Johnny Jet's Travel Blog

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Sunday, December 31, 2006

STOCKHOLM

This was my first time here in eight years – the last time was with my mom to attend a friend’s wedding. I wish I had more time to explore, because Stockholm is a beautiful city. It’s built over a series of 14 islands, and features more than 50 bridges. The population of 1.5 million is much more multicultural than in the late ‘90s. I visited some outdoor markets. Nearly every worker I met was from the Middle East. All were very friendly – they even let me sample some fruit. The subway (stations are marked with a blue "T") was easy to navigate. When I got lost trying to find the airline office, passersby were happy to point me in the right direction. It’s a fabulous walking city – especially when the weather is sunny and warm, like it was. But I had to rush to the airport, where I took a flight I hope never to forget.

VICTORY HOTEL

The Victory Hotel is located in a building that was once the home of the Lohe noble family. It was then turned into Andersson’s potato shop, where workers uncovered a treasure of more than 18,000 coins buried by the Lohe family. It remains the largest (over $14,500,000 USD) such cache ever found in Sweden. (You can learn all about it at the coin museum a short distance away). This charming boutique hotel is not named after the Lohe treasure, but rather English naval hero Lord Nelson’s flagship, the HMS Victory. The hotel has a maritime theme and could be regarded as a small museum itself, with all its nautical and Swedish folk-art memorabilia. Every room door includes a portrait of the famous sea captain; double room doors have a portrait of his wife. I agree with the hotel owner’s philosophy that hotel hallways don’t have to be boring. Inside each room is an antique portrait of the captain’s ship. When I first walked into my 5th floor (top) room, I thought it was a joke. It was so small, I felt like I was on a ship or in an attic. But it grew on me, and I quickly came to appreciate the hotel’s coziness, friendly staff, reasonably priced high-speed internet access (124 SEK = [$17] for 24 hours) and perfect location. A Scandinavian breakfast is included in the daily rate. You gotta love the caviar spread in a toothpaste-like tube near the breakfast breads. The hotel, with 48 guest rooms and suites, is rated 5 stars -- and priced accordingly. The average room is 1,867 SEK ($266) – and the only reason that’s so "low" is because they factor in the lower weekend rates. Weekday rates start at 2,050 SEK ($292) for a single room (I stayed in one of the 18 single rooms). Victory Hotel, Lilla Nygatan 5, Old Town, 11128 Stockholm, Sweden; Tel: 46-(8)-50640000.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

TRAIN STATION TO HOTEL

It turns out I did not save much money after all, because I needed to take a taxi to the hotel from the train station. The 4-minute ride to Old Town (where I was staying) cost 65 SEK ($9). That wasn’t even the worst part: The driver expected a 35 SEK tip. This is very unusual in Sweden, because people rarely tip and drivers don’t normally ask for one. I was actually going to round off my fare to 70 SEK and give him a tip, but when he gave me a difficult time he got nothing. For the most part I find Swedes to be very friendly and fair. Most speak perfect English, but sometimes (like everywhere in the world) you get a bad apple. That happened in this case.

AIRPORT TO DOWNTOWN

Sweden is not an inexpensive country. You notice the steep prices the moment you step off the plane. A 35-minute (45 km) taxi ride from the airport to the city costs 395 kronor ($56) – it’s a flat rate. Fortunately, the Arlanda Express -- a high-speed (120 mph) train -- connects Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport with the city. Most individual travelers use it, because it’s cheaper and fast. Trains depart every 15 minutes; they cost 200 SEK ($28), and take only 20 minutes. There’s also an airport bus that departs every 10 minutes; it costs 95 SEK ($13.50), and takes 40 minutes.

SWEDEN

We arrived a bit late and bags took a while, but I whipped out my international cell phone and called friends and family back home to pass the time. (To learn about my international cell phone service where I get free incoming calls and pay just a third of the U.S. cell price for outgoing calls, click here). Sweden is a member of the European Union (EU), so I did not get my passport stamped when I entered the country. It was like flying between states in the U.S. Yet although Sweden is a member of the EU, they don’t use the euro as currency – they still use the Swedish kroner (SEK). The current exchange rate is $1 USD = 7 Krona (just divide prices by 7).

Friday, December 29, 2006

GERMANY TO SWEDEN

I purchased a 65 euros ($84) one-way ticket on Germanwings.com two weeks prior to my departure. Germanwings is a low-fare carrier that flies new Airbus A319/320 aircraft to over 50 European destinations. As with all low-fare carriers, to get the lowest deals it’s best to buy as far in advance as possible, or jump on a sale (they offer email alerts). If I took my own advice I could have scored the same ticket for half price, but $84 is still a great deal. The 738-mile Cologne-to-Stockholm flight takes 1 hour and 40 minutes. The flight was packed not just with Europeans, but some American business travelers as well (they know how to save money too).

CHOCOLATE MUSEUM

By the time I made it to Cologne I wasn’t feeling well (I caught a cold), so I mostly hung out inside catching up on sleep and work. However, I did manage to visit the one Cologne attraction that eluded me on my first visit here a month earlier (here’s the link to that story). The Schokoladenmuseum (Chocolate Museum) opened in 1993 in a beautiful location on the Rheinau Peninsula at the center of Cologne (a 10-minute walk from the Cologne dom). Almost 1,500 people per day learn the 3,000-year cultural history of chocolate in this 13,000-square foot museum, featuring three levels and 2,000 exhibits. There’s even a tropical greenhouse, with cocoa trees and 60 other exotic plant types. This is not only a museum, but a working factory where visitors can see how chocolate is made, and enjoy a free sample from the chocolate fountain. Of course, a store at the end is packed with salivating chocolate lovers and screaming kids. Exhibitions are handicapped-friendly, and in German and English. Hours: Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday and holidays from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.. Closed on Monday. Admission: Adults: 6 EUR ($7.70). Children under 6, and those with a birthday on the day of their visit enter free. The 16 EUR family pass ($20.50) is valid for two adults and any number of your own children and grandchildren. Chocolate Museum, Am Schokoladenmuseum 1a, Köln; 49-(0)-221-9318880.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

MADRID TO COLOGNE

Germanwings (a low-fare German carrier that flies new Airbus A319/320 aircraft to over 50 European destinations does not start checking customers in until two hours before departure. The Germanwings counter in Madrid stayed unattended until that designated time, because they only have two flights a day -- one to Cologne, the other to Stuttgart. They depart 20 minutes apart, at 7:25 and 7:45 p.m. I should have stood in line when I arrived two and a half hours early, instead of finding an electrical outlet and working offline (there is no wireless access in Terminal 1). I watched the line get longer and longer, until I could no longer take it. Germanwings had two agents working. They checked passengers in quickly – fortunately, they all either obeyed Germanwings’ usually strict baggage rules or the agents let them slide. The agent who checked me in did not give me a difficult time about my over-the-limit carry-on. I don’t know if it was because she was from Spain, and the Spaniards are more lenient than the Germans, but whatever the reason she made my Germanwings experience much better. Germanwings passenger (except those under 2 years old) can bring on board 8 kg (17 lbs), and check suitcases up to a combined weight of 20 kg (44 lbs). If you’re over, be prepared to pay 7 ($8.88) per kg (2.2 lbs), up to a maximum of 50 kg (110lbs). For more information, click on Germanwings.com. Note: I flew before the recent new European Union hand baggage rules went into effect (here’s the link to the rules).

MADRID’S NEW TERMINAL 4

My 55-minute flight to Madrid on an MD80 was smooth. I’m not a huge fan of MD80s -- they are old and confining -- but this flight was comfortable, because it was short and no one sat next to me. Beyond northwestern Spain, the climate changed dramatically. We exchanged wet weather for Madrid’s dry, warm conditions. I was excited to be traveling through Madrid, even for only a few hours. I looked forward to experiencing the new $7.2 billion (no, that’s not a typo) Terminal 4 that opened last February. It took six years to build. This huge ¾-of-a-mile-long terminal doubled the size of Madrid-Barajas Airport. I loved it -- it’s modern, bright, colorful, and emits a happy feeling. The two things I did not like were the 6-minute tram to the baggage carousel, and waiting over 45 minutes for our bags to arrive.

SANTIAGO DE COMPESTELA TO MADRID

Santiago de Compostela’s Lavacolla Airport is located 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) outside of the city. The airport is much larger than I imagined, and includes many shops and cafes. Check-in for Iberia Airlines (Spain’s national carrier) did not take long, but they do have strict carry-on weight restrictions. That’s the one thing that drives me crazy about traveling overseas: Most foreign airlines have ridiculously low weight restrictions for carry-ons. I have no problem checking bags (though I try my best not to), but I do have a beef when they say my small carry-on bag must be under a certain weight. In Iberia’s case it’s 10 kg (22 lbs). My computer bag is filled with everything a person is supposed to NOT check (the list includes all valuables, medicine, electronic goods such as phones, cameras, chargers -- just about anything expensive and important). I also have a bunch of travel magazines, which add to the few pounds I am always over their limit. My bag usually weighs 12 kg (26 lbs), and my computer weighs 8 lbs itself. The only legal way around this is to put some stuff in your checked luggage -- which I did. FYI: Iberia’s checked luggage limit for economy class passengers is 20 Kg. (44 lb.). That is generous. TIPS: Be sure to check your airline’s baggage policies before leaving home. You might want to buy a travel utility scale from Magellan’s Travel Supplies for $8.95 (click here to purchase one) to weigh your bags when you’re not home (and after adding souvenirs). The scale gives weights in kilograms and pounds. It really comes is handy. (Get it? It’s a hand scale!)

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

GARDEN SIDE TRIP

If you want to get out of town and see a remarkable garden located behind a traditional Galician manor house, drive 20 km (12 miles) to Santa Cruz de Rivadulla y Pazo de Oca. Here you will find a marvelous haven that is practically all your own. I saw three other people walking around the perfectly manicured Versailles-like gardens, enjoying a wide variety of plants, trees and designs. There’s even a walking maze, but I was too busy admiring the Galician vases, giant sequoia tree and kiwi fruit, and sampling the ripe grapes. I wish they had a place like this in L.A., because it’s the perfect date place. Three kilometers (six minutes) away is another garden, Paza de Santa Cruz -- but this one has a totally different feel. These are traditional Galician gardens, which means they were not really manicured (or supposed to be). Certain areas felt like a jungle. Not a great place to go on a date -- but if you’re a garden lover, it might be worth your time. The highlights for me were the waterfall and the 200-300-year-old olive trees forming the shape of a cross. Entry to both costs €3 ($4); reservations are required, and there are no public bathrooms. They are open between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. (and 3 to 8 p.m. in the summer).

THE OLDEST HOTEL IN THE WORLD

Because Hotel NH Obradoiro is not located in the city center (it’s a 10-minute walk away), and because it has an international feel rather than a local one, next time I would stay at the Parador de Santiago de Compostela. This 5-star hotel is not only centrally located, but it’s elegant – and it has a ton of history. Did you know that it is considered too be the oldest hotel in the world? It began in 1499 as the Royal Hospital, giving shelter to travelers making their way to Santiago. It opened as a full-service hotel in 1959. Although I didn’t get to stay there, I peeked at the rooms and ate in the luxurious dining room. Parador de Santiago de Compostela, Pza. Do Obradoiro, 1. 15705. Rates start at €200 ($255). Santiago de Compostela , A Coruña; tel.: 34-981-58-22-00.

HOTEL NH OBRADORIO

I stayed at the 5-star, 159-room Hotel NH Obradoiro. It had the same trendy feel as a "W." The lobby and rooms were all designed with modern furniture and dark wood. My room was very comfortable and the bed was cozy. What I didn’t like were the thin walls, the €22 ($28) a day fee for wireless internet, and most of all the fact that my window did not open. I had to keep the air conditioning on at night, even though the temperature outside was perfect for sleeping and it was raining, which would have made the atmosphere that much better. Don’t you love falling asleep to the rain? The nightly rate of €112 ($142) includes a large breakfast buffet (with the best apple kiwi juice), and access to a small fitness center and pool to work it off. Hotel NH Obradoiro, Av. do Burgo das Nacións, sn – 15705 Santiago de Compostela; tel.: 34-981-558-070.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

ROOF TOUR

I was excited to learn that the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela offers roof tours. I was even more delighted to learn that getting there does not require any tight, claustrophobic travel. This one-hour tour is for everyone -- even those who are afraid of heights or claustrophobic. It’s only 84 steps, up a wide, well-lit stairwell. The highest point is 30 meters (90 feet), and there are no scary ledges. Besides the architecture and history lessons (did you know that in the Middle Ages pilgrims came up here to do the ritual burning of their old clothes they wore on the pilgrimage?), you can relax and take in the beautiful views. Roof tours are available from Tuesday to Sunday, every hour between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., and from 4 to 8 p.m. Tickets cost €10 ($12.75) and are limited, so be sure to make reservations. Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela; tel.: 34- 981-552-985.

SCALLOP SHELLS

The moment I walked through the doors of the cathedral, heard the organ and choir, and saw the line of pilgrims kissing a scallop shell (and bowing their heads three times as signs of homage) with such emotion, I could not NOT think there is some higher being. The signs of scallop shells are all over the area. Pilgrims have them on their backpacks, or on top of their staffs; all the souvenir shops sell them, the restaurants serve them, and the cathedral has sculptures of the mollusk inside and out -- including the famous golden one on the altar. The scallop shell is the universal symbol of St James in the Christian world; some people say it’s also the symbol of fertility. (Some pilgrims make their way here as a fertility pilgrimage.) Whatever the reason or however you get here, you won’t be disappointed.

SAINT JAMES CATHEDRAL

When I first pulled up to the outskirts of the city I didn’t think it was anything special. It looked like a typical European city (which is special in itself). But the moment I laid eyes on the Plaza do Obradoiro, the historic square where the famous St. James Cathedral is located (the end of the pilgrimage), and I learned the history and witnessed pilgrims celebrating as they hugged one another with tears in their eyes, I got goose bumps. Wow! What a special place. And it’s not just because I’m Catholic. I was with a Jewish friend, and he had the same warm and fuzzy feeling. St. James Cathedral is clearly the focal point, and a beautiful structure, but it’s not the most beautiful cathedral I’ve ever seen. However, what this place of worship has inside -- besides stunning Romanesque art -- is spirit.

WHO COMES HERE

Over the past 1,000 years people have made pilgrimages here (originally using the Milky Way as their compass). They came for a number of reasons – most often to rid themselves of their sins, or to journey toward God. This is one of three pilgrimages in the world that believers believers think will cause sins to be forgiven (the others are Via Francigena to Rome, and the pilgrimage to Jerusalem). The Santiago de Compestela pilgrimage is known as "The Way of St. James." Over 100,000 pilgrims travel to the city every year, on five major European routes. The most popular, from France, takes 30 days by foot. Yes, many people walk. An official pilgrimage to Santiago de Compestela requires that the last 100 km (62 miles) be walked, or the last 200 km (124 miles) biked. Pilgrims are required to get official credentials, known as the Pilgrim’s Passport. This allows them to get free or very inexpensive rooms (a few euros) for one night only at each refugio (similar to a hostel) along the way. The passports are stamped at each stop. When pilgrims arrive in Santiago de Compestella they receive a certificate -- and of course something much more important than paper. The pilgrims and their routes are well protected by the police and government – in fact, the pilgrimage routes have been declared European Cultural Routes by the Council of Europe, and designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I didn’t do an official trek myself – although I might have to go back and do it to rid myself of my sins. Instead I drove (the Portuguese way, via Tui), like the majority of Santiago’s 6 million annual visitors. But in 2004 179,944 people made the pilgrimage, and it seems to get more popular every year. That’s almost 500 pilgrims arriving a day! The most popular countries for pilgrims are Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Holland, Belgium, the United States, England and Canada. But I met people from Brazil, Israel -- even Australia.

BACKGROUND ON SANTIAGO DE COMPESTELA

For centuries people from all over the world have been flocking here to enjoy this historic and holy city. Let’s start with the basics: The Spanish word "Santiago" translates as "St. James," while "Compostela" comes from the Latin "campus stellae" which means "field of the stars" St. James the Great was one of Jesus’ apostles (his brother was John). Legend has it that St James made his way to Galicia to preach Jesus’ good word. Nine hundred years later his bones were found in what is now Lebanon, and supposedly brought to Santiago Compestela later that same century (9th). St. James was buried directly below where a shepherd spotted a star; later, a cathedral was built over that very spot (it opened in 1075). This city is regarded as the final resting place of St. James; his remains are believed to lie beneath the altar in the crypt of the cathedral.

Hola!

Hola from Spain! Last time we made our way from Portugal through Galicia to the holy city of Santiago de Compestela (here’s the link to the archives). This week we’ve arrived at our final destination. Boy, did I learn a lot – for example, I had no idea Santiago de Compestela is regarded as one of the three most religious cities in the Christian world (after Rome and Jerusalem). If you want to find out why people trek to here from all over the globe, and see lots of pictures, then hop on– our ride is leaving!

We are in the Galicia region of Spain, located in the northwest part of the country. I wrote about this area last week -- including the language, the food, and some memorable cities that few Americans know about. This week we have made our way to the capital of Galicia: Santiago de Compestela. As you are about to learn, there’s much more to this place than just the region’s capital.

Monday, December 25, 2006

ISLA DE LA TOJA

Five minutes away, over a bridge, is the Isla de la Toja. Here is one of Spain’s best hotels (Gran Hotel Hesperia La Toja; tel.: 34-986-73-00-50), and a unique chapel covered in scallop shells. Yes, the exterior of capilla de San Sebastián (chapel of San Sebastián) has scallop shells from top to bottom. Not only do the shells do a great job protecting the building from the natural elements, but the scallop shell is Galicia’s national symbol. It is also the universal symbol for pilgrims (and people write messages on them -- but I’m not sure why) making their trek to Santiago de Compestella. That’s where we’re headed next week -- and we will learn all about it. Adios, amigos!

O GROVE

The highlight for me this week was going out on one of the many catamarans from the O Grove harbor to tour the mussels and scallops platform beds scattered all over the water. The crew immediately started cooking mussels with white wine and lemon in a pot off the stern of the boat. Once we arrived at a mussel platform we were allowed to go downstairs to see and hear how this area became the number two shellfish producer in the world (after China). Galicia brings in between 50 to 70 tons of mussels a year! It takes 1.5 to 2 years to harvest mussels, which are glued on to 30-40 foot ropes. The explanations are only in Spanish so if you don’t hablo espanol bring a translator. The highlight came after we went back up top, and the happy waitress brought out tray after tray of cooked mussels. I never thought I would eat a mussel in my life, but after seeing everyone oohing and ahing about the best mussels they ever had, I had to try. And you know what – they weren’t bad! I had four (the others had 20). O Grove is definitely a fish lover’s paradise. They even sponsor an annual seafood festival in early October. For further information, see either Galicia’s lame website (TurGalicia.es) or contact the O Grove Tourist Office (tel: 34-986-73-14-15). The 1 hour, 15-minute cruises cost €13 ($16) for adults, €6 ($7.60) for children 12 and under. For more information regarding the boat tours: Catamaranes; tel. 34-986-731-246.

COMBARRO

Five kilometers (3 miles) away, we had a coffee break in Combarro and took a quick tour of this fishing village. Combarro is famous for its hórreos – raised granaries with round edges to keep rodents away. Follow the crowds down the narrow corridors to find shops selling local goods -- and more witches.

PONTEVEDRA

In the morning (after breakfast) we checked out of the hotel and drove toward Santiago de Compestella. Along the way we stopped in Pontevedra to check out this city with a long maritime and trading tradition. Timber used to be the main export, but thanks to new laws that is no longer true. The city has a very elegant historic quarter. The main square, Praza de Lena, features a popular stone cross. The town is full of charm, cafes and bars. This is also the place where I spotted (on my own) a symbol pointing toward Santiago de Compestella (more on that later). And I bought an asthma inhaler for €5 without a prescription. For more on Pontevedra, click here

MONDARIZ BALNEARIO

I checked into the hotel Balneario de Mondariz, just a few miles from the Portuguese border and 120 km (74 miles) from Santiago de Compostela. This area, in the valley of the Tea River, has been popular since the 14th century when mineral waters with medicinal properties were discovered. This area is so famous that in Spain Mondariz is a popular brand name for bottled water. This 4-star, three-building hotel has 194 rooms and a popular spa. My room was a little difficult to find, and it was a long walk from the lobby, but the room was comfortable, and it had satellite TV and incredible water pressure (along with thin walls). I had a patchy internet signal in my room, but the lobby had full access (you need to go down there anyway to pick up your access code, and pay the €10.34 [$13.21] for 24 hours of access. But not too many people who come here are interested in internet (mainly those attending conferences). Guests come to play golf, enjoy Galician cuisine, walk around the garden areas, and most of all to spa. The new Water Palace (Palacio del Agua) opened in April. It costs €22 ($28) for three hours. Slippers and swim caps -- which everyone must wear at all times – are provided. Outside the locker rooms, the Spa is one gigantic (3,000 square meters) indoor and outdoor coed facility. The bright, multileveled, high-ceiling room is centered around one huge pool, with a number of dynamic pools to the sides. There are pools with hydro-massage jets, swan neck fountains, seven saunas of all size and temperatures, as well as steam rooms. There’s also an outdoor communal bath, and a hot and cold contrast bath inspired by Japanese thermal culture. The water is believed to be especially good for those with sports injuries, nervous or digestive disorders, and stress. Room rates start at €130 ($166) Hotel Balneario de Mondariz, Av. Enrique Peinador, sn, E-36890 Mondariz Balneario (Pontevedra); tel. 34-986-656-156.

BAIONA

For lunch we headed to Baiona (the English spell it Bayona). This city is famous for the arrival of the caravel La Pinta, commanded by Martín Alonso Pinzón in 1493. (A caravel is a small 15th century three-masted ship.) La Pinta was the fastest of Columbus’ three ships, and the first to arrive back home. In 1999 a replica of the 74-foot ship was moored in the bay. It is now the caravel Pinta Museum. It costs just €1 to go aboard and see the mannequins of crew and native Americans, along with reproductions of metals, plants, foods and exotic animals found in the New World. After walking around the port town, check out the Parador de Baiona (Paradors are the same as Portuguese Pousadas; there are 85 Paradors in Spain). The 4-star Baiona Parador is located inside the Monterreal Castle (rooms start at €120 [$153] a night). The hotel is built in the style of a Galician manor house, but within the walls of this medieval fortress. I did not stay there, but I did have a marvelous lunch in the main dining room. It included gazpacho, steak and salad. Parador de Baiona, Castelo de Monterreal, 36300 Baiona (Pontevedra); tel. 34-986-355- 000. FYI: If you are looking for a much more inexpensive hotel, try the 2-star Hotel Anunciada in the center of town. Rates begin at just €28 ($35) a night.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

SANTA TEGRA, SPAIN

Next stop was Santa Tegra. It is located on top of a mountain (not a hill like Tui), along the coast. This park has even better panoramic views of the Miño River and of Portugal. There is a small 80 centimos ($1) fee to enter. The drive up and down is spectacular -- but even more impressive are the ruins. Three-quarters of the way to the top are Celtic dwellings (called castros). This is one of the most important examples of Galician hill-fort culture. Seriously, if you knocked me out in the U.S. and I woke up here, I would bet the house was in Ireland (I’m so glad that didn’t happen). Along the road to the top of Santa Tegra are 14 crosses, representing the 14 stops Jesus made to Calvary. Besides the incredible views, Santa Tegra has some fun outdoor souvenir shops that sell a variety of knickknacks, including mechanical bulls (there is no bullfighting in Galicia) and witches. Witch lore is very popular in Galicia.

TUI

The first town across the border is the historic village of Tui. It is centered around the Romanesque and Gothic Tui Cathedral. Getting there requires walking uphill on narrow stone streets. Construction of the Tui Cathedral began in 1120 A.D, and lasted 105 years. Today it costs €1 ($1.28) to go inside and see the small museum, massive organ and detailed altars. Don’t miss going up the open-air stone stairwell -- it reminded me of a mini-Blarney Castle in Ireland (here’s the link to the Blarney story). This cathedral castle is only a couple of stories high, but because it’s on a hill it gives visitors the best views of the town below, the Miño River and of Portugal.

FOOD IN GALICIA

The capital of Galicia, Santiago de Compostela, is regarded as one of the world’s most religious cities (after Rome and Jerusalem). Galicia’s landscape is much different from the rest of Spain. Here there are dense forests, many small rivers (it’s sometimes referred to as "the land with a thousand rivers"), and five large Atlantic coast rías (similar to fjords, and very important for fishing). These rías contribute to the nickname "The Seafood Coast." I’m not a huge seafood eater, but as I get older and travel more I’m starting to expand my horizons. As you will see in this week’s video (below) I even ate steamed mussels, a very popular dish here. Other delicacies include octopus, prawns, scallops, oysters, lobster, crabs, sardines, trout and salmon. To wash them down, Galicia produces dry local white wines. FYI: If you’re not a seafood eater, don’t worry; there are plenty of landlubber and vegetarian dishes. You won’t starve -- but you will be missing out.

GALICIA, SPAIN

Galicia is a region in northwest Spain (here’s a map). The area includes 1,300 km (807 miles) of coastline, and 772 beaches. There are two official languages in Galicia: Castilian (Spanish) and Galician. Only 4,000,000 people speak Galician, which is similar to Portuguese. The Northern Portuguese have a better understanding of it than Castilian speakers (see this chart for similarities and differences between the two languages). In the medieval ages Galicia was an independent country. I was surprised to learn that Galicians are cousins to Bretons, Scots and Welsh. No wonder so many people there have fair skin and red hair. It also explained why bagpipes are very important musical instruments to the Galicians. The name "Galicia" comes from the Latin "Gallaecia," which is associated with an ancient Celtic tribe that lived above the Douro River. Here are links to learn more about the Spanish language, and the history of Galicia deriving from Celtic culture.

Friday, December 22, 2006

PORTUGAL TO SPAIN

After a filling breakfast buffet at Pousada D. Diniz, we loaded up the van and drove to Spain. It took a quick 15 minutes, with no hassle. Because both countries are members of the European Union, there is no stopping at the border or showing passports like in the old days. Today, driving across EU borders is the same as driving from one American state to another. Of course, crossing countries is a lot cooler.

POUSADA D. DINIZ

After dinner, my small tour group and I drove 30 minutes to Vila Nova de Cerveira, where we spent the night in Pousada D. Diniz. This Pousada was in a 13th century manor house with huge private wings (we had a cozy eight-bedroom place to ourselves -- but it had thin walls and no internet). I slept well, and before calling it a night I stepped out on my own patio to enjoy the views of the Minho River. The Spanish spell it Miño – it’s the border of Portugal and Spain. It was so cool to be staring out only a short distance, seeing lights shimmering in houses and on cars, knowing those people were in another country. It was mind-boggling to think they have a different culture and different language -- and the next day I would witness it first hand. What a beautiful thing travel is! Pousada D. Diniz, 4920-296 Vila Nova de Cerveira; tel.: 351-251-708120.

VIANA DO CASTELO, PORTUGAL

My last afternoon in Portugal was spent in Viana do Castelo. This historic town was founded in 1258, and is located along the River Lima. There is not a lot of tourism here, but thanks to new luxury hotels like Casa Melo Alvim (located in the center of town in an eco-friendly 1509 building) and Hotel Flor De Sal (a few minutes away on the beach, with a "W"-like atmosphere), I wonder how much longer this place has before the crowds come. Walking around the celebrated square and through the narrow cobblestone streets is very relaxing. For dinner I took a 10-minute ride to the top of the Santa Luzia hill, so I could see the neo-Byzantine church I had admired from below (the church stares down on Viana do Castelo). The views, and eucalyptus- and pine-scented air reminded me a lot of the Bay Area in Northern California. A few hundred yards away was another reminder of San Francisco: a 1918 hotel with a façade similar to the Fairmont. Pousada de Viana do Castelo - Monte de Santa Luzia is one of Portugal’s 43 Pousadas. Pousada is the name of an upscale (4 to 5 stars) Portuguese hotel chain that is owned by the government but run by a private group. Pousadas can be found in historic castles, manor houses, former monasteries, palaces and convents. If you don’t stay at this 50 room Pousada, at least have dinner and enjoy the views and elegance. Pousada de Viana do Castelo; tel: 351- 258-800-370.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

INTERNATIONAL CELL PHONE


That’s does it for today. But before I finish, let me answer the most popular question I get each week. Many people ask what phone service I use when I am abroad. I travel with my laptop, and try to use Skype as much as possible (more info on Skype). But I always bring my international (GSM) cellular phone, because I’m always on the go (Skype requires a computer and internet connection). Most U.S. cell phone companies don’t even have GSM tri-band phones, and the ones that do (like T-Mobile) charge way too much for incoming and outgoing calls. Instead of paying their high rates, save money and get your own GSM phone. It’s not expensive, and there are a couple of options. Renting is one, but it’s not worth the cost down the road if you plan on traveling internationally again in the next couple of years. I got my razor phone from Cellular Abroad. Before I leave for overseas, they send me a local SIM (Subscriber Information Module) chip for the place I'm headed to. I insert the chip into the phone, where it serves as the brain (it contains such information as the cell phone number, voice mail and call logs). The SIM gives me a local number, so no one needs to dial long distance to reach me. Best of all, when my friends and family back home call, it’s free. That’s right: All incoming calls are free in most countries! Another huge plus is that when I call them, it costs me no more than half what a U.S. cell company would charge. Beyond the savings, there is convenience -- plus the security of having a reliable cell phone. It’s nice to be able to access, or be accessible from home, wherever I am with one simple phone call. Cellular Abroad is kind enough to offer a $10 discount to all JohnnyJet.com visitors. Be sure to mention Johnny Jet when ordering over the phone (1-800-287-3020) or online (CellularAbroad.com).

BARCELOS

Barcelos is a small town famous for its weekly market, which has been held on Thursdays since the 13th century. The outdoor market is Portugal’s largest – and among Europe’s largest as well. You’ll find everything here, from clothes, household items, fruits, vegetables, bread and pastries to ducks, chickens, and of course souvenirs. The most popular items for tourists are pottery and the Barcelos cockerel -- the most widely-recognized symbol of Portugal. A 13th-century legend describes how the rooster became so popular, and a symbol of good luck. Supposedly a pilgrim on his way to Santiago de Compostela, Spain stopped in Barcelos, and was wrongly accused of stealing. Before the Pilgrim was hung he told the judge that to prove his innocence, the roasted hen he was about to eat would get up and cluck. It did, and he was freed. Of course, I bought some wooden roosters for Christmas presents. For more info on Barcelos.

BRAGA


Another city worth visiting is Braga. Braga is considered the second most important city in northern Portugal (after Porto), because it’s the only one in Portugal with an archbishop. (That’s why it’s called "The City of Archbishops.") The most important historical monument in the city is the Sé de Braga (Braga Cathedral), built between the 12th and 18th centuries. The 155,000 citizens also enjoy walking past many other historical monuments, like Fonte do Ídolo (Idol's Fountain), which dates from the 1st century A.D., or the Tower of Braga Castle. There are many more sights (including places to shop); here’s a link to help find them.

GUIMARAES

Another town was Guimarães -- Portugal’s first capital. The old quarter (which is also a World Heritage Site) is definitely worth a tour. The city has cobblestone streets, a 14th century church, and -- get this -- free wireless internet and free cable TV. How do you like that for old meeting new? We ate lunch at Restaurante Vira-Bar, where we enjoyed rodovalho, robalo and dourada (Brill, Sea Bass, gilthead bream) and posta à barrosã (very rare steak). Restaurante Vira-Bar, Largo Condessa, Juncal, 27, Guimarães; tel.: 351-253-518-427. More info on Guimarães.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

AMARANTE

On my way back to the coast to get ready for my next country, we stopped at some interesting Portuguese towns. One was Amarante, 56 km (39 miles) east of Porto. This historic town was founded in 360 B.C. In 1790 an impressive bridge was built over the Tâmega River. On the other side of the bridge is a 5-star Relais & Chateaux hotel, Casa Da Calcada. The front overlooks the church of São Gonçalo, while the back boasts views of the outdoor pool adjacent to vineyards. For more info, log on to Casa Da Calcada or see this Amarante guide.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

HOTEL RURAL

Forty kilometers (25 miles) away, on the south bank of the Douro Valley, I found myself checking into the Hotel Rural Viscondes da Várzea. Finding this 180-hectare (444- acre) family estate would be a challenge without a local driver. It’s off the beaten path; just a small sign reads "Hotel Rural," with an arrow. At the end of that road, the estate’s gated entrance takes visitors down a long driveway past the family vineyards, fruit orchards and olive trees. Hotel Rural is a 37-bedroom house with a great story. Maria Manuel Cyrne grew up in this 17th-century noble house with her family. In 1975 her family sold the house and property to Seagrams. Maria was devastated. She then fell in love with her first cousin, and married him without her family’s blessings. She had no children, because she feared they would have genetic problems. She opened a boutique, and when Seagrams put the estate back on the market a few years ago she bought it back to fulfill a lifelong dream. Her other was having healthy children – and she finally had twins. They are now 4 years old, and live in the house. Maria asked me to pass along her story, to inspire other people to live their dreams. What is even more interesting is that everything in the house is for sale -- and I mean everything. She decorated the place from her store, and it’s delightfully tacky. You can lift up the salt shaker at dinner, and see what it costs. The staff are young, friendly and strong suburbanites. Two of the girls insisted on carrying three people’s bags (see the video below). The first room I was in, off the main house, was a little musty. But I was quickly moved to the main house, and the staff placed humidifiers in the other room to clear it up. The highlight -- besides sitting on the veranda overlooking the marvelous grounds while checking emails using free wireless -- was the incredible meals. I felt like I was at my Italian grandmother’s house during the holidays. All the meals here are traditional Portuguese dishes like feijão frade com atum (beans with tuna) or farinheira and chouriço e morcela (typical Portuguese sausages). Room rates start at €95 ($120) during the week. Hotel Rural Viscondes da Várzea, Várzea de Abrunhais, 5100-878 Lamego; tel.: 351-254- 690020. Posted by Picasa

FACTORY TOUR AND LUNCH

Half an hour later we drove down the back side of the steep hill (I’m not sure which way was worse). Safely at home base, we toured the distillery. This was not your standard 30-minute wine tour – instead, we sampled wines during the different stages of the fermenting process. We skipped the formal wine tasting at the end, because we enjoyed those same bottles over an authentic Portuguese lunch at the hotel restaurant. The food was made fresh from local ingredients (sorry, no pictures -- my camera battery died), but trust me: It was delicious. Hotel Rural Burmester, Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo, 5085-222 Covas do Douro, Pinhão, Portugal; tel.: 351-254-730-430. Posted by Picasa

HARVEST TIME

Harvesting grapes was the highlight of my trip to Portugal. Our group was given white Quinta Nova T-shirts, a black bucket, and orange-handled scissors. We piled in the back of a pickup truck like 8th graders, and were off to even higher ground. If I had had any idea where we were headed, I probably would have walked. Seriously, even those with no fear of heights would be spooked. We went up a single, one-way bumpy dirt road with the gnarliest turns that had everyone (including me) screaming. You’d scream too if you faced a 3,000-foot drop. But if I was going to be taken from this world, it would not have been the worst way to go. At least I was among new friends and beautiful women; the sky was clear, the sun was warm, and the views – well, they were to die for. When we reached the top we saw farmers of all ages enjoying their work. They chatted easily with each other, wearing wide smiles, as they breezed up and down the rows of ripe grapes. Our task was to help them until we filled a couple of larger bins, placed strategically alongside the road for easy pickup. Posted by Picasa

A NEW WINE HOTEL

After another long, winding road we were high in the upper Douro Valley, in the parking lot of the Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo estate. Quinta Nova dates back to 1758 when the first vineyard was planted. The wine cellar has some history too. It was built in 1764, the same year as the estate's baroque chapel. The estate covers 120 hectares (296 acres) of breathtaking rolling hills. They became even more appealing in June 2005, when the estate opened the luxury Hotel Rural Burmester. All 11 immaculately clean rooms are decorated in 18th-century style, using local materials like slate and cork. This wine-focused hotel includes breakfast and wine baths in its rates, which begin at €75 ($95). There are also walking and biking trails, and the hotel prepares picnic baskets. Guests who come at this time of year can help harvest, too! Posted by Picasa

CORK TREES

On our exciting ride to Quinta Nova we pulled off to the side of the road again when Helena spotted a pile of cork. She said that cork is the bark of the cork oak tree, and Portugal produces nearly half of the world’s commercial corks. Here’s an article on how cork is produced, and another one on Portugal’s cork industryPosted by Picasa

Monday, December 18, 2006

THE DOURO VALLEY

The 560-mile Rio Douro (River of Gold) begins in northern-central Spain, and flows to its outlet in Porto, Portugal. Along the way the river runs through the Douro Valley. The "gold" here is the grapes that grow on 617,000-plus acres of some of the most spectacular quintas (wine-producing farm complexes) I’ve ever seen. Most quintas lie on almost completely vertical slopes; the land is said to be the toughest to cultivate in the world. In the old days farmers used the river to transport their wine to the cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia (located across from Porto -- we visited there last week). Because Porto was a major port city, and this is where they shipped it from, "Port wine" gained its name. The farmers also used the mountain railroad, but today there are excellent highways so they use trucks. The jaw-dropping Alto Douro region has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site (here’s the link), because the region has produced wine for almost 2,000 years and its landscape has been molded by human activities (see this UNESCO link for more criteria). The Douro Valley is a perfect place for growing grapes, cherries and olives. They are also some almond and cork trees. The weather is hot and dry in the summer, cold and wet in winter. Once you drive over the Serra do Marão mountain range, the weather changes instantly. Thanks to humid air, fertile soil and schist rock to keep the fruit warm at night, grapes thrive here. The next time you see a bottle of wine labeled "vinho do Porto," you’ll know it was created right here in the Douro Valley. Posted by Picasa

GETTING TO THE DOURO VALLEY

There are several ways to reach the Douro Valley from Porto, 90 km (56 miles) away. One is by boat, but nine locks make for a long ride. There is also a mountain train, which takes 2 hours and 20 minutes to reach the 130-year-old Pinhão railway station. If you take the train, be sure to stop and notice the 100 or so ornate blue tiles that depict different scenes of local port production on the outer walls of the station. The Douro Valley claims to have more than 25,000 wine makers. From the railway station, one of the closest (1.8 km = 1.1 mile) is the one I visited: Quinta Nova de Nossa Senhora do Carmo. It lies across the river and up a hill -- about a 10-minute taxi ride away. The fastest and most expensive ($360 per person) way from Porto is by helicopter -- it takes only 25 minutes (Douroazul.pt). But most people drive to the Douro Valley, which is what I did. I was fortunate to be on a private tour with one of Portugal’s best official guides. Helena Baltazar gives private tours all over Portugal, in Portuguese, French or English. Rates vary; contact her at helena.baltazar@clix.pt or tel.: 351-917572555. Posted by Picasa