Students Party HARD in Coimbra


We either lucked into an amazing party – or got kicked in the butt by one! It’s a bit hard to tell right now – but I shall let you decide.

We planed on visiting Coimbra to see the National Museum there, and to visit the University. We didn’t plan on coming on Graduation Week – but that’s exactly what we did. And man, do those students know how to party.

There are thousands and thousands of students at Coimbra University – it’s the largest in Portugal, the best known, and the most respected. And it’s a university town – there’s nothing but students here – and on grad week – their parents.

Students normally dress in black pants, white blouses, and have coloured ribbons that indicate their school of study. Yellow = Med School, Blue = Liberal Arts, Red = Law, etc. But during Grad week, they kick it up a serious notch. Students getting advanced degrees wear top hats and frock coats with lapels in the colour of their discipline – and if they are a dual major (law and say Literature) they wear two colours – Red and blue in this case. And they carry walking canes that match. Students with canes – now that’s going to get interesting.. fast. They have a lovely tradition though – if one grad student meets another – the first takes their cane and knocks 3 times on the top hat of the other one – then they hug (boys) or kiss (girls) and wish each other good luck!

We chatted up several of the students, participated in the hat knocking – and traded kisses and hugs! It’s fun.

The 2nd tradition we witnessed concerns beer. Not like students need a special occasion to drink beer – but Coimbra Students have taken beer drinking to an insane level. It’s not just quantity, it’s about shaking the can and spraying everyone you possibly can! I don’t mind the pouring of beer on heads (as long as they don’t do it to me), and I don’t mind the shaking and spraying – but there were kids with water pistols filled with beer! That’s taking beer spraying to a completely new level.

And of course they know they are going to get totally soaked – so they all carry around their necks a plastic pouch that features those discipline colours – and holds their cells phones, a bit of money, and I’m hoping an ID!

Yet another tradition we witnessed were the floats. These have been decorated by each discipline, and they of course feature the colours. They are also loaded up with the graduating undergrads – who have wrapped themselves in ribbons of matching colours. Most of the girls had the ribbons in their hair. I leave it to your imagination to figure out what the boys were doing with them.

Undergrads also wear capes! Since it was hot on the day we visited, the capes were rolled into long tubes, and slung over their shoulders and tied around their waists. Some capes were blazed with badges – but I never found out what the meaning to the badges were – it was rare to see the emblazoned ones – most were – as one student told me – Harry Potter Capes!

There is a tradition that we didn’t see, but read about. Apparently at the end of Grad Week, all the ribbons are burned in a frantic release of energy! Given the number of ribbons we saw, I’m guessing this is a pretty massive bonfire.

Students we chatted up told us that there is a heady feeling of belonging in Coimbra – that grads come back year after year for this party – and I’m not surprised. It was intense.

After the parade of the floats – there is a rock concert in the Coimbra Stadium – and that’s where we ran into trouble. I don’t mind Rock music – I love it in fact — but our absolutely lovely BnB faced right onto the Stadium – and the noise of the concert was beyond belief. And it lasted for hours… Ending sometime after 4:00 AM.

So – good news – we got to see the party. Bad news – no sleep!

Good thing we’re leaving Coimbra today – we didn’t get to see the Museum (it was closed on Grad Week), and we didn’t get to tour the University – I wasn’t going up that hill twice. But we did get to witness Grad Week – up close and personal.

Signing off to get some sleep before we travel… The Soup Lady

The Toilets of Portugal


I’m fascinated by toilets. It’s true. I seem to spend hours in them – so I’m very aware of the good, the bad – and the oh I’m so sorry I needed this one – ones.

Here in Portugal, we haven’t seen any that compete with the hole in the floor, pig underneath one in China, but we have been treated to some pretty odd experiences.

First off – bidets are alive and well, and living in Portugal. The first time I saw one – I thought, well – no one has renovated for a while. But now I’ve seen them several times, so it’s clearly considered a plus. Not a useful plus of course – but something to have. Personally, I’m a fan of the Japanese version – one piece seat that washes and drys you by pushing buttons – but if the bathroom is large enough for a separate porcelain bowl, who am I to argue.

Lights in bathrooms however seem to be optional. I’ve not had as many disasters on this issue as my husband, who reports having to leave the door to the toilet ajar at least 3 times in order to be sure he’s using the toilet – and not the bidet! I’m guessing burnt out bulbs are the cause, I mean they didn’t deliberately not put in a light, right? But I have noted that motion sensitive lights are popular. Maybe men move less than ladies?

Drying your hands is, it appears, optional. Some bathrooms provide a towel – which after a few dozen guests gets looking pretty gross. Some bathrooms go the US and Canadian root of having blow dryers, and my favourite bathrooms offer both a blow dryer and paper towels. Once so far this trip I used a bathroom with folded hand towels – it was that up scale. This particular toilet was in a restaurant called “Roi dos Leitos” – King of Pork, and it was easily the nicest one we’ve seen so far. I loved the lighted buttons for flushing – so upscale…

Toilets in Portugal are consistently short. Seriously – what happened to comfort height, huh? Falling down to those low toilets is hard enough – getting back up requires serious leg muscles – and a lot of umph.

But here’s my biggest complaint about the toilets of Portugal. Several times now I’ve gone into a public toilet to discover that the toilet seat is missing. Where do they take them? And why would they take them? How odd is that. Is it done for hygiene? Is it that dangerous to sit on a toilet seat? I don’t know – but I can tell you that sitting on a porcelain rim is definitely hard on the bum.

One toilet I went into had the seat up. When I went to lower it – it fell off and landed on the floor. How embarrassing! I had to pick it up, clean it off – and then put it back in place. It was still broken of course – but at least it was in the right location.

What we have not run into are the truly fancy toilets I’ve seen elsewhere in Europe, particularly in France. Toilets in Portugal, even in nice hotels, tend to the practical. Toilets in BnB’s can be better or worse than average – and we’ve seen both.

In one BnB the bathroom was so tiny that you could not sit on the toilet and have your legs in front of you. There was simply not enough room. You had to sit on the toilet sidewise.

Worst Toilet so far? In a crummy mall in Lisbon. Dirty, no toilet paper, no toilet seat, and no way to dry your hands. I’m being picky though – there’s no toilet here that compares to the some of the ones I saw in Asia – but still. This is Europe. Surely toilets are a basic necessity- is it so hard to keep them clean. And where did they put those missing toilet seats?

But enough Toilet experiences – I’m signing off to think of something else to write about… The Soup Lady

Coolest Milking Machine Ever


I know – I’m jumping around – but this machine was amazing.

I’m actually in France (my blog posts are a bit behind) and by accident – pure accident – we visited a dairy farm here in the Champagne Area of France.

Driving back from visiting a battle field (more on that later), I spotted a field of white plastic. I’d never seen anything like it before – so I asked our lovely driver Jason (you’ll learn more about Jason later) if he could get us closer. Since it is Asparagus season here in France, I figured they were growing white Asparagus – and I’d never seen it. He kindly drove off the road, down what should only be driven by a 4 wheel drive tractor, and we ended up right along side this giant area planted with white plastic

Under the plastic was what appeared to be corn – not asparagus. Hmm. What actually is this? Why would any farmer cover corn with plastic? But it sure looked like corn. Definitely puzzled, we exited the tractor path, and turned right, back towards the main room and the farm. As we passed the farm – I spotted the farmer – and suggested (ok – maybe I kinda made it a strong request) that we stop and ask.

Again – Jason kindly followed my advice, and stopped. He got out, and an animated conversation occurred. Ending with an invite by the farmer to come and see something amazing.

Translating – Jason explains that yes – it is corn, and yes – it’s under plastic. The plastic is bio-degradable, and protects the corn when it is young. The soil here in this area of France is perfect for growing wine, but not so great for growing corn. Not enough moisture, too much hot sun. So the farmer has been using this special plastic for years. It keeps the moisture on/around the young plants, and as they grow, it degrades into the soil without impact. Good for the corn, easy on the farmer! He then uses it to feed his herd of 75 diary cows all winter.

But what he wants to show us is not how he puts down the plastic – it is how he milks the cows! As we walk towards the milking room – he tells us that he runs his farm – 250 to 350 acres of land plus 75 diary cows by himself with his wife and 18 year old son. And he has enough spare time to be the regional mayor. How does he do this… Well – come and see.

The five of us get out of the car, and walk into the milking area to see – a Robot. A Milking Robot. In fact – even feeding the cows is done by Robots. This is a farm of the future.

Every cow wears two transponders in their ears. The information in the transponders tells the Robot the size of the cow, the location of the udders, the time the cow last went to the feed lot, the time the cow was last milked, the quality of the milk the cow last produced, and the quantity!

When the cow feels like being milked, the cow gets up, and walks herself into the milking station. If she’s due to be milked (only once every 5.5 hours or more), the machine lets her stay in the milking station, closes the front door to hold her in place, puts some high protein feed pellets into a dish for her to enjoy while being milked, and then the robot springs into life. It already knows the size of the cow, so it just has to locate the teats on the udder, and then it sanitizes them and places the milking tubes onto the teats.

This is done by laser. The robot arm moves up and down and around the udder – finding the teats, washing them, and finally – using the milking tubes, milks the cow! And the cow looks like she enjoys it! She certainly seemed happy to walk in – and just as happily walks out again when the robot judges the milking complete. The milk is then tested for quality – and quantity, recorded for the next time, and routed either into the holding tank for pick-up, or if not judged good enough, re-routed for feeding the baby cows.

What about feeding the cows? In the same area is a large (cow sized) gate. A different robot scans the transponder on the cow, and decides if the cow should be fed, or should be milked. If the cow should be fed – the gate to the feed lot opens, and the cow continues her merry way. If she is due for milking, the gate doesn’t open, and the cow – on her own – realizes that she needs to get milked first. So she toddles over to the milking robot. Once that’s done – she walks herself into the feed lot (and the gate knows to open).

It’s an almost totally human free dairy farm. The farmer explains that if something goes wrong, he is notified by cell phone to come and fix it.

He also explains that it takes about 3 days for a ‘new’ cow to get measured by the robot, and used to the process. It easier with the cows he raises, but even if he has to buy a cow, the process is much faster and much easier on the cows than you can imagine.

He tells us that the cows are so much happier with this new system. And happy cows make better (and more) milk.

And his life is amazingly easier. He doesn’t have to come every day at 6:00 AM to do the first round of milking, he doesn’t even have to come to the farm all day if he wants. He still has the mucking out to do – but even most of that has been automated. When the cow is in the milking machine, any ‘waste’ is captured by underground tanks, to be recycled as appropriate. All the cow pies are dried and used for bedding for the cows (they are totally vegetarian remember), the urine is separated, and don’t bother asking – I have no idea what happens to it!

We stayed long enough to watch two cows decide it was time to get milked – one of whom tried to get fed first, so we even saw her refused by the feed gate.

The farmer and his wife even explain the basics of dairy herd management to us – Cows have to get pregnant to keep lactating, he sells the male offspring at 14 days to farms that raise meat cattle, and keeps the female offspring until they go into heat to see if they will make good dairy cows. About 30% of his herd is either too young, pregnant or just having given birth to be milked. That brings him down to the 60 or so cows that his one robot can handle in one day.

We are completely amazed – and of course I had to look up Robot Milking Machines on google – here’s a link that’s very interesting, and surprisingly up to date:

Robotic Milking Machines Explained

Signing off to have a cafe au Lait – with a deeper appreciation of where my milk comes from – The Soup Lady

Porto Vs Malta – a Tale of two Cities


It’s hard not to compare Porto and Malta. To start with – I just spent 4 days in Malta, and now I’ve been in Porto for three days – so they are clearly placed in direct comparison.

Secondly, they are actually quite similar in many ways – and very very different in others.

Language of course is the first major difference. In Malta everyone spoke English – it’s the 2nd official language after Maltese – and all the signs, menus, and shop keepers are more than happy to use English. Porto is of course in Portugal, and Portuguese is the first, and for many of the folks we’ve met, the only language. For the first day, my husband was feeling very disoriented, but by day 3 we’ve gotten used to using sign language and are finding it very easy to get around.

Porto is a much larger city than Valetta in Malta, in fact – it is more populated than the entire island of Malta – so there is a great deal more hustle and bustle. And a lot more of everything – more restaurants, more ice cream shops, more cars, more buses, more of almost everything. But there is also less. I haven’t seen a hobby shop, or a store for buying lace or trimmings. There must be shops for hobbies, but in all our walking, we’ve yet to see one here in Porto. However, we have seen hardware stores, linen stories, lots of clothing stores, shoe stores – and grocery stores. Not to mention wine and port shops. There are also more touristy things, albeit crammed into a small area of the city. This is where Malta and Porto share a bit. Valetta was a tourist heaven – everything in Valetta revolved around making the tourists happy. That is the same in the part of Porto closest to the Douro River. If you are looking for souvenirs – you don’t have to look far once you’ve walked past the train station. Packed in from there down to the Douro are restaurants with lively Terraces, stores selling stuff only a tourist would want, and in the spaces not occupied by these, the occasional church.

Architecture is also somewhat similar. No, Porto doesn’t have the crazy glassed in balconies that were so common in Valetta, but they are both walled cities, they both have narrow winding streets – and here’s the strongest shared strength – pedestrian only sections.

I love these sections – you can walk down the center of the street in both Valetta and Porto and not fear for your life. It’s fantastic. Why don’t more cities try this wonderful approach. I realize it’s hard to get supplies in of course – and while I never saw them stocking the stores in Malta, we did spot that happening here in Porto. The traffic jams were of gigantic proportions – cars and truck everywhere as drivers grabbed boxes out of the backs and ran to deliver their orders before the streets were closed to traffic. And the Portuguese have the coolest way of controlling access to these ‘blocked’ streets. There are posts controlled by phone that block the roads. Drivers apparently either use an app on their phones, or call to some central number – and a minute later – down goes the post. Pretty cool, eh?

Both Valetta and Porto also are filled with churches and religious iconography. In Malta the churches are generally gothic or pre-gothic, dating back to the times of the Knights. Here in Porto, the churches are covered in glorious tile work. Either plainly coloured, or patterned, or my personal favourite – huge graphics of religious images. These glint and gleam in the sun, contrasting sharply with the occasional graffitied wall painting.

The inside’s of the churches of Malta, with the stark exception of the Co-Cathedral which is decorated from stem to stern, are fairly plain. But in Porto, over the top is the way to go. The altars, with few exceptions, had staircases leading upwards towards either the crucified Christ, a version of Mary, or sometimes the patron saint of the church. Once we saw a Church were the top of the staircase was empty. I asked – and it was explained that the ‘insides’ varied according to the season. At Easter time, it was the host, at Christmas, the Christ Child – etc.

I also asked about the staircase motif. I’ve been in dozens and dozens of Catholic Churches, and never seen this before. Apparently it’s a Portuguese thing – they had their own version of Catholicism- and is designed to help the faithful find their mental way up to G-d.

Food options in both Valletta and Porto abound, and since this is the start of the season of eating outside – there were terrace options everywhere. In Malta, which is a bit warmer than Porto, huge umbrellas are used to define your terrace from the terrace of your neighbor. And curiously – the terrace didn’t adjoin your restaurant. Instead, you occupied the center of the walking street – with space for pedestrians on the left and right. In Porto, the terraces are much more likely to be adjoining – absolutely the case when the street was open to traffic, but often true even on the walking sections.

Side note – in Coimbra – our next to next stop, I also spotted the use of these huge umbrellas in the center of walking paths to delineate the Terrace area of a restaurant. A ‘Terrace’ that disappeared when the umbrellas were folded and put away. It’s pretty cool.

Pastries in both cities were of course delicious – and if I don’t stop trying all the delicious options, I won’t fit into my uniform. The ice cream in Malta was better – I’m a fan of the Italian style ice creams. I tasted some in Porto – but they didn’t measure up in my opinion – neither in looks nor flavour. But hey – they were cheaper.

We naturally ate well in both cities. Maybe a bit better in Malta, we had meals supplied by locals that were delicious, and did consistently well when we branched out on our own. In Porto we ran into some losers (bummer), but also some pretty decent winners. As noted in an earlier blog, I absolutely adored the roasted chicken – and the Port Houses serve lovely wine.

So – a tale of two cities – both of which you should put on your must visit list.

Signing off to travel to other cities in Portugal….

The Soup Lady

Porto – Surprisingly Wonderful


I think I’ve fallen in love with a new city. Porto is amazingly beautiful. It’s not just the stunning architecture either – nor the fact that we’ve been blessed with lovely weather. Nope – my love affair with Porto is based on what always works great for me – the food!

Oh my but we’ve eaten well here. And not just fancy either, although the Bib Gourmet Restaurant – Dop was right up there. Our first night was a holiday night – and most things were closed, but not Pedro dos Frangos. It’s clearly a local joint – my kind of place. There are dozens of chickens roasting on an open flame in the window – and a long counter with a very mixed crowd relaxing while they enjoy a quick glass of wine with their roast chicken.

We join the throng, and delight in moist juicy chicken – fresh off the grill. Upstairs is more seating, but the food is mostly the same – just basic grilled chicken with French fries. Simple, delicious – and cheap.

For breakfast there is an unending selection of coffee bars – some offering seating, others more simple – but all prepared to make you a lovely cup of Cafe aux Lait – or what ever they term it here. Cafe aux Lait definitely gets me what I want – and I’m happy.

The pastry selection is also outstanding – croissants of course, in a multitude of variety – plain, chocolate, almonds, creme – you name it, they have it. There are also Portugal specialities – a cake with a Carmel flavoured top, and of course Pasteis de Nata – a traditional tart with a rich egg custard nestled in a crisp pastry. Oh did that go down swimmingly this morning. Yum.

For Lunch we feasted on a traditional Portuguese Sausage, French Fries (yes again), Pimentoes de Patron (a delight we remember from Spain), and the absolutely totally Porto only invention – Francesinha.

We decide that this is Porto’s answer to Poutine. Francesinha is a sandwich made with thick slices of white bread, wet-cured ham, fresh sausage, steak – and topped with melted cheese. Poured over this is what we in Quebec would recognize as BBQ sauce, but which the Portuguese describe as a thick tomato and beer sauce. Rich, delicious, and of course soul satisfying – this is comfort food at a new level.

And then there is the Port. We’ve only done two Port tastings – but you don’t need to go to a Port House to taste the named drink of Porto. There are hundreds of Port shops around the city – and many offer guided tastings. But old fashioned as we are – we do the more traditional thing of visiting the Port houses.

Our first port of call is Calum. It’s one of the biggest and most commercial of the Port Houses – specializing in the low end ports, but also offering some of the more interesting options. Our 14.5 Euro tour includes a 7D movie (they spray water on you) that quickly describes the basics of port wine production, an interactive gallery, a tour of the storage facilities with the huge oak vats that tower above us, and of course a two port tasting. I don’t particularly care for either port (a white and a tawny), but I did find the tour of mild interest. I definitely hope for something better at our next stop.

And oh boy – does Graham deliver. Getting to the Port House is a hike – and I’m guessing this fact alone makes it harder for random people to just pop in. Plus they offer a selection of fine Port tastings – and allow you to share a single tasting among several people. This is of course a much better way of doing things – we watched in wonder as one woman downed glass after glass at Calum. For sure she wasn’t walking home. But at Graham, the focus is clearly on the tasting, not on copious consumption.

They offer (for more $$ of course) food to go with the port, and we opt for a cheese tray. Eating the cheese and crackers dilutes the impact of the sweet wine, making it easier to keep our focus and taste the distinctions between the varieties. We try 4 Vintage Ports (5 when our host adds a Colheita), and 4 Tawny Ports. I don’t care for the Tawny Ports – but the Vintage Ports are wonderful. The 5 Vintage Ports are all made from wine from a single harvest and include a Warre’s 1980 and a Dow’s 1985. These are our favourites, but then our host trots out the Colheita from 1972. It was only bottled last year – it’s been stored for 36 years in the cellars of Grahams – and it is lovely. It’s a tawny port – so lighter in color than the Vintage Ports – and it’s been filtered, so it will age extremely slowly in the bottle.

It turns out that one of the tricky things about Port is the aging. You must age the Port for at least two years in oak before you can bottle it. If you bottle it unfiltered – it will continue to age in the bottle – those are the Vintage Ports. Like the Vintage Ports, the Colheita is also from a single harvest, but it has been allowed to age in oak barrels, supervised by the Port makers. So – we bought a 1972 Colheita that was only bottled in 2017. We also bought a Dow’s from 1985. Both were outstandingly delicious.

We are warned to drink the Vintage Port within 3 days of opening the bottle (unless you pump out all the air – or have a way to cap the wine with Nitrogen). LBV’s and Tawny Ports don’t have this problem, and the Colheita, which has been filtered, will also hold its own once opened. It’s just the Vintage Ports that are unfiltered that should be opened on a special occasion, and then drunk promptly.

As a special treat – not that it cost them much – they handed me a small glass of my personal favourite, an LBV (late bottled vintage) from 2012. Much simpler than the vintage ports we’d been enjoying – I loved it anyway.

Well plied with Port, and feeling quite ok with the world, we walked back to our lodging – up hill all the way naturally.

This is a wonderful city…

Signing off to figure out what dinner will hold for us… The Soup Lady

Malta to the Max


It’s day 3 of our stay on this lovely island – and I’m beginning to appreciate why folks retire here. It is another lovely day – the sun is warm, the sky is blue, and the folks are friendly. What more does one need?

Well – if you are into Regency re-enacting – the answer is a day in the country.

Our plans for today are to do a bit of visiting – although our horse drawn carriages are not up to quite so long a trip. We must take transport from the future – a Bus. Well, actually – two buses. There are a lot of us, and we need space for our hats and canes!

Our ‘outing’ is to the homes of two family members of some of the organizers – at the first stop we enjoy a stroll in their olive grove, and do a bit of olive oil tastings. We also stroll down to a small local chapel, and the more energetic of us even visit the remains of the last donkey driven well on Malta.

We then change homes to a larger estate that has a swimming pool (no skinny dipping – sorry), a lovely flower garden, a commanding view of the ocean, and sufficient room for dancing. I’m guessing at least 2 acres of grounds in total, all of it beautifully maintained.

We stroll, we dance, we eat, and we chat. All things that Regency folks would have found endlessly amusing.

Eventually we must return to Valletta (it’s already 8:00 PM) – and regretfully end our Regency Weekend.

We retire to our rooms – and change clothes. There is of course the rest of this evening and all the next day to enjoy ourselves in Malta.

Dinner is at a lovely restaurant built into the walls of the old city, and featuring it’s own museum. Our group is a buzz with the excitement of the weekend, and we stay late chatting.

The next morning our plans include shopping for lace and trimming for more Regency gowns – and Malta offers some wonderful shops for this purpose. I buy meter upon meter of lovely trim, enough to make several more dresses. Now all I need is the material!

After shopping, we head over to the Armoury of the Knights of Malta – a highlight for my husband and Peter. I’m less impressed – if you’ve seen one helmet – you’ve seen too many.

We walk down to the walls that plummet down to the Grand Harbour to admire the set-up for tonight’s FireWork Finale. There’s a huge floating performance stage with enough electronics on it to cause a significant shock if it should hit the water. We watch crews position fire work barges out on the water – this should be a pretty decent fireworks display.

We’ve made reservations at the roof top restaurant that we enjoyed our first evening – they have a commanding view of the Grand Harbour – and should be a perfect place for watching the fireworks.

And they definitely deliver. There is an outdoor terrace – but folks have reserved tables there – and we can’t block their view. Instead we are told to climb a spiral staircase to another terrace – and discover the view is even better.

The fireworks start late – everything starts late here – but is well worth the wait. They are outstanding. Because they can – they use the entire length of the harbour – well over 2 km long – and the fireworks fill the space. They are coordinated to music – which we can hear rising almost dream like from below us. It’s an incredible experience – one I shall long remember.

This is our fourth night staying up after midnight, and I’m beginning to feel the strain. Since my normal bed time is around 9:30 – ok, I’ll push it to 10:00 – you can imagine that I’m beginning to feel a bit like butter spread too thin on toast. And tomorrow we must say good-bye to Malta and travel onwards.

My feet hurt, my back is saying – stop, and my mind agrees.

Enough is enough.

Signing off to get a well deserved nights rest – even if it starts at 2:00 AM – The Soup Lady

Malta – It isn’t just about meeting Royality


Not that meeting royality isn’t fun of course. It is – but life needs more than that – and Malta definitely delivers.

The Royality that we meet are two Marquis – but I’m getting ahead of my story.

Last night was a late night – and tonight promises to be late as well, but before we can go to the ball – our hosts have planned a day of Regency adventure. Well – not really adventure of course – but fun Regency style for sure.

We are all dressed in our ‘day’ outfits – so while not ball gowns – we do look pretty fancy. Our day starts with breakfast – and I must say we create quite the stir at the breakfast area. The staff quickly realizes that we must all be together – and seats us near each other. Handy for comparing outfits for sure.

After Breakfast, we stroll arm in arm over to the Gardens, where we pose for pictures (there are a lot of Japanese who are going to leave Malta very happy), and admire the view, the flowers and each other. It’s a lovely way to spend an hour. We then gather for a group painting (amazing how quickly those square devices make instant paintings these days), then stroll down the streets of Valletta to the Casa Rocco Piccolo. Our tour will be very special – the Marquis and Marchioness de Piro will be our tour guides.

Our group is split in half – 10 of us go with the Marquis, 10 with his wife. We’re lucky to be in the group with the Marquis – particularly because in our group is Tony – also a Marquis in Malta! And of course he and the Marquis de Piro are friends, and trade lively banter through out our tour. I’m dying to ask the Marquis what his children said when he announced – 20 years ago now – that he was opening their home to tourists – but I guess the question was rather mute. His older son runs the company that runs the tours!

The house itself is lovely of course – and packed with odds and ends of a life well lived. They have inherited collections upon collections from their family members – and all of them are carefully kept in the house. There was a folding chapel – for use when you didn’t want to dedicate an entire room to your chapel, there were 3 shoes from various popes – given to the family as thank-you presents. The Marquis explains that being given a shoe said you were close to the Pope, a gift that has since fallen into disrepute – not surprisingly. I think it’s weird.

There were a few outstanding paintings, but most of the collections were books – particularly books on Maltese arts and crafts like lace making. In another room were paintings of famous family members, including one aunt who was considered fairly wild and carefree – in 1920.

In our Regency clothes, we suit the house well – and both the Marquis and Marchioness observe that we are probably some of their best dressed visitors.

We leave for a glorious multi-course luncheon, and then retire to our hotel. I for one am definitely napping before we must dress for the ball. Tonight is going to be a very late night.

The highlights of the ball – aside from it’s location in a Church Museum in Medina – is the horse drawn carriage ride thru the walled city, the glorious desserts provided (I’m very fond of the Nipples of Venus that were served), and of course the dancing. The Dance hall has much better acoustics then our practice space, and a lot more room. I dance and dance till my feet hurt – what a wonderful way to spend the evening.

Tomorrow will be more Regency Fun – but tonight was memorable.

Signing off to tuck her very tired feet into her warm cozy bed – The Soup Lady

Gatlinburg – Honky Tonk Heaven


My travels find me in Gatlinburg, Tennessee to play bridge The largest regional bridge tournament in the US – 4100 tables, 16,400 bridge obsessed folks show up to play bridge for a week here every April – and I, my partner Judy, Fern – my friend from the bridge cruise – and her partner Judy (yes – two Judy’s) are 4 of the lucky travellers.

I must say that it sounded like a great idea to go to Gatlinburg until I discovered that there is no airport in Gatlinburg! None – nada – it’s walk, bike or rent a car to get from point A to point B in this part of the US. There is no airport. The nearest airport is in Knoxville – so my Brigde partner (Judy) and I have taken separate flights to end up in Knoxville. Our original plan had us heading out to Gatlinburg right after my flight arrived. Ah the best laid plans … and all that.

Weather was not my friend on Sunday – and my flight from Montreal was delayed just a bit. The major problem happened in Philly. Bad weather (hey folks – it’s just RAIN) delayed or canceled flights all over the Eastern Coast of the US, and my flight from Philly to Knoxville was definitely impacted.

Much phone calling and texting later – we agreed that I’d spend that night in her hotel room in Knoxville (cancel one night in Gatlinburg – and we’d head out the next morning. And this plan worked perfectly. The Historic Gatlinburg Inn, our choosen spot for bedding down, was very gracious. They agreed to cancel the one extra night without penalty (nice folks, eh?). So Sunday night found me knocking on the door of a perfect stranger and asking to sleep with her!

Fortunately, we’d swapped pictures, and Judy is not a serial rapist. We managed to meet, pick beds, and get to sleep. Tomorrow will be aa big, big day!

We get up, enjoy a rather blah breakfast (the hotel breakfast food can definitely not be called fine dining), and head out. Using Google maps, we original choose the shorter, more scenic route, but a bit of miss direction, and we’re driving mostly on highway until close to the turn off to Pigeon Forge.

Does that sound familiar? It should – it’s the home of Dolly Parton and DollyWood. We’re quickly skip past this bit of Americana and are on the main drag of Gatlinburg.

Honky Tonk doesn’t even begin to describe this place. I never even heard of Shoot’m up 7D – but here it is. And it features a horse singing country songs and ‘riding’ an old miner. Seriously – what’s with that. Opposite this ‘attraction’ is a festival of Ripley Entertainments that demonstrates exactly how far out of the loop we in Canada have become. There’s a Ripley’s Haunted Adventure – which sports multiple signs warning those faint of heart or with ‘medicinal issues’ to enter with caution. There’s also a Ripley’s Hollywood Stars – that apparently is all about cars and the Advengers. There are bits and pieces of cars (all labeled ‘do not touch’) adorning the towering edifice. I’m not sure of the point really – but I think I recognize ‘The New Advengers’, although maybe not. There’s also an ‘activity’ center that features a mirror maze, and as it’s ‘marketing tool’, has a guy swinging on a trapeze high above the main floor of the building. These are only 5D – the 7D activity seems to be only the shooting gallery.

There’s an escape room Adventure, a Sky Lift – fancy name for a chair lift, a towering Sky tower that doesn’t appear to be functional, and a huge – seriously huge – convention center. It’s way way too large for the town, so clearly the idea is have a space to bring in tons of visitors.

There are two – count’m two – Moonshine distilleries, a Paula Deen store, a Starbucks, and here’s a surprise – a Walgreens.

All of these are squished into the spaces between hotels, motels, and other ‘sleeping’ establishments. Most are deliberately designed to be cute – faux log cabins, faux castles, and our lodging – the Historical Gatlinburg Inn.

There are plenty of food options as well – a Bubba Gump Shrimp (can you say – everything fried), several sports bars that serve fried everything as well, BBQ places, Pizza places, and two Sweet Shops where you can buy candy by the very very expensive ounce. I wouldn’t suggest shopping for something practical (like – say – fruit or underwear) but if you need a statue of a bear labeled ‘faith’ – they have you covered.

And that’s just in the 5 minute (max) walk from where we are sleeping to the Convention Center. I’m both amused and stunned. But I should have been warned when our warm welcome is marred by my distraction at the size of our hostess. She is simply the largest person I’ve ever seen. And the maintenance man is equally her size. Clearly weight inflation is real and happening in Gatlinburg.

A little about our lodging. The Historic Gatlinburg Inn is just that – Historic. And in desperate need of a serious renovation. I’m reminded of the ‘before’ section of a reality TV show I used to love – Hotel Impossible. This guy would go in and explain how the owners could inexpensively update their hotel – and then proceed to do it to a single room. The Historic Gatlinburg Inn could really, seriously use help.

The good news here is that the staff is unbelievable nice (if perhaps a tad overweight). They couldn’t have been nicer to us. The breakfast buffet was quite nice – and featured a different type of sausage every morning, as well as unlimited scrambled eggs, 2 waffle machines. There were biscuits, Cereal in those little boxes, wrapped apples (why wrap the apples?), yogurt and coffee. There wasn’t a fridge in our room, but we could put food in a small fridge located behind the bar in the rarely used ‘party room’. And they had a pool. Our room even had a view over the river that runs parallel to the Main Street.

My issues with the Historic Inn were in the decor. I’ve never really appreciate exposed pipes, and the retro-fitted sprinkler system meant that there were pipes everywhere. I know it’s hard to hang ceilings to hide those pipes – but honestly, why hang the pipes a foot or more below the ceiling line? It’s so ugly. But the really depressing thing, aside from the seriously outdated old couches in the room (we had two..) were the bathrooms. I’m not a fan of extra doors in bathrooms – although folks seem to love to wall off the toilet – but I really don’t like horrid tub/showers. They are dangerous to get in and out off, and those cheap plastic sliding doors just say – old and gross to me. Put in a laminate counter and a low sink – you are not going to impress me. Tiny old washed to death white towels complete the picture. This is not a luxury bathroom.

I’m also not fond of odd lighting arrangements. Our room was a huge U shaped thing, with an entrance hall that had a wooden bench (handy) for putting our suitcases, the bathroom in the center of the U, and two double beds on the other side. So the distance from the bed to the toilet was as far as it could be, the lighting was several lamps placed randomly in the room, and two wall/ceiling fixtures. One was a chandelier looking object – placed near the beds, but controlled from a switch near the door on the other side of the U, and the other was a long thin bar that extended over both beds. That rather handily had a switch near the bed to turn it on and off.

The problem = we couldn’t find the switches to turn lights on and off for the first 2 days. It just wasn’t obvious enough.

But I was feeling ok about this until I walked down the stairs instead of taking the elevator (an obvious add on tower probably built when they added the sprinkler system). Old couches could be found all through the hallways – I’m guessing that the owners couldn’t decide if these were to be thrown or kept – so they got put here and there in various hallways. The end effect was a rather unfortunate Bordello look – lacking only the ladies in waiting.

I don’t think I’m coming back to the Historic Gatlinburg Inn the next time I come to this competition.

On the drive back to Knoxville, we opt to take the scenic route through the National Park. It’s a lovely, albeit winding, 2 lane road that fortunately was effectively empty around 2:00 on a Friday afternoon. It criss-crosses the river that runs thru Gatlinburg – and alternated between lovely vistas and narrow passes thru rock walls. Had there been crowds of ‘leaf peepers’ – this road would have been a disaster. But we breezed thru, and arrived in Knoxville in plenty of time to catch my flight home.

Signing off to unwind and eat some fruit…

The Soup Lady

Fun stuff in Surprising Places – The Toronto Salsa Festival


I’m in Toronto – staying at the Sheraton Hotel in Downtown Toronto to play bridge. Not very exciting travel I know – but be patient my readers. I promise that good stuff will happen!

I got to Toronto by train. I do love traveling by train. It’s not always a bargain of course. I prefer traveling ‘business’ class – more comfy seats, cleaner windows, and service. I adore service. Make me happy – do something nice for me! Serve me a meal, offer me coffee, or just smile. I’m relaxed and enjoying my travels.

Any way – Trip to Toronto included a lovely dinner, a glass of wine, desert and a glass of Port, Trip home will include a selection of beverages, a lovely dinner, and some more Port. I’m totally counting on the Port on the way back home to Montreal.

I arrive in Toronto – big city, big city smells, big city sounds, big city hassles. I drag myself and my carry-on up Young street to the Sheraton, navigating pass homeless camping down for the night and young business folks checking out the bars that line this main drag. Lot of lights, lots of action. But I’m focused. Get up the street safely (don’t get hit by a car, a trolley, or a group of revellers) and settle down for the night.

Task accomplished, I check in and check out my room. I guess they felt sorry for me – because the room is a bit of an upgrade. It’s in a corner with a lovely view, and a bit of extra space. More than ample for my needs. The bed is huge – it’s king sized, and since I’m on my own, will mostly stay unmussed.

Tuesday thru Sunday is bridge, bridge, bridge. I’ve written before about the issues with PUPs (Pick Up Partners) and this time is no different. Some great, some not so great. My favourite is the older gent from Sault St. Marie – we manage to place 8th overall – among 80 some teams. This earns us upwards of 2 Gold Master Points, and earns me some very nice praise from his wife! She’s a Life Master, he’s playing catch-up to her – and she’s very impressed by how well we did. Hey – I’m impressed by how well we did.

Fast forward to Saturday night. One reason I like Regionals are the night games. Fewer players, lots of fun, and a great chance to do well. And I don’t have to fuss with thinking about what I’m going to do that night in a strange town. So I’m pleased that there are 2 night games on offer this week – one on Friday, one on Saturday.

Friday’s night game goes as planned – I score some more Master Points – have fun – all is good.

Saturday’s night game is a different story. I have a partner – what I lack are opponents. No one shows up! Well – not enough folks show up. And the game is canceled. Bummer. Now what.

It’s 8:00 PM, it’s Saturday night, and I’m alone in the big city. Hmm.

I check out my options – and spot some kids dressed up in Salsa clothes walking around the hotel. A quick chat – and I find out that the Toronto Salsa Festival is this weekend – here in my hotel. Tonight there is a show, followed by 4 hours of social dancing. The show is due to start at 8:00 – and while there’s a cost of admission, the opportunity to see professionals and semi-professionals dance seems priceless. So I cough up the money – and get my pass.

The lovely ticket sellers explain that the show will start when it starts – there have been workshops all day, and until the room is clear, they won’t let the ‘tourists’ in. So I join a line of other earlier comers and prepare to wait.

I’m terrible at waiting actually – so after being polite for a while – I eventually start chatting with the folks in line with me. In front of me are an ‘older’ couple – not as old as me – but I’m as old as the hills – what do you expect. Their daughter is performing tonight – and they gleefully explain her hobby to me.

She has a full time job – but she joined this dance group – and they are frequently invited to perform at shows around Canada and the US. They are unique in that they are all female dancers (how unique is going to be clear later in the evening), and are in great demand. They will go to your event – do their performance – and then split up and dance with everyone. They give Salsa lessons, and make sure everyone has a great time. I can totally see why this would be a hot idea for a team building activity! And she and her fellow dancers are very cute. Fresh faced, young, and unremittingly cheerful.

The folks behind me are friends of other dancers – and as each group gets organized to enter the hall – they come over to blow air kisses (don’t mess the make-up), and share hugs and good wishes. I get a close-up look at some of the outfits – I can’t wait to see what they will look like on stage.

Eventually they get the stage clear and organized and we’re admitted. The couple in front invite me to sit with them, so we snag seats as close to the front as possible. The first few rows are saved for VIPs – which turn out to be the kids who have finished performing!

There are a lot of chairs – probably over 300 – and it’s hard to imagine that the space will be full, but eventually – it is full. The show starts off slowly with the less professional teams – and suffers from some organizational challenges – the music for the first group doesn’t start on cue. But they quickly straighten that out, and the show begins.

I’m completely utterly amazed. Imagine about 100 young, completely fit, beautiful young people dancing, performing, and generally have a wonderful time. They come on stage in various groupings. Larger groups are generally up to 6 or 7 couples – dancing in pairs of course, but all doing generally the same steps. Smaller groups of 1, 2, 4 or up to 6 dancers also come on stage. The fewer the dancers, generally the higher the quality of the performing. And the later in the evening, the better the performances too.

My favourites are a group of young men (5 of them), who call themselves the ‘Kingsmen’ – and frankly are highly suggestive dancers of seriously good caliber. They come back as a group of 6 – 3 men, 3 women – and trust me – they are memorable. I’m getting very curious about what is keeping on some of the outfits the women are wearing – so it’s not a total surprise when one gal has to keep tugging on the top of her outfit. We almost, but not quite, had a wardrobe malfunction!

Another memorable group feature women wearing string bikinis. To Salsa Dance. Really. The gals twerking in St. Croix have some stiff (hee, hee) competition in Toronto.

I’m totally loving this. The outfits are stunning, the dancing amazing – and then the professionals arrive.

OMG – right – that’s why these guys are the professionals. The beat gets more demanding, and the lifts get higher and the tossing more complex. I’m getting exhausted just watching them perform.

I will never think of Salsa the same way again. This isn’t dancing – this is ice skating pairs without the ice! One couple pushes this boundary the hardest by combining lifts, throws, spins and dance. There is even a death spiral – a spin where the woman’s head is inches from the floor – her weight supported totally by the guy. Strength, Beauty, and Speed.

My new friends invite me to stay for the social dancing, and I’m sorely tempted. There are 4 different rooms – each featuring a different kind of music. But my age and the efforts of a long day of bridge win out over my interest in watching folks dance.

I bid everyone good night – and dance well – and walk out past the rows of high heeled dancing shoes for sale. What an absolutely amazing hobby this must be.

If you ever have a chance to catch a Salsa Festival Show – and there will be one next year in Toronto on Easter Weekend – do it. Worth every penny.

Signing off to head off to my King Sized bed…

The Soup Lady

Regional at Sea – or Bridge till you drop!


18 months ago I decided to learn to play proper duplicate bridge – and I’ve been chasing that goal almost daily. Not easy.

When I was in Charlotte several months ago, a gal had her partner for a bridge cruise cancel on her, and she went looking for someone who took playing bridge seriously, didn’t have too many master points, and had the money and ability to travel.

Hmm? Did some one call my name? I’m not the best player in the world, not even close. But I’m serious about getting better – and apparently being able to afford to travel to Charlotte marks me with the money and ability to travel.

Leaving her motives aside – she asked, I thought about it, and then accepted when I found out that Larry Cohen, who I think is the best bridge teacher in the world, would be giving talks every morning.

Fast forward 3 months – and here I am. Sitting in the Harmony of the Seas, participating in a regional bridge tournament. And having a blast. It’s not for everyone. I’m not even sure it’s for most folks. But for me it’s perfect. Bridge with a reasonable (and arguably much better than me) partner morning, noon and night! Perfect!

Let’s call her The Bridge Keener – and we’ve got my partner in a nutshell. Crazily enough – the deal including sharing a room – with effectively a perfect stranger, and of course playing bridge with her in all the games on offer. It’s a bit scary to share a room with someone you never really met – particularly for an entire week. So many things can go so wrong. And my sisters would tell you- I’m not the easiest room mate in the world. But The Bridge Keener has been able to cope with my outrageous behaviour, to ignore my bad roomie habits – and basically make this experience a delight.

We get up every morning with the sun – and a phone call from room service to tell us breakfast is on the way! Why they need to call me to tell me that the waiter will be knocking on my door is beyond me – but they do. So setting an alarm seems redundant. But being a tad anal, we do it anyway. Have yet to be woken by the alarm though!

Anyway – cute guy, hot coffee – and a fruit platter. What’s not to love.

After we get the day started by admiring the view from our balcony while we enjoy our coffee – we head up stairs (or down stairs – there are restaurants in all directions) for breakfast. We have consistently opted for one of the buffet places – I’m not fond of their coffee (room service coffee is better), but I do like to have a bowl of cereal and some fruit. One day I blew it by trying the grits – what possessed me? Cold and yucky. Oh well. Stick to tried and true and hard to mess up I say.

Then it’s bridge, lunch, bridge, dinner, and more bridge.

I know – sounds dull. But trust me – it’s never dull. Lots of things happen. Folks fight, Partners do double revokes (not a good idea), and you get lost in the bidding. I’m pretty decent on play – but if I’m in an un-makable contract – I tend to crash and burn. So instead of down 2, I’m down 4. Oh well, something to work on I guess.

More excitement – Larry Cohn’s lectures, Unlimited cookies, the possibility of placing first, and checking out the slogan wearing fellow bridge players. My favourites – Bling laden hats with “I Heart Larry Cohn” and T-Shirt slogans like “Double Trouble”, or “No one knows the Doubles I’ve seen”.

The Bridge Keener and I have been working hard at communicating with each other with mixed results. We came in first or second several times – and washed out several times. Which pretty much put us in the middle of the pack in terms of Master Points earned. Of the 236 people who participated (a totally booked out bridge cruise), we placed in the upper middle. I’d be short sighted and kinda silly not to be pretty proud of our results.

But it’s not all bridge. We spend a significant amount of our on-board time eating dinner with various members of the bridge group.

Our first night’s dinner was an unmitigated disaster. No, probably worse than that to be truthful. I wanted off the ship – and was thinking of opting out of dinner completely. 3/4 of our table mates were friends from Boca Raton – and I’m not a fan of the ladies of Boca in general – and definitely not of these ladies in particular. They carefully excluded us from their conversation – which as far as I could tell was gossip about what was happening at home. That left my partner, a 90 year old woman player with bad eyesight and bad hearing, and myself isolated on ‘our’ side of the table.

Add to this misery a terrible waitress who hadn’t smiled in about 3 years – and yup – it was bad.

So the second night the Bridge Keener and I decided to bail on that table and find a table with some empty spaces. Much, much better! But the third night we totally lucked out. The Bridge Keener recognized a gal from a previous cruise – and she invited us to join her table. And it was a hoot! There were 8 of us. The self-sacrificing friend who had agreed to partner a gal with a solid 11 Master Points. (That’s a beginner folks – and her playing got worse and worse over the course of the week), her sister, a diminutive older woman who had come on her own and spent the trip picking up partners. Her success was varied. There was a male – our token guy – who was a computer geek and lawyer and seemed a solid player. Our 6th table companion was a lady who announced she was allergic to noise – particularly my noise. So I got to try to whisper (or better plan – keep my back to her). She was a bit of a stiff neck, but apparently enjoyed our table – she dutifully came and joined us every night. My favourites of our group (aside from the self-sacrificing friend and the older woman) were a mother and daughter team. The last night I found out the daughter was 62 – (a surprise – she looked younger) – which makes her mom an unbelievable 85. They were a hoot. Not doing well at bridge unfortunately – they announced the last night that they need to find regionals with more folks at their level… – but so nice! And funny! We spent every dinner laughing, joking, and basically being silly. Our charming waiter was thrilled with us – and got in the habit of bring extra food when ever he could.

So that goes a long way to explaining my 5 services of Lobster, and my 3 servings of Rack of Lamb!

Bit more on the bridge. One of the goals of most of the players was to get their life masters. And often it’s Gold Master Points that have proven elusive and hard to get. So not surprisingly – at least 3 folks got their life masters on board this trip. One of them was part of our Knock-out exam (unfortunately we got knocked out in the 2nd round) and Swiss Teams. Charming couple, super nice, decent players – and easy to be around.

When she got the points she needed for Life Masters – the organizers made a big fuss – and on the last night they even presented her with a trophy. Man – I want to make life master on a ship and have them recognize me! It’s exciting.

This was the first time I’ve gone to a tournament with a partner – the same partner – for every game. This is a good/bad thing actually. The Bridge Keener and I are decent partners – but we need work. So as reported earlier – our results varied. With PUP (Pick up Partners) you can always pretend to yourself that it was the other guy that was wrong. With a regular partner – you have to take responsibility for your mistakes. And in my case – there were a lot of them. But you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs (except on the cruise ship – I don’t think an actual egg got cracked the entire trip).

So – great fun (albeit sometimes frustrating) was had. And I’m definitely doing it again. And I’m doing it with the Bridge Keener.

Signing off to study her bridge defence book – The Soup Lady