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 he 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

One Month Travel With One Carry On??

Packing is one of my biggest travel challenges.  I always intend to travel light, but sometimes I get carried away at the last minute.

I’ve been able to go for two weeks with just a carry on.  But a month?  Can I get everything I will need into my trusty eagle creek carry on and my backpack?  I’m going to try.   I hope others find my attempt helpful.  If not, at least this post will allow ME to remember what the heck I stuck in my bag.

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been “auditioning” my clothes to see whether they dry quickly, are versatile enough for weather that will vary between the 40’s and 70’s and, most importantly, can be crammed into my bag.  I’ve tried out different combinations to see how comfortable I am at NJ’s current cooler temperatures.  My discovery is that lightweight pants, when paired with silk long underwear work out just fine.

For past trips, I have either used local laundry facilities or I packed enough to get me through the entire trip.


In Pokhara, Nepal, doing the laundry was a cultural experience.  The promised “tumble dry” only works if the government doesn’t shut off the electricity for several hours every day.  Bet you know what happened while I was there.

THIS time, my plan is to wash as I go.  I don’t normally hand wash clothes at home, so I gave it a whirl.  I wanted to see how long it took for different items to dry, and I was also curious as to how my duds would look after I had sloshed and wrung them out.  The verdict:  I figured my technique needed a little work.  Then I remembered a tip from a fellow traveler.  She nixed the wringing, instead opting to gently squeeze, then wrap her garments in a microfiber towel.   She swore her clothes were dry by the next morning.  So, I ordered a microfiber towel  from Amazon and gave it a try.  My technique still needs work.

Because I expect to do a lot of walking, I wanted to make sure that I had comfortable shoes.  I found a pair of Sketchers that should do the trick.  Air cooled? Memory foam?  My feet may be in better shape than my head.

I have super sensitive feet, so I am reluctant to put all my toes into one basket–or one pair of shoes– so I’ll be wearing my trusty Keens on the plane.  Yes, I WILL wear those Keen sandals with a pair of socks, and YES, I DO know that is a huge fashion faux pas, but hey I’m old enough not to care.

Here’s how I started out:IMG_5673

Then I had to make some choices.  One white knit top and pink bathing suit – out.  (I found another bathing suit that squishes up smaller)  Hanging toiletries bag, replaced by a zip lock bag, which also freed up space for my hair dryer and adaptors.

There are those that swear by rolling clothes, so I thought I’d give it a try.  Some might think I am REALLY obsessive compulsive, to take everything out, and try to put it all back without rolling.  Others would realize that I am completely committed to the scientific method.  YOU can pick whichever explanation you prefer, but I’m going with the latter.

Want to know the result of my “science” project?  Both methods produced the exact same result.  Conclusion?  Do whatever brings you joy.  I wasn’t going to take everything out and roll it up again.  I’m not THAT crazy, so I left everything packed flat.  Here’s what made it into the bag.

  • 6 long pants – 1 corduroy, 1 jeans, 4 quick drying (one lined, three lightweight)
  • 6 long sleeved cotton tops. 1 knit, plus 2 short sleeve shirts
  • 1 pajamas and  1 long underwear set that can double as pajamas
  • 2 long underwear bottoms and 7 underwear, 2 bras, 8 socks
  • 2 scarves
  • hair dryer (which I can use to dry clothes, if needed)  and toiletries
  • laundry kit
  • 1 Sketchers black air cooled shoes, with memory foam and flip flops for shower (or if I’m lucky, pool)
  • index cards (for teaching). According to our team leader,  former volunteers have left supplies behind, so i don’t need to bring a white board or other teaching materials.
  • 1 waterproof windbreaker with hood

Plus, of course, I’ll have the clothes I wear on the plane, like my fleece and the zip up sweater that would have fit in the bag if I had unzipped the expandable part.  (But then, it might have been hard to get the bag into the overhead.)

My back pack will carry my money, credit cards, passport, travel info, iPhone, iPad, chargers, my mobile “pharmacy”, camera, , pens, snacks, sun glasses, water bottle and travel pillow.

Total weight of carry on–26.5 pounds, something I can easily hoist into that overhead bin.  I think I’m all set.  We shall see.