All posts by Jake

Adega Wine(ry)

During dinner at my work-in-trade hosts house in Portugal she mentioned a place local people go to get food/drink.  The specific one she was talking about is a bar like any other except the owner also has an unregulated, untaxed restaurant and ‘winery’ on site.  A place called an adega.  If you read my post about fortified wine you know I love to try homemade spirits so I kept asking questions about this adega until Janet offered to take me there the next day!

We arrived and walked up to the bar, no one was around.  Janet walked to another door (there were several), knocked and called out.  No answer.  She walked into the restaurant and rattled the door.  No answer.  After nearly 5 minutes a nice woman came from the back (I think she was in the adega working!).  She and Janet spoke in Portuguese for a few seconds.  I don’t know exactly what they said but I got the gist: ‘I brought this American to try your wine’.

So we walked through the backdoor into a small triangle-shaped yard full of dogs then into the barn (winery).  It was good-sized with piles of stuff all over that looked untouched for years.  It seemed to mainly be used as storage except one end where several stainless steel tanks and a few very old oak barrels lined the wall.  There were also at least 100 plastic jugs they use to sell the wine in, all the same size (about 4 gallons)….the only size sold.  Cost: Four Euros.  Yes, you read correctly….one Euro per gallon!

Adega Wine(ry)
Adega Wine(ry)

The worker cleaned out a jug for us and when nearly done filling it asked if we wanted a complimentary glass.  Who could resist that offer?  Not us, so we sat down at one of two tables and began drinking our wine as a few other friends came in.  I say ‘friends’ and not customers because to buy food from the restaurant or wine from the adega you must be known (or invited by someone who is) to the house.  Since the restaurant and adega aren’t strictly…legal, you won’t get served if you aren’t known.  Strangers could be the policia!  So we sat drinking our wine and before we finished the other friends bought us another round.  There was no offer to buy us a drink, it just happened.  I certainly didn’t know them and Janet had never met them either but she said this happens sometimes.  This particular gentleman knew no stranger and talked with Janet for a few minutes, then after finding out I am from the United States tried to talk with me as well.  His English was quite limited and my Portuguese even worse so I don’t know what the conversation was about but I could tell he was a nice, funny guy.

After downing the 2nd glass of this wine we said obrigado (thank you in Portuguese) and escaped before another round came.

If you’re wondering….the wine was drinkable but not great (hey, it was only 4 Euros) and we didn’t eat at the restaurant…..you have to call ahead and make a reservation!  True story.

Fortified Wine Tasting

Listen up class….here’s a quick booze lesson for you novices:

Fortified wine is simply wine that has a spirit added to it, normally brandy. Some common types of fortified wine are sherry, vermouth and port. True port wine is exclusively produced in the northern part of Portugal in an area around the city Porto called the Douro Valley. Porto is the historic home of the port wine trade.

At my new friend Janet’s house in central Portugal we had just finished dinner and she pulled out a bottle of port wine (port is a great dessert wine). I’d previously tried what someone called port several years earlier at a party in Kansas City and it was awful. I chalked the awfulness up to it just being a bad bottle (and probably not a bottle from Portugal) and was eager to taste some REAL port wine. After all….I was less than 150 miles from Porto and the Douro Valley!

Janet poured two glasses of red Tawny which is a style of port aged in wooden barrels. This causes gradual oxidation which imparts slight nutty flavors into the sweet wine. She may have been surprised at how eager I was to try port (later she told me I was one of the few work-in-trade travelers she had hosted that drank alcohol at all) and how much I liked it. I really enjoyed this Tawny port with its sweet taste. I’ve had sweet wines before but this was different.  The sweetness was not as overpowering. And is was MUCH better than that impostor port from years earlier!

She quickly reached to her liquor shelf and picked out another bottle to try. I was thrilled!! The 2nd bottle was not a port as it wasn’t produced in the Douro valley, but it was a fortified wine made in another part of Portugal. This wine had a faint golden color with a slightly mellower sweetness than the red Tawny. And it was even tastier!

After Janet saw how much I enjoyed this 2nd drink, she pulled from deep on the liquor shelf and came out with a bottle that was very dusty that had one lonely homemade label. She said she received this bottle as a gift a couple of years earlier. It was one of those “I have a friend who has an uncle that makes his own fortified wine” kinds of scenarios. The label only read “1999 Late Bottled Vintage”. Though I haven’t had the occasion to try that many homemade, home-brewed, home distilled beers, liquors, wines in my life, I LOVE trying them..…even the lighter-fluid like moonshine called slivovice from the Czech Republic I was lucky enough to try a few times after making friends with exchange students years ago. I was tremendously excited to try this homemade fortified wine! Not surprisingly it was the best of the three. The homemade wine was extremely smooth with a long, subtle, semi-sweet aftertaste. It was fantastic!!

The whole experience was fantastic. These moments are exactly the kind of thing I was searching out when I packed up and began traveling. An impromptu, informal fortified wine tasting in the home of someone I had known for 5 days. A perfect memory and a good blog post. Thanks Janet!

Obidos, Portugal – The Best Tourist Trap I’ve Ever Been To!

After several days hiking the sites in Lisbon and Sintra I decided to spend a couple of days in a more subdued atmosphere.  I was looking for a less hectic, slower pace.  Hello Obidos!

Obidos - Castle Town
Obidos – Castle Town

Obidos, in east central Portugal, is a small but charming hilltop town that happens to have a castle (now a hotel) and town wall still intact.  Part of Obidos is actually within the 14 meter tall wall.  It’s a big destination for tourist day trips from the surrounding cities, mainly Lisbon, but since I was staying two nights and not coming and going like the normal tourist I was able to calmly walk around the town (more than once) as well as see the sights outside the wall without feeling rushed ‘to get everything in’.

Here are my Top 5 Highlights in no particular order:

Spending more than 90 minutes walking around on top of the entire wall, admiring views from every angle along the way.

Walking the Wall in Obidos
Walking the Wall in Obidos

Walking out-of-town to find the enormous Santuario do Senhor Jesus da Pedra.

Santuario do Senhor Jesus da Pedra
Santuario do Senhor Jesus da Pedra

The ancient Roman aqueduct.

Roman Aqueduct, Obidos
Roman Aqueduct, Obidos

Sitting in front of Saint Maria Church in the middle of town and staying long enough to see an outdoor orchestra performance (I’m not exactly sure what the performance was for but there were three different orchestras all playing together and it was an idyllic setting for such an event).

Santa Maria Church, Obidos
Santa Maria Church, Obidos

Drinking Portuguese wine while talking politics and ‘what’s wrong with the world’ with a traveler from Poland and the Spanish owner of the hostel we both were staying in (sorry, no picture).

In the title wrote this is a tourist trap town, and it is only in the fact that tourism IS a large part of the economy here.  There are silly souvenir shops on every street, a bunch of restaurants all selling the same Portuguese foods and guided tours through every back alley.  But what’s missing was just as noticeable to me.  There were no über pushy salesmen trying to get you to spend Euro’s in his store or any gimmicky buildings that seemed out-of-place (in fact, the buildings within the wall all seem built around the same time period, I’m guessing 200 to 250 years ago).  There wasn’t an arcade or a shopping mall.  Everything was as it should be….as it’s always been.

So, yes it’s a tourist trap, but different from the normal trap.  It’s subtle, calming, classic….perfect.

Hostel Hunting in Coimbra (co-EEM-bra)

Getting off the bus just before one in the afternoon I kind of knew where I was and I kind of knew where I was going.

While booking my hostel a few days earlier I made certain to closely check the city map.  Coimbra, like every other city/town I had been in Portugal, is a labyrinth of curved cobblestone streets and alleys.  Mix in the hills of this city and you have a maze of switchbacks for cars and pedestrians alike that are never-ending, never wide enough, and seemingly always busy.

Everything is narrow (especially on the hillsides) and there are staircase shortcuts all over the place.  Confused is often the word of the day in a new city.  Sometimes you’ll find street signs near the corners of buildings but not always.  For someone like me that (with a map and a landmark) can find anything, this is very frustrating.

University of Coimbra atop the hill.
University of Coimbra atop the hill.

I knew the train stations were along the River Mondego and had hoped the bus would drop me off near there as well so I had an idea of where I was.  Luckily it did!  The University of Coimbra  (founded in 1290 and one of the longest continuously run universities in the world) is on a steep hill next to the river.  Knowing my hostel was near the top of the hill on the way to the university AND near an old church all I had to do was go up and find the church.  Easy right?  Once I started walking I didn’t think so anymore!

The bus dropped me off a couple of kilometers from where I needed to go but in an area with 6 story tall building lined streets.  Effect: I couldn’t see the hill I was walking toward.  After going the direction I ‘thought’ I needed to for about 15 minutes, and passing a few old churches along the way (they’re everywhere in these old Portuguese cities), I eventually  found a sign pointing the way to the university.   Following this alleyway and a few more signs I emerged in front of a very BIG old church.  Noticing a street name on a building across the plaza I walked down the hill 30 yards and looked around the corner of the church…..  Yahtzee!!  With my 30 plus pounds of gear I felt like I’d been walking uphill for an hour!!

So after all the streets, alleyways, stairs, churches and a few street signs I found my hostel in less than 30 minutes and only had to backtrack 30 yards.  ……EASY!!  Just like I thought.

Coimbra Fado – Justin Bieber Couldn’t Carry Their Cape’s

By chance I was in Coimbra at the time of the 2013 Queima das Fitas (Burning of the Ribbons) celebration.  This is an 8 day event each May that celebrates the end of school for graduating students.  The festivities include a parade with each degrees graduates having their own float (and a lot of beer), several nights of concerts/parties that last until 7 am, sports activities and many other events and traditions.

One tradition is the Serenata Monumental Coimbra, which happened a couple of days before I arrived in Coimbra.  I would have had a great seat for the show too; my hostel windows overlooked the square that hosts the concert each year.  It’s a performance of Coimbra fado music which is distinct from other forms of fado because it has historically been performed only by male students and former students of the University of Coimbra.   Traditionally Coimbra fado was a serenade performed by the male student outside the window of a female student he was sweet on.  If she felt the same way toward him, she turned the light on and off three times.  The roots of this music are so deep in the city it’s widely considered the music of Coimbra itself.

Coimbra Fado Instruments
Coimbra Fado Instruments

The singers and musicians all wear the traditional academic outfit (or at least part of it; the cape).  The concert I saw had all three men wearing an all black suit, black shirt and black cape.  The instruments played along the singer in Coimbra Fado are the 12 string Guitarra de Coimbra (Coimbra fado guitar designed by the father of Coimbra fado, Artur Paredes) and a classical 6 string acoustic guitar.

You can generally find Coimbra fado being played each evening in bars, city squares or at the Fado ao Centro where I saw a performance.  Fado ao Centro is a cultural center designed to promote Coimbra fado.  Check out the Unmapped Travels Facebook page to view a short video I took at the concert.

A performance can either be just three men or up to a couple dozen as seen in this video of the Serenata Monumental Coimbra 2013 that happened a few days before I arrived.

Though at the concert I saw I didn’t know what the words meant they were singing I did know, thanks to an English explanation before each song, what the songs were about.  It was a very entertaining event and well worth the surprisingly cheap ticket price.

No Pictures!!

I was planning on writing a funny hostel related story about timing your shower to avoid the rush or stealthily hiding food in a shared (with 15 to 20 other travelers) refrigerator. If you’re eagerly awaiting those posts, just wait, I’m sure they’ll be written in the future, but for now I think this is much more interesting!

About a week before writing this a friend picked me up at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport. He knew I’d be staying in San Juan later in the week so he kindly gave me a quick driving tour of Viejo San Juan. One thing that stuck out in his tour was this: ‘You shouldn’t go north of the wall’.

The wall in question was built by the Spanish after colonizing Puerto Rico hundreds of years ago. At one point it surrounded much of Viejo San Juan and, along with the two huge fortresses (El Morro and San Cristobal) helped fortify the island. By my estimation the wall is still about 50% intact.

On the north side of the wall, precariously perched on the slope going down toward the ocean is La Perla, a small but tight-knit community. Like many communities, the citizens of La Perla look out for each other. The town in which I grew up in rural Kansas is similar in that way. But there’s a difference. Outsiders aren’t welcome in La Perla. Not just the tourist kind of outsiders (of which there are many in Viejo San Juan), but I was told even other locals (from south of the wall) aren’t welcome.

As I was only about 27 minutes into day one of my travels abroad I agreed I wouldn’t be going there! But at the same time my interest was piqued. I was like a kid being told not to play with the dangerous fireworks (except I didn’t know the fireworks existed before I was told not to play with them). Now I just wanted to shoot off some roman candles!

Since La Perla is located on the side of the slope and the wall is above it, atop the wall is a great vantage point to peer into this interesting area. It’s not dissimilar in appearance to the slums of Rio de Janeiro, just not as massive. From the wall you’re able to gaze into the belly of the beast, so to speak. You can see the streets lined with small concrete buildings, some with metal or concrete roofs, some without. There are also some rather nice looking houses mixed in. You can see chickens, dogs and cats roaming streets alongside adults and children. You see people going about their lives. Above all, you’ll notice the graffiti. Paintings really. Artwork decorating walls, roofs. Some quite amazing, even from a distance.

Graffiti in La Perla
Graffiti in La Perla

As I walked along glaring down on La Perla with a friend from a nearby hostel, we wanted to go down but decided to heed the warnings and admire from a distance. And that was the end of my La Perla experience….or so I thought.

Wall art in La Perla
Wall art in La Perla

A couple days later I met another traveler, Jimmy, who invited me to join him and a friend, Susan, on a little field trip to La Perla. Susan wanted to take pictures of the wall art and Jimmy said he knew people in La Perla, that he was ‘cool down there’, and we wouldn’t have any problems. I was dying to light off some roman candles so I decided to tag along. As we walked below the wall, Jimmy suggested we avoid a certain street (the street that the drug deals happen), grab a beer at the bar and walk along the shore to take pictures. I thought this was a good plan, especially the avoiding the drug deals part. Walking along the shore with our Medalla’s (it’s like Bud Light in San Juan) in hand, we passed many buildings that were abandoned and falling down, a perfect place for locals to fill walls with their artwork. Jimmy, Susan and I walked and took pictures for nearly an hour until we found ourselves farther up the hill walking down a certain street. Yeah, THAT STREET! We were about half a block from any people and Susan tried to take one last picture of some artwork when her camera died. So I tried to take the picture and that’s when we heard two voices. ‘No pictures’…….. ‘NO PICTURES’!

As we turned to look in the direction of the voices we could see dozens of people in the next two blocks that had all stopped going about their lives and were now staring at us. We all agreed….no pictures (as if we had another choice). It was time to leave La Perla; unfortunately, the only way out was to walk through this crowd. As we did, we got nasty glares and some short comments that I didn’t need to know Spanish to understand. We got the hint. We three walked out of there without looking anyone in the eye and thankfully without anyone escalating the situation from their end. We made it out unscathed, with some great pictures, an awesome experience and interesting story.

As we were walking the road back to ‘safety’ Jimmy says one last thing to Susan and I. ‘They think I’m a cop down there and the guys I know said I should stop going’. ‘That information would have been helpful AN HOUR AGO!’ I exclaimed!! But if he had told me that, I may not have gone with them and you would’ve just finished a story about shared hostel bathrooms. So if you liked this post, thank Jimmy!

See the Spanish language version at lobu.do HERE!

El Yunque Peak – A Perfect Day Hike

My friend Taré (who had recently moved back to his native Puerto Rico) and I drove to El Yunque National Forest in eastern Puerto Rico.  From Levittown, a suburb just west of San Juan where Taré had moved to a few days earlier, it took about 40 minutes to drive to El Yunque and another 15 minutes or so to drive up the mountain via PR 191 to the Palo Colorado information center.  

Along the way we stopped at the replica Yokahu Observation Tower.  This is a replica of the Yokahu tower that is much farther up the mountain and a couple of hours hike away.  At this point, only half way up the mountain, the replica tower affords breathtaking views for those not willing or able to hike the nearly 1500 vertical feet to the original Yokahu Observation tower.  We continued to Palo Colorado and received a free map of nearby hikes from the park workers.  They were extremely helpful and the map had a Spanish side as well as an English one.

Taré and I wanted to hike to the tallest peak in El Yunque which, based on the information we received at Palo Colorado, should take about 2 hours.  So off we went – within three minutes we were in a different world.  The tourist crowd near Palo Colorado quickly dissipated and the sounds of car engines and tires on the sloped curves of the mountain road turned to the sounds of our shoes on the trail, the occasional coqui call and very soon some heavy breathing from my hiking partner and I.  The trail was rocky but well-defined and safe.  I say safe, but after a rain shower which occur often (it is a rain forest!), some of the sections get quite slippery.  We had more difficulty with slipping on the way down (partly because of the damp conditions, partly because it’s easier to slip on a steep trail on the way down and partly because we’re old and out of shape so were a little beat after the hike up!) but overall we didn’t have any major issues.  The trail weaves back and forth through the forest crossing the various streams several times affording many opportunities for postcard style pictures.

Spanish Tower at the Top of El Yunque Peak
Spanish Tower at the Top of El Yunque Peak

As we approached the top I realized all our hard work had paid off in spades with a vantage point at the peak unmatched in Puerto Rico (and most other places I’ve traveled).  There is a small, very old Spanish observation tower at the peak with a lot of graffiti on the interior walls but it’s quite interesting and seems a perfect fit atop this mountain….and it’s just plain cool to find at the top of a mountain.  The interior has two small benches, some red tile work around the edges and forming a cross in the middle, all surrounded by a white stone floor.  There’s a staircase that goes to the roof around the northern exterior wall where you get the best views and a much deserved Caribbean breeze in your face.  This small hexagon shaped observation deck sports a large stone altar-type structure that has the same Spanish cross carved in it.  From the observation deck you can see the north coast well past San Juan, the northeast coast and Fajardo area, the entire east coast, and in between other mountain peaks Tare and I thought we could see some parts of the south coast (hence the best vantage point in Puerto Rico). This little Spanish building was a welcome surprise and perfect way to rest a while before starting the hike down.

Unmapped Travels on top of El Yunque Peak
Unmapped Travels on top of El Yunque Peak

On the way down we, somewhat mistakenly, took a different trail and came across two other interesting areas that had old ruins.  I won’t give up the surprise of what they were and let you find them for yourself when you visit El Yunque National Forest, a perfect day trip when you need a break from the beaches on the coast and busyness of Viejo San Juan.

Big thanks to Taré for acting as my tour guide on this day!

Click HERE for Spanish version on lobu.do!