A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: AvrilAbroad

Random reflections #1

This isn’t a post about a particular place or event – just a series of random reflections I’ve been gathering over the past few weeks of travel.

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First of all, a disclaimer. Normally when I’m on vacation I try to stay as far away from the news as possible. News and pleasure are largely incompatible, partly due to the fact that (a) the world is a fucking mess, and partly due to (b) the news media’s proclivity for focusing on the fucking mess to the exclusion of everything good that is also happening.

But what’s been going on for the past week in Israel and Gaza has been hard to ignore. And it feels wrong to try to ignore it. It also feels somewhat self-indulgent to focus on my pleasures knowing of the horrors that are being perpetrated there. Nevertheless, I’m not going to talk about it in this space. There will be plenty of time for that when I get home. (Alas.) In the meantime I’m going to allow myself the luxury of continuing to enjoy the time I have here, and hopefully create a small island of joy and humour for whoever is reading this. In times of pain we need those islands of joy and humour more than ever.

We now return to our previously scheduled programming.

Random reflection #1: France is expensive. Corsica is part of France. Ergo: Corsica is expensive! (I knew my philosophy degree would pay off one day.) When Avi and I were in Portugal, we didn’t find it as inexpensive as people said it was. No surprise, having become a hot spot on the tourist circuit. By and large, prices seemed on a par with Vancouver, except hotels were cheaper, wine was definitely cheaper, and probably real estate is cheaper. (I don’t know that for sure: we weren’t inquiring into real estate. Though maybe we should!) But then we got to Corsica, and we realized that yup, compared to other places in Europe (like for example France), Portugal is cheap! In general we’re finding that stuff is 25-35% higher here than there. Breakfast alone can set us back €30-40, which is something like $45-55 CAD. Breakfast, people! We're picnicking as much as we can to save on food costs, but even so. I think our next holiday will have to be somewhere slightly off the beaten path that might still be friendly to the traveller’s wallet. Albania, anyone?

2) Europeans still smoke like chimneys. Not indoors anymore – that’s not allowed. But the joys of dining on a terrace are decidedly mitigated by being surrounded by all the smokers who aren’t allowed to light up inside. *Ack.*Hack.*

3) Half of Israel appears to be in Europe. I haven’t heard so much Hebrew spoken since I was last in Israel, and that was in 1985! We thought many Israelis might have gone home this past week, but I’m still hearing Hebrew almost daily. Sometimes for fun we've dropped a casual remark in Hebrew just to watch the surprise on people’s faces – though that was all before this week. It's been nice getting a chance to exercise both my other languages. That would be Hebrew and French. Forget Portuguese. It’s impossible.

4) Portuguese is impossible. Both Avi and I can make some sense of it when we read it because of its general resemblance to Spanish on paper. But when spoken …. Yikes. Every second word ends in “sh”, and they cheerfully admit to dropping half their vowels and most of their syllables. Usually when I’m learning a new language I understand more than I can speak. Portuguese is the opposite – and since I can only say a few words, that tells you how much I can understand of it. But I got as much mileage as I could out of “Bom dia,” “boa tarde,” “boa noite,” “disculpe” (“I’m sorry” – good Canadian that I am), and especially “obrigada” (“thank you” when spoken by a female). “Muito obrigada” when I was very thankful. Which was often. The language may be impossible, but the people are great.

5) Driving and wayfinding = maximum oy! Have you driven in Europe? Holy shit. The roundabouts! The roads that go off in all directions! The narrowness of the roads! The curviness of the roads! (Straight lines do not seem to be part of road-building vocabulary in either Portugal or Corsica, and we haven’t even gotten to northern Corsica yet, where the roads on the map look like my hair on a humid day.) Also, the drivers! They are so … how shall I say? Confident! Confident taking cliffside curves at speed, passing on curves at speed (did I mention that the roads are very curvy?), stopping in the middle of the street to chat with someone on the sidewalk … We are impressed. And slightly terrified.

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Also, wayfinding. I am earning a doctorate in Google Maps. “Turn right here. No, not that right – the other right! … I know. There are two right turns here – but it’s the second one we wanted. OK. Just go forward a bit and turn left – yup, that left. Now left again. Uh huh. OK. We’re back on the road. Carry on.” Or sometimes: “You want to take the third exit on the roundabout. … There’s the first one. … There’s the second one. … OK, the one coming up. … SHIT!! Google said to take that one, but now we’re going the wrong way! … Anyway, why did Google send us all the way around the roundabout when we could have just turned left from the road and skipped all the confusion??” Or sometimes: “So turn down this street. Now go left. I know it looks like an alley, but it’s a street. Keep going. Now turn right. Uh-oh, what’s that barrier ahead of us? We can’t get to the next street from here – it’s barred! OK. Let’s try again. … Wait, why are we being directed back here again? … Just breathe. I promise you we are not going to die here. … There! We’re back on the main road. Carry on straight. WTF.”

And we haven’t even gotten to northern Corsica yet.

6) Selfies! Is there anything more entertaining than watching people take selfies? Upon picking up their iPhone, the person who was totally deadpan just a second before quickly arranges their face into a carefully curated smile as they tilt their head to just the right practised angle or purse their lips into the perfect moue to get an Instagram-worthy shot. Then back to deadpan as soon as they put the phone down. Of course, we all compose our faces just so for selfies, but some people have got it down to a fine art. I am a total amateur by comparison. (I suppose it doesn’t help that I usually giggle or make silly faces when I try to take a selfie.) Also, what’s with the weirdly arched-back poses young women take for their selfies? I can’t even figure out how to do that with my body! I think my next photo project is going to be just taking pictures of people taking pictures of themselves.

8) Concept Stores. Apparently a thing in both Portugal and Corsica. Sometimes they are big, fancy concepts – sometimes rather little ones. I have a lot of concepts, and I think it's time I opened a store in Vancouver. Could be the next Big Thing, and for once I'd be ahead of the curve.

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7) TWO (Travelling While Older). Both Avi and I have travelled pretty extensively over the course of our lives. We’ve both been willing to try lots of things, take a few risks, and not require luxury. We’re still willing to try lots of things, take a few risks, and not require luxury – but parts of our bodies are telling us maybe we shouldn’t have climbed all those stairs and hills in one day, and parts of our brains are telling us that maybe we should consider the wider, straighter road over the curly, more scenic single-lane road on the side of the mountain. With that scenic but sheer cliffside drop-off. We didn’t worry about stuff like this when we were young. We kind of didn’t worry about anything much when we were young. We do now. Also: I’m here to say I don’t object to a few more amenities than I cared about in my 20s and 30s.

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8) Atlantic vs Mediterranean.

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That is all.

Posted by AvrilAbroad 21:17 Archived in France Tagged beaches reflections corsica driving roads language portugal smoking selfies Comments (1)

Bon anniversariu à mè!

"Some people our age are old."

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So two days ago I celebrated my birthday. My 70th birthday, to be specific. Let us pause for a moment to take that in.

Seventy.

When I think about that number, I have two separate but equal responses: (1) "Whew – I made it! Lucky me!" and (2) "WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK???”

I’m sure those of you who are there, nearly there, or recently there understand the sentiment. As a friend of ours said recently: “Some people our age are old.” We, of course, are not. I’m pretty sure I’m still 40, actually. But all my documents – and that pesky spare tire around my midriff that won’t go away – tell me otherwise. So at some point I guess I’ll have to believe it.

In the meantime, it’s just one more reason to celebrate, and celebrate we did! We arrived in Corsica two days before my birthday, and Erev Birthday found Avi and me in a beautiful little church up in the hills outside of Ajaccio at the invitation of Fred Vesperini, the director of Spartimu, a musical ensemble that specializes in traditional Corsican polyphony. Fred had taught a few Coriscan songs to our choir, Rhythm ’n’ Roots, and some of the choir members went to Corsica this past June to learn with Fred and other musicians. I wasn't among them, but knowing I would be in Corsica this fall, I asked our choir director Karla if she would e-introduce me to Fred in the hope that Avi and I could meet the group and maybe hear them sing.

Lucky us: they were having a rehearsal on Friday evening, and Fred invited us to join them for their rehearsal! The church where they rehearse is in Bastelicaccia, about a 20-minute drive outside of Ajaccio, with lots of roundabouts en route (we only missed our turnoffs twice – pretty good!) and the kind of steep, curvy hills that make driving with standard transmission such an adventure (we only stalled 3 times). But we made it, and what a thrill to be part of such a joyful, soulful, and intimate musical experience!

All the guys were super warm and friendly and made us feel completely welcome. Although they were rehearsing for an upcoming concert, Fred took the time to explain things to us such as what the songs were, where they originated, how the voices worked together, etc. And when it came time to take a break, they cracked out bottles of wine and whiskey and shared them liberally with us. (Why don’t we do this in our choir, I’d like to know? Fred would like to know too.) (Avi is now a fan of Corsican whiskey.)

At one point Fred noted that although their main repertoire was traditional Corsican music, they also adopted music from other traditions and made them their own. “If it touches our hearts, we will sing it,” he explained. “See if you can guess where this next song originated. The words are Corsican, but the melody is…?” We couldn’t guess. Turned out it was from Austria. Another one was Russian (with Corsican words). That melody we recognized.

And then they started in on another song. This time the words were not Corsican, and both the words and melody were very familiar to Avi and me. Yes: it was a Hebrew song, Erev Shel Shoshanim, sung with gorgeous Corsican harmonies and melismatic flourishes! They had learned the song because it touched them, Fred told us, and they performed it often at their concerts.

Eventually the rehearsal drew to a close, but before they all left I asked them if they would be willing to sing Erev Shel Shoshanim once more, and could I sing with them? An enthusiastic yes, and the evening ended on the most magical note (no pun intended) imaginable!

Here's me with the guys from Spartimu. Fred is in the middle.

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And here's me singing with them. (I tried embedding the video here but kept getting error messages, so just click the link and it will take you to my YouTube page, where I posted the video.)

You can hear more of Spartimu on YouTube. Check them out and be wowed by their sound!

So that was the evening before my birthday. On the actual day, we treated ourselves to a boat tour to the Scandola Nature Reserve, with its amazing calanques (jagged cliffs and rock formations in magical shapes) and glorious blue Mediterranean water, where we stopped twice to dive in and swim with the little fishes that swarmed around the boat. Idyllic.

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We followed the tour with a concert of more Corsican music by another group, In Cantu (also wonderful), and finished with dinner at a little restaurant that features food from a different country each night. Our night was Tonga.

And that was my 70th birthday! Today is the third day of the rest of my life, and so far, so good. Well, as long as I don't pay attention to what's going on in the rest of the world, which I've been successfully ignoring up till a couple of days ago. But that's a topic for a different time. You'll forgive me if I don't get into it here.

We're now in beautiful Bonifacio, which I'll post about later – probably when we get to our next place, since I'm always reliably a couple of days behind in my posts. For now I'm going to pack it in because I'm wiped from a long hike today, and tomorrow we have an arduous day at the beach planned.

Bona notte!

Posted by AvrilAbroad 21:51 Archived in France Tagged corsica music birthday calanques boat_tour spartimu scandola_nature_reserve Comments (1)

Photo finish

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Avi here. Writing from a sunny beach in Corsica. We left the land of tinned sardines and Fado a couple of days ago to arrive at a place without ornate rococo churches (or much interesting architecture at all, actually) but with calm Mediterranean waters, not crashing Atlantic surf like last week. You get what you get, and I'm not complaining.

In an earlier blog I pointed out that there are two outcomes of travelling with Avril and her camera. One is that I spend more time composing my own iPhone shots. The other is that I might as well take pictures of Avril taking pictures. Photo stalking. So here is my accompaniment to Avril's blog about our time in Portugal – some visual record of her gathering of impressions.

When I last gave you a set of Avril as photo creator/creation, we were approaching the city of Tomar. I have no shots of her taking photos of the old synagogue (interesting, but not particularly photo-worthy), but we spent a lot of time in the city's main attraction – the old fortress and the monastery which was also HQ for the Knights Templar back when Catholics weren't shy about demonstrating their loving God by means of the sword. So lots of stone battlements, carved pillars, tiled walls, ornate altars, etc.

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From Tomar we moved to Coimbra. A university town filled with huge groupings of black-caped senior students leading t-shirted freshman students in street marches, musical chants and general initiation rites. Actually, these mass student chant-ins at public parks have been a mainstay of our time here, whether in Lisbon or Porto or elsewhere, but Coimbra is the county's main university town so they were everywhere. Yet, despite their public ubiquity, the whole thing has some secret society air and we were actually requested not to photograph the very public events.

Which means my photos are of some lesser quirky locations in Coimbra:

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But from an observation deck in an old university building (originally built as a palace on the highest point in the city) you can get a nice view of the town and its river:

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Getting out of town, and driving some crazy narrow hairpins into the hills, one comes upon villages built hundreds of years ago (and now being restored) made entirely out of the local schist rock:

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Then it was north, into the wine country of the Douro Valley. Actually, pretty much all of Portugal is wine country, and you can buy a 750ml bottle of red or white on grocery store shelves for two euros. Or for more. Or for much more. But the Douro is also the source of port wine (named for the city of Porto and – your useless fun fact of the day – source of the country's name). You can tour the Douro by car or by boat or by train – we did the first two:

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I actually have some much better shots of the terraced vineyards, but I was leaning over the rail so no Avril in those.

A stop in Amarante, where the requisite grand cathedral sported a grand organ. Speaking of sporting organs, there was also some curious pastry in that town that I took pictures of (and Avril didn't) and shared with you in an earlier blog post. I think Avril preferred the balanced approach at a bakery we passed in Porto that also had baked and decorated vulvas in the window. Sorry, no photos of that one.

Then to Guimarães, a historic city in the north. Among its curious charms was the hotel reception desk built with old books – Avril has a shot of that in her last blog and I have many more. But I have no shots of Avril there so let's skip to Porto.

The best part of Porto (for a tourist) is the river area, Ribeira, where old neighbourhoods rise from beside the Douro and glasses of port rise from the tourists' tables. The lighting was best from a bridge that spans the river, so that's where these shots were taken.

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But several days of wandering the streets gets you the mix of grand old architecture, working class hillside neighborhoods, a train station with 20,000 tiles, etc.

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And, in one of those serendipitous moments no guidebook tells you about, we stumbled upon the place where every night a hundred or more people gather just to watch the sun go down. For those of you who know Hornby Island, let's call it Porto's Grassy Point.

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Sundown on Portugal for us. We'll bask in its glow for years.

Posted by AvrilAbroad 21:29 Archived in Portugal Tagged portugal Comments (3)

This is what we came for

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It’s our second-to-last day in Portugal. We’ve travelled from Lisbon up through Coimbra via Obidos and Tomar with a few short side trips along the way (both planned and unplanned), then on to the Douro Valley and Guimarães, and now finally Porto, our final stop before we head to Corsica on Thursday.

We’ve had a few bumps in the road, as you know if you’ve been following this blog. The Bad Case of the Missing Luggage. The Sad Case of the Dead Fiat. The Mad Case of the Shawmail Lockout. But these are all now in the past, and you know what they say: “Comedy = Tragedy + Time.” To be sure, none of these bumps remotely qualify as tragedy – but Aggravation + Time also = Comedy, and we’re already starting to laugh at them in hindsight, especially bearing in mind the other maxim that “what doesn’t kill me … makes a great story later!”

So here we are in Porto, Portugal’s “second city,” Lisbon’s grittier northern sister. Not as pretty, perhaps, but it draws you in with its energy and diversity and slightly grotty grandeur. Like every Portuguese city, it has its share of splendiferous cathedrals, imposing monuments, elegant boulevards, and fascinating museums.

We’ve ignored them all.

Oh, except for the São Bento train station, a gloriously tiled confection that would be thoroughly Instagram-worthy except for the fact that (1) there’s a new subway line going in right beside it and the outside is mostly obscured by construction material, and (2) everyone else in the station (and there are a lot of people in the station) is gawking at the tiled walls too, so mostly what you’re taking pictures of is other people taking pictures of the walls. It’s gorgeous anyway. And I've resigned myself to the fact that people taking pictures on their phones (and taking pictures of themselves in front of what they're taking pictures of) are part of the landscape, so I just include them, because they're there. As am I.

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Apart from São Bento, though, we haven’t mustered up the energy to visit another church or tower or museum or edifice. After a certain point, one just gets churched- and museum-ed out. And we’ve hit that point. Not without a slight feeling of guilt, like “what kind of travellers are we anyway that we ignore all the places we’re supposed to see??” There’s a certain tyranny of touristic travel that makes you feel like a bit of a schmuck if you don’t check all the must-do boxes on the Lonely Planet or Rough Guide lists.

But fuck them. This isn’t Lonely Planet or Rough Guide’s trip. It’s ours. And we get to opt out if we want to.

So we left the book back in our Airbnb and just gave ourselves over to the pleasures of wandering. Wandering the artsy neighbourhood of Cedofeita (where our Airbnb is), with its excellent restaurants and little art galleries and bewildering collection of “concept stores” (not sure who buys concepts or how much they cost, but they are apparently very popular here). Wandering through downtown Baixa with its fancy hotels and many shops (including an old bookstore people actually line up to get into) and a surprisingly large number of art deco buildings and signs (none of the books commented on the presence of art deco here, so we have no idea about its origins).

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Fancy hotel

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Livraria Lello, where you line up to get in at designated times

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Examples of art deco

Wandering past construction sites (everywhere – and I mean everywhere) and multitudes of tourists on walking tours (what are they all still doing here?? Don’t they know tourist season is over?) and café after restaurant after café, one after another, everywhere – possibly my favourite thing about Europe.

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Construction is everywhere. When we were looking for places to stay we noticed that one person had written in their review: "Nice place, but there was a lot of construction outside." The owner replied: "Where isn't there construction in Porto?"

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OK, everyone: tourist season is over! Go home, people.

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Cafés and restaurants wherever you can fit a table or two, even in what basically amounts to a back alley. ❤️

Looking up at the tiled and ornamented façades, looking down at the differently tiled and ornamented sidewalks. Just wandering and looking and enjoying.

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Eventually we wandered down to the Ribeira district, which is the most picturesque part of the city and the one you see on all the postcards, and treated ourselves to a boat tour on the river that took us past all of Porto’s six bridges, with explanations in four languages. (Fortunately, English was one of them.) And today we wandered across the most picturesque of the bridges to Vila Nova de Gaia on the opposite bank, taking more than half an hour instead of the 5 minutes it would normally take because we had to stop every few feet and take several million pictures.

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Trust me, you don't want to see them all!

Vila Nova de Gaia (or just Gaia) is known above all for its key role in the port wine trade – and for its many port lodges where you can get tours and tastings. We skipped the tours, having done two last week in the Douro Valley, but we treated ourselves to yet another tasting. (You can never have too many port wine tastings.) (And by the way, if you’re wondering: “tawny or ruby?” the answer is “tawny.” Every time.)

We wandered through the portside marketplace where people were selling all the usual tourist chachkas, and where I finally gave in and bought myself a cork hat, because doesn't everyone need a cork hat? (Cork is a big deal in Portugal, and you can buy cork anything: hats, purses, shoes, clocks, postcards, furniture – you name it.)

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And some time in mid-afternoon, you would have found us sitting on the riverbank, enjoying our picnic of local cheese and olives and sardines and fresh figs, looking across the river at the postcard-perfect scene in front of us, sighing contentedly, and agreeing with each other that aaaahhhhh: this is what we came here for.

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Thank you, Portugal! Ate logo!

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Posted by AvrilAbroad 17:55 Archived in Portugal Tagged walking tourism portugal porto wandering Comments (1)

A double-edged sword

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I’ve been stymied by technology for the past several days, having been locked out of my Shaw webmail 3-count-em-three times, then locked out of my Shaw account altogether, then having to remove and reinstall my email app on my iPhone – all involving endless hours online late at night with tech support to try to resolve the issues once and for all. This has not made me an amusing companion for Avi (who has been exceptionally patient as I rant about the aggravations of modern technology), and it has not stimulated my imagination or my creativity – unless you count the creative ways I imagine dismembering my computer and the colourful curses I dream up.

However. The problems seem to have been solved at last (at least until the next one crops up), so I’m settling in with said computer to muse out loud about the mixed blessings that computer technology has brought to the travel experience.

On the one hand, it’s pretty awesome that we have so many ways to communicate with folks while we're far away. Email. Text. WhatsApp and Facebook and blogs – all designed to keep us in touch with family, friends, clients – even strangers! And we have the entire internet to answer our every question. What’s the best beach near Porto? Which hotel or guesthouse or Airbnb will give us the nicest room for the best price? What’s the best driving route from Tomar to Coimbra? How do I get to the museum from the café I’m in right now, and how long will it take me to walk there? Where should we eat tonight? It’s all there at our fingertips.

And yet. There’s another side to all this. Even setting aside the above-mentioned tech glitches, computer technology has changed the travel experience.

Because we can stay in touch, we feel we must stay in touch. No excuse for lengthy silences, for not knowing what’s going on with friends and family, for just kind of disappearing into our vacation and off the map.

Because our apps make it so easy to find our way, we use them to plot out our every route. No need to ever get lost again: Google Maps will show us exactly how to get from point A to point B, and just how long it will take.

Because every piece of information we need (or merely want) is programmed into our ever-present devices, we can look up anything we want to know in seconds … and so we do.

I don’t know about you, but for me the result is that it distances me from the actual on-the-ground experience I'm having. My body is here, but my head is half-buried in my iPhone: looking up information, determining where we are/where we're going/how we’ll get there, or communicating with friends on the other side of the world.

When I travelled around Asia nearly 40 years ago (brief pause for WTF moment – 40 years ago?!? WTF!!), none of this was possible because … what is this “internet” you speak of? Not even a gleam in most of our eyes. We communicated (if at all) by snail mail (or what we simply called “mail” since that’s the only kind there was), we figured out where to stay once we got somewhere, and we used big, fold-out paper maps to find our way around – or we got lost. And guess what: we totally managed! We were fine not being in daily touch with the world, because we didn’t expect to. We somehow found our way around without GPS-tracking every curve in the road. (And honestly, getting lost was half the fun!) We met our friends at the appointed places without texting each other where we were because … what is this “texting" you speak of? And if Plan A didn’t work out, we always had a Plan B.

Was it better then? I don’t think that’s what I’m suggesting, but it was definitely simpler, and I do confess to a nostalgia for a simpler time when we weren’t so intimately bound to our technologies, however useful and helpful they might be. Like I said: a mixed blessing.

Anyway. This is what you get from me when I’ve spent too much time online dealing with 21st century problems. I promise my next post will be more fun. In the meantime, here are some photos of places and things that don’t make it into the guidebooks but that have delighted my eye over the past couple of weeks.

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Scenes from tiny little streets we follow when we aren't trying to get anywhere in particular.

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Plain walls, fancy walls, walls with portraits of dogs painted on them.

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Carved ladies everywhere.

Posted by AvrilAbroad 23:41 Archived in Portugal Tagged technology travel computers Comments (2)

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