Live. Love. Local.

When we travel internationally, we mostly stay away from the obvious tourist attractions. Sure, when we went to Paris we visited the Eiffel Tower. We spent some time at Notre Dame Cathedral because my husband is a sketch artist and he was drawing it. We didn’t make our way to Champs-Élysées, we didn’t visit the Louvre. We might have, but it just didn’t work out. It wasn’t a priority.

What we did do was walk the streets of the neighborhood where our quaint boutique hotel was located (Latin Quarter). We sat in cafés, ate croissants and sipped lattes. We visited the little ‘ready food’ kiosks for meals.  You can tell you’re staying local when the people you are talking to generally don’t speak English. And as rough as my French is, there is nothing better than trying to converse with a happy local gracing us with a big smile.

On our recent trip to Porto, Portugal, we stayed in an apartment in a quiet neighborhood far from the city center. There was a huge park across the street, a small café a few doors down, and a small market a couple blocks away. These places are where you experience local life.  Watching the old men and children feed the peacocks in the park, eating at the café and asking, “What do you have?” because there is no menu.

The owner beams as he describes his carefully prepared national dishes – maybe five choices. The woman working at the market trying to describe to us which type of meat was sliced and packaged because, well, we didn’t know enough Portuguese to figure it out. Is this a jar of mayonnaise? Try asking that question with a language barrier. Lots of laughing is involved.

Of course, Praça da Ribeira is amazing, the Duoro River is beautiful, Praça da Liberdade is worth the time spent. But going to a big busy public area doesn’t give you a genuine feel of the people. We love the people.

To me there are three ‘steps’ to discovering a new city, a new culture. First, we love to do a tour bus and get the macro perspective.  Learn the lay of the land. Figure out what we really want to see. Second, we will make it a point to visit one or two landmarks (Paris, Eiffel Tower… Porto, Dom Luis I Bridge) but after that we are all about local food, picking up a bit of the language, learning about the history and culture. These are the memories that last. These are the memories that make me smile.

Branson, Missouri

We took a little road trip to Branson, Missouri, “Live Music Capital of the World,” earlier this week.  Most of our friends found it surprising that we had never been before because it’s a short five hour drive away and most of them had been multiple times. Our time had finally come. My husband traded some of his artwork for a stay in a resort in Branson, so off we went.

On our first evening out we enjoyed dinner overlooking the Branson Landing Fountain at the edge of Lake Taneycomo. The Branson Landing is  a lovely outdoor mall with many shops and restaurants. We chose to have dinner at Cantina Laredo, a chain restaurant we hadn’t ever been to before, and we enjoyed it. It was a lovely evening to sit outside and we had a front row view of the fountain show which is set to music and accompanied by lights and fire. Very nicely done.

The second night we attended the Dolly Parton’s Stampede Dinner Show which is quite possibly the biggest thing going on in Branson today and very well done. It was a lot of fun and the food was delicious and more than any human can eat. They serve a cup of creamy soup, bread, a whole roasted game hen, plus a thick slice of pork loin, half a roasted potato, half a corn on the cob, and dessert. Thankfully, they bring around to-go bags after the show so you don’t have to feel guilty for leaving so much behind!

On the third day we visited the Talking Rocks Cavern about thirty minutes outside of town. The cavern was relatively small as caverns go, but I very much enjoyed the adventure. I grew up in west Texas near the well known Carlsbad Caverns, so it’s pretty hard to impress me with caverns. But this was steep steps and tight corners and narrow walkways and wet paths. This ‘not so perfect’ tour created a sense of thrill and accomplishment for having completed it. Between fear and health issues, some people back out. In fact, when you buy your tickets they let you know if you can’t handle it you can turn around and they will give you your money back.

Well, this old lady Conquered the Cavern! No money back for me!

There’s a ton more to do in Branson. We really barely scratched the surface. We enjoyed a meal at Branson’s Center Stage Grill which was very good, we had ice cream and pie at Cakes ‘n Cream Diner which had a fun atmosphere. We stayed in a condo with a full kitchen and we were able to buy groceries at Rhodes Family Price Chopper which was a very nice store with a great selection and fair prices. Also, I missed this, but Hurts Donut is supposed to be very cool and the donut photos are very intriguing! I’m super sorry I missed it! And of course, we ate one meal at a fast food – Chick-fil-A. The busiest place in town.

Flying in is a bit of an issue because the Springfield-Branson Airport is almost an hour away. Shuttles and other forms of available transportation will run you about $100 each way, which is not cheap. If you decide to fly to Branson, plan ahead to rent a car. You might as well, you’ll spend the same amount for a shuttle and have no wheels. But if you live within about six or seven hours from there, take a road trip. I imagine the drive in is beautiful from all directions, and it will only cost you a couple tanks of gas.

Perfect Porto

So, our six days in Portugal are nearly over. A day on a bus. A day in our room. A day on foot. A day of going separate ways and a dead phone which makes for great drama. A day at the airport. (We tried to fly standby home today, but the flight was full.) Poor us. Another day in paradise.

Fortunately, we left the airport by 1:00 pm and the Urban Sketcher Symposium is still going strong so Skip was able to rejoin his friends and is now blissfully sketching City Hall at the very top of Praça da Liberdade.

I am sitting under cover at a nearby McDonald’s sipping a quite nice, albeit tiny, cafe latte. And writing this post.

Porto is probably the most beautiful city I have ever seen. I believe I can say this without hyperbole. It’s clean. It’s historic. It sits on a mountain near the ocean AND a river. It’s beautifully manicured and life is in order here. The climate allows for the abundant growth of pretty much every plant I can imagine.

There are no words to describe this place.

We toured a port wine cellar on Thursday. It was a very nice presentation of the history and process of wine making, the differences in types of wine, white, red, rose, and tawny (which I had never heard of) followed by a tasting. But I particularly enjoyed the cool cavelike rooms they store the casks of wine in.

This one is older than me.

We walked down a hill that was SO STEEP I was clinging to the walls. I am not kidding!

I don’t know if you can tell from this picture but that’s pretty much straight down. We prevailed. It was the only thing that was between us and Starbucks and we were not backing down.

So. Come to Porto. Try the food with an open mind. Bring your walking shoes. And sign up for Uber. Uber has saved me. Thank you, Uber. I love you.

Porto. A Preliminary Report.

PORTO, Portugal. A place I have known little about until now. It wasn’t necessarily even on our list. But my husband is an Urban Sketcher and they’re holding an Urban Sketcher Symposium in town this week so here we are. And it’s slightly out of our comfort zone.

Between the language and the food, we have been a little lost. Lol. Do you know that the Portuguese language is extremely similar to Spanish? Yet ask any Portuguese person you meet and they will tell you they’re nothing alike.

Yes. Sí. Sím.
Why. Porque. Porque.
House. Casa. Casa.
Dead. Muerto. Morto.
How. Como. Como.
You get the idea.

Anyways, Spanish, which I have been vigorously studying, is no help.

The food, which literally everyone has told me is the best in the world, has been unusual. Of course! It’s Portuguese! It’s completely foreign to us. I enjoyed my Francesinha (hubs did not) and he ordered the cod (bacalhau) last night which was almost like tuna tetrazzini and I thought it was great, him not so much.

Francesinha- sandwich with cheese & sauce
Bacalhau (cod). Possibly served other ways too.

We ate lunch at a lovely seaside café yesterday and I ordered shrimp and quinoa paella which was delicious, but he ordered a hamburger and was unimpressed. I think maybe he’s getting old and cranky.

Shrimp and Quinoa Paella. Very good.

Also, we are both getting old and CREAKY. Things crackle and pop. This place is built on a mountainside. I look out our (third floor with no elevator) giant 18th century apartment windows and the young people are practically running effortlessly up this hill outside that I will have trouble going down. Porto is not for the old, weak and faint of heart.

Having said all that, THIS PLACE IS LOVELY BEYOND YOUR WILDEST DREAMS. It’s amazing and we love it. Haha. Had you going, didn’t I?!

The Pointe de Don Luis I Bridge

Yesterday we did the Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour and it was fabulous. The weather here is as close to perfect as weather can be. I’m a little sunburned, but I don’t care. I enjoyed the cool breeze in the bright sun for about three hours (we circled the city twice) and I have no regrets.

Don Pedro IV, Praça de Liberdade, Porto, Portugal

Today the conference began so my husband has been gone since about noon and I’ve chosen to stay close and rest. BUT TOMORROW I’m taking the train tour, the river tour, and two wine cellar tours. So expect to hear all about it on Friday… when I will probably need another day of rest!

Playas del Coco, Costa Rica

Usually when we travel, we stick to the big cities. We spend our time walking city streets or trying to figure out train schedules. We Uber. And we do love the city. But this trip out, on a lark really, we decided to visit the arid and quiet western coast of Costa Rica.

The airport near Liberia is a short three hour flight from Houston Intercontinental and we were in our rental car headed to our hotel on the Pacific Coast well before noon. By 2:00 pm, we had eaten a delicious traditional Costa Rican lunch of arroz con pollo, checked into our room, taken a walk, seen monkeys sleeping in a tree and realized those loud birds carrying on high up in the trees were parrots.

We saw so many iguanas it was funny how impressed we were with the first one we saw. By the way, I am told the black ones are not actually iguanas, they are called ctenosaurs, but it seemed like the general consensus was that all large lizards are iguanas. Ctenosaurs lay real still until they don’t, and then they move fast like a tornado. We were walking along the road and got too close to one which unexpectedly bolted and scared us half to death. I actually attempted to jump into my husband’s arms. I thought surely those things must weight 20 pounds, but I looked it up and they only grow to four pounds. I’m telling you when a three foot, four pound lizard goes from zero to TWENTY MILES PER HOUR in a split second it will send a shock right through you. But I digress.

We made our way to Playas del Coco on our second day. I’m not saying this place is some major tourist destination, but it was perfect for us. It’s basically about ten blocks of shops and restaurants all on one street that dead ends into the Pacific Ocean. They have created a lovely space along the water with sidewalks, landscape, restaurants, shops and seating areas. It’s a wonderful place to spend a lazy afternoon.

In Playas del Coco I met Tina, the best snow cone maker in all of Costa Rica. I know this because it says so on a sign posted on her cart. And my snow cone was very delicious and topped with a large marshmallow covered in sweetened condensed milk and sprinkles, then a strawberry and a little pink umbrella. I’ll have to take her word for it that it was the best snow cone in Costa Rica, but it was definitely very good!

We both fell completely in love with this quaint corner of Costa Rica. More than its raw beauty, its amazing wildlife, and the laid back atmosphere, it was the Costa Ricans we didn’t want to leave behind. We knew very little about the country before we visited. We picked it for the criteria it met: warm climate, close destination. What we discovered is that the people there are kind, warm, friendly, funny and easy-going. They love to visit with you in your broken Spanish and tell you how well you speak the language after you’ve only managed a few words. They are quick to tease and quick to laughter.

Costa Rica is a rare find indeed. I can’t wait to go back to explore and learn more!