Spread the love

Prior to Euro 2016, I wasn’t a great lover of international football. And I’m still not.  I can’t get my head around the number of zeros in some of those boys’ salaries. I have a hard time dealing with putting a monetary value on someone’s talent to the tune of tens of millions of euro, even though I know this is done in the Corporate World on an average day. Yes, I know they train their little socks off. And they work hard. And they sacrifice so much in their determination and commitment to win, but I simply don’t get it. What’s the attraction?

Why do millions of people put their lives on hold for four weeks as they watch their teams’ progress? Why do thousands more put themselves in debt to go abroad and support their teams in person? Why do people get so hyped up about 90 minutes of fancy footwork, theatrical romps, and jibs and digs? What’s the attraction?

When your home team doesn’t make it through to the final 16, there’s the disappointment to deal with. No matter what the odds, there’s always hope that a miracle will happen. I was lucky. I’ve moved around and could draw tangible if tenuous loyalty lines to other countries. I followed Ireland of course, even if I spend too much time bemoaning the Irish Manager’s lack of dress sense. I followed Hungary, too. Watching Hungary play on the big screen with thousands of Hungarian fans was incredible. I also followed Wales because I like the Welsh and was surprised to see that they play something other than rugby. I got into Iceland because they are fun and I’m sure some of those players have had ballet training. I’m not quite sure what I’d have done if any of these teams had had to play each other. But it never came to that.

When we boarded the plane to Lisbon a few weeks ago, Ireland had a 1-0 lead over France. It was half-time. I was hoping and praying that we’d pull it out of the boot and make history. By the time we landed in Portugal, that dream had died. I rode the Welsh wave in the surfing capital of Ericeira as they made their way through to the semi-final. And I hoped and prayed some more. And it worked. They got through. A group of 20 or so of us watched the Wales-Portugal semi in a little pub down by the beach called Café Joy. Mostly Irish. Mostly rooting for Wales (except the one Bremainer who has yet to forgive them their vote in the Brexit referendum).  But they fell to Portugal. And the Portuguese went mad.

eurio2016Our flight home from Portugal last Sunday had lots of free seats. There was a final to watch. And when the captain announced the final result, the fans around us asked where they could buy champagne in Budapest after midnight. I like those priorities. Nice one, Portugal.

I realised then what the attraction was. It’s not the soccer, per se, it’s what it represents:  a chance to focus on something bigger; a chance to suspend reality for a while and live vicariously through lads who live vastly different lives to ours; a chance to hope for a miracle that just might happen.  But mostly though, it gave us the opportunity to take pride in countries which, for various reasons, we might be a little disillusioned with right now.

Euro 2020 will mark the 60th anniversary of the competition and will be held in thirteen cities in thirteen different European countries. And while I still prefer rugby to soccer and doubt that I’ll ever fully appreciate the multi-million-euro pretty-boy antics of international football, I quite enjoyed the buzz. So spread the love, I say, spread the love.

 First published in the Budapest Times 15 July 2016

Another sort of convent

I was educated in a convent. I spent my formative years with the Presentation nuns. I don’t think it did me any harm. I might have picked up a few quirks along the way that are all part of convent life to the point where I’ve long associated the word convent with women in habits – not men. So the Convento de Cristo in Tomar came as quite a surprise.

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Founded in 1160 by the Grand Master of the Knights Templar, this absolutely stunning complex stands as evidence today of their skills and craftsmanship. It wasn’t all built over night. It took centuries. The Charola, which lies at the heart of the monastery, dates back to 12th century while the first stone of the Great Cloister, with its magnificent spiral stairways, was laid in 1550. First sighting of the Charola elicited audible gasps from many. The photos don’t do it justice. An hour could pass and you’d still not have seen the half of it, such is the detail.

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A 16-side polygonal structure, with strong buttresses, round windows and a bell-tower, inside, the round church has a central, octagonal structure, connected by arches to a surrounding gallery (ambulatory). The general shape of the church is modelled after similar round structures in Jerusalem: the Mosque of Omar and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

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It moved through various religious orders throughout the ages and in 1834 was in the private ownership of the Count of Tomar and his descendants. In 1933, the state acquired it and in 1983, it was granted Unesco World Heritage  status. The place is a warren of interesting nooks and crannies. My favourite was the tiled Chapel of António Portocarreiro built in 1626. The azulejo tiles are amazing and the walled panels depicting scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary are stunning.

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The rather spacious cells – 20 lining either side of the long dormitories – made me rethink the austerity of life in a sixteenth-century monastery. It’s quite famous for its Manueline window – with its marine motifs. The carving at the base is supposed to be either the architect or the Old Man of the Sea. And, if you didn’t already know – as I didn’t – Manueline architecture is the Portuguese equivalent of Late Gothic. If you’re in the area, it’s well worth a visit.


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The journey

Toll roads are expensive in Portugal – after just 35 minutes heading north we came off the motorway and were charged €10.75. We decided then that what with the price of diesel, the upgrade to the rental car (need a big boot as I’m paranoid about leaving luggage on the back seat), and the GPS (yes, gave in – it’s a built-in one that comes with the car) we’d be better on the back roads. And we’d see more of the country.

IMG_5889 (600x800)I like a road trip that has a final destination (we were heading for Fatima) but with any place on the way up for grabs. First up was the town of Torres Novas, for no other reason that it’s home to the ruins of a 12th century fortress. We parked and wandered around and looked with something approaching wishful thinking at the wine bars that lined the main square and the stage being set up for music later that night. It, too, has some spectacular tile work.
IMG_5878 (800x600)It was here, eight IMG_5882 (800x600)IMG_5891 (800x599)or so centuries ago that the Moors and the Christians fought a bitter battle. It’s surprising that so much of the fortress is still intact. The walls are in great shape even if what’s inside is now a garden. This all still felt very European, but when we hit the road again, wending our way up hill and down vale, I travelled in my mind to South America or at least what I imagine South America to be like.

White gates led into the wild distant yonder with not a house to be seen. Tiny country churches and even smaller cemeteries dotted the landscape. I could imagine people coming to Sunday  mass  but couldn’t for the life of me see where they’d come from. There was nothing around. No sign of life. And yet graves were recent and the one church we stopped at, though shut, didn’t have an abandoned look about it.

IMG_5895 (800x600)IMG_5893 (800x583)It felt as little as if we’d walked on to a movie set. Quite surreal and very, very beautiful. For miles around all we could see were olive trees and grapevines. It’s said that the green on the Portuguese flag stands for olives and the red for wine. I can’t say for certainty if that’s true but it’s a nice story. Olives have been part of the culture since the Roman times and the country offers plenty by way of olive tourism.

The Portuguese are olive snobs and are very, very picky about their olive oil. While Americans shop for “virgin” or “extra virgin”, Portuguese will inquire as to which region the olives were grown, and will look for acidity levels, color and brand names in their olive oils. And the Portuguese use olive oils as Americans use ketchup – an omnipresent condiment. The Portuguese put it on everything from vegetables to fish to salad and no table is complete without a “galheteiro”–oil and vinegar holder.

You can visit at harvest time, take part in the picking and the pressing. You can sample the many varieties and become somewhat of an expert in choosing your oil.

IMG_5896 (800x600)Me? I was content to sample the delights of vinho verde. I thought it translated as green wine but it can be red or white or even a brandy.

Vinho Verde is not a grape varietal, it is a CAO for the production of wine. The name literally means “green wine,” but translates as “young wine“. It may be red, white, rosé and are usually consumed soon after bottling. Although a Vinho Verde can also be a sparkling, a Late Harvest or even Brandy.

I’m enjoying the sparkling white variety, sold on tap for €1 a glass in most of the eateries we’ve found. And the best thing so far about the wine is that whatever they put in it (or don’t put in it), there’s no hangover.

Portugal is very laid back. No one seems to be in a hurry to do anything. It’s all about enjoying life. Some say the country lacks ambition – perhaps it does. But as a tourist destination, it’s a gem.