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 Beja, Week One

Going Global

One month from today, I’ll be heading off for my sixth Global Volunteer Experience.  Timing is everything in life, and given recent political events, some think it is not the best time to go traipsing around other parts of the globe.  My opinion differs.  What better time to do something positive, to at least try to improve America’s image in other parts of the world, than now?

For those of you new to Global Volunteers, here’s a little background.  We go where we are invited, and do whatever we are asked to do, working closely with members of the host community.  We don’t proselytize — we have no political or religious agenda, other than to make friends and learn about a culture different from our own.   The only stated goal is to “wage peace and promote justice”.  I love that.

So far, I’ve worked in a preschool in Anse La Reye, St. Lucia, elementary schools in Hanoi, Vietnam and Rarotonga, Cook Islands and twice at a technical college in Queretaro, Mexico.

So, where to this time, you ask?  Beja, Portugal, in the Alentejo region.   Never heard of it?  Neither had I until I signed up.  And that’s one more thing to like about Global Volunteers:  you get to live in areas you might never have thought of visiting.

Another Global Volunteer plus is the wonderful friendships that you make.  This trip will be a mini-reunion for three of us that served on my very first project in St Lucia.

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Jeanne, Norina, Laurie and I in the bar at JJ’s Paradise Hotel, on our last evening in St. Lucia.  I will be joining Jeanne and Laurie in Beja.

Not only that, but during our stay, we will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of the start of GV’s Portugal project.  Seems like perfect timing to me!

And that was the case for two of my other projects.  In November of 2013, I was in Rarotonga when their new Queen was crowned. What a fantastic experience THAT was–the music, the food, the costumes–how lucky was I to be able to share this joyous celebration with the most gracious, friendly people on the planet!

The Queen is the one in gold

Jeanne and I lucked out in  February, 2017,  by being in Queretaro for 100th Anniversary of the signing of their constitution.

Queretaro was the actual site for this historical event, so there were all kinds of special celebrations.  How cool is it to use the side of a centuries old cathedral as a screen for an outdoor multi media show?  We liked it so much,  we saw the show twice.  These photos don’t do the display justice.  Let me just say it was really, really wonderful.

IMG_3953 IMG_3954

If that wasn’t enough, another evening got to hear this stirring rendition of Elvis Presley’s “Wooden Heart” played on bagpipes, in Mexico!!   Here’s a little bit of the sound track for your viewing pleasure.  Irresistible, no?

So, who knows what awaits us in Beja?

I hope you will check back next month and join me, Laurie and Jeanne for a virtual Global Volunteers adventure.  Adeus e obrigado!