Thursday, April 14, 2011

Portugal, Madeira Islands, Lisbon!

I will write up our recent trip to Portugal and post in two separate memos - Lynn's photos will come later when she gets a chance to post them. The first memo will deal with our ACrepositioning cruise aboard the Odyssey - one of the Seabourn Lines' sister ships - with a stop in the Madeira Islands. The second will be about our second stop in Lisbon where we stayed an extra four days and some of the surrounding area we visited ( The Seabourn Line (a division of Carnival Corp.) has five ships - three are 200 passenger and two are 400 passenger and a fifth is coming online - 400 passenger - in June of this year. We took their 200 passenger - Pride - from Fiji to New Zealand some 5 years ago and enjoyed it but now prefer their 400 passenger ship because there is a bit more restaurant variety (4), ACentertainment and you have more options of being alone should you so choose. State rooms are basically the same - roomy and luxurious. Seasbourn is top of the line when it comes to cruise ships - quality of food, service, accommodations, overall beauty and comfortability of the ship is first class It is all inclusive except for computer charges which are optional. Entertainment is good, not lavish, and their casino is small but you can still lose what you wish. We were 9 days crossing the Atlantic from Ft. Lauderdale to Funchal, Madeira our first stop. Aboard ship a typical day was eating three superb meals (some in our suite). Seabourn offers 24 hour room service. We worked out in their small gym, read, watched some movies in our spacious suite and enjoyed being with a few new on board friends and taking in the ship's entertainment. Weather was great - one day rough at sea. Our entertainment consisted of two excellent pianists - one classical with a show tune mix , the other played music from top American composers and gave interesting commentary about each piece - Rogers and Hart, Gershwin and Porter. They also had four young talented singers and dancers, an old pro magician or sleight of hand character, two excellent bands and a very good couple who performed various dances - Tango, Waltz etc.. Everything is inclusive including all the liquor any human can consume - no tipping unless you so choose. Our passengers were predominantly divided among English, German, American, a few French and some five or six other countries. One night I sat with a charming, elegant lady from London, now living in Monte Carlo whose deceased husband owned Aquascutum - the great English raincoat maker. She knew one of my fraternity brothers who had been Chairman of Burberry. We also met two friends of Atlanta friends, another couple who were friends of theirs and a couple from The Landings. We will maintain these relationships - all delightful people. One of the highlights of the cruise was the tour of the ship's galley and the lunch buffet where you selected from displays in the galley and took to the main dining room. Lynn's pictures will speak for themselves. The Odyssey has been named the number one ship in its class by Conde Nast . All in all I highly recommend a Seabourn Cruise and they are currently offering 50% - 60% discounts for the second person. Madeira Islands: - First Port Call: Funchal! Madeira has been described as the island of eternal spring - the island where summer goes to spend winter. The island is a burst of color, a possession of Portugal and Funchal is home to about a third of the island's 300,000 people. It is very volcanic, hilly and even on a beautiful clear day the top of Funchal could be, and when we were there was, covered, by clouds. Madeirans are descended from seafarers, are courteous and have great pride, as they should, in their beautiful island. It is a haven for European tourists seeking to get away from their continent's dreary cold weather. Churchill vacationed there and executed many of his paintings from one of Madeira's famous mountain top hotels. We docked within walking distance of their main street - Avenida do Mar. Three other larger ships were in port with us. The Madeira Islands are known for wine (Madeira) beautiful ceramic tiles and painted pottery, a variety of agriculture products and plants. Our self guided tour took us past the island's regional headquarters, the romantic Santa Catarina Park, their indoor modern shopping mall, buildings devoted to wine making and storage, the Se cathedral. We stopped in an art museum featuring the work of two brothers - one a painter the other a painter and sculpturor.Their work was somewhat reminiscent of Braque and Picasso, - muted colors and bold portrait work of locals and self. Some wonderful woodcuts as well. After about 3 hours of walking we headed back to the ship and had lunch on board. The ship remained in port from 9AM til 6PM - plenty of time to explore Funchal and the surrounding hills etc. Seabourn, as with all cruise lines, offers guided tours but none appealed to us and they generally are quite expensive and often duplicate what you can do on your own for somewhat less money. My impression of Funchal is that it is quaint, busy with tourists. We saw evidence of started and arrested construction due to the building boom and bust. The port city is a mixture of juxtaposed modern and old buildings but in a pleasing way. Not sure I would purposely vacation there but we did not get to the other side of the Island which is better known for its beaches. I would think The Canary Islands would be more an area destination place. The Madeira Islands are in the Atlantic Ocean some 350 miles from North Africa and 600 miles from Lisbon, our final port destination. Lisbon: Our second and final port of call was Lisbon. We disembarked at 9 AM ( 4 AM Savannah time) and cabbed to our hotel – The Tivoli Lisboa on Liberty Blvd – the main thoroughfare leading to the river. We planned a stay of some 4 days in Lisbon after our cruise. Our room was not ready so we registered and checked our bags. The doorman provided us with a map and marked some areas of interest and we did as we always do – we began our walk and discovery of our new home away from home We were disappointed at first because we, as I will note later, thought we had found the doorman’s marked area when, in fact, we had not. We did walk for some 3 hours before returning to the hotel. Portugal was settled by Phoenicians as a series of coastal trading posts, including one at Lisbon, around 1200 BC. Romans came on the scene in the 3rd -6th centuries bringing a new religion – Christianity. Following the Romans came the Vandals and Visgoths. From the 8th – 14th centuries, Moors came from Africa and occupied Lisbon around 714 AD. For four centuries Christians fought the Moors and in 1147 the Crusaders helped King Alfonso 1 capture Lisbon (1147.). In the 15th – 17th centuries Prince Henry the Navigator set the stage for the heroic era of discoveries – Vasco de Gama sailed from Lisbon around The Cape of Good Hope for East Africa and India. Portugal became the greatest colonial power of the time. Between Portugal and Spain they controlled over half of the discovered world. In the 18th – 19th centuries a tsunami and subsequent fires destroyed Lisbon (1755.) In the 20th Century The Portugese Monarchy fell and after several governments, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar became president and established an authoritarian government (1932 – ’68.). Portugal’s small population and their extensive colonies bled the country and in 1974 the military overthrew Salazar in the ‘Red Carnation’ revolution. Thus, Portugal is a very new European Democracy. Portugal is now a member of NATO, maintains a small navy and has no compulsory military service. It was neutral during WW 2 and we saw various hotels where the Gestapo and various Allied nation’s spies resided and checked on each other right in the heart of town. We were told they were particularly interested in monitoring plane traffic to Africa. Lisbon is a stone’s throw from The Atlantic Ocean but because of its architecture, birds of paradise etc. is like a Mediterranean city. Lisbon, like Rome, sits on seven hills. Because of wars and earthquakes Lisbon does not have a multitude of grandiose monuments, though the few they have, are impressive. What they do have are clanging trams – number 28 is the best to tour the city – and its streets are paved mosaics whose designs create optical illusions. Many of their buildings are undergoing rehabilitation and many have exquisite tiles on the walls but, alas, graffiti is a serious problem as in most European cities. A new law with teeth has been passed and many of the newer rehabbed building have marble bases which are sprayed with a substance that makes it difficult for paint sprayed markings to stick. Lisbon is one of the safest capitals in Europe, its people are charming and captivating. Since 1980, Lisbon has acquired all the facilities of a contemporary city – post modern shopping complexes, a Metro tunneling beneath the traffic and large suburbs. Lisbon has about 700,000 residents and during work days becomes a city of over 3 million. We returned to our hotel to find our room ready and we unpacked and napped til around 8 and then to our first dinner at a restaurant we had passed earlier in the day and walking distance from the hotel. The food and service were excellent but not inexpensive - $100 with tip. As we entered the restaurant we observed tanks filled with crab, lobsters and displays of iced fish, huge prawns etc.were also prominently displayed Portugese demand adequate portions and love their cream filled pastries and you cannot blame them – they are scrumptious. The Portugese love sea food (salty cod a favorite), which is abundant and varied, and pork. Olives and cheese are specialities as well. Some Excellent Lisbon restaurants recommendations are :Bota Alta – Mercado do Peixi – D’Avis – Isaura – Sua Excelcia – O Medeirense – Taveres – Casa da Comida – A Travessa – Alma –Tagide – Cas de Linhares –Lisboa a’ noite – SacramentoO’Fidalgo. A recent New York Times article by Seth Sherwood identified some of the up and coming top restaurants including Alma – Sea Me –Largo –Manifesto. The rest of our stay was planned and with guide. We were picked up the next morning at 9:30 by a beautiful young girl (Adrianna)l who had been an independent guide but now was working for “Tours For You.” She spoke some 5 languages, had traveled extensively in Europe herself, was 26 and was taking care of her sister who was attending school in Lisbon. Her parents owned a glass manufacturing company and lived outside the city. Adrianna first drove us to St George Castle which overlooks the city and river below, located in Alfama, the oldest quarter in Lisbon, Then to the Chiado area which is up the hill from where we thought it was and that is why we missed it the previous day. We passed the only synagogue in Lisbon and noted its location so we could visit it on our free day – Saturday. The highlight of the half day tour, for me, was the new art Museum – Berardo. A magnificent structure on the river that has a rather sparse but very representative contemporary collection. The building is enormous and beautiful. The entire waterfront area is undergoing expansion and is loaded with new condominiums and apartments, restaurants, public buildings, museums etc. In twenty years you will not recognize it according to Adrianna. She left us off in the Chiado area and we stopped for a sidewalk cafe sandwich and watched the passers by and then did some shopping for the kids and explored the many shops and side streets of this fabulous area where the young come in the evening etc. Again we walked back to our hotel some mile or so away. That evening Adrianna returned and off we went to dinner and Fado ( Casa de Linhares) – a mournful and emotional type singing accompanied by guitarists. The experience was somewhat touristy, the food nothing to rave about and it was expensive. We had become introduced to Fado two years ago at The Savannah Music Festival. Much better here and the setting was in our most beautiful synagogue. The restaurant is located in a district where a lot of bohemians live and is old and very interesting. The restaurant itself was connected to a Roman cavern where they stored their wines. Fado performers dress in traditional black with black shawls over their shoulders. Our first Fado singer had a powerful voice. The second was the wife of the restaurant’s owner and her voice was past its former glory if it ever had reached that height. The male guitar singer was excellent. Adrianna returned us to the hotel around midnight and told us that Peter would be our guide for Friday and Sunday. Pedro (Peter) picked us up at 9:30PM. He is married and has two daughters and is studying for his masters degree and hopes to get a job in media tourism. The purpose of the trip was to discover and experience the genuine Portugese country and seaside area just an hour outside Lisbon. To get there you go over a new bridge very similar in design to San Fran’s Golden Gate and alongside the far side is a statute of Christ much like the one atop Sugar Loaf in Brazil. We first visited the 12th century castle of Palmela which was built on a prominent site overlooking the valley below so that the Templars, who had been given land by the King, could oversee and protect it from the Moors. On the same sight was a Posado – an historic site turned into a hotel owned by the government and run by an independent staff. Posados, we were told, dot the country and are a favorite of tourists seeking historic atmosphere. We then went to Azeitao – where the art of wine making prevails though we chose not to stop. Moscatel wine is made there in the famous wine cellars of Jose Maria da Fonesca. From there we were to motor to Setubal and have lunch but decided to eat at another fishing village nearby because we were getting a bit hungry. Once again the view of the quaint harbor from the second floor of the restaurant was fabulous as were the many tiered hotels built into the mountainside. Again a great meal. Peter joined us and gave us more general history of the area etc, After lunch on to Setubal by way of the Nature Park at Arrabida – home to unique species of fauna and flora and a panoramic view of the Atlantic. We also toured the Cape Espichel Sanctuary where we viewed the magnificent structure with the painted flat ceiling that gave a three dimensional visual effect. While there the winds had terrific force . We ended the day with a look at the 12th century castle of Sesimbra and the nearby fishing village. We had dinner in the room that evening . Incidentally our hotel was first class. The bed was good the tub-shower however was a bit confusing because it had no glass around the tub area so the bathroom floor got a bit flooded. The breakfast in the restaurant off the lobby was excellent and extensive: all kind of juices, cheeses, meats, cereals, yogurts, pastries and eggs, baked beans, baked tomatoes and I could go on and on. Saturday we sought out some art galleries but lamentably they were closed. We then walked back to the Synagogue and after being asked a lot of questions by security – members of the synagogue – we were allowed in. Lisbon police were also in attendance. There are less than 1000 Jews in Lisbon and probably less than 3000 in all of Portugal a nation of 13 million or so. The synagogue was small but gorgeous. A young kid was the bar mitzvah. His mother had died when he was young, his father was Christian. Very poignant. Lynn had to sit upstairs and I learned all of this from a young Rabbi from New York who had just moved to Lisbon with his family He saw me enter, realized I was not from Lisbon and engaged me in conversation. Six degrees of separation - we even knew a few people in common from Atlanta. The rest of the day we spent walking and ‘bumming’ looking into food stores, various other type of commercial operations and wound up looking for ‘white anchovies’ which we did not find but did discover a store that had every sardine known to man. That evening we had dinner with the two couples from our cruise in the Bairro Alto section in a restaurant that had been a former bakery. Food and service great, the waiter was particularly nice and we took pictures by the former bread ovens. We cabbed back to the hotel because one of the husbands had a recurring back problem. He is a stock broker from northern New York State and we hope they will visit on their way south in December for their annual Key West jaunt – Holly and Peter. We also hope our new Atlanta cruise friends, John and Daisy, also visit u or we them when next in Atlanta.. Sunday, Pedro (Peter) our guide picked us up at 9:30AM and we were off to Sintra and the Estril Coast. Sintra is a UNESCO World Site and is where the fabulous 19th century Pena Castle – home of the last Portugese Royalty – had their summer home. It was built by the Queen’s husband as a monument to Portugese history and is beyond description so I will let Lynn’s pictures tell the story. From there we descended from the castle and walked around the quaint town of Sintra which, by then, was loaded with tourists. We had some cream filled pastry and Peter bought a bag to take home to the kids. Our return was by way of the town of Cascais – reminds one of the Riviera. It has a world famous hotel, magnificent homes and a gambling casino. It is one of the fancier suburbs of Lisbon and well it must be because the homes and neighborhoods are magnificent, quaint and the architecture is varied because the town was inhabited by many different wealthy Europeans fleeing the Nazis. Along the town’s coast line of white sandy beaches is the special road named the “Marginal.” The Sunday highlight for me in Lisbon was the Gulbenkian Museum. Peter dropped us off at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum. It is located some three miles from our hotel and is run by a foundation. Gulbenkian is deemed one of the finest museums in the world. Gulbenkian was of Armenian ancestry and his family were in the oil industry. His family moved from Paris to Lisbon when war came in 1942 and he spent the remainder of his life in Lisbon dying there in 1955, Sunday the entry was free and the self guided tour is the sanest of any museum I have ever been in and I have been in my shares. The foundation was begun in 1956 and its purpose is to fulfill Gulbenkian’s desire that his four decades of collecting be kept together under one roof. The museum collections numbers some 6000 priceless pieces and represents his personal taste covering oriental antiquity to European art of the early twentieth century. The museum is set in the Parque Santa Gertrudes and the collection is distributed on the first floor around two patios. Each gallery is linked according to a chronological and geographical classification. I have seldom seen the equal in terms of quality and uniqueness of the rugs, ceramics, furniture, book bindings. And illuminations. The display cases are outstanding as if the signage and subtle lighting. Gulbenkian had a fabulous eye for the best, the money to acquire and professional guidance that only someone of his wealth could afford. The Gulbenkian is a must visit and I forgot to add it only because of my haste to finish and the lateness of hour. When I told one of my dear professional art museum directors we had been he remarked he was very jealous. From the Gulbenkian we hiked back to our hotel and you know the rest. That evening there was a national soccer tournament in Lisbon (Lisbon versus Opporto – (Opporto won 3 to 2) so we dined in a side street restaurant around the corner from our hotel. Again the food was excellent as was the service but the highlight of the evening was the guitarist playing Portugese- Brazillian music and singing in a wonderfully low pleasant and sultry voice. The lights should have been lower but it was a fitting end to a great trip.. Portugal is unique, the people are friendly and, unlike France etc,. there are few Muslims so things are quiet. The economy is in terrible shape, the government resigned and Portugese youth cannot find jobs so they are leaving for better opportunities but the Portugese are resilient, love their country and I suspect the nation will thrive over time as more people discover its charm. Portugal's bailout commentary. (See 1 below.) --- Dick --- ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- 1)Portugal’s Unnecessary Bailout By ROBERT M. FISHMAN PORTUGAL’S plea for help with its debts from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union last week should be a warning to democracies everywhere. The crisis that began with the bailouts of Greece and Ireland last year has taken an ugly turn. However, this third national request for a bailout is not really about debt. Portugal had strong economic performance in the 1990s and was managing its recovery from the global recession better than several other countries in Europe, but it has come under unfair and arbitrary pressure from bond traders, speculators and credit rating analysts who, for short-sighted or ideological reasons, have now managed to drive out one democratically elected administration and potentially tie the hands of the next one. If left unregulated, these market forces threaten to eclipse the capacity of democratic governments — perhaps even America’s — to make their own choices about taxes and spending. Portugal’s difficulties admittedly resemble those of Greece and Ireland: for all three countries, adoption of the euro a decade ago meant they had to cede control over their monetary policy, and a sudden increase in the risk premiums that bond markets assigned to their sovereign debt was the immediate trigger for the bailout requests. But in Greece and Ireland the verdict of the markets reflected deep and easily identifiable economic problems. Portugal’s crisis is thoroughly different; there was not a genuine underlying crisis. The economic institutions and policies in Portugal that some financial analysts see as hopelessly flawed had achieved notable successes before this Iberian nation of 10 million was subjected to successive waves of attack by bond traders. Market contagion and rating downgrades, starting when the magnitude of Greece’s difficulties surfaced in early 2010, have become a self-fulfilling prophecy: by raising Portugal’s borrowing costs to unsustainable levels, the rating agencies forced it to seek a bailout. The bailout has empowered those “rescuing” Portugal to push for unpopular austerity policies affecting recipients of student loans, retirement pensions, poverty relief and public salaries of all kinds. The crisis is not of Portugal’s doing. Its accumulated debt is well below the level of nations like Italy that have not been subject to such devastating assessments. Its budget deficit is lower than that of several other European countries and has been falling quickly as a result of government efforts. And what of the country’s growth prospects, which analysts conventionally assume to be dismal? In the first quarter of 2010, before markets pushed the interest rates on Portuguese bonds upward, the country had one of the best rates of economic recovery in the European Union. On a number of measures — industrial orders, entrepreneurial innovation, high-school achievement and export growth — Portugal has matched or even outpaced its neighbors in Southern and even Western Europe. Why, then, has Portugal’s debt been downgraded and its economy pushed to the brink? There are two possible explanations. One is ideological skepticism of Portugal’s mixed-economy model, with its publicly supported loans to small businesses, alongside a few big state-owned companies and a robust welfare state. Market fundamentalists detest the Keynesian-style interventions in areas from Portugal’s housing policy — which averted a bubble and preserved the availability of low-cost urban rentals — to its income assistance for the poor. A lack of historical perspective is another explanation. Portuguese living standards increased greatly in the 25 years after the democratic revolution of April 1974. In the 1990s labor productivity increased rapidly, private enterprises deepened capital investment with help from the government, and parties from both the center-right and center-left supported increases in social spending. By the century’s end the country had one of Europe’s lowest unemployment rates. In fairness, the optimism of the 1990s gave rise to economic imbalances and excessive spending; skeptics of Portugal’s economic health point to its relative stagnation from 2000 to 2006. Even so, by the onset of the global financial crisis in 2007, the economy was again growing and joblessness was falling. The recession ended that recovery, but growth resumed in the second quarter of 2009, earlier than in other countries. Domestic politics are not to blame. Prime Minister José Sócrates and the governing Socialists moved to cut the deficit while promoting competitiveness and maintaining social spending; the opposition insisted it could do better and forced out Mr. Sócrates this month, setting the stage for new elections in June. This is the stuff of normal politics, not a sign of disarray or incompetence as some critics of Portugal have portrayed it. Could Europe have averted this bailout? The European Central Bank could have bought Portuguese bonds aggressively and headed off the latest panic. Regulation by the European Union and the United States of the process used by credit rating agencies to assess the creditworthiness of a country’s debt is also essential. By distorting market perceptions of Portugal’s stability, the rating agencies — whose role in fostering the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States has been amply documented — have undermined both its economic recovery and its political freedom. In Portugal’s fate there lies a clear warning for other countries, the United States included. Portugal’s 1974 revolution inaugurated a wave of democratization that swept the globe. It is quite possible that 2011 will mark the start of a wave of encroachment on democracy by unregulated markets, with Spain, Italy or Belgium as the next potential victims. Americans wouldn’t much like it if international institutions tried to tell New York City, or any other American municipality, to jettison rent-control laws. But that is precisely the sort of interference now befalling Portugal — just as it has Ireland and Greece, though they bore more responsibility for their fate. Only elected governments and their leaders can ensure that this crisis does not end up undermining democratic processes. So far they seem to have left everything up to the vagaries of bond markets and rating agencies. Robert M. Fishman, a professor of sociology at the University of Notre Dame, is the co-editor of “The Year of the Euro: The Cultural, Social and Political Import of Europe’s Common Currency.” -------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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