Archive for May, 2008

A Pilgrimage, Of Sorts, to Santiago de Compostela

May 10th, 2008 at 6:38 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

On Thursday, we had an early (and very tired) start, getting on Zodiacs for the first time as part of our disembarkation in the fishing village of Finesterra, Spain. Finesterra, also called Fisterra, is located in the Galician area of northwestern Spain. The name of the village allegedly comes from when the Romans arrived there a couple of millennia ago, and figured they had reached the end (fini) of the world (terra).

The fishing village of Finesterra, Spain
The fishing village of Finesterra, Spain

Boarding the Zodiacs was reasonably simple as the briefing we had received on the process the evening before was quite thorough, and all went according to plan. We’ve been told that the use of Zodiacs for getting to shore is the norm for most Lindblad trips, but as previously noted, we’ve been using docks and piers all along. Apparently we are also due to use Zodiacs tomorrow to leave St. Malo, as the tides will require the Endeavor to leave the dock before we return.

Krystyana, Linda, and Bas aboard one of the Zodiacs from the National Geographic Endeavour
Krystyana, Linda, and Bas aboard one of the Zodiacs from the National Geographic Endeavour

We boarded the ever present tour bus with our fellow horde of co-passengers, and headed off to Santiago de Compostela, a major Christian pilgrimage site featuring a cathedral which reportedly contains the remains of St. James, an Apostle of Christ. The remains were certified by a Bishop in the 9th century A.D., according to Isabella, our charming Galician tour guide. After Jerusalem and the Vatican, Santiago de Compostela is the third most visited site for Christian pilgrims.

The cathedral at Santiago de Compostela
The cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

Apparently, there are some very strict requirements for someone to be considered a proper pilgrim. First is that they must arrive on foot or by bicycle, but arrival by motorized conveyance is not permissible for pilgrim status. Pedestrian pilgrims need to travel at least 60 km to get to Santiago de Compostela, and get stamps certifying their pilgrimage walk at various checkpoints along the way. For those preferring to bicycle, the distance is 120 km, with checkpoint stamps required as well. Once a properly stamped pilgrim arrives in Santiago de Compostela they need to go to the Pilgrimage certification office and get an official certificate verifying that they are in fact a real pilgrim. Then, the first ten of such certified pilgrims each day can get a free meal at the Hostal hotel/restaurant.

Pilgrims also are supposed to be carrying scallop shells as a symbol of their pilgrimage, as in addition to being a useful tool for drinking and eating, it also represents a religious icon in Christianity (I didn’t quite grasp how or why that was, though, during our tour). Scallop shell motifs adorned the cathedral in many places in any event.

A symbolic scallop shell on the outside of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela
A symbolic scallop shell on the outside of the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

One thing that was very surprising to me about the pilgrimages was that pilgrims only needed to complete the journey to be certified as pilgrims, and not actually even enter the cathedral. It’s not always been that way, however, according to a historical account I later read, as pilgrims at one point had to go to a mass, visit the tomb of St. James, have their confession taken, and take communion, at a minimum. Now, however, the process seems less spiritual and more bureaucratic.

The drive to Santiago de Compostela was a bit drizzly and foggy – something that Isabella indicated was more the norm than not, as sunshine tended to be rare, and rain plentiful. But it was a beautiful drive, at least the part during which we were awake (as we had not had much sleep the previous night). Our arrival in Santiago de Compostela seemed to be at something that was a cross between a Greyhound bus station and a cruise ship terminal, seething with mostly oddly dressed individuals overladen with giant handbags, backpacks, and camera equipment, speaking in a myriad of mostly incomprehensible but strangely familiar languages, ourselves included. As we were herded along – amongst the hundreds of other tourists – we paused briefly at a restroom and then made our way to the square in front of the cathedral, being teased by free samples of almond cookies and almond cake, both of which have become traditional foods associated with the town.

In the square before the cathedral, we were introduced to the Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos, a hotel and dining facility which started life as the accommodations for visiting nobility; the administrative offices for the county of which Santiago de Compostela was the county seat; the old school building, and of course the cathedral itself. Isabella said the square and its surroundings represented the basic element of human life – education (the school), work (the administrative building), leisure (the Hostal), and spiritual (the cathedral).

We then visited the interior of the cathedral itself, which at first glance appeared large but very simple and plain, but as we walked on, that changed, with amazing (and somewhat expected) ornamentation in the area around the resting place of the remains of St. James, which was also surrounded by ornate private chapels.

The bureaucratic nature of modern day Santiago de Compostela came through inside the cathedral as well, where priests sat in confessional booths lining one wall of the cathedral ready to take confessions. Seeing this felt like a Monty Python moment brought to real life.

A priest reads while waiting to take a confession in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela
A priest reads while waiting to take a confession in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

We were also told about how local cheese makers became political revolutionaries of sorts, when, in protest to a bishop having a sculptor give a statue a breast size reduction, started producing all their cheeses in the shape of a voluptuous female breast. That practice continues to this day.

Two of the breast cheeses of Santiago de Compostela
Two of the breast cheeses of Santiago de Compostela

The other thing the cathedral is famous for is the giant censer – called the “botafumeiro” – which is swung after communion is given at a mass, filled with incense. The censer weighs 55 kg and reaches speeds of 60 km an hour, and requires a handful of priests to swing it. The censer was apparently first put to use due the stink of the unwashed masses of pilgrims that visited the cathedral back in the days when pilgrims did not have access to the showers that modern hostels for pilgrims now offer. While the censer we saw did in fact emit a lot of smoke, we could smell no incense at all, so it appears to be just for show now, and not for masking human “fragrance”.

The kids got to witness part of a Catholic mass, a first for them. Bas said he found the experience boring and that he almost fell asleep, and I pointed out to him that that was not an uncommon reaction even for devout parishioners at a mass or sermon.

The local Bishop gives a sermon during noon mass in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela
The local Bishop gives a sermon during noon mass in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela

After the mass was over we enjoyed an aperitif of wine and appetizers at the Hostal and entertainment of local traditional dancing and music, which also includes the playing of a bagpipe, something Isabella attributed to Galicia’s heritage as a Celtic-based community. Lunch followed in a huge ornate room where every other chair was throne-like. We had a bit of time to wander after lunch, and went and purchased some previously sampled almond cake and a couple of handfuls of breast-shaped cheese.

Our bus ride out of town took us to La Coruna (the Crown), a larger coastal city where the Endeavour was able to dock. In order to delay our arrival at dock until the appointed boarding time of 6pm, we toured the city by bus and also got out at the Tower of Hercules, a structure originally built by the Romans, and now featuring 243 stairs, which Krystyana and I climbed in a few minutes (and which my thighs are now still in pain from, two days later). The top of the tower afforded us a very nice view of Coruna, but as we had only 20 minutes away from the bus, we had to hustle all the way back down the tower, and even so arrived a few minutes late.

Once back on board the Endeavour we had a “recap” – a briefing that is apparently a bit of a tradition on board Lindblad cruises, and which are supposedly summaries and further discussions of things we have seen that day. Of particular interest was a presentation by one of our naturalists about the collection of Lalique jewelry at the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. Fascinating pieces, and we wish we had known about them before visiting Lisbon instead of days later. Historian Steve Blamires also provided an overview of the Celtic people in relationship to Galicia where we had just been.

Dinner was a BBQ served in the very chilly region of the back deck – a great location had it been sunny and warm out, but decidedly uncomfortable considering the exterior climate (slightly moist and windy, with temperatures in the low 50s).

We retired to bed late and tired, but well nourished – physically and mentally.


New Posts From Lindblad About Our Trip

May 10th, 2008 at 6:09 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

The Lindblad staff have posted two new daily reports on their site about the visit of the ship we are on, the National Geographic Endeavour, to two other ports of call:

May 6 – Lisbon, Portugal
May 7 – Porto, Portugal


Porto or Oporto? Tasting Port in Portugal

May 10th, 2008 at 10:59 am (AST) by Jake Richter

On Wednesday, the day after we visited Lisbon we docked near Porto, Portugal. Porto is also known as Oporto as a result of linguistic mis-interpretation, as apparently when the Portuguese referred the city of Porto, they would precede it with an article “O”, and foreign traders therefore assumed the actually name of the city was Oporto.

A sure sign that we are in Porto, Portugal

The fame of Oporto, or at least the surrounding area, is that this is where the fortified wine known as Port is distributed from. According to our tour guide, there are 35 primary distributors of Port wine (all of whom are also producers of Port), and 35,000 total producers of Port. The large number of producers can be attributed to small mom and pop Port houses, many of whom sell their production to the larger Port distributors for blending into their larger productions. Until relatively recently, Port wine was shipping to London in casks and bottled there, but now Port is bottled primarily in Porto.

Before we docked in Porto, however, we spent the morning in the lounge of the Endeavour for a presentation by National Geographic photographer Massimo Bassano, a short and energetic Italian who has been a blast to travel with these last 10 days or so. Massimo shared some of his background and his storytelling approach to photography, as well as a video presentation on a long term stay with Curthusian monks in Italy. That was followed by photo critique by Massimo of both Krystyana’s and my photography. We both received kudos for our works and our sense of visual balance (i.e. “having an eye for composition”), as well as some suggestions for how to further improve our images. I hope to get some of our images up on this site when we have a faster (and cheaper) Internet connection.

After lunch we boarded a bus which took us around Porto and its environs, with the first stop being the Porto Cathedral, followed by a visit to the so-called Golden Church of St. Francis. The Church of St. Francis was built by the Franciscan monks after permission was granted in the 1300s from King John the First. We were told that John’s marriage to Phillipa of Lancaster resulted in the first official European agreement of cooperation between nations.

The inside of the St. Francis church is covered in gold, estimated to weigh be between 300 and 400 kilograms, which is a contradiction when considering that the Franciscans are an order of monks with a vow of poverty. However, it turns out that the funds for the ornate interior of the church came from wealthy patrons in the area around Porto in the form of donations in exchange for a promise that when such patrons and their families died, they would be buried in hallowed ground inside the church so that they would be “closer to heaven”.

The front of the St. Francis church in Porto, Portugal

During renovations in the 19th century, when laws in Portugal changed and started to forbid burials inside churches, the bones of those previously laid to rest within the floor of St. Francis were excavated and moved to the nearby consecrated grounds of the catacombs at St. Francis, where we were able to see the bones in person after we left the church.

Another thing that was interesting in the church was the rather graphic portrayal in the form of a three dimensional diorama of the beheading of Christian missionaries by Moors in Morocco and the crucifixion of others in Nagasaki, Japan. These missionaries were thus deemed martyred.
Once we had finished view the church and catacombs (sadly, we could not take photos without getting kicked out), we re-boarded the bus for our final destination, the House of Sandeman in Vila Nova de Gaia, across the Douro river from Porto (although arguably still considered part of Porto).

Sandeman’s extremely rare and old vintages are under lock and key

At Sandeman, we were given a tour of the facilities of Porto’s oldest Port house, started in 1790, and now one of the best known names in Port wine. Port wine is wine whose fermentation is stopped before all the sugars have been converted to alcohol, and then fortified with neutral wine spirits to maintain sweetness as well as boost the alcohol content of Port to about 20%. There are three basic types of Port: White, which is crisper and recommended as an aperitif; tawny, which is brownish red in color and aged in barrels before being bottled; and ruby, which has a dark red and burgundy color, and is used for bottle aged vintage Port. After our tour we were treated to a tasting of white and tawny ports. The kids tried them too but weren’t much enthralled. We ended up buying a vintage port “sampler” of three 375ml bottles, the oldest of which was from 1994 at the company store in the tasting area.

Linda and Krystyana are among those at the Port wine tasting at Sandeman in Porto

After a small bit of something sweet at the neighboring café, we hooked up with Massimo as well as new trip friends Gretchen (from Bermuda), and Natalie and Bruce (from Oahu, Hawaii) and went on a walking tour of Gaia to see the back streets and take pictures, finally ending up at Adega & Presuntaria Transmontana 2, a local restaurant recommended to us by several people.

As soon as we sat down we started being served a wide range of local Tapas, including a cold cut plate, local cheeses, olives, marinated pig’s ears, pickled white anchovies, and pork livers. We topped this off with the house red wine, a “vino tinto” of the Douro river area. While we were not particularly wild about the pig’s ears (too chewy), everything else was pretty good. We ended with a large dessert buffet and some more twilight photography before returning back to the Endeavour, sated in many ways.


Official Daily Reports from Lindblad’s National Geographic Endeavour

May 7th, 2008 at 5:13 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Looks like the official daily expedition reports prepared by the staff of the ship we’re on, Lindblad’s National Geographic Endeavour, are slowly starting to trickle onto Lindblad’s web site.

You can look at them here. Make sure to click the date of the entry to read the complete report for that day. There are presently three days posted:

We’ll post our own entry here on The Traveling Richters for today’s nice visit to Porto, Portugal in the next couple of days as we have to get up very early in the morning to go see the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela tomorrow, and we’re losing an hour due to a time zone change going from Portugal to Spain (we will be six hours ahead of the U.S. East Coast).


Visiting Lisbon, Portugal

May 6th, 2008 at 7:41 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

Visiting Lisbon, Portugal

This morning, around 6:30am, as the sun rose, we sailed (actually motored) our way to dock in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Locally, the name of the city is Lisboa, pronounced “Leezh-boh-ah”.

The sun rises over Lisbon, Portugal
The sun rises over Lisbon, Portugal

We left the ship, after breakfast of course, around 8:30am, boarded the ubiquitous tour buses we’ve so become accustomed to, and got a tour of Lisbon, stopping first at the Tower of Lisbon, then the Explorer’s Monument, and then the Cathedral of Geronimo (where famed explorer Vasco de Gama is buried). The latter two stops were interesting, but the cathedral was overcrowded with tourists.

After the cathedral tour, we stopped in at another Lisbon landmark, Pasteis de Belem, a pastry and coffee shop that has been around since 1837, and which specialized in little custard tarts you sprinkle with powdered sugar and cinnamon. Yum!

Linda, Bas, Diane, and Krystyana after a great cafe stop in Lisbon, Portugal
Linda, Bas, Diane, and Krystyana after a great cafe stop in Lisbon, Portugal

From there the bus took us out from the Belem area to the heart of Lisbon, and on to the top of the tallest hill of Lisbon, where we disembarked, and made our way down the hill for some sightseeing on foot. We stumbled over a rather derelict building built in 1922 which had phenomenal tile work and statuary, and then after about three quarters of an hour, stopped into a local restaurant with outdoor seating and dined on seafood (Bas had pizza, and Diane, who had joined us, had vegetarian food – a mushroom omelet.

We then took a taxi to visit one of our favorite trip things to see, namely the local aquarium. The one in Lisbon is called the Oceanarium, and is located some ways out of town, but it’s absolutely brilliant. It has one of the best designs for a giant ocean tank, where huge viewing spaces are available all the way around, and other exhibits are well integrated into the environment. The tank was well stocked with a variety of interesting species, including a mola-mola (ocean sunfish), over a half dozen species of sharks, and likewise a number of different species of rays – and all in good health.

Diane and Linda observe the plethora of wildlife in the giant tank at the Lisbon Oceanarium
Diane and Linda observe the plethora of wildlife in the giant tank at the Lisbon Oceanarium

We had to hustle, as we only had an hour available because we had dawdled a bit at lunch, but we managed to get through everything in that time, making back to the ship only two minutes later than intended (and it did not leave without us).

Pre-dinner we learned how to tie a turban – two different ways and also learned about Spanish wines. During dinner we were joined by a Lindblad staff cultural historian, Steve Blamires from Scotland, who specializes in the history of the British Isles, and had a fascinating discussion on a range of topics including the building of places like Stonehenge, the Celtic peoples and their mythology and languages, cultural elements which gain or lose significance with the passage of time, and the decline of the Roman civilization. While little of our discussion was about the Iberian peninsula where we currently are visiting, the topics we did discuss were incredibly interesting and mentally stimulating. Both kids ended up getting very engrossed as well (although Bas’ tiredness finally won out and he headed back to his room). Steve will continue on the next segment the Endeavour goes on after it drops us off in Portsmouth, which is a tour of the British Isles (which is where David Barnes will be rejoining the vessel as well).

Tomorrow’s (actually by the time this posts it will be today’s, locally speaking) plans include a photography lecture followed by a photo critique session and then the rest of the day in Oporto, Portugal, where we will visit the Sandeman port house (where they make port wine), among other places.


Iberian Peninsula History as well as Silves and Portimao in Portugal

May 6th, 2008 at 7:15 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We had an early wake-up at 6:30am Portugal time, which was 5:30am Morocco time, had breakfast, and then attended a presentation by the on-board historian, David Barnes (who sadly had to leave today, Tuesday, for another Lindblad trip), about the Iberian peninsula and the clashes between Christianity and Islam as well as Judaism, or more accurately the followers of each of those three mono-deistic religions.

While much of the Iberian peninsula (which is where Spain and Portugal are now located) was Muslim for hundreds of years, a crusade formed in the Christian northwest of the peninsula under the flag of St. James – who was referred to as Santiago Matamores (“death to the Moors”), even though he had lived and died some 1400 years before the crusade was even initiated. The cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, which we will be visiting in a few days, are said to contain the remains of St. James, and it is the third most popular Christian pilgrimage site in the world, after Jerusalem and the Vatican in Rome.

Another fascinating point David brought up was the history of why one can see the famous Iberian ham shanks at the entrance to most bars and restaurants in Spain, as well as displays of wine. Apparently, after 1492, when the last Moorish stronghold, Granada, fell to the crusade led by Ferdinand and Isabella, Muslims and Jews were told they either had to convert to Christianity or leave the peninsula (or face near certain death for being infidels). The Spanish Inquisition then would assert that converts had falsely converted, and they would be tested by being forced to eat pork (which neither devout Jews nor Muslims would eat) and drink wine (which devout Muslims would not do). Hence the start of the tradition that evolved into tapas – namely that of offering a small plate of ham along with a cup of wine to those entering a bar or similar establishment to weed out false converts to Christianity.

Amazingly, while the effort to weed out “false believers” has faded, the practice of hanging smoked hams and showing wines has lived on and become a part of Spain’s culinary culture.

David’s presentation was fascinating, but short, due in part to a video promoting the partnership of Lindblad and the National Geographic as well as a scheduled presentation on photograph techniques with digital cameras following his presentation. We’ll miss David’s interesting insights and witty commentaries.

While we had been sleeping and watching lectures the ship had made its way to Portugal, and was nearing Portimao, our destination for the day.

We had an early lunch before boarding buses to visit the historical city of Silves (pronounced “Sihl-vihsh”), the site of a Moorish fortress and old cathedral. We were apparently supposed to visit the village of Alte too, but I suspect the whole upset in our cruise schedule contributed to that stop being skipped.

Silves was a village surrounding a rather steep hill upon which a fortress known as Xelb sat, overlooking the town and river below. Xelb, which is now referred to as Castelo Silves, started as Roman fortification that was then later absorbed into a Moorish structure. Directly beneath the fortress was a Catholic cathedral, locally referred to as See of Silves, built sometime in the latter half of the thirteenth century. Parts of the cathedral collapsed during the massive Lisbon earthquake of 1755. This earthquake, incidentally, had a huge range, destroying whole towns and buildings as far south as mid-Morocco, and was felt as far away as Jamaica (presumably as a result of a tsunami generated by the earthquake).

We walked up the hill to the fortress, which is going through renovation/restoration in the courtyard and garden area, so our visit was limited to walking the top of the rather extensive walls. Great views of the surrounding area, but we felt a bit saddened to see how much modern building sprawl there was everywhere, destroying, at least in our minds, the quaintness and atmosphere of antiquity that some parts of the village still showed as we walked uphill through it. Sadly though, many of those older homes appear to be in a state of disrepair, so we have fallen antiquity battling well kept modernity, and the former will likely lose out as people continue to disregard community history in exchange for great personal comfort.

Bas tries to move the sword of a statue in Silves, Portugal
Bas tries to move the sword of a statue in Silves, Portugal

After our circuit of the fortress walls we visited the cathedral and marveled at all the relics and burial markers – a number of people are buried under large marble slabs in the floor of the cathedral, as has been the tradition with older cathedrals for centuries. The newer part of the cathedral, rebuilt after 1755, was noticeably different in structure and tone from the older part that had withstood the great earthquake.

We made our way down to a café where we were treated to ice cream, and then returned to Portimao, stopping at the Mirador of St. Catherine, a small chapel dedicated to St. Catherine surrounded by fortifications. This structure had a great view of the nearby beaches and ocean, but again was surrounded by modern construction.

Lindblad's National Geographic Endeavour in port at Portimao, Portugal
Lindblad's National Geographic Endeavour in port at Portimao, Portugal

Back on board the ship we dressed up for the Captain’s cocktail party, had a nice dinner, and collapsed to bed, still somewhat tired and sleep deprived, but did finally sleep pretty well.