Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Citânia de Briteiros and Braga Romana

On Sunday we headed out to Citânia de Briteiros.  This is the remains of an Iron Age hill fort and town.  It is quite expansive with many sets of houses, walls, and even steam baths.  It is a really amazing hill-top site.

This settlement was founded over 3000 years ago.   The town was in its heyday from the 2nd century BC to the first AD.

One thing that is so impressive is the size of the town.  It covers the entire hill-top.  The residents lived in extended families - with a circular stone home for each family.  Some, like the one above, even had a small atrium in the front.  Behind Peggy is the rock from which a spring once flowed, providing water for the residents and the baths.  Below is a reconstruction of one of the houses.  Apparently they were not actually as tall as this one - the builders got carried away and made it higher than the archeologists think it should have been.

The early residents here were Celts.  After the Romans arrived many left and established communities in what are now Ireland and Scotland.  Much of the carved stones that were found here are in a museum in nearby Guimaraes and they have typical Celtic designs with the same recognizable themes and images as one sees in modern Celtic items.

The water from the spring flowed though a series of carved stone channels down hill to the baths where it was thrown onto hot rocks to create steam.  Below, you can see the chamber with some of the stones that formed the roof put back into place.  The entrance had a very small low door so that people could enter but the steam would not escape.

I asked Peggy to climb through the hole as it would have been a great shot for the blog, but she declined...   Regardless, it was one of the most interesting and surprising things we've seen in Portugal.

Also on tap this weekend was the Braga Romana festival held in the center of town.  It is relatively new - this year was the 8th edition.  Since Braga was once a rather large Roman city, there are Roman ruins everywhere - if you dig down a bit.  One of our favorite restaurants - Frigideiras - was doing a renovation a few years ago and unearthed the foundations of a Roman structure in the process.  They then excavated and put in a glass floor so that you can see the ruins while dining - very cool.

The festival is mainly a collection of booths selling Roman-inspired food (we think), a few stages used for various performances and lots of booths set up to sell Roman-y looking things. 

We weren't exactly sure what the belly dancers had to do with things, but the boys seemed to enjoy the show...   We ended up having dinner here - lots of porks specialties, sangria, even mussels, all served in clay glasses and dishes.   For dessert we had a delicious crepe romana - a crepe with candied sweet potatoes and cheese.   The stall owners said it was their favorite so we gave it a try, and went back for another two nights later...

The parade was fun - lots of people dressed up in Roman garb and then a seemingly endless stream of school children dressed up in the same attire.  The guy in red below seems a little underwhelmed however - maybe he'd been walking just a bit too long...

It was a fun event - mostly another excuse for Braga residents to get together and eat, drink, and be Roman!

~ Eric

Monday, May 30, 2011

Life as a kept woman

It's not all about lounging on the sofa and eating bonbons.  Within the first few weeks of landing on planet Portugal, I found myself craving some structure and purpose for being.  Granted, I love the role of Weekend Event Planner and am thrilled to have time to cook lots of new and interesting things, read like a maniac, work out semi-regularly, take delicious afternoon naps, and even do a few little crafty projects, but it isn't enough.

Before we even left home, I started looking for a school or program to learn Portuguese here in Braga.  My Googling led me to an English immersion school for preschool through 12th grade students.  Although this school wouldn't help me to master Portuguese, I saved the information anyway.  After settling in, I pulled out the contact information and emailed the school, offering my services as a volunteer.  I was giddy when an assistant principal contacted me immediately and asked me to come in and visit the school.

Although the assistant principal encouraged me to lend my services to the older students, I asked if I could work with the younger ones.  Within a week, I was assigned to work with the 3rd and 4th grade classes during math time.  Both teachers are young, energetic Brits named Katie and Clare.

Joana and Maria Teresa both love math!

After working with older kids for so many years, being around 8 & 9 year-olds opened up a whole new world to me!  I had no idea that I would be so charmed by these little munchkins.  Beyond the cuteness of hearing British accents coming out of their little Portuguese mouths and the fact that they cry pretty easily, they are enthusiastic about learning, super affectionate and grateful for help.  Every day they hold my hands, give me hugs (almost bruising my ribs sometimes), and thank me profusely for helping them.

Catarina & Maria are great huggers

Beatriz is the toughest gangsta 4th grader in Braga

I've had more than a few memorable moments at the school, and the kids' names and faces are permanently etched in my memory.  One day I was working one-on-one with Diogo and he needed to use the bathroom.  When I told him he could go "quick like a bunny", he jumped up, kissed me on the cheek and said, "Oh, thank you!"

Ana Maria is a hoot.  When I gave her the Barbie bracelets from my Happy Meal, she got excited and said I was her best friend.   She later amended it to '3rd best friend', but hey, I'll take what I can get!!  A few days later,  when she found out that I had been a math teacher for over 20 years, her eyes got big and she said, "WOW!  Then you must know your 12 times tables!!"  I guess it doesn't take much to impress a 3rd grader. 

One of my favorite days at the school was right after Eric and I returned from our trip to Morocco.  After having been gone for a week, I got to school just as the 3rd graders were heading into the building after recess.  They were all lined up outside the school and as soon as they saw me they started chanting and clapping:  "Peggy!" (clap, clap, clap)  "Peggy!" (clap, clap, clap)...  I almost cried!

That same day, when I went to work with the 4th graders, I entered the classroom and the kids broke into spontaneous applause.  I can't describe the depth of warm fuzziness I felt that day.

Helena chats with Laura and Maria Beatriz during recess
Bruno preps for his role as The Scarecrow in
The Wizard of Oz

Over the past 8 months I've helped with lessons, worked one-on-one with kids, subbed for Katie, gone on a field trip, enjoyed assemblies, and supervised 70 1st-4th graders on the playground ALONE.  It has been an amazing experience to work with these wonderful kids and teachers.  I leave the school each day with a huge smile on my face (and no papers to grade!).

~ Peggy

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Get lost! We've got plenty of bread!

This weekend we again borrowed João's car for another getaway; this time our destination was Monção.  It is a small fortified town on the northern Portuguese border on the Minho river; across the river is Spain.  The ancient stone walls are massive and designed to protect the Portuguese from any attacks from the Spaniards to the north.

Almost all of the walls had small covered places for the Portuguese sentries keeping an eye out for those dastardly Spainards threatening to invade.

Our favorite story from Monção, and perhaps its most famous, is from 1368 when the Spanish had laid seige to the town.  They had kept out all supplies to the point that the residents were on the verge of starvation.  At this point Deu-La-Deu Martins baked bread rolls from the last of the town's flour and throws them over the walls to the Spanish below, shouting taunts at them that there was plenty more bread for her to throw.  This discouraged the Spanish and they gave up their seige thinking that they were just wasting their time!  To this day Deu-La-Deu is shown on the town's coat of arms with her rolls, and can be seen in carvings and mosaics all over town.

Monção is perhaps most famous for its alvarinho grapes and the vinho verde made from them.  One of our favorites is named after her - the Alvarinho Deu La Deu.  If you've visited us, you had this one.  It is a staple around here and something that we will miss when we return home.

Like most of the Portuguese towns we've visited, Monção seems to have the right mix of great architecture and homes, wonderful views, and just a bit of crustiness.

Finally, we did find a shop named after Peggy.  In fact, the name is the same as the first nickname I gave her.  Well, not really, but it could have been.  She is super!  Super cute, super funny, super smart, super caring, ...  she is SuperCarnes!


Sunday, May 22, 2011

"I'm gonna' have a baby!"

I exclaimed as I reached for an adorable bundle of joy from the candy dish.  I'm sure Eric's heart skipped a beat. 

It's a boy!!

Despite the sugar shortage that threatened to shut down Portugal a few months ago, there is no shortage of sweet treats here now!  At Easter, new and exciting candies popped up in the shop windows. 

My eyes bulged at the sight of the enormous selection of sugary almonds on display.  They were covered with chocolate or cinnamon (or both) or toffee or colorful coatings or ...  My favorites are the crunchy, buttery toffee almonds, and something called Almond Olives.  These are little orbs of almond brittle (kind of like the center of a Butterfinger, but made with almonds instead of peanuts) covered in chocolate and made to look exactly like green and black olives!

Although chocolate is not wildly popular here, Arcadia, a confectioner in Porto, makes delicious chocolate cat tongues, port wine chocolates and the wacky and delightful Liquor Almonds.  These aren't actually almonds at all, rather they're like VERY sweet, crunchy jelly beans filled with different flavors of liqueur such as mint and nondescript fruity schnapps.  These also made their debut at Easter and I was instantly attracted to their strange shapes and beautiful hand-decorated coatings.  In addition to the babies, we also saw ducks, carrots, acorns, giant lima beans, kidney beans and delicately painted floral candies.

Another fun treat we've discovered here is Chocolate Salami.  Unlike some of the Portuguese desserts that actually DO contain pork fat or bacon, this quirky confection does not. It is pretty much like fudge mixed with crushed up cookies, rolled into a log shape and sliced.  I've made it a few times and it actually does look a lot like salami!  To make your own meatless salami, click HERE!

So, no chocolate Easter bunnies or packages of dayglo Peeps for us.  Instead, we feasted on olives, babies, carrots and chocolate salami.  

~ Peggy

Friday, May 20, 2011

♥ Lua de mel = Honeymoon ♥

After anticipating their visit for many months, our friends Janine & Tom finally landed on Portuguese soil last week to celebrate their belated honeymoon.  They first spent several days at the beach near Gandia, Spain before navigating a dizzying array of modes of transportation to make their way to Braga. 

Tom strikes a noble pose in Guimarães

Although they seemed to enjoy the sites here,  it was definitely the quaffable local beverages and tasty foods that made the strongest impression.  If I was spewing a fun fact about 17th century Portuguese history and Tom's eyes started to glaze over, I knew it was time to refuel.  It is true that churches, palaces and castles eventually all start to look alike, but good Portuguese soup is a joy to behold.

Our day in Porto struck the perfect balance - a little history, a brief scenic boat ride, port wine tasting and a trough full of monkfish rice.  The only thing that marred this perfect day was the sight of the pasty beer-bellied shirtless guy on the boat (NO it wasn't Eric!).  So much for that nice scenery!!

Janine exits the Queen Mary Porto Princess
Overwhelmed by chocolate and wine at Kopke

Besides food and beverages, we shared stories and laughter that will keep me smiling for weeks.  It's hard being so far from these dear friends who live in Colorado, but Janine and I have successfully maintained our friendship which spans many decades.

Having the honeymooners here reminded me, yet again, how fortunate and grateful I am to have this extended second honeymoon in Portugal with Eric.  Initially, the thought of 9 1/2 months of non-stop quality 'us' time seemed a bit daunting, but it has been a marvelous gift.  I treasure our time together and the heaps of memories that we are creating.  I am a lucky girl !!


~ Peggy

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Viana do Castelo & Santiago de Compostela

To round out Mom and Dad's visit we surprised them with a car trip to Viana do Castelo on the Portuguese coast and to Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain, both remarkably close to Braga.

On Friday morning, we borrowed João's car again and headed west out of Braga for the Atlantic Ocean, then turned north to get to Viana do Castelo.

This is a very picturesque town.  The centerpiece is the Praça da República.  With cafes, linen shops, the old City Hall and the unique church, the Igreja da Misericórdia, with its elaborately carved balconies.

Any visit to Viana do Castelo is incomplete without a visit to the Natário cafe and bakery for their amazing Bolas de Berlim - Berlin Balls.  These sweet Portuguese treats are a bit like doughnuts, but filled with an creamy eggy filling and then coated with cinnamon and sugar.  They were so tasty we went back for seconds.

After this we headed up the coast towards Spain.  The rocky shore is beautiful along here.

With a lot of help from the trusty TomTom GPS system we found our hotel in Santiago de Compostela - even when we were convinced it was wrong, it was right... Learn to trust the TomTom.  This is another gem of a town.  Lots of great streets to wander and plenty of great food.

We certainly enjoyed the Spanish tapas - it is a wonderful and delicious food tradition.  The small bites and great flavors did lead some to express shock and mild outrage when someone went for the last one of a particular favorite.  Luckily we all get along and such transgressions are quickly forgiven, even if a few eyes are rolled...

For lunch the next day we had heaps of paella and risotto - very tasty, and as the before and after pictures below may show, we were very full and satisfied afterward.

The most famous attraction in Santiago de Compostela is the cathedral, which houses the remains of St. James, yes, that St. James.  It has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries.  The dedicated faithful walk, often from their own front doors, to the cathedral, taking what is called Camino de Santiago.  The most famous route leaves France and crosses northern Spain.

The front of the cathedral is fantastic - full of intricate designs and slightly crusty with all the lichen and small plants that make it their home.

Oddly, the door knockers are placed way out of reach, I don't know what this says about the accessibility of religion and the Catholic church in the middle ages.  Maybe this is what Vatican II was all about, I'll have ask Peggy... ;)

The interior is quite dramatic and a bit over the top with no less than three statues of St. James on the altar.  He is depicted in his roles as pilgrim, priest, and rather unfortunately, slayer of the Moors.  When the Christians were chasing the Moors out of Spain and Portugal in the 10 and 11th century the image of St. James on his white horse was used to inspire the Christian troops.   Needless to say, this bit of imagery is rightly downplayed these days.

In the picture above you may be able to see the amazing incense burner that hangs in the middle where the nave and transept intersect - click on the image to see the full size version.  It weighs around 80 kilograms and is filled with 40 kilograms of charcoal and incense.

Peggy was lucky enough to see it in action and said it was amazing.  She had stopped in for what she thought was the daily mass for pilgrims arriving that day but instead the mass being held was celebrating the fact that the church was consecrated on that day exactly 800 years ago.  For such a special event they did use the big incense burner.  Since it is so heavy there are 8 men holding the ropes (see below) pulling in time to steadily increase the swing until it takes about 6 seconds to complete one back-and-forth swing along length of the transept.

So, why such a large incense burner that would swing over so many of the worshipers in attendance?  Well, consider a hot summer day in the middle ages and the cathedral filled with pilgrims who'd just walked across Spain and not enjoyed the same warm-shower-every-day ritual that we have these days.  It had to be a, erm,  powerful expression of their dedication to the pilgrimage!

Another interesting tidbit about the cathedral is that, during construction, the stone masons would mark the stones that they had worked on to ensure that they were properly paid.  Markings like the one shown above appear all over the church.

The conclusion of our great weekend "up north" was another great Spanish breakfast.  The bread from this region of Spain is well known for being very good.  We had it toasted, rubbed with a tomato, drizzled in olive oil and topped with a slice of cheese - a simple but delicious combination of Spanish flavors.   It goes great with the fresh squeezed orange juice as well!

After breakfast Sunday morning we drove back down to Braga, my parents repacked their bags, and we headed to Porto send them on the next leg of their Portuguese adventure.  Viana do Castelo and Santiago de Compostela are fantastic towns, full of great sights and great food.  If you're in the neighborhood, don't miss them.