Bye, Bye, Beja

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(We left Beja on Saturday morning)

We finally had to leave Beja. It had been eleven days and it was time… to leave the great toilets, the brilliant library, the very convenient supermarkets, the just-up-the-road McDonalds, the interesting churches and chapels, the restaurants, the cafes and the happy man in the museum.

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(There are lots of chapels and churches to visit)

One day last week I went off exploring the town and found a little church with a museum and something else – a happy man. I had been to a few of these churches with museums while we’ve been in Beja. There are always very friendly attendants who go to pains to explain in English that if I have any questions, please ask. Generally, I don’t have questions because everything is so different. I am too busy getting my head around what I see to have any.

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(This is the one with secrets…)

This attendant was different. He did tell me if I had any questions I should ask and then he said “but, before you start looking could I tell you some things about this church…” Of course! There followed a private tour with a man who loved his work. He told me the church was built in the 14th century. That it used to be a lot bigger. That the garish gold decorations were a later addition. He didn’t actually say garish but I know he meant it! Each of the churches I’d been in had this gold paint covering everything. Well everything except for the 1950’s style statues that you might see in any convent in Ireland.

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(… and fake marble)

Hearing that the gold was not the original made my eyes light up because I had noticed when I walked into each of these churches a deep sense of calm, but then I would see the gold paint and wonder how it was possible that such a flashy place could be so calm. The attendant saw that he had caught my attention and pointed to the wall near the door, saying it was marble, or at least that’s what I thought he said. I had noticed the wall, it looked like a painted green marble… was it possible it was really marble? I went over to touch it and he exclaimed, “Noooo, that’s just like the gold. Here, this.” He was pointing at the holy water font, a beautiful simple basin with simple carved lines. It was real, no gold, no green and it was cold, very cold like real marble. Because it was real marble. They had to rip away the fake marble to expose it. Then he said, “We also exposed a secret passage. Would you like to see it?” Yes. Yes, I would!

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(…and real marble, behind the fake marble)

He walked over to the altar, grasped two sides of the gold front, something clicked and then he lifted the front away. Inside there were bricks and what looked like a door gap that had been cemented closed. “Oh yes, I see” says I, but he says “Noooo, look over this way” and to the left of the cement door I can see a gap running behind the fake green marble. And I can see tiles, the pretty blue Portuguese tile that you see everywhere here. Again he say “Noooo, they are not tiles, they are frescos! From the 14th century!” O my Goodness, they looked like they were in perfect condition, they had been protected all this time by the horrible green fake marble.

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(Anyone educated by nuns will recognise the statue. Under it is the panel that opens to reveal the secret…)

In case you didn’t know, I used to be a tour guide at the Rock of Cashel… There are old, but very badly deteriorated frescos in St. Cormac’s Chapel, a 14th century building on that site. Frescos (from Wikipedia: Fresco is a technique of mural painting executed upon freshly laid, or wet lime plaster) are a big deal! Here in the small church in Beja there are 700 year old frescos in near perfect condition. (I was too stunned to take a picture!)

Sometimes a rough exterior hides a beautiful soul, Mairead.

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The Library

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(I’m at the Library)

So today, on the lookout for a Portuguese venue to rival McDonalds, I’ve come to the library. And I can report that the chairs are comfy, there is indeed wifi and I can sit here for as long as I like! There’s no coffee though… Perfect otherwise.

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(Books, books, everywhere)

So I’m in the Municipal Library of Beja surrounded by books that I cannot read! There might be an English language shelf but I’m between the Geography shelf (if Geografia means geography) and the History shelf (Historia?) I am tempted to look for the craft shelf but what if there were some great looking books? It might be too upsetting not to be able to read the descriptions or the instructions. Oh maybe it’ll be worth it, I’m off to look for the craft section….

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You will never guess what I found! No, not a craft section, still haven’t found that! I found a coffee shop! In the library! What a great place.The library is now officially the perfect Portuguese place to write. Or draw. Or drink coffee. Or read. Or search for craft books. Oh there’s a magazine area with even “comfier”seats and I can see a National Geographic and it’s in English.

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(There are lots of places to sit in Beja)

Some students just came into the coffee shop, two guys and a girl. I don’t actually know if they’re students…. but they do seem to be working on something together and the girl just took out what looks like a text-book. She has green hair. In the magazine area there’s an older man taking notes as he reads a newspaper, maybe he’s writing to the editor. He’s really concentrating, maybe he’s writing to someone else, an old girlfriend, an estranged daughter a friend he met in the army. It seems like he’s finding it a really hard letter to write. Oh hang on it’s a crossword…

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(Narrow streets, where pedestrians squeeze into doorways when they hear a car)

Now there’s a lady collecting a huge hard backed book from the librarian. By huge I mean it’s about three feet by two feet. I‘m trying to sneak a peek but she keeps catching me so I look away. She’s taking pictures of some of the pages with her phone… it might be very old newspapers. The colour of the pages is the same colour as newspaper left out in the sun. Or painted with coffee… as you do!

It’s all happening in the library, Mairead.

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Shuush! We’ve found a McDonalds! 2 of 2

So to continue from yesterday’s post… So if I realise the doing of a craft makes the difference how come here in Portugal I’m not doing any crafting?

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(The street names are tiles)

Most people I know who love to create sometimes stop creating. For no good reason and lots of good reasons: They’re too busy. They’re too tired. They don’t know what they want to create. They don’t realise they have stopped. Whatever the reason the longer they stop the harder it seems to get started again. But starting again has it’s own momentum. Once you’ve started again some kind of creative magic energy kicks in and it’s like you never stopped.

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(Ceiling of corridor at convent)

A bit like when I meet my friend, Helena. I have known Helena a long time, we went to the same school and were best friends from the age of twelve. She lived in the country and had to take the bus home so we would say goodbye after school and not be able to see or talk to each other until nine the next day. There were no mobile phones, the one phone in the house was in the hall so everyone could hear what we were saying… so we invented an early version of Facebook and used to write letters to each other each day. (Ok so it was nothing like Facebook, maybe it was like iMessage or.. never mind I’m just trying to say it was hard back then!)

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(Clock on…)

I think that’s why I love to write, writing was a way to communicate my best and worst times without judgement, with encouragement. In school writing essays was very difficult for me, so much so my mother used to write them for me! I always had trouble with spelling and stopping to consider the correct way to spell something would mess with my flow and make the whole thing so frustrating. but in those letters I would write my best guess at a spelling and write (spelling!) after my attempt and Helena always seemed to recognise the words. Each morning we’d pass each other our letters and head into our first class reading.

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(…Clock tower)

Anyway, time passed, I got married she was one of my bridesmaids and then she went to Australia. She met a lovely man, Henry and had four children. We wrote infrequently. It’s a long way to Australia, I’ve never been but Helena comes home regularly. There’s a lot of people in her Irish family so we don’t always get a chance to meet but we met last year.

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(Tiles on the outside of a house)

On a cold and wet July Monday in the Horse and Jockey Hotel we hugged and squealed our “oh my God you look so good”s. Henry found something to do and we set to chat. And it was like we had never been apart, so comfortable and warm. So easy and familiar. How did we ever stop the writing? When Henry arrived back after an hour Helena sent him off again, after the second hour he just sat down nearby and read a newspaper.

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(And more tiles)

I know why I stopped writing to Helena. I had started to think it had to be a big production. A long and perfectly structured letter with news about everything and details about the things that had happened. A letter that would take hours to write and never be quite perfect enough…. Doesn’t that sound like what starting a new project feels like? It does to me. Now I email Helena whenever I see something that reminds me of her or when I’m doing something I think she will enjoy. The emails are short, they usually take about two minutes but if I find myself rambling on I don’’t worry because I know Helena won’t mind my imperfect email. She never stopped being encouraging and non-judgemental.

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(My small imperfect start…)

So if there’s something you’ve loved doing (creative or not) and you’ve stopped, can we encourage each other to make a little start? It doesn’t have to be a big project. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to take a long time. It could be as quick as it takes to write a two-line email and if we start to ramble that’ll be fine too. There’s no judgement, only encouragement.

Just like Helena, Mairead.

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Shuush! We’ve found a McDonalds! 1 of 2

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(Beja is on a hill)

Don’t tell anyone but… we’ve come to McDonald’s this morning! Yes I know, how could we? Well… there’s a certain thing that McDonalds do and Starbucks do too that we haven’t found elsewhere here. I promise we will start looking for a Portuguese version soon though, because I am embarrassed to be resorting to something familiar and comforting.

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(Stone stairs in the Convent of Nossa Senhora de Conceição)

The things that McDonald’s and Starbucks do? Well there’s the free wifi (actually I don’t know if Starbucks do.) Then there’s the comfy seats – we’re getting fussy about seating as we get older… Then there’s the stay-as-long-as-you-like attitude. If you haven’t darkened the door of a McDonalds for a while you might not be familiar with their less plastic look. It’s more brown and cream now (well it is here) with a modern pretend-wood-kitchen feel. Perfectly fine for an hour or two, plus the staff seem fine with us staying an hour or two with just a couple of coffees (@€1 each!)

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(An old street in Beja)

From time to time we both like a change from Ruby when we’re working. I would prefer a shaded spot outdoors with a nice view but it’s a bit too cold to sit outside for long so this is a good second choice. It’s shaded, the sun is shining outside and I can see some green bushes in the play area and of course a big sky full of blue – nice. I’m working on my next ebook! This one will be about Creative Calm and how I think using creativity can nourish our lives. Funny thing is that although I brought lots of creative things with me (embroidery, crochet, paints, pens, glue and scissors) I didn’t even unpack them until I started listening to what I was writing!

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(Decorative doorway in the chapel at the convent)

As always, everything I write is for me but sometimes I don’t pay attention to what I write, that’s why I started writing to you. Somehow sharing it makes me pay more attention. I think that’s probably why I started the Monday morning Creative Calm sessions. Sharing the making part made me pay attention and realise that thinking about being creative is not enough, the doing of it makes the difference.

So if I realise the doing of it makes the difference how come here in Portugal I’m not doing it?

To be continued… Mairead.

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Beja: The Promised Land


(We got a map, Lar!)

We’ve been in a bit of a wilderness. Still on our journey south, in search of warm air and bright skies. From time to time we find them. Then we can’t find a place to stay… We found both in Beja, a very old town in the Alentejo region of Portugal. That (very big) region stretches between the Atlantic sea and Spain and from above the north-east of Lisbon to the Algarve.

Portugal Mine Village

(Oranges growing by the path in the mine village!)

Being in the wilderness has had some surprising bonuses, but first some surprising downsides… We found a great camper van parking area in Grandola (it’s west of Beja, if you’re plotting our journey, Sally – btw in primary school we used to plot the routes of huge cargo ships travelling the world) within walking distance of a big supermarket (where they sold Kerrygold cheese… we didn’t even know there was such a thing) on one side and a small town on the other. All was well until six am when the truck drivers arrived to start their day. Trucks make a very loud noise when they start up. They were all gone by the time we were having breakfast.

Beja Street

(Street in Beja)

The following night we thought we had the perfect spot, a camper van car park near an old mine museum, closed when we arrived but would be open in the morning. To add to its attractiveness there were two other campers parked when we arrived. It was in the middle of nowhere surrounded by farmland, roads too potholed for big trucks, perfect. Well… it had just got dark when Jimmy (name changed) arrived, I thought he was from one of the other campers but it turned out he was a down on his luck Dutchman needing the train fare to Lisbon… He didn’t like Anchovies but he had some ham and cheese instead.

Beja House Tiles

(Lots of houses have tiles on the outside)

Then we arrived in Beja. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, the reviews of the site were not glowing. But I needn’t have worried. There are toilets with toilet paper and soap and paper towels. There’s electricity. There are no trucks. There is no sign of Jimmy. The main bonus of travelling through the wilderness is that on the other side you are so happy when the basics are covered. The wilderness has lowered our expectations. I was wondering why that was a good thing and I think it’s because our expectations force us to fulfil them. If we don’t fill them then we are dissatisfied….

Even if we already have enough of everything, Mairead.

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Portugal: Day 1 Part 3

IMG_1024(Love this! And it’s exactly the right size for the roads)

So…We found a campsite in a forest full of birdsong, the wi-fi wasn’t great, we set off in search of mobile wi-fi, drive on little roads. me I’m nervous, the perfect Phone Shop is closed…Denis has another idea… we drive up and down the steepest roads in the world (might be slight exaggeration.) Eventually we find a place to park and another shop but still no wi-fi sim thingy and as we stand in front of a McDonalds sign Denis has another idea…


(Scary bridge… into Lisboa)

Let me pause here to tell you something I understood at that precise moment… Before we left Greystones one of my friends asked how could I spend so much time with my husband in a small camper van without wanting to kill him. I didn’t have an answer, because sometimes he is very annoying and I am often very annoyed with him and I think of ways I could hurt him (just kidding… kinda). I mean if it were up to me we would never have left the bird filled glade. I would be smelling lovely after my shower and I might even have a book in my hand. But funny thing, he doesn’t stay very annoying for long and on some occasions, like that moment as we were looking at the “lying McDonalds-one-minute-away sign and thinking about the long list of things that went wrong today, he’s not fazed he’s still coming up with new ideas and I think… I’d like to be like that, maybe he’s not so bad…


(Sure it is, right here… Seen in Lisboa)

His idea didn’t work but weirdly it didn’t matter anymore. His idea? The lovely assistant at the last shop had said there was another shop, at the train station, they would definitely have the wi-fi sim thingy. We thanked her but having experience of the cobbled stoned streets we knew we were never going there. Until Denis has his latest idea… Denis thought the hospital would definitely have a taxi rank. We could easily make the sign of a train to the driver and there would be a taxi rank at the station to return to the hospital (whose name was amazingly easy to remember and pronounce – Padre Americano!)


(We’re finally here!)

With the help of two (very friendly, very helpful) taxi drivers we explained where we wanted to go (yes I said Choo, Choo and made train wheel movements with my hands!) But when we arrived at the train station we couldn’t see any shops. Immediately (seriously, within seconds of arriving!) a man waiting for his train called to us in perfect English “Are you lost?


(Lisboa during the day)

Let me pause again to say… you might be a little suspicious of a stranger at the train station offering help (no? just me then…) but remember, all day long we experienced very friendly, very helpful strangers in this strange land. So I choose trust instead of fear and said, yes we are lost. He directed us to the Phone Shop. Of course he did.

IMG_6632(Lisboa at night)

Inside a very friendly, very helpful assistant (I am not kidding, she went out of her way to help us, to apologise for her English and to tell us about another shop) gave us the bad news… although she did indeed have the particular sim, in fact three of them, they were all out of date and she couldn’t reactivate them. We thanked her (in Portuguese, our pronunciation getting better with all the practice we get to thank people here!) and left to get our taxi to the Padre Americano hospital.


(Table for two at a balcony in Belém, Lisboa)

Ok that was it, Denis was all out of ideas, we’d failed again but we were surprisingly upbeat…. there really was nothing more we could do, we’d done our best and now it was time to stop. Back at the car park in warm and cosy Ruby we broke open a bottle of Spanish wine and had tinned salmon sandwiches (one slice of bread each, almost carbohydrate-free)  for dinner. We could start again in the morning but for now it was time to sleep.


(Can you see that red bridge in the background? That’s how we left Lisboa… do these people have no fear?)

The next day was different. Travelling by big wide motorway we arrived in Lisbon (called Lisboa) after lunch. Our campsite is situated right beside a motorway exit in a big park. There are lots of birds here too. We went into Lisboa on the bus and queued in the mobile phone shop for an hour. They had the mobile wi-fi sim thingy.

We have the internet! But I’m just listening to the birds, Mairead.

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Portugal: Day 1 Part 2

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(Light at the end of the tunnel?)

Ok so to continue from yesterday….. We find a campsite in a forest full of birdsong but the wi-fi isn’t great, we pay for the night and set off in search of mobile wi-fi. We drive on little roads. I’m a little (=a lot) nervous. We find the perfect Phone Shop…..the shop is closed…

There’s a very helpful hours-of-business sign that says it’s closed on Thursdays. Yep, today is Thursday… I feel the rocking start again. But that’s when we discover something beautiful… the Portuguese people are very friendly and very helpful. The lady in the shop next door stops what she’s doing to tell us something… which we can’t understand. But eventually we do understand – there’s another shop in the town. We decide to regroup and have a coffee before walking to the town to look for the other shop. The lady in the coffee shop teaches us the Portuguese for two medium white coffees – in case you ever need to know, it sounds like Duos Maya Let, again very friendly and very helpful. We set off with renewed hope….

IMG_6537(As I said in an earlier post… there are no photos from this time – above from the beautiful northern coast of Spain)

Until… we accidentally turn right instead of left leaving the supermarket car park. Fifty minutes later, after even narrower roads. my humming now joined by little squeals, we arrive back at the supermarket. This was a very low point for me and the exact moment when we decide to find a way back to the nice wide motorway and forget entirely about returning to the beautiful bird filled glade….


(Nice motorway)

The atmosphere lifts a little and it seems this day will be fine….. and on route to the motorway there’s another town, it seems bigger, there’s an entry for it in our camper van parking book… Denis has an idea! We’ll try again – we will go to the camper van car park and walk or take a bus to the nearest Phone Shop. Excellent idea….. Not really.


(Fond memories of the nice barman and the free food in Borio)

One hour later, after roads much steeper, much narrower, with slippy cobblestones we give up the search for the camper van car park and go back to the motorway plan. You will find it hard to believe (well, I did) but we try again at the next bigger town! And can you believe it, the exact same cobble stoned streets (much steeper than Patrick’s Hill in Cork city) await us there?


By now it’s getting dark, I am meditating (or is it a catatonic trance?) but Denis loves a challenge so he persists and finally finds a camper van car park. We park up, close the windows and go for a walk. I have an idea that walking will get rid of my newly acquired nervous tic. Soon we spot a sign for McDonalds and we are again filled with possibility. All McDonalds have wi-fi… we’ll be able to get online and work something out. The sign says it’s just one minute away, great. So we walk in the direction of the arrow….


(Ashleigh’s adorable dog, Max – animals help you stay calm, don’t they?)

We never do find McDonalds, we pass a big hospital and ten minutes later another sign saying McDonalds is still one minute away…. Then we spot what might be another supermarket. (We don’t know if it is or not because we don’t know what the supermarkets are called in Portugal and we don’t have internet to google – maybe computers are bad for us?) But it is a supermarket and YES there is a Phone Shop! I am overjoyed because I had begun humming again. The shop is open and the assistant is very friendly, very helpful. But… she does not have the mobile wi-fi sim thingy…

We leave smiling at the nice lady but feeling a little crestfallen. The McDonalds sign is lit up now but we would not be fooled by it’s promise of wi-fi only one minute away and we walked back past the hospital. There was food, light and heat awaiting us in Ruby. We’d be just fine.

Then Denis had another idea.

To be continued… again, Mairead.

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