that must have taken customer service courses from British restaurants. Where Pearson has a lack of grunge, dirt, and overall nastiness, Fiumicino has an abundance of it, as if it were a traditional quality embraced and celebrated by suburban Roman travellers.


It was very early in the morning, and there was a good hour and a half before the shuttle desk opened, from where I could catch my ride to the hotel. I woke up with a traditional European espresso and wandered and waited.


The instructions on my Contiki voucher booklet were a bit vague, so I asked at the information desk where I should go. The surly lady tending the desk must have been up much earlier than she had wanted, and instructed me to go down the hall to the desk labelled "Welcome Desk". I walked and found three desks in succession all labelled "Welcome Desk". Great. One of them read "Student and Youth Welcome Desk", so I guessed that was the right one, and waited for it to open.


I waited and continued to wait. I waited well past the posted opening hour, as other desks around it opened up and the youth desk remained closed. I became agitated. Not that I thought I would be late for anything; I had hours to waste before meeting up with people from the tour, I just didn't want to waste them here.


Any Seinfeld watchers know where this story is going. A woman in an agitated panic was wandering around the terminal looking for someone. She stopped by me and asked if my name was Farla. I said that no, it wasn't, and she went on her panicky way. She asked for "Farla", but it may just as well have been "Cartwright", because as it would turn out, it wasn't the name for which she was actually looking. Moments later, she went to one of the welcome desks and put up a sign reading "Contiki". I approached the desk and she once again asked if my name was Farla. I said "No, but I am with Contiki". I handed her my voucher and frustrated understanding swept across her face. "Ah! Faria!" She then blabbed several things in Italian to me and over the phone that I didn't understand, but by which I probably should have been offended.

A 20-minute shuttle ride later, I was well-versed in scary Roman traffic and at the hotel 5 hours before check-in time, which is rather inconvenient. I expected to hang around the lobby for a long and dull time, but I was fortunate that a room became available very soon, which afforded me the opportunity for a power nap. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but after staying up all night, a half-hour nap does not do you any good. It merely reminds your body how much it likes sleep and causes it to demand even more of it immediately.

I had arranged to meet with some people from the tour beforehand, so I found a couple at the hotel, and we headed off to the city to meet the rest. One of the girls with us spoke Italian, which turned out to be very handy very soon. We were supposed to take the bus to a train station called La Giustiniana. I was expecting to be able to see a big sign that said "La Giustiniana" on it, but alas, there was none. The train station was hidden about a block away from the bus stop, out of view. A little old lady told us that, by the way, this is the stop you need. If none of us knew what the little old lady was saying, who knows where we would have ended up.

We met the rest of the pre-group, so to speak, near the Colosseum, and we wandered around in search of lunch. We got a good non-touristy look at Rome before settling on a place to lounge. On the way back to the hotel, we got a thorough lesson on Roman traffic. First, the lines on the road - even the curbs on them - mean nothing; people will drive anywhere they believe their cars will fit. This includes anything and everything, even a cemetery. There were people weeping on the side of the path as our taxi cut through the city cemetery and swerved around mourners as we headed for the hotel. "Anything goes in Rome", our driver assured us.

Our second lesson was that taxi drivers will try to screw you with fares. The metre read 24 Euros and change, and he attempted to charge us 30. After much indecipherable bickering, I gave him the spare change in my pocket and he sped away, uttering curses and swears that assured me that I did a good thing.

We met the rest of our tour group, and then got a lesson in restaurant service: it is apparently non-existent, but you are still forbidden from trying to do it yourself. After waiting a very long time for the hotel restaurant to open up, we then waited a very long time for any food at all to be served. When some people decided they wanted to get some wine and stood up to go to the bar to get some, they were quickly ushered back to their seats so the waiter could do that for them. This left everyone a bit confused because we didn't know who the waiter was, since he hadn't come around to actually wait on anyone.

Up until this point, the fatigue hadn't been bothering me too much. It seems that was only because my hunger was outweighing it. As soon as I got some food in me, I felt like crawling under the table for a few winks.

After the meal, everyone hopped onto the coach for a quick orientation tour of Rome. We made some quick nighttime visits to a few classic spots like the Pantheon, Piazza Navona, and Trevi Fountain. It was there that I received yet another lesson: how not to handle pushy souvenir salesmen. Touristy spots are filled with merchants pushing their products, and like every city in the world, there are many selling roses to happy couples, potentially new couples, or failing that, anyone who doesn't happen to be allergic to flowers. One of them accosted me, and as is the reflex, I told him to buzz off. He persisted, and I repeated that I had nothing with which to buy. He still persisted, and insisted I just take one; he would give it to me. I took it and walked off, hoping that would be the end of it. I unfortunately did not feel the breath at the back of my neck...

I caught up with the group and found Tina, one of the pre-group girls I had met, next to me. I handed her the rose, and she seemed quite pleased with the unexpected gift. This was when the lion struck. The flower pusher jumped in brandishing another rose and asked for money. Again, I told him to screw off; I had no cash. Then he went and TOOK THE ROSE BACK.

I couldn't believe it. I had met a super villain. He deftly entwined me within an ingeniously circuitous plan to steal my dignity and make me look a fool in front of a pretty girl. This would not do; I would have to make amends. We walked away, continuing our orientation tour, half my mind plotting how to make up for the unfortunate blunder, the other half filled with satisfying images of the flower pusher pricking his finger on a thorn on one of his roses, being infected with a painful flesh-eating virus, and painfully wasting away as a wretched image of what he once was.

Sun, Jun 5, 2005

Tuscany Day 2

Our first stop today was the town of Orvieto, which was used as a hideaway for the Pope during times of war when Rome was unsafe. However, before we could get there, we all needed to be on the bus. Emma, our tour manager, did the count to find we were one short. Tina took the honours of being the first person to sleep in and be late for the bus. No cause for embarrassment, though; I'm sure someone will do much worse in the coming days.

What was that? That sounded like foreshadowing music. Did you hear that? I swear I heard something...

Orvieto, like most small Tuscan towns, is built upon a hill, which has two important advantages: 1) It is easier defend from an elevated position; and 2) You get better views of the landscape, which increases property value. We had some time to wander the town, and made sure to make a gelati stop, the first of many. Now, I wasn't quite sure how shops operated over here, so I had to play it by ear. I saw the big fridge of gelati, lots of cups, and no one attending it. The top opened, so I grabbed a cup and served myself. This, apparently, did not please the proprietors. Another example of poor service that only becomes better once you take matters into your own hands.

That afternoon, we got a tour of the caves beneath the town, which were used by the ancient Etruscans and for operations during the World Wars, and then enjoyed a scenic picnic lunch, complete with little boxes of wine. I made the first step toward making amends with Tina at this lunch by eating her lasagna for her. At first glance, this may seem like gluttony, but she is allergic to cheese, so in fact, I saved her life. And people say chivalry is dead.

Our next stop was to a little town named Bagnoregio. This was the sort of place about which you expect only to hear in fairy tales. It's a town that, following an earthquake, was cut off from the rest of the world for decades until a bridge was finally built linking it back to civilization. The town - which now only boasts sixteen residents - remains genuinely locked in an age of antiquity. It is still relatively untouched, because even though there is now a bridge link to the cliff-town, it is still not an easy journey.

First, we had to cram all forty tour members onto a small local bus, so we all got to know our tourmates and their scents rather intimately. Then, we had to walk the bridge, which was long, and rather steep. We passed a pair of old ladies attempting to make the walk, and I don't know how they planned on finishing the journey, unless they had a little tent with which they could set up camp along the way. We wandered the tiny little town in high heat, had some excellent homemade bruschetta, and some excellent homemade wine that reminded me of the wine my Dad used to make when I was younger. I ate and drank amid memories of watching my Dad fill that giant contraption with grapes and cranking away, watching the juice filter down to the barrel below.

Following that stay, it was back across the bridge, onto the crowded bus, and then back on the coach for the ride to Siena. We stopped at the hotel that would be our home for most of the rest of the tour, noted that the towels struck remarkable similarities to table cloths, and then drove into the city for dinner, where we noted remarkable similarities to the meal we ate the previous night. We also noticed that the back half of the restaurant was not on solid ground, but rather on a large grate over a giant hole. It looked like an old archaeological site, but instead of ancient Etruscan ruins, it was filled with year-old cutlery dropped by diners in the not-too-distant past.

Following dinner, a group of us wandered a bit in search of some nightlife. Siena is a very picturesque town, with one of the nicest centre squares I have seen, but it is not a particularly exciting place once the Sun goes down. We wandered around in search of something exciting, but eventually settled at a rather shady-looking bar outside the Campo. Despite the shadiness, we had a rather good time. Highlights of the night included successfully ordering a round of drinks entirely in rudimentary Italian, mishearing the term "sucking pipe" being said as "suck and bite", and Linda encouraging the notion of going to a strip club; in particular, one noted in Rome named "Chickyboom".

At one point, the girls attracted the attention of a couple of Italian guys, who sat with us. One of them disturbed me a bit, since he looked like he was wearing pyjamas and carried his shoes in his hands. When he asked people to smell his feet, I decided I had had enough, and some of us head back to the hotel. Once there, we found the rest of the tour group outside, many with tags on their foreheads, and I unwittingly and foolishly ruined their game by reading some of them out loud. Whoops, sorry about that.

Mon, Jun 6, 2005

Tuscany Day 3

This morning we headed out to Raddan for a pleasant day's activity of cycling through the Tuscan hills. While the "hills" part of that statement made some people a little uneasy, I was looking forward to this activity. I wasn't, however, looking forward to the pain caused by rock-hard bicycle seats. Mike, one of the New York contingent of our tour, found a creative way of avoiding that problem by having far too much to drink the night before. On the bus ride in, he did not look particularly comfortable, and once we got off the coach to warm up, he ran off the coach to throw up. Congratulations Mike, you're the first Contiki Casualty of the tour!

We had a guide leading our way, but he wasn't having much luck this morning, since every time he tried to speak to teach us about the history of this little town, he would be interrupted by church bells, or construction, or various life both tame and wild. Our trip lead us out of town, and into the countryside. This route began with a big downhill ride through traffic. After seeing the driving in Rome, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't too nervous about this task. Amazingly, we all made it out unscathed, and continued on our way.

I'm a bit of an overachiever on a bike, so I made plenty of stops to snap photos, let the majority of the group pass by, and then hopped back on the bike and sped ahead past them. Some people might consider this showing off, but I consider it to be looking out for my fellow tourmates. During one of my trips up the pack, I heard someone having a bit of chain trouble. I looked down to see that Tina's chain had fallen off its gears and she had managed to get it wrapped around her pedals. In a rush, I called to her to stop before the chain caused her to tumble down the Tuscan hillside. For the second time in as many days, I had saved Tina's life; I can be pretty handy to keep around. I did the gentlemanly thing and got down and dirty and fixed her bike. Call that part two of making amends. A few minutes and a lot of grease later, we were back on our way.

Our bike trip ended at a winery castle, where we enjoyed a relaxing picnic lunch in the garden, a wine-tasting session, and numerous photo ops. It was a successful sales pitch, as I bought a pair of bottles on my out, and considered shipping a box home, but the shipping charge was on the far side of ridiculous. It was a good end to the bike trip, and many took the opportunity to lounge in the grass sprawled out like a bear skin rug and enjoy the sunshine.

We grabbed the bus back to Siena, and some of us enjoyed a quick drink on the Campo with our tour manager. Sitting on the covered terrace we were fortunate enough to be sheltered from the rain when it decided to pour down on the citizens below. Before dinner, we took a little stroll around town, took a quick gander at the Duomo, and I managed to find a flower shop to complete my trifecta of amend-making by purchasing a replacement rose for the one that the evil and nasty product pusher had confiscated. Of course, many people in our group asked why I was holding a rose, and I told the long story several times. I expect that the stories everyone else invented before asking were far more interesting.

We hopped back on the bus again for a long trip to the countryside for dinner. The restaurant sat atop a hill (surprise, surprise), overlooking a wide expanse of Tuscan country. Poor Luigi, our coach driver, was commissioned to remain outside while the rest of us began dinner to watch for the sunset. When it neared, we all poured outside for numerous snap shots. Luigi and Emma were tasked with taking multiple group photos, and had a good two dozen cameras hanging on their arms as they sorted through the mess. We then returned to our meal, and enjoyed some very good pasta and veal. It was nice to get something different from the copy-cat plates we had received the previous nights.

On the way back to the hotel, Emma decided to try to auction Luigi off, with marginal and humourous success. We then retired to the hotel terrace for a few more drinks and some attempts at game play before hitting the sack for the night, in prep for another long day.

Tue, Jun 7, 2005

Tuscany Day 4

Today's excursion began with a long drive to Pisa, where everything tacky reigns supreme. Official Pisa statuettes, official Pisa scarves, official Pisa naked-man aprons, it's all here and it's all sold at negotiable prices by merchants that not only don't speak English, but many don't even speak Italian either. Everywhere you look there are hordes of tourists posing in silly positions for photographs, and other hordes of people getting in the way of those photographs.

Oh, and there's also a leaning tower over here.

Following that short stay, we head out to the west coast for a beach stop. The spot was a bit disappointing, as the beach was rocky and full of men in Speedos. A group of us wandered around, found a spot for lunch where we could order off of a menu, and just enjoyed the sight of the sea.

Without the opportunity for a dip, we were back on the bus and off to Volterra for an alabaster demonstration. I got the opportunity to pick up a few gifts for the folks back home, and then wandered the town for a bit. We encountered a group of kids playing football in the park, which seemed that a true Italian lifestyle moment. We also found a really cool-looking fortress. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a prison, and the man standing atop the tower looking out at the town around him was a guard carrying a sniper rifle. Good thing I hadn't taken any pictures.

We then headed back to the hotel for a quick rest before going back to Siena for dinner. The drive back seemed much faster than the drive in, and Emma would later reveal to us that it was because we made several wrong turns on the way up. Following dinner, we braved the threat of heavy rain to seek out the club that we failed to find two nights previously. We were successful this time, but as it turned out, the club was full of 19-year old American girls on exchange. At first thought, that sounds like a good thing, but these girls travelled in packs and continually screamed over Brittany Spears. That is not a good thing. We returned to the bar downstairs shortly after going deaf.

After a few drinks, some of us returned to the hotel for another. We met a few other tourmates and Luigi, and had a lively discussion on several topics including, but not exclusive to, the merits of two or more girls at once, as lively demonstrated by Luigi. It's always the drivers...

Wed, Jun 8, 2005

Tuscany Day 5

We awoke to a surprisingly chilly morning and dashed out to Mugella for some truffle hunting. We were greeted by a member of the truffle union and his truffle-hunting dog, Stella. While the thought of going truffle hunting sounds interestingly romantic, with a few memories of the Smurfs conjured up, the execution left a bit to be desired. I was expecting to take more of an active role in the hunt, but instead we simply stood and watched as the dog ran around and, upon making a find, his master would dig up the truffle. As well, the hunt seemed staged, since the hunter seemed to know where to lead Stella to make the next find. I suppose a bit of staging is necessary. What would it be like if a group of tourists came all this way to go truffle hunting and came up with nothing?

Our next stop was a short distance away to Caffogiolo Castle, a Medici summer home. We got a tour of the castle and colourful history of the Medici family. We noted how many people in the family were crooks and murderers, and yet all their portraits included saintly halos. History is truly written by the victor. We finished the tour with a fancy lunch and then hopped on the bus to Florence.

Having been here before, I knew what to expect. We got the same leather-making demonstration as last time, though this rep was considerably more coherent than the last. We then got a guided tour of the major spots of Florence, including detail on Piazza della Signoria and the sculptures displayed in its public gallery, Uffizi court, Ponte Vecchio, and the Duomo. I was rather pleased with the content of the tour, since it seemed to have little duplication with my previous visit. I got ample photos of everything my eyes could see in this lovely city. When our guided tour concluded, I lead a group on the hunt for the best gelati in Italy. I remembered to bring the map from my previous tour with a single gelati shop marked off. Amid much doubt, skepticism, and fears of getting lost from my followers, I led them to the promised land and we enjoyed the best gelati there is to be had.

We made our way to dinner where we were to get a cooking lesson. I enthusiastically volunteered as an apprentice chef, and wowed the crowd with my ability to crack an egg with one hand. (Just between you and me, it was a high-risk move. Normally, the egg shell explodes in my hand in a fiery eggy mess, but this time I was fortunate.) While I was whipping up the dough for the pasta we would eat that evening, I prompted for requests for anything to sing. The group asked for something Italian, so I sang the first few lines of Volare, a tribute to the wonderfully tragic time I had in Florence three years ago.

In further tribute to that visit, I declared that I would drink much wine. I am one to keep my promises, and so I did. And continued to do so.

This is the part of the story that you are forbidden to relay to my mother, on punishment of severe pain, embarrassment, and something else obscenely biological. I'm not kidding. My mother is an overly-worried creature, and this is the sort of thing she tends to worry about. Thus, it is better for her frail health that she simply not know, and think everything is A-OK. Agreed? All right then, let's move on.

Note the peculiar situation of this visit to Florence. Our hotel is in Siena, which is about an hour's drive away from Florence. Thus, in order to enjoy any of the nightlife, our group of party goers had to rent a bus that would collect us all in the wee hours of the night for the long drive back to Siena. If we were to miss that bus, we would be in a very dire situation.

What was that? That sounded like the foreshadowing music again...

Following dinner and many bottles of wine, we hopped on the bus for the city and head to the Red Garter. The live band was quite good, but it was much the same as I remembered from the last time. I had a beer or two, which may not have been the best idea after all the wine, but I think it was fine. The real problem was the shots. And the round of whiskeys. Whoever had that idea is a very bad person.

I should not be allowed in Florence. Each time I have gone there, I have forgotten most of it. Maybe if you put the memories of both visits together, it adds up to one visit.

From the bits of pieces I can recall, here is what happened when we left the bar: There was a tremendous explosion of fire and light, as Mount Vesuvius erupted from afar, aliens attacked, and God appeared to begin the Apocalypse.

OK, that was a lie, but that's the best reason I can conjure for what happened: Somehow, Brenda - one of the girls on our tour - and myself missed bus. I don't remember how, she doesn't remember how, and no one in the group knows how we disappeared a mere block away from the bus. An unsuccessful hunt ensued, and they had no choice but to depart without us. I have a very vague memory of thinking I was following someone, and we were going the wrong way.

The next thing I remember is that the two of us were standing at a highway toll booth attempting to hitchhike. I've read about hitching the length and breadth of the galaxy on thirty dollars a day, but hitching across Tuscany when you don't speak the local language? That's a bit difficult. And I didn't even have a towel with me.

It seems we had caught a taxi to take us to Siena, but he had left us here at a toll booth. I don't know if we had been kicked out, but if so, it was probably my fault. After many exasperated attempts, a woman was kind enough to take us to the nearest town and left us in the main square. There was a little room with a telephone in it, and we spent much drunken time attempting to get the phone to work, which it would not. That phone raised our hopes and dashed it to pieces. A road sign outside indicated we were at "Piazza Matteotti", and as luck would have it, there was a Piazza Matteotti listed on our "Better Time Elsewhere" list of taxi phone numbers. However, with no phone card, we could not call any of the numbers on our list, and so we were stuck, continuing vain attempts to flag down cars and trucks as they passed by very infrequently through the night. After the fact, I realised that the "Piazza Matteotti" on our phone number list was a location in Siena; it was coincidence that this little town had a square with the same name. So, even if we had been able to get hold of a taxi service, our hopes would have been crushed even further as they would have sent a cab to Siena and found that we were not there. Since we didn't know in what town we were stranded, we would have had little luck instructing them on how to find us.

At this point, I was still very drunk, and that was probably the only reason why I hadn't panicked and passed out from fright. I expect the alcohol and the panic cancelled themselves out, and so I remained relatively calm, though completely incoherent and smelled kinda funny. The night continued to crawl onward, and I continued in vain to try to hail a ride to Siena, talking to various drivers in a horribly broken mix of Italian, Portuguese, and English.

The Earth continued on it diurnal course.

At about 7:30 in the morning or so, wandering around hoping to find something useful, we encountered a pair of English-speaking tourists who directed us to a market a few blocks away that would soon be opening for business. From there, a very friendly man was nice enough to call us a taxi who took us back to our hotel. As it turned out, we were still 45 minutes away, and the trip cost me a whopping 55 Euros. According to the receipt, we were in a town called Tavarnelle, though that doesn't really help me much in indicating where we were, since I have no idea where that is.

We arrived back at the hotel after an exhaustive night-long adventure trying to make our way from Florence to Siena, just to find that by the time we arrived, our tour group had already gone back to Florence for the day. Wonderful.

Upon our rejoining the tour later that evening, we had a great deal of explaining to do, much of which we were unable to explain. Naturally, many rumours were invented to explain the sudden and odd disappearance of a male and female pair of tourmates, and even more rumours were invented to explain what happened throughout the night while we were missing in action. For the sake of Entertainment, let's say that they're all true.

Yes, you heard it here first... or rather, you heard it from someone else, or conjured the idea up from thin air, and came here for instant rubber-stamp verification. Without hearing the content of any of the rumours, I am confident in declaring that they are all fact. Here, at the official authority on the matter, I officially declare that, yes, that's exactly how it happened.

I had previously been lost in six foreign cities during my various travels, three of which were not English-speaking places, but this one, by far, takes the cake as the greatest drunk-and-lost story ever.

Thu, Jun 9, 2005

Tuscany Day 6

By the time we returned to the hotel, our tour group had already returned to Florence for the day, so we ended up missing the entire day's events. I took a much-needed shower, did some much-needed laundry, and got some much-needed sleep. My dignity had been shot, and I had no cash left, but I was otherwise fine; everything else was accounted for - camera, wallet, valuables - not all where I expected them to be, but present nonetheless.

I spent the day quietly relaxing by the pool until rejoining the tour for dinner when they returned. I had a lot of explaining to do, and everyone wanted to know the story. I had to apologise to Emma for causing all sorts of worry, but I was her first major lost soul, so consider it a valuable career lesson.

We had dinner in a cramped space, but it was a good meal complete with four kinds of meat, which always pleases me. The service was a bit slow, and I sat through an immense quantity of chick talk at my table.

Following the meal, I decided I would catch the coach back to the hotel; after last night, I could do without staying out late for an evening. As we walked through Siena for the last time, I noted that it is a lovely city, though a bit dark. It kind of looks like the buildings were squeezed in wherever they would fit. A bit more light and a good night spot would do the city some good.

Fri, Jun 10, 2005

Tuscany Day 7

In the early morning, we departed Siena for our return to Rome. We started with a tour of the Vatican Museum. I was greatly looking forward to this visit, because it was St Peter's Day when I went through Rome on my last trip, and most everything was closed. Due to noise restrictions in many parts of the Vatican, we were equipped with radio communication with our tour guide, who provided extensive and detailed explanations on the vast collections of statues, tapestries, maps, and the incredibly famous frescoes of the Sistine Chapel.

The Vatican collection is absolutely astounding, and the buildings in which they are all housed are equally astounding. The map room alone is a treasure itself. Then, you walk into the Sistine Chapel, home of some of the most revered works of art ever created by the human hand. It is a giant room, filled to the brim with people, all silent, and all staring straight up above them. The ceiling paintings, depicting the Genesis stories, are enthralling in their detail and their complexity. The wall mural of the Last Judgment, which at first glance seems far too chaotic to comprehend, is full of so much detail that every character portrayed tells his own story. Those saved, and those banished, all show the emotion of those in their last moments, and a unique story could be told by each and every one.

Following that spiritual moment, my roommate Bob and I headed across town for a tour of the Colosseum. We joined a tour of the site, though we did a bit of checking first to ensure it was legitimate. This marked another site I didn't get a chance to visit last time, which was surprising considering the amount of time I've spent studying this place. It's eerie and almost unbelievable that this was the site of some of the most violent acts in the world, and that people would come here to watch them in the tens of thousands.

We gradually walked down to the bus meet-up spot via the old Forum, and the Pantheon - another locale to cross off my list of places I meant to visit and couldn't. We attempted to also see the Ara Pacis, but it was still under renovation. Three years ago there was work being done to it, and now it appears they are building an entire complex around it.

We drove out to the hotel for a quick check-in and then headed back into Rome for dinner at Papa Rex for a lovely meal complete with performances by a mandolin player and a pair of opera singers. At this point, Emma let us in on her big secret: this was her very first tour. That would explain the several times we made wrong turns, the high sociability, and general lack of disillusionment. Good first job, Emma.

From here, we had a choice of what do for our final night as a tour group. Linda had been going on all week about Chickyboom, so one group would be heading out there. The rest would be going to Campo Fiori, where Romans hang out in the evening. I was torn between the two, not sure where to go, so I essentially let taxi space make the choice, and headed to Campo Fiori. That turned out to be a good selection, as it was a good last night out in an active square in good spirits. We had a pleasant time out sharing final stories with our tourmates, and Robyn and Michelle - the young'ns of the group - got surprising drunk.

When we returned to the hotel, we found that the Chickyboom group had returned, and Linda had a traumatic story to tell. This, however, required rudely waking up Mike and Keith to help tell the story. As it turns out, Chickyboom was not the kind of strip joint they were expecting. After a 25 Euro cover, they found a strip joint with very little going on. After discovering that a lap dance for the lady was 80 Euros, they decided to forego the jokes and waited for the show to start. Once it did, it scarred Linda for life, as it was apparently much more explicit than North American joints. It involved the use of toys. We'll just leave it at that.

We slowly filtered off to bed, but not before waking up a few more people with our rowdiness in the hallway. I don't think we made any friends in the hotel that evening.

Sat, Jun 11, 2005

Tuscany Day 8

I was able to sleep in just a bit this morning before catching the shuttle to the train station to get into the city. We ran into Emma and Tina on our way out, and were able to say our good byes following a great tour. I hopped on the train and made my way to St. Peter's for a thorough exploration of the Basilica.

The best word to describe St. Peter's Basilica is "overwhelming". I walked into the building and the first thought through my head was "Oh my God", which is quite accurate, since this is as close to an Earthly summer home for Him as there ever could be. The immensity and the detail that have gone into this holy place are absolutely astounding. Some of the greatest names in art have leant their passion to God's Earthly palace: Raphael, Giacomo della Porta, Bernini, Michelangelo. Every corner of the building contains a relic of immeasurable value and significance. You enter, and you find yourself standing on the Red Porphyry Disk, where Charlemagne and later Holy Roman Emperors were crowned. Look to your right, and you see Michelangelo's first masterpiece, the beautifully moving Pietà. Look straight ahead and you see Bernini's extravagant Throne of St. Peter, in front of it the Baldacchino, surrounded by the four piers with immense sculptures containing the four great relics of the Church, supporting Michelangelo's magnificent dome above. Walking the chapels of the Basilica, you encounter the tombs of Popes and Saints long passed away, and can even descend into the grottoes to view the tombs of the other Popes, including the late John Paul II.

I spent four hours wandering the Basilica, marvelling at it's majesty, it's beauty, and it's history. Even the location of the Basilica seems perfectly fitting. The Christian faith is one based on conversion: of fear into hope, despair into joy, and death into life. The symbol of Christianity was originally one of terrible torturous death, but it was taken and converted to a symbol of everlasting life. With that thought in mind, what better spot for the home of the Catholic Church than the very place where early Christians were systematically slaughtered? The Vatican hill was originally the location of the Circus of Nero, where after he had blamed the Great Fire on the Christian cult, he had them executed and fed to the lions by the thousands. St. Peter himself was martyred and buried at this spot, and the Basilica is centred over that burial place. From the exposition of murder and death, to the most extravagant celebration of God and life; it's poetic.

After leaving the Basilica, I made a long indirect walk toward the mausoleum of Augustus, doing some shopping along the way. When I arrived at my destination - the last Roman site on my list - I was greeted with disappointment. The great obelisks at the tomb's entrance were gone, there was graffiti present everywhere, and the park was overrun with weeds. Is this any way to treat the resting place of your greatest emperor?

I walked down to Piazza Navona, where I met a few of my tour members for dinner. We enjoyed a pleasant meal ordered from the menu, and then went up to see the Spanish Steps before heading back to our respective hotels. From there, we expected to catch the Metro back to the train, but it seems that Rome's subway system closes at an unnecessary early hour. We parted our separate ways, hopped in taxis, and sped off into the Tuscan sunset.

Sun, Jun 12, 2005

Portugal Day 1

I woke up, packed up, and caught the shuttle to the airport. The departure area of Fiumicino seems like an entirely different world from the arrivals hall. It is not nearly as grungy or rundown, and the shops actually have all of their signs intact. Maybe the architect was in a better mood when he designed the departure hall, or spilled coffee all over the original plans for the arrivals hall, and didn't feel like doing it all over again, so he instead just made a few copies of the plans for a McDonald's restaurant and stapled them all together.

I boarded the plane and was pleasantly surprised to find that the middle seat was left empty. Woo hoo! Extra space! I spent the three-hour flight with some last-minute Portuguese cramming, and listened to a few tunes. The CD player laser did not cause the plane to tumble out of the sky, so I got away with it that time. I arrived in Lisbon to meet my parents, who had landed there mere hours earlier, and the rest of the family, most of whom I hadn't seen in several years. I got the typical Mom welcome, complete with high embarrassment factor.

At this point, trying to talk to anyone was a difficult chore, because I had English, Portuguese, and Italian words all floating around stuck in my head, and couldn't put any of it together to express something coherent.

We would be spending the week at my Tio Brás's house, so we headed out to Alverca to get settled. Conversation was a bit difficult, as I tend to understand only about a third of what's said in Portuguese. Unfortunately, a third of each sentence isn't often enough to figure out what's going on. But, I was trying my best, and I'd be spending a week with the family, so I would have to get used to it. My cousins' English skills were masterful compared to my Portuguese, so we managed. While we awaited dinner, Guida displayed her fine-tuned piano skills, and I tried to teach Teresa to waltz, though I think I'm a bit too bumbling to try that.

One of the benefits of visiting family while travelling is that you're always fed very very well. Only a few hours removed from the plane, not particularly hungry yet, my Aunt was already offering plate after plate of various foods with the intention making me nice and plump by vacation's end.

With a short while before we would head back into Lisbon for the evening, we indulged my younger cousin's devotion to Orlando Bloom by watching the first half of Troy with Portuguese subtitles. It was good practice, I suppose. I could match the Portuguese word with what was being shouted by Achilles in English. Although, I don't know when I'll ever need to say "I will look down on your corpse and smile" in conversation.

Tonight was the festival of Santo António, so we drove back into Lisbon to watch the festivities. A parade of dancers ran down Avenida da Liberdade, each group representing a community of Lisbon. They all wore colourful outfits and pairs carried extravagant float-like creations over their heads with icons of their communities. Some pushed larger floats of various designs; one was of "Zé Povinho" in a barrel, a caricature representing the Portuguese Everyman making a rather rude gesture.

Everywhere vendors sold farturas - a pastry very much like funnel cake - and small bushy potted plants with messages attached, which are traditionally bought by men and given to a woman he fancies. I climbed a statue in Praça dos Restauradores with my cousins to get a better view as the groups slowly trickled down the avenue. As we chatted and I attempted to use my extremely broken language, my cousins commented that I speak Portuguese with an Italian accent, particularly my "R"s. I don't know if that was because I just spent a week in Italy, or if I'm just odd that way.

It was quite late before we headed back to the cars, up and down the many hills on which Lisbon is built. On our way out, we passed a city bus that was packed with people from the parade; it was very amusing to see thirty or so people in wild costume jumping and singing on a little bus. The family was a little overly cautious about pickpockets, so I didn't bring my camera, but I should have anyway, if only to get a shot of that bus.

Mon, Jun 13, 2005

Portugal Day 2

A huge breakfast started off our morning, and then we were off to Vilar for a lesson in all things Dad. Vilar is a tiny town not a long distance from Lisbon without much to it but grape vines. It is also the town in which my father was born. I got a good lesson in the ways and manners of my Dad's childhood, as we wound through the area. "This was my Uncle's house," he would comment. "And this was my Aunt's house, and next to it another Aunt." I think half the town was family. He pointed out his grandparents' old house, and the spot where his parents' house used to stand. It was a treat to see a bit of his past, and to see the excitement in him at showing them all to me.

As we drove up, Tio Brás happily explained Portugal's highway system and use of wind power. Our first stop was to his Tia Lise's house. We walked in through the garage, which had some very old pieces of furniture, an even older bike, and an ancient chalkboard on the wall that must have been decades old. It looked like it could have been my Dad's first classroom sixty-five years ago.

"This was my first classroom," my Dad said. Spot on. Apparently, my Dad's aunt used to tutor children in the town. She would even take in refugee orphans during the war and tutor them as well. I couldn't understand a single thing she said, but she seemed to go on with very descriptive stories that drew applause from my parents and aunt and uncle. She was the cute and huggable kind of old lady with whom you wouldn't mind playing Scrabble on a Sunday afternoon.

Following that visit, we went to meet my Dad's sisters, and their families. We gathered everyone together and drove out to Peniche, a seaside town, for lunch. I can't spell the name of the dish we all had, but it was a mix of fish and vegetables boiled in large pots. I recognised it as something we have quite regularly at home, with the exception that the fish here is actually fresh. It had a good meaty quality, such that you knew it came out of the ocean - which you could see from the window - mere hours ago.

This was a time when the language issue became a real problem. No one in Vilar speaks a word of English, and I had great difficulty trying to figure out the thread of any given conversation. I could tell, too, that my aunts were questioning why I couldn't speak Portuguese.

Let me explain my problem with languages. Put simply: I'm incapable of learning them. It's a wonder I learned English in the first place. The fact that I can write English rather well is a mystery unto itself. I'm a rational computer/mathematics guy. If I encounter a problem, I try to break it down and solve it with reason. When I learn something new, I like to understand its fundamentals and first principles such that I can reconstruct solutions from there. That's how computer programs are written, and that's why I've flourished with them. Spoken languages do not work that way. There is no fundamental rhyme and reason to how it works. They have a basic grammar, but their rules are broken and twisted so many times that they don't always apply. Vocabulary, especially, has no logic to it. There is no way to know that the word for "bread" is "pão" other than to memorise it, and such is the way with thousands of other words.

It's one of the disciplines I could never master, and I don't know how some people can pick up a language so easily. And, it's infuriating when they don't understand why I can't. To me, it's like trying to push a giant boulder. I push, I heave, I try as hard as I possibly can, but I know there's no point; I cannot move this giant rock. But, people insist I continue to try, and so I try. I dig my heels, scrape my fingernails, and crush three discs in my back, but manage to move the rock a few millimetres. The onlookers cheer my advance and shout "See? That wasn't too hard! Do it again! Do it again!", but I feel no sense of accomplishment in injuring myself moving a boulder a few millimetres, when I need to push it across town.

Such is my reaction to foreign languages. It takes such a tremendous amount of concentration to follow somebody's speech, and so much effort just to speak one semi-coherent sentence, that it's exhausting. Then, overjoyed by my single utterance, they insist on another sentence, but my brain is so overtaxed by now that I just can't do it anymore. By lunchtime, I am mentally exhausted, and just let the speech go in one ear and out the other, and my thoughts drift off to wondering how many bikini-clad girls are lying on the beach at that very moment.

We spent the rest of the afternoon doing a mini beach tour, seeing the various places that my Dad and family would vacation when they were young, from Peniche and São Bernardino down to Santa Cruz. I enjoyed the sight and smell of the ocean, and touched the Atlantic for the first time. I unfortunately didn't get a chance to dive into it, but to answer my earlier wonderings about bikini-clad girls, the answer is "next to none". It was either too early in the day or too early in the year for the girls to come out and play, and most of the beaches were populated by old and ragged people. Kind of icky. I will have to wait a while longer for all the cute young Portuguese girls.

Tue, Jun 14, 2005

Portugal Day 3

Today, Tio Brás took us for some Lisbon sightseeing. We wandered around Baixa and Alfama, where I marvelled at the bronze statue of Dom João I and the patterned sidewalks. While sidewalks at home are simply slabs of concrete, almost all the paths in Portugal are composed of 2x2 stones, often in intricate patterns. We visited Castelo São Jorge, the residence for Portuguese kings following the recapture of Lisbon from the Moors. It offered panoramic views of Lisbon, and my uncle told many stories of the great earthquake of All Saints' Day, 1755, from which the tremors, fires, and tsunamis razed Lisbon to the ground, killing about a third of its population. A few ruins from the quake remain, but otherwise, very little of the city is older than 200 years.

We continued on our tour with visits to the church of Santo António, the patron saint of Lisbon and of Portugal, and to Sé, the cathedral that managed to survive the great quake. We met Teresa for lunch as she was on break from school, and I began my quest to eat lots of mystery meals. I would find something on the menu of which I had never heard before, and order it on a whim. This dish had something with pork in it. It was yummy. For desert, I did more of the same, ordering "baba de camelo", which turned out to be butterscotch ice cream with some kind of crumble. Afterward, my cousin informed me that the name of the dessert translates to "camel spit", and I may not have ordered it had I known that beforehand.

I found that my parents hadn't quite gotten used to being back in Portugal again, as they were still mixing languages. They would speak to the waiter in English trying to clarify their order, rather than their native Portuguese, not quite remembering that the waiter's native tongue is also Portuguese. Following lunch, we quickly had to deliver Teresa back to school, and I got to compare rapid Portuguese driving to the rapid Italian driving I experienced the previous week.

We continued our sightseeing in Belém, where we visited the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, which contains the tombs of Dom Manuel I, Dom João III, the poet Camões, and the explorer Vasco de Gama, for whose voyages the monastery commemorates. Belém is filled with celebrations of Portugal's past maritime glory, from the monastery, to the Marine Museum, to the Monument to the Discoveries. We then continued on to visit the Torre de Belém to scan the horizon for pirates.

In the evening, we joined my cousins Anna and Manny, who had been visiting the north, and went to Benfica for a big dinner with members from both my mother's and father's sides of the family. Anna relayed info on the status of my cousin Carlos and family, who were visiting the Algarve. My 11-year-old cousin Krystal was apparently shocked to find that the water "tastes yucky", and that the girls don't wear any tops over there. So, uh, when do I get to go?

I ate another big dish, the name of which I again can't recall, but my cousin described it as "ugly fish that tastes like lobster". The dish filled three plates, and then I had one of my cousin's sardines, which required a quick lesson in fish deboning.

Following dinner, there was much discussion and chit chat, and goofing around. My cousin Guida decided that I was too "good", in sharp contrast to the constant sisterly torment she showered upon Teresa, and thus, I should play a trick on her. I questioned if she really knew what she was asking, but if I'm the "good cousin", I should give my family what they want. This will take some careful planning...

Wed, Jun 15, 2005

Portugal Day 4

I awoke this morning to several apparitions of Orlando Bloom staring at me. With various guests staying in the house on any given day, I had occupied my cousin Teresa's room last night. As is the case with any sixteen year-old girl, the walls of her room are covered in posters of various pretty boys. In particular, there are about a half-dozen pictures of Bloom directly over her bed, all of which stared down at me throughout the night, trying to convince me that he's not really as cowardly as his role in Troy suggested; he was just playing the character. I'm not convinced. Why would he feel the need to reassure me about his courage over a movie role unless the part in some way struck a chord with his true nature? I think he's hiding something.

This morning we drove out to Sintra to visit the eclectic Palácio da Pena, the multi-coloured, multi-styled summer home of the last kings of Portugal. The building looks like four entirely different castles all squished together, but in a very cool-looking way. It is, however, the perfect example of kings and queens wasting the people's money, so perhaps it's fitting that the monarchy was overthrown only 25 years after it was completed. Following the palace, we went to a cliff side hotel to sneak a peak at it's unobstructed view of Lisbon below. Tia Fernanda explained that, when she was younger, schools would go on field trips here and you could yell from this spot and hear your echo seven times. Construction changes in the intervening years have, unfortunately, dulled that effect to zero.

Our next stop was to the park of Monserratte, which is a giant garden containing many specimens of imported plants from around the world. As dear as the park was to its original owners, the buildings in them were never used. There is a chapel in ruins that was never used for any service, and a palace with no residents. When the park was purchased, the contract stipulated that the palace should be renovated, but no one made use of it once renovation was complete. It was a lovely garden, but it did not treat my mother's allergies very well, so we sped off to our next destination.

We made a quick stop at Cabo da Roca, the most westerly point of continental Europe. You can look out from this spot and see nothing but the expanse of the Atlantic. It was from places like this that people would look out at tell stories of falling off of the edge of the Earth. Today, it seems almost silly to think that people believed such things, but when you stand there and look out over the ocean stretching to the horizon, you almost start to believe it yourself.

We proceeded on to Cascais, a very popular beach hot spot, particularly with students. I was hoping to see some of those bikini-clad Portuguese girls I had been so anxious to find, but it still must have been too early, because the beach was mostly empty but for a couple of wind- and para-surfers. We paused to take in the fresh, cool ocean breeze, and watched the waves as they played with the steep rocky cliffs and the sandy shores in between.

We finished the day off with a short stop at Boca do Inferno ("Mouth of Hell"), a rocky, cavernous spot on the shore where the water crashes and pools in funky violent ways. We then had a drive-through of Lisbon, passing rival football stadiums on our way back to Alverca.

Thu, Jun 16, 2005

Portugal Day 5

Since this part of my trip was a family visit, I knew that many of our activities would be based on responsibility and/or planned for me. Knowing this, I had three simple goals for my trip to Portugal: 1) Eat lots and lots and then eat some more; 2) Play in the ocean; and 3) Sit on the beach and watch the pretty Portuguese girls in their bikinis (or not in their bikinis, depending upon the type of beach) go by. The rest could be filled by whatever the family deemed appropriate. The last two points of course meant that I was looking quite forward to seeing the Algarve. This morning, I discovered that, unfortunately, due to the conditions stated above, I would not be able to visit there. If I get the opportunity to return here one day, I will have to dedicate a chunk of time to lazing around the Algarve, but I am going to start house shopping once I get back home, so the odds of taking another trip before I get wrinkly are very slim.

Today began a bit of a mystery part of the trip, as we were going off "somewhere" for two days, but I didn't know where. All I knew is that we would be staying at another house owned by my aunt and uncle. Three days ago, we made a brief stop at an apartment they owned in Santa Cruz, so I guessed we were going there. Santa Cruz has a very nice beach and a supposedly high student population, so I figured that would be quite an adequate replacement location to satisfy those last two goals. Unfortunately, that would turn out to be a poor assumption to make, as it soon became clear we were going much farther away today, and nowhere near the ocean. Having had two hopes dashed in the same morning, I don't think I appreciated today's visits as much as I should have.

Our first stop on today's long travels was the town of Batalha. When the invading Castilians of the 12th century were defeated at Aljubarrota, the church of Santa Maria da Vitória was built here to commemorate the tremendous and unlikely victory. As splendid and grand as the unfinished church is, it seems almost shamefully ironic to build a majestic place of worship for a loving God to honour the killing of thousands of soldiers and prisoners. The abbey is now as much a military museum as it is a church. It contains the tombs of many members of the ruling House of Avis, including Dom João I and Henry the Navigator. It also contains a gallery of the numerous gifts presented to Portugal for their assistance in military campaigns. As well, the church houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, above which hangs the very potent statue of Christ of the Trenches. A photo of the statue in a battle field hangs on the wall of the gallery, a tormented Christ on his knees, arms stretched out not by the torture of the cross, but by the inhumanity of war; war is the cross He bears, and the torture that inflicts us all.

We spent a rather long time gift shopping, and then found a restaurant for lunch. I may not be able to speak Portuguese, but I can usually order food without much problem. This still, however, does not prevent my mother from attempting to make all my decisions for me. Please, Mother, I am 27 years old, I can make my own choices, thank you very much.

Our next stop was to Grutas de Alvados, a twisting maze of underground caves, with a fabulous collection of limestone formations. This was one of a set of three known caves in the area, formed by ancient underground rivers, only discovered late in the 20th century. It made me wonder what majesties must lie under ground back home. Ontario is dotted with hundreds upon hundreds of lakes, rivers, and streams; one can only imagine how many caves like these lie beneath our feet. However, with the wide expanse of wilderness, the odds of ever finding a single one are astronomically slim.

We exited the cool and cozy caves back into the scorching heat for the long drive to Viseu, outside of which we would be staying at my aunt's parents' old house. We made our way to dinner, and as I examined the menu, I decided that if goals #2 and #3 have been thwarted, at least for now, I can still fulfil goal #1. I noted that all items on the menu were served in two sizes: "Meia dose" and "Uma dose", or half- and single-sizes. At lunch the other day, I ordered a single-sized dish and it was a reasonable amount of food. I asked for a single-sized bacon and pork dish, and figured that everyone else must not be very hungry because my parents shared a half-sized dish, as did my aunt and uncle. When the waiter brought us our plates, I discovered the difference between eating in touristy Lisbon, and dining out in the less-visited north of the country.

The waiter brought the half-sized dishes, and they were massive. My jaw dropped. "If those are half servings," I thought, "what is my dish going to be like?"

The waiter placed my platter before me, and I felt a slight shift in the continental plate. Everyone at the table leaned slightly toward my meal as the gravitational force it generated pulled us all inward. It was freakin' huge. Not just large, or enormous, or massive; it was freakin' huge.

The waiter laughed.

This was a new challenge. This was a personal quest. This was a task brought unto me by divine cookery. An entire genus of swine was slaughtered to provide my meal, and I was certain to finish it, thus fulfilling goal #1 to ultimate completeness. I filled my first dish, and it hardly made a dent in the mountain range on the platter. I consumed the delicious meal on my plate, quickly and steadily, with no time for talk. I looked to the platter with a weary eye. Peasants had already arrived and were discussing planning issues for the new town centred within my dinner.

I filled the second plate, and continued on my gorging way, noting the heavy rock of pork meat building within my insides. There was now a significant dent in the platter, and the peasants praised me for clearing a path between Mount Pork and the Plains of Bacon, where they could construct a canal to divert the raging River of Olive Oil, which had been threatening one of their settlements.

I began the third plate of my meal, and suffered through each delicious bite. I had left nothing but fries and some carrot shavings, and everyone around gawked in mixed wonder and disgust at the feat I was about to accomplish. The villagers flocked to the nearest insurance agency to claim the amounts due to them all under the "Act of gluttony" clause in their policies.

Following dinner, we took an extended walking tour of the town, which didn't include very much since everything was closed and there didn't seem to be particularly much to the town anyway. After the set of dashed expectations from the morning, the excessive weight in my belly, and the guilt over consuming an entire village, I wasn't in much of a mood to walk around, and literally ached to go to bed.

Fri, Jun 17, 2005

Portugal Day 6

Today we enjoyed a cruise down Rio Douro, through the hills of the port wineries. We took in the lovely views of the vineyards around us as the Sun beat down with its hot and heavy rays. It would have been a lovely and peaceful ride, but the boat was jam-packed with a class of school kids, all yelling and screaming in school-kid ways. As well, I expect that digesting yesterday's meal took quite a lot of work through the night, and I was terribly exhausted this morning. The kids departed at the terminus of our trip, and I took a healthy nap in the Sun as the boat made it's way back.

We had our lunch in a fancy-looking restaurant, and I continued my experiments by ordering another mystery fish. I also drank about a third of a bottle of Douro wine, after which everything seemed much better. Funny how wine has that effect. We then drove to Lamego, where the town was preparing for the festival of São João. Atop a hill is the Gothic cathedral of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios, which is reached by a Baroque-style 600-step staircase. I needed a way to work off the wine I just drank, so I ran up the whole way. I beat the car, too. After some scolding form Mother Dear, we continued on our way.

After a stop back at the house for a much-needed nap, we went out to São Pedro, where we had dinner at a small outdoor cafe. I ate a bitoque - a beef steak with a fried egg, which I gathered was a typical dish that nearly every restaurant in Portugal will serve. I suppose it's sort of the equivalent to fish and chips, in that it's a staple dish that you can safely assume will be available anywhere.

After witnessing the numerous old and wrinkly patrons of the coastal beaches earlier in the week, and being denied visits to Algarve and Santa Cruz, I had to say I was starting to lose faith. Where were all the beautiful young Portuguese girls? Had they all moved away for the summer? Were they all in hiding? Were Portuguese girls like exotic flowers, that only bloomed to incredible beauty at a short and specific time, after which they quickly degenerate into wrinkly aunts and grandmothers? I had expected that a country full of people of my own race would also be full of girls that would send my hormones flowing. It seems I was greatly disillusioned. That is, until we had dinner at this small cafe.

The waitress that served our meals was an image of Lusitanian perfection. If the words of Luís de Camões, the knowledge of Vasco de Gama, the songs of Amália, and the skills of Eusébio were put together into physical form, it would look very much like this young woman of São Pedro. Her dark flowing hair welcomed the breeze as it wafted sweet-smelling perfumes for her to enjoy, and her soft brown eyes caused the street lamps and starlights to shine more brightly in hopes of being the first to catch their gaze. She placed my dish, and as I thanked her for it, our hands brushed against each other. Her soft skin sent shivers through my nerves, and something inside me moved. (Not that, get your mind out of the gutter!) It was a leap of faith; all the disillusionment, disenchantment, and dis-everything was swiftly swept away. The Beautiful Portuguese was here before me. Due to language issues, the watchful eyes of my family, and my own bumbling nerves, our conversation never surpassed restaurant pleasantries, and I never got a photo of that angelic image because, well, that would be kinda creepy. Also, I think the burly proprietor was her father.

We finished our evening with a walkabout of town, passing a few squares playing traditional music, and a volcanic spring fountain, but the only vision in my mind of São Pedro was of a young waitress in a small cafe with a big effect.

Sat, Jun 18, 2005

Portugal Day 7

Today we drove up, way up, to the top of Serra da Estrela, the highest mountain range in Portugal. We drove up narrow and winding roads for what seemed like ages, as we climbed higher and higher into the sky. Finally, we reached the top of the nation's highest peak and found, as expected, a souvenir stand.

Ignoring the gypsies selling plush sheep dolls and live sheep dogs, I walked to the edge and looked out over the mountain range before me. On the next cliff in the distance, I could see a herd of sheep and goats grazing in the patches of field. I could clearly hear the clinking and clanging of dozens of bells as the animals moved about, and from here it almost sounded musical. From down there, I am sure, it sounded like an awful racket and I would likely go mad within an hour. If you had a fever, though, this was definitely the prescription.

Enjoying the panoramic vistas, we walked about the area, around a large dammed lake. I peered over the edge of the wall at the body of water below, half expecting to see tins of Dapper Dan floating by.

We visited the Torre, the very highest peak in the country, and then descended the mountain and found a place for lunch. I ordered an octopus and rice dish to see if it was as good as Mom makes. I noticed little difference, but this came in my own personal cauldron, so the restaurant gets bonus points for presentation. We then continued on our way to the medieval town of Sortelha. The 13th-century castle remains a shell of what it once was, but it's placement on an outcrop of rock shows its great usefulness for watching out for Spanish invaders. Tio Brás, adventurously climbing the crumbling stairways, made his way to the high balcony and entertainingly played Dom Brás for a moment. The villagers survive mainly through tourism now, and several old ladies sat sheltered from the Sun fashioning various baskets and trinkets from straw. They must have found a way to turn tourism into water, though, because I don't see how they could drink from the town's fountain. The water coming out of there smelled like skank, as if there was party in there and lots of cows were invited to regurgitate and spread fertilizer.

We made the long drive back to Alverca with a few water-and-ice-cream stops along the way, to find my cousin Guida was still anxiously awaiting my prank; waiting for "the bomb". I built up the suspense as she queried and prodded throughout the evening. We finished our subtitled viewing of Troy, and continued Teresa's Orlando Bloom obsession by beginning Pirates of the Caribbean. We retired for the evening, and after one last vague and suspenseful threat, I put my prank plan into action, ready for morning.

Sun, Jun 19, 2005

Portugal Day 8

After finishing our breakfast this morning, we prepared to attend mass at the local church. Guida conducts the choir at that church, so she left a little early, which gave me the opportunity to plant "the bomb". I walked into her room, and saw the target: the little plush Winnie the Pooh that my parents gave her during her trip to Canada three years ago. I snatched Pooh from its place on her bed and replaced it with this note:

Dear Guida...

Here was the plan: Tomorrow, the Canadian visitors - all nine of us - would be heading up north to where my cousin Manny was raised, and we would spend the week touring the historic and scenic parts of the northern part of the country. I would bring Pooh with me, and take pictures of him at all the sights in Chicken-Noodle or Amélie-Garden-Gnome fashion. When we returned to the Lisbon Coast, I would put Pooh's vacation pictures to CD, and return him to his home with his new collection of memories.

It was Father's Day in Canada today, so when we returned to the house after church, I gave my Dad his present - a few books on Vatican art - and waited for the bomb to be discovered. I expected Guida would be surprised and pester me about what I had done with her beloved Winnie. What I hadn't expected was that she would really freak out.

I don't think I had seen a grown woman panic over a stuffed animal like that before. I heard a yelp from across the hall, and she approached me brandishing Pooh's note, demanding to know where her Pooh had gone. She prodded and searched, looking between my bags, checking my pockets, always asking "Where is my Pooh?", and demanding I not harm him. I tried to reassure her that it was not my doing; that Pooh, in desperate need of a vacation, had gone on his own and would likely find his way home. Eventually. Of course, I couldn't keep a straight face with everyone saying "Pooh" all the time.

We had a quieter relaxing day, and spent a chunk of the afternoon playing the Portuguese versions of Monopoly and Clue. Guida, obviously traumatised by the Pooh kidnapping, had gone a bit psycho, doing strange and peculiar things like rolling the dice with her foot, while Teresa merely rolled her eyes at her older sister's antics and tried to keep some sort of sanity in the room. Occasionally, the game would be interrupted with more pleas for Pooh's return, and requests for ransom definitions.

Alverca had just finished building a new church dedicated to the pasture children of Fátima. It included a tower with the world's 3rd-largest carillon, containing 76 bells. We took a tour of the tower, which included an explanation of the carillon's operation and the dedication of the bells, and Guida successfully interrupted the mass below by ringing a few of the bells after being told not to.

We had a classic homemade dish of bacalhau for dinner and finished watching Pirates of the Caribbean that evening. Guida made some last-minute threats before retiring for bed, and as I sat to write the notes for this log entry, I wondered what she might do. I feared she may wake me in the middle of the night for some embarrassing prank, so I thought it prudent to lock the door, just in case.

Not too much later, as I was just putting my notebook away, I heard a loud crash at the door, followed by a series of muttering. Ah, so locking the door was a good call. Seconds later, I heard a soft tapping at the door, and Guida's voice pleading softly to be let in. After a bit of negotiating and struggling with the lock, I opened the door to find Guida and Teresa standing there with a bottle of water and a camera. So that's how it's gonna be, eh?

They continued to prod and search, and graciously cooled me off by splashing me with water. I guess it was supposed to be a threat, but it was a pretty warm night, so it helped. Eventually, I decided I couldn't put her through a week of torment, and returned her Pooh. She got her toy back, but Pooh lost his only chance for a vacation.

Mon, Jun 20, 2005

Portugal Day 9

We had a bit of time before the entire Canadian contingent arrived this morning, so we took our time eating breakfast, and when Carlos and family arrived, we watched a bit of the video from their previous week's exploits in the Algarve. Guida again put on a bit of a piano concert for us while we all prepared for the day's trip. When we were ready, our group of nine piled into the rental van - which the kids would soon remoniker as "Uncle Manny's Minibus".

We headed northward and made our first stop in the pilgrimage town of Fátima. It was in this tiny (at the time) village 90 years ago that an apparition of Mary regularly appeared before three shepherd children. During these visitations, she gave the children three "secrets", the contents of which have enthralled laymen and theologians alike for decades. The first was a vision of Hell, the second was a prophecy attributed to the Second World War and the rise of communism, and the third is still debated today. Released publicly in 2000, the Vatican claims it predicts the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981, but the text of the message sounds much more severe. Doubting the fanciful tales of three children, 70,000 people came to witness the apparitions in October of 1917. Whilst there, everyone - of various backgrounds, wealth, and levels of education - witnessed the Sun twirl in the sky, and change colour and size.

It was an eerie feeling to arrive in the valley where all of that took place not too long ago. The valley was filled with hundreds of people, yet still maintained a sense of quiet and calm. We attended mass at the Chapel of Apparitions - built over the spot where Mary appeared - and visited the nearby basilica where two of the seers are buried. A great deal has changed in that little valley in the past 90 years, but it was wondrous to think of what happened here. In that spot, not six feet from where I stood, the apparition of Mary appeared. By this tree, the children would wait for them to arrive. At this booth, the children would buy their souvenirs. Oh, no, wait... I think that's a modern addition.

We visited the museum, which guided us through the story through audio recordings and wax figures. It was a bit cheesy in its presentation, but it got the point across such that the kids could begin to appreciate why this place was so important. We then wandered a bit to find some lunch, and I ordered another mystery fish. It wasn't my first choice, however, because it seemed they had run out of half of the items on the menu. Then, it took so long for us to be served that I was beginning to think they had run out of everything entirely.

Our next stop was to Grutas da Moeda, another of the trio of caves in the Fátima area. For some reason, they would not allow photos in these caves, which is odd, because they had no problem with it at the other caves, and those had more intricate formations. The tour guide at this location wasn't as good as the previous one, which was unfortunate because there were a lot of things that could have been enlightening with more information. These caves did, however, have a bar built into them, but sadly, it was closed.

We then continued on our way making the long, long drive up north, through Porto, to the tiny farming village of Vilar Figos, where my cousin Manny grew up. As we navigated the nine-passenger van through the narrow, walled streets, we passed by the house of one of Manny's sisters. He saw her standing out front, and in typical Manny fashion, stopped the van, rolled down the window, and called out "Estamos nove. Tem comido?" ("We're nine. Got any food?")

We continued to Manny's parents' house, a shack of a place on a small farm where they grew lots of grapes, lemons, oranges, and a multitude of vegetables. They also raised some chickens and - to my delight - rabbits! They raised them for food, of course, but I would ignore that for the moment and enjoy myself playing with the cute fuzzy bunnies. My cousin Krystal immediately fell in love with the 8-week old kitten, Muléc, which was an energetic little kitten that would get itself stuck in various places.

We were a bit late getting out, and head into Barcelos for dinner, conveniently at the restaurant in the hotel where my parents and I were staying. One of the advantages of spending the week with Manny is that he would be able to point me to all the unusual dishes I should try. Tonight, we split a meal that was chicken and rice cooked in blood. It sounds strange on the menu, but looked perfectly delicious when it arrived, and tasted even better!

We checked in to the hotel after dinner, my cousins returning to Vilar Figos, and it was nice to have my own private room in which to relax, without worry of waking up a roommate, or being pranked by vengeful cousins.

Tue, Jun 21, 2005

Portugal Day 10

This morning I woke up considerably earlier than I had anticipated. Not because I simply woke up before my alarm, nor because the alarm was set up incorrectly. No, I woke up a good half-hour before I had intended because my parents knocked on my door asking if I would be going to breakfast. It was an hour and a half until we were scheduled to meet my cousins outside. In that time, I expected to get another half-hour's sleep, get up, get ready, eat breakfast, and be downstairs with time to spare. I have no idea what my parents planned on eating for an hour and a half, but I sent them on their way and returned to bed.

We met my cousins at the scheduled time and drove up to Braga, where we were to visit a pair of important churches. The first, Sameiro, is an interesting two-level church. The original structure was not big enough to house the city's patrons, so a second was built directly beneath; a below-ground church that opened up into the side of the hill in which it was built. The front of the church had a large set of stairs leading down the hill, and the kids had great fun running down them, but then discovered it was not such a good idea when they laboured back up. We told them to save their energy for the next one; they didn't know where we were going next.

It took us a little while to find the next stop, as it required a bit of time driving around cliff sides. We got to the church of Bom Jesus, and the kids developed a fear of staircases. This church had a huge set of crisscrossing staircases going down the hill in front of it. This church and its staircase are similar to the one in Lemago, but on a much grander scale. Chapels at various plateaus contain life-sized terra cotta depictions of the stations of the cross, fountains and statues are placed at each set of steps representing the five senses and the three virtues of Faith, Hope, and Charity. When we descended to see the various creations, I decided I should run up these stairs as well, like I did in Lemago. However, I really only went up halfway, because we only went as far down as the middle; there was actually a very long way down to the bottom of the hill. I still beat the car going up, though. I even had time to get ice cream.

We wandered the lovely gardens around the top of the hill, and had lunch at a local restaurant, though it was a bit shady. The washroom wasn't a room, per se, but a stall in the corner of the back dining room. We stayed out front.

Our next stop was to the historic city of Guimarães, the original Portuguese capital. It was from here that Afonso Henriques, Portugal's first king, began the reconquest of Portugal from the invading Moors. He took control of the county of Portucale and claimed independence by 1139. Eight years later, the kingdom had expanded to include Lisbon, and 110 years later would include all of today's Portuguese mainland with the reconquest of Algarve. We toured the Dukes' Palace and the Castle of Guimarães, and struggled up some narrow and ladder-like stairs to reach the top of the tower.

It was a satisfying, connecting sort of feeling to stand up there and look at the land stretching out, knowing this was where it began. My heritage, my culture, my history, began in this building when a 17-year-old man decided he would not have the native people of this land be ruled by foreign Castilians and Moors. It was definitely worth the 1.50 Euros. After we descended the steep ladder-like stairs, and pair of people climbed up after us. One of them was a girl in a very short skirt. If the heritage experience wasn't worth the entry fee, then that show definitely was.

We continued up to Penha, a park littered with huge piles of boulders in peculiar formations. We spent a hot late-afternoon climbing rocks and drinking lots of water. We returned to Barcelos for dinner, and I had a very good platter of breaded pork chops. I recently purchased a Portuguese cookbook in preparation for my upcoming house shopping; I will need to learn how to make some of these dishes.

We called it a relatively early night, which gave me a chance to explore a bit of television here. It was a hotel, so there was a selection of international channels. As expected, the strangest channels were German. I had to check these again the next morning and the following days to confirm, but it seems one of the German channels was devoted entirely to call-in contest shows, while another was entirely devoted to one show starring a strange puppet that vaguely looked like a loaf of bread or some kind of rectangular cake with arms. He would dress as a vampire, dance with rock bands, and hang out with his other puppet friends, but it was the same show, all day, all night.

I found a Spanish station that was airing a bullfight. I had never seen one before, so I decided to watch it. Frankly, I can't believe they still do things like this. It was terribly barbaric. They get a bull and angry and dive out of its way as it runs around in a fury. Then, some well-protected guy on a horse injects it with sedatives to make it slow and stuttery, at which point the matadors stab it and further taunt it before brandishing a sword and ending its misery. Then they do it all over again. It got to the point where I was rooting for the bull to gore one of the guys because I felt they deserved it.

Wed, Jun 22, 2005

Portugal Day 11

After an ultra-quick breakfast this morning, we caught our ride in Uncle Manny's Minibus and head out to Viano do Castelo. There, we drove up to the basilica at Monte de Santa Luzia, and it's incredible view of the town and sea below. We climbed a long, winding, narrow, and rather sketchy staircase up to the top of the dome to let the view surround us. Unfortunately, we were also surrounded by hundreds of tiny little bugs that got all over me and my camera as I was trying to take panoramic pictures of the landscape.

We then went to the shore for a leisurely early-afternoon stroll on the beach. There were very few people around, and the sand was fine and soft, and we stepped into the waves and around the seaweed. This was a fishing beach, and you could see the tracks in the sand from the boats hauling in the morning catch. As we kept walking, we then encountered the remains of that morning catch. Our strolling had to be done a little more carefully, because a trail of dead fish lay on the beach. It wasn't that pretty of a sight, and the smell wasn't so great either. But, the sand was nice, and I was looking forward to our beach stay later in the day where I would finally be able to get some swimming in, and hopefully see some locals out at play.

We went for lunch at a restaurant owned by a former coworker of Manny, so he knew what to order, and knew that it would be done right. We all had the chicken lunch and sizable helping of octopus salad to start. Following the meal we went to Póvoa de Varzim for our beach stay. We went to a very large, very popular beach. The sand was a bit coarse; almost like a pebble beach, which wasn't too cozy on the feet after the Sun warmed it up a bit. No matter, though; the sand wasn't my concern. My concern was to fulfil goals #2 and #3: Play in the ocean, and watch the cute bikini-clad Portuguese girls go by.

I set my towel and looked around. It was still too early in the year for the big crowds, but there was a sizable group around. There was also a good number of bikinis around. This would have been good, except for who was wearing them. Earlier in the trip, all I saw were wrinkly seniors, and this time I got the opposite end of the spectrum. High school just finished the week before, and it seems all the students had come out to enjoy their summer vacation. The beach was littered with 15- and 16-year olds. If I were ten years younger, I would have been in heaven, but at my age, it bordered on creepy. I sat in the Sun for a while with Carlos and the kids. Carlos tried not to look around because he's married, and both of us tried not to look around because "statutory" is not a good nickname to have.

So goal #3 wasn't panning out quite as planned, but there was a giant ocean in front of me, so nothing could stop me from goal #2. I ran into the water, and yelped.

It was freakin' bloody cold. Not just freakin' cold, or bloody cold. It was freakin'...bloody...cold. There's a reason why the northern beaches aren't so full at this time of year, and this was it. The tips of my fingers, stung, my nipples probably turned blue, and within a few minutes I couldn't really feel my feet anymore. However, this was the only beach chance I was going to get, so I stuck with it. After 15 minutes or so, I got so numb to the cold that it didn't bother me anymore, so I was able to enjoy a good hour and a half of running into the 3-foot waves, body surfing them into the shore, and sitting at the break and letting the waves tumble me to and fro around the beach. It was tremendous fun. During my tumblings hither and thither, I also encountered a good number of girls who were beyond the Hillary-Duff-fan age, so that pleased me as well. Ah... playing in the ocean, and bikini-clad girls; this is why I came here.

We dried off, warmed up, and head back up to Vilar Figos and got a quick hiking tour of the forested mountain area beyond the house, up to a plot of land Manny owned, as left to him by his grandfather. The area afforded great views of the little town below and the hills beyond. We returned to the house for dinner, where we were treated to a fine cod and veal dinner. I had some strange, gassy, homemade wine, but the treat was the port wine. I had my little glass and was shocked by how much better it is here than what we get back home. I recognised the bottle; it's one of the brands that we get in Canada, but it was so much better here. As it turns out, when they ship port internationally, it is shipped in barrels and bottled at the destination. To increase distribution, they dilute the port with whiskey or something similar, which of course changes the taste and makes it far less superior. I must be sure to pick up a bottle or two before I go home.

Thu, Jun 23, 2005

Portugal Day 12

This morning I actually had time to enjoy a full breakfast. I got my cereal, croissant, yogurt, and muffin, and the waitress brought me my coffee and milk for the cereal. I had plenty of time to enjoy it all, and I still ended up rushing because I spent too much time wondering what the heck was wrong with Europeans that would make them want to use hot milk in their cereal. That's just silly.

The square just outside our hotel was home to a flea market every Thursday morning, so we spent a good chunk of the early day doing some shopping. I wandered around in search of the last set of gifts for the folks back home and for a real Luis Figo jersey for myself, which I had decided would be my lone souvenir of Portugal. The near corner of the market was jam-packed with people, and gypsies and merchants were using megaphones to shout out their deals and sales. I snaked my way through to find that the market was tremendously huge, and outside of that corner, relatively calm. I wandered around and found merchants selling everything from clothes, to music, to fresh veggies, to live animals. Chickens clucked and bunnies tried to escape from their baskets as people weaved through the aisles haggling prices.

All the jerseys in the market were cheap knock-offs, so I went to the streets of the city in search of something official. I soon found a real football shop that sold authentic Team Portugal jerseys, and in my broken Portuguese managed to order a jersey with Figo's name on it. Having succeeded in my quest, I had plenty of time to find the rest of the family for the long drive up to Gerés for lunch.

The roads up the mountain were long, winding, and narrow, and were occasionally blocked by wandering cows. We reached the lookout points, which were conveniently equipped with large stone picnic tables, and inconveniently equipped with large mounds of cow poop. We picked a non-smelly area and enjoyed a barbecued chicken lunch. We then took our time at the lookout points, enjoying the majestic view around us of the mountains and river snaking its way to the valley below.

We meandered around town for a while enjoying a drink in the Sun before heading back to Vilar Figos for a last visit to Manny's parents. They provided lots of nuts, and generously distributed bottles of Port, which I accepted most happily. After prying the cat away from Krystal's clutches, we returned to Barcelos for another dinner at the hotel. The waiter was beginning to know us pretty well. This time, I ordered a platter of cow's tongue; a tender meat that tastes rather fatty. Some mixing, matching, and sharing involved, I ended up with three different types of meat, which always equals a satisfying meal.

Fri, Jun 24, 2005

Portugal Day 13

We had a late start this morning, but I still managed to rush to the last minute. We drove down to Coimbra, the old university town, arriving by lunchtime. I had a dish of rice and many kinds of shellfish, which was a good meal, but required a lot of work peeling shrimp, and cracking shells. Manny had to help me eat a chunk of it.

We took a brief walk around the city, to the university, and down the main boulevard with its giant palms. We then drove to Portugal dos Pequinitos, a pavilion of miniature buildings showcasing compositions of famous landmarks and architectural styles from around Portugal, the islands, and the rest of the Portuguese-speaking world. After some rather sketchy parking, we walked the pavilion, appreciating the extent to which the Portuguese have reached. A huge map at the back of the pavilion labelled the routes of major Portuguese sailing discoveries, from Brazil to Angola to Timor. The heading on the map read "If there were more to the world, we would have gone there".

There were also several statues commemorating great Portuguese, including Dom Afonso Henriques on horseback. The horse trampling on the five Moorish kings from whom he reconquered the country was a nice touch. There was also a statue of St Isabel, the Holy Queen, who was well known for her charitable acts and the Miracle of Roses. Her husband, King Dinis, was not fond of her constant charity, and one day, finding her distributing bread to the poor, demanded to know what she was doing. She replied that she was merely carrying roses, and when she opened her robe to unveil the bread she had hidden, the loaves had turned into roses.

We completed the long drive back to Alverca and Tio Brás's house. Anna and Manny dropped Carlos and family off at their hotel, and then made the long drive all the way back up north. We had a simple dinner at the house, and Guida taught me how to make espresso out of instant coffee; an unusual but surprisingly effective technique. We finished off a tired evening watching a movie, which unfortunately kept my aunt and uncle awake longer than they had wanted. I also unveiled to Guida the full plan about Pooh's vacation, which I had hoped would make her feel remorse over ruining the scheme, but she seemed stubbornly convinced that Winnie was fine where he was.

Sat, Jun 25, 2005

Portugal Day 14

My last full day in Portugal would involve some travelling around the other side of the Tagus River, the Alentejo. We drove across Ponte de Vasco de Gama, an 11 km bridge spanning the wide divide of the Rio Tejo. We drove past the town of Troie at the end of a peninsula in the river, and Teresa noted its fine-sanded beach. Having just finished school the week before, she was eager to get to the beach scene. It must run in the family.

We stopped a few times on the hillsides to enjoy the view. A convent was built into the rocky hill on the shore, and chapels dotted the hills along the way. We walked down to the docks below, watching the jet skis and SCUBA divers returning to shore. Teresa and I waded into the clear water, which was considerably warmer than the waters up north, and got up close to some fish and a small crab. We had lunch at a seaside restaurant and I decided to try another new dish: grilled cuttlefish. Not knowing it was similar to octopus or squid, I almost ordered it with the ink sac intact. It tasted a bit odd; parts of it were burnt, so I don't think it was quite cooked properly.

Our next stop was the Cristo Rei, a giant statue of Christ with arms wide, embracing the city. The vantage point offered an excellent view of Lisbon from across the river. The 110-metre tall statue, based on Rio de Janeiro's Cristo Redentor, was built in thanks for Portugal being spared from the destruction of World War II. We attended mass in the tiny chapel below, and hung around outside eating ice cream while Dad and Tio swapped stories of old school days, when teachers would apply the strap liberally and regularly.

We returned to the apartment in Alverca for dinner, where we found a lovely set up for our last big meal in Portugal, that is, until the table collapsed just as we were about to begin the meal, and had to carefully transport everything to the kitchen. It was an adventure right down to the final evening.

We took a walk through of Alverca in the evening, encountering a pair of festivals and a folklore event. I spent much of the time with my cousin Guida, playing on the swings, swapping stories, and generally trying to decipher Portuguese humour. She had a running gag of pretending to be a ghost, and I had great fun questioning the back story behind it trying to figure out how she could stretch the tale. It eventually involved wild bears and other zoo animals - friends of Winnie the Pooh - and wasn't entirely coherent.

It was 1:00 in the morning before we finally returned to the apartment, and I still had to pack for my morning flight, with particular attention to protecting my precious bottles of wine.

Sun, Jun 26, 2005

Lisbon To Rome

I was up earlier than I needed to be this morning, but I still had to wait a long time for the bathroom. Seven people to two washrooms has predictable problems, I guess. I had my final meal in Portugal, and just like the first, I was constantly urged to eat more and more. We spent the morning flipping through old photo albums of my aunt and uncle's wedding, the kids' communions, my uncle's time studying in a seminary and his military stay in Mozambique.

We zipped off to the airport and met with my Mom's side of the family, whom we didn't get a chance to see but for the one dinner a week and a half ago. I was upset I didn't get to see more of them, but I guess it was just a matter of bad timing. My parents would be spending all of the coming week down south with them, but I would need to get back home, as much as I would rather stay here and enjoy myself than go back to work on Tuesday.

As my flight time arrived, we said our good byes, and I sadly left. I was glad to have finally paid a visit to Portugal, and even more, to get to know my family a little bit better. I boarded the plane for the uneventful flight out, and left the Homeland behind me.

Due to technicalities with my flights, it was less expensive to return to Rome for a day and fly home from there, rather than going directly from Lisbon. While this gave me an extra day's rest, it did, however, mean I would have to go through the arrivals hall of Fiumicino airport once again.

My concern was valid, as the experience was worse this time than it was before. It took an hour for our bags to arrive at luggage claim, all the while waiting amongst some rather pushy travellers. Then, I tried calling my uncle to let everyone know I had arrived in Rome safely, though late, but no luck. Either the phones wouldn't accept my credit cards, or they wouldn't accept the telephone number, or the long distance service wouldn't accept my cards. In frustration, I left and caught a taxi to my hotel, charging me a ridiculous amount for such a short trip, and even charging extra for driving my bag. I cursed at him in languages he didn't understand and went to my room.

I attempted to call again from the hotel room, but I encountered more of the same, as well as a brainless long-distance operator and busy circuits. The best I could manage was to leave a message on my sister's cell phone in Canada on the off-chance that she would happen to speak to our mother later that day. I discovered that the hotel had neither a pool nor an exercise room, which thwarted my relaxation plans for the evening.

I walked down the street to a nearby restaurant for dinner, wherein I found myself still saying "obrigado" instead of "grazie". By this point, I had grown so tired of different and changing languages that I resolved to communicate solely through grunts and hand-signals. I ate, wrote in my journal, and lazed around the hotel room watching updates on preparation for Live 8 at Circo Massimo until I drifted off to sleep.

Mon, Jun 27, 2005

Rome To Toronto

I needed to catch the 8:15 shuttle from the hotel to the airport, so I set my alarm to 7:15 to ensure I would have plenty of time to get everything ready. Still, I woke up almost an hour before the alarm. I drifted back to sleep and awoke again just after the hour. I decided to get up anyway, succumbing to the strange things travel does to one's sleeping habits. I went to the bathroom and began brushing my teeth when a thought struck me.

"What time zone am I in?" I asked myself.

I looked at my travel alarm clock, which read 7:09, and thought about it. Rome uses European time. Lisbon uses Greenwich time. Did I remember to change the time on that clock after I arrived? I looked at my wrist watch sitting on the bedside table. Six minutes later I was running down the stairs, giant pack on my back haphazardly filled a frantic moment before, intent on catching the shuttle that was leaving at any second.

I managed to catch the shuttle, and got to the airport with plenty of time to pick up lots of Chianti wine at the duty free shops, even though I wasn't quite sure how I would get them through Canada Customs once I landed. I boarded the plane and was very pleased to find that I was placed in a two-seat aisle, and the window seat next to me remained vacant. With room to stretch out and almost lay down, and with 31 commercial flights of experience behind me, I was certain I would be able to sleep on the plane this time.

I kept telling myself that, but I knew it simply wasn't true. I spent the 10-hour flight lying awake in a zombie state, watching airline movies, and listening to MP3s, which I was pleased to find that once again did not cause the plane to crash in a fiery mess. I was also pleased to find that there was a stunning young woman in the seat behind me. However, her father, mother, and grandmother were in the three seats in the next aisle, and her father looked like the sort of man who has had or would soon have several heart attacks because of the stress from having a shockingly beautiful daughter and from fending off the strange and sleazy guys that come knocking on their door.

We finally landed in the beautiful city of Toronto, and I wondered how I would get seven bottles of wine through customs without getting parts of my body surgically removed in tax. I could try to claim I only had two bottles - the exemption limit - and hope they wouldn't check my bags. However, considering four of the bottles were in a plastic duty-free shop bag, I didn't think that was the smartest course of action. I decided I would take the friendly and truthful approach.

I declared the complete amount of alcohol with me, and gave the customs official a great big smile. I told her where I went and what a great time I had, and though it was nice to be home again, I would not enjoy going back to work tomorrow. She looked at my declaration card. "Five litres, how many bottles is that?"

"Seven!" I said promptly and cheerfully.

"You know you're over your exemption limit, don't you?" she responded.

Again I responded cheerfully and expectantly. "Yep!"

She paused a moment. "That's fine, sir, have a nice day."

"Thank you!" I called even more cheerfully and went on my way before she had a chance to change her mind.

I met one of my cousins in the arrivals hall and got a shocking reminder of what humidity was like, something that most of both Portugal and Tuscany lack. Naturally, after nearly four weeks of enjoying the warm weather of outdoors, I spent most of the ride home talking about how much I was looking forward to getting back on the ice for another hockey game as soon as possible.

Tue, Jun 28, 2005


I have returned home after a wonderful vacation, or at least I have physically returned. Mentally, I am somewhere in Italy, Portugal, and La La Land. Naturally, the day after I left this site went down, but all is back up and running again. The always entertaining travelogue will be up and available "some time", after I write them and create a new photo album app. Patience, my friends. Let the anticipation boil.

Wed, Jun 29, 2005

Other Life

The problem with vacations is that you have to go back to work once they're done.

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