Thursday, June 21, 2012

3 Days in Lisbon

From Sintra to Lisbon the trains are frequent and quick, making the trip in about 40 minutes.

Lisbon is not terribly hard to navigate in some districts but not so in others, such as the Alfama district where we were staying. The Baixa district is more grid-like in layout having mostly been rebuilt after the 1755 earthquake and it is in this area that the main train station, Rossio, is located. It's also the main shopping and tourist area. Alfama is not far but is a twisting turning up and down sector with streets that are as little as about 10 feet wide (maybe less). Getting up to the Largo Das Portos Do Sol in the picture above to meet the owner of the apartment we were renting we decided to do by taxi to save the navigation hassle and our feet.

Alfama is one of the poorer neighbourhoods of Lisbon but quite vibrant. Getting around is not really all that hard, but it helps if you can get out in the open once in a while to either catch sight of a landmark like the river, a large church or the castle that overlooks it. Or you can follow the tram tracks and sometimes find your way home. Oh, what the heck, just get lost. Eventually you will come out somewhere. Just watch out for the dog poo.

It's an old city but has all mod cons as well. The downtown is busy and full of ritzy shops but the barrios (neighbourhoods) have lots of character. For every ancient church or funky market there is a tacky souvenir shop or artistic spray bomb graffiti. The rickety trams and modern subway get you around very nicely.

We had pretty much burnt out on castles by now but we did visit the Castle of São Jorge which was just above us. We actually went there twice as we escorted an American couple up there at night after meeting them over sardines and wine at the smoky grilling stand on the steps of a church not far from our apartment. We sat on a castle wall and caught the last of a concert that was going on inside.

Even though it was faster paced and louder, we did enjoy Lisbon. The prices had gone up a bit, but our apartment was well priced and we kept costs down by eating at home a few times. The apartment was tiny but efficient. I could just barely avoid hitting the ceiling at places and had to practically step in the toilet to get out of the shower but it all worked well...mostly. The owner was also very helpful (maybe too talkative) and nice. We also could not beat the long as we would avoid the dog poo.

We checked out a couple of cool museums in Lisbon including one devoted to modern design and another that was a private collection from an Armenian oil billionaire and donated to Portugal as they promised it a permanent and high quality venue. The Gulbenkian Museum was a bit out of the way for us but worth the trip.

We really enjoyed Lisbon even though the pace was a bit higher than that elsewhere in Portugal. Three days was just enough to get a good taste of it, but a week would be not too much time.

Monday, June 18, 2012

More Scenes From Sintra

Here are a few more pictures from the house and fantasy gardens of Quinta da Regaleira in Sintra.

Filling in Blanks re Portugal

We are in Paris now after arriving yesterday on Spanish airline Vueling from Lisbon. It was an easy 3 hour flight and brought us into Orly where we got an RER (suburban) train to the Metro and soon found ourselves at the apartment near the Jourdain station in Belleville. We have been here before so it feels comfortable and it has consistent WIFI, unlike the last 5 days in Portugal.

Sintra was our home for 2 days where we had one of the few private rooms at the hostel. It was a nice place with very friendly staff and other guests. The TV set became a focal point for a while as we watched more of the Euro Cup soccer matches and were happy to see the Portugeuse team defeat Denmark, though not as much so as Miquel, the hostel manager.

Sintra is a beautiful city, located a short train ride west of Lisbon. It is a very popular destination for both locals and tourists and deservedly so. The topography is hilly, and it is covered in large parks for gardens and multiple varieties of trees both softwood and hardwoods. The amount of forestation and the locale make for a cooler more comfortable micro-climate that is quite pleasant compared to Lisbon. The royalty of Portugal have used the area as a summer home and even moved here more permanently after the huge earthquake of 1755 leveled much of Lisbon.

The area has had permanent settlement since before the Moorish castle was constructed in the 8th or 9th century and it has had other impressive castles and stately homes built since such as the Palace of Pena which you see at the top of this post. It's almost a fairytale design in bright colours with towers and domes perched high over the town, on the next peak over from the Moorish castle.

We walked up through the forest trails to get here, and at times appreciated the wind that kept things cool but other times it threatened to blow us off the ramparts it was so strong. There are multiple other ways to get up to these hills, including tour buses, regular city buses, electric cars, horse drawn carts or you can ride a bike or drive up, but we took the cheap route.

Our second day here we visited some of the newer parts of the city including a set meal at a vegetarian restaurant where among other things I had a large glass of Avocado-Lemon juice. Unusual but yummy.

The main site-seeing for day 2 was the Quinta da Regaleira, a large estate with incredibly fancy home, it's own chapel and extensive symbolic gardens with man made caves and lakes, spiral stairs down deep into the earth, statues and benches and much of it symbolic of ancient mythologies and religion. We spent a good 3 hours here wandering the buildings and grounds while deliberately getting ourselves lost in the caves. We were told that since they were man-made tunnels (though they looked fairly natural) that I would not hit my head. Not so. Apparently 19th century Portugeuse were not that tall (21st century ones are not either). 

I'll fill in more in a day or 2. I can't seem to get this Linux equipped netbook to read the camera memory card right now, so pics will have to come later. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Lisbon to Paris

Our legs are sore after 3 days in Lisbon and we suffer from a lack of sleep from last night at our apartment. Not that we stayed up late but the neighbourhood did, until at least 3am.

The Alfama district where we stayed in Lisbon is one of the oldest most traditional neighbourhoods here. With that comes that most traditional activity, all night parties with loud distorted PA systems and drunken revellers.

Seriously though it is a very old area with narrow labyrinthine streets, and all hard surfaces which bounce the sound around from the outdoor grilled sardine stands of which there were several just below us. The biggest rowdiest one was actually a collection of them on the front steps of an old church, complete with local drunks and imported ones like us.

We spent a couple of hours the night before last there, some of it with an American couple from Chicago & Minnesota, whom we later showed the way to the castle at the top of the hill where we sat on a wall and heard the end of a Fado concert.

...boarding now...later from Paris!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Micro Post Update

No wifi or computer available today, and no time the last few days when we had both so I will post a couple of short ones from my phone. I will backfill later from Paris if not before.

We are now in Lisbon in a tiny apartment in the Alfama district. Tiny is not is about 240 sq.ft. and barely 6 feet high in spots. The maximum ceiling height is about 6'4" but if I stand my straightest I can hit my head in places.

The place is nice though and well equiped and it really does not matter as it is in a great spot & a good price.

We got here by train & taxi earlier today from Simtra were we spent 2 days at the Nice Way Simtra Palace hostel. More on that hostel and Simtra later.

We stay here for 3 nights & bought 2 day transit passes we already got our moneys worth from with a couple of tram rides and an elevador lift from one part of the city to another.

Lots more to come from Lisbon soon!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Portugal Esta Na Merda

The title above was graffiti on a bridge we passed...Portugal Is The Shit! I may not be 100% on side with that but it ain't bad.
We left Tomar pretty early and gassed up on the way out at about 1.65 Euros or about $2 per litre. It is a good thing we are not driving all that much, and will probably end up at under 1000 km in all. This little car has used only about 6.8l per 100km according to the built in gauge, which is not bad at all especially since a lot has been hilly and low speed, though not city stop and go.

Driving to Peniche was also mostly on back roads, and pretty much easy navigation and just by map. At Tomar we had a bought tickets that allowed us entry to not only the Convent there but also those at Alcobaca and Batahla so our route was planned in that direction. This took us past Fatima again and this time we managed to find the major site there, the large Sanctuario.

Fatima is the holiest Catholic site in all of Portugal and as such attracts huge numbers of pilgrims. The biggest event here occurs in about a week, but there was something big happening this weekend too. We saw many folks en route to the sanctuary and lots were there, even camped in the parking lot, when we arrived. The crowds we saw though were dwarfed by the venue which apparently can hold over a million people! It is larger than the St Peter's Square at The Vatican. On this weekend there was something going on but we did not stay long enough to find out, just long enough to see a few thousand of the devotees, some of them on their knees.

Batahla was next and it took no effort to discover the large church and convent there. A quick tour here and we were on the road to Alcobaca where we also were quick but stopped for a coffee and pastry. Until now we had seen very little of the kinds of tourist traps we had sort of expected. At these 2 locales there were a few booths and small shops selling souvenirs but really not that many. They also were not busy though we were seeing more tourists than on the previous days at Sabugal and Coimbra but never crowds. This was not the case later on at Obidos.

Nazare was also on our route, and the first right on the coast. I had heard that Nazare was not going to be our kind of town, as it was really just an overinflated beach resort which it sure appeared to be when we rolled in. Yes the ocean and beach were right there and impressive but condos and crap shops crowded right up to the water and commercialism was in full swing. Again not crowded really but ready for crowds. Surf shops and bathing suit stores, fast food and bars, women hawking apartments for rent... It may actually be really nice, and it sure does have a nice beach but not really our style.

The weather may be affecting tourist traffic, as it has not been great. Once again the day has been misty and mixed clouds, with temps in the low 20's, so not ideal for sun worshippers. It's nice for us though. I guess the economy is more of a factor for tourism, as I suppose folks are just staying at home. The big months for tourists of July and August are still ahead though.

Before long we arrived at Peniche, but not before passing through Obidos where the tourist trapism seemed to be in full swing and working well. However we still had to find a room so kept on going knowing we would be in the area for a days and could come back the 20 km easily enough.

Peniche is a fishing community, or at least historically it is. A local told us that it has changed a lot in the last 30 years. It has turned to tourism as well though not to the extent of Nazare, one of our reasons for coming here. The other is the access to the Berlenga Islands. These are a small archipelago about 15 km off the coast and boats touring them leave from the harbour here...sometimes.

We arrived late enough in the day that a boat trip to the islands was not possible right away, not that we wanted to rush over anyway. However we did buy tickets from the first booth for what was the smallest boat that did regular trips over. His boat took 10-12 people and we planned to come back the next morning. Luckily for us we had no agenda for these 3 days, and had not booked anywhere else. Peniche itself was perhaps not worth 3 days on its own, but the weather dictated the boat tours. 

The next day was Sunday and the weather was ok, but there were not enough people booking for our boat to go so we took off with the car for Obidos and toured the very neat old walled city there. Unfortunately it was very touristy and even is known as the wedding city being as picturesque as it is. We also noted prices were getting higher on the trinkets and snacks.

I should mention our accommodation in Peniche. As we arrived in town we were flagged by an older woman with a sign promising a room for rent. At first we ignored her and drove past, but ended up parking near where we saw her and she trotted over with her sign. In gestures and various other communication styles we found out she had a room with private bath for 25 Euros in her home. We took a look and said ok, even though the room was decorated in a pretty tacky kind of way, with a naked woman painting on one wall, statues of Fatima, Buddha and the Madonna (not the original madonna) on the dresser. In these smaller towns places like this are fairly easy to find, but it was the first we took advantage of. It turned our to be very comfortable and convenient and came with a puppy. Yep, a 3 month old (I'm guessing) Jack Russell named Luna. Pretty adorable but an untrained little shit-box he turned out to be.  

Anyway, eventually we got our boat trip to the nature preserve at Berlenga. We had to go on another boat as the smaller boat operator found the wind and waves a bit high for his craft, so we joined the next larger one over and took off at 10 AM yesterday, to come back at 4 PM. The crossing itself takes about an hour. 

It also was too much wind and waves for some of our tour mates as well. Of the 14 passengers, 3 took advantage of the little plastic bags that First Mate Gilligan scampered about passing out. One guy lost it (literally) for about 3/4 of the trip, and a girl across from us succumbed about half way. Linda lasted a bit longer, but blamed it on the coffee she had instead of tea. Several others looked quite green but I did not get a chance to poll them as to their caffeinated beverage of choice. I had coffee and I felt just fine, despite the 5 foot swells. 

Luckily for everyone on board the sea was a bit more calm on the way back and the skipper even enlisted Captain Jack Spaniard (my name for one of the passengers) to hand around a jug of port. For some reason more folks did decline than accepted though. 

Food in Peniche was all centered around seafood understandably. We have tried to keep our costs down by doing some picnic-ing. We pick up buns and cheese, sausages, cucumbers, juice and other things when we can but it is not always easy to find a store.  Restaurants and bars are easy to find, as well as pastry shops. We had a couple of over-the-top good meals there including a Monkfish stew with rice, prawns and clams. Not only good but huge, especially after the inevitable appetizer plate of buns, olives, cheese etc. and an amazing ceviche type plate. The next night it was an octopus salad that was unbelievable melt in your mouth tender. I didn't think you could make octopus so soft but delectable. 

Friday, June 08, 2012

Two Nights In Tomar

Driving south from Sabugal on more back roads we soon came to Sortelha. Another hilltop castle awaited us amid a boulder strewn landscape with wind turbines scattered about. The windmills seem to out-number the tourists in much of Portugal.

After scampering around on the rocks here we continued on to Tomar. The narrow winding roads we try to keep to are probably not even considered tertiary roads, but are always in good shape. A bit like a carnival ride in the ups down and twists, but never feeling that risky. The infrequent cars we encounter on the minor roads are rarely wanting to travel much faster than we do. Even in small or even large towns and on highways we don't encounter that much traffic and it is never aggressive. Maybe this comes from the narrow cobbled streets that often leave only inches to spare; you just can't move too fast.

I had the GPS on my phone turned on as it gave me directions. However Linda kept getting into arguments with the woman's voice. The map program kept wanting to direct us to more major routes than we wanted, and we were trusting the excellent highway map we had bought just as much. Linda won the argument (she won't have it any other way) and the map lady eventually saw it our way.

By the time we got to Tomar we had put another 200km on the Peugeot and almost 4 hours driving. We spent another half hour trying to get on the island where our hotel is. It's situated smack dab in the middle of town, and the only business or even building on the island which is a very nice park with lawns and tall hardwoods. We kept driving right past the tiny bridge that accesses the island as we were convinced that it was for pedestrians only. But no, it was also for guests of Santa Iria De Estalaglem.

The hotel has about 15 rooms and a restaurant, but it is only 5 minutes from the main drag of Tomar so there are lots of other eating establishments close by. The setting is idyllic though and very cool and quiet.


Visiting Tomar was not because of the hotel of course. It was for the castle and the Convento de Cristo of the Knights Templar. It was also for the snails and the sardines, with a horde of Catholics thrown in for good measure:

The above pics were from our first afternoon, evening and morning at Tomar. We also saw a huge Catholic ceremony and procession of some sort, but had no idea of the occasion for it. It was held over a huge span of town and included banners, marching bands and a bishop or 2. I think the pizza delivery guy caught behind it was probably going to have to deliver for free he was stuck for so long.

After finding the local market, held every Friday, and picking up cheese, sausage, strawberries and a sit down street stall lunch of barbecued chicken and sangria, we headed out of town with the car to find Fatima. We skirted the edges but never found the old city there though ended up finding another huge castle atop a hill near Ourem on our way back to Tomar.  

Before that castle randomly presented itself in front of us though we visited the Grutas (caves) nearby. The name escapes me right now and I can't be bothered looking it up but it loosely translated to Money Caves if I am not mistaken. We took the 6Euro tour and had some Grutas port at the end of it (included with the tour ticket).

One last detour for the day before another round of grilled sardine sandwiches with snails and beer, was to check out the aqueduct just outside of town. It's huge, measuring almost 6 km in length and very tall in places. Water still sometimes runs through it in the direction of the Convent of Christ which it was built to service.

Tomorrow we go back on the road. We are not sure of the destination or route yet but it will be to the coast or close to it, possibly the fishing town of Peniche. The next 3 nights are still up in the air, but we have the car so have options.

I'll leave you now with a picture of this carving of a representative from The Ministry For Silly Hats:

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

South to Coimbra, East to Sabugal

We took a taxi from Quinta Do Passadouro back to the train station, only 10E for the trip the driver traveled at least 20km do (out and back). The winding narrow road and his familiarity with it almost had Linda getting nauseous.

Trains being on time as they are here we easily got back to Porto and then quickly onto a faster train to Coimbra on the same line that goes to Lisbon. We met 2 women from Saltspring Island who were on both trains with us.

We left the vineyard covered valleys behind and passed through more mixed agriculture as we headed south for the city of Coimbra, famous for its university founded in 1290 and at one time the capitol of Portugal. The university is still one of its major sites here and still in the same buildings it has used since the 16th century. It's all on the hill above the town and as usual reached by narrow cobbled streets and stairs. You get a commanding view of the city and river below. We stayed at a stately old residence, the Avenida, just a few blocks from the train station and steps away from the old city.

After bright and sunny for one day, it turned to clouds and occasional rain again. Just enough to make it less desirable to stay out and wander but not so much to make you run for home. Still it ended up being an early night, but not before attending a Fado concert with Port thrown in for good measure.

Fado music is particularly known as being a Coimbra thing though popular elsewhere in Portugal as well. It is a music for serenading ones girlfriend so rarely sung by women (except maybe on Commercial Drive?), though has also been used as a form of political expression. The musicians are a singer, a classical guitarist and a player of a specific type of 12 string guitar the Guitarra de Coimbra. 

We also stepped inside a local church with an impressive pipe organ though not to hear it unfortunately.We ate in what was an impressive dining room at an upstairs restaurant with a jazz theme and we were the only diners until we were about to leave. The food was great though.


After a tough night sleeping due to traffic noise outside our window we walked a mile or so to get our rental car from the Hertz depot. Our little Peugeot is a nice car and only a few months old. With a bit of instruction from Hertz guy we were soon on a major highway heading north, and turned off to more minor but still good highways in a more easterly direction toward Guarda. We passed a large park and eventually turned into the park to cut off the top corner of and drove through some of the smallest towns yet. Our tiny car just fit through some of the streets. After a wrong turn or 2 we ended up soon approaching Guarda, which was not our destination but a lunch and sightseeing stop.

Contrasting the castle at the top of the hill was a more modern citadel, a mall looking every bit as impressive in the way it clung to the steep hillside. We picked up a few snacks for the road and soon got lost on the way out of town.

However, this where picking up a SIM card for my phone came in handy. The Vodafone card I deliberately bought with a fairly good data plan. It's only good for a month, but I included 500 megs of data for an additional 5 Euros primarily for navigation purposes. The GPS voice guided turn by turn direction soon had us back on the right path, even though I ignored a couple of the U-Turn requests when it meant going the wrong way on a one way street. The data also comes in handy when I want to look up words on a menu or something similar.

Anyway, we did not take any more wrong turns and ended up in Sabugal where we are now. Another impressive castle and museum are the focal points here, and we are in a hotel suggested by the museum guy who also does the tourist info duties. This is very much a one horse town and we wandered the streets for a long time looking for a restaurant before settling on the only place that appeared to be open, a pizzeria. It looks like an early night in this sleepy high country town; we could even find a bottle of wine to bring back to our room.

This area was a bit of a random choice. Our itinerary had some open time in it, tonight being the first unscheduled one. It was different from other areas we had been staying at, off the beaten track and away from the water side of Portugal. In fact we are with perhaps 30km of Spain. I'm tempted to just drive across the border for the heck of it, but the Euro zone being what it is I don't think I could even get a passport stamp for it.

So tomorrow we head south and will pass through the even smaller ancient town of Sortelha. This town has an impressive castle too and apparently weird terrain in the area, a similar bit of which we saw today as in glacier till debris of large boulders dotting the landscape. And then on to Tomar where we have 2 nights booked.