Beja, Portugal’s Hidden Gem

Tired of touristy places? Want an “authentic”experience, where the locals are friendly, gracious and actually happy to see you? Yet ANOTHER advantage of serving as a Global Volunteer is the organization finds these places FOR you –places I would probably never would have discovered on my own.

I feel like I’ve been dropped into a magical spot. The lovely city of Beja just oozes charm. Its cobblestone streets haphazardly lead in many different directions, much worse than in Boston. Who would have thought that was even possible? Fortunately, in Beja, you can WALK everywhere–to work assignments, to dinner, for coffee, to the bus station, to its many attractions.

Streets are pretty quiet before 9 AM, but things liven up around 10:30, the “official” coffee break time.

Art is EVERYWHERE. Here are just a few examples. This sculpture is controversial. It reminds me of trees. What do YOU see?]

Even the tunnels are artistic.

In 1983, while excavating for a house’s foundation, Roman ruins were uncovered. The property’s owner was persuaded to build his house elsewhere, and voila, by 2004, this architecturally intriguing museum was created.  Okay, so in Italy you can visit all kinds of ruins, but in Beja you can walk OVER them, atop a glass floor.  For those whose eyes glaze over at the thought of another museum visit, this is the right place for you. Small, but oh so interesting.

I couldn’t figure out how to photograph the dwelling’s private bath.  Here’s my poor attempt.  Guess you’ll just have to go there.

Although the residents were aware of Pax Julia’s importance to the Romans, (Beja’s name back then), they didn’t know that the area had been inhabited much, much earlier. The museum contains artifacts dating back to 3000 BC. The Nucleo Muselogogico ( The name is almost as big as the museum) is free, as are the blue booties you wear to protect the glass floor.

Close by is the Regional Museum, which was originally a convent for women. Across the street is the theater, formerly the convent for men. The passageway that once ran between the two buildings (no doubt only used by the servants, to carry supplies back and forth), no longer exists.

The Regional Museum is the only one that charges a fee–just two Euros, and it is well worth it. In addition to all of the precious church items,

St John the Baptist

There is also a fine exhibit showing the process for restoring paintings. If seeing how St. Bartholomew was flayed is your thing, then you definitely need to find your way to the paintings room.

If instead, you are a literature buff, you can go upstairs to view the window through which Sr. Mariana gazed longingly, awaiting the return of her knight in shining armor. Yes, the author of the famous “Letters of a Portuguese Nun” lived in this very convent.

I mistakenly thought that being sent off to a convent was not a fate I would have desired. But that was BEFORE our guide pointed out its many advantages: unlike married women, who became their husband’s servants, rich girls got to bring THEIR servants WITH them to the convent. Freed from toil, they were educated, spending their days praying, reading and being waited on. I never thought of it quite like that. An additional bonus? You didn’t die in childbirth. Of course, there was always a chance you could be bricked into a wall, if you made a real good friend across the passageway, who got to know you in the biblical sense.

On the outskirts of town is the fortress (they refer to it as a castle) with the tallest tower on the Iberian peninsula. It has 198 steps and is 40 meters high (or 131 feet, but it is already on a hill, so it feels even higher).

Jeanne, Laurie and Heidi

Can you imagine trying to navigate these steps, wearing your armor while trying to dodge arrows and rocks, or whatever they were using back then?

I’ve been told you can see Spain from the top. But then, they could tell me I could see Russia from there, and I probably would have believed them.

The view from the top. Could that be Spain on the horizon?

The Hotel Bejense is a great choice if you are looking for the 4 C’s: clean, comfortable, cheap. For about $57 a night, you get a small room, with a private bath (complete with hair dryer, and towel warmers), breakfast, great Wi-Fi, a flat screenTV with many English channels, on a pedestrian walkway. Right next door a pastry shop with incredibly delicious offerings. Good thing we walk so much, because we are visiting the pastry shop at least once a day, sometimes more.

Entrance to the Hotel Bejense.

If you want to splurge and spend almost $90 per night, (off season rate ) you can always stay at the nearby Pousada de Sao Francisco, another former convent.

Four of us opted to have lunch there and to conduct our own self guided tour. I know what my sisters are thinking, so I will answer the question. YES, we WERE allowed to wander through the convent.

Speaking of food, you won’t go hungry in Beja. You have LOTS of choices, from the rather expensive (non Global Volunteer lunch at the Pousada) to the incredibly affordable and everything in between. My favorite restaurant is Les Infantes, where we were served fantastic “Tuscan Pasta Salad”. Take my word for it, if you are in Beja, you HAVE to try it.

Les Infantes, early in the evening, before it got busy.

Beja—a small city with a big heart!

 

Beja, Week One

Our first week in Beja has concluded, and what a wonderful week it was!

I’ve been asked many times about the kind of person who does a Global Volunteer project, so here’s a brief description of the 10 fantastic people with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working, complete with a visual.

Cisco (front row) is the first Australian Global Volunteer I’ve ever encountered. (He could possibly be the first Australian in Global Volunteer’s history). We all LOVE this extremely creative and talented guy. A graphic art designer by training, he has done so many other things, it is hard to believe he is only 31 years old. I suspect his Beja students are most impressed by his disc jockey experience, but I love hearing about the awards he won while working on a Disney cruise ship. He is “bloody ripper”. (Yes, Cisco is teaching me to speak Aussie).

Also in the front row is our fearless leader, Joe. It feels like EVERYBODY in Beja knows Joe. Coming here for ten years, leading two teams per year (February and September), Joe knows all of the assignments, and has done an amazing job matching us up so everyone is happy.

Joe has sampled just about every eating establishment in the area, so we are enjoying a wide variety of delicious cuisines.

Weekends are usually free time, however Joe very graciously organized a guided tour of Beja on Saturday morning, followed by an excursion to the Serpa cheese festival in the afternoon. Sunday we spent the day visiting the historic town of Evora.

My dear friend Jeanne is in row 2. Jeanne has decades of middle school experience, so she was paired with Heidi ( back row), who is a first time volunteer. Any trip with Jeanne is guaranteed to be fun. Her positive outlook on life is the gift that keeps on giving.

Next to Jeanne is Cindy, from Connecticut. She is a retired Spanish teacher, who has spent last week working in a variety of schools with Dale (last row, Heidi’s husband). Cindy has done a number of GV trips, and is returning to Queretaro, Mexico this October. For those of you who wonder if you could volunteer as a single woman, Cindy is your role model.

Laurie is between Cindy and me. Jeanne, Laurie and I all met Continue reading

The Science Experiment Continues

In my last post, I blogged about jamming a month’s worth of apparel into my carry on. But can I do better? What about just a backpack? What about just a backpack that was initially intended to accompany a carry on? Well, we shall find out, because Lufthansa lost my luggage. How could that be, you wonder? Isn’t the point of a carry on that you carry it on to the plane so that it is always close to you? Wonder no more, because I’m going to tell you.

When I learned that my connecting flight had been changed because of snow in Frankfurt, I envisioned several inches of wet slush. Jetways are not guaranteed in Frankfort. Sometimes you have to walk from the plane down steep metal stairs, to a bus that drives you to a door where you find yet more stairs, and if you are lucky, a working escalator. Carrying 26 pounds, plus backpack, through all that was not an appealing prospect. So, I checked said bag. But only to Frankfort. I’m no fool. What if the snow was so bad I was stuck overnight in Frankfort? I’d definitely want my jammies.

I was feeling pretty good about my decision as I walked down the stairs and onto the bus (yep, no jetway– but not much snow), but those feelings quickly evaporated as I watched bag after bag arrive. None of them being mine. How could you lose a bag that got on a plane in Newark, that landed in Frankfort? The list of life’s mysteries just got one item longer.

Here’s what immediately went through my jet lagged mind:

  • good thing I bought travel insurance
  • For once in my life, I have a complete record of everything my bag contained. Who knew blogging could be so very helpful?
  • Everything that is not easily replaced is in my backpack: my iPad, iPhone, chargers, camera, passport, money and charge cards
  • I’m so glad I only checked the bag through to Frankfort, because when Lufthansa changed my flight they put me on TAP Portugal. Can you imagine what a nightmare it might have been trying to figure out which airline was responsible for losing my bag? I know Lufthansa is responsible, and more importantly, so do they.
  • Let’s see how I do with this challenge. I only have the clothes that I am wearing and no toiletries. Snacks and a flight pillow aren’t all that helpful now, but the Motrin may come in handy.
  • Will my Amazon Prime work for deliveries in Portugal?

The line for customer service at Lufthansa was surprisingly short. When I asked the rep about the probability my bag would be found the same day, she said it was slim. So, since I was only going to be in Lisbon one night, I gave her the address of my hotel in Beja. She said they would call and email me with updates.

So what little pearls of wisdom can I share from my science experiment?

  • Lisbon has amazing malls, and the staff there actually HELP you, which was important in figuring out my size. I didn’t have the time or the energy to try things on. In Italy, I was saddened to learn only “molto grosso” fit; in Argentina, it was “muy grande”. In Lisbon, I was “medium”.
  • I didn’t need to know Portuguese to translate this sign. Bet you can figure it out too.
  • I CAN get by with one change of underwear, just not THIS one…
  • A tee shirt is still great for sleeping, just like in college
  • Next time, put an adapter in my backpack. Luckily, the mail had an electronics shop, but you can’t always count on that, plus they aren’t cheap – €20 or about $25 for a basic model.
  • My toiletry essentials are toothpaste (the hotel gave me a tiny tube but it tasted terrible), deodorant, a comb and brush
  • Shampoo works fine as laundry detergent
  • Although my underwear was perfectly dry by morning, my shirt was not. Wrapping it in a towel did NOT work. I tried the hair dryer, but it kept switching off after a few minutes. The front desk explained it was a “safety feature” to keep it from overheating. Good thing I kept the plastic bag from my shopping extravaganza for my damp shirt.
  • Not all hotels supply conditioner. It is wise to read labels so you don’t put body lotion in your hair
  • Conditioner DOES make a difference
  • In the future, avoid Frankfort airport. The gate for my flight to Lisbon changed THREE times.
  • Losing luggage caused my adrenaline to kick in. I was able to go without sleep for over 40 hours, then wake up completely jet lag free. Despite that happy side effect, I do NOT recommend you voluntarily replicate this experiment.

Bet you’re perched on the edge of your recliner, wondering how this saga ends? How long will our heroine have to wear the same corduroy pants and Keen sandals with socks? Are her air-cooled, memory foam Sketchers gone forever?

The good news? I got an email Saturday at 6 PM telling me the bag had arrived in Lisbon. The bad news? There was no way for me to get in touch with the courier to tell them to bring it to my Lisbon hotel. No phone number, no email address. The courier promised that EVENTUALLY it will make its way to Beja. I figure I can last a couple more days with what I have.

DRUM ROLL, PLEASE…

It’s ALL good. My bag arrived in Beja before I did. Not only that, but it was waiting for me in my room, so I didn’t have to carry it up a flight of stairs in this elevator deprived hotel.

Lufthansa has not mentioned any compensation for delayed baggage, however I have saved my receipts, and so far, they owe me €99.90, or about $125. Travel Insurance would cover up to $100, but I’m going to call Lufthansa customer service to inquire where I should send my receipts and how long before I’m reimbursed.