Out of the Closet on Parkinson’s

I was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in October 2018. My family and close friends have long known of my condition. But I have been reluctant to discuss Parkinson’s on my blog. I was concerned that potential consulting clients and board recruiters might be less willing to use my services if they knew I had a condition that could limit my mobility and potentially impair my cognitive abilities.

Parkinson’s disease is a progressive nervous system disorder that affects movement. Symptoms start gradually, sometimes starting with a barely noticeable tremor in just one hand. Tremors are common, but the disorder also commonly causes stiffness or slowing of movement.

Mayo Clinic

As Parkinson’s disease progresses patients may experience impaired posture and balance, their speech may become slurred and it may impact their cognitive abilities. There is no cure for Parkinson’s. Medication can control symptoms but are not able to slow the progression of the disease. Exercise to improve flexibility, balance, strength and speech appear to slow disease progression.

In Parkinson’s disease, certain nerve cells (neurons) in the brain gradually break down or die. Many of the symptoms are due to a loss of neurons that produce a chemical messenger in your brain called dopamine. When dopamine levels decrease, it causes abnormal brain activity, leading to impaired movement and other symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.

Mayo Clinic

Parkinson’s disease is very difficult to diagnose because symptoms develop slowly and are different for different individuals. For example, I have been formally diagnosed for about three and a half years but have never developed a tremor in a limb, which is widely seen as a key characteristic of Parkinson’s. For more than two-years before my Parkinson’s was diagnosed I was assessed and treated for back pain by my primary care doctor, an excellent Hopkins’ trained physician, an orthopedic surgeon and a chiropractor for stiffness in my back. None of these professionals recognized that I had Parkinson’s, even though the orthopedist and chiropractor specialize in back and muscle treatment and my primary care doctor has observe me for more than 10 years.

My first Parkinson’s diagnosis came at my 50th high school reunion when a former classmate, Mitchell Clionsky, PhD and his wife Dr. Emily Clionsky immediately saw my posture and gate as telltale signs of Parkinson’s. http://www.cns-neuro.com/DrClionsky.html. Emily wanted to write me a script for carbidopa/ levodopa on the spot so I could better enjoy my highschool reunion weekend. But I elected to wait and see my personal physician when I returned home. He found the diagnosis credible, referred me to a general neurologist who confirmed the diagnosis, provided a basic initial drug regimen and referred me to a motor disease specialist.

In the three and a half years since my Parkinson’s diagnosis my motor disease specialist (Dr. Stephen Reich) has prescribed and adapted a medication regimen that keeps my symptoms well under control most of the time, using four different medications at present. I have used a physical therapist and a speech therapist, both with lots of experience with Parkinson’s patients, and I have joined the Rock Steady Boxing Program. Rock Steady is specifically designed for Parkinson’s patients and offered without charge in Maryland by the Maryland Alliance for Parkinson’s Support (MAPS). I also took a battery of cognitions tests shortly after my formal diagnosis, at Mitch’s recommendation, so my care givers and I would have a base line from wish to measure changes in cognition as my disease progresses.

During a typical week I do three or four hour-long boxing/intense cardio workouts, an hour of yoga, and walk 1 -2 miles or play 9 holes of golf one or two times per week, weather permitting. Since beginning my exercise regimen I have lost 0ver 30 pounds, dropped six inches from my waist and am much stronger and more fit than I have been in many years. The boxing program, in particular, and associated Parkinson’s targeted exercise has improved my posture and my balance and is important for keeping my Parkinson’s symptoms under control. We continued boxing on line during COVID and course are now split two days per week in the gym and two on line. We are in temporary gym space now but hope to have improve long term gym space later this year.

My symptoms are largely unchanged since I have been diagnosed. But, as anyone with Parkinson’s knows, can occasionally flare up between medication dosages or if you eat something (usually protein) that interferes with your medication being absorbed or experience some stress that may aggravate your symptoms. After living with your illness and working with your motor disease specialist, you can develop tools to manage these situations.

Next – Building A Parkinson’s Care Team

Benefits of Retirement Center Living

I thought a letter to the editor published in the Wall Street Journal on November 11, 2021 from Jane Shaw Stroup contained a number of good insights on retirement center living from someone whose husband had recently died after the couple spent five years in a community. Jane Shaw Stroup is a retired nonprofit executive and her husband, Richard L. Stroup, was an economist. The couple moved into a retirement community in Raleigh, N.C. in 2017.

Key points in Mrs. Stroup’s letter include:

Experience was mixed but generally a good one.

Your friends are close by, with was important during the depths of COVID pandemic. A small group of us met once week for wine and snacks during the pandemic.

A retirement center has some resemblance to a college dorm, but that a good thing. You are able to meet people at meals, exercise classes, lectures and clubs.

Having gym and a restaurant downstairs makes life easier.

Retirement centers are full of people who have experienced long, interesting lives – lots of opportunities for good conversation.

Emptying the contents of one’s home and selling it are poignant experience but leaving the process to one’s children may not be the right approach.

A retirement community can only succeed if it has caring staff who tolerate the foibles of older people. We were never reprimanded or chided by the staff even though we did some stupid things, like forgetting to push the button each morning to let staff know you are okay.

A retirement center is a place where you don’t have to be smarter or younger than you are. And a place where many friends can ease the loss of a spouse.

Pandemic, Lockdowns, Election Denial Getting You Down – Try Fondue

My wife and I actually have two fondue pots. I thought they were both presents from our 1977 wedding, but my wife says one if from my first marriage in 1972 and the other from my mother when she downsized in the 90s. Regardless of their lineage, we have not used either fondue pot for at least 10 years while they sat on top of one of our kitchen cabinets, retrievable only with a step ladder.

Like all Americans we have been primarily dining at home since the Coronavirus first appeared in March and are getting tired of staying in. The end of daylight’s saving time and the arrival of early evening darkness and colder weather, limiting outdoor dining, have further circumscribed our daily activity.

While shopping last week, I came across a prepackaged fondue cheese mix and, on a whim, thought I would try it. Remarkably, we still had Sterno, which apparently lasts forever if sealed, to power one of the fondue pots and were able to find our fondue skews.

Last night, on a cold, windy and snowy evening in Baltimore we tried fondue, dipping bread, vegetables and fruit into our prepackaged fondue cheese accompanied by a pinot noir. It was a cozy, warm, tasty dinner and a nice diversion from our routine. Based on a recent news report that red wine and cheese are good for you, you can even try to convince yourself its healthy. We are likely to do fondue again. Next time we plan to make our own fondue cheese mix from scratch. The constant in most recipes is gruyere with cheddar, fontina and other cheeses, plus white wine and some seasoning.

So if the pandemic and lockdowns and rigged election claims are depressing you, be happy and make some fondue. I even have an extra fondue pot I can let you have.

Adjusting To Retirement

I will turn 70 next month. I have been semi-retired for five years and fully retired from my last full-time employer for three years. I find a number of my close friends, who elected to keep working after age 65, are now shifting to full or partial retirement at age 70 and I thought I would share with readers of this blog some of the advice I have been informally providing to friends.

For high achieving Baby Boomers with well established careers, it is scary to think of giving up a career in which you are still investing more than 40 hours per week, which provides status and professional recognition, and which is the nexus for many of your social relationships. A number of my friends are very concerned about how they will fill their time post-retirement.

I was fortunate in being able to cut back with my full-time employer, from working 50+ hours per week as a stock analyst covering seniors housing and care stocks and healthcare REITs to working 20 hours per week in investment banking focusing on business development and providing input on industry trends and corporate strategy for M&A transactions and capital raises. This step-down in time, together with a shift in my responsibilities, kept me productively engaged while allowing me to ease into retirement. I believe employers today are more open to these types of arrangements but, based on feedback from friends, this seems to work less well for law firms and other employers that bill by the hour.

When I ceased working as an investment banker part-time for my long-time employer – Stifel Nicolaus, it was my choice to end the relationship. I was spurred to retire by my older brother’s death, which increased my desire to enjoy more of life while I was still healthy. However, I still wanted to remain professionally engaged post-retirement, so I set up Robust Retirement, LLC as a vehicle though which I could provide consulting services with a liability shield and set up this blog to allow me a platform from which to comment on industry issues. Setting up and maintaining an LLC and a web blog is not very difficult. In the years since I fully retired, I have done a number of consulting assignments through my LLC and served on the Board of Directors at the publicly traded healthcare REIT – Quality Care Properties.

My advice to pending retirees or those contemplating retirement.

  • Don’t do too much pre-planning of your time in retirement or make a lot of commitments.
  • Take some time to clear your head and reflect on what’s really important to you.
  • Observe and talk with friends and neighbors about how they transitioned to retirement and what they like and dislike.
  • Dabble – take some courses, try some organizations and see what you like before you commit.
  • Avoid getting over committed to too many volunteer organizations or projects. It’s okay to say no – my own rule is no more than one board or major volunteer assignment at a time.
  • Free, unstructured time is okay.
  • Commit to an exercise regime. Vigorous exercise is one of the few things that can extend your good health. My current program includes boxing/intensive cardio twice a week, yoga and tai chi each once a week, weight training once or twice a week and golf once or twice a week now that the weather is turning warm.
  • Consider a move to a condo before or shortly after you retire unless you really enjoy yard work. My wife and I moved to a high rise condo with a doorman and valet parking. One story living with someone to help with deliveries will allow us to stay in our current home for many more years and, if you are looking for more than two bedrooms in a well-located condo, these can be relatively hard to find.
  • Stay connected with professional colleagues – I belong to one professional association with a local chapter that keeps me connected and make a point of connecting to former colleagues for lunch or drinks from time to time.

Notice some things not included in the above list – buying a second home, relocating to a warming climate or lower tax state. These reflect my personal preferences. I don’t want the added work of maintaining two homes and prefer to remain in a location where we are closer to family and long-time friends.

We do travel a lot but that is not for everyone. This past winter, we traveled a week a month to someplace warm (Hilton Head, SC and the Caribbean) and over the last several years have traveled to Scandinavia, Israel, Northern Italy, Costa Rica, the Galapagos and more. A planned Spring trip to Japan was just cancelled by our tour operator but eventually the virus will pass and we will be on the road again.

Scandinavia Trip Mixed Cities & Scenic Fjords

My wife and I traveled to Scandinavia in late August 2019. The trip combined visits to Copenhagen, Oslo, Bergen and Norwegian fjords. We flew direct from Washington, Dulles to Copenhagen, where we spend five days. We took an overnight ferry from Copenhagen to Oslo, where we spent four days. We used trains and ferries to visit Sognefjord and Naeroyfjord, spending one night in Flam and one night in Balestrand. We then took a ferry from Balestrand to Bergen, where we spent one day and two nights before connecting with a flight in Copenhagen back to DC.

We were very impressed with Scandinavia. Clean, well planned cities with less income stratification and homelessness than you find in the U.S. The fjords are very picturesque and easy to visit with the Norway in a Nutshell route. Temperatures ranged from the mid-50s to low 70s, with very little rain, less than typical for late summer. It was already past the solstice but it was still light until after 9 pm in late August.

Like a number of our recent trips, we had our travel agent work with a local tour company to plan a trip just for us, with tour guides and outings scheduled throughout the trip but also free time for us to do as we liked on our own schedule. We stayed at very good hotels and enjoyed some excellent meals.

Copenhagen

Copenhagen is a city of 600,000, where a third of the residents reportedly bike to work. Flat terrain, abundant dedicated bike lanes and bikes everywhere make that figure believable. The city is located on a body of water connecting the North and Baltic Seas, covers several islands and has a number of canals. It is connected to Sweden by a bridge/tunnel and, together with Malmo, Sweden across the bridge, is part of the largest metropolitan region in Scandinavia – the Oresund.

We arrived in Copenhagen on Monday morning, August 19, 2019 and had a boat tour of the city on our first day, which is an easy and pleasant way to get an overview of the City. A number of castles and important institutions, such as the opera house and national theatre, are located on the water.

Opera House from tourboat
Amalienborg Palace
Modern Apartment in Christianshavn

On our first full day in Copenhagen we took a guided walking tour that brought us to a number of historic sites. Our hotel, the Skt Petri (Saint Peter) was centrally located in the historic core of Copenhagen, convenient to pedestrian shopping streets, a transit hub and many historic sites.

Pedestrian Street
Rosenborg Castle and King’s Garden
Our Copenhagen Guide in front of National Museum

On our second full day in Denmark we met a guide/driver to take us to the Fredensborg Castle, the largest Renaissance residence in Scandinavia when it was built, and the Louisiana Art Museum, which are both located north of Copenhagen. Fredensborg is impressive, despite having been sacked on at least one occasion, and has very attractive grounds. The private Louisiana Museum has a great setting overlooking the straight to Sweden and a large permanent collection and interesting temporary exhibits of modern art.

Fredensborg Castle
Calder sculpture at Louisiana Museum with Sweden in backgound

For our remaining time in Copenhagen we were on our own, equipped by our tour company with the Copenhagen Card that provides free train and transit travel and free admission to most attractions. Over our remaining three days we visited the Great Synagogue, the Jewish Museum designed by Daniel Lebeskind, took a day trip to Roskilde to see the Viking Ship Museum and Roskilde Cathedral, and explored the city, its parks and museums.

Ark – Great Synagogue
Jewish Museum
Viking Ship Museum
Tivoli Garden Carousel

We enjoyed both the upscale and everyday food scene in Copenhagen with some of our favorites being Restaurant Barr by the famous Noma operators, Kodbyens Fiskebar in the now trendy meatpacking district and the modest Cafe Halvvejen located near our hotel.

Halibut from Kodbyens Fiskebar
Cafe Halvvejen

Oslo

We were unable to book one of the large staterooms on the overnight DFDS ferry from Copenhagen to Oslo but our cabin had two lower berths with a window and we managed to fit in us and our luggage. Our Oslo city tour guide met us at the pier, helped us get a cab to our hotel and waited while we checked in and freshened up before beginning our tour. Because we arrived in Oslo Sunday morning, the city was quiet and some attractions were closed. Rather than take us to some of the major museums and tourist sites, our guide showed us parts of the city we might not have seen on our own including the increasingly trendy Gruner Lokka neighborhood. She also showed us a nice sweater shop, one of the few stores open Sunday.

Aker Brygge waterfront with new modern art museum, apartments, offices and hotels

Our hotel in Oslo was the Continental, was very nice and in a great location near City Hall, the National Theatre, Royal Palace, a major transit up and Aker Brygge, a portion of the harbor with many restaurants and tour boat docks. The tour company provided us with an Oslo pass providing free transit access and admission to many museums and tourist sites. We also discovered that the Apple Maps App connects to the City’s transit system and provides information on which bus, tram and metro routes to take to reach specific locations including arrival times for metro trains and trams. This makes using the transit system in Oslo a breeze.

We planned our touring in Oslo around museum schedules, since some are closed on Monday. We visited the Holocaust Center and Norwegian Folk Museum, Munch Museum, Botanical Garden and City Hall, Vigeland Park and Museum and explored parts of downtown and the waterfront. Oslo is hillier than Copenhagen so using transit is easier than walking or biking.

The Scream – Munch Museum
Church – Norwegian Folk Museum
City Hall

Out tour guide directed us to some traditional Norwegian restaurants in Oslo. The Stortorvets Gjaestgiveri near the Catholic Cathedral had good food and is in an historic building with an interior courtyard.

Mussels at Trortorvets Gjaestgiveri

The Fjords

Norway in Nutshell is a group of rail and ferry connections that allow visits to Sognefjord and other fjords ranging from a day trip to multi-day stays out of Bergen or Oslo. We opted for a train from Oslo to Myrdal for a connection to the Flamsbana train that descends steeply into the Sognefjord at Flam, a private boat tour of Sognefjord and Naeroyfjord out of Flam, a ferry from Flam to Balestrand and a ferry from Balestrand to Bergen. We stayed one night in Flam at the Fretheim Hotel and one night in Balestrand at the Kviknes Hotel. This allowed us time for a more extensive exploration of the fjords via our boat tour and multiple ferry trips and a chance to explore both Flam and Balestrand to get a feel for village life on the fjords. The Fretheim and Kviknes are both interesting old hotels but truthfully there is little to see or do in Flam and Balestrand other than look at the fjord.

Kjosfossen Waterfall on Flambana train route
Sognefjord from Balestand
Sognefjord from Kviknes Hotel, Balestrand
Farm in Balestrand

Bergen

Bergen has less than half the population of Copenhagen and Oslo and is located on steep slopes on a North Sea fjord with water on three sides. It has been an important trading center since the 15th century when it was part of the Germanic Hanseatic League and has some remaining buildings dating from this period. Due to its location near the north sea and the surrounding mountains it gets the most rain of any city we visited on we experienced everything from heavy showers to bright sunshine during our one full day in the city.

In Bergen we stayed at the Opus XVI hotel, which is in an attractive former bank building close to the harbor. The hotel was redeveloped by the family of composer Edvard Greig.

Bergen From Top of Funicular
Hanseatic Warehouses Converted To Shops & Restaurants, Bergen
Bergen Residential Street
Traditional Norwegian Costumes
Skin Fried Mountain Trout at Bryggeloftet & Stuene

Trip To Israel Was Great Family Experience

In June 2019 my wife, son, daughter-in-law and I vacationed for 10 days in Israel. My wife, son and I had last been to Israel 20 years ago and my daughter-in-law had never previously visited. We flew from Washington’s Dulles airport to Israel via Frankfurt and had a direct return flight from Israel to Washington.

As we have done with a number of our recent trips, we used an experienced U.S. based travel agent working with an in-country tour operator, in this case Mabat Platinum Touring Services, Ltd., to develop a customized tour for us. The tour company arranged for our own guide/driver and minivan, arranged hotels, admissions to most sites we visited, some guided tours, and some meals. They provided us with restaurant and touring suggestions for days and times when we were on out own. The tour company also arranged for two people to meet us at our gate on arrival to accompany us through immigration and customs and to get us through check-in to our gate on our departure. This significantly shortened the time and anxiety typically associated with arrivals and departments in foreign countries and is something I would recommend to anyone traveling to Israel.

Our itinerary started in Tel Aviv where we stayed three nights. We arrived in the early evening. We toured the beach near our hotel and had dinner before going to bed early. Our first full day in Israel was on our own, which allowed us to get over jet lag at our own pace. We visited the Nahalet Benjamin Art and Craft Fair and spent the afternoon at our hotel pool and on the beach. On our second full day we were met by our guide to tour Jaffe, the original Neve Zedak neighborhood of Tel Aviv, eat some falafel for lunch and visit the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which has a very good modern art wing and interesting collection of Israeli art. That evening we dined at a very nice restaurant in the Old Port area of Tel Aviv called the Kitchen Market. Our hotel in Tel Aviv was the Carlton, which is right on the beach, offered large rooms with balconies and very good service. Our room included a large breakfast buffet served at the hotel’s beach club overlooking the water.

Beach in Tel Aviv Looking South Toward Jaffa

On day four we checked out of our hotel in Tel Aviv and went up the coast, visiting the Roman/King Herod era Caesarea, Haifa, Crusader developed Akko and Nazareth before arriving at our hotel in the Galilee, the Pastoral in Kfar Blum Kibbutz. Caesarea has a well-preserved Roman aqueduct, theatre, arena and temples along with the ruins of King Herod’s palace by the sea. It also contains a mosque and remains of later Crusader defensive walls and shops and restaurants serving the tourists.

Roman Aqueduct in Caesarea

In Haifa we stopped briefly to see the spectacular Bahai Shrine and Gardens and take in panoramic views of the city from Mt. Carmel.

Bahai Shrine and Garden

In Akko we visited the Crusader fortress and tour Arab markets in the city. The Fortress was used as a prison during the British Mandate and was the site of a dramatic jailbreak by the Irgun. Today it serves as a museum and event venue. We had an excellent seafood lunch at El Marsa in Akko, which the Wall Street Journal had recommended.

Barramundi at El Marsa

We combined touring both Jewish and Christian religious site on our trip, visiting the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. It is a church located over Mary’s home in Nazareth that has been built, destroyed and rebuilt many times. Today’s Basilica is a modern building featuring large murals and art contributed from Christian communities around the world. It has an opening in the where you can descend to see the remains of Mary’s house and pray in front of it. There is reportedly some actual archeological evidence that it is the house where Mary lived.

Basilica of the Annunciation

The Hotel Pastoral in Kfar Blum is a modest hotel with rooms in pods spread across a fairly large property with a central restaurant and reception area. The property is located in northern Israel, close to the Lebanese border and the Golan Heights. Meals served buffet style was plentiful and kosher but nothing to write home about.

Tel Dan Israel Gate

The next day we toured the Dan Nature Preserve, which includes the one of the headwaters of the Jordan River and Tel Dan, an extensive and important archeological site once settled by the Jewish tribe of Dan. Much of the Preserve is green and fed from active underground springs with the historical site located on higher, dryer ground with views into Syria. The most important find at the site is the only archeological reference to King David and the House of David. The site also has a temple built by the King of the Northern Kingdom that featured a golden calf and was intended as an alternative to the Temple in Jerusalem.

The following day we toured the Golan Heights, visiting a memorial to defenders who resisted the attacked of nearly 1,500 Syrian tanks long enough for reinforcements to arrive and Mt. Bental Volcano where you can see old fortifications and look into Syria. We also visited the Assaf Family Estate Winery and Kibbutz Ortal where we stopped for lunch. What turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip was dinner in the home of a Druze family in the Golan Heights village of Majdal Shamss. We had an excellent meat and learned about the Druze religion and culture, which is a offshoot of Islam.

Druze Dinner

On Tuesday, June, 11, 2019 we visit Tzfat or Safed, the center of Jewish mysticism and a community filled with synagogues and yeshivahs along with galleries and artist studios. In Tzfat, like in Jerusalem, you can feel the religious spirit of the place.

Lane in Tzfat

Continuing south from Tzfat with had lunch at a Arab schwarma restaurant on the shore of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee) and visited a historic synagogue in Beit Alfa with a 5th century mosaic floor. In the evening we entered Jerusalem where we stayed at the Mamilla Hotel, which adjoins a large shopping mall of the same name and is close to the Jaffa gate into the Old City. We had dinner at Eucalyptus, which was highly rated but where we found the food so so and the service dreadful.

On out first full day in Jerusalem, we received an overview of the Old City from an overlooked on the Mt. of Olives and toured on foot. It was a long, exhausting but rewarding day. We saw the reported site of the last supper, yeshivahs and synagogues, walked through the Jewish quarter where the old Roman road, the Cardo has been excavated, visit the Western Wall and Western Wall tunnels and walked the Via Dolorosa and toured the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In the evening we dined a Satya, an excellent restaurant.

Praying at the Western Wall
Church of the Holy Sepulchre

The next day we toured new Jerusalem with a docent led tour of the Yad Vashem museum, a visit to the Mehane Yehuda market and the Kennesset. We were impressed by the Moshe Safdie designed museum at Yad Vashem. That evening and a light supper in the Mall, we saw a light and sound show in the King David town in the old city, which was technically impressive but which lacked much of a storyline.

On Friday June 14th we visited Masada and the Dead Sea. Masada, the castle and fortress complex built by King Herod on top of a stone monolith is where 960 Jewish zealots who revolted against the Romans chose to commit suicide rather than be captured after a long siege. The remains of Masada and of the fortifications and siege lines built by the Romans are still visible today.

Masada from cable car station

The Dead Sea, where we covered ourselves with mud the cleanse our skin and floated in the salt-thickened waters on a private beach was fund for all.

Floating on the Dead Sea

On Friday evening we returned to our hotel and said goodbye to our guide, Avi Cohen, who did a great job explaining what we saw and putting it in a historical and geographic context. We dined at Chakra, another excellent restaurant.

We were on our own in our final day in Jerusalem and spent much of it at the Jewish Museum, where we toured the archeological and Jewish collections, had lunch, saw the Dead Sea scrolls and a large model of Jerusalem. We had a light supper at the rooftop lounge in out hotel watching the sun set over the Old City of Jerusalem before heading to the airport for our 12:20 am flight.

Old City from Mamilla Hotel

Customized Tour of Northern Italy Was Great Experience

My wife and I spent nearly three weeks touring northern Italy in September and early October 2018.   As was the case with several of our recent vacations, we used a travel agent working with a in-country tour operator to design a customized tour for the two of us rather than joining a group.  The Italian tour operator we worked with was Olive Tree Escapes, which has an office in Chicago.

This was our third trip to Italy and was designed to allow us to see parts of the county we had not visited before, see great art and have some time to relax and immerse ourselves in Italian culture.   We visited Venice, Bologna which we used as a base for a number of day trips, Lake Como and Milan.  Our day trips from Bologna included Ravenna, Florence, Ferrara and the Emilia Romagna countryside.

Logistics

We flew direct from Philadelphia to Venice on American Airlines and returned from Venice to Philadelphia on another direct flight.   If we had returned from Milan, we would have had to take a connecting flight to reach Philadelphia.   For travel between major cities in Italy we used the excellent high speed rail service, the Frecciarossa, that travels up to 185 miles per hour with a much smoother ride than Acela service in the U.S.    For shorter day-trips out of Bologna we used slower but still comfortable and efficient regional train service.   It is possible to reserve trains and get tickets from the U.S. over the Internet.  We used the national rail service, Trenitalia.  A private rail company, .Italio, now offers competitive and sometimes lower priced service on some routes and it may be worth checking on this option.    Our tour company arranged for transfers to and from the airport and the major inter-city train stations in cities we visited.

Venice

There are no cars, buses or taxis in the central parts of Venice. Getting from Venice’s Marco Polo airport to the old city included a car service from the airport terminal to a water taxi and porter, a water taxi ride up the Grand Canal to a dock near our hotel and a walk from the dock to our hotel with our porter.  We stayed at the Londra Palace located on the waterfront promenade facing the Canale di San Marco, a few blocks from Piazza San Marco, the center of Venice.  This is an ideal location, close to the main tourist sites with canal views and vaparetto (Venice’s water bus) docks located just across from the front of the hotel.   Even though we booked well in advance we were unable to get a deluxe room with a canal view but our room was comfortable, big enough for two and well appointed.   Our room came with complementary breakfast served on the first floor with the option of eating outside facing the canal. Service at the Londra Palace was excellent and we would definitely recommend the hotel.

Grand Canal

On the day we arrived in Venice we walked through Piazza San Marco and explored parts of central Venice on foot, visiting Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari Church, which feature altarpieces and artwork by Titian, Bellini and Tiziano.   Our first full day in the city we toured the Basilica San Marco and the Doge’s Palace, for which a guide that can help you avoid the long lines is a worthwhile investment.  Other highlights of our visit to Venice included a guided tour of the Peggy Guggenheim Collection of modern art, touring the Academia museum, a visit to the Jewish ghetto where we toured several synagogues and visiting a European Crafts Fair at San Giorgio Maggiore.  Our tour company arranged a gondola ride for us one evening in Venice, which was very short and a bit of a disappointment.  If I was doing it again, I would find and negotiate my own gondola ride.  We ate well in Venice but favored small, local restaurants recommended by our guides or hotel.  We did splurge on aperitifs at the Caffe Florian on Piazza San Marco.

Gondoliers
St. Mark’s Square

Bologna

We picked Bologna, which is much less of a tourist destination than Venice, Florence or Milan more for its location as a base from which to explore Ravenna and Florence than for any other reason. But we found Bologna to be a delightful city featuring great food, the oldest university in Europe, attractive streets with covered arcades and good shopping options.   We stayed for a week in an apartment in Bologna located mid-way between the train station and the main square just off Via dell’ Indipendenza.    We took a walking food tour in Bologna with stops at a chocolate shop, charcuterie, pasta restaurant, bakery and gelateria, which were all great.    We also did a food tour of the Emiglia Romagna countryside to see Parmigiano Reggiano, Balsamic Vinegar and Parma Ham being made, with a stop for lunch at a vineyard restaurant.  When planning the trip we thought two food tours were excessive but we very much enjoyed them both.  We also explored the center of Bologna including historic buildings of the University of Bologna, founded in 1088.

Deli Shop Window
Making Parmigiano Reggiano
Library University of Bologna

 One of the nice things about staying in an apartment versus a hotel, in addition to having a washer and dryer, is the ability to have meals on your own.   The owner of the apartment we rented directed us to groceries and salumerias.  We ate simple breakfasts of yogurt and coffee and had two dinners in, one of fresh pasta with pesto and salad and one of cheese, charcuterie and bread with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

Restaurant near our apartment in Bologna

Florence

We took a day trip from Bologna to Florence, only 35 minutes by train, to visit the Uffizi Gallery, the Bargello and Pitti Palace. We had spent time in Florence on a previous trip to Italy, so it was an easy choice for us to focus on the art rather than exploring the City. It is essential to make reservations in advance to tour the Uffizi and the Pitti Palace and at the Uffizi you will still wait in a long line to enter near when your timed-ticket indicates. The Uffizi is one of the world’s great museums and it is well worth putting up with the large crowds to see its collection. In Florence, we had cappuccino and breakfast at an outdoor cafe, a nice lunch in wine bar overlooking the Arno River but ended up having dinner in the train station because our train back to Bologna was 90 minutes late. Due to a problem with the tracks north of Rome, all of the trains running south to north were delayed.

Ponte Vecchio from Uffizi window

Ravenna

Ravenna dates to the 2nd century BC, when the Romans colonized the Po River Valley. It served as a major port and naval station for Caesar Augustus, was the capital of the western Roman empire and the capital for barbarian kings Odoacer and Theodoric. The magnificent mosaics found in Ravenna today combine Byzantine, Arian and Roman Christian influences.

Ravenna is a flat, compact and very walkable city and we toured the city and a number of its churches with a private guide. It was a highlight of our trip and a place you could spend more than a day. Ravenna was a high priority for my wife, who is an art museum docent, but both of us really enjoyed the mosaics and the city.

Mosaics in Basilica di San Vitale

Ferrara

Ferrara is only 20 – 30 minutes from Bologna by trains and was recommended to us as a pleasant city with a strong Jewish heritage. The city seemed pleasant enough and has a very interesting castle but all of the Jewish sites were closed for renovation when we visited and we we were a bit disappointed. We did not have a guide in Ferrara, which may have also caused us to miss some things.

Lake Como

Lake Como is simply gorgeous. We stayed in Varenna on the eastern shore of the lake, which is only a little more than an hour’s very scenic drive from Milan’s central station. We chose Varenna because Rick Steves recommends it as a base and were very pleased with our choice. We stayed at the delightful Villa Cipressi hotel, which is right on the lake, features it own botanical gardens and is only a short walk to the main square.

While on Lake Como, we took our own private boat tour of the Lake that included stops at Bellagio and Villa del Balbianello and cruising past a number of towns and villa’s including George Clooney’s. We also spent a day exploring Varenna and one day lounging on the grounds of our hotel and the Villa Monastero, which is right next door. We had meals at restaurants overlook the main square with its historic churches or overlooking the lake.

Our hotel Villa Cipressi
Sunset over Lake Como from our hotel window

Milan

We really had only one reason to visit Milan – to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. This requires advance booking and usually booking with a guided group. Seeing the Last Supper was a great experience but it is a highly regimented and short visit. At your appointed time, your guide gives you background while you wait on the plaza outside the refectory of the Santa Maria della Grazie Church, where the painting is located. You then enter an anteroom where the humidity is adjusted before you enter the room housing the painting. Each group only gets 15 minutes to view the painting and for this year preparatory sketches for the Last Supper from the collection of the British Royal Family. While the Last Supper began deteriorating from almost the moment it was completed because of the technique da Vinci chose to use, has suffered through bad and good restoration and has very muted colors today, it is still a painting of immense power and a masterful work of art.

While our focus in Milan was the Last Supper, we spent a day and a half and two nights in the City. Our hotel, the Sina Hotel de la Ville, was nondescript but pleasant and well-located. While in Milan we visited the La Scala opera house and museum on our own and did some shopping in and around the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade, a 19th century high-end mall that remind us of GUM in Moscow. We also took a guided tour of Milan’s Duomo, which is a grand while lace-like Italian Gothic Cathedral.

Milan Duomo
Duomo Dome
Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

We also ate two very good meals in Milan, one in the restaurant hotel and one in a restaurant called Restaurante Da Bruno, which is located in a brutalist Fascist-era building a couple of blocks off the main Piazza del Duomo. The waiter did not speak English so he brought out a large basket of freshly harvested porcini mushrooms to convey his recommendation and the pasta with mushrooms were great.

History, Nature, Art & Good Food In The Hudson River Valley

In the second week of July my wife and I spent 5 days on vacation in the Hudson River Valley.   It is a place several friends and family members have visited and recommended and it is reachable from our home in Baltimore in a 4 – 5 hour drive.   Our primary interest was in visiting Franklin Roosevelt’s home, museum and library in Hyde Park, NY near Poughkeepsie but there are a broad range of attractions and accommodations on both sides of the River between Westchester County north of New York City and Albany.

We found very attractive accommodations on the west side of the river in Milton, NY at the Buttermilk Falls Inn and Spa.  The Inn is located on a 75 acre site overlooking the Hudson bisected by a stream with a small waterfall and several ponds with ducks, geese and swans.    Accommodations include a main house dating to 1764 with 10 rooms and a number of houses and cottages.   Breakfast is included and there is a very nice farm-to-table restaurant on (Henry’s), as well as event space, including a great outdoor wedding venue overlooking the Hudson.  A farm and animals provide food for the restaurant and another diversion for guests.   There is an exercise room, indoor pool and spa.   We stayed in the Sage Right room in the main house, which comes with a queen bed, gas fireplace, refrigerator, patio with views of the Hudson and bath with combination whirlpool tube and shower.    The room was attractively furnished with antiques but a bit cluttered with limited closet and drawer space.    There was no way to control the air-conditioning temperature in the room and we ended up having to run the gas fireplace to maintain the room temperature as a reasonable level – nothing environmentally conscious in that.

Buttermilk Falls Inn From Our Patio

We ate at Henry’s, the on-site farm to table restaurant, our first night and liked it so well that we ended up having light suppers two additional nights during our stay.   Both the food and the wait staff at the restaurant were excellent and the menu offers lots of appetizer/small plate options as well as substantial entrees and different white, red and rose sangria nightly.  The owners of Buttermilk Falls also own a bakery and cafe, called Frieda’s, a few miles from the Inn on Milton’s main street.   It provides the baked goods for the Inn and Henry’s and also offers good breakfast, lunch and take away/picnic options.

We maintained an active but measured pace during our trip, blending visits to historic, natural, and art attractions and the Culinary Institute of America with time at the Inn for afternoon tea, reading and relaxation.   We spent more than half a day on our first full day visiting Franklin Roosevelt’s home, Springwood https://www.nps.gov/hofr/index.htm, and the adjoining Presidential Library and Museum https://fdrlibrary.org.    The house is large but surprisingly modest and comfortable compared to other Gilded Age mansions.   The library and museum, the first Presidential library, were designed by Roosevelt himself and have excellent exhibits chronicling Roosevelt’s life as well as housing his personal study and being a repository for Presidential archives.   The museum exhibits are very well designed and many are interactive.

Springwood

Day two we parked on the western approach to Walkway Over The Hudson and crossed the world’s longest elevated pedestrian bridge spanning 1.28 miles over the Hudson River http://walkway.org/visit/.    The bridge is a converted rail span built in the nineteenth century. The walkway is free of charge and provides great views up and down river with the east end landing in Poughkeepsie, which offers some restaurant options.    You can enter and exit the walkway at-grade on both sides of the  River and there are also elevator and stair options on the Poughkeepsie side but the elevator to the Poughkeepsie waterfront wasn’t working the day we visited.   Information panels along the walkway acquaint visitors with the River and the history of the bridge and the area.

Mid Hudson Bridge From Walkway Over The Hudson

Day three we drove south to Storm King Art Center, a 500 acre sculpture park located in Cornwall, NY https://stormking.org/about/.   Storm King offers a vast array of monumental and smaller sculpture on an attractive rolling site.   We very much enjoyed and were impressed by the art but believe Storm King should offer more tram service options to help visitors get around.   A tram circulates through the site but only about once an hour. We walked more than two miles and by no means saw all of the sculpture.   More frequent tram circulation and shuttles between parking, dining, and shop/museum locations so you can concentrate your walking to see the art would make Storm King much more accessible to visitors.    There is a bike rental option that you may want to try but we did not discover it until we were on our way back to our car.   If you visit, be prepared to walk and bring water and sun protections with you.

Zhang Huan – Three Legged Budda

Ronald Bladen – Untitled

Alexander Lieberman – Adonai

Alexander Calder – The Arch

Day four we returned to Hyde Park to tour Val-Kill https://www.nps.gov/elro/index.htm, Eleanor Roosevelt’s cottage home and we also visited Top Cottage, Franklin’s personal retreat https://www.nps.gov/hofr/planyourvisit/top-cottage.htm.  The Roosevelt home, Springwood, Val-Kill and Top Cottage are all administered by the National Park Service.   A visitor’s center and the Roosevelt Library and Museum adjoin Springwood but Val-Kill and Top Cottage are located on separate nearby sites.   You can drive yourself or take a shuttle bus to Val-KIll from the visitors center but Top Cottage is only reachable by a strenuous 1.5 mile hike from Val-KIll or by shuttle.  Val-KIll was acquired by the National Park Service at the time of the bicentennial and is dedicated to Eleanor Roosevelt personal accomplishments, not her role as First Lady.   Val-KIll offers attractive grounds, a small gift shop and welcome center, an orientation film about Eleanor’s life and a tour of several rooms in Val-Kill and the adjoining Stone Cottage, which also houses some exhibits.   We very much enjoyed our visit to Val-Kill but it’s offerings are much more modest than those of Springwood and the Roosevelt Library and Museum.

Val-Kill Stream and Pond

Top Cottage was designed by Franklin Roosevelt to be his retreat after completion of his second term and only saw limited use as he went on to serve a third and a portion of a fourth term as President.    It has almost no original furnishings and the volunteer docent who we toured with had only limited information to offer on the property.    Top Cottage is only open limited hours and should not be a high priority for a visit.    We got there by hiking a somewhat steep and rocky trail from Val-Kill but arrived in time to catch a tour and were able to return to Val-KIll on the shuttle.

Top Cottage – Rear Porch

Two nights during our visit to the Hudson River Valley we dined at restaurants operated on campus by the Culinary Institute  of America (CIA).   Advanced reservation, best made exactly 30 days in advance, are a must and can be done on OpenTable.com.   The CIA operates five restaurants, four of which are open for dinner – American Bounty with a focus on the seasons and products of the Hudson Valley, Bocuse a French restaurant named for the most famous chef in France, Paul Bocuse, Ristorante Caterina de’ Medici and Al Forno Trattoria offering authentic regional Italian cuisine and Post Road Brew House http://www.ciarestaurantgroup.com/new-york-restaurants/.    We tried both American Bounty and Bocuse but preferred Bocuse, which is a bit more upscale and where we had a table next to the glass enclosed kitchen.   A signature item at Bocuse is lavender ice cream made fresh at your table using liquid nitrogen to deliver hand-churned ice cream in only about five minutes.

Desserts Accompanying Ice Cream At Bocuse

Making Lavender Ice Cream at Bocuse

Pike At American Bounty

Duck at American Bounty

Dessert At American Bounty

There is a lot more to see and do in the Hudson River Valley including wineries, local farms, cute small towns, cruising the river and West Point but we intentionally did not try and squeeze too much in so we had time to relax and enjoy the picturesque setting as well as tour some sites.

 

Costa Rica – Great Vacation For Active Travelers & Retirement Option for Many

My wife and I visited Costa Rica from January 6 – 15, 2018.   It is a remarkable country both politically and naturally.   A stable democracy surrounded by countries that have gone through political upheaval, dictatorship and civil war, Costa Rica abolished its army in 1948 and put the money into education and healthcare.   Only slightly above the equator, with long shorelines along the Caribbean and the Pacific and  with diverse typography, Costa has a remarkable diversity of climates, habitats, flora and fauna, with more species of birds in this tiny country than in all of North America.    After clearing much of its rainforests for grazing land and agriculture, Costa Rica began to restore it natural environment decades ago and is now a prime location for eco tourism, with much of the country designated as nature preserves.

Costa Rica also offers a very nice lifestyle and very friendly people, almost all of whom speak English.   The universal phrase is “Pura Vida”, which means pure life in Spanish but is the way Ticos live. Costa Rica has been named one of the happiest countries in the world, mostly because its inhabitants don’t stress about things the way most foreigners do. Ticos have a very relaxed, simple way of life.  The phrase “Pura Vida can be used as a response to “How are you?” but also as hello, goodbye and great.

Our goals for the trip were to experience Costa Rica’s diverse ecology and have time for rest and relaxation.   We planned the trip through our travel agent, Louise Kemper of Travel Experts, who worked with local tour company, Rico Tours.   Based on our travel agent’s advice, we split our roughly 10 day trip between two locations, one near the Arenal Volcano, in the north central part of Costa Rica in the rainforest, and Guanacaste on the Pacific Coast.   Average temperatures in January are in mid-70s in the rainforests near Arenal, with almost daily chances for a little rain, and in the mid-80s on the Pacific coast with little chance of rain.

Logistics – We were able to fly from Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) airport directly to San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, via Southwest and returned from Liberia in the northwest of the country to BWI via Houston, TX on Southwest.    Our tour company arranged private drivers and vans to get us from the San Jose airport to our resort new Arenal, Nayara Springs, from Nayara Springs to our second resort on the Pacific Coast, the J.W. Marriott Guanacaste, and from the J.W. to the airport in Liberia.  The drive from San Jose to Arenal takes you over the continental divide and through cloud forests and rain forests and is quite a scenic trip.

We considered some in-country air options for the trip from Arenal to the Pacific coast but were glad we elected to use vans because a charter flight crashed in Costa Rica the week before we arrived.   Costa Rican roads are a mixed bag but probably better than remembered by visitors who have been there a number of years ago.  Most roads are well-paved, well maintained two lane highways and not very crowded outside population centers.   We traveled on one stretch of new four-lane divided limited access highway near Liberia and hopefully there is more of this to come.    Side roads, however, can be heavily pot holed and partially washed out, making for a slow and very bumpy ride.   We were warned about bad roads and the need for motion sickness medicine for the car from others who had visited but only encountered relatively short stretches of really bad roads, and we survived without motion sickness medication.    It might be a bit worse if you were traveling on a big bus instead of a private van that is able to maneuver around some of the pot holes.

Nayara Springs Resort – The Nayara Springs Resort is an exclusive boutique hotel with only about 60 individual villas, each featuring a large bedroom, living room, two dressing areas, a large indoor and an outdoor shower and a patio with queen size lounge, hammock and 6 ft x 10 ft private soaking pool fed from a natural hot spring.   Daily laundry, twice daily maid service, a private concierge and option of breakfast in room are all included.    There are three restaurants, a coffee bar, fitness center with yoga sessions daily and a spa on site, as well as additional restaurants and a wine bar on an adjoining property operated by the same company.   The resort offers once daily shuttle service into La Fortuna and now offers its own private tours to nearby attractions.  We found the private tours offered by the hotel to be only modestly more expensive than group tours offered by others and Nayara Springs’ tours included a wonderful picnic lunch with wine and beer.   Nayara Springs is one of the nicest resorts in which we have ever stayed and the lush grounds and on-site nature trails give you the opportunity to experience Costa Rica’s beauty without even leaving the hotel.

Nayara Springs Villas

Bedroom Nayara Springs

Soaking Pool Nayara Springs Fed By Hot Spring

Arenal Volcano – We did two excursions near the Arenal Volcano, one was to the Mistico Hanging Bridges Park and the other to the lava flow from the 1969 eruption.   Mistico Hanging Bridges Park offers a hike along well tended mostly-paved trails over a series of fixed and hanging bridges through the rain forest.   With an attentive eye and the help of a good guide you can see an amazing diversity of plants and animals in a wonderful environment in the canopy of the rain forest.   There are some steep patches on the Hanging Bridges Park trail and you have to be comfortable crossing  hanging bridges, some at pretty good heights above the ground, but on the whole the hike is not too rigorous.   Much better seeing animals and birds with a private guide, hopefully carrying a spotting scope, than with a group.  The lava walk is interesting but with much younger (post 1969 eruption) vegetation, a less scenic natural setting and more strenuous hiking conditions.

Hanging Bridges Park

Arenal Volcano

Mukmuk in Hanging Bridges

Coatimundi

Sloth In Hanging Bridges

There are a number of other areas for touring from hotels in the Arenal volcano area but we choose to avoid those with multi-hour van rides and full day itineraries so we could enjoy some R&R at our hotel.  Both our hotel and our tour company, Rico Tours, offered lots of touring options that you can review before you go.

J.W. Marriott Guanacaste – The J.W. Marriott is a much larger property than Nayara Springs with good-size but traditional hotel rooms, five restaurants, an oceanfront bar and a large pool complex and beach.  It is located within a large private golf and beach community know as Hacienda Pinillia on the Guanacaste peninsula south of Tamarindo.   Both the community and the J.W. Marriott Resort were very nice, but not as nice as the Nayara Springs Resort in terms of accommodations, amenities or service.   The large pool complex, with plentiful lounge chairs and pool side drink and food service, is the best feature of the J.W. Marriott.  The biggest negative to the J.W. Marriott is that it is somewhat isolated and the road between the highway and Hacienda Pinillia is a couple of miles of potholes.  We ate all our meals at the J.W. Marriott.  The food was good and there was enough variety among the restaurants for our four night stay.  Our room came with a buffet breakfast and our favorite restaurants were the pool and beachside Azul Grill for lunch and the Sabanero Steak House for dinner.   Portions were very large and we shared entrees, salads and sandwiches for most meals.

J.W. Marriott Pool From Room

J.W. Marriott Pool

J.W. Marriott Beach

Howler Monkey at Hacienda Pinillia

Coast Near Tamarindo – We did two outings to coastal areas near Tamarindo and the J.W. Marriott.  One was a boat tour of a mangrove forest along Estero de Playa Grande where it meets Tamarindo Bay and the other on the beach near Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas.    On the mangrove forest tour we saw a crocodile and many different birds and on the beach we saw sea turtles laying their eggs.   According to guides the crocodiles do occasionally pick off surfers who chose to swim across the relatively narrow Estero de Playa Grande that separates two beaches on Tamarindo Bay despite warning signs and numerous shuttle boats.   Our tours to the coast near Tamarindo were group tours with multiple-hotel pickups in small vans but featured good guides and attentive staff.  We arranged these tours through Swiss Travel, which has an office at the J.W. Marriott.   The walk to and from the beach at night to see the sea turtles was fairly rigorous and requires you to traverse the beach in total darkness.

Crocodile Near Tamarindo Bay

Heron On Mangrove Tour

Blackback Turtle Laying Eggs

Costa Rica As A Retirement Option – On many lists, Costa Rica is ranked among the top overseas locations for Americas looking for an affordable retirement location.   While we did not inspect retirement housing options during our vacation in Costa Rica, I can see its appeal, particularly for those living in the West and Southwest for whom it is a relatively short trip.   What makes Costa Rica stand out is its stable democracy, good healthcare system and diverse and pleasant climate.  Everyone readily accepts dollars and almost everyone speaks English, making it a particularly easy place for Americans to live.  Our sense is that U.S. retirees favor the Pacific coast where communities appealing to such people abound.

Portugal – Europe’s California With Castles

My wife and I spent two weeks in Portugal on a self-guided road trip for which we had https://www.toursforyou.pt/ arrange our hotels and rental car, suggest sites we might visit and arrange select guided tours, wine tastings and a boat ride along the way.

I call Portugal, Europe’s California because it is west coat, has fine beaches, great wine and food, a diversity of landscapes north to south and very mellow people, most of whom speak English.   Portugal is a good deal smaller than California, only about the size of Indiana, and you can see a lot of it in a two week visit.

What, of course, differentiates Portugal from California is a rich history that goes back thousands of years with a native Celtic people who were in turn overrun by Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans and Moors.  Portugal fought with Spain for many years to win and keep its independence and was, for a time, a major maritime power with colonies in South America, Africa, India and Asia.   It seems as if each major city and almost every small hill town has a castle or castle ruin.

We were able to fly direct from Philadelphia to Lisbon on American.  The flight is a bit shorter than most to Europe because, at Europe’s western edge, Portugal is closer to the U.S. than much of the continent.  In two weeks we saw a good deal of Portugal, with the notable exception of the southern coast and resort area of the Algarve.

Our itinerary began in Lisbon(3 nights), where we picked up a car and drove southeast through Evora to an excellent hotel near Monsaraz called Sao Lourenco do Barrocal located on a large wine estate and farm that has been in the same family for over 200 years (3 nights).   From Monsaraz we turned north traveling to Belmonte where we stayed at a posada hotel created from a former convent – Convento de Belmonte (2 nights).   We then continued north to the Douro Valley where we stayed at the Wine House Hotel on a high-quality, small-production wine estate – Quinta da Pacheca (2 nights).    From Quinta da Pacheca we drove west along the Douro River and over the mountains to Porto, where we stayed at Flores Village Hotel & Spa (2 nights) before driving south, stopping at Coimbra, and heading back to the Lisbon airport where we stayed one night at Hotel Tryp Aeroporto before catching our flight home.   All of our hotels were quite good, with Sao Lourenco do Barrocal and the Wine House Hotel standing out above the rest (See Trip Advisor reviews for more details).

Portugal’s two main cities, Lisbon and Porto are both located on major rivers (the Tejo or Tagus in Lisbon and the Douro in Porto) at the point were they enter the Atlantic Ocean.   Lisbon, the capital is a city of about 500,000 people in a metro area with about three million.

Lisbon from overlook

Lisbon is a city of hills with enough elevation changes that there are elevators and funiculars to get you from one neighborhood to another.

Barrio Alto

The center of Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake and tidal wave in 1755 and was quickly rebuilt with new housing, shops and offices and wider boulevards.  While the City center (Baixa) is attractive, the older hillside neighborhoods of Alfama and Barrio Alto retain their smaller scale buildings with whitewashed walls, orange tile roofs and narrow winding streets.

Lisbon has a cathedral, numerous churches, some good museums (notably the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum) and a wide main boulevard with upscale shopping (Avenue Liberidade) but much of its charm is found in the neighborhoods, small shops, some very good restaurants and the surrounding communities of Sintra, Estoril and Cascais, the latter both fronting the Atlantic.

Among the things we most enjoyed in Lisbon were the fanciful Pena Palace in Sintra, the coastal cities and outstanding sea bass we ate near Cabo da Rosa, Europe’s westernmost point, our evening listening to Fado (Portuguese blues) and the Gulbenkian museum.    We had a car and driver to take us to Sintra and the coast and for a half day tour of Lisbon but could have used one more day in the city for sight seeing and shopping.

Pena Palace

We had our rental car, a Vovo V40 diesel hatchback delivered to our hotel to save us having to come back to pick up our luggage after getting the car.   Portugal drives on the right, using standard international road signs and Google Maps on our phone worked well.   I order a GPS with the rental car because I read cell phone coverage might not be good in rural Portugal but the Garmin GPS that came with the car was useless outside major cities and cell coverage was fine everywhere.  Stick with Google Maps and order enough on your international data plan to cover using your phone as a mapping tool.

Heading southwest from Lisbon we visited Evora, the largest city in the dry and hot Alentejo.   We found Evora to be a bit over-hyped and the large free parking lots that reportedly ring the old city to be very poorly marked.    We ended up driving into and parking in the old part of the City – just remember to pay the meter.    Evora does contain some well preserved Roman features include a temple, a bath being excavated under town hall and an ancient aqueduct.  The cathedral and its museum are also worth seeing.

Roman Temple, Evora

From Evora we continued southwest past the walled town of Monsaraz to Sao Lourenco do Barrocal, an outstanding resort on a large wine estate and farm.   Monsaraz is a well preserved walled town and castle with some nice shops, including a very good pottery and painting gallery called Galerie Monsaraz operated by a husband/wife team of local artists.  We enjoyed our dinner at Restaurante Sabores de Monsaraz, which is a quirky locally owned restaurant where we had black pork with pearl onions and cod Bacalhau à “Sabores de Monsaraz” (see Trip Advisor for review).    While the staff struggles with English and it is a small, authentic Portuguese restaurant, Sabores de Monsaraz does have a slick website on which you can make reservations.

Ducal Palace, Vila Vicosa

We enjoyed the pool, cafe and restaurant at Sao Lourenco do Barrocal and took day trips to nearby sites such as Monsaraz, Villa Vicosa, where we highly recommend the Ducal Palace, and Sao Pedro do Corval where the locally made pottery is plentiful but pretty mundane.

From Sao Lourenco do Barrocal we traveled north to Belmonte, stopping along the way at Castelo de Vide.   Both Castelo de Vide and Belmonte were interesting to us because of their once significant Jewish populations and the history of these communities documented in museums.   The Portuguese Inquisition began in 1497, five years later than in Spain. No meaningful Jewish population remains in Castelo de Vide but it features a large former Jewish quarter and what is reported to be the oldest synagogue in Portugal, now housing a small but well done museum.   Belmonte also had a large Jewish population.  Its Jewish museum was being renovated when we visited in July, 2017 but had some exhibits set up in a nearby storefront.   What’s remarkable about Belmonte is its community of Marrano, or secret Jews, that survived from the Inquisition to today, only emerging from secrecy in 1989 and building a modern operating synagogue.   We liked our hotel in Belmonte (Convento de Belmonte) which is a wonderful renovation of an historic convent but the hotel seemed a bit understaffed (See Trip Advisor).

Heading north from Belmonte to the Douro Valley we stopped at the now abandoned walled town of Marialva, which we enjoyed but is only worth a visit if you are passing by.  As you head north toward to Douro, the land becomes more mountainous and greener and the Douro Valley itself is one of the most attractive landscapes you will see anywhere.

Douro River Valley

The Douro Valley is all about wine, is the only place you can make port wine according to the EU and is the oldest officially recognized wine region, predating those in France.   In the Douro we stayed at the Wine House Hotel on the Quinta de Pacheca wine estate and we highly recommend the hotel, its restaurant and the wine at Quinta de Pacheca.  We also enjoyed a boat ride on the Douro by FeelDouro Yaatch Charters and a tour and tasting at Quinta do Seixo, a large commercial wine estate operated by Sandeman.   We enjoyed the tour and the wine much more at Quinta da Pacheca.

We traveled from the Douro Valley to Porto by taking small winding roads along the river and over the mountains, a beautiful but somewhat harrowing ride, and the only place I thought Google Maps let us down since there were major highways options.    Porto is a wonderful old city of about 215,000 (less than half the population of Lisbon) but with a metro area population of 2.4 million, which is closer to Lisbon’s size.  Navigating Porto’s warren of narrow streets is a chore, so you want to get out of your car as quickly as you can.    We liked our hotel in Porto, Flores Village Hotel & Spa, in part because it was on a delightful pedestrian only street very near City center.   However, that meant after 10 am we had to leave our car in a nearby parking garage and transport our luggage to the hotel.

Porto from Vila Novo de Gaia

In Porto, we had a half day guided tour and also time on our own to explore the city and enjoy its character, shops and restaurants.   We had two excellent meals in Porto at DPO Porto by chef Rui Paula and Cantinho do Avillez by Michelin star chef Jose Avillez.    Porto, like Lisbon, is a very hilly city with some magnificent churches and vistas, particularly the view of Porto from Vila Novo de Gaia, across the Douro.

Before leaving Porto, we took a full day tour to the Minho or Costa Verde, which is the portion of the country north of Porto.   This is beautiful country and we particularly enjoyed the ancient city of Guimarães, where Portugal was founded, the magnificent shrine at Bom Jesus do Monte and the city of Braga.    If you get to Porto, take at least a day and explore theses areas (See photos).

Guimaraes

Bom Jesus de Monte

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We return to Lisbon via Coimbra with its university dating from 1290 and a library that looks like it belongs in a Harry Potter novel.  The Hotel Tryp Aeroporto is just an airport hotel but did its job with quite good service and surprisingly good food, so I would use it if I needed a stay at the Lisbon airport.

University of Coimbra

We found Portugal to be an interesting, charming and thoroughly enjoyable vacation spot and would highly recommend it.