Thursday, September 27, 2007

Oh. My. God.

It has been a tough World Cup for the U.S. team. Right now it's halftime in their semi-final match against Brazil. To say things are going badly is the understatement of the year. They are down 2-0 and their veteran midfielder just got sent off with her second yellow after she was fouled by a Brazilian player. It's always rough to play the Brazilian women in that regard because they tend to take dives at a higher rate than the typical soccer team. That means the other team gets unnecessary fouls called against them.

This is just crushing. And I have to go on record and say that switching goalkeepers in the middle of the World Cup is extremely risky. I just don't have a clue how Coach Ryan justified that in his mind.

Off to work. I'm almost glad to stop watching this game.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Bye, bye Panda

Those of you who are local may have met our Panda. No, we don't have an endangered species for a pet. We have a 1997 Nissan Altima. It was originally (and still mostly is) white. My grandfather Frank (my mom's dad) bought the car ten years ago. When my grandfather passed away in 2003, the car went to my sister Resa. Not long before Rob and I moved to Chicago, Resa bought a BMW. Needless to say, she didn't need the Nissan any more, so it became ours as of May 2006.

Some time in between Resa inheriting the car and her passing it along to us, the two front side panels were replaced by unpainted, black panels. I believe this involved some kindof crazy New Year's Eve story that ended with a banged up Nissan, but I'm not entirely sure. The result was a Nissan that looked quite a bit like a certain Asian bear. It quickly became known as the Panda.

We have loved the Panda very much... mostly. When we got it, the taillights didn't work. The dashboard still only lights up when it feels like it. Then last December it broke down a couple miles from home after Rob kindly picked me up from a late night in chambers. So we got a little annoyed with the Panda. Starting this past summer, the Panda got very noisy. You could hear it coming from quite a distance (although its volume still paled in comparison to my 1986 Toyota Corolla of yesteryear). On a run to Target a couple weeks ago, we realized that we couldn't run the AC any more lest we risk shaking the Panda to death. We stopped driving it more than five miles from our house for fear that some or all of the rattling parts might fall out and leave us stranded too far from home.

This weekend, Resa and Nick were headed out of town for a wedding. They picked us up Saturday morning so we could leave them at the airport. So we took the Saturday with a free car to head out to the suburbs and test drive cars. Always fun to go car shopping in a BMW.

We didn't go unprepared. Rob has been researching economical car choices for the past three years. At the top of the list was the Honda Fit, followed by the Honda Civic and the Toyota Prius. We tried them all and loved the Fit. It turns out that most Fits in Chicago are pre-ordered and they aren't often in stock. When we returned to the Honda dealership from the Toyota shop down the street, they'd already sold the Fit we'd test driven and had just one left. Fortunately it was exactly the one we wanted -- the sport model in black. So we bought it.

A pretty huge moment, I must say. I have never in my life owned a new car. In high school I drove a 1984 brown two-toned Toyota Camry (shared with Libby, naturally). At the end of my time in NYC, the previously mentioned 1986 Toyota Corolla hatchback fell into my possession for literally just a few dollars. It was severally lacking in the muffler department and couldn't reach above 55mpr. It ended up costing me $250 to get rid of it two years later. So even though the Honda Fit is one of the least expensive new cars you can buy, it is an enormous splurge given my car ownership history.

We are very happy with the new car, which we've named Zippy. We hope our neighbors appreciate it too. Our condo association has a shared garage for the six units. The Panda parked in there always looked like a bad game of "which one of these is not like the others."

Now the Panda is parked in Resa's garage as we prepare to donate it to charity. It served us well, but its time had come.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Checking back in...

I'm almost done with my first week at my new job, so life's been a little busy this week. I was up until 2am on Sunday night/Monday morning taking care of a few last things before I started work, and this week has been nonstop running.

For likely obvious reasons, I can't (and wouldn't anyway) talk much about my new job. But I can say that is very nice to be a practicing attorney. It's nice to put a different set of legal skills to work. It's nice to not just be writing opinions and bench memos by myself all day. The attorneys and staff at my law firm are all incredibly friendly and great to be around. So it's been a good - but hectic - week.

Life in all other aspects is good as well. Last night Resa, Nick, and my dad (who was in town visiting) came over and we had a belated birthday dinner for my dad. His birthday was on Monday. Rob made goulash, which was delicious. Resa brought pastries, also delicious. And a good time was had by all. This weekend we're loaded up with socializing plans, which is kindof unusual for us lately, so we're looking forward to it.

In other news, our trip to California was excellent. There is something about spending time with old friends -- even when it's hectic time, it's still relaxing because you're just so comfortable. That's definitely how I feel about hanging out with Roxanna and Dave.

Rob pointed out that in my quick posts about Roxanna's wedding I neglected to say a word about her new husband, Pavlos. Roxanna and Pavlos have been together since 2000 (maybe earlier?) when they met in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where they were both working for the NBC affiliate there. So I've known Pavlos for a very long time (I met him when he and Roxanna still had undisclosed crushes on each other) and can honestly say he's one of the few men in the world who could be worthy of Roxanna. :) (I said as much in my toast at their wedding -- maybe I'll post part of that this weekend.) I was really thrilled that Rob and I were in attendance when they made it official!

I will definitely try to post some more pictures soon and get back in the swing of blogging regularly. Rob's also promised to blog about his wine touring in Napa, since he and Dave got to play tourists while I helped Roxanna before the wedding.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

More pics

Rob and me at the end of the night.

The happy couple just after tying the knot.

Roxanna's a married woman...

We're back from my best friend's wedding and it was fantastic! Everything went wonderfully and Rob was understanding about me abandoning him all day Friday and Saturday to help Roxanna do pre-wedding stuff. I'll blog more soon, but here are some pics in the mean time.

This is my favorite pre-wedding picture of Roxanna -- sitting barefoot in her wedding dress sipping champagne, totally chill. :)

During the ceremony, I did a reading from The Prophet. (The cute dress is thanks to Libby who loaned it to me after I saw how cute it looked on her at the wedding she went to in Chicago last weekend!)

One more drink together before Roxanna walks down the aisle.

Friday, September 14, 2007

I'm sleepy...

This morning I woke up at 1:50am PST (3:50am my time), but some time in the afternoon China time. The U.S. Women's National Team was facing off against 3rd-ranked Sweden in a must-win game for both teams. Once again, I was a nervous wreck. I watched the game on mute in the dark because Rob as asleep (mostly) next to me in our hotel room. At one point he woke up and asked if I could make the tv darker (maybe he wasn't fully awake), so I offered him a towel to put over his head. He accepted.

The game started out terribly. I believe the U.S. gave up 5 corner kicks in the first five minutes. I've never seen that happen in a soccer game before. The defense was unorganized. The midfield couldn't hold onto the ball. Finally the field opened up a bit, although throughout the first half the U.S. midfield looked a bit too bunched together. They weren't creating passing opportunities for each other, which led to a few more turnovers than necessary.

Then in the 21st minute, defender Cat Whitehill let a free kick rip from midfield. Literally. From midfield. Sweden's goalkeeper had to punch the ball out of bounds to prevent a goal. I started to get a little optimistic. If the U.S. could almost score from midfield, surely they could win. Meanwhile the Swedes' goalkeeper was having a terrible time handling the ball. She was stopped shots, but the ball would regularly bounce out of her hands. That's no way to win a game against an evenly matched team.

Less than 15 minutes later, the Swedes' goalkeeper mishandled the ball again, racing off her line only to let the ball go bouncing past her. I believe it was midfielder Lori Chalupny (going off 2:30am memories here) who was alone in the box with a Swede defender. The defender necessarily pulled Chalupny to the ground to prevent an easy goal. The U.S. had a PK. Abby Wambach took the shot and brilliantly psyched out the goalkeeper -- lining her hips up as if she was shooting right but then nailing a shot to the low left. The goalkeeper was long gone in the other direction.

As the second half started with the U.S. up a goal, I figured out why the U.S. midfield had been so unstructured in the first half. Shannon Boxx didn't start. When the U.S. plays 4-3-3 (their typical formation of late), Boxx is usually the back midfielder of the three, keeping the other two spread in front of her and organized as a unit. I can't even remember the last major game in which she didn't start. Boxx's presence to start the second half made an enormous difference. The U.S. was winning nearly all the 50-50 balls. They were regularly stealing balls in the midfield from Sweden. They had good passing series to allow multiple shots on goal. The team just looked better in every aspect, especially confidence. Starting the second half up a goal probably helped a lot too.

About ten minutes into the second half, Wambach found herself alone with two defenders not far from Sweden's goal. She collected a pass with her chest, knocking it to her feet and sending off a shot all in one move. The ball raced past the goalkeeper and into the net. Wambach now has three of the U.S.'s four goals in the World Cup to date. It was one of the best Women's World Cup goals I've ever seen.

Finally the adrenaline started to fade in my body as the U.S.'s lead looked secure and my eyelids started drooping. Coach Ryan subbed in Heather O'Reilly for Lindsey Tarpley at the forward position, which is exactly the type of move you want to see. O'Reilly is a great and aggressive goal scorer, and she's often a starter, so her entry into the game for the playmaker Tarpley meant that Ryan was looking to add fresh legs and a third goal. While the game ended 2-0, the U.S. dominated possession for the remaining minutes. Spcial kudos go to Hope Solo, the U.S. goalkeeper, who had a rough game against North Korea, but bounced back to be flawless today.

I found myself feeling bad for Sweden when the final whistle blew. They've never had two consecutive World Cup games without a win. They were the last World Cup's runners-up. Now they can't advance unless the U.S. loses big to Nigeria. Not likely. But then again, you never know. The U.S. just needs a tie against Nigeria though to make it to the quarterfinals. So I am feeling a ton of relief right now.

In other news, I got up at 8am (after going back to bed a little before 4am) to get ready and meet Roxanna and her sister Carol at a spa in Napa. Then we met up with two of Roxanna's best friends from college and surprised Roxanna with a little bridal shower-esque lunch at a local restaurant, Celadon. Roxanna was totally surprised and we had a really wonderful meal. (Last night we ate at Angele which was also fantastic.) Now it's off to the wedding rehearsal and then rehearsal dinner in about 30 minutes. I'm glad we won't be out too late because it's another early to rise day tomorrow to get our hair and make-up done!!

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Happy Birthday Rob!

Today is Rob's birthday. The big 3-2! We arrived in the Bay area earlier today and we're staying right in the middle of downtown Napa until Sunday. Tonight, Rob, my awesome friend Dave, and I are having dinner in Napa to celebrate Rob getting old. We're all in town for my friend Roxanna's wedding on Saturday. Dave, Roxanna and I have been hanging out together for about 15 years, so this weekend should be a ton of fun.

For Rob's birthday I got him tickets to see the NY Giants in Giants Stadium and an Indian food cooking class. And by "got" I mean "wrote Rob an IOU for" because I was supposed to get my clerkship bonus from my law firm before Rob's birthday so I could buy his presents, but the payment couldn't be processed until this coming Monday for whatever reason. Fortunately Rob's an understanding guy and accepts his present in IOU form. Yes, I literally wrote him an IOU. :)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

China is in a really tough time zone

For me, at least. The Women's World Cup kicked off this week and today was the U.S. team's first game. The game was shown live on ESPN2... at 3:55am CST this morning. I hadn't really done the math on the time difference so it was only last night while watching Monday night football, when I saw a commercial for the first game "live at 4:55am EST," that I realized the extra hours I'd need to be awake. I should have remembered the game times from the 2002 Men's World Cup that was in Asia. I remember several middle of the night/wee hours of the morning treks to The Diner in Adam's Morgan or Lucky Bar in Dupont usually with Carly and/or Brendan to watch group play. (This was just a couple weeks before I met Rob. :)

If you're not a soccer person, then you may not know that the World Cup begins with "group play." Each of the 16 teams are put in a group of four teams. The four teams in each group play each other in the opening round, then the two teams from each group with the best record move to the next round. From there it's elimination play. Generally, there's a little bit of structure to the group assignments so that the top four teams in the world are spread out over different groups. The twist is that the home team gets to count as a top four team to have a better chance of advancing. The home team is China, and they're not a top four team.

Conveniently for the rest of the world (a little two conveniently if you ask U.S. Soccer folks off the record), the U.S. drew into a group with Sweden, North Korea and Nigeria. (Interestingly, these are the same four teams from the U.S.'s group in the 2003 World Cup.) Sweden is currently ranked 3rd in the world (they were four, though, at the time of the drawing). North Korea is ranked 5th in the world. Nigeria is the best African team, but ranked about 24th. So you can see the issue with the U.S.'s group -- one of the top five teams in the world won't be in the next round of eight teams. The groups just shouldn't work out that way.

This morning, the U.S. faced North Korea. In 2003, after a fast start by the Koreans, the U.S. handily won the match with most of their stars on the bench. After opening group play with a win against Sweden and then a win against Nigeria, the Americans' spot in the next round was secure. I remember seeing two North Korea games live in the last World Cup -- versus Sweden and versus Nigeria. My memory is a little fuzzy, but I remember that at the press conference following the victory over Nigeria (North Korea's first game), the coach and the star players took questions from the media, brimming with confidence. (I was covering the games.) After the loss to Sweden, the team sent out a trainer to answer the media's questions -- although the trainer at first seemed to be pretending to be the head coach. It was very strange, and it was clear that losing was not to be tolerated by the team's organization... or possibly not even acknowledged as legitimate results. The officiating was decried by the team's trainer, and that was pretty much the end of the press conference.

All this is to say that when I saw the U.S.'s group draw, I was worried. Sweden would undoubtedly be tough. And North Korea... North Korea probably went home after their 2003 elimination at the end of group play and trained every single second of every single day for the four years since then. Guess who won last year's Under-20 Women's World Cup? North Korea. Guess who came in fourth? The U.S. The Americans in this World Cup have several veterans who are well past playing on the U-20 squad. Meanwhile, the average age of the North Koreans is about 22. So the comparison isn't fair. But it also means that means the vast majority of the North Korean team won a championship last year and are used to coming out on top of the Americans. Plus, any lessons learned from the 2003 game are useless against this new, younger North Korean team.

This morning, I set my alarm for 3:50am, stumbled downstairs when it went off, and curled up under a blanket for the game. The first half was intense. It was raining hard and the North Koreans were incredibly fast, taking a shot in the first minute. Their midfield organization was much better than the Americans'. The U.S. defense seemed a little prone to miscues. The U.S. forwards weren't seeing the ball much. I was so stressed that at the beginning of the second half, I changed the channel for a few minutes. Lame, I know. I know. But there's a real chance the U.S. could be knocked out in group play in this tournament. The world playing field is as level as it's ever been. A new women's professional soccer league is looking to launch next year, but I can't imagine that business plan would stay on track if the U.S. failed to place in this Cup. The game this morning, then, was about a lot more than just one tournament. I would be more crushed by the U.S.'s early exit from this tournament than I would have been if the Colts failed to come back last year in the AFC Championship against the Pats. Seriously. And I was a wreck and a half for that Colts game. See, no matter the outcome the Colts were guaranteed to come back the next year as part of the NFL, which has no chance of going away. Imagine if the NFL would fold if the right team didn't do well in the playoffs. A bit more at stake if you're both a football lover and a fan of that team, right?

I flipped back to the game to see the U.S. up a goal. Amen! But my joy was short lived. During a U.S. corner kick, star forward Abby Wambach (who had scored the lone goal) smashed heads with a North Korean and wound up on the ground with a bloody head. She left the game for several minutes to get stitches. The U.S. tried to play defense, but a goalkeeper mistake and then horrific defense led to two (yes two!) North Korean goals while Abby was out. I flipped the channel again to catch my breath, fearing I'd cry if another goal was scored by North Korea. Good thing I'm not covering this game! I came back and Heather O'Reilly had evened the match. Oh thank you thank you thank you. Of course at this point I was convinced that my watching the game was causing the U.S. to play worse, but I kept watching, busting out some frozen custard to help me through it. I felt both relief and sadness when the game ended in a tie. Not devastating, but not what the U.S. needed. I crawled back into bed.

I woke up to drive Rob to work a little before 9am. I turned on ESPN to check the score of the Sweden-Nigeria game that was finishing up. Miracle of miracles... it was a tie too. And it ended that way. That means everyone is even in the U.S. group. The U.S. are back to square one, along with everyone. If any team wins out their remaining two games, they'll advance. I'm sure the U.S. players are dancing with relief with the Sweden-Nigeria result. Hopefully that will be just the boost they need to knock out Sweden on Friday morning, which will begin at 1:55am Napa time. So Rob will have to try to sleep through my cheers in our hotel room that night. We're off to Napa on Thursday for Roxanna's wedding. Yea!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Weekend warriors

The past two weekends I have discovered a whole new way of living -- weekends without homework. In my final weeks as a clerk, my hours were much more regular (as I'd promised Rob they would be), so I didn't have to throw any work in my bag to take home at night or on the weekends. Obviously (or maybe not considering no one who knows me would be surprised to learn the contrary) I didn't bring any work home after my last day of work on Friday.

So on Labor Day weekend, Rob and I got to clean our house from top to bottom including the things we never do -- organize the pantry, clean the fridge, sort through our clothes to fill a box for Goodwill, etc. Normally our cleaning is just an hour of mad scrambling and shoving things into closest before company arrives.

This past weekend we had lots of company. Our friends Bill and Claire were going to a wedding in South Bend on Saturday, so they flew into Chicago on Friday and stayed with us for the night. We got to try out a great Mexican restaurant in our 'hood (Agave Bar & Grill), which we highly recommend. We always have a blast with Bill and Claire and Friday night was no exception. (We also learned that a "ramp" is indeed a vegetable. Who knew? Well, apparently Rob and Bill.)

Then on Saturday, my twin sister and brother-in-law were in town for my brother-in-law's, cousin's wedding out in the Chi-town suburbs. Colin had arrived on Friday, and crashed with us as well, while Libby wasn't getting in until about two hours before the wedding. Since they didn't know if Libby would make it on time for the ceremony, Rob and I picked up Libby at Midway, drove her to the hotel where Colin's family was staying so she could shower and get ready, and then drove her to the ceremony, while Colin drove to the wedding from our place on his own.

After successfully completing our mission to get Libby to the wedding somewhat close to on time, and finding ourselves in the suburbs, Rob and I hit Ikea. We bought a great dining room table and chairs, which we've needed for a while. Yup, spending that law firm money already. Although I'd imagine most of the lawyers at my firm don't have dining room sets from Ikea. :) We assembled the table and half the chairs before heading out to meet Rob's friend Erin, who was turning 31, for her birthday dinner. Then Libby and Colin met us back at our place around 11pm.

We (me, Rob, Lib, Colin) went to Resa and Nick's house in the morning for brunch before Libby and Colin headed back to the suburbs for the wedding brunch. After they hit the road, Rob and I ran errands -- got Rob a new suit on sale, picked up the last of my stuff from the courthouse, bought new kitchen cabinet hardware at Home Depot, which we then installed when we got home. By 2pm, the last of our chairs were assembled, our kitchen cabinets looked sleeker, and we got to sit and watch football the rest of the day. Libby and Colin stopped in for another hour before heading to the airport, so Resa and Nick came over. Then when Libby and Colin left, Rob and I went to Resa and Nick's to watch the Giants. (Eli played great... if only the G-Men's D had shown up as well...)

I can't even remember the last weekend we had when we got to check off so many things off our to do list and still had so much free time! Amazing! Even with guests in town! Maybe I won't get another weekend like this for a long time. This weekend we're off to Napa for Roxanna's wedding, and I'm sure law firm life will keep me busy on weekends from there on out. But wow... it was good while it lasted.

It was especially nice to have such a busy weekend with lots of friendly faces around because I am so sad to be finished with my clerkship. I started crying when I said goodbye to my judge on Friday. When I first decided to apply for clerkships, I thought long and hard about what I wanted out of a clerkship. I thought I'd like to clerk on an appellate court; I thought I'd like to clerk for someone whose ideas about the law somewhat aligned with my own; and I thought I'd like to clerk for a woman -- someone whose career path could give some extra insight about what mine could look like in some ways. My judge certainly fit the bill, and the fact that she was in Chicago, some place where I have family and Rob and I would be happy to settle, was a bonus.

A couple months before I sent in my applications, I accidentally met my judge at an ACS conference. I was at a reception, ended up in a great conversation about the law with a female lawyer, and then Judge Wood wandered over. Of course I knew who she was, and it turned out the woman I was talking to was Judge Wood's sister. Then I had a great conversation with the judge and her sister and women in the law, etc., etc. Needless to say, I knew I had found the right judge for me. Magically, the fates aligned, two months later she invited me to interview with her, and a week later I'd landed my dream job. When I said goodbye to my judge on Friday, she said she hoped that the year had been what I'd hoped it would be. I laughed. I could not have dared hope for a year this good!

I don't mean to gush, and I don't mean to say the year was all roses and sunshine. The hours were often grueling. The work could be too difficult, tedious or both. It was hard and there was more than one bench memo I dreaded. But I got to spend a year helping a woman, who I consider to be one of the smartest and most dedicated federal judges in the country, make the law. It was an honor. If I look back at my career path, I can honestly say that I've loved all my jobs (although disliked certain aspects, of course) and I've enjoyed each job more than the last. As much as I am confident I will love being a litigator, I don't know how it can top being a clerk for my judge.

Anyway. Enough of this long, rambling post from this unemployed woman. Back to my "things to do while unemployed for a week" list! For anyone who doesn't know, my new job starts Monday. I'll be working here*. (I don't want to post the name because I don't want anyone googling the firm to stumble across my blog. :)

*Edited this post to delete the link.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Last Day :(

Tomorrow (Friday) is my last day as a clerk. I shouldn't be so sad, as I've already extended my 12-month clerkship into a 13-month clerkship. I should be prepared to leave. But I'm not. Clerking is without a doubt the best job imaginable for a lawyer, and I will miss it immensely.

My judge is exceptional, and I will miss learning from her. I will miss the cases I've worked on that aren't quite resolved yet. I will miss walking around the back hallways of the courthouse and sitting at the clerks' table in the courtroom. I will miss writing the law, even though I am excited to advocate for what the law should be.

All good things must come to an end, and now my clerkship days have done just that. (sigh)

Monday, September 03, 2007

Live Blogging from the NFL Draft

We take a break form our regular vacation-rehash programming to bring you this special report. It's draft day for Rob's (and my) fantasy football league and Rob and I have the first pick! LT it is for FC Gigantes (that's us).

Steven Jackson has gone number two to the Rams.

It's a run on running backs now... with super-pick Joseph Addai going fifth. Right before Peyton Manning.

Back to us and we've snagged Carson Palmer and Reggie Bush.

After a run on QBs we snagged Eli as our number two and picked up Larry Fitzgerald as our first WR. We picked Fitzgerald over my beloved Reggie Wayne, so we better get some production.

Now we've added Chris Cooley to our Tight End role and Matt Schaub as our back-up QB. Time to start thinking about defense. In our league, you pick individual players, not one team's unit.

Finally we've added some Colts to our line up. Adam Vinatieri and Bob Sanders join the team.

We've finished the draft and here's our line up:
QB Carson Palmer (Cin - QB)
QB Eli Manning (NYG - QB)
WR Larry Fitzgerald (Ari - WR)
WR Javon Walker (Den - WR)
RB LaDainian Tomlinson (SD - RB)
RB Reggie Bush (NO - RB)
TE Chris Cooley (Was - TE)
W/R Jamal Lewis (Cle - RB)
BN Matt Schaub (Hou - QB)
BN Julius Jones (Dal - RB)
BN Donald Driver (GB - WR)

K Adam Vinatieri (Ind - K)

D Bob Sanders (Ind - DB)
DB Justin Miller (NYJ - DB)
DB Chris Hope (Ten - DB)
DL Brian Urlacher (Chi - DL)
DL Antonio Pierce (NYG - DL)

Not bad, eh? If you add up the points from last season for each team's starting players, we're leading by 160 points. Of course, LT is giving us a 250 point boost beyond our backup RB, but we'll take it.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

The Douro Valley part 2

Back to lunch along the Douro. One of the best things about lunch was that Fernando, our guide, not only translated every detail of the menu for us, but he also explained what dishes were specific to the region and why. He recommended the lamb and the pork, so I ordered the former and Rob ordered the latter. The meal then started with a delicious sausage, made from scratch that morning, we were told. Hands down the best sausage I've ever tasted. Then came the main courses, which were huge platters of food. We also got heaping bowls of extra potatoes and rice for the table. I couldn't get enough of my lamb course, which came with potatoes and cabbage, both also delicious. When Fernando ordered an extra lamb dish for the table I was so grateful. Rob's pork had been marinating in a garlic sauce for more than 24 hours and was equally exceptional. The house wine was also excellent. It was red wine served either chilled or room temperature. The chilled version turned out to be a particularly nice summer drink. Everything was just wonderful. We were probably grinning from ear to ear the whole meal with delight.

All good things must come to an end, so we had to leave for our next stop eventually. That stop was Pinhao. It's a tiny town and we mainly just wandered around the train station whose walls are lined with azulejos that tell the story of making port.

This panel shows the boats loaded and heading down the Douro to Gaia.

And here's Rob at the station in Pinhao.

Finally we set off for our very last stop -- a local vineyard. We drove to the Quinta do Panascal, one of the region's top vineyards, which produces Fonseca brand port. (You can see pictures of the quinta at the Fonseca web site.) Vineyards are graded by some formal entity and the grades can range from A to F. Fonseca's vineyards are all grade A. We had the option of watching a video tour or talking a walking tour with an audio guide, so of course we picked the latter. It was mid-afternoon so the sun was a bit intense, but the views were well worth the effort. Here are some of our views.

Where the mountains look lined are where vines have been planted. There's several different techniques, but most rows of vines run parallel to the ground, although some run perpendicular.

This is what the vines looked like up close. It was just a couple weeks before harvesting begins, so there were huge bunches of grapes on every vine.

We tried to take a picture of ourselves in the middle of the vineyards on the mountain, but it didn't quite work...

We think the lens must have been in the shade where we propped up the camera. :)

We left the quinta with a small bottle of vintage port that we have to let age in the bottle for 10-15 years. So if you're in town for our 15th anniversary (13.5 years from now), you are invited to share it with us! Seriously! Once you open a vintage bottle, you have to drink the whole bottle within a day or two.

After the vineyard we had a two-hour drive back to Porto, and we said goodbye to the Douro Valley.

Far and away one of the most gorgeous places we've ever been.

The Douro Valley

As alluded to a couple posts down, our day trip through the Douro River region was the highlight of our trip. We stumbled onto the day accidentally and as a result of some trials and tribulations, so it was a nice reminder of how to make lemonade out of lemons, and, well, why the little things (demonic dogs included) aren't worth stressing over.

The company who ran our trip was called (I think) Living Tours. I've looked around for them on the web, but without success. Most tourist operations in Portugal are local affairs, so you can't book a lot of excursions online or in advance from afar. Anyway, we were picked up promptly at our hotel at 9:15am on Sunday morning by a friendly driver, Fernando, and a woman who we think was Fernando's mom. We loaded into the back seat of a small, modern minivan and set off to pick up the other two people who'd be joining us, a middle-aged married couple from Spain. They didn't speak any English, but Rob speaks a little Spanish, so we were able to communicate a bit throughout the day. Fernando transitioned seemlessly between English, Spanish, and Portuguese.

It was a rainy morning, the only bad weather we had in Portugal. Up until that point we'd joke if we spotted a single cloud in the sky and say, "Wow, the weather is terrible today." Portugal's summer weather is just gorgeous. Our itinerary for the day was four towns and a vineyard in the Douro region. Lunch was included and we'd be back at our hotel before 7pm.

The first town was Amarante. There we saw an old cathedral and a historic bridge. The rumor about Amarante is that the town and just about everything in it was founded by a hermit/monk named Goncalo. The hermit is now a saint, buried in the town's cathedral. Touching the tomb of Sao Goncalo is supposed to bring you luck -- especially if you're unmarried and desiring a mate. Not surprisingly then, the stone on the carved hands, feet, and face of Sao Goncalo atop the town are significantly worn down from all the attention from luck-seekers.

Here's the outside of the cathedral which is attached to the town hall/small art museum dedicated to a local cubist painter from the early/mid 20th century who is a bit famous.

A view from inside the cathedral.

The cathedral also housed beautiful cloisters.

Here's us in the cloisters. Can you tell that right before the camera lashed we were debating about where to stand so we'd be appropriately off-center? :)

Just outside the cathedral was the town's famous bridge, where locals held off the French who needed a river crossing in 1809. (I imagine the river was a bit more ferocious then). The defense of the bridge allowed the townspeople on the other side of the river to flee to safety before the French made it across and burned down many of the homes in the town.

A view of the bridge and the river (a small river that leads to the Douro River).
Me on the bridge with the countryside behind.

Next we arrived in in the Douro Valley, just across the mountains. We caught some gorgeous views of the rivers, loved the wind-power-generating windmills surrounded by clouds atop the mountains, and drove through the town of Regua -- the region's main stop in the transport of port from the region down to Porto and Gaia. We crossed the Douro River and headed into the small town of Lamego.

The lower bridge is the one we crossed. This is the Douro.

We saw two of Lamego's main attractions, its cathedral and its shrine. The cathedral dates back to 1129, although not much remains of the 12th century structure. I think most of today's cathedral is from the 16th century. It is gorgeous from the outside, but we didn't spend much time inside because there was a mass going on.

This is Rob in front of the ornate entrance to the cathedral.

We did get to take some time looking around the cloisters, also from the 16th century, which housed some special rooms, although we didn't know what the rooms were used for precisely.

Here are the cloisters with the cathedral rising up in the background.

This is the alter inside one of the rooms just off the cloisters. The gilded carvings reminded us a bit of what we saw inside the Ingreja de Sao Francisco in Porto the day before.

Next our guide drove us up into the hills of Lamego to spare us the climb up 600+ stairs to the Sancutary of Nossa Senhora dos Remedios. You may have heard of a Portugues shrine on top of a hill where pilgrims climb hundreds of stairs on their hands and knees to show their religious devotion. Ironically, doing this is supposed to bring you good health (tell that to your knees). The town has a pilgrimage festival beginning in late August and culminating on the main climbing day of September 8th, so we saw decorations all over the town in anticipation of the big day.

Here is the shrine, dating back to the 12th century, and the last of the stairs leading up to it. Multiply these stairs by about 12 and you'll get a sense of the total climb.

This is the view looking down from that first landing. The decorations on the small metal posts are for the August/September celebrations. You can also see the gorgeous mountains surrounding the town in the background.

Next it was time for lunch and at a "scenic overlook." We were expecting sandwiches at a picnic area, but we were enormously mistaken. We headed back towards Regua.

We stopped at a restaurant with this view of Regua from across the Douro.

More of the view here. Forgive my photography. It does no real justice to what we saw, which was nothing short of breathtaking.

We ate here, at the Restaurant Torrao, and it was the very best meal we had during our entire trip. AMAZING beyond words. Did I mention how amazing it was? But I've got to get some cleaning done, so I'll finish blogging about the Douro trip later today.