Category Archives: Culture

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.

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 HERE!