Visit Portugal

tldr; version: Portugal is a great off-season destination with mild weather and few crowds, particularly in Algarve where the beaches are full of people during summer. The landscape, history, art and architecture are spellbinding, and the food is some of the best I’ve found anywhere. Bonus: It’s an inexpensive place to visit.

What follows is a travelogue of sorts. Want to jump ahead to specific topics? Here you go.

Why Visit Portugal?

Portugal has been on my radar for years, but it wasn’t until considering and discarding several possible destinations for 2019 that Beth and I committed to visit. Why visit Portugal?

  • History: Portugal is the product of African, Asian and European influences, and played a critical role in early exploration of trade routes. And, the 1755 earthquake remade the country–particularly Lisbon–in a significant way. If you’re a history geek like me, this is a draw.
  • Culture: Portugal shares a peninsula with its neighbor Spain, but has a distinct culture that’s proudly independent and yet welcoming.
  • Food and wine: Portugal is justly famous for its seafood and wine.
  • Mild winter weather: After a few cold Decembers in France we were ready for moderate temperatures and little rain.
  • No crowds: Portugal can be crowded in summer but during winter people mostly disappear.
  • Cost: Portugal is known as an inexpensive destination–even the major cities.

Once we committed to visiting, the big question was where to go within the country.

We had a week-and-a-half, minus an overnight in London on the way home, and wanted to spend time in Lisbon and get out of the city for a while. A lot of poking around in books and on the web led us to the Algarve region in southern Portugal. In the summer, it’s one of the destinations for European beach vacations. In December, it would be quiet. We decided to overnight in Lisbon when we arrived, pick up a car and go south to Algarve for a few days, then return to explore Lisbon.

Beyond that, we didn’t have a particular idea in mind of where in Algarve we would base ourselves. I spent a few weeks combing through maps, looking for a town that offered easy access to the places that were starting to pile up on our visit wish list, where we could rent a suitable apartment, that had good restaurants, and that wouldn’t essentially be closed for the off season. The answer was Olhão, the largest fishing port in Algarve and a perfect gateway to the Ria Formosa natural area. After some searching I located an apartment near the town’s waterfront. The location on a quiet lane, and a rooftop terrace, were selling points.

We flew American Airlines from Raleigh, NC to London Heathrow, then went on to Lisbon on British Airways (an AA oneworld partner). We hadn’t counted on strict security checks when changing planes, so my water bottle and Beth’s hair gel went into the trash. Otherwise, the trip was relatively stress-free. Seven-ish hours to London, 2:45 to Lisbon, a speedy trip through passport control and we were hailing a taxi to go to the center city.

Pro tip: Download the Kapten app before arrival and use it to get around Lisbon. Kapten is a European competitor to Uber; imagine a business that’s doubled down on an economically unsound strategy and recruits legions of taxi-hating drivers to carry out their mission. But Kapten is cheap (seven Euros to return to the airport later in the week versus 45 Euros to take a taxi on arrival; other trips averaged five to six Euros), the drivers are cheerful and full of advice, and it’s easy to get a car anywhere in the city.

A note about languages: Portuguese is the native language, while English is widely spoken. Communication was never an issue for us, even though my Portuguese is “not the worst I’ve ever heard” (said a local).

Our Lisbon Itinerary

Really seeing Lisbon–a city of 600,000 that’s spread across a wide area atop seven hills–was out of the question. We focused on four areas: the neighborhoods of Principe Real, Belém and Alfama, and the riverfront. We were still hard-pressed to see everything we wanted.

Principe Real descends toward the Tagus River past parks (and an organic market on the Saturday we visited), shops, restaurants and bars. It’s the posh part of Lisbon, and if trendy shops and department stores are your thing, this is the place.

Newly arrived, we were focused on getting our bearings and finding a meal. Principe Real was ideal for both; great restaurants were plentiful, and we were able to get a wide view of the city.

A view of Lisbon from Principe Real.

Lunch in Lisbon can stretch on into late afternoon and the sun was dropping as we descended toward the waterfront. The area along the Tagus used to be neglected, but after recent development it has become a popular gathering spot. Numerous restaurants and kiosks serving food and drinks dot the waterfront. It’s a great place to people watch or take in the river view.

Freight ships on the Tagus River at sunset.

I mentioned the lack of crowds. This is mostly true, but our first evening in Lisbon coincided with the “Spanish weekend,” which a local described as the time Spaniards visit Lisbon before Christmas. After sundown we wandered through the Christmas market at Praça do Comércio and took a meandering walk back to our hotel. Many streets were so full of vacationers that we had to force our way through the crowds.

One noteworthy thing I’ll mention: From the time we arrived in Lisbon until we returned after our time in Algarve, we never encountered a single American tourist. In Algarve, most locals thought we were French or English, because it’s so unusual for Americans to visit during the off season.

Christmas tree at Praça do Comércio.

We stayed in Alfama after returning to Lisbon from Algarve. It’s a fascinating neighborhood–a former Jewish quarter that was heavily influenced by the Moors. Because it was the only part of Lisbon that wasn’t destroyed by the 1755 earthquake, it isn’t built on the grid that characterizes the rest of the city. Instead, it retains its narrow, winding streets.

Street cars share narrow lanes with cars, tuk-tuks, cyclists and pedestrians. The famous #28 line travels from near the river to the top of Alfama; cars pass within inches of sidewalks, and in some places the streets are so narrow that vehicles take turns passing each way.

Alfama is incredibly vibrant. I enjoyed walking the streets and shooting photos of people and places, but there are cathedrals, shops (including those specializing in tile), restaurants and bars, street art, public plazas, and other sights to see. A week in Alfama would be time well spent. One evening I followed the tracks of the #28 line all the way to the river; it’s a perfect tour of Alfama.

We enjoyed a couple of memorable meals in the neighborhood, and it’s a great place to find one of Lisbon’s famous rooftop bars and watch the sun set.

The famous #28 tram in Alfama.
One of the ubiquitous tuk-tuks in Alfama.
Street art by our hotel in Alfama.

Beth’s interest in Lisbon included learning about Portuguese tiles. We picked a rainy day to visit the National Tile Museum, which is housed in a former convent that includes an impressive church. It’s worth visiting; we learned about tile design from the Moorish era through today, and watched conservators restore tiles in the workshop.

The highlight for me was a 75-foot mosaic showing pre-earthquake Lisbon. It’s among the most rare and valuable artifacts in the museum, as it’s one of the few works of art that depicts pre-1755 Lisbon.

Tile mosaic showing pre-earthquake Lisbon, in the National Tile Museum.
Church in the National Tile Museum.

Most recommendations of places to see in Lisbon include the Belém Tower. It was typically the last place 15th century explorers saw when leaving Lisbon, and the first thing they saw when returning. We visited at low tide, when we were able to walk around the base of the tower. I had read that the interior of the tower is less than impressive so we passed on that; I loved being able to spend time looking at the exterior from different perspectives.

Belém Tower.

The Tower’s less well-known neighbor is worth visiting: The Memorial to Overseas Combatants, which includes the tomb of the unknown soldier. This beautiful but somber memorial remembers those who lost their lives in the Portuguese Colonial War, which led to the downfall of Portugal’s fascist government. We wandered around the memorial and spent time looking at the names of soldiers and NGO workers who gave their lives in the “Overseas War.”

Monument to Overseas Combatants, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Our path through Belém took us from the Tower to Jeronimos Monastery, a UNESCO heritage site with an impressive cathedral.

Jeronimos Monastery cathedral.

From there, we took a short walk to Pastéis de Belém for some of their famous pastel de nata and coffee. Refueled, we took a meandering walk past the Presidential Palace and back across the main avenue to the waterfront.

Entrance to the Presidential Palace.

We could have easily burned a couple of days along the river in Belém, where there are numerous museums, including a memorial to Portuguese seafaring exploration, and the striking MAAT, or Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, as well as a busy marina. Short on time, we wandered while I shot photos.

Compass rose plaza in Belém.

What We’ll Be Sure to Do Next Visit to Lisbon

We plan to go back to Lisbon, and a few things are already on my itinerary:

MAAT: A stunning contemporary building on the Lisbon waterfront.

What We Chose to Skip

There were a few things we avoided in Lisbon:

  • The #28 tram, which winds through Alfama. It’s crowded and a magnet for pickpockets. Plus, the walk that follows the tracks is much better.
  • The elevators and funiculars that carry passengers between different street levels. They’re tourist attractions, and lines were long and our time was short.
  • Tuk-tuks. They’re everywhere in the city; expect to get a sales pitch on seeing Lisbon from one of these three-wheelers. Again, Lisbon is a great walking city so we opted for that.
  • Fado. Not that I’m not a fan of this uniquely Portuguese music, but many performances are part of an expensive dinner service. I was tempted to visit the Fado History Project in Tavira, where artists in residence perform.

Algarve

After looking at train and bus options to get to Olhão we chose to rent a car and have the additional flexibility it would offer. I picked up our Fiat 500 from the Europ Car office near our guesthouse then we were on our way.

Driving in Portugal is easy, thanks to one of the best road systems in the world. We used Google Maps for navigation; this only let us down once, when we lost cell coverage in a rural area along the coast. No problem–the roads were well-signed and we were able to find our way to our destination.

A straight shot down the A-2 and A-22 would get us to Olhão in under three hours, but once we were out of Lisbon we veered west on the N120 and followed it and secondary roads to travel along the coast. Our route took use through Alentejo, which is a major cork-producing region where stripped tree trunks, numbered by the year of the harvest, are a common sight.

Stopping among the cork trees in Alentejo.

We wound our way through olive and orange groves while looking for a good view of the Atlantic Ocean. We found it in Azenhas do Mar, where a street ended in a small parking lot and restaurant perched atop a cliff. A couple hundred feet below, fishing boats launch behind a breakwater.

We walked along the clifftop, then followed a boardwalk toward an overlook about the boat ramp. I noticed a trail snaking up a nearby hill and discovered a rope hikers use to descend from the road to the trailhead.

Azenhas do Mar

Pro tip: Use Auto Europe to book car rentals. They’re an agent for many popular rental companies and allow price comparisons and online booking. In most cases they’ve directed us to rentals from Europ Car, but it’s helpful to be able to compare rates with Avis, Hertz, Sixt and other companies. The majority of rental cars in Europe, and the least expensive, have manual transmissions; you’ll pay a premium for a car with an automatic. In Lisbon, picking up and dropping off the car at a city office saves you a significant airport franchise fee. Tolls are common on major roads; rent an electronic pass to save time.

Pro tip: Technically, it isn’t absolutely necessary but getting an international drivers permit from a local AAA office before traveling overseas is a good idea. It’s not a license, but a multilingual translation of a USA state license that’s valid for six months. While I’ve never had trouble renting a car without one, it might save time if encountering non-English-speaking police or other authorities.

We arrived in Olhão late afternoon, quickly found a parking spot along the main street, and carried our luggage through narrow lanes to our home for the next few days. In central Olhão, homes are mostly multistory and…elevators? Forget it. Climbing the steep steps wasn’t an issue, particularly once we made our way to the fourth level terrace, where we had a stunning view of sunset.

Terrace view, Olhão.
A typical street in the center of Olhão.

A few thoughts about Olhão: It’s a wonderful city that turned out to be a perfect base for exploring Algarve. The town’s cubist architecture is typical of much of Portugal, and we loved walking the narrow streets in the central part of town. There’s a relaxed vibe, and we were often surprised by small acts of kindness. At one point, Beth and I were trying to figure out how to get to a restaurant; a local woman noticed, came over and introduced herself, and guided us there. The sheer number of wonderful, creative restaurants was overwhelming. I’d love to go back.

Our plan for the next few days started with a trip to Tavira, a few miles along the coast. It’s a small city bisected by the Gilão River. Originally settled by the Phoenicians, then Moors, then Romans, it was mostly destroyed by the 1755 earthquake.

Tavira is a great walking town. Our path took us across the Roman Bridge, which was built on the foundations of a Roman trading road and is now open only to pedestrians. From there, we walked around the central plaza, then headed up a hill toward the Tavira Castle.

The castle sits atop a high point in the city, houses a quiet garden where people picnic, and offers a panoramic view of the city from atop the fortifications. The nearby Camera Obscura was also on our list to see, but was closed for maintenance.

Tavira, seen from the fortress walls.

Further along the coast, we stopped at Cacela Velha. It’s easy to miss this tiny town that overlooks the Ria Formosa. There’s a parking lot on its outskirts; stop there and then walk through this village that consists of a fortress wall, a church, a few homes, a couple of restaurants, an art-filled plaza, and a cemetery. This Moorish and Roman-influenced town was one of the most fascinating places we visited.

Clothes drying on a line in Cacela Velha. This is a common sight across Portugal.
The Ria Formosa, from the walls of Cacela Velha.

Below Cacela Velha is Praia do Cabeço. We followed a rural lane to get there, and found parking lots full of campers with off-season beach vacationers. Even with the December “rush,” finding a quiet spot on this gorgeous beach was easy.

Praia do Cabeço

The next day, we drove an hour or so west to Portimão, a medium size port city that’s a launching point for tours of the Benagil sea caves. We took a two-hour guided tour along the coast that traveled through several sea caves, and introduced us to some of the more popular beaches in Algarve.

Getting to the caves and many beaches requires a boat, board and kayak. The quick intro to the area was good, but if I returned I’d prefer to rent a boat or paddle a kayak to the caves.

Inside a sea cave at Benagil.
Explorers at the caves of Benagil.

Sagres and its famous fortress were next. We drove an hour to the fortress, which sits inside a natural area overlooking the ocean. It only took a few minutes to see the fortifications and unusual wind compass, before we spent a few hours exploring the grounds, which stretch across the cape. Aside from the foundations of earlier fortifications, there’s a chapel, an art installation that amplifies sound from a grotto, and lovely views of the coast. We watched serveral

Sagres holds an important place in Portuguese history. Henry the Navigator, who supported the opening of new trade routes, established a navigation school at Sagres during the 15th century. These days, it’s become a mecca for surfers. The shape of the cape creates multiple surf breaks, so beginners to pros can find the experience they want.

Sagres, where surfers congregate.

Our last day in Algarve began early in Faro, with an excellent breakfast and dodging drizzle as we walked around the waterfront and old city. Beth hoped to see the famous ossuary, a chapel made of the bones of monks, but we were denied by another seasonal closure.

Fortunately, the showers cleared before we started our boat tour of the Ria Formosa. The barrier islands near Faro are home to flamingos, egrets, cormorants, ospreys and numerous other birds. The area is also known for its fishery and salt production.

Maybe it was the threat of bad weather, but we lucked out and it was only Beth, me and our guide, Fernando, on the boat. That gave us plenty of time to ask questions, explore different areas while we looked for birds, stop on a beach next to an inlet between the Atlantic and the Ria Formosa, watch kite boarders, and learn about the fishing village that’s slowly disappearing from a barrier island. Though I’m not really a birder, I thoroughly enjoyed the tour and was excited to see one of the few ospreys that live in the area.

Ria Formosa, with Faro in the background.

Checking a Box: A Couple Hours in Spain

The day we visited Tavira we were only 45 minutes from the Spanish border. Sometimes you just have to check a box, and in this case that box was visiting a new country. We crossed the famous bridge over the Guadiana and went to Ayamonte, where we parked and walked along the Estero de la Rivera (a river with a large marina) for a couple of hours, checking out the Christmas market.

Pro Tip: You’ll see this in many European tourist cities–”entrepreneurs” (sometimes military veterans) will “claim” a free parking lot and direct cars to empty spaces, with the expectation that drivers will tip them for their help. This happened in Ayamonte (as it has in other cities), and I appreciate the assistance finding a spot in a crowded area. A Euro or two is customary, and it’s worth the time and aggravation it saves. You won’t have to find them; they’ll find you.

Eat, Drink, Stay

Lisbon

Magnolia Guesthouse: We spent our first night in Lisbon in this comfortable bed and breakfast in the center of the city that is also a short walk from our car rental office. There are only four rooms, each with a private bath, and cozy communal areas. The proprietor, Raquel, knows the city inside and out and has great suggestions for places to see. Highly recommended.

Dalma Old Town Suites: Our base for part two of our Lisbon stay. Located in Alfama, the old city, where the roads are narrow and wind up and down steep hills. We stayed in the Garage Room located just off the lobby; you might want to avoid this room if you’re averse to having a tiny bathroom with glass walls. Despite the lack of privacy, Beth and I enjoyed our stay and would return. At about $55 a night, it’s a fantastic bargain for a comfortable, well-located inn. And, the restaurant has an excellent breakfast for eight euros a person.

Memmo Alfama: A highly regarded boutique hotel on a side street in Alfama. We looked at staying there but decided it was too pricey compared to other options. However, they have a lovely rooftop bar where we sipped excellent cocktails while looking out over the Tagus River. Despite it being December, the temps weren’t bad and the blankets offered by the server kept us plenty warm. If you visit the terrace at night, watch out for the swimming pool–there’s nothing to prevent you from falling in.

Os Gazeteiros: My favorite meal in Lisbon. They have a fixed tasting menu that’s derived from the ingredients found at market each day. It’s a bargain at 35 Euros per person. We had three main courses followed by two desserts. These were dorado in broth with seaweed; purée of pumpkin with cockles and sesame seeds; polenta, mushrooms and artichoke cream sauce; poached pear with caramelized ginger; and chocolate mousse with matcha crumble. We paired this with a bottle of local orange wine. The staff clearly loves their work, and our interactions with the servers and chef made for a great evening. Highly recommended–be sure to make reservations.

Time Out Market: Think gourmet food court, though that’s selling it short. Many of Lisbon’s best chefs have opened outposts here, and it’s a compelling concept. Grab food that appeals to you and sit at communal tables in the middle of a vast but crowded warehouse. After a drink at the Time Out Bar, Beth got a burger from Ground Burger while I opted for sardines and roasted peppers on toast from Cozinha da Felicidade. Afterwards, we sampled pastel de nata from Manteigaria. Recommended, particularly if your party can’t agree on what to eat. You’ll be spoiled for choices here.

Tapisco: In Principe Real, this was the first place we ate after arriving in Lisbon. We settled into a tiny table and immediately got into a conversation with a local couple who filled us in on the Lisbon scene. Spanish and Portuguese tapas share the menu, along with several excellent wines and a vermouth bar.

Canto Da Vila Bistrô: A nice surprise in Alfama we found while investigating another restaurant. Beth had pasta and I ate bacalhau (cod) and potatoes in cream sauce. We were there for lunch and the place was inexplicably empty. We would have gone again if there weren’t so many other places we wanted to try. The lunch menu at about 13 Euros each is a bargain.

La Campania: Competent Italian food served by old school, taciturn servers. A local told us she got the cold shoulder there until she told them she lived in the neighborhood. There aren’t a lot of options near the Magnolia Guesthouse, and this was the best available. That’s not to say it’s a bad choice, but in a city of great restaurants it’s solid but not a standout.

Pastéis de Belém: There’s a lot of debate about where to find the best pastel de nata, or egg custard tarts, in Lisbon. After sampling several contenders, Beth and I agreed that Pastéis de Belém, where the recipe originated, was our favorite. Just out of the oven, their tarts have a flaky, crunchy shell and warm, not-too-sweet center. Expect crowds–the left door is for diners who want a table, and the right is for take-out.

Conserveira de Lisboa: An entire store devoted to canned fish. I brought home several tins of smoked trout, sardines and cod.

Algarve

Salt House, Olhão: Our home in Olhão, this beautiful place has a second-floor kitchen and living room, a third-floor bedroom, bathroom and balcony, and a terrace that overlooks the waterfront. There’s no parking on the street, but during the off season it’s easy to find a spot nearby on the main street, and there’s only a short walk to the house. Centrally located, with multiple great restaurants and bakeries within a three-to-five minute walk.

Tapas e Lendas, Olhão: Sometimes you just need to put your foot to the culinary throttle and not let off. We did that here, and asked the kitchen to keep bringing us fantastic tapas (olives, cheeses, marinated peppers, beef, an octopus tentacle that was out of a Jules Verne novel, etc.) along with a couple bottles of wine, dessert, espresso and port wine to finish. You would imagine this would cost a fortune, but it’s Portugal so the price tag was ridiculously low for the amount and quality of food we ordered. Eat here. You won’t regret it.

7imeiowinebar, Olhão: Octopus, black pudding and sweet potato seared in olive oil was the very best thing I ate while in Portugal. I would go back to this place again and again, just to eat that one dish. However, everything we had at this tapas bar was superb, and the service excellent. Highly recommended.

Terra i Mar, Olhão: Here’s a sign of how good the food is in Olhão–my meal (a whole fish) was wonderful, but it was also the least memorable of all the meals I ate. Beth’s steak and gargantuan shrimp were similar in quality. This isn’t to fault this place; it just has some stiff competition from many creative restaurants. The wine list is good, and we had a tasty bottle of vinho verdé (Portuguese green wine).

Saaz Craft Beer House, Olhão: Portugal is wine country, but sometimes you want a beer. This quiet spot, off the beaten path, has a good selection of reasonably-priced craft beers, including a lightly-hopped, tasty regional IPA.

Chelsea–Coffee & Brunch, Faro: You can get tired of eating pastel de nata and bollo de arroz for breakfast, so we opted for brunch in Faro at this roomy, friendly spot. I was happy to see shakshouka on the menu; with a cup of excellent coffee, it made for a great meal.

Portugal Photographs and Map

See a complete gallery of photos from Lisbon and Algarve. You can also view a map of places we visited.

Postscript: London

Our travels home included an overnight in London. Check back for details about that part of our journey.

Unfinished business

More than 30 years ago I was a pilot. I held a private pilot license and flew gliders, with most of my 125+ flights in the Schweizer 2-33, Schleicher Ka-8, Blanik L-13, and Grob G103. Because of type one diabetes, I wasn’t able to get a medical certificate needed for power flight, so my seat time in planes with engines was limited to flying with friends in a variety of 1940s-era taildraggers.

The FAA will now grant exemptions for private pilots with T1D* and this sparked my interest in going back to flight school. After research into medical waivers and local flight schools I booked a discovery flight with Elon Aviation at Burlington-Alamance Regional Airport (KBUY). My goal for the flight was to get reacquainted with flying and see if it’s something I want to pursue.

First, props to Elon Aviation for a great experience. I booked my flight in a Cessna 172 that was well-equipped and maintained, and that had seen some serious cross country flights. My instructor, Nick, quizzed me about what I wanted out of the flight, walked me through the preflight checklist, and then laid out the plan: I’d taxi, he’d take off, and once we reached 500 feet I’d take the controls.

Cessna 172, 738 Bravo Golf

Taxiing to runway 6 reminded me of how much I don’t know. Coordinating throttle, rudder and brakes turned out to be the most challenging part of the flight, though it was easier on the return trip to the hanger.

Waiting to turn onto runway 6

Nick quickly had us airborne and after we passed 500 feet I took the controls. One memory from 30+ years ago came back: The workload involved with flying a plane. At first I focused on getting the feel of the controls as we climbed and making coordinated turns. After we gained altitude I turned toward Greensboro, dodged clouds, practiced climbing and descending, turning to headings, and managing the throttle. And I kept reminding myself to keep my eyes outside the cockpit and watch for traffic.

Then time was up and Nick said, “You fly the pattern.” A lot of credit goes to Nick for talking me through my approach, but the experience of juggling throttle, carb heat, flaps, yoke and rudder while maintaining our glide slope (not perfect, but close enough) and staying on the runway centerline was a confidence booster. Nope, I didn’t get to fly the landing; I passed controls back to Nick short of the runway.

So what’s next? I have some unfinished business with flying, and the next step is a medical waiver. It’s not a simple process, so it might be a while before I know whether I can get back into the cockpit and continue training.

*There’s an alternative to the private pilot license for people with T1D–the light sport certificate, which requires a drivers license but not a medical exam. I’m not enthusiastic about the light sport rule, because it includes a long list of limitations about what, where and when you can fly, as well as a prohibition on passengers.

Perspectives

“Paris is a museum,” said the Paris-based filmmaker I’d been chatting with over beers.

Look beyond the monuments, museums, tourist traps, and other obvious must-sees and there’s vibrant everyday life. It may be a museum, but the people behind the scenes are fascinating to watch. It’s all about choosing your perspective.

Le Petit Parisien

The Perfect Travel Camera

Let’s get this out of the way: There is no one, perfect travel camera. There’s only the best camera that works for you. Or in this case, the one that works best for me. First, some history.

I’ve shot with SLRs and DSLRs for about 40 years. In 2010 I traveled to the UK with a bag of Nikon bodies and lenses. I was shooting for a client, but I also carried that gear as I walked around London on my own. The images were good; the experience was miserable.

Three years later I was packing for a trip to Paris and looked at my big bag of gear. I remembered lugging it around for two weeks. Instead, I packed my Ricoh GR and two spare batteries.

The Ricoh GR, if you’re not familiar with it, is a wonder camera. For some people. It has an APS-C sensor (the same size you’ll find in many DSLRs), and a range of features that allow users to focus on making great images. The lens is a fixed 18.3 mm f2.8 (28 mm equivalent) that encourages getting closer to subjects. It also fits in a pocket. And that’s all I carried for a week and a half in Paris. You can see a few of the results below.

Since then, I’ve flirted with other cameras. My Fuji X100T often travels with me (and is a much better camera in marginal light), but I keep gravitating back to the Ricoh GR that’s been in my collection for five years. Here’s why:

  • It’s small and lightweight. The advantages of this are obvious.
  • That lens. It’s better than a camera at this price point has any right to be–sharp, with little fall off or softening at the edges.
  • Snap focus. If you’re familiar with zone focusing, this is essentially the same thing. When walking around I leave the focus point set at 1.5 meters (and aperture at f5.6); when I’m ready to snap a street pic the camera is already focused. There’s no lag. If I need to change the focus point I can simply press the AFL button on the back and it autofocuses.
  • Superb JPEGs. The internal processor is excellent, and I don’t have to deal with large RAW files. The resolution is high enough to print high quality 11″x14″s.
  • Custom settings. I have three custom settings that are changed on the top dial: Street color, street black and white, and square format black and white. I can switch between them quickly and without a lot of thought.
  • It’s unobtrusive. People around me often don’t notice it, and don’t have the same reaction to it that they would have to a larger, more “serious” camera.
  • It’s relatively inexpensive. I carry mine on my bike, and in situations where it might get beaten up. But it’s not so expensive that I worry about it. That way I can stick to the first maxim of cameras: The best camera is the one you have with you.

The GR has always been a cult camera, so much so that Ricoh periodically sighs (as much as a corporation can) and admits that there are enough photographers in love with the GR that it deserves an upgrade. The latest version is similar to mine, other than the addition of WiFi connectivity. But, there’s a Ricoh GRIII due early 2019 that’s going to be smaller and have a higher resolution sensor. The perfect camera, for me, might become more perfect.

Somme 1916

During our recent trip to France our son, Eli, and I were discussing our shared interest in visiting WWI monuments. That led, in turn, to a day trip to the area north of Amiens, where the Battle of the Somme took place. I asked my friend Murray, who recently wrote about notable books about the Great War, for advice on things to see. These are my impressions, shared with him, and with you.

Murray,

I can’t get that Fussell quote you shared out of my mind:

“The idea of mass graves seems to pertain especially to the twentieth century. There are 2500 British war cemeteries in France and Belgium. The sophisticated observer of the rows of headstones will do well to suspect that very often the bodies below are buried in mass graves with the headstones disposed in rows to convey the illusion that each soldier has his individual space.”

The conflict along the Somme River in 1916 appears, to this lay historian, a savage lesson in what happens when tactics fail to keep pace with exponential growth of the killing power of armaments. Eli and I walked through the trenches at the Newfoundland Memorial in Beaumont-Hamel; at some distance we could make out the high point where German machine guns were sited. The Danger Tree–and there’s an understated name–sat in the middle of no man’s land, marking one of the deadliest places on the battlefield. 

July 1, 1916 at 8:45 a.m. the Newfoundland Regiment’s 22 officers and 758 soldiers climbed out of their rear position trenches and moved (ran, walked, marched?) toward the German machine guns that looked down on them. Within half an hour only 110 of them, none of them officers, were left alive. Only 68 made roll call the following day.

Preserved trenches at Beaumont-Hamel

The Newfoundland government and the families of those who died were deeply shaken. But the overall death toll of the Battle of the Somme, 1.2 million combatants by some accounts, challenges me to put those 670 lives in proper context.

Two years ago I stood on Omaha Beach, Pont du Hoc and the cemetery at Colleville sur Mer and felt their historical weight. There’s a belief that good and evil clashed on those Normandy beaches in 1941; the neat headstones at the American cemetery tell a powerful story of noble sacrifice that changed the arc of history for the better. I expected to see something in Somme that would trigger the same sentiments.

No, the Great War was the outcome of regional squabbles and awkward alliances, and those who fought for the Commonwealth–roused by Kitchener’s appeals–were young, inexperienced and motivated by love for King and country. Their officers were arrogant and dismissive of their foe. Yet despite soldiers’ cynicism about their leaders and fate they dutifully swarmed out of their trenches to be cut down, day after day.

Farmland near the Somme River

They mostly died in fields that had been farmland until shells began falling. I stood in some of those fields on a wet, cold December Tuesday and tried to imagine how a 16 year old, brought to that place by his patriotic fervor, would have felt as he crawled out of a muddy trench and began moving toward the German lines, knowing the odds of making it through weren’t on his side. Then I walked through several of those 2,500 cemeteries Fussell wrote of, with their perfectly straight ranks of headstones masking the necessity of mass graves for those million-plus souls who died, and felt the weight of their sacrifice for a cause that was at once unnecessary and hugely consequential to the future of Europe. 

French cemetery for UK combatants, near Amiens

Murray, a side note: Eli and I made a point of visiting the field where Manfred von Richthofen crash landed his triplane after being–pick your side of the argument–shot down by Roy Brown or hit by Australian anti aircraft fire. It’s adjacent to the brickworks in Saint Colette which stood at the time of his death. There’s a metaphor in this, somewhere–arguably the most legendary combatant from among the 70 million who fought, meeting his end in a wholly unremarkable field, in a vague, contested way, witnessed only by a few. 

Saint Colette brickworks

One more thought about the Somme: It may be a trick of memory, but we’ve talked at length about Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy and how the Great War blotted out most of a generation of great writers and poets. There isn’t a museum or monument to their memory, at least to my knowledge, but there should be.

Update (12/20/19): Here is a gallery of photographs from our day at Somme.

Food Matters: Paris 2018

Following a recent trip to Paris, I have some new-to-us recommendations to add to my previous list:

  • Inexpensive and great seems like an oxymoron when it comes to Paris, but Raviolis Nord Est is on point. This hole in the wall near Les Halles offers salads and Chinese dumplings. Beth and I ate a filling, satisfying lunch for about 20 Euros. I recommend the octopus salad and pork and shrimp dumplings, fried. (1st arrondissement)
  • There’s a lot of buzz around Pink Mamma in Pigalle. They don’t take reservations, so be prepared to wait. After two hours cooling our heels with wonderful cocktails in their speakeasy (go down the stairs, then through the meat locker and a door marked “no entry”), we were led past an American woman throwing a tantrum (“I simply must eat here before leaving Paris!”) to our date with some burrata and a kilogram tomahawk ribeye. The food: excellent. The service: Warm and casual. The vibe: Way more hip than us. It made for a fun night. I’d go back. (9th arrondissement)
  • Get in line at Breihz Café. Be patient. Then enjoy savory and sweet Breton crepes. Have a mug of cider from a long list of good options. You won’t be disappointed. (3rd arrondissement, though there are also outposts in Odeon, Japan and Brittany)
  • We have it on good authority that Le Village is one of the last of the true Montmartre bars. I can’t tell you about the food, though the menu looked enticing. Instead, we had a beer (me, a Chouffe) and a cocktail (Beth, a mojito, which is in fashion) and spent a couple hours talking with a French filmmaker we met there. It’s an unpretentious place filled with locals. (18th arrondissment)
  • We liked Pizza Caratello so much we went twice. Don’t be fooled by the name–they offer much more than pizza. The first visit we started with a large serving of Burrata, then I had ravioli with figs and foie gras. The second visit I went for pizza (and more burrata to start); a Napolitana with fat anchovies and capers. Reservations aren’t necessary, though you might have a brief wait. Be patient, the food and hospitality are worth it. (18th arrondissement)
  • Huiteries Regis has been on my list for years, and I finally was able to have lunch there. Unless you love oysters, skip ahead. There’s not much else on offer. I had the menu #2: Six each of two varieties of plump oysters that taste like the sea, a glass of Sancerre and a coffee. If you do love oysters, it’s completely worth trekking to Saint Germain and waiting outside for one of the few tables. (6th arrondissement)
  • Hardware Société gives Hollybelly a run for my favorite brunch spot in Paris. It’s the Parisian outpost of a popular Melbourne restaurant. Long lines are the norm, though we lucked into getting a table right away. The coffee is sublime, and the mushrooms and poached eggs are perfect brunch fare. (18th arrondissement)
  • Overlook the sketchy neighborhood around Gare du Nord, and make a reservation at Chez Michel. It offers old school French cuisine and a deep wine list. I had fish soup with chorizo, croutons and parmesian; duck with mushrooms; and Paris Brest for desert. It’s my new standard for traditional French bistros. (10th arrondissment)

Reservations are still the norm, but English speaking diners will be glad to know many restaurants now offer online reservations. 

Tips: Better travel photos

No names, but I once sat through a slideshow of someone’s travels that included 300 images. About 50 in, I realized they had dumped their memory card and included every, single shot including those that were out of focus or blurred. It made for a long evening. 

When we remember our travels, we focus more on that experience than how we represent it to others. So we can gloss over too many pictures that show little or have technical problems. What’s in our minds overrides what’s on a screen.

A gilet jaune protestor at Place de Republique, during the winter 2018 protests in Paris.

So how do you level up your travel photography game? Here’s how:

  1. Start with the audience’s point of view. Remember, they may not have been there. Your photos are telling a story about the place and your experience. Let that guide you when you’re shooting and selecting photos.
  2. When shooting, find an interesting point of view. This usually means getting closer to your subject than you think you should. If you’re shooting with a camera with zoom lens, don’t use the reach of your telephoto as a crutch. Get close, then get even closer. Shoot the entire scene that’s in front of you to provide context, then focus on details that help tell a richer story.
  3. Edit. Ruthlessly. For me, this is a multistep process. First, I weed out shots with technical problems. Second, I quickly pick the frames that are worth considering. Third, I take a harder look at the first frames I’ve selected, and weed those down into a smaller set. Finally, I do some minor editing (color correction, cropping, etc.) and then take a last look at the set. Anything that doesn’t seem necessary goes into the reject pile. By the time I’m finished, fewer than 5% of the shots I took remain to be shown or published online. Often, the number is far smaller.
  4. Organize your shots. I like to present photos by theme, so they make sense to people who see them. 

What about gear? I’ll touch on that later, but for now think about process. How you work matters more than the tools you use. 


Places: Bisbee, Arizona

In my mind, Bisbee, Arizona’s center of gravity is located somewhere between the wild west days and the shutdown of the Copper Queen Mine in the ’70s. Those challenging and violent times, particularly early in the 20th century, still have a hold on the town and on my imagination. Even though Old Bisbee has rebranded itself as an arts community and tourism more or less thrives, there is tension between the visible past–decommissioned mines, and buildings that exist, other than a coat of paint, like they did 100 years ago–and the present.

Bisbee is a compact town, but you don’t walk around it so much as climb around it. Homes, which often are converted mining dorms, sit mostly on hillsides and are accessible by hundreds of sets of stairs that have been constructed throughout town. Beth and I once entertained thoughts of buying a house in Bisbee. We fell in love with a 1918 bungalow sited on a small plateau that overlooked town. Getting there required a short drive up a street with twentyish percent grades, followed by a hike up 99 stairs. We imagined watching sunsets from our plateau. We thought about climbing stairs every day. The realtor warned us about scorpions. We didn’t buy.

Bisbee is seven miles from the border with Mexico, where Naco (AZ and Mexico) straddle the fence. One afternoon we crossed into Mexico with a group of school kids on their way home from class. US residents routinely cross the border for inexpensive dental care. While waiting to reenter the US we talked with a Bisbee local about where to buy the best mango-jalapeno ice pops in Naco (Mexico). The vibe is relaxed and belies the area’s well-deserved identity as a smuggling hub. It’s a pinpoint on a desolate border. I’ve driven the International Highway, a lane and a half dirt road that follows the border fence, for mile after mile without seeing anyone. Aerostats, carrying ground radar, float overhead. There are occasional watch posts on hill sides. Flashes of light suggest binoculars are turned our way.

A tangent: Naco has also been a hub of revolutionary activity. During a short lived rebellion in 1929, where citizens of Bisbee would gather to watch the action and occasionally dodge a bullet, American aviator Patrick Murphy became the first American national to bomb US soil. While conducting freelance bombing runs for Mexican rebels, he managed to hit both sides of the border, causing mayhem and casualties until American troops eventually dropped by the local airport and disabled his plane.

The remote location, the many narrow and winding streets, the stairs that invite–or are obstacles to–exploration: Bisbee feels like a place where you can deliberately get lost. Our many trips to Bisbee included aimless wandering and searching for sites that bridge the divide between past and present: Lowell’s main street, which is a 1960’s time capsule; the Art Deco architecture of the Cochise County Courthouse; Brewery Gulch and it’s colorful houses.

We typically visit in November. Tourists are few and the weather–cold in the evenings, chilly or warm in the day–suits us. There are a few events–the annual coaster races and Bisbee 1000 Stairclimb are the big ones–that can make a visit challenging.

Downtown Bisbee
Downtown Bisbee, Tombstone Canyon Road

 

jonquil motel
Mural on the Jonquil Motel

 

bisbee art
Art abounds in Bisbee

 

Big flys in Bisbee. It’s a yearly part of the arts scene

 

Step back in time in Lowell, AZ

 

Mexico/USA border fence

 

Naco, Sonora Mexico

Eat, Drink, Stay

Shady Dell, a grouping of vintage travel trailers turned motel, gets all the press, but the location isn’t ideal. We’re partial to the Jonquil Motel; downtown is only a short walk down Tombstone Canyon Road. If you’re feeling decadent, the Letson Loft is comfortable and convenient.

For breakfast, drive to the Bisbee Breakfast Club, about ten minutes from Old Bisbee. It’s an Arizona institution. Get the Blue Wally Cakes.

Chicago hot dogs in Arizona? Yes, really. Go to Jimmy’s and fight the crowds.

The High Desert Market and Café offers smoothies, sandwiches and espresso. Some nights they have a dinner special, which we’ll typically grab to go.

Screaming Banshee for pizza and beer. Because you can’t go wrong with pizza and beer. Or margaritas and tacos, in which case you want to go to Santiago’s.

Speaking of beer, we’ve spent some afternoons in the Old Bisbee Brewing Company, where we once watched a dog take his place on a stool at the bar. “Waiting for his owner,” we were told. Apparently this was a near-daily occurrence. By the way, the beer is good and if you want a treat try the Salut. I can also recommend the chili.

 

For a fascinating look at the 1917 labor strike that blew Bisbee apart, watch Bisbee ’17. It’s currently making the rounds at theaters.

Places: Death Valley Junction

The Amargosa Opera House stands at the corner of State Line Road and California Route 127, in a place now called Death Valley Junction. In the early 1920s it was Amargosa, a company town that supported borax mining interests. A U-shaped building contained a hotel, dining room, dormitories, company offices and a community center. The opera didn’t arrive in town until later.

When I talk to people about Death Valley Junction the word opera inevitably derails the conversation. Opera, in the middle of the desert? Far away from any population center?

In 1967 a flat tire left Marta (nee Martha) Becket and her husband waiting for repairs in Death Valley Junction. Marta explored the community center, then known as Corkhill Hall, and felt it calling her. That was the beginning of cultural institution that endures to this day. Becket rented the center for $45 a month, evicted the kangaroo rats that populated it, and rebuilt it into a performance space. Audiences were sparse to non-existent, so she began to paint murals on the walls that depicted a full house. Audiences and attention followed, as well as questions about the sensibility of building an opera house in the desert.

Am I eccentric?” she asked in an interview with The New York Times in 1999. “Is it eccentric to love your work so much that you would go anywhere in the world to do it?”

Today, the Opera House draws desert pilgrims and the curious from around the world. A new structure across the street showcases Becket’s wardrobe, the motel continues to operate and gets solid reviews, and the newly reopened café serves a very good BLT. Otherwise, Death Valley Junction is a ghost town, though the scenery has its own charm.

Death Valley Junction
A relic of the borax mining days

 

Death Valley Junction
The garage where Marta Becket and her husband traveled to fix a flat tire

 

Death Valley Junction
The Amargosa Motel

 

Amargosa Opera House
Amargosa Opera House

 

Death Valley Junction
A brief history of Death Valley Junction

 

BMW GS
A couple following their dream. Read more at nordsuedfahrt.de