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

My Big Fat Greek Easter

Proud Greek flags are flying at half mast. I wonder who died and then I remember…Jesus died, it’s Good Friday. We’re busy in Greece making TV shows and I’m tossed two big curves: Orthodox Easter and bad weather. It’s cold and wet. There’s snow on the mountain tops on the south coast of Greece…not the image I expected.

People can’t understand how we could be working this weekend. “It’s Easter; absolute family time.” I try to explain that I celebrated Easter a month ago. When we film a meal, the restaurant is dotted with dark red hard-boiled eggs. Suddenly everyone is cracking their egg on their neighbors — like splitting a wishbone, only one egg gets cracked and you hope it’s not yours.

Four out of every ten Greeks live in Athens and, heading south on the freeway, it felt like they were all heading out of town the same time we were. TV crews were at the freeway tollbooths catching the pandemonium. Saturday night at 11, everyone’s out for the big Mass and then it’s firecrackers and partying into the wee hours.

Sunday the churches are empty: people sleep till noon, then it’s goat-on-a-spit time for the big family lunch. Rather than a big fat Greek wedding, we get a big fat Greek Easter family party. In the villages, it seems no one’s on the streets. Everyone’s inside enjoying traditional folk music and dance — vicariously — by watching the same TV broadcast.

In an extremely remote village on the south coast of the Peloponnese, we find a priest who lets us film the Greek Orthodox worship service. (I wanted to show and explain the differences for people not accustomed to it.) When we asked if we could observe his Mass and film him, he was as giddy as the man at the gate in Oz who said, “That’s a horse of a different color…come on in.”

The priest pulled the rope to ring the bell to call villagers to worship. He kept pulling. No one came. I lit some candles and ran to the bar and coaxed three people into the church, so he wouldn’t be saying Mass in darkness to no one. The priest welcomed our cameraman behind the iconostasis (where the religious heavy lifting goes on). He sang, chanted, swung the incense, and shared with us the glory of his religious tradition…as my three forced worshippers stood by, respectfully crossing themselves vigorously at the right moments. It’ll make a great bit on our show.

Driving out of the village the day after Easter, I thought there’ll be lots of leftover goat sandwiches today.

Portugal: In Cod We Trust

My 12 days in Portugal are over. Except for the Douro Valley and the Algarve, I visited virtually everything in my Portugal guidebook and leave with my enthusiasm for this country rekindled.

I met few Americans (in one day in Athens, where I am today, I saw more of us than in 12 days in Portugal) and found great prices ($5 meals, $60 doubles, $6 tickets to major sights — even with the euro at $1.60).

Side-tripping 45 minutes from Lisbon, I went to plush and lush Sintra. Its Pena Palace, built by a romantic blue-blooded cousin of Mad King Ludwig, sits like a mountain-top Neuschwanstein with an Atlantic view. The elegantly cluttered rooms at the Pena Palace are still set up as they were in 1910 when the king fled — a great example of that Victorian “horror of empty spaces.”

My last day of research was complicated by a walking tour. I intended to check it out by just tagging along for half an hour. It was so good, I stayed the entire 3.5 hours. They called it an intro tour, but after 20 years of visits, I just couldn’t leave. Titled “Lisbon Revelation” and run by a company called Lisbon Walker, there were five in our group. We paid €13 each ($20) and the guide had us enthralled for every minute as we walked and took the trolley through the old town. (That evening I emailed my tour operations director and said, “Let’s get this experience for our Portugal groups!”)

George Bush got some ridicule when he looked into Vladimir Putin’s eyes and, “saw his soul.” This is one rare case where I can relate to our president. I need to look into the eyes of the business people I meet and determine whether I can say, “I trust this person” to my traveling readers.

Perhaps I’m easily impressed (or conned), but I looked into many eyes on this trip and saw the souls of many good people: Sergio who rents ocean view “quartos” above his little bakery/café (simple doubles for $50) in Nazare; Carlos whose cataplana is famous in Porto and whom I’d like my readers to simply trust to feed well and charge honestly; and Gabriel who lovingly serves up traditional dishes in his restaurant while employing fado — Portuguese folk — guitarists who look like tired old turtles, and singers who are ringers for how Morticia (of the Addams family) must look today. (Gabriel’s business takes a big hit from cabbies who tell diners he’s out of business because he doesn’t pay commissions.)

In my hotel rounds, I noticed one of the personalized schedules our tour guides post on the wall for tour members. It laid out the plan for the last day of one of our two-week Spain and Portugal tours. The guide (Federico) had written, “Meet at 7:30 in the lobby to go out for dinner and a big surprise.”

I dropped back at 7:30 and doubled the surprise. I love seeing groups full of smiles after two weeks together. And for some reason Federico always leaves me with a huge smile. Their other surprise — heading out for Gabriel’s restaurant to enjoy the Turtles and Morticia.

I wonder if Lisbon and San Francisco are sister cities — they have twin bridges, famously foggy weather, have survived horrific earthquakes, keep trolleys shivering up and down their steep hills past characteristic buildings, and are situated in about the best natural harbors on the west coast of their respective continents.

Portugal has a poignant souvenir of its colonial days (which ended its nearly 50-year dictatorship — the longest in 20th century Europe — in 1974 with its Carnation Revolution). Over a million Portuguese “returnees” fled the colonies they no longer ruled. Life for them was “shrimp, day and night” and suddenly they were without a homeland — it was too dangerous to stay in the newly independent lands they once dominated…but they were too sour and conservative to feel comfortable back in Portugal. Most ended up emigrating to Brazil, England, the US, or France.

(I wonder if many became builders. A French man I befriended said it is the exception when a small construction or remodel job done in France is not done by a Portuguese contractor.)

I leave Portugal with a taste for Bacalhau — cod. My favorite bar munchie is a fried potato/cod croquet called a pastel de bacalhau. Imagine, the national dish of Portugal is cod and it’s never fresh — only salty and imported from Norway. This — a national dish that is imported from far away — must be unique in the world. Like Portugal itself.

Gold-Leaf Altars and Wax Body Parts

I still get just a little rush when I settle into the right train. I can’t remember taking a train in the USA, but here, with each journey, I celebrate the ease of not having to drive. And after all these years, train travel still comes with a twinge of risk: Do I have enough time for a cup of coffee? Is my wristwatch in synch with the official station time? Would these locals really point me in the right direction? Am I on the right train?

The European Union has pulled Portugal up to its standards now. The country has plenty of freeways, and Brussels is telling it how hygienic its markets must be. Portugal has taken lots of money from Europe and is now a net giver rather than receiver, as the EU is on to spiffing up the infrastructure of poorer new members in the east.

Yet Portugal is still a humble and relatively isolated place where locals proudly point out, “We now have three places where you can buy foreign newspapers.” Apparently George Clooney’s agent doesn’t care too much for his image here, as he’s all over the country on TV and billboards — selling martinis and coffee like a greedy Joe DiMaggio.

Many things just don’t change in Portugal. Women still squat on the curb at the road into Nazaré. Their hope: to waylay tourists from reserved hotel rooms with signs saying, “Quartos!”— rooms for rent…cheap. (By the way, simple hotels all over Portugal rent decent double rooms for $60. And sleepable dives can be had for $40 per double.)

Service is friendly in the hole-in-the-wall restaurants where menus come with two columns: “half dose” and “full dose” (€4 and €6, respectively). “Full dose” is designed to be split by two…giving traveling couples meals for less than $5 each. When I resisted a special dessert drink, the waiter told me, “Don’t be a camel…have a drink!” With a line like that, how could I refuse?

I’ve noticed all over Europe that monks are famous for their ingenious knack for brewing beer and distilling liquors. And in Portugal, nuns round out the menu with fine sweets (see previous blog entry for “nuns’ tummies” and “angel’s breasts”). For a good sampling, I’ve taken to asking for mixta dulce, and waiters are happy to bring a nibble of several of their top sobremesas(desserts).

Young Portuguese people don’t go to church much these days. But the country is remarkably Catholic for the sightseer (for example, my last stop, Nazaré, was named for Nazareth). The main sights of most towns are the musty old churches — those Gothic stone shells slathered in dusty, gold-leaf Baroque altars.

In 1917, three kids encountered the Virgin Mary near the village of Fátima and were asked to return on the 13th of each month for six months. The final apparition was witnessed by thousands of locals. Ever since, Fátima is on the pilgrimage trail — mobbed on the 13th of each month through the spring and summer.

On my visit, the vast esplanade leading to the basilica and site of the mystical appearance was quiet, as a few solitary pilgrims shuffled on their knees slowly down the long, smooth approach. Staring at a forest of candles dripping into a fiery trench that funnels all the melted wax into a bin to be resurrected as new candles was evocative in this spiritual setting.

Huge letters spelling “Queen of the Holy Rosary of Fátima Pray for Us” in Latin ring the ceiling of the basilica. John Paul II loved Fátima and visited it three times. (After the attempted assassination of JPII, the Vatican revealed that this event was predicted by Our Lady of Fátima in 1917.)

Wandering around modern Fátima and its commercial zone, I’m impressed by how it mirrors my image of a medieval pilgrim gathering place: oodles of picnic benches, endless parking, and desolate toilets for the masses. Just beyond the church, thirty uniform stalls lining a horseshoe-shaped mall await the 13th. Even without any business, old ladies still man their booths, surrounded by trinkets for pilgrims — including gaudy wax body parts and rosaries that will be blessed after Mass and taken home to remember Our Lady of Fátima.

Esperanza in Évora

“Day after day, the roads were messing up my itinerary. I’d arrive in town hours before I thought I would.”

Driving from Lisbon to Évora, I remembered this joke I used to tell in my lectures, which has since faded out of use. It saddened me to think of the many fine jokes (I liked them, anyway) that I’ve used to spice my talks over the years that have become lost…nudged aside by new material and insights being packed into talks that must not grow longer.

Anyway, I remember a time when there were absolutely no freeways in Portugal. Now, even my Michelin map is missing new freeways. Ninety minutes after pulling out of Lisbon, I was in a different world — humble but proud Évora, capital of the Alentejo region.

Évora — while a Tombstone kind of town with barely a building over three stories high — is crowned by the granite Corinthian columns of a stately yet ruined Roman temple. And three times as old as that, just outside of town, stand 92 stones erected by locals to make a Stonehenge-type celestial calendar. Évora sits on lots of history.

Alentejo is a vast and arid land — the bleak interior of Portugal, where cork seems to be the dominant industry. The rolling hills are covered with cork trees. With their bark peeled away, they remind me of St. Bartolomeo…and seem to suffer in silence.

The people of Alentejo are uniformly short, look at tourists suspiciously, and are the butt of jokes in this corner of Europe. There was a man here who nearly succeeded in teaching his burro to live without eating. He was so excited. Then his burro died. Libanio, my Évora guide, circled the words “arid” and “suspiciously” in my guidebook and did his best to turn my chapter into a promo for Alentejo. Actually, in April, it is a lush countryside. But I’ll stand by “suspicious.”

Libanio said it was the mark of a people’s character to laugh at themselves. He asked me, “How can you tell a worker is done for the day in Alentejo?” I didn’t know. He said, “When he takes his hands out of his pockets.” My guide continued more philosophically: “In your land, time is money. Here in Alentejo, time is time. We take things slow and enjoy ourselves.”

While this corner of Portugal is humble, there’s a distinct pride. Every country has its Appalachia, Ozarks, or Newfoundland. I’m impressed when a region that others are inclined to insult has a strong local pride. I often wonder if it’s honest pride, or just making the best of the cards they’re dealt.

For Alentejanos, quality and authenticity require the respect of tradition. The finest restaurants simply do not ornament a standard rustic dish. They love their sweets so much that they seem to know the history of each tart.

Many pastries are called “convent sweets.” Portugal once had access to more sugar than any other European country. Even so, sugar was so expensive that only the aristocracy could afford to enjoy it routinely. Historically, many daughters of aristocrats who were unable to marry into suitably noble families ended up in high-class convents. Life there was comfortable, yet carefully controlled. Rather than sex, they could covet and treat themselves with sweets. Over time, the convents became famous as keepers of wondrous secret recipes for exquisite pastries generally made from sugar and egg yolks (which were leftovers from whites used to starch their habits). Barrigas de Freiras (Nuns’ Tummies) and Papos de Ango (Angel’s Breasts) are two such fancies. In Évora, I, too, treated myself to lots of sweets.

Doing my research rounds, I was happy to find a romantic little restaurant that offered live Fado music three nights a week. I really wanted to recommend it as Évora’s only late-night action worth a tourist’s lost sleep. Esperanza, the woman who ran the place, explained that she liked the diners to be finished by 10 p.m. so the musicians could perform without waiters wandering around. I was impressed by her commitment to the art.

For my last stop of a very long day, I snuck in between songs and sat in the back of Esperanza’s place, hoping to be wowed by the ambience. During some applause, I snuck back out and headed home, happy to affirm my hunch that this experience merited a spot in my new edition.

When I was half a block away, Esperanza ran out the door and charged after me. I thought she was angry that I left without paying a cover charge, or the door made too much noise, or I had insulted the musicians. Like a guilty little boy, I nearly ducked down an alley and ran away. Then I decided to turn back and “face the music.”

She apologized for not welcoming me and begged me to come back for a glass of port and to meet the musicians. The rest of the evening was a plush experience, and next year travelers with my book will help Esperanza — whose name means “hope” — keep the art of Fado singing alive in Évora. Sweet!

Small Sardines in Portugal

I’m two days in Lisbon, and I can hardly stop to write up all I’m learning.

I’m staying in a hotel the tourist board put me up in. Every time I accept the tourist board’s offer of a free room, they seem to be pushing a “design hotel” — where function follows form. Everything is clever yet impractical. The outdoor sign is knee level and tiny — I walked past the place several times. The lobby is vast, but there’s nowhere to sit. The room’s very chic, but no drawers, no hooks, no rack for towels, and not even a bar for the roll of TP. Coffee cups are V-shaped…to cool my drink ASAP. The tub comes with far-out lighting…but sits in the center of the room. Give me an old-fashioned hotel with a boring garbage can and knobs on the closet doors.

Still, I slept very well on my jet lag night. (Like I mess things up by anxiously re-clicking my mouse when things don’t happen fast enough on my laptop, I popped an extra quarter-tablet of Ambien at 4:00 a.m. after an earlier one didn’t seem to knock me out…and I slept until noon. I had to research on a tear to make up for the lost morning.)

The big question that everyone in the states seems to be asking is: How’s life over here, when Americans are spending what a guy on the plane called “the Bush peso”? Well, prices are actually pretty good (in Portugal, anyway). Here are a few examples of prices I’ve personally encountered on my first two days (with rough dollar estimates):

Getting in from the airport to my hotel by city bus — €1.50 ($2.25)

Glass of good red wine in a very characteristic pub — €1 ($1.50)

Dinner of fish, potatoes, and salad with a glass of wine — €10 ($15)

Cover for a great evening of live Fado music — €7 ($10.50)

Most expensive sight admission in town — €5 ($7.50)

Buying a new cell phone (unlocked for use anywhere in Europe, and including €10/$15 of calling time) — €40 ($60)

Ferry ride across Tagus River to leave town for a salty waterfront dinner — €1 ($1.50)

Typical taxi rides around town — €4 ($6)

Lisbon is well into its European Union upgrade. Cobbles no longer have the grit of life ground between them. Once-characteristic fish stalls are off the streets and into “more hygienic” covered shops. Widows no longer wear black. The old fishermen’s families in the characteristic Alfama (one of the places that charmed me into becoming a travel writer back in the ‘70s) are now replaced by immigrant laborers.

The traditional fisherman widow’s blues, or Fado, is still filling characteristic bars. Fado is like a musical oyster — sexy and full of the sea. While most tour groups go to big, stuffy, venerable venues, I like the amateur bars where old-timers croon and diners pay only for their sardines and green wine.

I went to the Clube de Fado, where a well-established Fado star provides a springboard to Fado stardom for a new generation of Fadistas (Fado singers).

A diminutive Norah Jones look-alike wailed soulfully, while the man next to me said, “In Portugal, the women are like sardines — the smaller, the better.”