Tuesday, June 14, 2011

And then there were none.

On the Avenida da Liberdade in Braga.

Suddenly, there are no more "tomorrows" for us in Braga, at least on this trip.   We leave in the morning to fly home before the sun comes up, so tomorrow here doesn't really count.  It will be a long day, spent traveling through Porto,  Madrid, and Philadelphia, before finally coming home to Minneapolis.

We've spent 9 1/2 unforgettable months in Portugal and have many wonderful memories.  We have been all over this end of Portugal and still feel like we've just scratched the surface of this amazing corner of Europe. 

The best part of our time here has been the amazing people that we've been able to spend time with.  Our hosts, João and his family, have been so hospitable - from the accommodations his family provided, to their second car we've borrowed for numerous trips, to the many times we've been welcomed at his parent's farm for family events.  It is hard to thank them enough.  But we keep trying - thanks!

Our neighbors here on Avenida da Liberdade - Conceição, Rui and Rita, and Luisa and Clara - have been lots of fun as well.  Full of stories and life, we've loved living here and will be certain to stop back next time we are in Braga.

There is a special place in my (Peggy's) heart for Silvia and Isabel from the gym.   They have kept me from getting too flabby from all of the delicious food and beverages we've enjoyed here, but more importantly they have been kind and supportive and I will miss them dearly. 

We are also lucky to count among our friends many restaurant owners and staff here in Braga.  Our conversations revolve around food and usually involve lots of gestures and pointing.   We've enjoyed their hospitality, warm smiles, and great food.  We will miss them even more than we will miss the vinho verde!

Although we are a bit sad to leave we are lucky that there are so many good reasons to go home.  We look forward to seeing friends, family, and, of course, the chickens again!

To those in New Mexico, Iowa, and Minnesota: We will see you soon!

To those in Braga: Thank you for a wonderful 9 1/2 months and we look forward to coming back and seeing you again!

~ Eric & Peggy

Monday, June 13, 2011

Oh yeah, work.

Peggy just pointed out to me that the subtitle of our blog is ``living, working, eating & imbibing in Portugal'' yet I've never written about work or being on sabbatical.  If you are a faithful reader then you know there has been plenty of pixels and bits spilled regarding the living, eating, and imbibing side of things.

Me, working.

The term "sabbatical" derives from the word "Sabbath" and both mean a rest from work.  In many universities, academics may qualify for a paid (either fully or partially) sabbatical every 6 or 7 years.  This type of sabbatical is different from what one hears about in the magazines and newspapers in which people take so-called sabbaticals from their supposedly high-pressure jobs to go trekking in Nepal or write poetry.

These are certainly worthwhile pursuits, but an academic sabbatical is not like this.  In my sabbatical I do go to work, Monday to Friday, 9 to 6.  I am visiting João, a professor here at the Universidade do Minho in Braga, and the department here has graciously provided me with a desk and a speedy internet connection - which is really all that I need.  A lot of the work I do now is the same as what I do at home - working with my graduate students, often via Skype, to write papers about our research results, consult with students on their dissertations, etc.  The "rest" part of the sabbatical comes in the fact that I have no teaching or departmental committees to take time away from research.  This is a good thing.  João, his students, and I have also been working on something called "bi-directional transformations" and this is a new research topic for me and a big part of my reason for coming to Braga.  This is work we intend to continue when I return to Minnesota.  We have even secured a grant from the Fundação Luso-Americana, a foundation the supports research between Portuguese and American collaborators, to fund the travel costs of João and his students to come to Minnesota at various times in the next 18 months to continue this work.  I also have some funds that will support our travel back to Braga.

So even though all our previous blog entries have been about living, eating, and imbibing in Portugal, some actual work does get done!


Friday, June 10, 2011

Driving Madeira

On Friday and Saturday we had a rental car and toured the outlying areas of the island of Madeira.  Our first stop was Santa Cruz where there is, supposedly, an amazing whaling museum.  Unfortunately, it was closed for renovation.  So we headed to the eastern-most tip of the island where dramatic cliffs plunge into the sea.  It was beautiful but windy - with the wind coming off of the ocean, hitting the cliffs and shooting upward.  (Do click on the pictures below to see the full size version - the thumbnail shots don't do it justice.)

From here we went along the northern coast, stopping for more pictures.

We ended up at Quinta do Furão for lunch.  That is Portuguese for Farm of the Ferret.  Luckily it wasn't on the menu.  What was on the menu was fantastic.  This is a destination lunch or dinner spot if there ever was one.  For starters, there is the uninterrupted view of the Atlantic and steep seaside cliffs.

The food was remarkable - traditional Madeiran ingredients but with a modern twist.  Our starter was fresh avocado topped with a Surinam cherry foam and drizzled with light olive oil.  This was to die for.  I had the catch-of-the-day, a Dorado, roasted in a bed of sea salt  So simple, but so good.  The salt seals in the moisture and the occasional crunch of sea salt is very nice.  Peggy had the tuna (fresh at this time of the year) wrapped in bacon.  Dessert was a banana and sweet corn creme brulee and sweet potato profiteroles.

We finished off the first day with a 'levada' walk.  These are paths along the old irrigation channels cut into the sides of the mountains.  They are level, naturally, and often involve some stunning views.   This one was among the trees - very shady and peaceful.

On Saturday we headed out to see the western part of the island.  As we turned away from the coast we had the magnificent sight of the clouds that had formed in the inland valleys literally flowing over the pass.  It looked like the biggest dry-ice display ever.

We continued inland, this time through the fast but less scenic tunnels to get to São Vincente and the lava tubes that were left behind by the last eruption about 900,000 years ago.   These were quite dramatic, but we were, embarrassingly, equally excited by the fact that there were chickens roaming freely on the grounds...

We continued around the coast, seeing more waterfalls and natural sea pools.

Our second levada walk was out of the trees and in the sunshine.  We followed a narrow trail next to the levada. 

There were plenty of frogs, nice views, and the occasional cow eating the bushes or drinking the water.

Driving across the island on the small roads was quite a thrill.  We spent half the time going up hill in 2nd gear, the other half going down hill riding the brakes wondering if there is any sort of advance warning when they overheat and fail...

Luckily they didn't fail and we got back to Funchal so that we could celebrate Peggy's birthday with a nice Italian dinner at a restaurant affiliated with one of the old luxury hotels on the island.  The view ... again!  ... overlooked the ocean.  After dinner we headed back to a favorite place for another few sips of that delicious licor tin tan tum.  This is one we may try to make at home.  It was a real treat to spend Peggy's birthday in such an amazing place.

Before heading to the airport on Sunday, we completed our trip at one of the amazing gardens, which someone, obviously, got pretty excited about!  ~ Eric

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

A Taste of Madeira

We just returned from a fantastic trip to Madeira.  It's a Portuguese island but actually closer to Morocco than Portugal.  I'm not even sure how to begin to describe our days there, so I'll just grab a glass of wine and plunge in.

After landing on a tiny airstrip perched at the edge of the island (scary!) we made our way to Funchal, the largest city on Madeira.  It didn't take us long to realize that we were in paradise - green, lush, flowery, rocky, hilly, waterfally - Madeira has it all.

We stayed at a quiet B&B outside of Funchal and walked into town as soon as we dropped off our luggage.  The heart of the old town is filled with lively shops, beautiful buildings constructed with black volcanic stone, quaint restaurants and cute cafes, but we bee-lined for our first Madeira wine tasting.  Oh, we may have stopped to look at a church or something first.  I don't recall.  Blandy's Old Wine Lodge was our first REAL destination. 

We'd thought that fortified Madeira wine was pretty much the same as Port, but we were wrong, wrong, wrong.  Madeiras are generally made from a single grape, not a blend like most Port. Like Port, brandy is used to stop the fermentation and boost the alcohol level.  Unlike Port, Madeiras are heated (?!) either by the sun or artificial means, to create interesting depth and character.  Madeiras range from perky, dry Sercial (the name of the grape and the wine) to sweet and luscious Malmsey.  Verdelho grapes produce a medium-dry wine and Bual grapes produce a medium-sweet wine.  Sercials are great, very slightly chilled before a meal, and fragrant, nutty Verdehlo wines pair beautifully with savory or sweet dishes. 

Nerd alert / Historical note... Using heat to enhance the flavor and character of the wines was a lucky accident.  Back in the day, ships would carry barrels of Madeiran wine (mostly to keep the sailors happy, I'm guessing) that was enhanced with brandy to stabilize it.  After spending months and months on ships, the wine actually improved in flavor.  At first it was thought that agitation was the key to its deliciousness.  Eventually, wine makers realized that as the wine spent time on the warm ships, passing back and forth over the equator, the heat enhanced the wine and gave it remarkable characteristics. Blandy's is a high-volume operation and uses hot water flowing though pipes to warm their wines instead of loading it on ships and sending it out to sea.  Smart idea!

On day 2 of our trip, we stopped at the smallest wine producer on the island, Artur de Barros e Sousa.  This 4th generation operation is run by 2 brothers who do everything by hand.  When we visited their wine lodge, one of the brothers (who was busy putting labels on bottles using a pot of glue and a little brush) invited us to make ourselves at home, so we did our own tour through their 17th century buildings.  They use natural sunlight to warm their wines and we poked around their wine attics (quite different from wine cellars!).  We tasted the 4 main types of wine and even a special Verdelho from 1983 - the year I graduated from high school!!   The 1983 was delicious - smooth and fragrant with hazelnut aroma.   We were sad to leave the cozy tasting room, but felt like we had made a new friend.

In addition to the amazing wines, we also had some incredible food!   We had pork roasted on bay leaf sticks as well as super fresh squid and prawn skewers and house-made beer at The Beer House.  Its location at the Funchal marina made for optimum people and watercraft watching.

Funchal has a great market with gorgeous flowers, meat, fish and produce from the island.  We were drawn to a stall with an amazing array of different types of passion fruit, quirky looking philodendron fruit (tastes like a banana pineapple combo), huge custard apples, and wrinkly Surinam cherries.  We couldn't resist the free samples and before we knew it we were holding a bag containing $30 worth of fruit!  After sheepishly putting some back, we tiptoed away with a mere $20 worth.

Our second night, we went to a little place called Venda da Donna Maria for more traditional Madeiran food.  The fresh fish and grilled meat were great, but my favorite treat was milho frito, cubes of deep fried corn mush - crispy outside and creamy inside.   I could have eaten a bucket of them!!  When we asked about various dessert liqueur options, our server insisted on bringing us their house-made Tin Tan Tum.  YUM YUM YUM!  It was the perfect ending to a memorable meal - red wine steeped with cinnamon, raisins, sugar and brandy.  I need to figure out how to make it at home!!

Beyond the food and beverages, a strange and wonderful highlight from our time in Funchal involved a trip up the mountain to Monte.  In Monte, we boarded a large wicker basket and placed our fate in the hands of two guys sporting goat skin boots and straw hats.  Together, the 4 of us careened down the mountain while the guys steered and I squealed and giggled.  It was a crazy ride I'll never forget!! 

Before the development of more modern forms of transportation, this was a traditional method for transporting produce and humans down the mountain.  This very old fashioned ride down the mountain had a rather modern ending.  Maybe 1/4 of the way down we noticed a young man with a nice camera taking our picture; when we got out of the wicker basket at the bottom, maybe 3 minutes later, another young man was standing there with a mounted 5x7 picture of us shooting down the mountain (see below) ... digital camera + the internet = the modern information age in Madeira.

Beautiful public spaces, interesting gardens and wine tasting at every turn make Funchal a great town to explore.   After 2 days of strolling, sipping and soaking up the ambiance in Funchal, we rented a car and explored the rest of the island.  I'll let Eric tell you about that part.  To be continued...


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