Castle and Road Trip

If you missed them, please see part 1 and part 2.

Breakfast was included with our hotel in Lisbon so we had that and went along our way. We only had a short time remaining there since we had to drive down to the South coast in the afternoon and we wanted to see a bit more of Lisbon before we went.

The Castelo de Sao Jorge seemed like a good idea since it was close and looked interesting. How to get to it is the problem. Just because you can see the castle from your hotel, doesn’t mean that it’s easy to find. By the time you find your way through all the narrow, winding streets and climb the several hundred feet of elevation between the bottom and the top of the hill, you could have killed most of your morning.

Fortunately, Lisbon has the answer in its famous ‘Tram 28‘. This is one of the routes of their old electric cable cars that just happens to make its way past most of the major monuments and tourist attractions in the downtown. For a couple euros you can sit on the wooden seats, hold onto a brass handrail or leather strap and bump and jerk your way around the track, passing so close to buildings and parked cars that you think there’s no way it will fit and enjoy the view of the old city. Much easier than climbing the hill.

I believe the castle was probably our first experience with the phenomenon of ‘loose’ animals in Spain and Portugal. I won’t say ‘strays’ although some of them undoubtedly are but in general, it seems that animals, even ones that are pets, are often left to their own devices and wander the streets at will. I would like to make a positive comment on the quality of strays in these countries however. Having been to Trinidad and seeing the malnourished, diseased and often feral strays there, it was quite pleasant to see how well kept stray animals are in Spain and Portugal. They are lean and occasionally seem to have some injuries or disease but mostly they seem healthy and friendly. You will often find trays of cat food in the bushes that are left by kindly souls and many of the animals will happily come up to you for a little head scratch and purr. Unfortunately Canada Customs would probably have had some objections but we were tempted to try to smuggle one of the kittens on several occasions. Either way, there were quite a selection of various dogs and cats hanging around within the castle. Peeking over the wall at some of the lower terraces we could see fresh crops of kittens lounging in the sun and playing with each other. I guess it helps keep the mouse population down.

These two were obviously owned by someone since they had collars but they were just wandering about, enjoying the nice weather.

dogs

The castle was about as impressive as a castle can be I suppose. To be honest, Sharon and I don’t really care for castles and monuments and museums and such quite as much as we probably should. We like them well enough but as often as not, it’s more of a checklist sort of thing. “Seen this, check. Seen that, check. Took some pictures so family with think we have culture, check. Okay…lets go get something to eat and then go to the beach.” Don’t get me wrong, we ooh and ahh over the beautiful sights as much as the next people but we quickly get bored and ready to move on. In our defence, the food was really good and the beaches were very nice… 😉 At any rate, the nicest part of this castle was that it was very high and had a great view out over the city.

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Clearly Sharon took this one but I have to take some credit since it was a tricky exposure. I had to lock in the setting to expose the sky properly and then use the flash to light the interior. The composition is all her though. Here’s a few more that you can click on for larger versions:

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Getting close to check out time so time to get back to the hotel and get our bags and car. Road trip!!! On our way back down we see another fine example of a house completely covered in tiles.

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Now we’re a little bit used to getting around in the city so getting out to the highway isn’t too much of an adventure. We miss the exit to the road out of Lisbon and have to do a bit of backtracking to get turned around but other than that, the highways are well marked, consistent and generally pretty easy to navigate. Listening to some Portuguese language CDs I brought along helps us realize that grunting and pointing is going to be our most effective means of communication. That and, “Fala Inglese?”, (do you speak English?) of course.

Even though highways aren’t that exciting, it’s pretty cool to do a long drive in a new country because everything looks so different. Houses, cars, scenery, farms, it’s all new. Drivers that actually have lane discipline and move over for faster traffic to pass rather than slogging along in the fast lane. On a side note, drivers are generally much more considerate but the Spanish definitely have shorter tempers than the Portuguese. Much more honking and swearing and heaven help you if you’re driving too slow in the fast lane because you’re going to have someone coming up behind you with high beams flicking, turn signals flashing and horn blaring. You’ve been warned…use that lane for passing only.

The newest and coolest thing for us on this drive is the truck stop. We could learn something from them over here. To be honest, we have some pretty good rest stops in Canada. If you’ve ever been to an Irving Big Stop down east you know what I’m talking about. Portuguese and Spanish rest stops are really nice though. Great food and coffee with all sorts of little tapas dishes and pastries and plenty of healthy fruits and vegetables. I think this is where I first met bica. Ah bica, my summer love. Ever the sweeter because you know it can’t last forever but it burns brightly for a brief time and will always be remembered with fondness. I went to Starbucks this morning for an espresso but it’s just not the same as bellying up to the counter with the locals for “uma bica, por favor”. You learn that there are different prices for things depending on whether you stand at the counter, sit inside or outside and so on. Typically a bica costs between 0.50 and 1 euro and can be ordered, made, paid for and consumed in less than a minute. By far the most efficient means of caffeine delivery I’ve ever encountered.

Our route was almost straight south from Lisbon to Albufeira on the South coast and the scenery was grand with deep valleys and tall hills in an environment that was very dry and looked much like southern California or Mexico. No time for pictures though. Gotta keep on rolling!

We arrived in Albufeira having stupidly followed signs labeled ‘Albufeira’ which took us to someplace west of the actual town of Albufeira.  Also it turns out that, despite the reassurances of google and our travel agent, our hotel wasn’t actually in Albufeira but in a smaller town to the east although we didn’t know that at the time. I knew it was east and that we were west however so we just kept driving around in town, trying to keep the ocean to our right mostly. This is where the studying of maps is handy because I knew a few things that were close to our hotel, specifically the Pine Cliffs golf course. Eventually we saw a sign leading that way and somehow, once again without any knowledge of how we actually accomplished it, wound up at our hotel. We went for a little walk to find the beach and finally saw what a typical beach in the south of Portugal looks like:

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I told you the beaches were nice.  Tune in next time for grocery shopping madness and how Sharon spent her birthday.

Kris

Sintra

In the last post, we had left off at us checking into the hotel. We showered and lay around for a bit but quickly realized we needed to get up and go. We only had one day in Lisbon so we needed to make the most of it. The problem was that we were pretty exhausted and didn’t have a lot of good ideas. We wandered back to the commercial plaza and started casting around for ideas. Everyone had recommended Sintra but we just didn’t have the energy to figure out the public transit/train/etc. to get there so we took the lazy route and paid for a tour bus.

That turned out to be a great idea. Sintra was about a half hours drive away and I’m sure that other people on the tour were laughing at the couple who paid for the tour and wound up nodding off most of the way there but a quick nap really refreshed us and let us make it through the rest of the day.

How to describe Sintra? Picture a bunch of hills with palaces on the taller ones surrounded by narrow, winding cobblestone streets barely wide enough for a car, never mind a bus. Streets go up and down and around with sharp turns, steep inclines and dead ends. Very pretty. It explains why most of the buses have their mirrors protruding out the front like antennae rather than sticking out the sides. You need every inch you can get. We only had an hour but we were starved so we wasted about 20 minutes in a cafe having a sandwich and a coffee. The place where the bus dropped us was only close to one of the palaces so we only got a brief look but we managed to wander around long enough to realize you could easily spend a whole day or more there.

Here’s a typical road sign that you might see on a wall or side of a building.

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An example of some of the tile mosaics you find on peoples houses. You can buy these huge mosaics, some several square meters in size, in almost any tile or souvenir store. I wasn’t kidding about the tiles. As you will see later, quite often the outside of entire buildings are tiled.

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Sharon looking at some stores. What are those things by the postcards? Could they be some tile mosaics?

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View down a street.

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Typical street in Sintra that shows how the entire town is carved into the hills so that the houses are all perched up above each other. This is a two way street. Buses go down this street. You have no idea the respect we have for the skills of bus drivers in this country. So many blind corners that its very common to see convex mirrors perched on walls so that people can see oncoming traffic without sticking halfway out into the street.

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Some views around town.

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Note the palace up the hill.

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Tower of one of the palaces.

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Looking down the hill.

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The bus tour included more than just Sintra so next we got to drive along the coast and see two more sights. The first is the easternmost point in continental Europe, a place called Cabo da Roca. Very impressive site.

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The second was the seaside community of Cascais which is the place where the rich and famous live when the come to the Lisbon area. Sharon wrote a note in her book: “Plan: live here in 20 years.” We were running late so we only got to stop for a little bit but here’s a view of the marina downtown. You’ll just have to take our word for it. It’s very nice. Beautiful beaches with windsurfers and kite boarders, gorgeous homes, etc.

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Finally the bus dropped us off back at the Plaza Commercial and we slowly wandered back towards our hotel. It was around 6 or 7pm and we saw a couple of interesting looking restaurants on the way and made plans to change into nicer clothes and head back out for dinner. I’d love to tell you that we went out for a great meal our first day in Portugal but the actual case is, we ate a couple leftover Pasteis in the room and were fast asleep by about 8pm after more than 36 hours of wakefulness. 36 hours is a long day but you can sure get a lot done.

In the morning we woke up mostly crippled and hobbled around like senior citizens for quite a while before loosening up. A day of sitting on planes and buses, climbing up and down cobblestone streets and stairs plus a 12 hour, non-moving corpse-like sleep on a hard mattress apparently adds about 50 years. Who knew? Tune in next time for the castle and the road trip.

Kris

Kris and Sharon’s European Vacation part 1

After a fairly uneventful 7 hour flight from Toronto to Lisbon, we finally wound up in the airport. The man walking in front of us lit up a cigarette and, as dutiful Canadians, our first instinct was to run around in a panic screaming, “Somebody call 911!” That’s a small exaggeration but it’s quite amazing how sensitive you are to smoke when you haven’t smelled it for a few years. Apparently much of Europe doesn’t view smoking with the same revulsion that we do.

We proceeded to customs where our first of many non-experiences took place. To jump ahead and ruin the ending a bit, our transitions through customs could not have been more uneventful this trip. Coming into Portugal, the agent held out his hand for our passports, stamped them and gave them back without ever saying a word. Gibraltar involved us holding up our passports long enough for them to see the outside cover, not even opening them, before waving us through which was a little disappointing because we really wanted a UK stamp. The EU stamps you when you leave as well but once again, this was a completely non-verbal process. The Canadian customs agent was the only one who actually spoke to us. He said, “passports”, looked at ours, wrote some secret codes on our entrance form and waved us on. No one ever looked at our bags, the ‘Nothing to Declare’ lines were unmanned and nobody wearing rubber gloves carrying a tub of vaseline ever even glanced at us.

To return to the story, in Lisbon we picked up our bags and headed towards the car rental counter. On the way there, we spotted a travel agent booth called ‘AbreuTravel’. Since that is Sharon’s maiden name and her family has Portuguese heritage, we made a great deal of this and took pictures with her posing in front of it. I’m sure that we looked pretty silly to other airport dwellers but what’s the point in being a tourist if you don’t act like one?

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Finally we got our rental car, which was small but surprisingly roomy and a pretty good performer. More about the car later but for now, it’s time to begin the first of our many adventures in finding hotels.

One of the first lessons learned that we’d like to share with you has to do with Google’s European driving directions. You may find it useful to peruse the area of the hotel in the map so that you at least have a general ‘gut feeling’ that you might be in the right area but as far as being useful for finding things, you’re better off just winging it.

In retrospect, I think we could have done a bit better if we had known what to expect. Here we were, naively expecting that roads would be marked with signs and that our little direction maps from Google that we so carefully printed before leaving would lead right to our hotel. After all, it seemed simple. Leave the airport to the roundabout and take that road straight into the heart of the city until we came to our hotel. Well, after a few laps in the roundabout and realizing that none of the signs had anything to do with street names or anything else which made sense to us, we picked the one that said ‘Centro’ and off we went. We drove for what seemed like quite a while and you can imagine our shock when we finally saw our hotel. Driving around lost and then suddenly finding our hotel will turn out to be somewhat of a recurring theme on this trip.

If you come down to it, we weren’t completely lost. We knew that there was a big castle on a hill somewhat to the west of our hotel so the fact that we could see it was a good sign. Of course, it’s big enough to see from almost anywhere but you have to take what you can get. At any rate, after finding our hotel, circling it in various directions 3 or 4 times because of one way streets and roundabouts until we found a way to get into the parking garage, we were finally there.

Now one should note, at this point, since we didn’t get any sleep on the plane and it’s 8am Portugal time, we’ve now been up for about 24 hours. We also know that if we go to sleep too early, we’re going to have a hard time adjusting so we need to be up at least another 12 or so. Since we can’t check into our hotel anyway, sleep is out of the question but at least we manage to dump the car and the bags and go out wandering.

Since I’m writing things down as I remember them, this narrative may lose direction now and again with little side notes such as this one. It has to do with navigation in Portugal. As it happens, the Portuguese settled their part of the world over a thousand years ago and immediately began tiling anything that would stand still long enough for them to trowel some mortar onto. This is not an exaggeration. Tile and stonework are like a religion. So as it happens, we finally figured out where the street signs are. Tiles on the sides of buildings. Now this is a nice thing to know because now we can actually find out what street we’re on, if we happen to be at the right part of the street where the sign is, if there happens to be a sign on that particular street, if it isn’t covered up by trees and if it’s big enough to actually read. So in fact, we still almost never know what street we’re on but, as it turns out, this is often less important than you might think. When we do manage to read a sign, it is usually to say, “Oops..we should have turned back there.”

We now had at least a few hours to kill before checking into our hotel so we decided to go and wander around. Just being in such an old city is quite an experience and it takes a while to soak it in. We happened upon this elevator whose purpose was to get people up a really steep hill and also to provide a nice view of the city so we decided to go up to get our bearings.
Elevator outside

Yes, that’s right. An elevator in the middle of the street, apparently going to nowhere. As a matter of fact, the top floor has a walkway that leads to the top of the hill and upper floors of the buildings behind but it certainly gives that illusion. There are a number of these types of elevators as well as funiculars like the one in Quebec city throughout Lisbon. From the top floor you can climb a little stairway to the coffee shop at the top which is also where you get the nice view. Note the elaborate cobblestone patterns. We saw a lot of this throughout Portugal.

Elevator top

Here’s a panoramic of the view up there. Unfortunately our first day was fairly cloudy and not great for photography but it’s still fairly impressive. Note the large castle that provided us with some small amount of orientation on our drive into the city. If you click on the image for the BIG version and view it full size, to the very left you can see the Hotel Mundial where we stayed.

Lisbon Panoramic

Lisbon is a very hilly town. In fact, it’s built on seven hills. Much of it got knocked down by a huge earthquake back in 1755 so much of the architecture is more modern than some other parts of Europe. Here’s a plaza and a rooftop garden viewed from the elevator. Click the images for larger versions.

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After taking in this view, we went to do some more wandering around. Down towards the harborfront you pass through a large archway that takes you to the Plaza Commercial. This is a pretty good place to start since many city buses, trolleys and tours come here. We’ll pretend that the crooked horizon is done for artistic effect and not because I’m tired and disoriented. 😉
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We were hungry and a number of people had insisted that the Pasteis de Belem were the bomb so we figured out which bus would get us there and hopped on for a scenic drive along Lisbon’s waterfront. No pictures of the the shop but it’s pretty much like the link above except more crowded. These are some popular little tarts so it takes a bit of work to get through the crowd and belly up to the counter but they’re totally worth it. We stopped in the park across from the palace to eat one or two which quickly turned into three or four since they easily lived up to the hype. Ah yes, the palace:

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Even the park benches are cool:

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After the pasteis, we made our way back to our hotel, got checked in, cleaned up and made plans for the rest of the day. Oh yes, and on our way we saw this guy playing accordian with his dog who held the money tin in his mouth and howled along with his master whenever he was singing.

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Tune in next time when we head for Sintra.

Kris and Sharon

Facebook

Like many people, I’ve recently discovered Facebook and have been meeting up with people that I haven’t seen or even thought about in years.   Okay, okay, decades.  I admit it, I’m not as young as I used to be.  That being said, it’s a little bit tough for me because I have such a bad memory.  Actually, depending on context, I have an excellent memory.  When it comes to trivia and technology and science and nature and facts and figures and anything outside the social realm of human beings and relationships, I’m an elephant.  I’m no Ken Jennings but I definitely curse the people on some of these quiz shows for being idiots and wish that I could make $50k in one sitting just for answering some easy questions.

It’s funny how memory works. I think lots of people have way better memories than I do but it’s like I have maybe a 5 year moving window outside of which my memories are pretty vague. I wonder if it’s because I’ve lived in so many different places – the more groups of people you associate with over the years, the harder it is to pin down some of the old groups. That’s probably just bullshit but I like to make excuses for myself since I’m too young to have Alzheimer’s. 😉

Going back to Facebook, the problem is that I remember high school people if I see their names or pictures but if you asked me to come up with a list, I’d pretty much draw a blank. It’s a good thing people are finding me because I’d probably never have been able to on my own. It’s pretty neat though. It brings back memories that I had thought were long gone. Mostly band since that was about the only social thing I did in high school. Maybe my memory is bad because high school wasn’t that much fun for me being the awkward geek that I am.

Kris Warkentin

Dying

I’ve been thinking about death quite a bit lately. I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it’s because I have a few more aches and pains now and I’m not quite as fast or strong as I once was so I think that this is pretty much as good as it’s ever going to be from now on. I’m on the way down, not on the way up, at least in physical terms.

Going back to the original point, I woke up this morning with a flash of insight, perhaps not for anyone else, but for me anyway. I was lying there about to go back to sleep for a bit and I thought, death must be pretty much like going to sleep and going to sleep is generally a pretty pleasant thing so I suppose it’s not so bad that you don’t wake up afterwards. How would you know anyway? Would it be any different than the hundreds of other times that you’ve gone to sleep?

Of course my mind can never leave things alone so I thought about what it would be like to die sick or in pain. That doesn’t sound quite so pleasant. It might be a relief to finally get a break from the pain that must eat up your consciousness but I doubt it’s very nice getting to that point. I think that if I were so sick that I wanted to die, I would want someone to make it as pleasant as possible for me. I’ve occasionally been so sick that I would have done just about anything to not feel that way anymore. Obviously I got better and, at the time, I knew that I would so I didn’t actually wish for death but imagine if you were that sick and you knew, much like I know that my physical skills are at their peak, that it was never going to get any better.

Dying only happens once and it seems a shame to waste it with pain and sickness. I sure hope that I have some loved one who is willing to slip me a little something to ease the way for me. If not, I hope the laws change so that we can at least demand as much mercy as we give our pets.

Kris Warkentin