Sintra – The Tourist Capital of Portugal


Up till now, our journey has been delightfully free of crowds – but that changes drastically when we arrive in Sintra.

There are bus loads of tourists everywhere! And the sizes of the tiny streets are just not up to this kind of congestion. In an attempt to deal with the onslaught, the city fathers have made almost all the streets of Sintra one way – and driving thru the maze of city streets packed with cars, tourists, and the occasional local is daunting.

Victor does a wonderful job of it however, and we manage not to get divorced en-route. I can’t say that we escaped without a bit of yelling at each other – including my finally screaming – JUST PARK THERE!

Our resting place is a legal, albeit heading the wrong way space, quite close in fact to the National Palace of Sintra, our destination. Victor’s hip (not the artificial one) has been bothering him this trip – and I’m sensitive to the fact that walking up and down hills isn’t comfortable for him. So I’m thrilled we found a parking spot that won’t require miles of hiking, and more than will to pay the price for it – if we can find a parking meter!

We search right and left for something that explains how to pay for parking, and finally decide that maybe it’s not required. Strange, but I’m willing to believe anything some mornings.

Fortunately, our walk to the castle takes us right by a meter – and they don’t need your space ID – they need your license #. Whew! We took a picture of the back of the car early on, thinking we might need this number – and are prepared. 5 Euros later – we’ve paid for our parking spot. What a relief.

Parking paid for, we walk to the main square – predictably packed with tourists. I’m both starving and dying for a toilet stop, so we pick the nearest restaurant (expensive, very pretty, and not very good) and empty one end and fill the other. Rest stop over, we are ready to visit the Palace.

We’ve been warned that the crowds here can translate into insane waits to get in, and poor visiting conditions, but luck is with us. We’ve managed to catch a break between tour groups and bus loads, and sneak in with no hitches, and no crowds.

The Palace is a stunner. Built by the Kings of Portugal after visiting the Alhambra in Spain, it has moorish influence, and has seen countless renovations. There’s a free audio tour, and senior pricing. We’re happy.

The highlight of the tour, for me in any case, was being in the room where Columbus was given his commission to find a path to India, and where Vasco Da Gama returned to announce to King Manual I that he had found the Cape of Good Hope and sailed to India and back. Wow – history happened right here…

I’m glad we came to Sintra, but I total understand why some folks have given us conflicted reports. The mobs are daunting, and we are not even in high season. I can not imagine what this place will be like in just a few weeks. But for now I’ve seen it – done it – Don’t have to come back.

Our plan for the rest of the day is to navigate our way into Lisbon (Lisboa for those in the know – like the Portuguese) and park the car. Tomorrow we are going to return the car and be done with it. And I for one will say good riddance. Cars are nice to have, but getting lost isn’t any fun, and we’ve had our parking challenges. So all in all, I shall be happy to return it to Europcar.

And for once, our plan actually works. Our directions to the AirBnB are easy to follow, and while it’s on the slope of a hill (Not good for Victor’s hip issues), it’s quite lovely.

Occupying two floors, we walk in to a hall, dodge around a staircase to squeeze past the bathroom to another hall and the bedroom. Our bedroom has a massive window overlooking the garden below and from there out to distant buildings and eventually the ocean. There’s even an orange tree to admire. Down stairs is the kitchen (kinda old and crummy – but all we really wanted it has – a fridge and a clothes Washer (heaven..)). The main room has a dining table (perfect for Victor to use with his computer), and a comfy sofa. Outside of sliding glass doors that take up the entire width of the apartment (about 12 feet – max) is a tiny garden with a paved floor and several plants. It’s sunny, and the birds are having a blast. It’s perfect.

For dinner we go to the near by Journalist Club, one of the top restaurants in Lisboa, and certainly interesting if not overwhelming. After dinner it’s a short walk down hill back to our tiny palace. It’s late (of course) and it’s bed time. I’m out like a light. Give me a good bed and an open window – I’m a happy camper.

Signing off to get a good nights rest – finally – The Soup Lady

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

Averio – the Venice of Portugal


Well – not quite. But they do try! There are definitely Canals – and what look like Gondolas if Gondolas were much larger, had much brighter paint jobs, and the Gondoliers wore T-Shirts.

But leaving the comparison to Venice aside – I kinda liked Averio. It’s very touristy = and the side walks are rather hard to navigate between the undulating terrain and the mobs of people, but the canals are definitely pretty. I liked the jovial atmosphere and particularly liked the buskers (we saw a group of actors doing a pirate imitation that got the kids really excited, and one of the best living statues I’ve ever seen – it was a woman with a baby carriage dressed as a Victorian lady – and very cool).

We stayed in a lovely hotel – The Averio Palace, located right on the ‘Grand’ Canal. We ate an over-the-top dinner that while not overwhelming, was at least a better value than the one we tried in Porto, and we managed to even tour the old convent/museum. Altogether it was a nice over-night.

It was getting to Averio that proved complicated! I’m not sure what it is about our two – count’m two GPS systems – but neither is being all that easy to use.

Our first GPS system is my cell phone – and the issue with using it is two fold. First off – it costs Data Plan, and I don’t have unlimited Data here in Europe. So I have to use the trick my daughter taught me – you turn on Data, download the directions, and immediately turn off the data. This works great – unless you make a wrong turn. Then of course you are in big trouble. There’s no re-routing ability – and by the time you turn back on your data and request your destination again – you are seriously lost.

How lost became very obvious when we spent an hour driving back roads (one lane, unpaved) thru what looked to be endless forest in search of the former and quite famous convent in Arouca.

We did manage to find it eventually – but not without a great deal of yelling at each other – and the phone!

Our 2nd GPS is a Garmin. And in theory should be better than the phone since it is constantly hooked into the GPS system, no data plan needed.

The issue with the Garmin is that often it just can’t find a place. Case in point – that convent. Which is why we were using my phone in the first place.

But never mind our GPS issues – we did manage to leave Porto with little problem. I must admit that I loved our Air BnB booking – it was a one bedroom apartment on the 2nd floor of a condo building. There was an elevator – our one and only elevator in Portugal as it turns out – a tiny kitchen area, a nice sized living room, a bathroom that required my husband to sit sideways on the toilet to have room for his knees – and a perfect location.

It definitely provide that old real estate maxim – The 3 most important things in buy real estate? Location, location, location!

After a lovely breakfast at our local coffee house (only 4 days – and they greeted us as old friends) we headed south. Our first stop was the castle at Santa Maria de Feira. It is really a castle – exactly like one would expect from the Middle Ages – complete with curving stone stair cases, a great room, and a long involved history. My husband loved it. Our 2nd stop was the afore mentioned convent – which was not only almost impossible to find – was a bit of a disaster as far a visit went.

We arrived in Arouca, and after finding parking (always daunting in these tiny towns) we opted for an extremely locals only dining experience. Mom in the Kitchen, Dad acting as waiter -and when folks arrived who spoke only English – the 20 some Son showing up to help out! He had to check with Mom to find out what was on the menu – we had a choice of steak or veal stew – a local speciality. And I must say – both were delicious. We shared a bottle of wine, and throughly enjoyed ourselves. A good thing given what happened at the convent.

After lunch, we walked to the convent ticket office – where a sign clearly stated – opens at 14:00 (that’s 2:00 PM). No worries, we’ll wander for 5 minutes and be back. We wander, get back – and get told that the ‘tour’ won’t start till 2:30 PM. What is the point of opening at 2:00 if the only way to see the convent (by tour guide) is only happening at 2:30? But never mind – we wait the 30 minutes – to be told, there’s a group coming, they are short staff – and could we please wait till 3:00? Sigh – I drove for almost 2 hours to get here – I’ll wait. So, we wait. Only to discover when the group finally arrives that it is huge – 2 full bus loads. That’s it. I’m not touring a convent with 60 folks who speak only Portuguese. So we tell the gal running the ticket booth – forget it – we’re leaving.

She takes pity on us – and says – I’ll open the doors – tour by yourselves. So she does, we do – and we admire the outstanding work done in the choir stalls for the nuns, the huge kitchen, and the fabulously over the top altar pieces that make up the wealth of this former convent.

From there it’s back on winding roads to Averio, a quick walk around the canals, dinner and bed.

Tomorrow we are going to Coimbra – home of the largest university in Portugal.

But for now – it’s enough.

Signing off to get some much needed shut-eye – 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

Malta – Who knew they do Regency here?


Let’s be even more specific – who knew that Napoleon had been to Malta? I mean Malta is all about the Knights of Malta – wealthy beyond measure, guardians of the pilgrims to the Holy Land, heroes of the Crusades. But Napoleon – in Malta?

Well – he was definitely here. There seems to be some debate about just how long he was here ( I was told 3 days, and just passed a sign that said 7 days) – but there is little question that he came, he said ‘give up’, and the Knights simply said – ‘Ok’. No guns were fired, the French simply occupied Malta and that was that. It only lasted about two years however – and then it went back into British control – which continued until Maltese Independence in 1964.

But that’s .hardly the point. The point is that we are here in Malta as Regency re-enactors. Our goal is to have fun, and show off our best Regency dresses, suits and uniforms of course.

I’m staying in the very fancy Phoenicia Hotel, just at the main entrance to old town Valletta. The hotel is very nice – and fairly expensive. But we have a lovely room and a large bathroom that features Grohe faucets. I must say I like the size and the towel warming rack – but I’m not a fan of the shower. They have taken a tub, removed the faucet part that fills the tub, and added a dual function shower. So there’s a wand and a standard shower head, no tub filling faucet. It’s ok, but not like the EB Hotel. And the water pressure is definitely lacking. I’ve been told that there is precious little fresh water on Malta – perhaps that explains the wimpy shower.

Our Weekend activities are to include a wine tasting lecture, a promenade thru town, a Garden visit, a tour of a Regency period home, a private tour of a local monastery, a dance workshop, a ball, and an afternoon tea dance. Sounds like fun to me! And of course all of this is to be done in period clothes.

Packing to come here was a nightmare, as I’m sure you can imagine. I need at least 2 dresses for Saturday (one for the ball, one for the day time activities), plus a day dress for Friday and a different day dress for Sunday. I need shoes, fans, gloves, head decor, my re-enacting glasses, and for cold weather wear – a Spenser and a shawl. Men, particularly men in uniform, have it so much easier. Which is why Victor is opting to come as a civilian – that way he can change clothes 4 times as well!

Our goal is get all of our re-enacting clothes into one big suitcase – using our carry-on suitcases for non-re-enacting clothes. And surprise, surprise – we actually manage to do this. Victor’s jackets, pants, vests and shirts take up most of the room, I use stuff bags to hold my rolled up gowns. I’ll just put them in the bathroom with the shower on hot and full blast to steam the wrinkles out.

And my plan totally works. I manage to get 4 dresses, 3 head ornaments, 1 black turban style hat, my dancing shoes, 4 reticules (small bags a lady carried to hold necessities during Regency times), and 4 pairs of white gloves into 3 stuff bags. And we manage to get those stuff bags into the one suitcase!

My dress on Friday is rather simple. A plain blue dress with my brand new and very beautiful green and gold Spenser (a short jacket with long sleeves) over it. I’m warm and comfortable, and I look good. Perfect. The wine tasting and lecture was interestingly done – but I can’t say that the wine blew me away. Malta is too dry and too warm year round to allow for really good grapes to grow here. And the winery we visited insisted on using only grapes grown on Malta for their wines. I’ll pass. And their ‘cellar’ is up a spiral staircase. That is definitely odd.

After the wine tasting, we have ‘free’ time – which I choose to spend visiting the Co-Cathedral of St. John – headquarters of the Knights of Malta. And it is wonderful. My senior price includes an audio guide – and I patiently listen to every thing it has to say. The Church is magnificent – but the highlight is the Chapel of the Novices – where hang the art work of one of those novices – the famous artist Caravaggio. After killing a man in a dual in Italy, Caravaggio fled to Malta and became a Knight of St. John. While a novice, he painted two massive paintings, both of which now hang in the Chapel. He was later expelled from the order – apparently he killed another man in a dual – he had a very bad temper – but the order kept the paintings.

And they are stunners. Gloriously beautiful and well worth the price of admission to the Church. I loved them – and spent almost 20 minutes admiring them. He was such a master of light and dark, of the theatre of painting. Sigh.

But I must return to the Regency world – so I leave the church and head back to the hotel.

Later in the day we have a dance practice that doesn’t go that well. It’s in the under-Croft of another church in Valletta, and it’s hard floor, hard walls, and arches make it impossible to hear the caller. She tried to use a sound system, but the feedback was very annoying. But we solider on, and do almost 30 short dances – just enough of each one to gain at least a tiny bit of motor memory.

I’m surprised that she doesn’t think to demonstrate the dance before calling it. We’re mostly experienced dancers – and watching folks do the dance one is just about to do is often enough to enable us to do the dance for ourselves. After two very terrible teaching efforts – she realizes that with this many people (we’re easily over 60) speaking so many different languages (I counted Italian, French, Russian, Maltese, Accented English (British/American/Canadian), and Spanish for sure), showing is faster than talking. So she smartly switches to demonstration mode, and the teaching goes much faster.

Unlike our practice sessions at home, we are learning a lot of dances – and then ‘dancing’ them for a fairly short time before starting the next one. I thought it was great fun – Victor found the feedback pretty annoying.

There’s a break in the middle for some much needed lemonade and biscuits, then back to the grind stone to learn the last dances before we head out for dinner.

The Weekend Price is all included (except breakfast), so as a group of around 60 we walk to our dinner restaurant. It’s on the top floor of an old old building, well located overlooking the Grand Harbour of Valletta.

Like traditional hotels everywhere – there’s an elevator – sort of. But it’s slow and small. And there are 60 of us. I quickly do the math and decide that walking up 5 floors is going to be a lot faster than waiting for that elevator. And so it proves. I arrive in time to grab a table – outside but away from the wind – and Victor and I are quickly jointed by the Canadian Contingent – Sebastian and Elena, Peter and Miyoko. Several other dancers join us – and we make a jolly, if a bit cold, party! Bottles of wine later, we retire to our separate dwellings in Valletta, tired but happy. Tomorrow is going to be a very full, very busy day.

Signing off to prepare for a day of dancing, sight-seeing, and Regency fun – The Soup Lady