After being a silent-on-social-media member of a national fitness chain for several years, I can be silent no longer. I don’t want to name names, so let’s call this chain Lower Alabama Fitness, or LA Fitness for short.
Who knew that shower curtains were optional? We’re not in middle school here, and I remember being surprised seeing open showers when Declan and I toured Emirates Stadium, home to Arsenal, a few years back.
On Friday, I reported to the front office staff there were only four shower curtains among the eight showers in the men’s locker room. Today, there were just two.
I reported it to staff (again) and then spoke to the manager, who said he’d check with the facility manager to see whether they had been ordered. “Shower curtains are basic amenities at fitness facilities, just like toilet paper and paper towels,” I said. “You should be ordering them by the case and reordering them when there are six or fewer.”
I even pointed out the Walmart in the same shopping center, which is open 18 hours a day and sells shower curtains. The manager apparently didn’t appreciate my helpful suggestion.
While I certainly hope this is my last installment of LA Fitness Follies, based on part experience, I’m pretty confident this will be the first of many.
We are traveling to Spain next month for an Irish conference, and Declan has immersed himself in all things Spain. Not only has he had Spanish language lessons in school since he was a kindergartner, he has been planning and plotting this adventure since we bought our tickets in December.
Although Salvador Dali is known the world over for his surrealistic paintings, the Spaniard also sculpted and made experimental films, among other creative pursuits. And, of course, he also was a flamboyant self-promoter, mustache waxed and curled into a big ol’ smiley face. Thinking about it, Dali was a walking emoji before they existed.
I had been to the former location of the Dali Museum a couple of times, leaving both times impressed by the depth and breadth of the man’s work. My favorite has always been the hologram of ‘70s rocker Alice Cooper that Dali did when both where at their artistic apexes. I only saw the hologram on my first visit, leading me to believe it was on loan.
Are you a stoner?
You can read about the hologram at Civilized, which apparently is a pro-pot website. Top-notch reporter that I am, I figured this out when the promoted items after the story
included a search box for cannabis dispensaries and a QA box that asked, “Are You a Stoner?” And apparently you can buy a photo at Walmart!
We enjoyed our visit to the new museum, but I think the ceilings aren’t as high, which limits the full effect of his insanely large masterworks. Although we put three hours’ worth of quarters into the parking meter, we were on our way after 75 minutes or so.
Best Cuban in Tampa
The day’s highlight undoubtedly was wrapping my lips around the best Cuban sandwich in Tampa, which you can find on the edge of Ybor City at Brocato’s Sandwich Shop. Real Cuban bread makes all the difference between an OK Cuban sandwich and the taste sensation that is Brocato’s.
The shop is located in a too-small cinderblock building that fills to overflowing every weekday lunch with people of all types, colors, sizes and professions. Like the Village People, if the band was co-ed. You’ll see a couple of guys in suits and ties waiting in line behind cops, construction workers, moms and “tourists” like us.
But the line moves fast, and you can glimpse seven decades of memorabilia while you wait. Sandwiches include chips you select from large, gray garbage cans on rollers on one end of the building, as well as a drink (including beer!). There is limited seating inside, which is too cozy for me, so we always sit under the covered awning out front.
In addition to a Cuban, get yourself a devil crab, which locals say is the best in the area. Unfortunately, I can’t eat them anymore after developing an extreme intolerance to onions several years. But when dining with a group, I’ll still order one, break off a smallish piece, dose it with a dash of Tabasco, pop it in my mouth and savor the creamy crab goodness before passing the rest over to everyone else. Because you don’t want the deviled crab—or anything else from Brocato’s, for that matter—to go to waste.
And if my stomach complains, it’s a small price to pay.
Visiting the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For Declan and me, it means we never have to visit there again during our lifetimes.
Yes, there are mermaids that suck in air through hoses like they’re in a hookah bar (just picture that for a moment), and a big tank and lots of bubbles. Ultimately, however, it’s a big ol’ piece of cheese wrapped in an interminable wait.
I’ll admit it. Visiting the springs was entirely my idea. As a native of central Florida, I’d heard about the springs from the time I was a wee lad. It’s part of old Florida, a throwback before the glitz and glamour of Mickey and Universal forever changed the tourism landscape.
When the idea of a spring break trip to Orlando surfaced, I made Weeki Wachee Springs a stopover before visiting my sister in Tampa.
Maybe the blinders of adulthood clouded my vision of the springs, because many people certainly seemed to enjoy their outings. But there wasn’t enough to do at the park, with long times either in line or waiting to get in a line. They have a crack marketing staff, though, because we heeded the website warnings that the park would be closed once capacity was reached, prompting us to arrive shortly after opening time.
But there were only three mermaid shows the entire day, and the first one didn’t start until 11. So, what to do for two hours? The boat ride through the springs filled quickly to overflowing, so we took in the wildlife show, instead. It was your basic turtle, snake and gator show, with cheesy humor throughout.
Waiting is the hardest part
And then we waited. Declan spent five minutes on playground equipment that was about eight years too young for him while I made a business call. We had already made a complete circuit of the grounds and had no desire to swim at Buccaneer Bay, half of which wasn’t operating on the day we visited.
A turtle struts his stuff during Ariel’s celebration.
Even the fish sang songs for the Little Mermaid’s birthday.
We were among the first in line for the mermaid show. Lines open 30 minutes before the show and fill quickly. Once ushered into the theater, we sat around and enjoyed the black-and-white archival footage of mermaids frolicking, and the show was introduced by concert footage of Jimmy Buffett performing “Fins,” complete with lip-synching mermaids.
The show was “The Little Mermaid,” so we all know the story. Ariel, while celebrating the mer-equivalent of a quinceanera, gets to go topside, where she saves a drowning sailor boy. To woo him, Ariel strikes a deal with an evil witch who takes her voice in exchange for getting legs. Fighting ensues and love triumphs over evil.
To their credit, the performers were graceful. Personally, I’d be thrashing and gasping for air instead of calmly lip-synching or performing that far underwater.
However, cheese rules this performance, and likely any other performance at the springs. Despite their grace, the performers essentially were taking air hits off a hose like the one you find at the gas station to put air in your tires. It’s a mental picture that’s hard to move past, like watching a junkie jonesing for a fix.
The witch looked like she has long strips of cloth like you’d see at the carwash in her hair. And when Ariel’s friends joined her birthday celebration, the costumed turtle was just too much. Declan and I were crying by the time it surfaced to the stage and started “dancing.”
The audio track included many voices singing a song. I failed to mention that live fish swim around the tank, and while the song was playing, a feeding fish passed by our viewing portal, mouth opening and closing as if it was singing along. We drew stares as we laughed uncontrollably.
After the show, Declan really wanted to take a boat ride, so we waited another 40 minutes (at least) for a 30-minute boat ride that didn’t reveal much in the way of wildlife.
Fortunately, the Italian restaurant where we had lunch offered sangria, the better to wash the taste of what we now call Waitee Longee out of my mouth.
Three short weeks ago, an exhausted Bolch/Richtarik family returned to the US.
The intervening days have been a whirlwind of unpacking, washing, shopping, errand-running and overwhelming tiredness. Think jetlag on steroids, and you still haven’t approached the fundamental weariness that has hit the household’s adult population. Declan, naturally, is unaffected.
Don’t get me wrong: we are genuinely happy to be back. We missed (among many other things) our cat Gunner, our king-sized bed, ceiling fans, big-ass washers and dryers, driving to the store, our community, milkshakes and American plumbing. Say what you want about our country, we do plumbing right. And, of course, I’ve been smoking or grilling nearly every day on the Big Green Egg.
My sister asked me whether the Irish ate pork. “Whatever gave you the idea that they didn’t?” I asked. “Because you’ve been smoking so much pork,” she replied. “Well what else are you supposed to do on a Big Green Egg?” I said.
Too much to do
Part of the reason for our tiredness, I think, has to do with the incredible amount of household work that awaited us. Take the mail, for example. Despite stopping all of the magazines and everything else we possibly could, we had an overflowing milk crate’s worth of mail waiting for us. It took me an entire day just to deal with that, separating the snail mail wheat (very little) from the chaff (very much). Seeing seven months’ worth of mail at one go does provide insight into how often charities we never support constantly send us stuff we don’t want.
The contents of two bedrooms and my office were packed away so our tenants could feel at home with their own stuff. All of those things have to find their way back where they belong—a process that’s still not complete.
Marilynn shops what’s on sale, creating a weekly menu based on store specials while stocking up on pantry items. We ate through as much of that as we could, leaving the rest for our tenants. But that meant the cupboards were bare when we got back. It seems like we’ve been to one store or another every day since we got back.
I was responsible for turning everything back on that had been turned off, resubscribing to what had been canceled and getting our cell phones working again, which required at least four trips to the AT&T store, three to Best Buy and a drive to the Atlanta ‘burbs for a new flip phone for Declan.
Add the start of Declan’s school year (and the requisite supply list shopping), my business and Marilynn’s work, and it all adds up to too much to do.
Another life left behind
Another reason for our malaise, I’m sure, is that we still are pining for our life in Belfast and our friends there. Toward the end, I absolutely felt like a native, albeit a native with a decidedly Southern American accent. I took great pride in striding unmolested past the Belfast tourist office, where reps for various bus/rail/drunkie cab tours hang out and hand leaflets to passing strangers. People who know where they are going don’t get pamphlets.
We have a ton of friends there and had more adventures in seven months than many families have in a lifetime.
Simply put, living outside your country and somewhat out of your comfort zone puts a new perspective on every aspect of your life. I can’t escape thinking about the post-World War I song, “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?)”
I forgot to mention how hilly Coimbra is. Porto is the same way. Getting up the triple and quadruple switchbacks—while walking on cobblestones—is a test for any person. Fortunately, Declan took that into consideration, too, when planning this trip.
He scheduled mid-day breaks on most days, so I wouldn’t have to be on my feet for too long at a stretch and would be ready to go again in the afternoon. He also booked hotels close to where the action is.
View of the Historical Cathedral of Coimbra from the Castro museum
The old Roman cryptoprotico features many rooms and passageways.
Expansive apse of the church of the Convent S. Domingos, which was built between 1553 and 1564.
These azulejos (Portuguese tiles) show the Ptolemaic theory of the universe.
Cloister unearthed at the museum dates from the 11th or 12th century.
In Coimbra, the nighttime action includes fado music, a Portuguese specialty that generally denotes a sense of longing. We attended an event at à Capella, an intimate venue in a 14th-century chapel. The music was interesting, but not really to my taste. However, Marilynn liked it better than the flamenco music and dancing we saw in Seville, Spain, a few years ago.
Roman influences everywhere
On our final day in Coimbra, Declan had us scheduled to visit the Museu Nacional de Machado de Castro, built over the remains of a Roman forum. The cryptoportico (a kind of elaborate foundation) is believed to be the largest surviving Roman building in Portugal.
A tour of the cryptoportico begins the museum visit. Long, spooky corridors with occasional archways line one side, while shorter offshoots and individual rooms are dotted throughout. In other places, industrial walkways above other ruins allow good views of other parts of the cryptoportico.
Other highlights of the museum include the 11th- or 12th-century remains of part of a Roman-style cloister that was unearthed on the site in the 1930s. Another is the expansive apse of the church of the Convent S. Domingos, which was built between 1553 and 1564. A controversial decision was made in the 1960s to dismantle the severely deteriorated church, where the apse wound up in the museum. Seeing the amount of degradation, however, the decision seemed a wise one.
You’ll also find lots of religious painting, sculpture, statuary, reliquaries and what Declan and I like to call bling. Among my favorite things, however, were the dozen or so azulejos (Portuguese tiles) that contained mathematical or astronomical concepts dating from instructions issued by the Superior General of the Society of Jesus in 1692. The style suggests they were made in Coimbra.
Going back to church
There’s no better way to top a visit to a museum full of religious artifacts than to see a church. So after lunch, we found our way to the Historical Cathedral of Coimbra, a “church-fortress” dating to the 12th century. The church features small slits in the walls, just like in a castle’s battlements, the better to station archers in case of a siege.
Like all churches this old, there are numerous influences, including Moorish, Gothic and Renaissance. The highlight, for me, however, was the 13th-century Gothic cloister that surrounds the central courtyard. I especially liked the pediments below the arches, each designed in a different pattern.
Our time in Coimbra complete, we boarded a train for our next destination—Porto.
For literally months, Declan has been planning this nine-day trip to Portugal. The last hurrah, if you will, to this wonderful seven-month European adventure that ends in just over two weeks.
When I told someone he had planned 85% of the trip, Declan looked at me sharply and said that the estimate was low. In retrospect, he’s probably correct. He first defined what cities we were going to visit after Marilynn and I said we should confine ourselves to the north of Portugal, where it was likely to be cooler in the middle of July.
The courtyard of Universidade de Coimbra offers great city views.
Student exams and important academic ceremonies take place in the Paço das Escolas (the original Royal Palace).
Saint Michael’s Chapel dates from the 16th century. The 2,000-pipe organ dates from 1737 and remains in use today.
Exterior doors leading to St. Michael’s chapel a great place for a family portrait.
Several science buildings hold significant inventions, innovations and scientific curiosities.
Many building in Coimbra are decorated with colorful tiles.
Declan then researched plane tickets from both Belfast and Dublin to find the best (and cheapest) ones. He researched sights, hotels, transportation, restaurants and more, filling our days with activities while respecting our need to rest from time to time.
I’m writing about our first day in Coimbra on the fourth day of the trip (in Porto), and I can say that Declan has done a tremendous job so far.
Academic beauty in Coimbra
After flying in to Porto, we immediately headed to Coimbra, in the middle part of the country. Coimbra served as Portugal’s capital for more than 100 years (between 1139 and 1255, when it moved to Lisbon) and houses the country’s oldest university, founded in Lisbon in 1290 but relocated to Coimbra in 1537. So I guess Coimbra’s loss is Lisbon’s gain, and vice-versa. We stayed at the Hotel Vitória, a short walk from the train station and centrally located within the city.
Our first day was dominated by a visit to the Universidade de Coimbra, located in the highest part of the city and a UNESCO World Heritage site since 2013. Several of the buildings feature terrific city views, including the clock tower. One ticket allows entry into all of the buildings, and climbing the clock tower is an extra euro—the winding staircase gets tight and twisty at the top, but the views may well be worth the vertigo.
The Biblioteca Joanina (library) was deemed too distracting for student use, its 60,000 volumes housed amidst gilt, frescoes and lots of ornate woodwork. The 18th-century building remains too precious for tourist photos, so you’ll have to take my word that it ranks high on the audacious scale. Speaking of audacious, under the library is the Prisão Académica (academic prison). Misbehaving students were housed under the library until their grades got better, I suppose.
Student exams and important academic ceremonies take place in the Paço das Escolas (the original Royal Palace). We saw what appeared to be a Ph.D. defense take place in the Grand Hall, a high room with lots of dark wood, second-floor doors that can be opened from the two-sides balcony above, ornate ceiling and large portraits of Portuguese kings.
Saint Michael’s Chapel dates from the 16th century and replaced an older chapel from the 11th century. The 2,000-pipe organ dates from 1737 and remains in use today for music concerts, as well as weddings and baptisms at the still-consecrated chapel.
The central buildings of the university form three sides of a rectangle, with open views of the city from the fourth. With his back to the city, the statue of King João III overlooks the courtyard. The 16th-century king was responsible for moving the university to Coimbra and expanding it during his reign.
Several other historic buildings are included in the ticket price, including the Chemistry Laboratory, the Cabinet of Physics and the Cabinet of Natural History. The latter, created in 1772, is the oldest museum in Portugal that remains in its original location. These three buildings, with their science exhibits and displays, could easily have filled a day for those with an eye toward the history of invention, chemistry or natural history.
All I can say is that Declan knows what his parents like.
While Belfast City Hall may not be the physical heart of the city, it certainly embodies its spiritual heart. Although we’ve been in and around the building on each past visit to Belfast, we’d never taken a public tour until last weekend.
It was well worth the 45 minutes to learn about the history of the city, the building and the city’s governance structure, which features 60 councilors for a population of 330,000. There is also a new multi-room exhibit on Belfast that you can view.
Center of it all
The city’s core bus network consists of 12 lines that begin and end around Belfast City Hall, so pretty much wherever you go, you’ll glimpse the imposing, yet welcoming Baroque Revival building completed in 1906. Before 1888, Belfast was a town, but it was declared a city in that year by Queen Victoria.
Of course, the burgeoning city needed a new building, so the city fathers knocked down the White Linen Hall and built this new edifice for 360,000 pounds. The building features five domes, the tallest rising 173 feet. The largest dome is at the center of the building, with an opulent grand staircase leading dignitaries and visitors to the upper floor.
We got a glimpse at the deputy mayor’s office, the robing room where councilors formerly donned robes for meetings and the council meeting chambers. By the way, councilors still wear robes on special occasions, although members of the Sinn Fein party generally refrain.
During a council meeting, which takes place on the first working day of the month, the lord mayor sits on one short end of the room on a dais, with risers on both long sides with tables and comfortable chairs for the councilors, who are arranged according to political party. The press corps occupy tables in the middle, with spaces for dignitaries on the fourth wall. Members of the public sit one floor above the council chambers on the long interior side of the room. The council chambers and three large meeting rooms are paneled with Irish oak carved by Harland & Wolff artisans.
Our knowledgeable and friendly tour guide gave those who wanted an opportunity to try on a councilor robe and to sit in the lord mayor’s chair.
Lord mayors and memorials
The largest meeting room, the Great Hall, was destroyed in the Belfast Blitz in 4 May 1941, a German attack that killed 1,000 in Belfast. The hall was rebuilt in 1953 and features seven original stained glass windows that were moved to the country before the war began. During the tour, we saw workers either setting up rooms or tearing them down, evidence of how much use the city hall receives.
Each lord mayor, elected from among the councilors, now serves a single one-year term, and after it has his (or her) picture painted in a style and by an artist of his choosing. Those portraits are moved once a year to make way for that year’s mayor.
You’ll find a number of statues and memorials on the grounds, including the Titanic Memorial remembering those who lost their lives in the 1912 sinking. There’s also a memorial to Sir Edward Harland, who once headed Harland & Wolff and served as Belfast mayor in 1885-1886.
Unlike many civic buildings, Belfast City Hall is open nearly every day for tours, and the building and grounds are in use almost daily for public events. I’m sure those who frequent its halls lose sight of how impressive the building is. The exterior features Portland stone, while the interior is adorned with Italian marble.
And, if an impressive interior and expansive grounds aren’t enough, Belfast City Hall features an outdoor lighting system that can illuminate the building in a literal rainbow of colors.