Lisbon: A Walking Tour to Eat, Drink and Wax Nostalgic

New York City and I have an open-relationship, but it's fair to say Lisbon is my side piece. The fantastic, cheap wine, neighborhoods beckoning for a stroll, a burgeoning indie arts scene, locals who embrace diversity, music that ignites passion, food that sweetens the tongue: Lisbon is everything I love about life, and you will covet my side piece!

This walking tour itinerary is one of two I'll be posting. It's a lot to do in one day, so I recommend prioritizing your interests. For your convenience, I've sequenced it so the next site is nearby. This isn't The Amazing Race, and travel that stresses you out by making you feel like you have to tick items off a list under a time crunch is no way to vacation.

If you're doing it for the gram, make sure you wear comfortable walking shoes and bring a bottle of water because Lisbon's got curves and will wear you out. The hilly cobblestone streets are literally, and figuratively, breathtaking.


Bom dia!

Start your day off with an inexpensive, hearty breakfast at Café do Monte in the São Vicente – Graça neighborhood. It's got a funky, 1960's San Francisco vibe, so don't be surprised if you hear some Hendrix while you slurp your chai or sip your cocktail. From there, it's a 6 minute walk to Igreja e Convento da Graça, a church with a spectacular miradouro, one of Lisbon's many lookout points. You can even see Castelo de Sao Jorge, a medieval castle that traded hands between the Moors and Christians during the Siege of Lisbon in 1147. If you want to see the castle up close and personal, you're in luck: it's only a 10 minute walk, 15 if you factor in the hills. If an adrenaline shot is in order, walk along the high walls of the castle and look down at the expansive ancient city below.

For me, the most vibrant part of the castle is the confluence of cultures outside the wall. African men sell selfie sticks to tourists and play the balafon, a painter wearing a fedora and a bowtie dips his paintbrush in coffee to paint portraits, colorful tuks tuks toil up the steep cobblestone hills, and souvenir shops selling azulejos (tiles), cork purses and dishrags embroidered with roosters line the path to the entrance, interspersed with cafes where you can grab a bica (espresso) and rest your feet.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=pSK-vtQW0io


Boa tarde!

From the castle, a 15 minute walk will bring you to Figueira Square, a transit hub alongside a grocery store where the locals shop. If the grocery store isn't your thing, I hope it's the weekend: food vendors cover the square offering all the pork you can dream of, gourmet cheese, luscious pastries and refreshing sangria. It's a terrific place to linger for a light lunch and al fresco imbibing, a luxury we Americans are too often denied (unless you're in New Orleans.)

From Figueira Square, you're perfectly positioned to take the number 15 or 27 tram to Torre de Belem, about a 35 minute ride. The Belem Tower was built along the Tagus River in 1515 as a defense system against invaders and was additionally used as a customs check point to partially fund the kingdom's extensive maritime explorations (and subsequent invasions). Both the invasions and excursions are what make Portuguese architecture, food and culture so diverse; still it's necessary to recognize the brutality behind the beauty.

The exterior of the tower is more impressive than the interior, and even if you buy a ticket in advance, you could wait in line for over an hour to enter, so skip it. Rather, head on over to Pastéis de Belem, the home of the best pastel de nata in Portugal. There you can have the sweet egg custard on the very grounds where nuns invented them 200 years ago inside the Jeronimos Monastery next door.

For a peaceful reprieve from the hot sun, pop into the monastery for 10 Euro. It's a peaceful reprieve from the bright sun, and the cue is likely shorter than the one at Belem Tower, though the architecture is much more impressive. Vasco de Gama is buried inside. A quick visit (under an hour) should do ya.

From there, the Museu dos Coches (the National Coach Museum) is only 7 minutes away. Built for Portuguese royalty during the 16th to 19th centuries, the world's most valuable collection of horse drawn carriages now sits in a former horse riding arena. Coming from Amish country myself, a carriage museum seems quite provincial; however, this museum is unlike any I've ever seen. Too regal for princesses even, it's like the Disney princesses' moms parked their carriages for a "how to kill the evil witch" convention, and we get too ogle the red velvet and gold silk interiors, gilded cherubs, and hand-carved 400-year-old wheels while they plot and plan.

I'd venture to guess you're tired and need some down time. These next two places are not must dos, so if you're pressed for time, or just need a quick rest and recuperation, don't feel the pressure to squeeze them in. The evening plans are musts while in Lisbon, so prioritize them.

From the Coach Museum, take a tram or walk to LX Factory. The former industrial factory is an artist haven and houses vintage shops, a rooftop bar, restaurants, and a bookstore. You could spend a whole afternoon here, especially if an exhibit or concert is on the agenda. The bookstore, Ler Devagar, is a bookworm's dream come true; an books from floor to ceiling. It's a place meant for lingering, embodying that authentic Lisboan attribute of slowing down and eating the pastries. Speaking of which, the chocolate cake at Landeau will change your life.

As an alternative, I recommend taking the tram from Torre de Belem back toward Cais Do Sodre, and getting off at Corpo Santo. Walk 2 blocks to the Tagus River (Rio Tejo) and you'll bump into Pitcher Cocktails, one of Lisbon's quiosques de refresco (refreshment kiosks). Sip and stroll, or sit and soak up some vitamin D.


Boa noite!  

Bairro Alto is the nocturnal neighborhood of Lisbon; it comes alive at night. Revelers spill out of bars and onto the narrow cobblestone streets. There's a joie de vivre in their chatter, both from their lips and their shoes striking the cobblestones.

After you're refreshed and rejuvenated, head on over to Taberna Portuguesa in Bairro Alto for dinner, where you'll find Portuguese comfort food at its finest. Plates of cheese, bread, jam and olives await you, though they're not free like the breadsticks at Olive Garden, because this is real food! Order yourself a 2€ glass of wine, and consider the 30€ tasting menu; it'll give you a good sense of Portuguese homecooking and won't break the bank. Bom apetite!

After you've had your fill at Taberna Portuguesa, head to Tasca Do Chico, an intimate, cozy fado bar popular with locals and tourists alike. Fado is Portuguese blues, and it will rip your heart out. Accompanied by a guitar, a fado singer will pour her yearning, regret, hope, and eternal sadness into each word. You'll understand, even if you don't speak Portuguese.

Make your way through the swinging Western saloon doors of Tasca do Chico and you'll be hit with a double dose of nostalgia and romanticism, for which there is no cure. Fado singers begin around 8:30pm and will instantaneously enrapture you. The dim light and the wine will lull you into a state of tranquility, only for the regretful tones of fado to make you wince in empathy.


Up soon: another walking tour that takes you through Lisbon's most diverse neighborhood to its most lavish district, to a food market straight from Anthony Bourdain's wet dream, and into Lisbon's indie art scene. Stay tuned!

 

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Barfing on a Bermuda Bound Boat

This is the true story of 15 strangers picked to live on a boat, sail the ocean together, and have their lives recounted on a blog. Find out what happens when people stop singing “I’m on a boat!” and start getting seasick…

As far as transportation goes, taking a sailing yacht to Bermuda from NYC sounds luxurious. Hashtag yachtlife, hashtag imonaboat, hashtag blessed.

I thought so too. I dreamed of peaceful, pensive moments like this:

Really though, the majority of my time was like:


My bucket list includes “sail a ship around the world,” so when I came upon the opportunity to crew a 150-foot sailing yacht to Bermuda, I began practicing my pirate lingo. Six of us novice sailors were fortified by the expertise of nine professional sailors, including Captain Gianni; our enthusiastic instructor, Mike; the boat’s owner, and a chef. (A chef! Ok, fine, that is really #yachtlife.) In what I hoped would turn me from landlubber to seadog by osmosis, we talked navigation, weather patterns, safety, and provisioning for a four day ocean passage.

The mission: the 15 of us were to deliver the Arabella to Bermuda in time for the America’s Cup, where it was commissioned as a spectator boat. In less than a week, ladies in their finery and gents in their Bermuda shorts and knee high socks would board the yacht, sip Dark and Stormies, and watch the airborne racing boats fly by.

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Our days revolved around our watch shifts. I was paired with the only other female novice crew member, Carly, and two professional crew, Colin and Frank. From 1pm-5pm and 1am-3am everyday, the four of us (wo)manned the radar to make sure we didn’t collide with massive cargo ships, recorded barometric pressure, thought about physics more than I care to ever, and made sure we continued on the right course with the help of our trusty friend, Auto Von Helm.

The first ship landed on Bermuda's coral reefs in 1609 with 150 English people expecting to settle in Jamestown, Virginia. Call it the first conundrum of the Bermuda Triangle. ⚓️ Here, @clearlycarly is using dead reckoning to plot our course, considering course over ground, the Earth's magnetic poles, and our true (not apparent) wind speed. Glad to have her navigate us through the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle and on to Caroline's Bay, Bermuda! ⛵️ 📍Atlantic Ocean 🐝 #thenoblebee #sheisnotlost _ _ _ _ _ _ #pirateslife #sailingyacht #imonaboat #wanderwoman #yacht #exploringtheglobe #solofemaletravel #adventure #travelawesome #travelblogger #bermudadreaming #GoToBermuda #bermudatriangle #oceanpassage #americascup #ocean #humansatsea #fleetweek #intrepid #navigation #MemorialDayWeekend #physics #magnetic #passionpassport #Iamatraveler #traveleroftheweek #womenwhoexplore

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To allay boredom, we shined the bell and practiced tying knots. Oh, and spotted dolphins, a needlefish, flying fish, shooting stars (not so rare!) and the Milky Way.

I peppered Frank, the First Mate, with questions about his days as a service member, when he flew and eventually crashed a helicopter in Alaska in the late 1960’s. Even after he retired he found himself in dramatic adventures, like the time he intercepted a robbery in progress and saved the bartender, but took a bullet to the thigh. No shortage of intrigue there!

Frank emerging from the belly of the beast.

The Swamp Yankee’s Savvy

Like a harbinger of grief, Steve, the ship’s engineer, whom the professional crew affectionately referred to as a “swamp Yankee,” warned us about Arabella’s propensity for rockin and rollin with the colorful aphorism, “She’ll roll the guts right outta a goat, she will.”

Twelve hours out of New York, Arabella began to fulfill Steve’s prophecy. I succumbed to the demons of the deep blue sea, and well, you can call me Goat, because my guts ended up in the trashcan, sink, and a cooking pot.

As sunny day turned to starry night, the wind chilled my skin, so I needed more layers. Before I made my way below deck to my cabin, I mentally listed the clothing I would need and the order in which I would put each item on to minimize the time I’d have to spend in the most nauseating section of the boat. My list: socks, a warm pair of leggings, my jacket, maybe gloves. Let ODB (Operation Don’t Barf) begin!

I was determined to get in and out of my cabin with Navy Seal like precision. I made it through the salon, down the stairs, passing nine other cabins on the way. I pulled on my socks, and moved on to item number two, my leggings. I got them over my ankles, to mid-thigh when I suddenly felt the meager contents of my stomach rise. I bent over the sink with my bare ass in the air, but was abruptly tossed around my cabin like a rag doll on a rollercoaster. Bread and water, the only thing I could stomach that day, came out my nose.

Isn’t sailing posh?!

Spent four days crossing the ocean to deliver a sailing yacht from NYC to Bermuda for the America's Cup. ⛵️My fellow sailors are the heartiest mothas I've ever met. Think rugby players are badass? Try climbing on deck at 2am after something snaps in half and the mainsail is flailing in the wind, the moon and stars the only light guiding your hands, the sea tossing the boat into 45 degree angles, and the last sign of people was six hours ago when you passed a cargo ship. 💪🏼 Meanwhile, I lost my lunch…and dinner, and next breakfast. 🤢 #seasick 🌊 📍Atlantic Ocean 🐝 #thenoblebee #pirateslife _ _ _ _ _ _ #sailinglife #sailingyacht #imonaboat #Bermuda #wanderwoman #naturelove #beebold #yacht #travelbug #exploringtheglobe #wanderlust #solofemaletravel #adventure #travelstoke #lessismoreoutdoors #worldcaptures #travelawesome #followmefaraway #WeLiveToExplore #earthfocus #travelblogger #bermudadreaming #GoToBermuda #americascup #ocean #humansatsea

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Days later I learned most of us novices had weak moments. The way Justin described his attempt to sleep in bed, I imagined him as a Taco Bell chalupa, holding onto the corners of his mattress as the ship pitched from side to side, folding the corners in on himself each time he rolled.

And Jason–poor Jason, suffered privately, until one morning it became very public. As he was frying eggs for breakfast, the boat pitched and the frying pan flew off the stove, onto the ground. Cleaning up gooey egg yolks is gross in and of itself, but the myriad smells emanating from the galley pushed him over the edge, so he stuck his head in the trashcan and barfed. Our instructor stood behind him holding a tray of bacon, which eventually met the same fate and slid to the ground. Breakfast fail.

In the haze of my nausea, Colin sang, “Yo ho, yo ho, the pirate’s life for me!” to which I replied, “Is it though??! Is it really!?”

Captain Gianni scaling the rigging. Gianni embodies the spirt of a true leader, one who says, “Let’s go!” rather than “Go!”

The fresh air a tonic, the stars a steadying point of reference for my rattled vestibular system, I laid outside on the upper deck for the most part of our four day journey. As the hours progressed, I woke to find pillows, blankets and eventually a mattress beside me, brought by my fellow sailors to minimize my discomfort. There’s truth to the idiom “curse like a sailor,” but not an equally established truth of “caring like a sailor.” There should be.

Seasickness and no internet gave me space to sit with my thoughts. As sailors rotated watch I heard them regale each other with tales that drove out boredom and inflamed passions. I considered how many of our ancestors came by boat to the U.S., by choice or force, and the physical, mental and emotional intensity of that experience. I asked myself, and couldn’t answer, if I’d ever sail an ocean again, even though I managed to earn glory as the “Permanent Watch Keeper.”

After four disjointed days, we arrived in Bermuda. The journey was not at all what I expected, and that’s OK, because slow travel gave me the opportunity to withdraw from perpetual noise and busyness. Taking my first steps on land in four days on fluffy pink sand didn’t hurt either.


Check out my previous post on what to do when you’re in Bermuda.

 

 

 

Azores: Running with the Bulls in Terceira

Every Sunday from May to September, Terceira Islanders take to the streets for “tourada à corda,” a celebration of tradition, tenacity and togetherness. Touradas are similar to running with the bulls, except this bull is at the end of a long rope, which allows for the five men called pastores to control its direction and advance (to some degree). Another distinction is that the bull is not killed at the end of his run, though I doubt this fact will mollify PETA or any vegans.

The tourada has a state fair vibe to it: mobile vendors sell whole crabs, ice cream and donuts, older men in short-sleeved button-down shirts tucked into their starched blue jeans line up behind street level barricades while women and young children sit along the volcanic stone hedge walls that are prevalent in the Azores. 

Young men, eager to prove their bravery through bravado approach the bull head on, stomp their feet and wave their arms. Once the bull charges, it’s imperative to have a nimbleness about you, to react decisively and climb a wall ninja style.

Across many cultures the bull represents determination (AKA stubbornness), unpredictability, stamina, and an unbreakable will. The 400-year-old tourada tradition plays with this symbolism, and provides Azoreans with an adrenaline rush I’m not sure any other local activity could. Maybe cliff diving? Bars and restaurants offer highlight reels of the most spectacular leaps, dives and dodges. On occasion, a man misjudges, falls prey to the bull and is trampled or gored to death.

I was initially apprehensive, but the longer I watched, the more anxious I was to participate, even wearing a dress. I spoke to the pastores during an intermission, while the bulls were crated and spectators bought snacks.

At the start of the next round, I joined the older men in jeans at a driveway lined with hydrangeas. I didn’t even see the bull coming our way, but I followed the tide of men scurrying up the driveway, laughing maniacally. It reminded me of sneaking into haunted (abandoned) houses as a teenager, the thrill of the unknown eliciting giddiness, the perceived anxiety worse than any real danger. Later, the pastores amused themselves by letting out the rope’s slack and allowing the bull to chase me, the only woman runner, all the way to the safe zone, demarcated by two white stripes on the road.

Pastores removing rounded-tip brass covers from a bull’s horns.

The mere fact this tradition continues to exist ruffles some feathers. Maybe it is time to phase it out, though I’d approach it from the perspective that men dying in an attempt to prove their masculinity is problematic, rather than an animal rights issue. Something I’ve come to realize through living for over two years in a rural South African village as a Peace Corps volunteer is culture is more deeply embedded than a tick after a long hike. Merely proclaiming “it’s wrong, it’s evil!” without understanding the history or value behind the tradition doesn’t motivate practitioners to reconsider. Speaking up against what you perceive as injustice is a moral imperative, and part of an informed advocacy campaign is one which appreciates the value in the why, and offers alternative traditions. Practitioners must be partners in the change process, not simply on the receiving end of intolerance, benevolence or cosmopolitan ideas. As long as the touradas are tied to masculinity, and without a meaningful substitute, they will continue despite condemnation or deaths.

After being chased by the bull, with adrenaline still coursing through my veins, I walked around the corner and through the airport parking lot to hop on a 30 minute flight. Next stop,  Graciosa.

The Fisherman

Like so many Azorean men, he was shirtless and tan. His fishing rod was primitive: made from a 15 foot long bamboo rod, there was no reel; instead, the fishing wire ran its length, plopping into the water at the tapered end. With each heave, the rod wiggled up and down over the ocean. The Fisherman continuously rolled chum into balls in his left hand, while heaving the rod with his right, hiding the hook in these morsels.

I took some shots of him from a distance, like I was on safari. A boy about 9 years of age stood beside him, and nudged The Fisherman to alert him to what he already knew-my camera was aimed at them. The Fisherman glanced in my direction, then shrugged at the boy. I imagine The Fisherman had a cologne called Eau du Insouciance, and he bathed himself in it that morning.

I closed the gap between us, saying, “Bom dia. Any luck?” He responded in English, but it took me a few sentences to realize his accent wasn’t strictly Azorean; it was somewhere between Boston and the Azores. I was curious. I asked questions and was rewarded with stories: He was born in the Azores, and his parents moved to Lowell, Massachusetts when he was 7. He grew up there. Though his parents moved back to Sao Miguel, he stayed in Lowell. He thumped the right side of his chest with a closed fist, pointing out the tattoo of an older man’s face. His dad, with whom he shared a name, died just a few years ago and he moved back to Sao Miguel to take care of his mother, who was sick. I silently wondered why the tattoo of his father was on the right side of his chest, and not over his heart. He hated it here–life was so slow paced he found it unbearable, there was no work, and he felt trapped. I felt empathetic, but didn’t feel sorry for him, because I envied his access to the breeze, the view, the angle of the sun, even the slowness.

He was a good looking man with a fit body. But something was off, and I didn’t quite know what. His eyes were bleary and deep-set. I imagined they receded like a hairline, after years of negative experiences. They reflected a defeatism that his words didn’t overtly betray. My intuition whispered to me, but I couldn’t interpret its message in the moment; still, I trusted it would eventually reveal itself and I unconsciously set a boundary on how far I wanted this interaction to go.

Travel is a commitment to openness; openness of mind, to adventures, experiences, people, conversations, and food. Early in our lives, logic is held up as the ultimate guiding system, over intuition. Yet, women and people of color must hone their intuition to stay safe. We’re often told we’re being fearful, paranoid, anxious or sensitive in reaction to subtle yet pervasive inequality, so we begin to doubt ourselves, wondering if we’re just being bitchy, high maintenance, or putting up a wall. A “laid-back” woman is the Holy Grail on online dating sites, and the “angry black woman” is such a trope that we rarely reflect on what is going on in the lives of women and people of color to make us justifiably angry, high-strung, and wary.

When we’re not experienced in listening to our intuition, the voice can feel small, nagging, nebulous. It may be difficult to immediately decipher its meaning, so we may bury it, push it aside as insignificant or devalue its meaning in a world of big, brash words and instantaneous judgement, rating systems and feedback. When we undervalue our intuition and trust logic more than our feelings, we doubt ourselves and capitulate to other peoples’ visions of ourselves. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t investigate our feelings, or we should throw off all logic and rationality. It is to say we should hone both skills equally. In the balancing act between self-protection and embracing new, unfamiliar travel experiences, conversations with strangers and spontaneous adventures, we’re sure to sometimes slip and fall, but listening to our intuition provides equilibrium.

Three months later, as I was writing about my trip to the Azores, I wondered about drug use in the Azores. Drugs are legal in Portugal, but I wondered if that was the case in the Azores. In doing research, a strange “coincidence” occurred. Though I wasn’t specifically researching The Fisherman’s story, and didn’t even know his full name, I discovered he did 5 years in prison in Massachusetts, and was deported back to the Azores. He was married with 5 children.

Sometimes the hook is hidden in morsels.

 

 

Azores: Exploring Sao Miguel

The streets of Ponta Delgada in Sao Miguel are lively, but I suspect most people come to Sao Miguel for the natural beauty, plenty of which you’ll find below.

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I’ve written on what to eat and what you need to know about renting and driving a car because duh, food is good, and driving is the most efficient way to get to all the otherworldly places in Sao Miguel, from the hot springs to the hilltop church to the hiking trails and back into town to sing along with traditional dancers.


Caldeira Velha

Between Ribeira Grande and Lagoa do Fogo (the Lake of Fire) sits Caldeira Velha, naturally heated hot springs in the middle of a tropical forest. It’s a img_0295 visual feast for the eyes: rich green plants and rust colored boulders span the hot springs, while birdsong echoes throughout the jungle. Absorbing this surreal scene from a pool of hot thermal water is curative for body and soul.

Tips:

  • The official parking lot is small, so use your parallel parking skills, and finagle a spot along the steep switchback curve of the mountain.
  • Entry is super cheap: only 2 Euros. It’s worth much more.
  • Changing rooms and showers are available, but there aren’t any lockers. They provide a basket to carry your items between the two springs. I had to remind my NYC state of mind that I was in the Azores, and it was highly unlikely someone would steal my stuff while I soaked.
  • There are two pools-one hot, one warm (and more photogenic because it has waterfalls, but I preferred the hot one).
  • Wear a dark colored bathing suit. The water’s minerals stain light colored suits.
  • Take a waterproof camera.
  • Caldeira Velha is very touristy, but it’s unlike any place I’ve every visited, a tropical rendition of Myvatn hot springs in Iceland.

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Vila Franca Do Campo

Vila Franca Do Campo was the most developed town on the island until the 1522 earthquake destroyed it and buried thousands of locals alive in a landslide. The rebuilding efforts were slow to advance, so the capital was transferred to the current seat in Ponta Delgada. Today, Vila Franca Do Campo is known for two incredible landmarks: a hilltop church, and a surreal volcanic islet just off the town’s shore.

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Ilheu do Vila Franca

The islet was immediately visible when I pulled up along the waterfront. I’d never seen such a magical landmass, and have never had occasion to use the word “islet.” It’s fitting. The islet is a tiny volcanic island off the coast of Sao Miguel Island, centered around a crater lagoon where a volcano imploded and collapsed in on itself. Radical!

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Ilheu do Vila Franca is perfect for an afternoon of snorkeling in the crater lagoon and picnicking on the narrow beach. You can rent snorkel gear along the waterfront. A ferry leaves the pier every hour, though I was supremely unlucky: Hurricane Gaston was headed towards the Azores, making the water choppy and rough, and the ferry was cancelled. Enjoying the weather from under a tree near the pier, a tan, rotund, shirtless man wearing a gold chain offered his opinion that it would be at least two days until the sea would be calm enough for the ferry to cross. I’d be gone by then, having moved on to Graciosa Island. I was so disappointed, but that’s the thing about the Azores–the weather can dash your best laid plans.

Tips:

  • If you like to plan ahead, you can buy the ticket online for six Euros.
  • You’ll need to bring all your own food and beach supplies, as there are no amenities. Like much of the Azores, the charm can be found in the tranquility of nature.
  • Snorkel gear is for rent along the waterfront.
  • Check out videos of the Red Bull Cliff Diving Championships to virtually explore the majesty of the cliffs.

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Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz

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Visible from the center of town, Ermida de Nossa Senhora da Paz (the Chapel of Our Lady of Peace) sits on a mountaintop over looking Vila Franca. I set off to walk (the New Yorker in me wasn’t used to all this lazy driving), but I soon realized the sun was too hot and the road too steep to do so without a hat, sunscreen, or water, so I went back to the car and drove up. Good thing, because the road was steeper and longer than I suspected, perfectly designed to hermit religious scholars away from the villagers and temptations below.img_6670

The parking lot is bursting with hydrangeas, a bouquet of gratitude to the holy woman who exemplifies peace. Ten flights of stairs before the entrance to the church symbolize the Hail Mary prayer and the tilework (azulejos) depicts the mysteries of the rosary. The view is amazing, and so worth the pilgrimage up the mountain.

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Furnas

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Furnas is a town in the eastern section of Sao Miguel Island. The area boasts a chartreuse colored lake, an enchanting mossy forest, volcanic vents that shoot boiling water and mud to the surface of the earth, and a relaxing hot spring.

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The lake, Lagoa das Furnas, sits on the edge of the main attraction, the Caldeiras das Furnas. Steam emanates from cracks in the Earth’s surface and the bubbling mud, boiling water and smell of sulfur is a reminder that I’m walking on a volatile volcano. Why would people live here?! It’s fantastic and mind-boggling.

Thirty minutes at the caldeiras will do, and if you’re hungry afterwards, get yourself a plate of cozido das furnas, the local stew. Curious about the cooking process and ingredients? Check out my post here.


Poca de Dona Beija

The more hot springs, the better! Poca de Dona Beija hot springs aren’t as wild or natural as Caldeira Velha, but they’re still soothing after a day of hiking.img_0329 Amenities include a parking lot, changing rooms and lockers, and at 4 Euros for the entry fee, it’s a bargain spa experience. The sulfur will stain your bathing suit orange, so wear an old or dark one. Five different hot pots offer a range of temperatures, from hot to warm, while artificial waterfalls massage your aching neck. There’s also a gift shop with artsy jewelry, a rarity aside from the airport shops. They’re open until 11pm, and if you don’t have a towel, you can rent one there.

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I visited at night, after a day of hiking. I would have gotten better photos during the day, especially of the rust colored rocks, but bathing outdoors at night is so romantic, and I prefer romance to evidence.


Salto do Prego hiking trail

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Roca de Velha

If you’ve ever wished Avatar was real life, this trail is for you. Moss shrouds thick sinewy roots while leaves as large as my torso, thick and deep green, sway in the light breeze. I breathe in the unfamiliar perfume of Roca  de Velha. In yet another nod to Portuguese exploration, the flower is endemic to India. Since it’s arrival in the Azores, it’s become an invasive species. img_5730

Like a crescendo, the trail rose and the roaring, soothing sound of falling water became unmistakable. The forest opened up to spaciousness, to a jungle amphitheater, the star of the show a picturesque waterfall above a chilly rock bottom pond.img_5912

Point your GPS to the village of  Faial Da Terra. It’s a relatively easy hike, only 30 minutes to the waterfall, and under two hours roundtrip if you swim or have a picnic, though it is steep at sections and can be muddy.


Traditional dancing

After dinner one night, I heard music in the open air plaza of Igreja Matriz de Sao Sebastian, the Church of Saint Sebastian in the middle of town. Rows of locals sat in chairs facing a raised stage where traditional dancers in white shirts, the men in tweed pants, the women in bright pink and blue woven skirts, twirled in a complicated partner dance. The women’s hair was covered by blue woven fabric, looking very “Girl with the Pearl Earring.” Azoreans are incredibly ethnically mixed as roving bands of sailors stopped over in the islands, and these outfits were reminiscent of their Flemish heritage.

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Some songs were joyful, others measured and tempered. The song that resonated most deeply with me was full of saudade, a word that cannot be fully translated into English. It is simultaneously melancholy and nostalgic, somewhere between our romantic notions and salty reality. As thousands of immigrants, like my great-great-grandparents, left the nine volcanic islands in the Atlantic Ocean and made a home in the USA, they certainly must have felt saudade at the distance between homeland and adopted home, not just in geography, but in yearning for lush jungles, verdant vistas, fresh sardines for dinner, and a shared history and language.

116 years, 5 generations and 4 planes later, I was making my way to tiny, remote Graciosa, my ancestral homeland.


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Ancestral Soul Voyage

In 1900, Joze Machado da Silva emigrated from Graciosa, one of nine volcanic islands comprising the Azores, a bucolic autonomous region of Portugal. Settling in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA, he became Joseph Marshall. Five years later Maria Pereira made the same trip, from luscious Graciosa to frosty Lowell. She became Mary Perry, and together they became my great-great-grandparents.

My great-great-grandparents Maria Pereira and Joze Machado da Silva with their children; John Marshall, my great-grandfather at middle.

It is unclear why my great-great-grandparents changed their names. Maybe it was a point of pride, a trophy representing their successful journeys. Maybe they anticipated the positive results: the switch alleviated pronunciation challenges, and improved not only my family’s social standing, but also our earning ability. While this access to economic and social gains is a privilege darker-skinned people wouldn’t even have had as an option, for my family the change annulled my Latin ethnicity and allowed my ancestors, and by extension their descendants, to enter into the exclusive Anglo-Saxon country club called Whiteness.

**

Maria and Joze had seven children, the first of whom was my Grandmother’s father, John Marshall. John was born in Lowell, but after the birth and death of Maria and Joze’s second child to measles, they moved back to the Azores for about 5 years. When John was 7, on the day they were supposed to board a ship returning to Lowell, John ran into the mountains to hide, refusing to return to cold, snowy winters. Sadly, I only know the beginning of that story, and the end…he ended up in Lowell…but I so wish I knew what that coaxing session in the volcanic mountains sounded like.

A decade later, Catholic John met Baptist Lillian, a Russian immigrant, in Lowell. They impatiently waited for her 16th birthday to tie the knot. It was considered a “mixed-marriage;” neighbors and family members warned their lives would be torn asunder by ostensibly dueling religious doctrines and cultural traditions.

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Connie

It was not so; no duels, no identity crises or mass hysteria, though my grandmother, John and Lillian’s oldest child, Constance, sure did cut her own path. Aspiring beyond a typical job in one of the leather factories for which her hometown was famous, my grandmother left at age 18 to join the army, and was sent off to Germany during the Korean War, eventually becoming a drill sergeant. To this day, 65 years later, she still stands like one, chest out, back straight, her hands in loose fists, thumbs aligned with the seam of her pants. She relished the sense of adventure, the self-sufficiency, and the weekend train trips to Germanic mountain towns.

Connie’s trip to Germany at 18 was her only physical connection to her father’s homeland, and it’s tenuous, at best: her plane stopped to refuel at Lajes airport on Terceira island, still a 30 minute plane ride away from Graciosa Island.

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Connie and Lillian, daughter and mother

She met my grandfather in the army base’s dining hall in Germany, and he pursued her with such vigor that she broke off her engagement to another man, choosing Grandpa instead. The second of their four children is my mother, who took a DNA ancestry test about a year ago. The test revealed the exact island, neighborhood and street Joze Machado lived on in Graciosa, as well as baptism and marriage records, which I used to create a travel agenda for my ancestral soul voyage to the Azores.

These days, Grandma Connie still carves her own path. She insists on her own unique pronunciation of certain words (“Well, I say hair say-lawn”), and feels no visible shame at the cornbread she consistently embezzles from ALL buffets, wrapping it in a napkin and saving it in her purse for later. She’ll even throw in a banana (also nabbed) to create a well-balanced snack for any grandchild who expresses the slightest hint of hunger.grandmas-majesty

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In chasing the stories of my ancestors I am conflicted. So often we look to the past to inform our present and inspire our future. We’re proud of our heritage, though we did nothing to create it. We have parades celebrating our people’s strengths and struggles, while we tend to ignore the brutality they perpetuated in becoming the victor, or how the spoils they gained in war protect and benefit us today.

The very things for which I admire the Portuguese–embracing uncertainty, taking calculated risks and bold, brave action–are the very tactics by which they dominated and plundered, whereas cooperation and equality could have just as easily been on their agenda. For example, the Portuguese were trailblazers in world exploration, developing new celestial mapping techniques and more effective sailboats to create the most expansive global trade network at that time, still in use today. Admirable, until we consider they dominated the transatlantic slave trade for 100 years, setting the foundations for 18th and 19th century iterations of a global slave trade along these same networks.

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**

It’s disturbing to see the sausage being made, to see our complicity in and deference to white supremacy, to see the process through which we become people who “believe ourselves to be white.”*

“Isn’t this a travel blog?” you ask. Yes, and this IS my brain in travel–it leads me to reconsider what I’ve been taught as true, right, and without alternative narratives. A few months after my mom took a DNA ancestry test, I went to the Azores in September 2016 on an odyssey to rediscover what my family lost and gained through our assimilation over the past 116 years. What I found was a wellspring of dueling dualities and uncertain conclusions.


*Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

 

 

Iceland: The Blue Lagoon

Have you been to Disney World, a manufactured magical land where Sleeping Beauty’s castle echoes it’s German inspiration and Epcot imitates worldliness?

The Blue Lagoon is like that. Given all the incredible natural formations across Iceland, from fjords to lava fields to lagoons and waterfalls, it’s easy to believe the Blue Lagoon is one of them. Alas, a look behind the curtain reveals the Svartsengi power plant pumping hot geothermal water to the Blue Lagoon, and thousands of homes in the region.

So, is it worth enduring the chaotic crowds, long lines, and excessive commercialism just to soak in a power plant’s runoff?

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YES! The Blue Lagoon’s milky teal 102 degree mineral rich water, proven to cure psoriasis and leave your skin as soft as a newborn’s bum is something to experience at least once.

Here’s what you need to know:

Hot Waters, Cold Cash

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Silica mask

 

There are four entry packages to choose from. Each package offers a different level of amenities, the minimum being just the entry ticket, the most luxurious including a reserved table at the restaurant. I opted for the “Comfort package” for 50 Euros. It included entry into the lagoon, a towel, robe, sample size silica mud mask, and a drink at the lagoonside bar (that I didn’t get because I was short on time).

 

  • Comfort package: 50 Euros
  • In-water massage: 50 Euros.
  • The bus to get there was $25 and I bought the ticket from Go Camper’s office.
  • Luggage storage at the Blue Lagoon: $5
  • Total: $140

Getting There

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View from the bus of mossy lava fields

Many people recommend a visit to the Blue Lagoon before or after a flight because it’s only 23km from the airport. I booked my visit for 9am the morning of my 4pm flight home. I found this time constraint added to the chaotic feel of my experience. I dropped off the camper car at 7am, and waited an hour outside for the bus, my toes eventually numbing to the freezing cold. Not pleasant. The bus only comes once an hour, so if you’re waiting from inside your hotel, you’ll be much better off. Make sure to check what time your bus leaves to head back to the airport from the lagoon, so you don’t miss your flight! Driving to the Blue Lagoon is an also option, and will help you avoid the line to check your luggage (more below) if you leave it in your car.

Lines vs. queues

Buy your entry ticket online! It will save you time. Same if you’d like a massage (more below). There are two separate lines/queues to enter: a longer, slower one for those who need to buy entry tickets, and a shorter, quicker one for those who bought their tickets online. Which one do you want to be in?

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As soon as you get off the bus, there’s a line/queue to check your luggage. If you took the advice to visit the Blue Lagoon directly before or after a flight, join your fellow bus riding globetrotters in an annoyingly long line/queue. In fact, I was late to my massage due to this line/queue, and almost missed the bus on the way out as I waited to pick up my luggage. I hope this is something they improve on, because it was way too stressful for a place that touts itself as “an oasis of relaxation.”

How to Hotpot

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Upon checking in, I was given a robe, towel, and a key bracelet and directed to the locker rooms. Please do your fellow lagooners a favor, and shower with the complimentary soap before you enter the lagoon. It’s smart to condition your hair (don’t rinse!), tie it up, or use a swimming cap, because the same minerals that are great for your skin will leave you looking like a Medusa. There’s an overpriced swim up bar, pots of silica mud for use as a face mask, and towel racks stationed around the lagoon to hang your towel (though I don’t know how you’ll know which is yours–they’re all white!).

Pampering

I treated myself to an in-water massage, floating on a mat in the lagoon, my head held above water by an air pillow. It was relaxing, but a bit disorienting as the masseuse moved me through the water. She was kind enough to consistently pull warm water onto the “blanket” that covered me. It was a unique experience, but underwhelming. If you’re determined to experience this, you’ll need to make a reservation about a month in advance to negotiate your time slot.

To bring the Blue Lagoon home with you, there’s a store on site with expensive Blue Lagoon skin and hair care products, good for gifts or souvenirs if you’re willing to dish out the dough.

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Overall Experience

I’m happy I went, because the Blue Lagoon truly is visually stunning. The steam rising from milky aqua waters surrounded by moss covered lava fields really is otherworldly. But, once was enough, and I don’t need to go back. It certainly wasn’t relaxing; too many lines, which cut down on the time I could have spent soaking. I recommend visiting other lagoons so you get a variety of experiences, like the Myvatn Nature Baths and Fludir’s Secret Lagoon, both of which satisfied my desire for relaxation more than the Blue Lagoon. Happy hotpotting!

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