I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

Gripes and Grumbles about Portugal

Thanks for the feedback…

We are just now sending out our researchers to every corner of Europe as we update our series of guidebooks. My assignment: Portugal — where, for 10 days, I’ll visit these cities with a long list of places to check and feedback to run down. We used to get feedback by mail. Now it comes to us by email. My staff collects and distills it. This pile of suggestions from our readers (we focus our energy mostly on the negative ones) is what I’ll pack along with my little bag as I fly away in a few days…ready to make our Rick Steves’ Portugal guidebook better than ever. (Remember that all of this feedback is unverified — take it with a grain of salt…just like I do.)

Portugal Feedback, distilled March 2008

General

Car Rental: Include info about CDW when renting cars in Portugal. Had CDW coverage with credit card, so didn’t purchase from the rental company. But when we got to Portugal, they didn’t honor that since our agreement is with credit card, not the car rental company. We had to buy the additional CDW (approx. 100 Euros), so our rental was 33% more expensive than planned. The lady at the counter said that if we’d booked our car through the rental company’s Portuguese website instead of the international site, we’d have been told this.
Money: Get cash before entering Portugal. Many people couldn’t use Mastercard/debit card in Portugal. Readers had bankers insist that it would work because it had the Mastercard logo on it, called their bank confirming there were no holds and that everything was okay, they had plenty of money and the bank knew they were traveling. Had trouble for hotel payments, ATMS, at restaurants. NOTE FROM A READER: The Portuguese banking system is still primitive by international standards. MultiBanco is a Portuguese bank association. Most merchants, especially outside the main tourist areas, only take MultiBanco credit cards, but many merchants are not even aware that they are not the same thing as Mastercard, etc. When you go to a specific MultiBanco ATM it only connects to the international ATM networks associated with the owning bank. So the Mastercard symbol means that you can probably get a cash advance out of the machine, but can’t get money from your personal bank account. To get money from your U.S. bank account, look at the other symbols on the back of your ATM card to find the associated ATM networks. Almost all machines will accept either Star or Cirrus.
Food: Had a few excellent meals, but food in general was disappointing. Many restaurants in the book are closed/opening times incorrect, add more translations of soups.
Language: No one says Adeau; use Ciao for goodbye.

Lisbon

Lisbon General
Viuva Lamega tile shop: moved from Chiado; store in the NE part of Baixa–Largo do Intendente, 25 1100-285 Lisboa Tel: 218 852 408. Belem: Map needs adjusted–suggests that the Alges train stop is right next to the tower of Belem, while almost a mile apart (map suggests it is drawn to scale, which is misleading).
Several readers disappointed with city–dirty and overrun with drugs and prostitution. Getting through the airport was an absolute nightmare; it was totally chaotic and the immigration agents had no control over the unruly crowd. My 52-year-old mother was literally shoved to the ground and similar incidents happened about every 15 minutes. It took us over two hours just to get our passport stamped so that we could leave the country.
Parking: very expensive (used an underground car park in Restauradores and didn’t move the car 3 days while in Lisbon–cost €130, almost $200).
Took the train from Lisbon to Lagos from the Entrecampos station–easier and faster to get to from my hotel by bus and/or metro than Oriente.
No longer Amex office (p. 46).
No “free guided tour” for Sao Jorge (p. 59) (Oct 2007).
Trolley fares: reader confused as to who and when you pay fare. In one place we say pay the driver, then lower down we say pay the conductor. Are these the same guy? Also, reader shook down on the #15 to Belem by 4 uniformed men who took their passports and then fined them ¬210.60 in cash on the spot for not having already paid the fare. The readers say they really were intending to pay but didn’t see anyone to pay on board. Is the procedure different for newer buses? Were the uniformed guys legit? If so, we should add a warning about how not to run afoul of them. If not, we should warning about scam.

Lisbon Sights
Barrio Alto overlook view from a terrace near the Gloria funicular was fenced off for renovations.
LisboaCard is not necessary if you have a student card–then most museums are 1/2 off/free).
Cristo Rei: In Cacilhas across the Tagus from Lisbon, bus 101 doesn’t operate every 20 minutes–sometimes there is a 40-minute gap, so allow plenty of time. Also, the Carris transit cards don’t work, so get a ticket at Cacilhas before taking the bus.
Lisbon fado museum (near Santa Apolonia) is really wonderful and a great intro to fado.
Directions in 2007 book for getting to the Gulbenkian Museum are terrible–provide street names and distances rather than “walk downhill”.
Bus is so easy but never mentioned. Also, include name of sight in Portuguese, not just English.
Lisbon walking tour: called Lisbon, city of Spies. José, a super friendly/charming, awesome price, good English, gave a fab 2.5 hour tour.
Your recommended guide had to cancel but set us up with Rita Mateus, 011-351-966, who was great.

Lisbon Sleeping
Pensao Santa Cruz: Oswald was VERY kind BUT it is truly for the BUDGET conscious.
Hotel Lisboa Tejo: Our room was extremely spacious and clean–but street on the west side of the building was full of young and very busy prostitutes–pretty social in the later hours of the evening and the noise made it difficult to sleep.
Pensao Residencial 13 da Sorte, Lisbon on page 99 of 2007 book no longer open mid-Nov 2007. A sign referred guests to another location in the city.

Lisbon Eating
A Baiuca in the Alfama: once it fills up (about 8 PM), the earliest space available is 11 pm, so get there before 8 and make reservations. Reader rec: Restaurante Maria da Fonte, Largo Chafariz de Dentro (Alfama), Rua de S. Pedro, 5-A for a nice fado experience Thu-Sun. Three singers and two guitarists in this tiny resaurant with no more than twelve tables. It was a thoroughly enjoyable show and the food was not bad at all.
Reader rec: Bonjardin has the most flavorful roasted chicken, french fries & sangria, setting is great fun, outdoor seating in a lively area.
Fix map on Barrio Alto to reflect both fado places with the same name – Canto de Camoes. Only the overpriced one is included on the map–so missed the more authentic place. Describe better the location of the jijinga (sp?) bar since it’s hard to find when it’s closed.

Fatima

If you take the train from Lisbon to Fatima, you’ll be stuck with a big taxi fare. Upset people in the train station were pooling their money.

Sintra

Queluz-Belas–good stop on Sintra train line, easy, 20-min walk from station to Queluz Palace–no crowds, made seeing Tile Museum redundant.
Reader rec: Sidecar Touring Co: 8 1/2 hr-guided tour in a motorcycle with sidebar for 112 euros (20% off with the Lisboa card) for two people, owner, Joao de Lemos Soares, door to door service, 14 bikes in great condition, drivers go through all sorts of training, never felt in danger, www. sidecartouring@netcabo.pt.
Pena Palace: Sun morning discounts apply to the gardens–not the palace itself. There are Sunday morning discounts for the Moorish castle, though–so reverse book rec. so people visit Moorish Castle first and then Pena PalaceT. Cost is 10 euros combo ticket for Pena Palace/Moorish Castle. Sunday day trip to Sintra from Lisbon not cheap (with 3.20 euros round-trip by train and the 4.00 euros 434 Scotturb bus).
Inside Lisbon gave great daytrip to Sintra/ Cascais, guide Edgar fantastic, much better than the walking tour guides with the same company, http://insidelisbon.com/EN/en_passeios_sintra.htm. Reader rec: Hotel Alif, http://www.hotelalif.pt/.
Cabo da Roca: TI that sells certificates closes at 18:30 or 19:00, and the bus from Cabo da Roca stops running at a certain time…about 19:45 or so. I just barely made the last bus.

Evora

Restaurante Cervejaria 1/4 Para As 9 (quarter to nine) has wonderful arroz de tamaboril – rice and seafood stew. Owner rec: www.monteserralheira.com, monteserralheira@mail.telepac.pt, Lucia van der Feltz. Batata Quente Restaurante has closed (now a pizzeria there). Alentejo area section incomplete: really interesting places, wineries, cheesemaking places, great place to visit. Portuguese people said that about three years ago people from North America stopped visiting and they have no idea why.

Nazare & Nearby

Some places recommended in Nazare are now closed.
Locate Nazaré Amada rooms on the map and try to get a specific address on Rua Adrião Batalha, tel. 262-552-206, mobile 962-579-371). Percebes available only in the spring/summer, so I was told. The beach dancers are on their break until about late March or so. Reader rec: Quinta Princesa do Pinhal, 3 KM north of Nazare, this beautiful B&B, 9 bedrooms, a swimming pool and fresh fruit from Leonhilde’s orchard, fluent in English, www.princesadopinhal.com. In the summer, almost as touristy as the Algarve–can’t believe there’s a chapter on this place.
Julia Pereira rooms: Asking for ocean view means you face plaza, which has very noisy bar, very loud music until 4 am and then people come out yelling, talking, whistling. You also couldn’t see the ocean because of the distance to the water and the large stage. Alcobaca: National Wine Museum (p. 187) permanently closed. (10/07)

Coimbra

Felt book overrated this destination.
Had very bad time driving into the city, and chose badly from suggested activities.
Driving to Coimbra from Spain was difficult-not clearly marked.

Porto

Cover Porto better–wonderful, but not if you try to drive in it. The Port lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia are worth a visit.
Solar do Vino do Porto just showcases of lots of bottles of Port, unfriendly, unhelpful guy there, four of us were the only visitors there on a Saturday afternoon.
Guimaraes: great side trip from Porto.
Add more detailed directions from Porto to the Douro Valley–info gap between Armarante and Mesao Frio; hard to find N-101 just east of Armarante near Maladena.

Douro Valley

Many readers said include more on Duoro Valley– highlight of trip yet book coverage seemed an afterthought.
Pousada Solar da Rede: For the expense and stiffness of service, the quality of the food was not worth the splurge.
Reader rec: D.O.C., a delightful riverside restaurant in the Douro Valley, is located between Regua and Pinhao (closer to Regua). Roy, the owner, walked us through everything he served, providing commentary in broken English on preparation, ingredients and anything else he wanted to talk about. He worked hard to ensure that we savored the meal at his new restaurant. It was a memorable dining experience, a definite worthwhile splurge. Tel: 254-858-123. Email: doc@arisdouro.com.
Reader rec: Casa de Vilarinho de S. Romao, lovely restored 16th-century quinta between Pinhao and Sabrosa (drivers only). Six lovely rooms, private baths, swimming pool, outstanding view, vineyards, great breakfasts, relaxing porch, owned by helpful Christine Olzafabel von Zeller, must wind up/down gorgeous mountains on narrow roads with hairpin turns, but the surrounding villages worth it, just 2.5-hour drive to Santiago de Compostela.
Reader rec: Casa do Visconde de Chanceleiros outside Pinhao, Eu 120/day, breakfast included; dinner Eu 30, www.chanceleiros.com, owners (Ursula Bocking and her husband) are very knowledgeable, friendly, and fluent in English. The staff are local, have been with them for years, and the food is local, traditional, and wonderful. Pinhao had tiles), river boat tour, and walk by the river. Peso da Regua: Duoro Museum closed while the new museum is being built (7/07).
Santuario de Panoias near Vila Real, pre-Roman/Roman site of worship and animal sacrifice is a National Monument, connected to the Instituto Portugues do Patrimonio Arquitectonico. 7 km from Vila Real, through Mateus via EN322 toward Sabrosa. Brief film with audioguide in English and guide info around the various rocks, still marked with inscriptions and basins used in various sacrificial ceremonie; friendly bar across street.

Europe Destined to Speak One Language?

I enjoy the emails people circulate, but rarely add to that cyberspace clutter by forwarding them along. But this exciting news needs to be shared:

The European Commission has just announced an agreement whereby English will be the official language of the European Union rather than German, which was the other possibility.

As part of the negotiations, the British Government conceded that English spelling had some room for improvement and has accepted a five-year phase-in plan that would become known as “Euro-English.”

In the first year, “s” will replace the soft “c.” Sertainly, this will make the sivil servants jump with joy. The hard “c” will be dropped in favor of “k.” This should klear up konfusion, and keyboards kan have one less letter. There will be growing publik enthusiasm in the sekond year when the troublesome “ph” will be replaced with “f.” This will make words like fotograf 20% shorter.

In the third year, publik akseptanse of the new spelling kan be expekted to reach the stage where more komplikated changes are possible.

Governments will enkourage the removal of double letters which have always ben a deterent to akurate speling.

Also, al wil agre that the horibl mes of the silent “e” in the languag is disgrasful and it should go away.

By the fourth yer, people wil be reseptiv to steps such as replasing “th” with “z” and “w” with “v.”

During ze fifz yer, ze unesesary “o” kan be dropd from vords kontaining “ou” and after ziz fifz yer, ve vil hav a reil sensibl riten styl.

Zer vil be no mor trubl or difikultis and evrivun vil find it ezi tu understand ech oza. Ze drem of a united urop vil finali kum tru.

Und efter ze fifz yer, ve vil al be speking German like zey vunted in ze forst plas.

The Zen of Journaling

I love to journal while on the road. I’m writing a short essay on the value of journaling. This is my first draft. I’d enjoy any suggestions on how to make this shorter, yet more effective in inspiring travelers to put pen to paper in a journal:

Travel can make you a poet. Travel can be spiritual. By venturing far from home and looking back, you can better understand home. Traveling challenges truths you assumed were self-evident and God-given. It rearranges your cultural furniture. By traveling, you learn about yourself.

But without capturing your thoughts on paper, the lessons of travel are like shooting stars you just missed…and butterflies you thought you saw.

Your journey is a facet of your broader life. Journaling thoughtfully relates your travel experiences to your life in general. It brings meaning to eurekas that might otherwise have eluded you. Collecting intimate details on the road and then distilling them into your travel journal sharpens your ability to observe and builds a souvenir you’ll cherish for a lifetime.

Enjoy the physical act of putting pen to paper in order to capture then organize the thoughts and experiences that wash ashore with each day of your trip.

If your life is a canvas, travels bring new color. And journaling is like a painter standing back every once in a while to both understand and enjoy the art as it unfolds.

The discipline of journaling as you go is critical. Capturing feelings and intimate details is like enjoying a good espresso — it’s only right when still hot and steamy.

My wish for you: happy travels and — with the help of your journal — both meaningful experiences and vivid memories.

Playing Hardball for Soft Power

I’m just back from a trip to Washington, D.C. and it was an eye-opener. The main purpose of my visit was to accept the Wittenberg Award from the Luther Institute for service to the public and my church. It was a great honor, and the event gave me a chance to give my “Travel as a Political Act” talk to an audience in a city that lives and breathes politics.

Sitting in that packed church, a travel writer from Seattle, listening to music chosen and sung in my honor (Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Songs of Travel”) and listening to church and seminary leaders talk about my work was a little intimidating. But having the opportunity to give my talk to this crowd inspired me as much as anyone. The reception was a festival, and it turned out to be a great and energizing way to kick off an intense and very political couple of days.

While I was in D.C., I worked with the citizens’ action group Bread for the World to lobby members of Congress to follow through on America’s commitment to the Millennium Development Goals (to join other nations in giving one percent of their budgets to developmental aid), and to encourage our nation’s decision-makers to see that people need development aid beyond military aid.

In a week when Colombia was given $5 billion in military aid to fight its drug war (as one Congressman put it, “That sells American helicopters”), Bread for the World lobbyists and I were busy buttonholing congressional members and staffers to advocate for the needs of hungry people around the world and to ask for $5 billion in developmental aid.

The schedule was brutal, and in my pint-sized escort, Rachel, I met my match when it comes to walking fast down long, long corridors.

I was fortunate to have in-person visits with Senator Patty Murray (who has since voted in favor of the Biden-Luger Amendment to keep our developmental aid strong, for which all BFTW members and I are thankful), Congressman Norm Dicks, Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson, and the staffs of Mark Kirk, John Carter and Tom Latham.

BFTW knew who was Lutheran, who was a fan of my guidebooks, and who had been on recent trips and wanted to meet me. They were unabashed about using these excuses to get into those offices and sit down to lobby for the needs of the hungry and homeless.

My own congressional Representative, Jay Inslee, and Representative Rick Larsen of Washington’s 2nd district, sponsored an event in the Rayburn House Office Building attended by 60 church leaders, Congressional staffers and others. I spoke for half an hour, followed by a spirited question-and-answer period and messages from three members of Congress.

I was also invited to be the featured speaker at a German Marshall Fund luncheon, where 40 people with a passion is transatlantic cooperation gathered to hear my take on the value of the US overcoming its isolation and working more constructively with its international friends on poverty, peace and justice issues.

During my many conversations, I picked up on some interesting phrases that are trendy in D.C. these days:

“Soft Power” — The idea that the US can wield its influence and accomplish its goals more effectively by helping people with constructive developmental aid, rather than threatening with military force and rewarding with military aid.

“The Brand of America” — The notion that the goal of the US being liked and respected is that people worldwide will be inclined to buy our products…and the realization across the political spectrum that this “brand” has taken a pretty big beating in the past decade.

“Quietism” — The sense among progressive Christians who, while frustrated by our government’s priorities, feel (unlike some conservative Christians) that it’s inappropriate to incorporate their religious values in political discourse.

I returned home impressed with the constant grind of people advocating for their financial needs in the Capitol. The math is depressingly simple: Any interest (no matter how noble) that is not forcefully lobbied for will simply be pushed aside by others that are. If a Congressman gives money to Interest A at the expense of Interest B, it’s not because he doesn’t like B…it’s just that he gave in to A’s demands, and the money had to come from somewhere. That’s how good and caring members of Congress appropriate funds in ways that hurt hungry and desperate people.

I left Washington D.C. with a deeper appreciation than ever for the dogged work done by Bread for the World. And, frankly, exhausted after two days of playing hardball for soft power.

A Bum Under a Floodlit Cathedral

A magazine recently asked me a few questions to get an American’s take on France. I thought my responses might be blog-worthy:

Tell me about your first visit to France.
My first memories were as a 14-year-old schoolboy: gazing up at the Arc de Triomphe, thinking it looks old but isn’t; discovering the wonders of a crêpe with sugar and butter; venturing into a subway system for the first time, then emerging to turn the corner and see the Eiffel Tower…and thinking, “I love to travel.”

What aspect of the French culture do you like the most?
The way smart people do things differently than we do, with no apologies. The way proud people are not bullied by American ethnocentrism. I was raised thinking cheese is orange and the shape of the bread. I am humbled to find people evangelical about fine cheese. I am inspired by French people who find their niche in life (whether it be doctor, lawyer, baker, or tour guide) and fill it with pride and panache.

How good is your French?
My French is terrible. I quit French in high school when I couldn’t remember the many variations of the sound “uhn” in French. I am tone-deaf to French (unlike Italian or German, which I find much easier).

What is your favourite French museum?
France is filled with great museums. These few come to mind: The Marc Chagall Museum (actually designed by the artist) in Nice; Unterlinden Museum (with the Isenheim Altarpiece) in Colmar; and Paris’ newly renovated Orangerie (with Monet’s Water Lilies and much more) are all great. The Jacquemart-André Museum in Paris offers an intimate peek into the domestic world of 19th-century aristocratic France. The Caen Memorial Museum is great for WWII.

What or where, in your opinion, is France’s best-kept secret?
I can be in Lyon and enjoy an elegant French urban scene with no hint of crass tourism.

Many Americans choose to visit Paris. Where can you recommend that is off the beaten track?
See Paris as a collection of villages. Find a village street and — as a temporary local — shop, taste, and browse your way down it with all the Parisians. Some of my favorite moments in Paris (and I can’t vouch for the safety) have come when walking around late at night. Jardin du Palais Royal, Place des Vosges, Ile St. Louis, Ile de la Cité…delightful just before bedtime.

Tell me about a memorable meal you’ve had in France?
(Given the state of our dollar, I’ll use a humble meal.) I was munching a baguette with Emmentaler cheese and sipping my box of juice on a bench in front of the floodlit Chartres cathedral. The bum on the next bench leaned over. We both acknowledged how life is good, and this Gothic church — glowing against a starry night sky — was gorgeous. And he reached his hand out with a plastic bottle to offer me a sip of red wine.