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Madrid, Spain

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D had business in Madrid on Thursday and Friday and we stayed the weekend.  We were lucky with beautiful days as the week before they had heavy rain all week.  But with beautiful skies comes crowds of people!


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Colorful Streets

Madrid has really colorful streets.  It is the capital of Spain and is the largest city.  The city dates back to the 9th century.  


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Since I was on my own for two days, I decided to do the Hop 0n - Hop Off open top bus tour.  They are always interesting and give a good overview of the city.  Here are a few buildings I thought were pretty.


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For you sports fans - here is the Real Madrid football  stadium (we call it soccer).  Sapin won the 2010 World Cup.  Remember, the pulpa Paul predicted it!

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The sight I enjoyed the most was my visit to the Monasterios de las Descalzas Reales - the convent of the barefoot nuns founded in 1559 in the former palace of King Charles I of Spain and Queen Isabel of Portugal.  Their daughter, Joan of Austria, founded this convent after the death of her young husband. 

Throughout the remainder of the 16th century and into the 17th century, the convent attracted young widowed or spinster noblewomen.  Each woman brought with her a dowry, which included such treasures as precious metals, paintings, and religious relics.    With all these possession, the convent became one of the richest convents in all of Europe.


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By the mid-20th century it was mostly home to very poor women.   It still held its priceless collection of treasures, but the nuns were forbidden to sell anything.  The state eventually intervened and, with a special dispensation from the pope, the convent was opened to the public as a museum in 1960.

This place, with so many beautiful objects and art to look at mesmerized me.  Photos are not allowed inside.  I took D back on Saturday so he could see it.  I had a different guide and she only repeated 25% of what the first one said - so I learned quite a bit between the two tours.

They say 19 or 20 barefoot nuns still live here, growing vegetables in the garden.   Fyi - the name barefoot nuns came from the open sandals they wore.


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One of D's all-time favorites - Jamon Iberica also called pata negral (black footed pig) is a specialty of this area.  It is cured ham.  The pigs are fed a special diet of acorns.  To cure them, they hang the meat to age for a minimum of 12 months but most cure it for 36 months before serving.  I am not a fan.  It smells just like you would expect a non-refrigerated ham that has been out for 36 months would smell.  I can't even tell you how much of this he ate the five days we were in Madrid.


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FYI - it is only 10 am when this photo was taken and we had eaten a big breakfast.  D even tried to convince me to let him buy 1/2 pig to bring home.


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But I won the argument with the simple fact that I needed the seat on the airplane more than he needed the pig.  Plus with the amount of weight he gained, it was like he brought one home  :  )


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D's other favorite - grilled sardines.


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At his favorite bocas (tapas bar), Bar Santurce.  Notice how they throw the napkins on the floor and that there are no tables.  This is very typical of the bocas.


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The grill was going non-stop the entire time we were there.


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 I prefer the calamari to the sardines.


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Our new favorite food discovery was the pimientos de padron with lots of salt.  We decided they might actually be healthy.


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We found the best Mexican restaurant we have eaten at in Europe, Taqueria Mi Ciudad - Sabor de Mexico.  Cheap and oh so good.


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Now onto my favorites - of course they are the sweets!  A tray of delectable muffins.  Guess which one I picked?


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The ooey-gooey apple caramel one!


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And a specialty of the region, churros and hot chocolate.


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We had ours at Chocolateria San Gines, founded in 1894.  It is said to be the best.


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Like Portugal, Spain has a high unemployment rate, 20 %.  So scenes like the one below, a young boy and his father selling fruit on the corner, are not uncommon.


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I am always drawn to the artists painting "en plein air".  This gentleman is painting the very famous Prado Museum.


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People out and about in the city.  Guess she knew I was taking this photo, as she is looking straight at me.  I took it from the bus.


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Street performers

Because it was such a beautiful weekend - the street performers were out in full force. 

Elegant ones - 

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....Odd ones.  She did not move, even when we gave her money.  


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....Funny ones.  He had us laughing and we did not understand a word he was saying.  His face expressions said it all!


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And probably one of our favorites of all time, the toilet man:


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He was very entertaining and again, we could not understand what he was saying.  In fact, we could not read what we were supposed to do.  But he was made us laugh so we gave him money.  You can't tell from the photo but I am scratching behind his ear and he was cooing.


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As we stood watching a woman stepped up, gave him a euro and pulled the cord.  He made a flushing noise....down went the puppet and......
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And up came a new one.  BRILLIANT!


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We had to get a video clip of this one.  Yes, we gave him several Euros for all the photos we took



Well hello Kermit!  We are not sure how many puppets he had; we saw at least eight of them.


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If you'd like to visit the Madrid flea market and see a few more photos -  click here to hop over to my art blog, ma vie trouvee.

Roaming the Portugese Countryside


Eleven perfect days in Portugal

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We started our Portuguese adventure in Lisbon where D had three days of business.   Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in the world dating back to the Neolithic age.   In 1755 it was almost completely destroyed by an earthquake that registered at 8.9.


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Portugal is part of the EU (European Community).  They speak Portuguese which most people associate with Spanish, but when you hear them speak it sounds more like an Eastern European accent. 

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Portugal is a fairly poor country but you would never know it.  They keep their cities very clean and the people are exceptionally happy and friendly, even the bums.  We watched these two earn money by helping to park cars.

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When a parking spot became available, they would stand in it. The one with the scarf and purse would flag the cars down and the one with his bottle would help them parallel park.  We watched them from our hotel window.  It was very entertaining, like a comedy routine.  Most people did tip them.

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D's co-worker, Thien, was also there and he had never been to Lisbon before.  We enjoyed showing him around.  Experts that we were from one previous trip!  Here the boys are "working".


The old part of town is charming with twisting cobblestone roads.  No telling what you might stumble upon as you wander and get lost.  For instance we passed by a sign, cerveza (beer) for one Euro.


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A woman was selling it out of her window.  Thien and I made Donald go buy one so I could take photos.

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She was very friendly and liked that we were taking photos.  Wonder how many beers she sells in a day?


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After that beer, good thing D found the........

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Ahem........Outdoor Urinal!  A group of people walked by as I was taking the photos - I announced "he's mine" so it's okay to photograph him.  As Thien pointed out - what a proud moment for me to be "claiming" he's my man!

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The Portuguese hang all of their laundry out to dry.  You can see pretty much everything!  For some reason I love taking laundry photos.  You would never see this in Belgium.


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A sweet photo of a young boy playing on his balcony.  

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Okay, time for our favorite subject - FOOD!  Thien was very easy to hang with as he also loved to eat like we do, especially at mom & pop places. 

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For dinner, we found an out-of-the-way restaurant where there was a big burly man sitting next to us.  In a dark alley he would have scared me....but he struck up a conversation and shared his appetizer with us, a type of bean, explaining how to eat it and what it was.  He worked at the Fado museum.  Not so tough  :  )


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 The food is very fresh and inexpensive.  We enjoyed a lot of fresh grilled whole fish including calamari and one of D's favorite treats, grilled sardines.  The only other place we have ever found grilled sardines is in Madrid. 

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One evening a Spanish co-worker who was in from Majorca joined us for dinner.  We went to a restaurant where your cook your own meet on hot stones  We enjoyed it so much D and I went back our last night in Portugal.

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One of the specialties of Lisbon is the Pastel de Nata or Pastel de Belem, created by a Catholic nun in the 18th century to help earn money for their monastery.  Known as the Portuguese custard tart, the recipe is a highly guarded secret.  A lot of people seem to be in on this "secret" as you can buy them all over.

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I am not a big fan of custards.  But this....ohhhh ahhhh.


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One day, when D was working and I was eating lunch in a little cafe, I was chatting with the young waiter.  He was very excited to be practicing his English.  An older gentleman (late 70s/80s) was listening in and smiling at me. 

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I politely smiled back.  When I was finished with my meal, the waiter said your bill has been paid.  I said "what"?  And immediately asked if it was the gentleman sitting across from me - he nodded yes.  When I got up to leave I said "Obrigato " (thank you) and shook his hand.  And NO he was not trying to pick me up - I think he just enjoyed making people happy.  He certainly made my day!  If you are curious - my bill was probably 4 Euros  :  )  I had a pork sandwich and a bottle of water.

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There was a full moon while we were there.  It made the city look even more magical.

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Saturday morning Thien flew back the US and we rented a car and headed east.  Portugal was full of interesting sites we had never before seen.  As we drove out of Lisbon we immediately encountered the cork trees they are known for.   Portugal is the world's largest producer of cork.

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Cork is actually the bark of the cork oak tree so it renews itself after harvesting - making it environmentally friendly.  Fall is the harvest time.

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The bark can be harvested every 9 to 12 years to produce cork.   By law, they cannot be cut down in Portugal except for forest management (old trees that are not producing).

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We were fascinated by them.  They can live to be 150 to 250 years old and can be harvested 12 times in their lifetime.   They have to be 25 years old before the first harvest.  They are harvested completely by hand - no machines are used.  Below is a stack of the cork drying in the sun.

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 A close up shot -


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Wine cork is only 15% of the usage by weight, but 66% of revenue.   Wine corks cannot be made from the first harvest so farmers have to invest 40 years before they can harvest a wine cork.....makes me not want to throw them away!

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One of my favorite sites of the trip were the ruins of Montemor-O-Novo Castle.   No one knows when they were built, but it is estimated that it was made by the Romans.  They have record of kings using it in 1500.


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 It is said to have been one of the largest castles in Portugal.


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We were the only visitors at the time which gave it a very peaceful yet haunting feeling. 

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And there was the GIANT fig tree.  Have ever told you how much I LOVE figs?  D was picking the ripe ones and we were eating them on the spot.  Then we started filling up my pockets for breakfast!  Heaven.

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Our next two nights we spent in the Alentejo region in the charming town of Evora, a UNESCO World heritage Site.  It goes back to 52 BC where it was conquered by the Romans and turned into a walled city.  We stayed in a very special convent that was converted to a hotel, The Convento do Esponheiro.

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Legend says that an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared above a thorn-bush around 1400.

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In 1412 an oratory was built in honor of it.  During the 15th and 16th century the convent was frequented by Portuguese monarchs who gave the convent valuable gifts.  Check out this wine cellar.

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We stayed in the old part, where the kings and queens slept 500 years ago!  Here is the view from our window -

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And at night, zoomed in on the bell tower -


I can't begin to describe how unique and beautiful this place was.  They had their very own chapel, built in the 16th century. 

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A close up of the alter.

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The day we were there a wedding was taking place.  Isn't this interesting how they set off fireworks at the wedding as the couple cut the cake?  Different from how we do it, they cut the cake almost immediately after the ceremony, before the meal.  

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And D's favorite part - for some odd reason they had Sunday football broadcasted from the US!  Most hotels and B&B's do not even have English speaking channels - football?  He set up camp for the evening.  Our dinner was junk food including my new favorite potato chips - cheeseburger flavored.

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We visited a very odd site in town.  Can you guess what this wall is made of?

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BONES!  The Capela dos Ossos or Chapel of bones is in a small chapel next to the Church of St. Francis. 

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It was built in the 16th century by a Franciscian Monk who wanted to send the message of life being transitory.  This is clearly shown in the famous warning at the entrance Nós ossos que aqui estamos pelos vossos esperamos (“We bones, lying here bare, are awaiting your's").

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Its walls and eight pillars are "decorated" in carefully arranged bones and skulls held together by cement.  The ceiling is made of white painted brick and is painted with death motifs. The number of skeletons of monks was calculated to be about 5000, coming from the cemeteries that were situated inside several dozen churches.   

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On to a happier subject.  This area is known for the white stork, the legendary stork that brings babies.




In fact, they just came off of the endangered species list due to Portugal's help in providing better nesting and feeding opportunities.


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  We saw many nests, but only one that was occupied.

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Next we moved onto the Guarda region which is very mountainous.  We were in a small town called Mantegas which is at an altitude of 2290 feet and is nestled between the mountains.

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 In this town, we stayed in a stunning old mansion, Casa Das Obras, which was built in 1770. 

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The owner told me that most of the furniture and decorations were 400 to 500 years old.  Here is a view of the entrance way.

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The sitting room.

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The sunset as viewed from the breakfast room.

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Monsaraz was a charming white washed town described as a fairytale village.  And this is was!

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We found a little cafe for lunch with and extraordinary view.

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This funny sign for school crossing in the neighborhood of our B&B.  Why they had to show her panties???

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We saw many castles and Monasteries in our travels - varying quite a bit in style and materials.  We enjoyed the Flor de Rosa, a converted monastery. 


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For free, you could climb to the top of the bell tower and legend has it that if you ring the bells, you will have good luck.  We both won our fantasy football this week so it is true!

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For some reason D gets great joy out of making me stand on ledges so  he can see that look of fear on my face.  Okay, I wasn't THAT close to edge.  Amazing how they do not put up any guardrails in Europe.

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A few other castle ruins we visited/toured.


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Some even had knights!

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I was completely fascinated by one tiny little town we stopped in, I do not remember the name. They hung the clothes out like in all the other towns, but here they had their washing machines in the street.   Take a close look at this washing machine.

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The last leg of our trip was to the wine region of Duoro Valley, east of the city of Port.  Our B&B was not fancy but we really loved our stay here. 

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Quinta de Marrocos is a family run vineyard producing the port wines Portugal is so famous for.  Cesear, the owner, spoke excellent English and gave great advice as well as a tour of the Quinta.  Here we are enjoying a glass of wine on the property.

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A view from the other side -

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And directly across  -

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Jaw-dropping scenery 360 degrees!  Here is our sweet room. 

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We were able to explore and walk all through their vineyards.  Donald found a new best friend who followed him all over.  And this crazy girl ate grapes like there was no tomorrow.  She is the only one of their four dogs who does.  Cesear told us she was an expensive dog to keep!

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Look closely, you can see a wee-me between the trees.

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The vineyards are incredibly steep.  And the walls are all made of hand-stacked stones.  Most are over 100 years old.

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They also had fruit trees; fig, apple, orange, persimmon, kumquat, lemon, and limes.  Check out the size of this fig tree.  The trunk was one tier down.

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And yes, we dined on this fig tree too!  This is the season when figs are at their best to eat.  Look at the deep red color of the flesh.  Delicious!

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We had dinner at the B&B the first night and met a couple from Missouri.  We were able to sample the wines and port during the delightful meal which was cooked by Cesear's wife and daughter.  It was an enjoyable evening.

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The B&B has four rooms was originally a Franciscan convent in the 19th century.  They have 13 ha (32 acres) of active vineyards.  Most vines were close to 100 years old.

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Cesar gave us a tour and told us about the wine making process in Portugal.  We were there at peak season. 

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Here is a vat of freshly picked grapes, the first step in the port making process.

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The next step is to separate all the seeds and stems from the flesh.

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It is interesting to see how much is wasted (to the left) and the small amount that continues on in the process (the small bin). 

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Next step - fermentation in the crush tanks (Cesear is pointing to it).  Believe it or not, they still crush the grapes the old fashioned way...with their feet.  And we were off by three days...otherwise we would have been able to participate in this event.  How cool would THAT have been?

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After crushing the grapes they are put into the vats to fortify.  A distilled spirit is added to stop the fermentation and create the port.  This can take up to 5 years.  Port is 18 to 21 % alcohol.

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Most of his grapes go to making port.  He explained that the port business is heavily monitored by Portuguese law and that only certain grapes can be used.  If your farm is "approved" you are given a set amount of the distilled spirit mentioned above.  This is the maximum you can make.  If you have more - the grapes must be made into wine or discarded. 

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It was very good and we bought two bottles to bring home.  We were flying otherwise we would have bought more.

Breakfast was served in the old family kitchen.  Fresh breads and jams from the fruit from the farm.

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Our day in the Douro Valley we did a driving tour that Cesear mapped out for us.  It was a delightful drive.

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We have been to some of the best vineyards in Europe; France, Germany, and Spain and we think these may have been the most beautiful.

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They were very steep and so meticulously maintained.

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The stone walls also added to the beauty.


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Have you ever seen such perfectly spaced vines?


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We were walking through one small town when the steam locomotion pulled in the train station. 


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It was the stop where they cleaned and did maintenance on the train. 


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D was completely memorized by this event.  But I have to say....I found it very interesting to watch as well.  How many steam engine trains do you see these days?

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D created a little video.  Dave - this one's for you!


One part of the drive was a wooded area where we saw several bags hanging from the trees.

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We stopped to take a closer look and they were collecting sap.  It was very sticky and smelled of strong pine.

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Our last stop was at the famous Mateus wine Chateau.  We got to tour the inside which is still lived in by the family. 


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We both remember our parents drinking Mateus wine growing up.  Back then, that was considered the "good stuff".

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On our last day we had a long drive as we had an early fight home the next day.  We did take a break and stop at the picture postcard town of Obidos, a walled medieval town.   It was very touristy but still charming with its windy streets and white-washed buildings.

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And sweet little lady crocheting.

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The rooster is the symbol of Portugal and is said to bring good luck.

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We certainly had great luck with our weather and a fun interesting trip.

More photos you ask?  Why on the Portugal album in the upper right hand corner of this page.



J'aime Paris!

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Who says Parisians aren't friendly? 

On Sunday we were in one of our preferred Brasseries eating our favorite dishes,  Mine being a mixed salad with warm goat cheese on toasted bread with ham, an easy over egg, and potatoes.

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 D's is steak with pomme frites.

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We struck up a conversation with three older french people next to us They were ahead of us in eating so their dessert came out while we had our main course.  They selected the one I had eyed when we walked in - Figue Tartlette.  About 15 minutes passed and we ordered ours - or we tried to order - "fini" - all gone.  OH NO.  The three saw this and knew I was disappointed so the one women shared her tartlette with us!  If that wasn't the sweetest thing.

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We arrived early Saturday morning.  We checked into our hotel, grabbed sandwiches made on pretzel bread and headed to one of the largest flea markets in Paris, Porte de Clinghancourt officially known as Les Puces de Saint-Ouen but known to everyone as Les Puces (the fleas).  This flea market was officially opened in 1885!

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I am ready for the hunt.

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I told D he looks too sophisticated - he is going to hurt my negotiation technique!

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For a more detailed tour of the flea markets and to see all the goodies I bought, hop over to my art blog at Ma Vie Trouvee.

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That afternoon Thien, Donald's co-worker in from the US joined us.  He has only been to Paris once so we took him to see MontMartre and the Sacre Coeur.  We had a beautiful evening, in fact, we think this was the best weather we have ever had in Paris!

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This was a fun street performer. 

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 And those were real fish in the glass.  If people tried to take his photo without giving him money he would stop the performance.  But he did it in a fun way.

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A few photos from our walk.  I really like this one D took in B&W.


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The romantic dream of being an artist in Paris!

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This photo looks like a watercolor painting to me.

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On Sunday there is an artist market.

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We purchased a photo collage from the artist below.  The one we liked the best was not of Paris, but of Lisbon.  But since we were going to Lisbon the next week - we decided to buy it.

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Ahhhh another wonderful time in Paris!