Tourist First

Travel notes and advice from around the world. Above, the daily flight from Managua at the San Carlos, Nicaragua, airstrip.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Peru: Making an Amazon Cruise Safer

La Estrella Amazonica, shown here in 2014,  now goes by the English name Amazon Star
after an April 10, 2016, fire took the lives of two passengers, a retired couple from Nebraska.
The boat, based in Iquitos, Peru,  cruises the Amazon and its tributaries.

       I was late learning that there had been a fatal fire in 2016 aboard the boat I had cruised on and blogged about in 2014.  The Wall Street Journal was reporting about the case and contacted me in March 2017 about using a photo of the boat that appeared on my blog. (In the blog post, I enthusiastically recommended both the boat and its operator, International Expeditions, which Jane and I have used for two trips in South America.)
       Since then, I've read more about the incident, which was truly horrible: the deaths themselves, a lack of safety equipment and training on the boat, the theft of wedding rings from the bodies, and what seems to be the tone-deaf response of International Expeditions.  It seems that a working smoke detector in the cabin could have awakened the couple and alerted the crew. Like most fatal fires, it didn't have to happen, and the fact that boats and ships are not held to same standards as other common carriers made things even worse for the victims' family.

The prow of La Estrella Amazonica. We were on the boat for a week and
found it very comfortable, the food good and the staff professional
and friendly. It was shocking to learn about the fire.
      I contacted International Expeditions to ask what safety changes have been made since the fire. I've read that the company has "enhanced" safety equipment and improved training. I don't think it's a good sign that the company didn't respond to my query.
      In public relations, which I used to teach at Salisbury University in Maryland, it's recommended that a company take several steps to recover from this sort of disaster. It's called crisis management or damage control. The way Tylenol recovered from several poisoning deaths in 1982 is considered the textbook response: be totally forthcoming about what happened; act immediately to ensure no one will be harmed in the immediate future; compensate victims or their families; make known what long-term actions you're taking to make it almost impossible for something like this to happen again. Has IE taken these steps?
      One cosmetic change I could see on the IE website. The boat, formerly La Estrella Amazonica, is now simply the Amazon Star.  Changing the name of a boat is thought by some people to invite bad luck. In this case, the bad luck already happened, and the name is merely in a different language, but it might make it less likely that curious prospective clients will learn of the boat's past.

        My 2014 posting about cruising aboard La Estrella Amzonica can be seen HERE.
        The Wall Street Journal's April 6, 2017, about a fatal fire aboard La Estrella Amazonica and the victims' daughters' search for answers can be seen HERE.
        People magazine also reported on the fire and the victims' family; click HERE.

      I've never thought much about personal safety when travelling other than avoiding getting mugged, often not drinking the water, and sometimes taking out travel insurance that includes medical evacuation. What happened to Christy and Larry Hammer aboard La Estrella Amazonica should be a lesson in watching out for oneself. I didn't check that there were smoke detectors when I was on that boat two years earlier. I didn't look for fire extinguishers or ask why we didn't have a fire drill.
      Nor did I ask whether any of the crew had medical training, though it became clear that no one did when a passenger seriously injured himself while on a shore excursion (he went back to the skiff for something and fell) and was awkwardly and painfully taken back to the boat and eventually taken away on a float plane. Fortunately, there was an American nurse among the passengers who did what she could to stabilize him and minimize his pain.
    No one would expect a physician on a boat of this size, but given the isolation of the region where the boat operates, the crew should include someone with emergency medical training. And there should be smoke detectors.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Portugal: Tourists Discover an Old Land

The magnificent Jeronimos monastery in Lisbon gives a hint of the grandeur and history
that Portugal offers, as tourists are discovering. Talk with anyone who's been to Portugal
lately and they're likely to tell you that it was crowded with tourists. 

  Portugal is probably seldom the first European country an American visits. Doesn't everyone want to see France first, then maybe Italy?   And why visit? After all, Portugal has almost no internationally known landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or Rome's Coliseum.
     Nevertheless, visiting Portugal is a lot like visiting those more popular countries. The wine and churches will remind you of Italy. The ham is like Spain's ham. The ancient ruins are like those in southern France, and there's an iconic bridge in Porto designed by Gustave Eiffel that opened three years before his tower in Paris. After a few days, you start to enjoy Portugal as Portugal, a unique and ancient country with its own traditions, cuisine, culture, music and history. Residents of Porto and Lisbon could give Italians lessons in la dolce vita. Chefs in Evora could teach their French counterparts a thing or two. Winemakers all over the country are producing world-class reds, whites and especially roses.  Not to mention port. Madeira, of course, comes from Portuguese islands in the Atlantic.
     In 2017, Jane and I spent the better part of April touring Portugal and we were hardly alone. There were throngs of international tourists in Lisbon, Sintra, Porto and Evora. Our other destinations were much quieter with fewer tourists. This posting focuses on the hotels we chose for our clockwise circuit around northern Portugal; more on each city or town can be found on these individual postings:

Lisbon, click HERE.
Sintra, click HERE.
Obidos, click HERE.
Porto, click HERE.
Peso da Regua, click HERE.
Belmonte, click HERE.
Evora, click HERE.

      We arrived in Lisbon very early on April 1 and stayed three nights at Casa Amora (click HERE for link), a guesthouse in a quiet residential neighborhood. If you're thinking of staying at Casa Amora, try for its studios in neighboring houses rather than the small rooms in the main house. We had one night in the later (with hardly room to open our suitcases) before asking if we could move to a studio. Fortunately we could, landing in a two-story unit with a small kitchen and two full bathrooms. Very much better, and the staff could not have been more accommodating. Casa Amora is close to a metro (subway) stop called Rato. It was also an easy walk to the streetcar stop at Basilica da Estrela. The only negative is that there are few restaurants in the immediate neighborhood.
The lounge at Casa d'Obidos featured a full-size pool
table, a felt-covered card table, and a TV with
several English-language channels.
      Once on the road in a rental car, our first stop was one night in Sintra at Villa Mira Longa (click HERE). Sintra is practically a suburb of Lisbon but is a destination in its own right because of its many palaces, reminders of Portugal's royal history. The last king was Manuel II, who was deposed in the 1910 revolution and died childless in England in 1932.  At least one palace still has much of its late-19th-century furnishings. Mira Longa is a short uphill walk from the center of the action in front of the National Palace and where you can grab buses to other palaces.
     Next was Obidos, a walled village that was a medieval port but is now 10 kilometers inland due to silting in its harbor. The town, still surrounded by crenellated walls and towers, is a warren of narrow streets lined with stone houses, shops and restaurants. Its castle is now a hotel, Castelo de Obidos. We stayed two nights in a converted manor house, Casa d'Obidos (click HERE), outside the town but with a view of the castle and walls.
Our terraces (the other was much smaller) at  Quinta do Vallado
near Peso de Regua looked out on a hillside vineyard.

     We made it to Porto on April 7, checking in for four nights at 6Only (click HERE), a boutique inn that had only six rooms when it opened in 2009. It has since added an adjacent building and added six suites. 6Only is near the top level of Gustave Eiffel's Dom Luis I bridge and the top of  the Funicular dos Guindais, the rail line that lets you return from the riverbank without a long, long walk up a steep, steep hill. Although 6Only is on a fairly lifeless block and around the corner from the bus station, its location really isn't too bad. And the suites are huge with unique cork-encased free-standing bathrooms. Be sure to ask for a room or suite at the rear, which will be much more quiet than a street-facing room.
      Next were two nights at Quinta do Vallado (click HERE), a winery hotel, in the hills above Peso da Regua in the heart of the Douro wine region. We stayed in a large room in an angular new building above the reception area and dining room. Our two terraces looked out to vineyards on the the other side of a tributary of the Douro. Vallado's wines -- we had a red and a rose -- are excellent, as is its restaurant. It was warm enough to use the pool, which is in an orange grove where guests literally pick their snacks off the trees.
The stone walls of the original convent add character to the bar
at Pousada Convento de Belmonte, which made a great gin and tonic using
locally made tonic.

     Our next stop was the mountain town Belmonte where we stayed at Pousada Convento de Belmonte (click HERE). Only the bar, a courtyard and a few sitting rooms remain of the original convent. The large and comfortable rooms and the dining and breakfast rooms are all relatively new. If you go there, don't be tempted by the offer of a large room with a private terrace. The smaller rooms with smaller balconies have the mountain views you'll want.
During our four nights at Albergia de Calvario
in Evora we encountered a group of Harley Davidson
bikers from Siberia. They were there for only
one night, but made an impression nonetheless.

By April 15, our time in Portugal was winding down and we were headed to our last destination, Evora, in the Alentejo wine region and a center of cork production. Here we stayed three nights at Albergia de Calvario (also known as ADC; click HERE), just inside the city walls. Most people planning a trip to Portugal are intent on seeing Lisbon and Porto. Evora should also be on that list for the ancient megaliths nearby, for its bizarre chapel made of human bones, for its cathedral and Roman temple, and for its great cuisine. Portugal's famous black pork (from a special breed of acorn-fed pigs) reaches its apogee here.
     Our trip ended with one more night in Lisbon, at Tryp (click HERE), a hotel within walking distance of the terminals at the airport (where we had to return the rental car). With a 5:40 a.m. flight, it made sense to be close to the airport, and it was easy to grab a taxi for one last dinner in the city.


        You may be focused on Porto's many port tasting rooms (expect to pay for your tastings), but for my money the best alcohol in Portugal is it's unfortified wines. Touriga nacional and touriga franca grapes are blended with other varieties, especially tinta roriz (known in Spain as tempranillo) to produce hearty and satisfying reds with loads of secondary flavors. I seldom like rose wines, but I didn't have a one in Portugal that I didn't enjoy. Yes, Mateus rose is still made and sold in its distinctive bottle. No, having given it up while still an undergraduate, I didn't try it again. Many of the good roses are 100 percent touriga nacional. Whites are also good, especially vinho verde and alvarhino.
     Two beers seemed available most places, Super Bock and Sagres. Both are so-so lagers but good enough when cold enough.  Some tapas places also offer bottled craft beers; I had only a couple and both were pretty hoppy and pretty good.
     Sangria is another option -- better by the liter than by the glass -- and is widely offered. Never had one that wasn't freshly made, well fortified and dotted with fresh fruit.
Renting a Car

      We've rented a car for at least part of every European trip for the last 20 years, and renting through Avis in Portugal was the worst experience by far. The diesel-powered Renault Megane estate was fine, but  the total charge ended up being more than double what Expedia had quoted, and the receipt, emailed to us, was in Portuguese, not that the English language version that we finally requested and got was much easier to understand. Also, the charge to our credit card was in U.S. dollars, allowing Avis to charge us an unfavorable exchange rate as well as a needless "dynamic currency conversion" fee. I will avoid Avis/Budget in the future, and will make sure that my credit card is being charged in the local currency.
      Driving in Portugal is like driving anywhere else in continental Europe. The signs and traffic laws are the same. Narrow village streets can be quite a challenge. One problem, and other tourists reported experiencing it, too, is that the GPS didn't always get us where we wanted to go.  Belmonte, for example. There is apparently more than one Belmonte in Portugal and the GPS wanted to send us to one in the south rather than asking which Belmonte we wanted. We had to stop and ask directions. The GPS was fine, though, in the larger cities.
     Get a toll responder (same idea as an EZPass responder) when you rent your car. It will let you go through tollbooths without stopping and give you unfettered access to the highways, almost all of which have tolls.

Portugal: Lisbon, Where Little Streetcars Climb Halfway to the Stars

A street in the hilly Alfama neighborhood.
  Portugal is a mountainous country; its capital, Lisbon, is a city of steep hills. Helping people get around in Lisbon are several forms of public transportation: buses, old-fashioned electric streetcars, modern light rail, sightseeing buses, funicular railroads and elevators. Of these, the streetcars are the most iconic and, if you can get a seat, a pleasant way to see the city.  Taxis, by the way, are inexpensive compared with New York and other major cities. When we arrived, the taxi from the airport to our guesthouse, Casa Amora, cost about $20 including tip, but on our last night in Portugal, a longer ride, from LX Factory on the riverfront, across downtown and to the airport, was only about $10 including tip.

For the itinerary of our April 2017 Portugal trip
and links to hotels, click HERE

A streetcar wends its way through vehicular
traffic on an Alfama street.
       The first thing we did in Lisbon was visit the Alfama district, the highest part of the city and home to the Castelo de Sao Jorge (St. George's Castle). We didn't visit the castle itself, settling for views of the exterior, because the area around it is the real attraction. Narrow cobblestone streets, sidewalk cafes and intriguing shops, much of it strung along an old streetcar line, the No. 28.
    Other neighborhoods in town include Baixa, which includes the gigantic riverfront plaza Praca do Comercio; Chiado, known for its chic international retailers; and Bairro Alto, with narrow streets from the 1700s lined with restaurants, bars and designer shops.
     Belem, however, well west of downtown and on the river, is the don't-miss area. It's home to a large contemporary art museum (you can see one of Warhol's Judy Garland portraits), the National Museum of Archaeology, the magnificent Jeronimos monastery, the quaint Belem Tower, the striking Padrao dos Descobrimentos sculpture (depicting Portugal's greatest explorers), along with a wonderful waterside restaurant. But for many the real attraction is Antiga Confeitaria de Belem, a bakery and cafe serving pasteis, the little custard tarts that are a Portuguese staple. Here the recipe is a bit different and they're said to be the best in the land. We were told to skip the long line for the bakery and instead find a seat in the large cafe area, but the little tarts weren't on our agenda.

Tourists can rent two-person, easy-to-park vehicles
for getting around in Lisbon.
   Between Belem and downtown is LX Factory, a group of old factory buildings literally in the shadow of the soaring 25th of April Bridge that have been converted into trendy restaurants, dessert bars, tapas bars, shops, a great bookstore (with some books in English), and a tattoo parlor where passersby can stop and watch the artist at work.
    About the only thing we failed to do in Lisbon was to take in a fado performance. It seems that at most of the fado clubs, the music starts very late, and that at most of the fado clubs the food isn't great. We had a reservation at a club one night, but we opted to eat and drink in the LX Factory area instead (dinner was at Da Praca, which must be one of Lisbon's liveliest restaurants). Perhaps with more research and planning, we could have found a fado performance to suit us. Fado would have to wait until Porto.
    We spent three nights, April 1-3, 2017, at Casa Amora in Lisbon. It's not far from a metro station and a streetcar stop, but the neighborhood is largely residential and there are few restaurants nearby. We did find two places worth mentioning. Banca de Pau (click HERE) on Rua Nova de Sao Mamede is a small-plates restaurant serving food and wine from the northernmost parts of Portugal. Just down the same street is Iiimpar Restaurante, a full-service restaurant which provided my introduction to Portugal's black pork. Jane had a quail appetizer and a charcuterie and cheese board. We found Banca de Pau on TripAdvisor, walked there and were told it was booked for the evening. We were pointed toward Iiimpar and had a very good meal there. A couple of days later, with a reservation, we were seated at Banca de Pau. Advice: if you're really hungry, go to Iiimpar.
     On our return to Lisbon, on April 18, we returned our rental car at the airport and checked into Tryp, an airport hotel. We took a taxi back to LX Factory to dine on tapas at Central da Avenida, a wine bar with well-informed and friendly servers. This was our last indulgence in the cheeses and ham of Portugal.
Aboard the funicular seen below.

A funicular runs from Praca dos Restauradores at the foot of
Avenida da Liberdade to the Bairro Alta district, one of three
such lines giving pedestrians a break in Lisbon.

You can get there from here: a directional sign in Alfama.

Streets become stairways on Lisbon's many hills.

The Tower of Belem, as seen during a cruise on the Rio Tejo,
which in English is called the Tagus River.

A monument to Portugal's many great explorers. It soars over
the Tagus River in Belem. Tourists visit the top for great views.

The huge Praca do Comercio on the riverfront. Tour
boats leave from docks across the street.

The cloister at the Jeronimos Monastery in Belem.

The refectory at Jeronimos.

The church at Jeronimos Monastery. We were there on a Sunday and tourists were
allowed in after the morning mass.

A waterfront restaurant in Belem. A sculpture pool separates the dining
terrace from the river, where a constant parade provides excellent
people watching.

A kiosk is the source for food and drink on this small plaza.

St. George's Castle presides over Lisbon's Alfama district.

A water course enlivens the middle of Lisbon's Avenida da Liberdade.

A riverfront cafe offers in-demand lounge chairs along with lunch
just downstream from more formal restaurants at Praca do Comercio.
We took a taxi from our airport hotel  to have our last dinner
in Portugal at this wine bar in the LX Factory complex. The use
of English reflects the international nature of the crowd
that LX Factory attracts.


Portugal: Sintra, Home of Kings

A distant fortification as seen from the Pena National Palace. The mountainous countryside
around Sintra is dotted with palaces and mansions. 
 Most tourists probably visit Sintra as a day trip from nearby Lisbon. A rail line makes it easy. Since Sintra is in the direction we were going when we were leaving Lisbon by car, we decided to make it our first stop, our only one-night stay in Portugal.
      Sintra is a small town that seems to exist to serve the hordes of tourists -- Portuguese and foreign -- who visit daily to see its many palaces.  Residences displaying the exuberance and overwhelming ornamentation of Portuguese architecture dot the mountainsides around Sintra as well as the town itself. In our one afternoon and one morning there, we managed to visit only three, but each was memorable.

For the itinerary of our April 2017 Portugal trip
and links to hotels, click HERE

     We stayed at Villa Mira Longa, a guesthouse overlooking the National Palace and its two gigantic conical chimneys.  Mira Longa is also within an easy walk of Quinta da Regaleira, a 19th-century estate with a huge garden full of architectural follies and a mansion that looks like Walt Disney's idea of a palace.
       A bus ride away is the mountaintop Pena National Palace, and it is this 19th-century Romanticist castle that makes Sintra a must-visit on any tour of Portugal. Built atop the ruins of a 15th-century monastary, it fulfilled the desire of a German-born royal consort for the sort of fanciful castle that was then appearing along the Rhine. Within decades, though, Portugal was no longer  monarchy and the republican government turned it into a museum.  We were told that Queen Amelia, the last queen of Portugal, chose to stay here for last night before leaving the country in exile.
     Also within an easy walk of Mira Longa is the small but elegant Lawrence's Hotel (click HERE), where we had drinks and a very nice dinner our one night in town.  The plaza in front of the National Palace also has many spots for drinks and dinner.
     Here are some of my snapshots from Sintra.
Tascantiga, a wine and tapas bar on the hillside just below
our guesthouse, Villa Mira Longa.  Like everyplace else
in Sintra, everyone seemed to be a tourist.

One of the shopping streets in Sintra.

The National Palace in Sintra, which was used from the early 15th century to the late 19th century,
is considered the best-preserved of Portugal's royal residences from the Middle Ages. Not a terribly
pretty building from the outside, especially with the relatively late addition of two gigantic
conical chimneys. They worked to remove smoke from the huge kitchen even as entire calves
and lambs were being roasted over open wood fires. Note the Portuguese schoolchildren
seated on the pavement while waiting to enter.

One of several cook tops in the palace kitchen.

This is the most magnificent room in the National Palace. The ceiling bears coats of arms of
Portugal's royal and noble familes; the tiles depict historical scenes.

Painted swans adorn one of the National Palace's many
amazing ceilings.

Quinta de Regaleira was the home of one of Sintra's noble families. It sits in its own large
park an easy walk from the National Palace, though buses are there to save you the steps.

A tower is one of many garden follies in the park
at Quinta da Regaleira. Allow yourself plenty of time
to wander around.

The gate to Pena National Palace looks like something from a fairy tale. Note the rock outcropping
at the left. The palace is built in different levels ascending the mountaintop.

There are few places inside Pena National Palace that are not heavily adorned.

Inside the gate, a ramp once allowed
horse-drawn coaches to reach the main levels
of the palace. Different parts of the building are
different colors.

Outdoor walkways, terraces and balconies gave the royals
magnificent views all the way to Lisbon. The exterior
of this part of the palace is covered with blue tiles.

The palace's chapel is a small and intimate space, but still very ornate.

One of the great rooms in the palace still has its original
furnishings from the late 1800s.

Portugal: Obidos, the Past and the Present

The Oratory of Our Lady of Piety was installed inside the main gate long after it was built in 1380.
  Obidos, just off the highway that connects Lisbon and Porto, is considered Portugal's best-preserved medieval walled town and it's easy to believe that its old stone buildings and narrow streets look much as they did 600 years ago, with the addition of TripAdvisor signs in most windows and promotional umbrellas shading sidewalk tables.
      A morning or an afternoon is probably all anyone needs to spend in Obidos, and we arrived from Sintra in time for lunch and an afternoon of walking around. We chose one of the many sidewalk cafes, this one with bowls of oranges on each table. I had one while waiting for our food. I was surprised to see a 1.5-euro charge for the orange when we got our bill. (In Portugal, it's customary to be charged for bread, olive oil or butter, olives and anything else that's brought to your table whether you order it or not. The trick to avoid being charged is to refuse them and send them back. But I somehow thought the orange would be free.)

For the itinerary of our April 2017 Portugal trip
and links to hotels, click HERE

     The Obidos castle has been converted into a pousada (click HERE), the term for an historic building now used as an inn or hotel. We climbed the hill to it, thinking we could walk its ramparts and have a drink in its bar. The ramparts looked too sketchy for anyone but a mountain goat, and we wandered around the hotel without finding anyone anywhere.
       We were staying two nights beyond the town walls at Casa d'Obidos, an old and solid manor house set on well-tended grounds with a pool and a few guest cottages. You could see the castle and town walls from Casa d'Obidos; a walking path connects the inn with the town. Near our inn is a run-down baroque church, Santuario do Senhor da Pedra (Our Lord Jesus of the Stone Sanctuary), which boasts a Paleo Christian stone cross in its altar. Beside it is a cozy family restaurant called O Caldeirao (click HERE) where we had dinner our first night in Obidos.
      Our one full day here was spent largely out of town, in the nearby rural district of Bombarral at Buddha Eden (click HERE), a sprawling sculpture park notable for its many, many images of the Buddha and its several large groups of life-size blue Chinese warriors that look as if someone had spray-painted the famous Terracotta Warriors of Xian.  The park, which is connected to the Bacalhoa Winery, got its start in 2001 when, in reaction to the Taliban's destruction of the Giant Buddhas of Afganistan, wealthy Portuguese art patron Jose Berardo decided to build a park of peace.
      It would take at least a full day to walk all the paths and contemplate all the many works of art. In addition to scores of marble Buddhas and the blue warriors, there are many works of contemporary art, along with ponds, fountains and other water features.
     Although there is a winery cafe, for a late lunch we drove a few minutes along country roads to Supatra Thai (click HERE), also in rural Bombarral, where Thai food served in a converted winery was a welcome break from heavy Portuguese food. It was well worth seeking out.
    After a lazy late afternoon beside the pool at Casa d'Obidos, we headed into the walled town for dinner at A Nova Casa de Ramiro (click HERE), probably the best and most expensive restaurant for miles around.  Its menu, which expands on traditional Portuguese fare, and its dessert cart may be the best reason for visiting Obidos.
Rua Direita, the main street of Obidos, leads from the main gate to the castle. Many shops offer
shots of ginjinha, a local sour cherry liqueur served in a chocolate cup. 

A side street.

The Igreja de Santa Maria was a Visigoth temple in the eighth century.

The town is enclosed by crenellated walls, here see from a terrace outside the castle. Most
Obidos buildings are painted white with blue trim.

Just inside the main gate, steps lead to one of the bastions.

The dining room at A Nova Casa de Ramiro.

One of several groups of blue warriors and horses at Buddha Eden. Note the vineyards in the distance.
The entrance to the park is also the sales room for a winery.

This group had no horses.

Small figurines show up along shady paths at Buddha Eden.
Contemporary but primitive-looking sculptures on a hillside in the huge park. I could
not discover how many acres it is.

Reclining figurines line the bank of one of the park's several water features.

"Temple" is one of many modern works included in the park.

Steps lead to one of the reclining Buddhas at Buddha Eden.In the background is the park's tallest statue.

I imagine that if you climb to the top of a pyramid in Egypt,
there will be a sign asking you to promote it on Facebook,
Instagram or TripAdvisor.