Bem-vindo a Portugal!

Braga, PORTUGAL // Saturday December 18 – Wednesday December 29, 2010

Living in France for 7 months meant that I would be celebrating Christmas away from home for the first time in my life. Fortunately, I didn’t have to spend the holidays alone. As I am a first-generation Canadian, I still have lots of family in Europe; family I don’t get to see very often. So, when my aunt in Portugal invited me to spend Christmas with her, I gladly accepted. I was super excited to see my two younger cousins: I had never met the youngest and the oldest I last saw when he was 2 years old – over 12 years ago! I was also excited to visit Portugal for the first time in 15 years!

December 18th couldn’t have come fast enough! The last week of school was essentially a write-off: it had snowed, which meant that school buses had been cancelled, which meant that at least 80% of the school’s student population was absent (most of the students live in smaller communities and if they do not board at the school’s residence, they are bussed in daily). It didn’t snow a lot, but unlike us Canadians, the French don’t know how to handle a snowy situation; they’d rather cancel buses to ensure student safety than risk potential accidents – and I have no problem with that! In addition to a number of my classes being cancelled that week, I also watched the beginning of the movie “Very Bad Trip” aka “The Hangover” twice!

After my last class, I hurried home and began to pack; I’m a last minute packer – I packed for France only days before my departure! Everything was under control, or so I thought… Remember that snowstorm that crippled Europe last December? Let me refresh your minds: hundreds of flights across The UK, Germany and France just to name a few countries, were cancelled, leaving thousands of would-be travellers stranded. Well, I had to travel through it! My flight from Lyon to Porto was scheduled to depart at 10:50 am on Saturday December 18th.  I had initially bought a train ticket from Mâcon to Lyon that would leave around 7:30 am, but with the weather warnings, I changed my ticket the Friday before, and now had a ticket for the first TGV (High-speed train) train to Lyon at 6:53 am with an arrival time of 7:27 am – plenty of time to catch my flight, right? Wrong!

I woke up at 5:00 am, and was out the door by 6:00 am. As the sidewalks were covered with snow, I opted to walk on the partially clear roads; snow covered sidewalks are definitely not suitcase friendly, as you can imagine. I arrived at the train station in good time, and so took a minute to catch my breath before making my way to the train platform. While waiting on the platform, it was announced that my train would be 5 minutes delayed coming into the station – okay, I thought, I can deal with 5 minutes. Then, while onboard the train, I noticed that my high-speed train was travelling at an abnormally slower speed. A second announcement explained that due to the weather and slippery rail tracks, the train was not able to operate at full speed, which meant that we would be further delayed. Just after 8:00 am and over half an hour late, my train finally pulled into the Lyon Part-Dieu train station. I hurried over to the Rhônexpress stop (an express rail link between the train station and the airport), bought my ticket and boarded the car that was about to leave. The Rhônexpress promises a travel time of 30 minutes between the two points… I believe it would have taken 30 minutes had I not had to get off half way and transfer to a bus! The culprit? Jack Frost. Why is France so unprepared for snow? Here’s a suggestion: buy some salt, a few shovels, and problem solved! Once the bus arrived at the airport, I walked as fast as my feet could carry me to Terminal 3 of Lyon’s St. Exupéry Airport. The Terminal is VERY small and on that particular day, it was PACKED with travellers. It is also poorly organized, with queues going any which way. I waited and waited and waited in line – I thought printing your boarding pass ahead of time was supposed to speed up the checking in process?? While I was  waiting in line, it was announced that my flight would be delayed by 15 minutes – I didn’t think I’d be happy to hear the announcement of a delay, but I was because the time my gate was originally set to close at was quickly approaching and I had not gone through security yet! I finally made it to security at 10:20 am – the exact time my gate was supposed to close at – I began to panic, just slightly… Of course the metal detector would go off as I walked through (as if I wasn’t already late enough!). I took off my boots, the likely source of the alarm, and walked through again. This time, I was subjected to a body search – okay, I know I might have appeared just a little in a panic at the moment, but it was because my flight was going to board any minute now, not because I’ve stashed “dangerous objects” in my bra! After a few minutes of searching, I found my gate (here’s an idea St. Ex., put up a few signs and maybe hire some employees to answer travellers’ questions!!) and you know what, despite being late, I wasn’t the last one! Ha! We were allowed to finally board the plane at 11:00 am; I walked up the plane, and found a window seat 4 rows from the front – score! At exactly 11:44 am, and after a 54 minute delay, I was finally on my way to Portugal! Thankfully I left when I did, because travelling throughout Europe became a lot more chaotic as the minutes went by that weekend.

My flight to Portugal marked my first voyage on British low-cost airline EasyJet. To be honest with you, I was quite sceptical about the flight at first: I pictured myself sitting nervously in my seat, gripping the armrests as the plane dangled in turbulent winds 31,000 ft in the air. To say the least, the service surpassed my expectations. Yes, the seats are smaller than average and not the most comfortable, but for quick European flights, they are sufficient. Also, there is no on-board entertainment; but in a world of iPods, laptop computers, and video game devices, it’s the least of our worries. I didn’t miss not having an on-board meal (we all know how disgusting those are on any flight), but for those who fancy something to eat or drink, be prepared to pay around 5 € ($7 CAN) for a meal. For penny pinchers like me, you can save money by packing your own meal. Unlike liquids, which are not allowed on any flights, solid foods like sandwiches and crackers are. Another tip for anyone flying on any one of Europe’s discount airlines: when packing, keeping track of luggage weight is a must – there’s a reason why these companies can offer cheap flights and still be in business: customers are heavily charged for every kilogram over the allowed weight limit. So, pack sensibly, and if you do have to buy extra weight, or check in a bag (everyone is allowed to carry 1 bag on-board), do so online, because the prices at the check-in counter are significantly higher. Everything put aside, budget airlines offer customers a quick, easy and usually cheaper alternative to rail travel to get from point A to point B.

After 2 hours of flight time, and to the delight of the hundred or so clapping passengers, my plane touched down at 12:39 pm – I had gained an hour as Portugal is one hour behind France. I disembarked from the plane and walked over to baggage claim. While waiting for the conveyor belt to deliver my suitcase, I listened to the conversations around me, and to my surprise and delight, I actually understood a few words – I guess those Portuguese classes in elementary school weren’t a complete waste of time! 😛 My suitcase finally appeared (why is mine always one of the last ones??) and I walked towards the exit. To my shock, I didn’t have to go through customs – the same was the case when I travelled to Geneva, Switzerland; I guess travelling in Europe isn’t as regulated as it is in North America?? That can’t be safe, can it? Hmmm…

I walked through the doors, and felt overwhelmed by the crowd that had gathered to welcome friends and family. I scanned the crowd for my aunt and cousins who had made the trip from Braga to pick me up. Now, you have to understand, the last time I saw my aunt, I was 9 years old, so I knew finding them would not be easy! But, to my relief, it didn’t take long for me to recognize her in the crowd. I wheeled my suitcase over towards them and surprised them! It felt so good to see her and my cousins after all those years. After all the hugs and kisses, we packed up the car, and drove to Braga, a city located in north-eastern Portugal, or about 50 km from Porto.

During the drive to Braga, my aunt acted as my tour guide and told me all about the area.  For instance, Guimarães, a city located just outside of Braga is recognized as being the birthplace of Portugal.  I also learned that Braga is the oldest Portuguese city.

When we arrived at my aunt’s house, my little cousin showed me to the guestroom; he added that I could have shared his room, but because his brother put my suitcase in the guestroom, that’s where I had to sleep! 🙂 I settled in and not long after, I was called down for lunch. After a full morning of travelling, I was eager to sit down and eat; my last meal was breakfast at 5 in the morning and I was starving! Lunch consisted of soup, chicken, rice and potatoes – a very typical Portuguese meal. After all that, I was stuffed! – Before that day, the last time I had eaten as much as I did was probably back home in Canada. My kitchen in France is not very well equipped: There is 1 medium-sized fridge, 1 bar fridge (donated by a Teacher), 1 electrical hotplate with 2 burners, 1 microwave, 1 semi-functional toaster-oven, and 1 small countertop oven (donated by another Teacher). It may seem sufficient, but keep in mind that there are 6 people living on my residence floor! Our refrigerators are always full and we have to take turns using the hotplate. For this reason, I try to keep my meals as simple as possible; the fewer the ingredients, and the less time it takes to cook, the better – Needless to say, while I was in Portugal, I ate like a King, and I’m not complaining! 😉

Keeping on the topic of food, it was the holiday season, a time not only for giving, but also for eating! The days before Christmas, my aunt and great-aunt were hard at work in the kitchen cooking up Portuguese Holiday delights. My favourite dessert dish: Aletria. Aletria is like a pudding, but with vermicelli noodles. Try it for yourself!

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Aletria

Ingredients:

  • 250 g angel hair pasta
  • 1 lemon rind
  • 1 ½ litres of milk
  • 200 g sugar
  • ½ cup water
  • 100 g butter
  • 1 ½ tsp salt
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 3-4 egg yolks

Serving size: 4-6        Cooking time: 20 minutes

  • Place water, milk, salt, sugar, butter, cinnamon stick and lemon peel in a pot and bring to a boil.
  • Remove ½ cup of boiling mixture and slowly beat in the egg yolks. Set aside.
  • Add angel hair pasta to the pot and bring to a boil, reduce heat and stir mixture continuously. If the mixture appears to be getting dry, add more hot milk.
  • Half way through cooking, add in the egg yolk mixture, and stir until cooked.
  • Remove the lemon peel and cinnamon stick and pour the mixture into a platter; spread evenly.
  • Let aletria cool, then decorate with cinnamon. Enjoy!

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While I was in Braga, and when they weren’t hard at work in the kitchen, my aunt, great-aunt and cousins showed me around town, and even though it had been over a decade since I last visited, it all still felt very familiar to me.

Braga Cathedral – 12th-18th centuries; it is one of the most important monuments in Braga and Portugal. In 1995 my aunt and uncle were married here, and I along with my sisters and cousins served as their flower girls and ring boy. Bom Jesus do Monte – located just outside of Braga, “Good Jesus of Mount” is an important pilgrimage site; to make the trek up the hilltop, visitors can either climb the 116 metre Baroque staircase, or take the funicular. Standing at the top of the hill brought back memories of a 7-year-old me, carelessly eating ice cream while watching the sun set on Braga. Jardim de Santa Bárbara – located in downtown Braga near the Archbishop’s Palace. Walking through downtown Braga brought me back to October ’95. I’m not sure why, but I remember one specific evening: I was with my family and we were at a café, my cousins and I were sitting on the ground watching the light show that was taking place over the fountain on the Av Central. And then I saw places built after my first visit, like the Estádio Municipal de Braga – Built in 2003, the stadium is home to Braga’s soccer team, Sporting Clube de Braga, and in 2004, it was one of the venues used for the European Football Championship.

Bom Jesus do Monte

Café Vianna on av Central

Jardim de Santa Bárbara

Feliz Natal! – Christmas morning I was woken up by the sound of church bells ringing from a nearby church. When I listened carefully, I was even able to hear the faint sound of the church’s choir singing Christmas hymns. We had opened our gifts the night before, and my 7-year-old cousin was very eager to assemble the rollercoaster toy my parents sent from Canada. In fact, he was so excited, he begged his mom to wake up his dad and tell him that it is daytime! That afternoon, and despite the language gap, I helped my cousin put his rollercoaster together. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any batteries to watch it in motion, so his anticipation continued. We attended Christmas mass that evening, and then went home to do what every family does Christmas evening, or at least every family in the U.S.; watch a NBA basketball game between the L.A. Lakers and Miami Heat! Just in case you were wondering, the score was 96-80 in Miami’s favour 😛

The next morning, and much to my little cousin’s excitement, we went to the grocery store to buy batteries! The second we returned home he was already begging to put the batteries in the rollercoaster’s motor. He played with his toy until we left for the beach. Now, I don’t recall the name of the city we went to, but I can tell you that there is a bull fighting arena and a casino located near the shore. After all the snow in France, it was nice to see sand and the ocean. We stopped inside one of the many cafés located along the beach, where while watching the waves crash up against the rocks, I sipped on an orange and cinnamon flavoured hot chocolate – yum!

Sadly, my stay in Portugal drew to a close. My suitcase was packed and ready to burst at the seams – I wonder where all that extra stuff came from?!? 🙂 The last thing I had to do was say goodbye. After checking in at the airport, and before going through security, I enjoyed my last tea and pastel de nata (the best Portuguese pastry IMO) with my aunts and cousin.

Sun setting on the Atlantic coast

Thankfully my journey back to France wasn’t as rocky as my trip there! After going through security I noticed that my flight had been delayed (it was originally scheduled to leave at 11:55 am and now it had been pushed back to 12:40 pm). To pass the time, I browsed the various duty-free shops. I eventually made my way over to my departure gate. At 12:40 pm, boarding for the flight began – so much for leaving at 12:40! As the plane was taxiing down the runway, the captain explained that the flight had been delayed for a number of reasons, including security issues (what’s that supposed to mean??), air traffic control issues, and of course, the weather in Lyon! Oh France, when will you ever learn how to handle a few snowflakes!? The plane finally took off at 1:31 pm after a 95 minute delay. My flight arrived in Lyon just after 4 pm (local time) which meant that I had just over an hour to catch my train from Lyon to Mâcon. After retrieving my suitcase, I hurried quickly to the Rhônexpress station. The train arrived not too long after I did; perfect, right? Wrong. The train is actually scheduled to wait at each point for 25 minutes to allow for passengers to get on and off. Boooo 😦 I ended up missing my train to Mâcon by less than 5 minutes! Luckily, I was able to use my ticket on the next train to Mâcon. Trains between the 2 cities run frequently; usually once an hour. Unfortunately, the next train was delayed 25 minutes. So, now not only did I have to wait the initial hour, I also had to wait an extra 25 minutes! Why wasn’t my train delayed?!? Of course it had to be the only thing that was actually on time that trip! At 7:15 pm, I was back in good ol’ Mâcon. Usually after a long day of travelling one likes to kick back and relax, right? I would have loved to, except I had to get ready for my next trip – I was going to be spending the next few days in Zürich, Switzerland and had an early morning bus to catch!

amanda

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