Christmas time for me evokes many warm childhood memories. Decorating our family tree, shopping with mom in the big department stores all decked out with lights and displays, and of course, Santa Claus. I remember how excited we would get as Christmas day approach; the anticipation was palpable.
Many if not most of our Christmas traditions are deeply rooted in European culture. From the Christmas stories we read, Christmas TV shows and movies, Christmas music and Hallmark cards, all seem to depict those Dickensian or Currier & Ives themed scenes of a simpler time. What’s more traditional than the Christmas Market? These Christmas Markets date back to the Middle Ages celebrating the Advent season leading up to Christmas day.
What is it about European Christmas Markets that keeps drawing us back? When you walk the cobblestone streets of a European Christmas Market, usually located at the main Cathedral square or at centuries old town hall plazas, the past seems to come alive. Vendor chalets selling hand crafted ornaments, decorations or toys, plenty of local street food and the famous hot mulled wine (German Gluhwein or French Vin Chaud). For me this is magical, reinforcing the Christmas Spirit.
This years Christmas Market visit was to Brussels. Flying on the day after Thanksgiving, arriving for the opening weekend of Brussels’ Plaisirs D’hiver or Winter Wonders celebrations. The festivities are spread throughout the city and my hotel was in front of the main Christmas Market at Place Sainte-Catherineis.
The crowds were huge for the opening weekend with all ages; families with kids, young and older adults, lots of locals and tourists. Obviously a very popular place at Christmas time.
The Sights & Sounds of Brussels’ Christmas Markets
The main Christmas Market at Place Sainte-Catherineis with over 200 vendor chalets was located right across the street from my hotel, the Brussels Welcome Hotel. The hotel was quaint and quirky, with each room decorated in a different country decor. My room, the Cuba Room had a model of a ’57 Chevy convertible on the door (instead of a number), and the interior had cigar themed pictures and decorations plus a large wall mural of an old Havana building facade. The owners, Michel & Sophie and their staff were very friendly and helpful. They had their own chalet at the Christmas Market that featured oysters and champagne, that’s classy!
Speaking of the food, this Christmas Market had most of the typical fare; German bratwurst, pretzels, other comfort food, and of course, the Gluhwein. But there were some upscale selections as well, such as escargot, Russian caviar and vodka, along with the local favorites, fresh Mussels, Belgian chocolate and Belgian waffles. Fortunately there is a lot of walking at these Christmas Markets, so you can burn off those excess calories.
There were several other Christmas Markets within walking distance. Grand Place, the main city square, with its towering 17th Century city hall surrounded by the gold trimmed Guild Halls, featured a large Christmas Tree in the center of the square. Grand Place was the site of an amazing light and sound show, presented every evening (several showings each night), with colorful lights projected against the facades of the old buildings.
Grand Place Light & Sound Show video
After a week in Brussels it was time to go home. This was the last trip for our 2019 travel season. Another Christmas Market completed and awaiting the New Year for new and exciting travel adventures.
Our 1-Week Northern Arizona Vacation…. Nov 2-9, 2019
The last time we visited Northern Arizona was in November of 1973. I was in the Navy stationed on a nuclear submarine out of San Diego. After a grueling 9-month WestPac deployment, I took some R&R leave when Kathie and I visited Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, Lake Powell and Las Vegas.
Fast forward 46 years and Grand Canyon was part of our recent visit, which was seven days (Nov 2-9). We spent the first four nights in Flagstaff and the final three nights in Sedona.
Our hotel in Flagstaff was the Residence Inn, which is a relatively new hotel located right in the historic downtown district. Walking distance to the many restaurants, cafes, pubs, micro-breweries and wine bars of Flagstaff.
We spent our last three days in the Sedona area. Our hotel, the Holiday Inn Express is actually in Oak Creek which is several miles outside Sedona proper.
The drive into Sedona on state route 179 from Interstate 17 offers an amazing welcoming view of the Sedona valley. The stunning red rock buttes rise up from the desert floor and in the late Fall sun, the lighting and colors are spectacular. Any visit to Sedona must include a drive up the the airport lookout area. This vantage point offers wide panoramas of Sedona and the surrounding area. It’s best to go there at sunset.
One of the attractions not too far from Sedona is the Verde Canyon Railroad, located in Clarksdale, about 40 minutes south of Sedona. This is a sightseeing excursion train that runs along the Verde River and goes through the deep, red rock canyons offering spectacular scenery. Since this was November, the cottonwood, aspen and sycamore trees were in full Fall colors, which added to the beauty of this area.
The actual river cruise portion of our trip started on Saturday, October 12, 2019. Our ship, the Viking Torgil, left from city of Vila Nova de Gaia near the mouth of the Douro River at Porto and traveled about 200km to Barca d’Alva at the Spanish border (of course then returning to Porto) and along the way, some of the most beautiful scenery unfolds around each bend of the river. Due to navigation regulations, ships can only transit the river during daylight, which is perfect for sightseeing. At night the ship is docked at small riverside towns and various shore excursions are scheduled around these stops.
The river winds through miles and miles of the valley where steep man-made hillside terraced vineyards rise up from the river’s edge. These terraces were built centuries ago and grapes are still picked by hand. Wine has been produced in the area for more than 2,000 years, but it was not until 1756 that the industry became organized and internationally recognized.
As the ship moves further upstream, the true story of the area’s wine country begins to unfold. Here, in the Alto Douro Wine Region, winding roads pattern the landscape, leading up to wonderfully lush vineyards. Gleaming white quintas, or wine estates, are visible and offer a glimpse of a traditional way of life that has existed for centuries.
Sightseeing along the Douro
Dams and Locks
The trip up to Barca d’Alva requires passing through five locks that are connected with large dams. The dams were build in the 1970’s-80’s for flood control and hydro-electric power. The lock systems allow larger vessel traffic to navigate the Douro and, of course, opened up the river cruise tourism industry. Each lock raises the vessel above the dam and the lock at Carrapatelo Lock Dam is one of the highest locks in the world at 35 meters. The ship also passes under many bridges, some are very low and there is very little clearance. The ship’s pilothouse can be hydraulically lowered, and all masts are lowered. It’s quite a thrill to be on the sundeck when passing under low bridges. At one particular bridge, the crew required everyone on the sundeck to remain seated.
Going through the Crestuma – Lever Dam/Lock, Carrapatelo Dam/Lock, low bridges and narrow, rocky passages.
A stop in the area’s largest riverside town, Regua which is an important transportation crossroads and where the steep hills and terraced vineyards begin to rise above the river. In nearby Vila Real is one of the region’s most elegant houses—Mateus Palace. This 18th-century baroque house and gardens, once belonging to local counts. The house’s interior is an extravagant display of period furnishings and decor while its gardens, among the finest in Portugal, feature a 115-foot-long tunnel carved from fragrant cedar trees. Today, the estate enjoys celebrity status: It is depicted on the labels of Mateus Rosé, though the wine is produced elsewhere.
A visit and tour of the Favaios’ wine cooperative, Adega Cooperativa de Favaios, provided incite into this area’s very famous wine, Moscatel de Favaios. Our visit coincided with the end of the harvests season, where we saw lots of activity. The tour was followed by a tasting of this Moscatel variety, which is nothing like that fortified “Muscatel” wine we may remember from our youth.
After the winery visit we did a walking tour of the small town of Favaios with visit to a famous family run bakery that produces the local “four corners bread”. The baker, Dona Manuela, a grandmother, has been featured in Viking Cruise’s promotional videos.
When the ship docked at Barca d’Alva we had a full day excursion over to Salamanca Spain for a walking tour of that city, visiting several interesting sights along with free time for lunch. The coach ride was about 2-hours.
We started our tour with a visit to the main indoor market, Mercado Central, where Viking had arranged a tasting of the local cured hams, cheeses, olives, and of course, some wine. There were a number of carnicerías (butcher shops) with the famous Jamon Iberico hanging on display. You see many grades of Jamon Iberico (acorn fed aged black pig leg), and some were priced as much as EU499! Several fish markets featured a variety of fresh seafood, but also had lots of salted cod, the local staple of the Iberian Peninsula. Then there were plenty of fruits and vegetables, bakeries and some specialty shops featuring Spain’s famous saffron. We did buy some saffron, it was expensive, but not as much as we would pay here at home. We will need to get out our favorite paella recipe!
Our walking tour with a local guide was interesting, but the weather didn’t cooperate, with rain showers turning into more steady rain fall. This was the first bad weather day we encountered on the cruise.
A visit to the Salamanca Cathedral gave us a chance to get out of the rain. There are two cathedrals, the Old Cathedral and New Cathedral. Back in the 16th Century it was decided that the original cathedral was too small, so a new, larger cathedral was needed. Originally it was planned to demolish the Old Cathedral, but then it was decided the New Cathedral would be build adjacent to the existing one.
The Old Cathedral is Romanesque, dating from the 12th century, and is famous for its ornate Gallo Tower. Its breathtaking 15th-century altarpiece features no less than 53 panels depicting scenes from the lives of Jesus Christ and Mary, topped by a presentation of the Final Judgment.
The New Cathedral was constructed between the 16th and 18th centuries in two styles: late Gothic and Baroque. Building began in 1513 and the cathedral was consecrated in 1733.
Brief video tour of Salamanca’s Central Market, New Cathedral and rainy walk around town.
This medieval hilltop town, a bastion of the country’s heritage, provides a glimpse into the Portugal of yesterday. Due to its location near the Spanish border, it has been the subject of many frontier battles over the centuries. However, the structures did little to deter the determined Spaniards and so these fortifications were constantly under assault, besieged and rebuilt. It is a testament to their strength that as many as 20 have survived as lasting reminders of a long and bloody period of dispute between the two nations. The castles’ architectural styles range from medieval to Gothic.
The region around Castelo Rorigo has many almond orchards and as we walked through the medieval streets, local vendors were offering samples of everything almond; candied almonds, savory almonds, almond liquers. We couldn’t leave with purchasing several packages of various almond treats.
We spent a morning in the town of Lemego, starting at the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remédios on a hill high above town. This is an important pilgrimage church with a staircase of 686 steps leading from the town below to the church. Landings on the stairway have statues and chapels and are adorned with beautiful blue tile mosaics. During the annual pilgrimage many penitents climb the steps on their knees. Needless to say, we didn’t walk the stairs.
With some free time in the town below we had our obligatory coffee with Pastel de Nata at a local coffee shop on the square. We also visited the Cathedral and the Lamego Museum. The museum is a must see, with an impressive collection of Portuguese and European paintings from the 16th to the late 18th centuries, plus pottery, sculptures, tapestries, and other artifacts dating back to Roman times.
What stood out on this trip was the amazingly beautiful scenery in the Douro Valley. It’s safe to say it is one of the most beautiful places we have visited so far in our world travels. Another thing that stands out is the friendliness of the Portuguese people. We have met some wonderful people and came away with new friends. This will not be our last trip to Portugal, must return!
This slide show illustrates the natural beauty of the Douro Valley, please enjoy.
After two days in Lisbon our Viking Cruise itinerary had us heading to Porto where we would join our river cruise ship, the Viking Torgil. On the coach ride to Porto we stopped in Coimbra for a tour of the historic University of Coimbra, followed by some free time in the town and then a traditional Portuguese lunch at República da Saudade restaurant accompanied by Fado music. The university is the oldest in Portugal and one of the oldest, continuously operating universities in the world.
A video recap of our visit to Coimbra
Portugal’s second largest city, Porto holds a place of great traditional importance. The town lends its name to the port wine produced in the region and throughout the nation. Located along the Douro River, the city boasts picturesque neighborhoods, fashionable restaurants and cozy coffee shops. Like Lisbon, Porto has a rich past; its historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A great walking city where you find narrow cobblestone streets brimming with romantic buildings spanning the centuries and a stunning Romanesque cathedral on a hilltop overlooking the river and city.
At the riverside, small barcos rabelos, boats once used to transport casks of wine, paint a charming scene. A major landmark on the river is the Ponte Luís I or Luís I Bridge. This iconic metal bridge, a true engineering marvel, built in 1886, connects Porto with Vila Nove de Gaia. The bridge has two levels, the lower level carries vehicle and pedestrian traffic while the high upper level is for street tram and pedestrian traffic. The upper level offers breathtaking panoramic views of the Douro, Porto and its surrounding areas.
Our ship, the Viking Torgil was docked across the river from Porto in Vila Nove de Gaia, where all the major Port makers have their warehouses. You see all the big names on these warehouses and tasting rooms such as; Sandeman, Taylor, Cockburn’s, Croft. The riverfront adjacent to our vessel is a very lively waterfront area with many restaurants, bars, shops and other attractions. A nearby cable car carries you up to the top of the hill where the upper level of the Luís I Bridge crosses over to Porto.
Some interesting facts about Porto:
Porto is one of Europe’s oldest cities, having been founded inBC as a Roman settlement.
With its six bridges that cross the Douro, Porto is known as the “City of Bridges”.
Two of Porto’s six bridges were designed by Gustave Eiffel before he began work on his famous namesake tower in Paris.
Porto is Portugal’s second largest city.
In 1996, the city’s historic center was recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The city is famous for its historic port wine trade, the center of which lies at Vila Nove de Gaia on the south bank of the Douro River.
We just returned from our 12-day vacation in Portugal where we did a Viking River Cruise of the Douro River Valley. Our Viking itinerary had us spending the first two days in Lisbon, then on to Porto where we joined our ship, the Viking Torgil, for 8-days of cruising the Douro Valley. We returned to Lisbon to spend 2-days on our own exploring that city.
In this blog we will describe our overall impressions of Portugal, in the next few days we will publish additional blog posts to share some specifics:
Cities of Porto and Lisbon
Beautiful Douro Valley
The Viking River Cruise Experience
In our history classes long ago, we learned about the famous Portuguese explorers; Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, Pedro Álvares Cabral and others. The discoveries of these explorers opened sea trade routes to Brazil, Africa, India, Southeast Asia, China and Japan making Portugal a powerful empire in the 15th – 16th Centuries. Now, Portugal is a relatively small country in the European Union, but that rich history and culture is still alive in the beautiful buildings, palaces, cathedrals, universities and cuisines and the Portuguese people are proud of this heritage.
The Monument to the Discoveries , located in Belém – Lisbon
We arrived from Newark into Lisbon’s Humberto Delgado Airport which is very close to the city center. The airport is like any international airport, although it wasn’t too much of a walk from the arrival gates, through passport control out to baggage claim. Viking staff were waiting at the arrivals hall where we joined a bus with other Viking passengers to take us to the Hotel Tivoli Avenida Liberdade, our home for the next two nights. This hotel is located on Avenida Liberdade, a beautiful, wide, tree line boulevard, called Lisbon’s “Champs-Élysées”.
Portugal, being part of the EU uses the Euro and now the US dollar exchange rate is very favorable, at US$1.10 while we were there. Also, Portugal is very affordable (for Americans) when compared to other European countries.
The language of Portugal is, of course, Portuguese. We learned that Portuguese is the 9th most spoken language in the world. We found most people do speak English, so it wasn’t difficult communicating. It helps to learn some basic phrases and locals appreciate the effort. Many years ago, I traveled a lot to Brazil for business and some of the Brazilian Portuguese I picked up came back to me. With my pronunciations, some locals picked up on the Brazilian accent. I have used the App Duolingo, which is very helpful for learning language basics. Doulingo is a free App on Android and IOS and I recommend it. Some basic phrases:
Thank you…. a man would say Obrigado, a woman would say Obrigada
You’re welcome…. De nada
Good morning…. Bom dia
Good afternoon…. Boa tarde
Good evening…. Boa noite
Please…. Por favor
Everyone we met, hotel staff, tour guides, shop keepers, restaurant servers all were very friendly, welcoming and helpful. Social media allows us to connect with people all over the world and on Instagram, we have been connected with an Instagrammer named Libi from Porto. Libi posts images and stories about daily life in Porto and she visits some great coffee shops and posts interesting pictures around Porto. In the past year or so we have been following each other, commenting about each others posts. When planning our Portugal trip earlier this year, we mentioned to Libi our trip and asked about things to see and do. She was excited and enthusiastic about sharing her city and country. We made arrangements to meet for coffee at one of Libi’s favorite places. So when we arrived in Porto she met us, had some gifts for us and we enjoyed a coffee together. Libi is a wonderful young woman and we now have a good friend in Portugal.
Our Instagram friend Libi from Porto took us for coffee at a classy coffee shop C’alma.
Yeah, there is good food in Portugal, you won’t go hungry and you may need to loosen the belt a bit before you leave. Watch out for the favorite pastry, the Pastel de Nata. This custard based tart can become addictive, it’s a great treat to have with coffee at one of the excellent coffee shops you will find in Lisbon, Porto or anywhere in Portugal.
Salted Cod dishes abound, I didn’t realize there were so many ways to prepare salted cod, or Bacalhau. It can be boiled, fried, made into cod cakes, croquettes, it seems that some restaurants have pages of cod dishes.
Salted cod dish and Pastel de Nata.
Our first night we decided to stay at the hotel (Tivoli) and eat at the attached restaurant called Cervejaria Liberdade. I had the best pork dish ever, this was grilled pork tenderloin steaks from the famous acorn feed black pigs. Amazing experience.
Bucket List Fulfilled?
Portugal was on our bucket list and our experience there was just amazing. Such a beautiful country, great food and the people are so friendly. It seems that on this trip we didn’t get enough, so we now add Portugal to the “Got to Go Back” list! In the following blogs we will share photos of the amazing sights and experiences, so please come back.
We will be off to the airport later this morning for our next adventure, Portugal.
We will be joining a Viking River Cruise tour of the Douro River… River of Gold, for what should be a fantastic time. Arriving tomorrow morning (Tuesday Oct 8th) in Lisbon, we will stay 2-nights before a motor coach tour up the coast to Porto to join our ship, the Viking Torgil. The below map shows the 10-day itinerary.
The drive from Missoula to Columbia Falls would typically be about 2 hrs and 40 mins, with no stops. But along the way we stopped at two attractions. The first was the National Bison Range and then the Miracle of America Museum in Polson.
The drive took us along the east shore of Flathead Lake. Flathead Lake is the largest natural fresh water lake west of the Mississippi. The lake, surrounded by mountains, is glacier fed, so the waters have that turquoise color, just beautiful. Driving along there were many roadside stands selling fresh Flathead Lake cherries. We didn’t realize there were cherry orchards all around the area, apparently the micro-climate around the lake supports the growth of cherries. We stumbled into cherry season, so we bought a bag and they were big and delicious. It was also Huckleberry season and everywhere we went there were farm stands, shops and local establishments selling everything huckleberry. Huckleberry jams, huckleberry pastries, huckleberry flavored beers, even huckleberry martinis. We bought some jams along the way and that was our breakfast treat with toast or English muffins. Huckleberries are similar to blueberries, but maybe a bit more tart.
Bison National Range
Our first stop was at the National Bison Range in Charlo, MT. This is a National Wildlife Reserve that provides sanctuary for the American Bison. We arrived early, around 8am, so the visitors center was not open (opens at 9am). There is a $5 entrance fee (per vehicle), but our America The Beautiful Senior Pass is honored at this site. A quick note about the America The Beautiful pass, we purchase our Senior Pass a few years ago, $80 life pass, and it is honored at most National Park and other Federal recreational areas.
There are several driving trails through the reserve and we chose to take long loop road which is 19 miles long. This is a one-way, single lane gravel road that winds up the mountain with steep grades, lots of switchback curves and no guard rails. The first half of this road climbs up a mountain area reaching a summit at about 4800ft where there is a rest stop with portable toilets. The road continues down the other side with some very steep curves until it reaches an open range area, eventually returning to the starting point near the visitors center.
When we first started up the road, we saw another vehicle ahead of us stopped, then moving very slowly. We were a bit concerned about being stuck behind someone who seemed not in a hurry, with no way to pass. When we got closer, we saw the problem, a big, old, bull Bison was in the middle of the road walking at a very slow pace. We were stuck behind this beast for at least 20-minutes until an opening at a curve allowed enough room to rush past this big guy.
Stuck Behind a Bison
Along the road going toward the summit we saw a few solitary bull Bison’s as well as several Mule Deer. Once we came down the other side of the mountain onto the flat range area, we ran into quite a few Pronghorn Antelope as well as several herds of Bison.
Pronghorn Antelope Crossing
Miracle of America Museum
In the town of Polson, on the southern end of Flathead Lake we stopped at the “Miracle of America Museum“. This eclectic museum seems to have just about everything you can imagine. There is a large indoor space housing early native American artifacts, antique fashions and clothing, old toys, a collection of vintage Harley’s and Indian bikes and loads of military memorabilia from the Civil War up to the War on Terror.
The outside space is huge, I don’t know how many acres. You can find old cars and trucks, fire engines, tracked and wheeled military vehicles, signage from famous old America companies and brands, jet craft fuselages, a Huey helicopter, old farm equipment, even a tugboat, it goes on and on!
This place is crazy fun, but also interesting and informative, it represents the products of American ingenuity and industry of the last couple of hundred years. If you are familiar with the TV series American Pickers, this place would be a picker’s heaven.
We rented an AirBnB for the week that was located in the historical downtown section of Columbia Falls. This location was convenient to the Glacier National Park sites. The AirBnB had excellent accommodations for the three of us, with 2-bedrooms, 2-bathrooms, and a large open concept kitchen, dining and living space. The location was in the same block as several bars and restaurants and a cool bakery-coffee shop. The Gunsight Saloon, a block and a half across the street is a fun, local bar and restaurant.
Our AirBnB was clean, comfortable and well stocked. The hosts, Kim and David provided a complimentary bottle of Montana red wine as a welcome gift. If you’re interested you can check out this AirBnB by linking here to their listing.