Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Wednesday Wisdom - Hidden Gems Amongst the Crown Jewels


"Too much of a good thing can be wonderful!" Mae West 
When you're seeing first-hand the grandeur of the Coliseum, the artistry of the Sistine Chapel; the majesty of St. Peter's Basilica; the stunning magnificence of Michelangelo's David or Botticelli's The Birth of Venus; the opulence of Venice's Grand Canal; the unrivaled beauty of Siena's Duomo (yes, even better than Florence's Duomo, IMHO); or the grand mountaintop summer palaces of the Portuguese kings in Sintra, there is a danger of your senses becoming overloaded and jaded to everything else around you. 

After two weeks in Europe, Marcie and I weren't expecting to be impressed when our driver dropped us off at the São Bento Train Station in Porto, Portugal, early one morning to begin a rail and boat tour of the Douro River Valley. Yes, we'd heard that our time on the river would be breathtaking - which it was - but we never imagined we'd discover an unforgettable gem before we even got on the train.

The São Bento Train Station in Porto, Portugal

Porto is more a working-class city than a tourist attraction. While the São Bento train station is lovely from the outside, we were blown away by the interior, which is an unpretentious but absolutely gorgeous work of art. We later learned that it was completed in 1903 and is considered by many travelers as one of the world's most beautiful train stations.

The walls in the front hall are covered with more than 20,000 of Portugal's finest "azulejos," the exquisite hand-painted blue tiles for which the country is famous. Those on the ends of the building depict great events in Portugal's rich history and those on the sides show delightful scenes of everyday life in the Portuguese countryside. Above the tiles, forming a crown molding around the entire room, are brightly-colored tiles that illustrate the progression of transportation from Roman times to the 20th Century.

Fortunately we had the time to savor this hidden gem of a workaday public building before our train carried us away to view scenery as delightful as Tuscany's. Fortunately we weren't so star-struck by other "grander" sights that we failed to notice this unassuming masterpiece.      

These so-called "lesser lights" were as essential to our enjoyment of our vacation as the blockbusters. For every Venice and its Grand Canal, there was a colorful fishing village of Burano, with friendly people, brightly colored houses, and its own Pisa-like leaning bell tower.
The main square on the island of Burano in the Venetian Lagoon.

For every Florence and its Galeria Uffizi, there was a charming Tuscan village of Pienza with its humble church, grand views, and Via Dell' Amore ("Lover's Lane").


For every Palácio da Pena perched on a rugged and regal mountaintop in Sintra, Portugal, there was an Óbidos with its more-modest castle and its 12th century walls that completely encase the village and stand a full 45 feet tall.

The history books say that when 13th-century Portuguese Queen Isabel passed through Óbidos and marveled at its beauty, her husband King Denis I simply gave it to her. For centuries after, the kings of Portugal followed suit, presenting the picturesque little town to their queens as a wedding gift. It is now known as the wedding capital of Portugal. 


This trip reminded Marcie and me that the world is made of much more than Five Star Attractions and E-Ticket Rides. Sometimes the less acclaimed settings and experiences are just as wonderful as the prima donas, if we'll just slow down enough to spot them and savor them.
Life is much richer when it is a mixture of super-star moments together with more modest but equally important and equally beautiful day-to-day discoveries and celebrations. We're grateful our time in Italy and Portugal was chock-full of both.

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