Sunday, April 30, 2006

Porto-Vila do Conde-Viana do Castelo

Trip dist: 89 km. Trip time: 6 hrs 42 min. Tot dist: 549 kms.

Aaah, I could've stayed in Porto for a good while longer. But, need to get a move on if want to make it to Istanbul by autumn, so back to the road it was.

On Sundays, Porto people go to the beach. Just outside the city on the seashore is a nice 7 km-long promenade where people gather for a stroll, biking, rollerblading, and in general enjoy the beautiful weather. Which makes it a very exciting little obstacle course for the pannier-laden traveller heading like a salmon against the current in terms of people traffic-flow. :) Still, a good excuse to take it easy on the pedalling while nibbling on one of those typically summer beach day overprocessed ice-cream sandwiches they sell at the kiosks, amidst the characteristic shouts of children, fragments of relaxed conversations in Portuguese, and lazy-Sunday glee.

The ride to Viana do Castelo was easy and nice with pretty sights and bridges, and I would've probably taken less time to ride if it hadn't been for the constant fresh breeze blowing in from the Atlantic, but which, after all, contributed to the general pleasantness of the ride.

Sometime nearabouts Vila do Conde, too, I started seeing the indications for the Camino de Santiago, the famous pilgrimage road to the tomb of the apostle, in most places very well marked, obvious, and protected from traffic, and it was reassuring, for once, to know in spite of my horrible maps that I was headed in the right direction.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Porto, Day 3.

The imperative Port wine post.

I had been teasing you before, by postponing it as long as possible, also because, not being much of a wine person, and these thoughts being just my very naive impressions, without the requisite conoisseur vocabulary and florid language, well, I was a bit shy to make them public. But, at the same time, as I've said before elsewhere, sometimes you just have to put your thoughts down otherwise it feels like your head is going to burst, at best, or they quickly dissolve with the passage of time never to be recollected again. As Conan Doyle once said in the words of Sherlock Holmes (paraphrased here): "The mind is not an ever-expanding room which you can perpetually furnish with dust-collecting facts", and ephemeral impressions, in my particular case, and once written down, one can rest assured they are well kept for future reference and one can then further concentrate on other things in a more orderly fashion.

So, if you know all about Port, and I'm just preaching to the choir here, feel free to skip the post. These are mostly just my notes from the past 3 day's afternoon strolls across the bridge to the other side of the river, set to cyber-ink and paper before I forget them a few months from now when my thoughts get preoccupied with other matters.


There are 3 main types of Port wine: whites, made from white grape varieties like Viozinho, Rabigato, and Arinto, and ruby and tawny, made from red grape varieties most notably Touriga Nacional (said to be dense and concentrated), Touriga Francesa (said to be fruity and full bodied), Tinta Roriz (said to be firm and delicate), Tinta Cão (classic, reliable, and one of the oldest grown in the Douro Valley), and Tinta Barroca (rich and fragrant. I say "said to be" because I have not had occasion to taste the actual grapes myself, so I cannot directly comment. Still, this gives you an idea, more or less). There are of course a lot more varieties growing in the Douro Valley that are used as well, but these are, it is said, among the best, and therefore most commonly used, or, more properly speaking (since "common" has such a pedestrian ring to it), most often used and sought for. ( ;) For you wine snobs, that a bit better?).

Now, out of the white Ports, there are several types ranging from dry to medium dry to sweet, also known as Lágrima (which, trivia fact, by the way, has around 136 grams of sugar per liter!). These are typically served chilled as aperitifs and have a very fruity taste sometimes with a hint of lemon. They tend to get darker-hued as they age, progressing from golden to dark amber.

The rubies are different from the tawnies in the way they are aged: Ruby wines are aged in large twenty-thousand liter oak vats for between 3-6 or so years, depending. Simple rubies age for around three or so years while Reserve rubies age for 5 years or longer. Since they age for relatively little time with very little opportunity for oxidation (due to the relatively little contact with the wood) they tend to retain the characteristics of a "young" wine, namely, freshness, fruitiness, marked taste of "black fruits" (i.e. cherries, raspberry, currants, plums, etc). These go especially well with chocolate and black fruit-based dessert.

Tawny port ages in smaller oak casks, which with the more surface contact with the wood obtain a more "nutty", and, as they age, a rather liqueur-like flavor as well. These are served typically as after-dinner drinks with dried fruits and, clearly, nuts, or on their own. Most producers offer several varieties of Tawny, depending on the average age in the oak barrels, typically 10, 20, 30, and 40 years. Red grape ports get clearer as they age and therefore in contrast with the deep cerise color of ruby ports they tend to be more amber-hued and transparent.

Now, there is also a particular kind of Port called the Vintage Port. This Port is always from the harvest of a single year and never a blend. These Ports, too, are typically treaded by foot in wide stone fermentation tanks called lagares which is laborious and costly. A Vintage Port, too, is produced only in years where the grape harvest produce was exceptional, and certain conditions need to be met before an official body can declare that particular harvest a Vintage year harvest. So, not only are these ports rather rare, but they also are aged in the bottle, and are the stuff all of those great Victorian stories are made of: namely, they keep basically forever (I saw one at the Sandeman cellars from the year 1908!), need to be decanted (for they form sediment as they age in the bottle), and can fetch for thousands of dollars at auction if particularly old.

Nah, I haven't had occasion to taste one, even though they do say that 1975 was a nice Vintage year. But, tradition says you drink the Vintage of the year of your birth when you reach the winter of your life. So I have long enough to save up some money yet, I hope. ;)

There is another kind, which is a bit like a compromise between a normal Ruby and a Vintage, and that is the Late Bottled Vintage. These are vintage ports aged for a couple of years in the barrel, and then in the cask/bottle for another 4-6 years. This wine is ready to drink, needs not be decanted, and if I remember correctly doesn't quite keep as well for as long.

Now, Port wine is a fortified wine, the reason it tastes so sweet. Back in 1703 when the British signed the Methuen Treaty which lowered the duties of Portuguese wine relative to those of France (with whom they were rather unfriendly at time), thus becoming the number one Portuguese wine market (and Adam Smith has a lot to say about these kinds of trade policies in his Wealth of..., by the way, going as far as using the Portuguese wine trade as an example...but I digress). The problem was that the wines did not travel well in the short trip across the sea, so the traders added brandy to them to prevent them from spoiling. Nowadays, pure grape spirit (aguardente) is used (colorless, and regulated to something like 77% alcohol content), and what this basically does is that it cuts short the fermentation process such that most of the natural grape sugar remains in the wine.

The Douro Valley, which is about 150 km east from the city of Porto (and unfortunately too far for me to bike through there, since it looks spectacularly beautiful from the pictures!), was the first ever officially demarcated wine region, by the Marquis de Pombal, back in 1756. It consists of the 3 regions: Alto Douro, where most of the Port wine grapes come from, Middle Douro, and Lower Douro. Two things make the Douro region unique: first of all, the mountainous terrain of the Marão, which protects the grapes from the winds of the Atlantic, and makes it very cold in winter and baking hot in the summer, with a variety of micro-climates along the region, and the type of soil, which is full of a rock called xisto (schist, I believe, in English), which is very hard to break and often requires dynamite to do so. On this rocky and mountainous terrain, the Portuguese wine producers build little terraces, some according to old tradition, following the contours of the mountains, and more modern versions running in rows perpendicular to the hillside, along the gradients. Because the soil is so rocky, this requires the vines to put forth long and strong roots in search for water, which somehow also contribute to the unique quality of the grapes produced.

Anyway, after listening to the little story/tour outlining the above for three or four times, you end up remembering it. That's why I wrote it up for you above. After the tours, you get to do some wine-tasting, as I've hinted before. If you are a complete newbie, like me, the first few tastings are spent training your senses and memory to distinguish between the types of Port mentioned above (but in a simplified way: just whites vs ruby vs tawny, and the occasional LBV or reserve). This doesn't take too long, however, and by the second or third tasting you're easily able to tell which kind of Port it is even without looking at it.

Here's where it gets interesting. After you can easily distinguish the types, you suddenly start noticing slight variations in the same type of Port between different wine producers. Perhaps one of them here produces a wine that is rather "flat", or homogeneous. That is, the wine tastes of "one thing", not necessarily only one flavor, for it could be a mix of things: maybe apricot as well as cherry or whatever but the point is that the flavor, blend or not blend tastes the same throughout the time it takes for the wine to first touch your lips to the time it leaves your mouth. There is no "group delay", between the different component flavors, so to speak (for those of you engineering types), they all arrive at the same time and stay at the same time, the "taste vs time" function is a constant, and if you could somehow take the Fourier Transform of the taste in time, with the frequency axis becoming a "taste frequency" (a la "spatial frequency" of the 2D Fourier Transform, where "frequency" has nothing at all to do with number of periodic oscillations per second), it would be an impulse centered at the "predominant taste", or if not an impulse, at least a very narrowband spectrum. Does this make sense? To give you another example, ever tried the "tutti-frutti" juice flavor? How it is a blend of several fruits but in general when bottled up by a major juice company it no longer tastes of the individual fruits that make up the juice but tastes instead of an undefined, "new" flavor that is called "tutti-frutti" but as to what exactly the components are it is hard to tell if the blend is made such that not one taste predominates: you can tell a few components, maybe even all, but it doesn´t taste of any one of them at any given time, it simply tastes of "the blend". That, to me, is a "flat" wine. It is also, to me, rather boring.

The nicer wines, the ones more interesting, the ones I call more "complex" (but I don't know if this is what other people refer to as "complex", perhaps a knowledgeable person can comment here later...), have a nice "group delay". They taste different the instant the liquid touches your tongue, then some other taste or impression takes over, and then at the end it is something else, still, perhaps a spyciness, and it is cool sometimes to distinguish, between one winery and the next, whether the spyciness is from something like cinnamon, for instance, or pepper instead, one biting but sweet, another piquant and warm. Have you ever looked at a Van Gogh painting up close? His brush strokes are never only one color. If you look carefully, and you have to be standing very close to the painting to be able to appreciate this (and it has to be an original, of course, a poster or a photograph won't show this), you will notice that his brushstrokes look like the brush was holding at least 3 different colors. The blue you see, yes, it is blue, but it has white and yellow edges. Van Gogh saturates the brush with paint, so that when the brush strikes the canvas the predominant color (the blue, let's say), is in bass relief, the edges, white and yellow, very narrow strips of, stand at about a millimeter or two above the canvas, deliniating the stroke. And when he puts another brushstroke right beside it, the delineations do not blend into one another, they stand there still. But you need to be close, pay careful attention, to notice this (from afar, it will simply look like a blue brushstroke). Such too, a fine wine, I think.

The wineries. As I had occasion to visit the cellars of several over the course of 3 afternoons, I soon began to notice, not just the difference in tastes between the same kind of wines executed by a different producer (a Mozart--a simple, straight forward composition---played here by Von Karajan---flat!, another here played by the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields--complex!), but eventually, too, a common denominator between the varieties of wine within the same producer. Thus, Sandeman, high alcohol taste, which tends to overpower the more fundamental flavor of the wine not just towards the end, but as early as the middle...not fun, in my opinion. Or Quinta do Noval, nice, but not too complex. Fonseca, reliable, the type of Port I would keep at home for the occasional guest, in the words of a friend, "to be trusted", indeed, but not extraordinary, I found. Ramos Pinto....

Ah, slight digression on Ramos Pinto, because this producer is a very interesting study in marketing. Ramos Pinto came rather late to market, founding the company in 1880, a good 150-200 years later than some of the other, more established companies. What this effected was that Adriano Ramos Pinto (the 21 year old founder!) had to come up with some really innovative ways to sell his Port wine, and he did this very intelligently in two ways: 1. He concentrated first on exporting to Brazil, a still relatively new market, and 2. Once he was established as the leading Port producer consumed in Brazil he followed with an aggressive, controversial advertising campaign quite successfully back in Europe, engaging the most renowned artists of the time to design his posters and bottle labels, as well as marketing/promotional gifts, which were of very fine class and soon became collector's items (combs, accoutrements for women, fountain pens, cigar accessories for men, etc). You may recognize them because some of them have become classics of Art Nouveau (see pic above), and he always made sure that all of his advertisements and labels were quite a bit controversial for the time (see for instance, this one, which is rather tame by modern standards).

Anyway, Ramos Pinto, for all the "artistic" atmosphere of his marketing, I found his wines of a rather "masculine" aroma, with hints of raw tobacco and cedarwood, and clearly more of a liqueur than wine.

Taylor's is also an interesting producer of note: Taylor, Fladgate and Yeatman is probably one of the oldest Port producers, founded in 1692, and to this day still family owned, never sold or taken over. Their Ports are very nuanced, subtle, and delicate, "feminine", if you will, almost at the opposite end of the spectrum of Ramos Pinto, character/personality-wise (and I find them difficult to appreciate in a noisy room or where there are a lot of visual distractions...I miss a lot of things with these wines that way). There are some who say that you haven't lived if you have never sipped a glass of Taylor's 40 year aged Tawny with the sun setting behind the banks of the Douro and gazing onto Porto (Eu tenho setenta anhos. Eu sei o que eu digo...).

And this evening looking down the river in Vila Nova da Gaia, exhaling a sigh of contentment as the last drops of liquid caramel that follow a wonderful meal faded away with the dying rays of sunlight, perfectly free, unperturbed and unafraid of the thought of the ephemeral and solitary nature of this kind of happiness, I couldn't help but agree.

Friday, April 28, 2006

Porto, Day 2.

Strode over to the Stock Exchange, a nice palace we had missed yesterday since it was closed. The highlights of the visit included the General Assembly room, the walls and ceilings of which were painted in trompe l'oeil to resemble oak wood matching the furniture good enough to fool the closest inspection.

The other interesting feature of the Palacio da Bolsa was the Arabian Room, decorated in a rather baroque-like way with arabesques in stucco all over the walls, columns, and ceilings and hand painted on the windows in a noisy attack on the eyes enough to send anyone reeling. This room was designed and built by Portuguese artists during a time when the whole Arabian theme was seen as exotic and fashionable, but I very much doubt these guys had ever set foot in an Islamic country. At least, the room looked nothing at all like the Medersas and Palaces it was supposed to draw inspiration from that I've ever seen. Yikes, what a mess. {shrug}. However, it the room does inspire the sense of opulence, which I believe was the intended effect, however clumsily (in my opinion) achieved.

Anyway, another salient characteristic of the room was its supposedly "near perfect" and "wonderful" acoustics, ideal for concert hosting. Of course upon hearing this from the lips of the guide and having them echo noticeably from where I was standing nearby (remarkable acoustics, certainly, but not good for concert hearing!), I immediately walked away from the group to the extreme corner of the room where the echo was eliminated, and the difference in acoustic quality was striking. Again, not the ideal situation for a concert hall, if what you hear depends a lot on where you're sitting! So I started to become rather skeptical, and wondered if piano recitals would sound as overornate as the overwhelming decor of the room in question, what with the rather "wet" sound of the room, and the rather long sound permanence/reverb time/low absorbtion even at the far end away from the speaking guide, and decided it may perhaps not be too bad for some chamber works if the hall was full, but as it was, hearing the guide, it was not "near perfect" to me at all, but very far from it.

A little bit of reassurance ensued, when the guide mentioned in passing, at my remark that I thought the reverb time was rather longish for such a small room, perhaps around 1.8 secs or so was my guess, and whether she knew the exact number (she didn't, which was unfortunate, because I wanted to see how good my guess had been), that when the piano concerts took place, the piano was placed in the middle of the room, and the people took seats around it.

Aaaah, then. That makes a huge difference. With people surrounding, full hall, reverb time goes down, and with the piano in the middle, the listeners get more equal effects in terms of echo so that seating arrangement only matters, one hopes, in relation to the seating position with respect to the piano (i.e. near the sounding board or behind the pianist, as opposed to near the stage vs. far from the stage in a traditional concert hall). Would've been interesting, to catch a performance, but the next one is not until May 6th, which is a pity, as I'm hoping to be somewhere in Spain, by then.

Still, a very capricious and bizarre room, for my taste. There sure are some rather strange things to be found here in Portugal.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Porto, Day 1.

Camila, Brazilian friend, roommate from stay in Lisbon, who is currently studying/living in Braga, had entreated me to ring her up as soon as I approached Porto for possible hangout. Did so two days ago, while in Aveiro, and went to meet her at the train station today at 1:00 p.m. (It is uncany and wonderful, isn't it, how easily friendships are made while travelling?)

Before that, having a lot of time to kill, went out to find a laundromat and do some window shopping. I recently figured it all out about laundromats: the trick is to do your laundry in small towns, where they can finish the job easily in a day (most people here, it seems, do not use laundromats, they either wash at home or....I guess they wash at home then {shrug}), for in the big cities it seems they are always too busy--took me three laundromats before I could find one that could do the job in a day. And I only have like 4 T-shirts, and all my socks to wash (the rest can be washed in hostel, dries faster, but socks never dry on their own after washing, and besides, everyone knows they always disappear since they're either pairing averse, or recombinant-phillic, for you biology-inclined folks ha ha, so....)!!

Speaking of socks, had to buy another pair (see above). But this one came bundled up with a second, so, might as well be pretty socks, right? I got me some nice blue-and-green-striped ones, a la Cat in the Hat, only ankle length. Cool, huh? (maybe I'll post a picture of my "European" sock collection one of these days, it is getting rather variegated as I haven't been able to keep buying them all white the way they should be).

Anyway, after catching up with Camila over some nice buffet lunch (cheap! for 7 or so Euros you get quite a nice variety of stuff: pork spiedini, rice, fish, fruit, you name it) we headed off to the Torre dos Clérigos which is the tallest tower in Portugal. Had nice views and all, but only 240-something steps. So it is not too tall, after all.

From there we stopped at the Sè Catedral to admire the azulejo-covered cloister before heading for the fun part: wine tasting on the other side of the river, at Vila Nova da Gaia, across the magnificent Ponte Dom Luis I.

Aaaaah, what a beautiful, beautiful day. The wine tasting part, man, now I understand a California friend of mine. I could do this forever. And chattering the day away with Camila was so much fun. Wine tasting, like many other things, is so much better in good company.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Trip dist: 81 kms. Trip time: 6:16 mins. Tot dist: 460 kms.

(Clicky on picture above for movie)

Elastic pills.

Ride to Porto from Aveiro was rather boring, for the most part. Flat and easy but not much to see other than generic little towns the looks of which one could easily just substitute in place for one another and it just seemed like....hey, you know, Mexican author Juan José Arreola once wrote a short-story in his book Confabulario (a very nice book for cold and lazy rainy afternoons, by the way, I heartily recommend it) called El Guardagujas (I believe translated as "The Switchman" in English), about a train track-switching operator (bear with me here, this is relevant. Just hold the thought while I finish this apparent tangential diversion). If you read Spanish, you can actually get the whole text of the short-story in question here. Anyway, in it, he describes how sometimes, the train company operators at this station in the story scroll moving landscape paintings through the train windows in order to give passangers the illusion that the train is moving, even when it is not, complete with elaborate sound tracks and cabin movements. You know how you sometimes are watching cartoons on TV, and the cartoon character for some reason or another starts running, but what actually happens is that the animated figure just moves its legs in place, figure always on the same spot on the screen while the background moves instead? And how, after a while, the background motif, which kind of looks as if someone is just rolling the landscape tape, suddenly ends, so it wraps around and you start seeing the same background all over again as the figure keeps running but going nowhere? And the worst thing is, it rolls and wraps a little bit too often, just often enough to keep the sequence dull and annoying if it lasts for too long?

Well, the ride to Porto from Aveiro was kind of like that.

It is amazing, though, the kind of games the mind comes up with when it's bored.

For instance. Do you know how you say "chewing gum" in Portuguese? Pastillas Elasticas. Elastic pills. Amusing, huh? I discovered this on a short stop at a roadside cafe/pastelria/bar/restaurant. They looked kind of cute, and who could resist the opportunity to tell the friends: "What, you mean you've never tried Portuguese elastic pastilles?", so I bought a few of them.

And the games began. You start riding, 60 kms to go, fairly hot weather, dull and boring (and probably, no, surely, it must be, wrap-around repeating) landscape. You have 5 pieces of chewing gum, all different flavors. To optimally distribute along the trip, of course, you have to chew one piece no more often than every 12 kms. But if the flavor of each elastic pill lasts only 2.4 kms (and I know this exactly, for I measured it), then what? Do you step up the pace of the pedalling to make them last longer, distancewise? Or do you slow down the chewing, to make them last longer, timewise? And how much rest between flavor switching do you need to optimally separate the different flavors of gum so that they don't get mixed together and confuse themselves? And boy I just passed this tractor on the road don't I get a chewing-gum reward? And oh, how curious, this blue cotton-candy-flavored one with pink speckles, it tastes exactly what the after the rain California clouds and sky look like!

And so on and so forth.

Sometimes, you get lucky, and a diversion is provided by the events of the road. Let's say one of the townspeople passes you on his bike on a slight ascent (since you've geared down--up? I never get them right--to minimize the effort, and his bike is only 1 speed, so his cycle travel is longer). Pride of course tells you that you must try to overtake him on the flat stretches, and you do so with little difficulty. But then, of course, this results in wounded pride on behalf of the townsperson, who then very discreetly, for they can't say anything while you're passing them, even though you turn to look at them with a whimsical smile to say: "See, I know you passed me before on the uphill, but so what? On the flats I pass you and I'm carrying 40 kgs of luggage!!"), they try to keep up right behind you as long as the flats last and at the next slight incline---ZAP!! They pump up hard and standing up and with super human effort pass you as you leisurely gear down and continue pedalling with the same stride, just slower, saving all your energy and meanwhile chewing gum at your leisure.

I always let them win, in the end. They're not biking to Istambul, after all. ;)

Anyway, ride to Porto veredict: easy, but boring. It only got interesting on my ascent from the coast to the Ponte da Arrabida from the beach, where it got pushwalk-the-bike-with-its-40-kgs-of-luggage-at-2.5-kms-per-hour-with-no-traction-sneakers-for-a-full-kilometer-or-two-at-at-least-17%-steepness-grade-oh-my-God-I-think-I'm-going-to-die strenuous (yes it was way worse than Passo Cisa, only, thankfully, a lot shorter!).

But, at the same time, I discovered Porto gentlemen are quite gallant and one does not need to wear a flirty skirt to be a damsel in distress. The two cyclists who helped me on the bridge, one at the entrance, giving me directions, and the stockbroker at the end, riding with me to the center of town, were most amiable and quite good-looking, too.

Not a bad ending for the day's mental and physical exercise. :)

Tuesday, April 25, 2006


Trip dist: 82 km. Trip time: 5 hrs 39 min. Total dist: 379 kms.

(Clicky on picture for movie)


Aaah, this is what bike rides should be like. What a nice, short, easy ride from Coimbra to Aveiro. If I were running a bike-touring company, this is the ride I'd recommend for Portugal. Flat, quiet national roads with scant traffic, through lush young forests and little towns chockablock full of azulejo-covered houses.

Heh. You know how sometimes, when you're in a ship or boat out at sea, dolphins like to swim behind the wake of the boat, and they play and cris-cross around and in front of the hull, and everyone watches, enthralled, because they seem to have so much fun, and they're so cheery and happy and it is like a bit of good luck?

The same thing happened to me as I was passing one of the towns. All of the sudden, I hear the jovial calls of some 7 or 8 youngsters aged 14-17, who caught up with me on their mountain and cross bikes, rode with me for a brief minute or two, criss-crossing each other and surrounding my bike as I rode, and then at the quick command of one of them suddenly veered off and vanished onto one of the side-roads as quickly as they appeared.

Gave me a few minutes of chuckling, that one. Put me in a good mood. :)

The weather was quite warm, summerlike, almost, but the scenery and easy ride made up for it, and it was such a nice ride I truthfully didn't want it to end, that is, until about 10 kms from Aveiro when a passing car unintentionally splashed me with about a bucketfull of some pothole-marinated brackish water, at which point I pedalled as fast as I could to reach the safety and showers of the Aveiro Youth Hostel.

Monday, April 24, 2006


Day tripped by train to Tomar. I think I spent more time in the trains and train stations waiting for connections than in Tomar and surroundings combined. Which kind of sucked.

Anyway, Tomar is interesting because of the Convent of Christ, which was the site and base of operations for the Knights Templar. It used to be a Moorish stronghold, but then the Christians took it over and it was important in the push to recover the southern parts of Iberia. Of course after the Templars were dissolved the castle changed hands, first to the Order of Christ (ergo the name the Convent of Christ) then to some royals, and eventually to the state, for your and my viewing touristing pleasure.

The architecture is quite interesting, again, long histories tend to beget a bit of a mish-mash of styles, but I was happy with my visit, and on the way down to the center of town my brain was playing Il Vecchio Castello from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition over and over in my head.

Me wanna buy me a castle. Carlos, my man, when are you going to make a killing in the stock market? :P

Pictures at the usual spot (just be patient, the uploading may take a while---very painful from internet cafes, as you know).

Sunday, April 23, 2006


It is Sunday. Where are all the people? I mean, you'd think, that if the day is of rest, they'd come out of their homes and hang out somewhere, right?

Looks like desert town here. Even though Coimbra is about as big as San Francisco.

Anyway, most of today I simply hung out, was way too tired to do any serious sightseeing or hill climbing (by the way, the cool thing about many of these Portuguese mountain cities is that they have conveniently-located elevators and funiculars all over the place! A lot of fun to ride, too. And my legs were thankful. :) So what if you think I'm a Warmduscher/lazy bum? I wanna see you after 100 kms of uphills!). Read a bit, even went to the movies (saw "The Insider". Cool movie about some bank robbers--my favorite kind. I've always wanted to rob a bank you know. So nice to see movies about the career you would've chosen had you had a bit less scrupules--or more freedom of choice, however you want to see it. :P). Saw a bit of the University--quite pretty, too.

Highlight of the day was probably the Octopus rice I had for dinner. Pretty good.

Tomorrow: Day trip to Tomar before I get too far along north to make it practical.

Oh, finally found out where all the people hang out on Sundays, too! Why, they're at the mall!! And near the mall there was an indoor soccer field, where the finals of some championship were being held. That's where all the kids, men and women up until the age of 40-ish were. They buy these long knit scarf thingies that they tie around all over where someone can tie things to one's body: neck, arms, waist, legs, you name it. Then they go wild calling out the name of the teams. Cool, huh? This time I think it was Benfica vs Pombal. Since I was wearing a red polo shirt that day, I think I was rooting for Benfica by default. Not sure if they won, though. After I came out from the movies the Benfica fans were moping around looking kind of dejected, so...


Saturday, April 22, 2006

Nazarè-Marinha Grande-Leiria-Pombal-Coimbra

Trip dist: 108 km. Trip time: 8 hrs 17 min. Tot dist: 297 kms.


Note to self: Elisa, beware the Siren's call of the Atlantic.

Going downhill/to the ocean is a bit like buying on credit: very nice now (on the downhills), but you pay (hard) later, should you then head inland.

Anyway, ride to Coimbra was a bit strenuous, mostly because of the climbs from Nazarè, some rather stressful stretches of road (very fast and high volume traffic on IC2 from Leiria to Pombal), and the fact that I stepped up the pace from Pombal to Coimbra (I had arrived to Pombal at 4:00 p.m., and it seemed too early to stop for the day, but Coimbra was 45 kms away, and very tempting given it is a rather big city--internet access ahoy!--but need to get there before the Gremlin hour, so....pedal like a banshee, basically).

Along the way north, starting from Pombal, more or less, I noticed people on my side of the road walking towards me wearing the reflective orange and yellow high-visibility vests that work crews tend to wear when fixing potholes. Only, these people were not work crews, as they were of a rather variegated sort: men, women, some children, but mostly women between the ages of 40-60, with the occasional male escort, always in groups of two to five, and carrying only a water bottle or a sweater, if anything.

I figured they were some volunteer group doing some sort of highway cleanup heading back towards Pombal after a day's work, and didn't give much thought to them, until I was about 20 kms away from the city in question, and a lot closer to some other fairly populous towns, and saw that the groups had not thinned, but continued walking, always in the direction of Pombal, and only on my side of the road.

Now, you'd think that if this were some sort of "keep our highways clean" campaign, they would distribute themselves more or less evenly along the stretch (which by now to me started looking a bit excessively long), with the result that by the end of the day, the volunteers would walk back to the towns they came from, some of them, then, necessarily, in the opposite direction as well, right?

But why were they all walking downhill in the direction of Pombal, then? This seemed a bit too deterministic...

The mystery cleared up 10 kms away from Coimbra, when I stopped briefly at Coninbriga to buy a chocolate bar and drink some juice at a side-street bar. A group of three fluorescent-vested folks had chosen to do the same (substitute Coca-Cola for juice) and I asked them, why was everyone walking southbound?

Turns out, they were pilgrims to Fàtima (which was, by this point, about 100 kms away!), this particular group coming all the way from Aveiro (another 70 or so kms away!), and doing all of the stretch walking, of course. (Does this start to sound like The Canterburry Tales to you yet?) Wow! Nutcases, if you ask me.


Still, these pilgrims are quite a bit smarter than I am. They go southbound, downhill, for their pilgrimage. It is only me who buys on credit, then arrives crawling at the hostel in unforgivingly mountain-encrusted Coimbra regretting every second of it before collapsing onto bed.

Friday, April 21, 2006


Day tripped (by bus. Both of these townies are only 20 or so kms from Nazarè, but biking the round-trippy through uphills is a big pain in the neck) to Batalha and Alcobaça, two must-see UNESCO World Heritage Sites, mostly because of the monasteries.

In the Church of Santa Maria de Alcobaça, the acoustics are impressive. What do you expect with a vault like this?

In the Batalha Monastery, one of the most interesting features is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dedicated to the soldier that died in the great war 1914-1918.

They also have a museum of offerings to the unknown soldier: everything from banners, photographs, engraved stone tablets, medals, crowns of flowers, palms and olive branches of bronze, plaques, letters, ornaments in filigree of gold, from presidents and ambassadors and representatives of all countries: USA, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Poland, France. They even have medals (of all sorts, of valor, conmemorative, etc) from commanders, lieutenants, and soldiers of future wars, some too, who also died in combat, many years since.

And as I wandered around the room filled with all these reverent treasures, I couldn't help thinking: What bulls$#%t. None of this is worth anything, the moment a kid dies alone in a war that is as nonsensical and meaningless as this collection of trinkets.

Tomorrow: Bike to Leiria and onwards to Pombal, if time permits.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Torres Vedras-Caldas da Rainha-Nazarè

Trip dist: 78 km. Trip time: 5 hrs 25 min. Tot dist:188 km.

Man, someone should invent some windshield-wipers for the eyes. Road to Nazarè was fairly flat, difficulty moderate, but it drizzly-rained for about two hours' worth of the ride, and for a while there I was as soaked as if I had taken a swim in the Atlantic.

Oh, by the way, I figured out something important. The rides lately have been cold and windy, so I ride with track pants and fleece sweater and windbreaker, so I'm all covered up, pretty much. This morning, in the shower with the warm water, I felt that the back of my hands, the only part left uncovered while riding, were sunburnt from the ride. So that's why people wear bike gloves! {shrug}

Decided to stop at Nazarè, and use it for base of operations for day trips to Batalha and Alcobaça (two UNESCO World Heritage sites within a 20 km radius) mainly for two reasons: 1. The Let's Go guide says that they have internet here, and 2. Who can resist the pull of the golden beaches and deep turquoise waters of the Atlantic?

Anyway, pics at the usual spot.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Sintra-Ericeira-Torres Vedras.

Trip dist: 74 km. Trip time: 6 hrs, 19 min. Tot dist: 110 km.

(Cliky here or on picture above for movie)

Note to self: Just because a road looks inviting, with all the pretty trees and quaint views and is all downhill, wishing it were the correct road doesn't make it so.

Note to self #2: Don't so easily trust the directions of friendly-looking little old men.

Started day off on schedule by 10:30 a.m. after stopping by a nearby Pastelaria to buy a sandwich for the road. In the downtown, veered off to where directions seemed to indicate Ericeira, following the flow of most of traffic onto a fairly large and pleasant-looking road. Satisfactorily noted it was all downhill (Sintra is atop a mountain, and Ericeira is on the beach, so makes sense, right?), and settled in for a relaxing, enjoyable ride....until the names of the towns I was passing started to sound familiar from that morning's map check....and not in a good way.

Turns out, I had taken a road perpendicular to the road I was supposed to be on. By the time I realized this, I had already coasted 10 kms downhill and what was worse, there was no easy way to try to cut an hypotenuse (confirmed, too, after asking two or three different people). So, back uphill to Sintra. Took about an hour and a half to get back for a total time waste of 2 hours, let alone the energy drain. Blech!

Anyway, at around 12:30 I was back in Sintra, exactly where I started, but this time I took the correct road, and reached Ericeira at around 3 p.m.ish, through 25 kms of rolling hills, a bit reminiscent of biking through Tuscany (i.e. moderately strenuous), only not quite as pretty (too many brick and tile factories along the way).

Along the coast from Ericeira to San Lourenço there are a lot of steep ups and downs, again, a very tough ride, and made me worry whether I'd be able to reach Torres Vedras on time, due to Subsumption Rule#1, also better known as: "Under no circumstances do you bike after sunset." Luckily, after San Lourenço the road was rather flat (O.K., no, it wasn't, it was slightly uphill, but with a very gentle gradient, which after the 35 or so kms of horrible climbs and descents that seemed too short to match, was flat enough for me).

Got to Torres Vedras at about quarter to seven (trip time, including unintended, 19 km "scenic detour", about 6.5 hrs), after which I ate and promptly collapsed into bed.

Tomorrow: North to Caldas da Rainha, and Nazarè if time permits.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Sintra, Day 2.

Stayed an extra day in Sintra to visit Palacio da Pena (was closed yesterday, being Monday), constructed by Prince Ferdinand of Bavaria as a summer retreat. Boy, what a garish piece of architecture (pics here). What a mish-mash of styles: Moorish tilework, Manueline windows, German & Portuguese style mess.

Which just goes to show that being rich and royal ≠ taste.


Saw Lisbon from one of the Palace towers, with the two bridges (Vasco da Gama and 25th of April) flanking it. Neat seeing that and thinking: Oy! That's where I just came from, 35 kms away!

Then went and visited the Quinta de la Regaleira. Would make an awesome hotel. But the coolest thing about the Quinta de la Regaleira is the initiation well. At the bottom of the well (see movie here), which must be 20 or 30 meters deep, is a cavern, with twisting passageways almost studiously designed to disorient a hapless "victim", and aptly named "The Labyrinthine Grotto", eventually leading to either another little well (see pic here), or to a mini-lake, again a nice place to take your victim at nighttime: challenge them to find the stepping stones by moonlight, otherwise fall onto the pond, all the while with a dog chained to the adjacent stone doghouse barking horrendously....Could come right off The Hound of the Baskervilles, huh?

Heh, these Victorians were sure a strange bunch...

You see, the whole of the grounds of the Quinta de la Regaleira is designed with the allegorical "journey through life"/peregrinatio mundi motif, so all the little nooks and crannies, the well, for instance, the grotto, the courts and lakes and fountains, with names such as "Fount of Abundance", and "Guardian's Entrance", and "Terrace of the Celestial" and the like, are supposed to be little "stops" in an alegorical stroll you can take when you're bored from too much reading at home. I tell you man, the owners must've thrown some really good parties, what with the "make the guests ascend through the Initiation Well from Hell into Paradise and then walk among the Founts of Abundance" kind of thing. Oh, and the garden, too, has lots of hidden corners with little seats built in out of stone, expressly for the purpose for lovers to kissy kissy. Hah ha. {shrug}.

Tomorrow: bike northwards towards Torres Vedras or Caldas da Rainha, then stop.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Sintra, Day 1.

Made my way to historic centre of Sintra, a feast for the eyes and a photographer's paradise (see for instance here). Sintra was taken over by the Moors from whose castle they dominated all the way to Cascais and the Northern end of the Tejo river, and which, by the way, you can appreciate on a clear day from atop the Castelo dos Mouros, a vigorous 2 or so hour hike up the road from the town's historic centre.

Anyway, the Palacio Nacional (it is that white building that pops out often in the photos, with the two conical structures), has some nice relief tiles added on to the original Moorish ones (the palace was originally built by the Arab geographer Al-Bacr). Remember what I told you about tile innovation a few posts ago?

The juxtaposition of Moorish and Portuguese is quite striking in the Palatine chapel, where rather ironically the Christian altar is decorated in very typical, geometric-patterned Moorish-styled tiles, and in the ceiling of the chapel, the Portuguese royal coat of arms is overlaid among the also characteristic Islamic intertwined wooden arabesques.

The white conical spires? They make the kitchen ceilings! Lots of smoke when cooking, I guess. They're about 35 meters high, according to the curator of the rooms in question.

Anyway, after visiting the National Palace I took the nice verdant hike up to Palacio dos Mouros, which must've been a nightmare to defend, judging by the labyrinthine ramparts that twist every which way along the perimeter, that could've conceivabely been attacked from all sorts of odd angles. Or perhaps, maybe not, since the castle is right at the corner atop a big, steep hill, and fairly inaccessible, but then again, who knows, since simply standing on the ramparts with the view to Cascais and the Ocean and Lisbon all around at 360°, with the cold and the wind bellowing in your ears at vertiginous speeds, is enough to make you expend all concentration in making sure you don't fall off the ramparts yourself. {shrug}.

Man, I could live here in Sintra. Got my laundry done (the concept of coin-operated laundromats doesn't seem to exist here, so you have to leave your stuff at the laundry shop, dry-cleaning style), and their library has a beautiful broadband connection. What more could one want?

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Lisboa-Sintra. Trip distance: 36 km. Total distance: 36 km.

Well, made it to Sintra (linky to movie by clicking on picture above). Took a lot longer than expected, leaving Lisbon was a bit difficult since the easiest route to Sintra is on the IC 19, a freeway, where bikes are, of course, not allowed. It was amusing though (at least it was the first 7 or so times, after that...not so funny anymore), when most of the people I asked for directions, even when doing so from the bike, kept suggesting I take that route.

{shrug}Anyway, navigated mostly through inter-city and inter-town roads, namely, by way of Lisbon-Benfica-Amadora-Queluz-Cacém-Mem Martins-Sintra, not my favorite type of ride (too many people, through towns and traffic, extremely confusing turns and way too easy unintended exits onto IC 19).

And yes, it was uphill and mostly against the wind the whole way!! ;). (Lisbon is at sea level, Sintra is most definitely not--see pics!).

Found place to stay at Casa de Hòspedes D. Maria da Parreirinha, a very beautiful place, not too expensive (about 30 Euro/night), so charming, in fact, to consider a place to bring the boyfriend, quaint and pretty.

Tomorrow: sight-see Sintra and surroundings.

Saturday, April 15, 2006


Nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos.

Made my way to Èvora, a sleepy little town just two hours away from Lisbon by bus (don't worry, there will be lots of time for biking yet), and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The place is very quiet, has a nice plaza downtown for coffee drinking/ice-cream eating and people watching. They sell some local crafts here, including, curiously, stuff made from cork. They seem to treat cork a bit like paper or leather, making purses, shoes, and even chair seats out of them. Very strange.

Anyway, other than the quaint little town one of Evora's claim to fame is the Capela dos Ossos, the Chapel of the Bones. Turns out three Franciscan monks built this chapel as a type of memento mori. The walls and ceiling are all made out of skulls and bones (see pictures here), and this rather macabre idea was all done in order to encourage the worshipper to think about life and death.

Blech. Death? How....boring. What's there to somberly ponder about anyway? I mean, once you're dead, there's not much left to think about, right? With you no longer having a brain and all?

As for me, I'd rather think about life sitting under the shade of a tree in the middle of a summer meadow somewhere, birds chirping and the wind blowing in my hair.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Lisbon, Day 5. Belem.

Went to the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Mosteiro dos Jerònimos and Torre de Belém. Also the adjacent National Museum of Archaeology, which was rather small (only three medium-sized rooms) for a National museum, methinks. Nothing particularly exciting. I like downtown Lisbon better. Oh, and no, my friends, that's not the Golden Gate bridge in the background of the pictures (though it really looks like it, doesn't it?), it is the 25th of April bridge, crossing the River Tejo.

Movie, too, here.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Lisbon, Day 4.

Visited Graça. Took me 3 hours to walk there. Mostly because I got lost. Several times. {shrug}. Ran into a Kiwi friend from the YH. Visited Panteão Nacional, which contains the tombs of very famous Portuguese figures, including the renowned fado singer Amalia Rodrigues, the navigator and explorer Vasco da Gama (his is not a tomb, just a tomblike memorial), and several Portugal ex-presidents.

Afterwards I headed over to the National Tile Museum (Museu Nacional do Azuleijo), which I was quite looking forward to since a great number of Lisbon houses' façades are covered in this kind of work (see for instance pictures here. Apparently the Portuguese had a taste of the exotic, and were quite taken by the Moorish custom of almost completely covering house/palace interiors and exteriors in intricate tilework, so they copied it here, except they "europeanized" it a little. Well, not so little, as you can see from some of the depiction styles in the photos (i.e. the blue on white, which is a bit reminiscent of some Dutch ceramics). So much for the exotic. But I guess this is a prime example of innovation, right? Take something good, then tweak it to suit you. (Only this innovation came in art, as opposed to technology, or rather, that's not quite true, because the Portuguese started using tile relief, thus requiring casting tile molds, which the Moors did not, so...). Heh, in the 1700's, the Portuguese were already showing the makings of the engineering instinct. ;)

Oh, by the way, I'm re-thinking the photo/video sharing system. Instead of posting links here in the blog for you to click on, from now on just access the following root directory from your browser:

From there you can see both the pics and the movies, respectively (of course, you can also access through blog links, I'll provide one on each post where there is stuff to link to). If for some reason you can't view/download (you can view without downloading, I think), be patient, it means my quota was exceeded. Email me and I'll either find a way to increase it or send you another link).

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Lisbon, Day 3.


Oy! Finally managed to sleep through the night!

So in the morning and in great spirits I made my way up to the Alfama district with its great leg-shaping ascent up to the Castelo de São Jorge. The Castelo itself is not particularly exciting, mostly only ramparts left, but the views of the city are spectacular (for pictures, see here). Afterwards, I headed down to the Sé Catedral and hung out at the cloister and viewed the small "Treasures of the Cathedral" exhibit, whose pride and joy and centerpiece is the Custodia (where the Eucharist is held). Nice, but not as rich/ostentatious as other similar items seen in the rest of Europe (National Swiss Museum, for instance, let alone the Vatican Museums), in spite of the 4,000 precious stones and the 20-something kilograms of gold from Brazil it took to craft it. Not surprising, then, when Adam Smith, in writing back in 1750 about general colony management principles, always likes to use Portugal as an example of what not to do in terms of economic policy. {shrug}.

Anyway, later in the evening I convinced three folks I had been befriending over the YH hallways, elevator, and breakfast table to go listen to some fado with me. The trio are Mexicans living abroad (Andrea, living in Switzerland, David, living in Madrid, Murielle, Belgian, speaking perfect Spanish, girlfriend of David), and they are all very good-natured and cheery, in a familiar and rather nostalgic (for me) kind of way, so it was a good combination for company. We headed up to Bairro Alto at 10:30ish, and upon arriving at the Metro station, seeing the people walk in without presenting the ticket to the machines, we did so also. I had no ticket myself at the time, since I tend to buy them right at the machines, and asked about this custom of walking through, and why people did it (for the locals seemed to have no issue with it), and got just shrugs as response.

Well, you know what's coming, right? Apparently they never inspect tickets, but lo and behold as we were about to exit the Baixa-Chado station (where we were going) here are a bunch of uniformed security folks checking the throng of people for their tickets. David and Murielle passed through in the crowd and confusion, but Andrea and I were held up, me doubtless attracting a lot of attention since I was wearing my wonderful fluorescent yellow jacket, a nice little bullseye in a sea of darkly-collored and fast-moving people. Andrea managed to produce an old ticket, to which the security guy paid no careful scrutiny, but I, of course, not having one, am at this point delaying and pretending to have more difficulties with the language than I usually do (this served me nicely some time ago in Poland--I "didn't understand" my way out of a jaywalking ticket once). By this time, the rest of the crowd had passed through, and me and Andrea, who was waiting for me, were the only ones left hanging back. Sucks. Around this time, Andrea headed over to where Murielle and David were, and upon seeing this I started to get a little worried, for I figured they would probably just go on along, but instead shortly afterwards as I kept dilly-dallying with the guard I felt Andrea slip something into my back jeans pocket. Well, lo and behold, the "misplaced" Metro ticket suddenly appeared!!

The guard was not stupid, though. He immediately demanded to see Andrea's ticket again, to which I paled, because I figured she had just given me hers. Ha ha. Nah. Mexicans are clever and good with "transas" (we even have a name for it, you see!)--the ticket was David's. So we passed, laughing and reviewing and marvelling at how shaky and nervous we all had been with the trickery on our way up the stairs to street level.

So that was my brief stint as an outlaw. ;P.

Anyway, the fado was pretty neat, the restaurant was rather upscale and had a lot of traditional elegant ambiance. When we left at 1:30 a.m. (so much for trying to get rid of my jet lag) the streets outside were teeming with people, clubs blaring jazz here and techno half a block away and in general as lively as if it were a busy midday Sunday at the market. Tell that to the South Bay engineers who have nothing to do weekend evenings. Me party 'till the morning on a weekday, hee hee, and me no go to work tomorrow! Ha ha ha ha ha!

Sorry folks, but gloating is a big part of the fun, you know.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Lisbon, Day 2.

Blech, jet lag sucks. I haven't been able to sleep for more than 2-4 hours a night for the past four days now. 'Till when is this going to last?

Lack of sleep of course does nothing to invigorate one's energy levels, so spent most of the day catching up on errands, phone calls, emails, etc. Oh, by the way, I finally got me my very first ever mobile phone (a spiffy Nokia 6030--dual band with web browser, instant messaging and all that good stuff, cool huh?)! If you'd like to contact me, send me an email, and I'll forward you the number (just mind the time difference).

In the evening, I strolled to the river and wandered about another section of Bairro Alto before settling for a delicious albeit rather salty grilled sardine dinner near Chiado (note to self: if the fish you're served isn't gutted, avoid eating the insides. They're exceedingly bitter and rather unpleasant). Remembered it is supposed to be Easter week here, so good excuse to sample all the richly-varied seafood dishes of the city. While you wait, they come by with bread and little apetizer thingies, like cheese, or fish patè. The Patè de Atun was quite good, a bit like the vitello tonnato sauce, but without the capers and maionaise flavor, and a tiny bit more "livery". Need to try the sardine patè next time.

By the way, it seems that the "blend in with the locals" project is going along just peachy. Why, this afternoon a couple asked me, in perfect Portuguese, for directions. To which I replied, in perfect Portuñol (i.e. half Spanish, half my guess as to what Portuguese ought to sound like), that I was a tourist and had no idea whatsoever (by then I had aready ditched the maps, and I had a very, very vague notion of where I was located, let alone where the people who asked were going).

Oh, and remember I told you the Portuguese drive on the left side here? Well, no, actually, they drive on the right. They only drive on the left side on some 2-way streets but not others (the one right behind the Youth Hostel in particular), but as to how they know this in advance or what system exists to bequeath said streets with this unusual privilege is something I've not yet been able to discover.

Anyway, pictures here.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Lisbon, Day 1.

So, what's the first thing one does with vast quantities of relatively unrestrained freedom?

Why, one goes to buy socks, of course. (In all the haste and chaos and confusion, it turns out I had forgotten to pack them). ;)

Anyway, the worst hours for jetlag are between 8 and 10 in the morning, which correspond to 12 to 2 a.m. in California. This is precisely when breakfast at the Youth Hostel is being served. Now, if you consider that not having slept much for 2 straight days was of no help in preventing me from waking up wide-eyed at Lisbon's 2 a.m. and remaining so 'till 6:30, well, then you'd appreciate the enormous sacrifice it took for me to tumble all zombie-like to the breakfast table at 9:30.

Breakfast wasn't all that bad though, since while not unexpectedly rather skimpy and with some pineapple juice that needed the correction of 2 packets of sugar, I enjoyed a pleasant conversation with my next-door table neighbor, a woman from Hamburg, who patiently suffered through my very enthusiastic but quite horrible grammar-mistake-ladden German. As it turns out, this girl had previously biked the Vienna-Budapest Danube bike route, in my plans for late July/August, and told me all about the 3 days of plains and 2 days of easy hills I had to look forward to.

After breakfast I took a brief stroll in the YH surroundings. The recoinossance mission was quite useful for I quickly discovered a cheap internet cafe, several mobile phone stores, and a chinese-owned cheap miscellaneous shop selling everything from coats to alarm clocks and cookware sets.

This, however, was not good enough to cure the jetlag, unfortunately, so at this point I decided to honor subsumption rule #3 and take a 1.5 hour nap upon arriving back at the hostel, which was good, because by mid-afternoon I was all refreshed, clean, and shiny from a newly-minted shower, so I took a leisurely stroll down to Baixa, one of Lisbon's downtown neighborhoods. Lisbon is very much like almost any big city, a bit reminiscent of Zurich, or Boston, Mexico City at some points, or even Morocco's Fez, but with the rather obvious difference in the last two cases that Lisbon is a bit more "european". Which is of course a polite and rather euphemistic way to of saying that the city is rather obviously economically richer, and overall cleaner and very well maintained, for the most part. Still, this doesn't prevent the Portuguese from driving just like Mexico City taxis, pedestrian ignoring and obnoxious ineffective horn tooting included.

Oh, by the way, did you know that the Portuguese drive on the left side of the road? No? Well, I didn't either. But believe me I learned that pretty quickly after a near miss during my very first crossing of a busy intersection. :)

Anyway, for pictures of my afternoon Baixa and Bairro Alto wanderings, take a look here (uploading from the internet cafes is excruciatingly painful, so you might not yet get a complete set until later when I finish all the uploads...). And if you'd like to listen to some of the sounds of the city, take a look at the mini-movie here (and please excuse my accent. I've noticed it's become a lot thicker in English the more I converse with foreigners. Bad habit I'll have to try to consciously correct).

As you'll notice from the frequency of the type of pictures, you can see that I was quite taken with the windows of Bairro Alto. Could come straight from a calendar, huh? If you have PhotoShop or similar, may I suggest you take a look at some of them in black and white, they look rather nice that way. Anyway, I very much enjoyed my aimless meanderings along Barrio Alto: I had promptly ditched the map soon after arriving to Baixa, a bit on purpose, you see, because the map doesn't tell you, for instance, about the very exciting and doubtless quite artistic movie: Las Vampiras Lesbas do Sodoma, now playing at the corner theater near you, and other such treasures, like nice little restaurants along the hidden criss-crossing staircases, or the fortuitiously located (for it was right along the route of my drifting walkabout, as it happens) sock shop (yup, exclusively dedicated to socks. You just go up and say: "10 pairs of pink and red socks, please", and they serve you, like at a butcher's shop or something! Cool, huh?). There I finally bought 5 pairs, and which, although a bit more expensive than the Donald Duck patterned pair I was forced to buy in the morning at the supermarket, were at least all white, the way they should be. ;)

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Subsumption Rules.


Arrived in Lisbon at about 6 p.m.-ish after several delays, including the baggage claim, which took forever because bike is "special oversized" luggage and it seems sometimes like no one has ever seen one before. Anyway, it arrived a bit more beat up and broken than I was expecting (it seems to have taken several sideways falls), so spent a full hour in the airport fixing it and re-arranging the contents of the panniers, which had been opened at SFO airport for security checks. When I opened my panniers to see the toolbag missing, I panicked, for without it, I couldn't put the bike back together (for flying you need to twist the handlebars and remove the pedals). Luckily, however, they did not confiscate it, as it turns out they simply had painstakingly taken out every single item from the panniers and scrutinized it carefully, including unfolding of T-shirts, before putting them all back together fairly helter-skelter. Still, you have to hand it to them, when they show some consideration by at least attempting to fold back your clothes. So my irritation passed quickly upon observing this.

Getting the bike from the airport into town was a bit troublesome. The info desk claimed you can take it on the bus, but, as it turns out, that wasn't true according to the bus driver. Then, I attempted to load the bike (wheels removed) onto the back of a Mercedes Benz taxi, but the driver was not helpful and was quite adamant in not taking me with the bike. Eventually, a kind policeman flagged down another taxi, who had a better sense of humor than the first one. All in all, up until arriving at the Youth Hostel, a rather stressful time. (Consider, too, that I hadn't slept much in the past two days, since immediately after selling my car on Thursday afternoon the rest of the time was spent packing and running errands nonstop, including well into the night/early morning hours, and if it hadn't been for a set of close most kindhearted friends who pitched in with the packing and moving help at the last minute--on the very day of departure, no less--there's no way I would've been able to make it.)

Anyway, arrived here no problem, Youth Hostel (Pousada de Juventude de Lisboa, Rua Andrade Corvo, 46, 1050-009 Lisboa Tel:(21) 353 26 96) had place enough for me, and it is a very clean and comfy place, quite centrally located. At last, I could breathe freely, all responsibilities and worries left behind in a closed set of boxes and a storage space, the world left to me for the taking.

Now what?

Perfect freedom is such a useless concept. Every optimization problem requires some constraints, and any optimal decision making involves evaluating costs and benefits which, in a perfectly free system, are nonexistent. Even behavior requires some sort of systematic regulation (a moral code for instance, or etiquette rules, social conventions, personality, or biology, even), whether consciously or unconsciously chosen in view of one's own past experiences and observation of others' experience, or uncontrolledly inherited or involuntarily imposed, even, by one's upbringing and cultural background.

But when one is an uprooted stranger travelling in a foreign country, one can even attempt, if desired, to try to modify said constraints, because, being an unknown person in a new environment, there is no prior history of behavior in the new place that needs to be kept consisistent with the current one, and, since the stay is also temporary, the consequences of behavior are also a bit more relaxed, because you don't really have to live with them as much as if you had to stay. In my particular situation of the moment, too, there are no manner of economic concerns, or sentimental attachments to places and things, nor responsibilities to other people. A fine place to find oneself indeed, at least once in a lifetime. And while most people try in their teens to bend their rules as much as possible while freedom such as I just described is typically not granted to them, and the inherited rules of behavior have not been yet sufficiently put to the test by life's experiences, in my situation, by now, the deeply rooted "rules of thumb", including issues of morality, personality, and value systems have already been rather well tested and set.

This is not to say, of course, that I cannot nevertheless enjoy a kind of fun and liberty that most people never have available. However, this does not obviate the need for the creation of a few guiding principles to accomodate my particular, a lot more free of responsibilities and worries, current situation.

Back at MIT's AI Lab, Prof. Rodney Brooks came up with a system to make robots behave, or rather, appear to behave, intelligently, based on a simple hierarchy of rules. Basically, complex robot behavior is described, instead of on a case by case basis (if situation A, do X, if situation B, do Y instead, etc) like most traditional algorithms, by a set of simple instructions with a well-defined precedence rank. Basically, the robot just putters around running the lowest-level rule programmed into it, until the situation arises when another rule takes precedence over the lowest level rule. For instance, suppose we want to make a robot modelling a human-fearing but light-seeking insect. We might then create the following three hierarchy rules:

1. Wander about the room aimlessly
2. Seek the light
3. Run away from humans.

In this scenario, the rule with the highest number takes precedence over the lower-numbered rule. So the robot wanders about the room aimlessly until one of two situations occurs: a) a human approaches, or b) there is light in the room. Depending on situations a or b, the robot behaves accordingly, running away in one case, and approaching the light source in the other. And in more "complex" situations, say, when a human is carrying a light, the robot simply behaves according to the rule that has precedence, in this case, by running away, since that rule is higher on the scale than the "seek the light" one.

For this simple example, this system is hardly any different from a bunch of "if A, then do X, if B, then do Y, if A and B, do Y", but if you consider that a robot may have 20 or 100 different sensors and "stimuli", if you will, it must react to, then considering all possible combinations of A, B, and C ad infinitum stimuli becomes a very, very cumbersome task for the programmer (whom at this point, if he still insists on programming in such a manner, I am now allowed to call naive). Brook's system, is, of course, then, a whole lot simpler, because given combinations of stimuli, even combinations one has never thought of, all the robot has to do is apply the rule that has the highest precedence rank. He called this system "subsumption architecture", because the highest-precedence rule then hides, or subsumes, all the rules that are positioned lower in the hierarchy.

So, back to where we were. I think that for my current situation, my behavior needs some subsumption architecture modelling. After some thought, I came up with the following 3 simple subsumption rules, ranked top to bottom (i.e. highest priority rule at top of list):

1. Be safe.
2. Befriend the locals.
3. You are in no hurry.

Cool, huh? Very simple, but so elegant! The "befriend the locals" rule takes care of making sure I try all the local cuisine, experiment butchering the local language in conversations with the residents, attend music and folk dance and art performances, get lost in city centers, and all that good stuff. Rule number 3 ensures I have plenty of time to do this as well as time to rest, and is the default operating mode, because unlike most vacationers who need to get back at some point to their boring and stressfull jobs, I wake up every day from now on happy and excited and looking forward to a new day full of adventures, and that's a good thing.