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

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

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

EB Hotel – Now that’s a shower…


This blog post is a continuation of the one about my almost aborted trip home from St. Croix in March. In case you’ve forgotten – our plane ran into a bird on it’s landing approach in St. Croix, and American had to ground the plane until a very expensive piece of equipment could be flown in from New York City. But there was no where for American to put the 200+ passengers in St. Croix – FEMA has taken almost all the housing. So they found a plane in Puerto Rico and flew it down to Miami. Clearly most/all of us will have missed our connecting flights!

I land in Miami, and no surprise here, join a long long line of my fellow travellers waiting for the American agents to re-book us. It’s not as if they didn’t KNOW we were coming – that they didn’t KNOW we’d missed our flights. You’d have thought, foolishly as it turns out, that there would be some kind of triage.

You already rebooked – so all you need is printed boarding passes and a hotel voucher. Oh – you haven’t rebooked yet – ok that will take more time.

Nope – didn’t happen. So instead we all stand in one LONG line, waiting our turn. At first (given that it’s after 11:00 PM), there are only two poor agents at the re-booking center. But as the line grows and grows, the number of agents dedicated to getting us taken care of increases. By my turn, there are 7 agents working, so the line is moving.

Since I already re-booked – it’s a print and ‘have a nice night’ meeting. The hotel voucher says EB Hotel – and I question the agent – EB? Never heard of it. He reassures me – it’s a nice one. And sends me on my way.

I leave the airport security area, and cross over to the ‘hotel’ shuttle waiting area. Standing with me are several of my fellow passengers – all of us slated to go to the same hotel. One guy smartly calls the hotel to check on the shuttle – to be told – it’s on it’s way.

Shuttle arrives – not large enough for everyone, but I’m lucky enough to score a seat, which I’m not giving up. I need to be back at the airport at 5:00 AM – and it’s now almost midnight. I don’t want to lose any more of my precious sleep.

My room at the EB is amazing. Seriously – I’ve stayed in some pretty high end places in my life, but this is probably the fanciest hotel shower system I have ever seen. I set my alarm for 4:00 AM – it’s too late now to shower – but I’m willing to wake up early to take advantage of it tomorrow.

About my shower. It’s a hoot! There are 4 different kinds of shower heads. A rain shower in the middle of the space – partly over the large stone ‘sitting’ area, a more standard shower head, 4 body jets that are serious about giving you a massage, and a handheld shower head. It’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys – and I’m having a blast turning every shower possibility on and off – playing with temperature, pressure, and position.

I’m having so much fun – I’m almost (but not quite) late to my 4:30 AM Shuttle back to the Miami airport.

After the excitement of the bird hitting the nose cone, the jet being flown in to St. Croix from San Juan to get us off the island, and the over-the-top fancy hotel shower – the trip on to Louisville, KY is just long and boring. Ah well – can’t have too much adventure at my age – probably bad for the digestion.

Signing off to sip her Illy Coffee – paid for by American Airlines – 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

Harmony of the Seas – The good, the bad, the interesting


Ever wanted to know exactly what it’s like to be on-board a truly massive Cruise Ship? Me too! And I just spent a week on board the Harmony of the Seas – and I’m ready to report the good, the bad, the dreadful, the interesting, the weird, the over-the-top about Royal Caribbean’s largest – and many might argue the fanciest – Ship.

First off – a disclaimer – I’m here as part of a Regional at Sea Bridge Tournament organized by Alice Travel and hosted by Larry Cohen – so I carefully have avoided visiting any of the islands we’ve stopped it. They simply aren’t that interesting in truth. And secondly – in most cases – I’ve been there – really toured that. So spending the time to go thru the formalities to dis-embark, spend an hour queuing in what can only be tourist traps, and then queuing again to get back on board is frankly unappealing.

And I’m not a casino buff. Don’t understand gambling and gamblers – and never will. So that’s pretty much a waste of space on the ship as far as I’m concerned.

But with those disclaimers out of the way – here’s my report.

First the Bad: The ship is huge – 6000+ guests, 2000+ crew. And while RC (Royal Caribbean) makes every effort to break things down so you aren’t aware of the simply massive numbers of people sharing this space with you, it still remains that they are here. And sometimes, it’s crowded. There are 4 banks of 8 elevators to ‘whisk’ folks from floor to floor – and yet it is often faster and more pleasant to just walk up and down the stairs. And we’re talking 16 floors here – not a short hop. But standing in an elevator box, even with a glassed in wall quickly grows dull when there are hoards of other folks crammed into the space with you. And these are not small elevators – the sign says max 24 people! I once counted 12 – and thought we doing a sardine impression…

Another bad thing – well, at least weird thing. The food is what can best be described as interesting. Occasionally they pull off a stunner – the rack of lamb last night was delicious. But generally it’s banquet cuisine – served to appear like it’s not a banquet. But I’m sure and certain that behind the scenes you’d find a bunch of tables, each pre-plated with the different meals. If you want to challenge your waiter – try asking for something – even something as simple as iceberg lettuce – that’s not on the menu. To fill that requirement, a chef (food preparer) has to leave his station and find a head of lettuce. They did it – but they let me know I was asking a lot…

Most of the restaurants that are ‘complimentary’ – ie: included in your fare – serve very similar food. And all but the massively huge dining room that stretches over 3 floors – and I’m thinking is capable of seating all 6000 guests in 2 seatings – are buffets. The idea from the cruise ship folks is to divide and conquer. And from the guest perspective – that works. We’ve taken to grabbing breakfast at the restaurant in the ‘Solarium’ – a sunny space at the bow of the ship. Crowded during the lunch break – but for breakfast, this place has generally smaller crowds and shorter lines. And while the food is rather basic, it works for me. Those eggs that come in a pouch and end up looking a bit like scrambled eggs (my travel buddy thinks they are from a powder.. I hope not), mounds of bacon, whole hams sliced to grab, Lox, boxes of cereals, and lots and lots of fruit. I will admit that the amount of fried things has been reduced from my last Ship experience – over 40 years ago.

Generally the food, while plentiful, is also fairly healthy. It’s not really fresh fruit – ie: no one is cutting up fruit for us to enjoy – it’s all that processed fruit pieces – but there is lots of it. And there’s lots of very delicious salad options.

The menu in the dinning room (white table cloth – pretend service) varies by day and I suspect repeats weekly. If you did this cruise over and over again – you’d die of menu boredom, but for one week – it works well. I already mentioned the Rack of Lamb (yum), but I do think having 5 services of Lobster tails on Lobster night might have been pushing the envelope. But they were good.

Not gourmet by any stretch of the imagination, but filling and wholesome.

The Interesting: Because of the sheer size, there is actually a fairly diverse crowd. There are kids, there are seniors on their scooters, there are teens, there are gals wearing bikinis that make me stare, and there are lots and lots of couples. There is also a fair slice of handicapped. One large group on our voyage is clearly deaf and dumb – and they are also clearly loving being on board. As for cultural diversity – it’s a fairly white bread kinda place – but there’s a goodly slice of folks from other cultures as well. Ladies in Kimonos walk the Promenade, Island folks can be seen here and there, and the number of different languages is pretty impressive.

The Best: Our room. My roomie had opted for a balcony Sea View room – and it’s awesome. Two twin beds, a nice size toilet with a fine shower, plenty of her/her storage space, and our balcony. You slide open the ‘window’, and there are two chaise lounges and a coffee table. And the most wonderful view. I spent almost every spare minute sitting on my chaise using my computer, and watching the ocean and sky slide by. One negative – you can not see the stars. The ship is so well lit – and we’re talking till well after midnight – that the night sky is a haze. Oh well. Not the biggest negative in the world.

The ok – actually – I’ll admit – the pretty good are the options for amusement. This ship has everything. Nightly theatre, a Nightly water show, comedy shows, swimming pools, Water slides, Surfing pools, More hot tubs than I can count, a kiddie splash area, a more adult splash area, an arcade, a casino, a boardwalk, Central Park, a promenade, shopping options, relaxing options, a jogging track that I love (a lap is a kilometre, .6 of a mile for you US folks), a full spa and exercise facility, a card room with computers and some books, endless options for kids including a giant spider web thingy. I mean – it’s surprisingly easy to forget you are on a ship there’s so many things to do that don’t even say ‘ship’ to me. And I’m on a bridge cruise – so we’re playing bridge 3 times a day. Colour me very very happy.

And on the daily news bulletin are more scheduled activities than you can do in a week – and that’s each day. Talks, lectures, games, you name it.

It’s amazing.

The best part – or the worst depending on your perspective – is the Promenade. This is a totally fake (think Disney without even the pretence at realism and a lot less polish) shopping/gathering area. It’s too clean, it’s too organized, it’s too fake for me, And unlike Disney where everything is perfect, things are just a bit shaky. Not everyone in the parade knows all the moves for instance. But folks love it. It’s safe, it’s protected, kids can run free – grannie won’t get trampled – and it’s fun. So while I have issues when I compare it to the ‘reality’ of St. Croix – most folks seem to be totally at peace with the complete artificiality of it. You aren’t going to see anything that’s going to upset you – no homeless, nothing uncomfortable. And the crew is going to be absolutely sure you have a wonderful time.

So – Good: Promenade, Activities, Our Room. Weird: The food. Bad: The size.

Did I have a good time? You bet. Will I do it again? Absolutely. I’ll have to watch my diet, avoid the too fat, too sweet options, dodge the crowds – and enjoy the positive aspects.

Bottom line – It’s a Hoot!