Thursday, June 10, 2010

Alcantarilha, Portugal and The Chapel of Bones

Perched on a hillside not far from the splendid beaches of southern Portugal, and not too far from the night life of Albufeira lies a small, quaint village called Alcantarilha.

Alcantarilha is not a large, glamorous or very well known town, but it has retained the charms and characteristics of centuries-old Europe amidst the rapid commercialization and touristic growth of the Portuguese coast.

Alcantarilha truly is a step back into old-school Europe. It has the feeling of a secluded town built around friendship, family and socializing, but in actuality it's located just miles away from some populated tourist destinations and only five minutes from the main southern thoroughfare, A-22, that spans across Portugal from Spain.

The streets are narrow and cobble stoned, yet vibrant and full of life, and not a street crossing lies bare of a cafe, bar, restaurant or another type of establishment that centers around socializing.

A 15th century church dominates the local landscape and, as is common for these old European towns, the church stands right in the center of the old 'downtown' area.

Granted, the town has expanded over the years, but you don't enter or leave Alcantarilha without first acknowledging the grand significance of its main structure - the main church and the soaring church bell tower.

And you didn't mess with the sanctity of the church grounds - I was idling inside my rental care right outside the front door of the church one day when an elderly lady knocked on my window with her cane. I rolled down the window to hear what she had to say - although I knew it was futile because I don't speak Portuguese - and I was greeted with a waving cane and some loud words that were ordering me to move the car up a few feet. When I did so, the elderly woman was satisfied and she crossed the road and went on her way. This woman could have walked less than two feet around the car to cross, but somewhere in the waving cane and blistering words she was probably telling me that she has crossed in that same spot every day for the last eighty years and she'll be damned if my rental car is going to keep her from crossing there today; and if that's what she was saying, then she was right.

Along the winding streets you'll find numerous cafes, a central market, a shoe smith, butcher, tailor and an old firehouse with a fire engine that looks like gerbils should be running in the wheels to make it go.

Right next to the church is a small shop that sells everything that you need - no mega-supermarket-plex full of heavily-preservatized food items - here you get what you get and you get what ever is fresh that day. Some days you'll get chicken, some days you won't - it depends on what's available. A little old lady that speaks no English stands watch of her shop, and although she doesn't speak English, you'll feel like you've known her your entire life. After a warm welcome, the kids are offered freshly made goodies - cookies or pastry of some kind - and even on days that you show up without the kids, you get a to-go box of goodies for the kids, on the house.

Across from the shop is a small bar/cafe/restaurant called 'Casa de Paz' with all the charm and warmth that you need on a relaxing vacation. The owner, an extremely friendly and generous man named Fransisco, works 16 hour days - every day - to make his business a place where both the locals and outsiders can mingle and feel at home; a place where one can get away from the hustle and bustle of the touristy coast, and where one can get so wrapped up in conversation the sharing of experiences that hours can pass by in the blink of an eye.

As an added bonus, the food and the village wine of Alcantarilha are fantastic. Whether it's a pork fillet, a piece of fresh fish, a peppered steak or a leg of lamb, the food will be fresh and the tastes will be splendid. The town boasts its own local-made wine, a wine so good that you'd pay tens of dollars for it in America, but when you drink it with the locals, you get the local price. I always laugh at the thought of how much we pay for the best wines in America - because we're trained to believe that you only get the best when you shell out loads of cash - when the best wines of the local villages around the globe are quite inexpensive - unless you drink where the tourists drink.

It's a shame that you can only bring so much wine back with you on the plane.

Back to the subject establishment, across from the main church where the food (and wine) is absolutely terrific; there's no set menu, tell Fransisco what you want, and if he has it, it means it's fresh and he'll cook it up in his very own, creative mix of spices and flavors.

On one one occasion inside this little place I caught a glimpse of 'community' that has lost for far too long in many societies today - there were four men sitting around a table in the secondary dining room of this establishment, and they were all playing cards and either sipping a scotch or drinking the Portuguese brew; the four men sitting together were the local priest, the town cop, the town pool guy and the fourth unnamed character was the guy that kept buying us all drinks, just for being guests in his town.

It took me a few moments to take it in because I was waiting for a punchline - when you repeat the scenario out loud it sounds like the set up for a good joke - but I realized that what I was observing was a fine example of what life is all about - it's about friends, family, community and enjoyment - at least it should be.

For those four men on that day, it was the good life, and I'm glad I got a glimpse into their world - and a blessing from the priest.

The pool guy had me laughing, though. This little guy didn't speak a lick of English but he would talk away as if I understood everything he was saying, but funny enough, I somehow always knew what he was talking about. He cleaned pools for a living, but sometimes I got the impression that he would just run home and change shirts before coming back to Fransisco's. I wasn't buying the 'cleaning pools' bit all the time, although I do know he got the job done when he needed to.

The pool guy also had to get put in check at times, regarding his bar tab. This guy, like everyone we met in Alcantarilha, wanted to buy every single round, but we all suspected that he couldn't afford it. We knew that Fransisco probably had an ongoing bar tab for this guy that might have gotten paid from time to time, but not really. Kind of like Sam had for Norm in Cheers.

That was a running theme in Fransisco's, however. Everyone would have a fairly hefty tab by the end of the night, but no one bought a drink for themselves - everyone would buy for everyone else and somehow it all worked out.

This establishment quickly became the cornerstone of our evenings during our vacation. You could spend hours in this place chatting away with the locals abd talking about the things that mattered most - friends, family and experiences. If an argument got heated, it was most likely about one of the local football (soccer) teams, but never did the argument end without laughter and another beer.

Back to the main attraction, the bell-tower church. A soaring sight, that towered over the other structures in the town. What makes this church unique, however, is the well-known 'Capela dos Ossos,' or 'The Chapel of Bones,' to us English-speaking types.

According to the history lessons I received from the locals, followed up with a brief google search, the church was built in the 16th century on the grounds of an old cemetery. Not wanting the bones of those who were buried in the sacred ground to go unprotected once the bones were removed, the 'Chapel of Bones' was created to house the remains. However, rather than locking the many sculls and bones away in an above-ground coffin, it was decided that they would adorn the walls and the ceiling of the small chapel, protected by a crucifix of Jesus Christ that looked down on all from high up on the back wall.

It should have been an eerie experience, seeing all those skulls on the wall, but it was actually a somewhat soothing and peaceful experience; the chapel was a small room of Alcantarilhan locals, living in eternity together, probably enjoying the same peace that they may have felt while sitting across the street during their time; at a place similar to Fransisco's where today's locals gathered.

As I stood there gazing at the centuries-old sculls, I thought of the stories that they might tell if they were still alive. Would they tell me about the history and charms of Alcantarilha, like the residents of the town had so often done? Would they tell me about their families and experiences over a glass of village wine?

Then something dawned on me; those 500 year-old skulls were not silent, they were sharing their stories with me and with everyone else who made the time to pass through Alcantarilha.

Their stories were told when the locals gathered in Fransisco's, and they were told when the women stepped onto the cobble stone streets to gossip throughout the day.

They were told when the Priest, the cop and pool guy played cards together, and they were told when the town tailor spent hours stitching a hole in a jacket to perfection.

They were told when the elderly lady made me move my car from the only spot that she knows to cross the street.

Their stories were being told every day, and although left to stand bare in 'The Chapel of Bones' in the year 2010, they would live for eternity in Alcantarilha; because if this little town, seemingly miles from anything modern, could retain its charm through the ages, then those housed in that Chapel would never truly perish.

I pondered that thought as I turned and walked out of the 'Capela dos Ossos,' and just then I was enthusiastically greeted by the little old lady from the shop across the way, and in her hand she had a small bag of goodies wrapped up and ready for me to take back to my children. She glanced towards the Capela and then looked back at me, handed me the bag of goodies and with a bright smile whisked me away back to my family.

I thought about everything that I had experienced, about the Capela and about my last encounter with the woman from the shop and I found it ironic, that somehow this town is so much alive because of those who are kept housed in the 'Capela dos Ossos'; those that are now standing an everlasting watch over the town.

For the 'Chapel of Bones,' a room seemingly filled with death, brings life to Alcantarilha.

The times have changed, the developments have come and the tourists have flocked, but this little town perched on a hillside not far from the splendid beaches of southern Portugal, is a remnant of the past that is sure to withstand time.

If you find yourself along A-22, and you pass the exit for Alcantarilha, take a journey into the past and experience the feel of old Europe; you'll be met with warmth, friendliness and the assurance that there's simply no life, like the good life.


Saturday, January 9, 2010

Resort Review: Cabo Azul, Los Cabos, Mexico

The Cabo Azul resort & spa is the lap of luxury in Los Cabos, Mexico.

The Cabo Azul is one of nine Pacific Monarch resorts, a series of properties that caters mainly to Californians looking for fairly close and luxurious getaways. I haven't yet visited the other Monarch destinations, but I can say that the Cabo Azul does also attract vacation-goers from the East Coast and from as far north as Canada.

That being said, most of those that you'll run into will be from the Los Angeles area - where everyone is either a movie producer or an actor/actress.

With a spattering of resorts for the vacation-goer to choose from in Los Cabo, it's the luxury and comforts offered by the Cabo Azul that set this location above all the rest; and a stay here won't break the bank.

From the courteous staff that bends over backwards to ensure that your stay will be a pleasant one, to the completely stress-free and relaxing feel of elegance that surrounds every inch of the resort, the Cabo Azul is truly a vacation destination masterpiece designed by celebrated interior designer, Dodd Mitchell.

Mitchell used the elements to enhance the atmosphere of luxury and relaxation at the resort, with the sound of falling water always present and orange flames of fire rising from locations around the pool area at night.

There are three 'infinity' pools in the interior area of the resort, each one lower than the last and the bottom one quite cold, but very refreshing. In keeping with the theme of relaxation, the infinity pools flow into one another - the constant sound of water flowing - and the water from the bottom pool flows over the side into a basin on the ground; at that point, the sound of the ocean waves crashing against the beach take over.

Even inside 'Javier's' restaurant the sound of flowing water will not leave you, as water flows straight from the wall; and in the 'Flor de Noche' the pool-side restaurant, the water flows from a large 'well-shaped' centerpiece - always refreshing.

The villas are elegant, comfortable and expensive - when you consider that wifey will want the house designed to replicate the comforts of the villa when you get home.

The resort's theme of dark wood clashing with white is also pronounced inside the villas, with ceiling fans, mirrors and chandeliers adorning the walls and ceilings; with a thoughtful lighting arrangement that becomes somewhat of a nuisance when you're trying to shut everything off at night, but it sure makes the place look classy when it's all lit up; an appreciation that is mostly noted by the ladies, I'm sure.

Each one, two or three-bedroomed villa comes complete with a full kitchen and a very large jacuzzi tub.

Ah yeah.

There are also two hot-tubs built into the ground around the pool area, one strategically located right next to the 'cold-dip' pool, alleviating the need to go up to the spa to do the hot & cold-plunge routine.

There is, of course, a swim-up bar - fairly expensive (this resort is not all-inclusive), but the Plaza Marketplace in the hotel allows customers to purchase Corona for a more reasonable price.

There is also a 'Mega' supermarket within walking distance to stock up on food and drink for the week or two of your stay.

There's a fully fitted gym, even free weights, for those that enjoy a workout while on vacation and a spa, which just adds to the overall relaxing feel of the resort.

A great vacation destination cannot be perfect, however, without the people - and the staff at the Cabo Azul are tremendous. You'd think these people never had a bad day.

From the second that you're greeted by concierge upon check-in to the last-minute check-out, you'll never get greeted with a frown from anyone.

Of note, there's a guy named Iker who walks around the grounds throughout the day making sure that everyone is comfortable - he's got a clipboard in his hand that I'm sure has even the smallest details noted of what each customer likes for their particular comforts; Iker found my son's football twice when it went missing, and knew the color of his NintendoDS in case that also went missing.

The pool guys walk around and replace your towels once they're wet and the waiter from the poolside restaurant isn't a second to bring you a cold, refreshing, crisp and cool Corona - with a lime.

I fell asleep in one of the Vietnamese style baskets one day - when the rain came. It wasn't much of a downpour, but while I was asleep the staff moved three umbrellas over the basket and kept it dry inside - these guys don't stop in making sure that the clientele is comfortable.

I'm a big beach guy, and the beach in Cabo is the best - soft sand and big waves, although the current is too strong to let the little ones venture too far into the swells.

As is typical with beach vacations in Mexico, there's always a few locals looking to sell you hats, silver and knick-knacks (and some other pleasures) on the beach - and they just might have a Sony digital camera to sell you now; I took too long getting back to gather my belongings one day, after getting sidetracked at the pool bar on the way back from the room. It was dark when I made it back to the beach and, alas, no camera - and for that I apologize for not having photos to accompany this post.

The Cabo Azul is not all-inclusive, but that keeps away those looking to get away for the strict purpose of over-indulging in the food and drink; it's a much lower-key atmosphere than most all-inclusive resorts, and there is enough to do in the nearby town of San Jose that you'd rather get out and eat outside the resort anyway.

That's another reason why I love a vacation to Los Cabos, unlike many of the Caribbean vacation destinations, you can leave the resort in Cabos and venture into the surroundings with no worries.

The cab prices are set - five bucks gets you into town.

The resort itself holds enough activities to keep you entertained, whether it's a beach party (VFC beat wifey in the Limbo competition) or Mexican night, you're sure to be catered to by the staff and the food is magnificent.

This resort is one that you can truly say that they didn't spare any cost or consideration in ensuring that the Cabo Azul would truly become the lap of luxury in Cabo. They really thought of everything.

We found the Cabo Azul after staying next door at the Royal Solaris in 2008. The Solaris (all-inclusive) is nice enough - the kids club is the best, with water slides and the works - but the rooms are below-par for a Cabos vacation. The Cabo Azul and the Solaris aren't in the same discussion. In fact, this year we met people who were booked at the Solaris and switched to the Azul once they discovered the hidden paradise.

Pacific Monarch did it right.

If you're making it to Los Cabos, I highly recommend the four-diamond-rated Cabo Azul.

For luxury and a little spoiling - you won't be disappointed.

Also read: Los Cabos, 2008.

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