Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Friends: Mallorca

Island dreaming

It came through on Facebook: a trip planned by Mati and Angeline to the Spanish island of Mallorca, a family group vacation with some of our favorite people.  

Majestic Mallorca

“Why?”  said Todd.  “We’ve already been there, and it wasn’t that great.”  But I pointed out to him that we would be with Ignacio, our Spanish navy captain jet fighter pilot friend, who knows the island well.  Plus, I told the kids, Narissa, their favorite friend, would be going.  And the Durkovich boys! That was all the convincing needed to book the tickets. 

How could you resist this bunch?

So, just a few days after returning from Santiago, we packed back up and headed for the airport.  The journey was exciting—there was an accident on the toll road that our car managed to circumvent, but the van carrying Ignacio, our ticket to the Spanish Navy lodge on Mallorca, was stuck.  It was unclear for about an hour if they would even make the flight!  But they did, and off we flew.

The Mallorca crew

I had enjoyed Mallorca when we were here last summer, but we’d only sailed its coast.  Ignacio took us to the less-inhabited northwest coast of the big island, to the port of Sóller.  Wow!  It is a beautiful St. Tropez clone minus the glitz.  The quaint little harbor, in-town beaches, and lighthouse delighted us at first glance. 

The Spanish Navy residencia is the big building on the left above the wall.  The lighthouse is on the far left.

We hung out on the Spanish residencia patio until late, enjoying the summer night.   The guys snuck out to dive into the ocean from the Navy lighthouse, but were soon chased back by the guards. 

Soft summer Mallorca evening
Apparently this is prohibido
The next day, before the incoming storm hit, we wandered off to Valldemossa, a lovely village with a monastery and beautiful winding streets.  

Valdemossa group selfie
Coming back, a huge thunderstorm engulfed the island, flooding the Palma airport and providing an impressive lightning show over our harbor.  Some had been kayaking, and they scrambled off the water just in time to avoid being struck.

Watch out, you might get struck by reyes

After a delightful Indian dinner (Mati had no complaints here…), in which we celebrated the selection of Mati and Ignacio’s son Alejandro to the Pittsburgh Steelers football team, we meandered down the harbor path, stopping for a drink along the way, and pretending to own one of the fabulous yachts parked there.

A lazy summer night

Posing in front of our boat with our bike

Saturday was a sunny beach day.  The storm had created some enormous waves, so it took a while to find a calm (although crowded!) little cala, but once there, we nudged people out of the way and claimed our piece of sand.  

Crowded turquoise waters...and fun!
The kids grouped together around the ukulele, and it was a delight to listen to them all sing together (although Bethe petitioned for a break after the 47,000th song of the weekend). 

Kids hanging out with the ukulele
Click here to see the kids sing together, it's awesome.

That afternoon we packed up and passed through the town of Pollença, with its charming plazas and impressive staircase up to the church.  We came through just as a footrace was ending—at the top of the stairs!  What a brutal end to a race, whew!  We cheered them on as they struggled to the top, happy that we could just hang out and enjoy the view.

A loooooong hike

Dinner that evening was at a lovely Italian place, where the kids played cards and the adults split (yet again) between male side and female side of the table (why does this always happen?) I guess the women are just more fun. 

Split into men's side and women's side

Here the boys were simply outnumbered

Sunday was a day to relax.  A group of us headed up to the town of Sóller via a cute (and expensive, what did we expect?) tourist train, and we wandered the streets for a couple hours before lunch.  

Playing for change in Sóller

Todd and others went sailing—“Si,” said Todd at lunch, “Si no hay reyes!”  Mati and Ignacio looked puzzled.  “Rayos, rayos!”  I translated.  Todd’s Spanish continues to amuse us all (reyes = kings, while rayos = lightning).  The rest of the day we spent enjoying the harbor beach in Port Sóller, and practicing some stand-up padel and gymnastics. 

Enjoying the sunset

Tia the gymnast

We celebrated Bethe’s birthday on our last night with take-out Indian food (“Again?” asked Mati.  “Where's the tapas?”), and celebrating too our well-planned, thoroughly enjoyable, and delightfully relaxing group vacation in an incredibly gorgeous setting.  

Kids' night ops
Everyone, from the kids to the grown-ups, had a awesome time.  Thank you, Ignacio and Mati, for sharing it with us!  How lucky are we??

Making memories

Friday, September 4, 2015

To the North: Santiago de Compostela and Porto

Rockin'out with my friend Jenny...then on to Santiago!

As if we hadn’t traveled enough, I insisted on going to northern Spain for a week at the end of August.  Everyone knows that summer is the best time to be there since it’s rainy and cold most other times, and even so during the summer.  This time we targeted Santiago de Compostela, home of the well-known Camino de Santiago pilgrimage.

Stormy city
Hanging out with the gallegas

Surprise, surprise, it was drizzling and cold when we arrived, but still nice enough in our little attic we’d rented.  Maria, our host, gave us multiple great restaurant recommendations, and once the drizzle stopped we headed out into the old city.  Gorgeous!  And the best was the pulpo a la gallega, octopus Galician-style!

One of the many pilgrims

Tentacled treats

Santiago de Compostela is named for San Iago, or St. James, who preached in Hispania before returning to the Holy Land.  There he was martyred, but his disciples managed to sneak out his body and transport it back to Galicia in a stone ship.  They petitioned the queen to bury his body in Galicia, but the queen tried to sabatoge them by sending them to a dragon (who exploded on seeing the cross) and giving them wild bulls to gore them to death (who became tame on seeing the cross).  So St. James was buried in Galicia.

St. James arriving and being buried in Galicia

His remains were discovered in the 9th century by a hermit, who was led to the site by a bright light, hence the name Compostela, from the latin Campus Stellae, “field of stars.”  St. James miraculously appeared during the 15th-century Christian battle against the Moors, disguised as a white knight, and helped the Christians to victory.

Onward Christian soldier

Nowadays over 100,000 pilgrims a year travel from many different points to reach the impressive, gilded cathedral at the heart of Santiago’s old town.  The botafumeiro is swung only rarely, but every Sunday during St. James years, where the feast of St. James falls on a Sunday that year. 

The chalice or botafumeiro is swung by 8 monks tugging on ropes
Click here and here to watch the swinging of the botafumeiro; the first link is the WHOLE thing!

We watched several documentaries on the pilgrimage, el Camino de Santiago.  Todd, Tia, and Sasha declared their complete lack of interest in even trying it, while I ran out and bought shell bracelets for my friends, determined to talk them into walking at least 5 days this coming Spring!

Click here to see a movie of one Australian charmer's story, a good way to see if you would want to do this...okay, maybe not 34 days' worth...

Door to our attic staircase
From Santiago de Compostela we diverted east to the walled town of Lugo.  It is one of the few European towns with a Roman wall still completely intact. 

Around and around we go!

We walked it twice, once in the soft Galician evening (after a day full of sun), and again the next morning.  Lugo was full of delicious yogurt and interesting odes to its Roman past.

Modern-day chariot

Taking in the Roman history and frozen yogurt

From Lugo we went to Porto in northern Portugal.   We headed south, following our (un)trusty GPS, which usually leads us in bizarre paths to our destination.  True to form, we ended up on tiny roads zig-zagging through the Peneda-Gerês National Park on our way to Braga.

Gorgeously gloomy

It was raining in Braga, so we cut our visit short after admiring its wonderful fountain displays and headed into Porto.

Beautiful Braga

In Porto we found kittens in our hotel!  Tia and Sasha had a ball playing with them, and it only whetted their appetite for kittens, which we’d promised once we’d finished traveling for the summer.

Here kitty kitty kitty

We also feasted on the famous Francesingha, a densely compacted sandwich of sorts made of steak, linguiça, ham, cheese, topped by a fried egg and slathered in special sauce.  Yum!  At least I thought so; the others were not so impressed.


Porto is the home of port wine, much like El Puerto, Jerez, and Sanlúcar are the home of sherry.  The Douro river runs from the upcountry, where the grapes are grown, and down through Porto, where the bodegas line its banks.  

Sandeman (visible in center) is our favorite

This ready-made transportation system and the delightful flavor of its grapes has made (and kept) Porto famous since the 13th century.  In fact, Porto, the Roman city Portus Cale, provided the name “Portugal” to its country.  The British mistakenly call it “Oporto,” as the city is one of Portugal’s main ports, and “O” means “the” in Portuguese.  Hence, o porto = el Puerto = the port.

Vivacious Porto hillside old town on a rare sunny day

We walked the high bridge and stopped to watch young daredevils jump from the lower bridge into the fast-moving Douro.  We wandered the steep city streets from cathedral to riverbank and back up to our hotel. 

They only jumped from the LOWER bridge!!  

The following day we visited the famous Lello bookstore, a model for J.K. Rowling, who lived in Porto for two years.  Apparently she modeled parts of Hogwarts based on the library’s interior.  This fame has certainly helped the bookstore, which has a line and special 3-euro tickets JUST to get into the place!

Harriet Potter

Hogwarts wannabees

Todd had mentioned some mysterious islands off the Galician coast, so I included them as our final stop.  The Islas Cies are billed as the “Spanish Caribbean,” and so they are, albeit with still-very-cold North Atlantic waters.   

Okay, these waters are NOT the Caribbean!
We lucked out with the weather, lounging on the sunny white sand beach and diving in (briefly!) to turquoise waters while the mainland and out to sea were engulfed in fog. 

High beauty

Fun in the sun

You can only reach the Islas Cies via boat, and the number of visitors is capped at 2000.   We hiked the trails and enjoyed our picnic, then hopped the boat back to the mainland and back to Santiago. 

As pretty as any Caribbean island

Were we done traveling yet?  Oh no, my friends Angeline and Mati had to dream up a group trip to Mallorca.  An offer we just couldn’t resist…and I’m glad we didn’t resist…see the next blog…


Monday, August 31, 2015

The Azores: Why Have We Never Visited My Homeland Before???

A hedgehog?  Really?  I thought we had horses on our family crest!

My surname, Rico, is Portuguese.  More exactly, it is from the Azores, a set of islands one-third of the way from Lisboa to Boston.  My grandfather, Manuel Rico, was born in Stockton, California, to Portuguese parents from the Azores.  His father, Manuel Rico, died young at 34 after immigrating from the island of Terceira.  My great-grandmother, Teresa Pereira, also from Terceira, remarried Nestor Freitas and had at least one more child, known to me as Aunt Lolly. 

Some funny-looking Azore natives?
Click here to see native Azorean dancers

I have only two stories from these ancestors about the Azores:  first, that my step-great-grandfather, Nestor, swum out to the boat anchored in the harbor and stowed aboard as a teenager.  Once the boat was safely out to sea, he made an appearance, probably scared and surely hungry, and was put to work peeling potatoes until they reached Boston.  Once there, he walked the streets speaking Portuguese to passersby until someone took pity on him and took him in.  Somehow he made some money and took the train out to California and met Teresa.

Beautiful roads.  Did my great-grandfather walk this one?

A second story is about my grandfather, Manuel G. Rico, who worked his way up from these humble roots to become mayor of his little town of Tracy, California.   Once retired, he was bitten by the travel bug and visited the world, bringing back dolls from every country that he visited for my cousins Dori and Dawn, and my sister Suzi and me.  (He died in 1967 before Simone was born, much too early at the age of 61.)  One of his first trips was back to the “old country,” when he visited the village where his mother was born.  He visited his relatives (perhaps for the first time?) and brought some soil and rocks back from the front yard of the home where his mother had been born.  Sadly, she died before he returned to California. 

La terra de mis abuelos

But to my knowledge, neither my father nor my Aunt Dolores ever visited the Azores.  Their grandfather used to tell them, “Don’t go back to the old country, it makes you old!”  Nor has any of my Daley-Rico cousins, not even my cousin Doug, who has traveled the world extensively.  To my knowledge, I am the first of the Ricos since my grandfather to return to the Azores.

My grandfather the Mayor, on the left

Third- and fourth-generation Portuguese Americans
I had no idea what to expect.  Nestled in the midst of the Atlantic Ocean, bathed in the Gulf Stream, discovered in 1432 and settled by the Portuguese with the help of the  Flemish, the isolated volcanic Azores are verdant and black-pumiced, with walls everywhere made of lava rocks.  The towns are strikingly black and white, a brilliant stucco with black lava framing the windows and doors.  

Sidewalks, building, streetlights...all black and white

The foliage is a cacophonous mixture of pine, palms, maples, native brush, and tropical flowers, making the island feel like one huge Ladies’ Home and Garden showcase.  Hydrangea line nearly every road, blooming in huge blue, pink, and purple bursts.

Crazy mix of plant life

White hydrangea, too!

We drove first to the west end of Saõ Miguel, the largest island of the archipelago, to Mosteiros.  Luis welcomed us to his tiny home on the hill above the village and showed us to our studio, complete with a double bunk bed.  Five terraces of garden ran down the slope to the sea cliff from right outside our room. 

Luis's garden

It was raining and cold when we got there—the islands never really heat up in the summer, but neither do they get below about 15˚C (60˚F) in the winter.  (It’s said there are five seasons in the Azores—the four regular ones, and a fifth season, where you can experience all four seasons in one day! So changeable is the weather.)  Rather than tour anything, we headed straight to the natural thermal pool in nearby Ferreira, an 8-minute drive down to the coast.  

The gorgeous Azorean Atlantic

This amazing lava sink, closed in on three sides by lava walls or rock and open to the sea on the fourth side, has geothermal heating; the ocean water washes into the crevasses and comes back up piping hot with every wave back and forth.   You can choose your water temperature by swimming out to sea or in to the back of the pool!  We spent over three hours in the rain and drizzle, happily splashing from hot to cold to hot again.  Glorious!  And the next day we returned to experience it again without rain (just as glorious, only more people hanging out). 

Some like it hot, some like it cool

Inky black lava hot tub
The next day we spent hiking around Sete Cidades, the little village tucked between Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Verde.  Legend has it that these lakes were created when a young princess and a shepherd youth fell in love.  The king did not approve and ordered their separation.  The tears they shed created the lakes, the color the same as their eyes.  We were able to either walk or drive nearly the entire circumference of the caldera that contains the two lakes. 

Lakes of tears

Scaling the caldera

From Mosteiros we drove north and east through the north side of the island—a much drier and flatter landscape, although still green.  Up through Furnas we went, stopping at the calderas steaming and fuming in the center of the little village.  

Sulphury goodness

We were gawking in amazement at six sacks of something floating around in the bubbling, boiling water of a caldera, when a local stepped around the guard fence and hauled out the bags…of corn!  The kernels had turned the water bright yellow, and we asked what he was going to do with it.  What, didn’t you see?  he asked.  You can buy it to eat!  We hustled up to the market at the top of the hill and sure enough, there was the sulphury corn for sale, still steaming.  Delicious!

Nature's crock pot
We ended up on the southeast side of the island in Maria Resendes’s cozy bed and breakfast, the Casa de Maria de Deus.  She welcomed us in, dressed us in plush robes, put towels in our arms, and turned us right back around to Furnas, where we had unknowingly passed the Poça da Dona Beija, a sulphury hot springs with five different pools and open until 11 pm.  We soaked in fire and brimstone for a couple of hours, returning home relaxed and sleepy.

Bathing beauties

Behind the waterfall at Poça Dona Bejia

Sampling ginger flowers with Maria
The next day, Maria had breakfast waiting—special sandwiches in honor of the Asunción de la Santa Maria—and packed us a lunch for our next adventure:  Dolphin swimming!  We hopped aboard a zodiac boat with another couple and went in search of wild Portuguese dolphins.  Once spotted, the captain expertly maneuvered the boat into the path of the dolphin pod and helped us slide into the water to paddle like mad amidst the cavorting mammals.  Repeat this 9 or 10 times, and you feel like you truly have swum with dolphins, even though you get the feeling that they think you are quite the ridiculous human, chasing around after them so slowly!

Ready for dophin ops
Click here to see the dolphins

That night we ate at Tony’s restaurant, famous for its caldos which are cooked in the steaming earth of the calderas.  The following day we walked through the town of Nordeste, then drove back through the Serra de Tronqueira, a wild and curvy dirt road through spectacular forests.  

Warm waterfall

The birdsong was so enchanting that we stopped the car in the middle of the road just to listen, then found a spot to picnic close by.  

Mysterious forest

Returning that evening to Maria’s , she arranged for us to meet her neighbor José, who had a meadow full of milk cows.  Finally a chance to learn where milk comes from…and delicious!

Even the cows are black and white

Harder than it looks

Thanks for the lesson, José!
We finished off our visit with one more night at Poça da Dona Beija and headed for Ponta Delgada, and then on to Lisboa, where the faithful Lion Car waited.  It chugged us back to Puerto without incident (that’s saying something for this 1997 Peugeot held together by guitar string and Kevlar suture), where we were joined by my long-time friend Jenny Israel and her two daughters, Jesse and Katie.   They were packing heat in the form of a guitar and a ukulele, so we practiced up and played a gig at Conxuro in Valdelagrana!  Grand premiére for Tia and Sasha! 

Successful jam session

The girls rocked the house!!

But we weren’t done with traveling yet.  Stay tuned for Santiago de Compostela, Porto, and the Islas Cies!

Hasta la proxima, Azores!