Sunday, March 2, 2008

Back from Portugal, reports from the road

I hope you enjoy my tiny little trip report from Sunny Portugal. These were culled from emails home to friends during my trip. Each title is from the subject line of the emails I sent. If you want to see all the photos, click on the "Photos of my various travels" link to the right. I went over Thanksgiving week, which I highly recommend as a great time to visit there.

Portuguese Lessons

Hello everyone

I made it! The first "new" country I have visited in a while.

I am really jetlagged but it has been a great day. I am in Coimbra tonight and spent several hours today in Obidos. Obidos is a 13th century medieval town! Except that it is all whitewashed with bright blue accents on all the walls - nothing grim or dark about it. Lots of stairs, lots of cobblestones. It reminds me of photos of Greece actually except for the wall surrounding the town (which I walked the length of. and later remembered I had not put on sunscreen when I took the time to brush my teeth in the airport this morning. drat.)

Portuguese is an interesting language. It is very soft - the "S" is pronounced sh and the X is pronounced zh like zhivago. Think of Sean Connery: "Good morning Mish Moneypenny". The town Cascais looks like you would say Cass-Case, but no, it is Cash-Caesh. It all sounds very shexy. Obidos is Obi-doosh. Lisbon is actually Lisboa and it is pronounced Lishboa. (those who asked, by the way - yes, Portuguese guys are hot. Not quite up there with the Italians but pretty darn cute nonetheless.)

The hotel I am staying in is Quintas das Lagrimas - it is a Relais et Chateaux which is euro-speak for Really Nice Hotel. I have already managed to flood the bathroom (wayward jacuzzi jets, I mean jacuzzzzhi jets) and my hiking clothes are now hand washed and hanging all over. hahaha (I have those "technical" hiking clothes which are great for traveling, I figured I wanted to be comfortable on the plane rides). Luckily, the clothes will be dry before the maid sees them and I just used one of those 6-inch thick bathrobes they left out for me to sop up the floor.

Kidding! hahahaha I just used one of the 6 by 8 bath sheets they have.

ok I am getting punchy now. time for a glass of wine and then a snoozh. later!


could someone email me to tell me what symbol comes up when you hit shift-2? this is a portuguese keyboard and one of my passwords uses that symbol but it is different here.

Nasty, Brutish and Short


I visited the Roman ruins today at Conimbriga. I would have spent considerably more time there but the nice, sunny, warm weather of yesterday apparently went to Morocco because it sure isn´t here. (kinda neat to be close enough to Morocco to say that, too!)

Anyway, it wasn´t just rain, that I can handle. It wasn´t just cold, I can handle that too. No, this is the driving, blinding, cold and very windy rain. Let´s just say my planned day of town hopping turned into a drive to Conimbriga, a quick lap around the ruins (I got a photo of the Roman road to Lisbon though!) and then a run to the car after a brief stop at the empty visitor center. As I wandered around, thoroughly wet, cold and miserable in the space of about 10 minutes, I pondered on the above saying. Hobbes´ quote about the life of man seemed fitting for a day like this - if it´s going to be nasty and brutish, it may as well be short - why prolong the misery? (I know he wasn´t talking about weather but I was pretty irritated at this point).

I knew I didn´t want to be back out in that cold windy rain so I got out the map and decided to go to Tomar, which has a UNESCO World Heritage site there - the Knights Templar Convento de Cristo. I figured that perhaps it would die down a little on the drive there. Nope, it got worse. The rain was beating so loudly on my little car that I couldn´t hear the radio. When I got to town the main roundabout was so flooded I was afraid that my car was going to flood out. No joke. Big Mercedes-es had water up around their doors in that roundabout. I took the plunge anyway and made it through. I found the hill to get to the Convento since I came all that bloody way, I wanted a photo. When I put the window down I got soaked so needless to say the few photos I have were taken from the car and then I left and went back to Coimbra.

I had a really late start today since I slept so long! Tomorrow is calling for even MORE rain, even heavier than today, so watch CNN for me and let me know if Portugal´s weather is in the news. I hope there is some kind of break because I really want to visit Nazare on the coast. It appears that Lisbon will have rain through Wednesday, with a nice day on Thursday and then a little rain on Friday before a really nice day on Saturday, when I leave. Oh well, always an adventure. I´m usually really lucky with the weather. Maybe it will break and get better in time for the latter half of the week.

My little car is SO little, it has one windshield wiper. Yes, you heard that right. Just one. It is Peugeot´s answer to the Smart Car - it looks pretty similar. It does have power windows but the driver´s side door only has the control for its own window since the passenger door is close enough to lean over and push the button to open it. It is a stick shift but the shifter is so long it looks like it belongs on a tractor. When you depress the gas the engine gets a lot louder but there is no perceptible change in the rate of forward motion. It also has a nice silver medallion right in the middle of the steering wheel and it occurred to me that if the airbag ever went off you´d have a nice imprint on your face (oh, the things you think about when you can´t see 50 feet down the road...)

and I´m off again! Nice to hear from everyone, I hope my reports are making you laugh.


Come to Portugal, Save Money, Lose Weight!

Probably not the tourist board´s slogan of choice but I gotta say - Portugal is cheap. Even with the sad state of the dollar. This 6 night trip is going to cost roughly 2500 bucks (not incl souvenirs) and about 1000 of that was transportation - both airfare and the rental car/gasoline. [my edit - it turned out to be around 3000 dollars plus souvenirs]

I did see a Mastercard advert in the airport - it said "Discovering the city that discovered half the world: Priceless". I thought that was pretty cool.

The weather brightened up as I approached Lisbon and right now it´s sunny and even a bit warm. I have already spent an hour walking around and had to head back the apartment to shed one item of clothing - I thought it was going to be cooler and even at 800 AM wearing two light shirts was too much.

about losing weight - Lisbon is all hills, many of them steep! I walked over to the street that has the Elevador da Bica which is the reason I bought a plane ticket here. I had seen a photo of that street a few months ago and previous to that had not seen many photos of Lisbon at all. here it is:

Is that not beautiful! I took my own photo of it:

I rented an apartment that is just lovely, spacious and clean, and in a fabulous location. Right in the nicest part of town - 90 euros a night. This internet cafe is just a 30 second walk away (you will know it by the awning - it looks like a vintage chevy hanging over the doorway) and the above Elevador da Bica is another 4-5 minute walk.

A few of you asked about the hotel in Coimbra - I just did an internet search and found it. I was looking for Pousadas (former palaces converted into hotels and stumbled across it - (although I am not sure this is a Pousada, it just came up when I did the search). I stayed in a spa guestroom and paid 137 E a night. (can you believe it). The spa section is newer and was designed by some famous Portuguese architect. I really liked it - all modern, hardwood floors, spacious, big balcony. The hotel has a one-star Michelin restaurant in it! I ate there Sunday night and the totel cost for the 6-7 course meal, including wine, was 66 euros. It was so much food I did not eat until the next evening. (66 euros for a one-star Michelin meal! imagine if this were 1999, when the euro was upside down to the dollar, that would have been cheaper than dinner and drinks at TGIFridays, almost.)

more later, gotta run. have a great Thanksgiving everyone!!


Portugal is tiny!
How tiny is it? I keep running into the same tourists! I sat on a tram the other day and a group got on after I did - and 5 hours later they walked into the restaurant where I was eating. When I dropped the car off, I was right in front of an American family who had picked up their car at the same time. In Sintra yesterday I saw people wandering around who were on the plane from Newark, with me... No doubt I´m going to run into someone from DC before I leave...

I hope everyone had a nice Turkey Day with your families!

Last night while walking home from dinner I passed a busker who had a little electronic keyboard playing Xmas music. The thing is, he had it propped against his shoulder and was busy reading the paper. He actually had some coins in his hat though. He needed to take lessons from the cute little dog I saw yesterday! A busker was sitting on the ground, playing an accordion, and his tiny tiny little dog (almost like a Chihuahua but not so skinny) was holding a little basket in his mouth. The dog was so still and half asleep - but he didn´t let go of that basket! Yes I took photos.

This is by far the hilliest town I think I have ever visited - including those on Lake Como. San Francisco hills are nothing compared to this. I have not seen a single overweight person on the streets here yet - including tourists. I think you have to be in minimally good shape just to get around - I wonder how senior citizens do. The guidebook did make reference to the reason that you see SO many Mom and Pop groceries and all around is because the older people rarely leave their own hood.

I had another amazing meal last night - write this down: Olivier. It is in the NY Times and also Time Out. For 35 euros you get 9 small starters (like tapas) and then the main course. I also had two caipirinhas and their signature dessert for a total of 56E plus tip. (I overtip - another 10E).

One "small" tapas was foie gras on top of carmelized onions. but these weren´t ordinary carmelized onions, they were soaked in port and a touch of raspberry vinaigrette and a "secret ingredient" for 4 hours and then carmelized. The foie gras was the size of a hockey puck, but not as thick. I ate the whooooole thing. Octopus carpaccio, beef carpaccio, puff pastry with goat cheese, honey and walnuts, etc. etc. the main course was juicy/crispy pork of a black pig and mashed potatoes with truffles mixed in (remember - 35 euros!)

Because it was the night of a huge soccer match when I got there, no one was there (huge as in - determining if Portugal was going to the 2008 euro-match). The waiters had the TV on and were watching the match which worked out fine until the owner showed up and had a hissy. It was funny watching them wrestle over the remote. As people eventually trickled in I figured out that they were in essence feeding me dual portions since they don´t halve anything for single diners. Some things lent themselves to one-person portions, other things (foie gras) clearly did not so I ate a two person portion of foie gras. With all this walking my pants still fit, despite the food, so if you want to eat well, come here and don´t use public transport to get around.

Yesterday I went to Belem and saw the Mosteiros (Vasco da Gama is buried there) and also had the Pasteis de Belem which has been a secret recipe since the 1800s. Those are worth the trip - yum.

I also hired a driver to take me to Sintra and Cabo da Roca (the westernmost point in Europe). Not cheap but so nice to sit back and let someone else do the driving. I think Sintra seems like a place you´d want to settle in for at least a few days - preferably in summer. (it wasn´t cold, but it seemed to have that "summer town" kind of vibe going.) Cabo da Roca was cool! also windy. I took some good "almost sunset" pics.

Today is the last day and I am just going to wander some more. I have a walking tour at 2 PM and other than that - nothing specific planned. Tomorrow is home!

I left in Autumn, and now that I'm back - Feliz Navidad!
When I left a week ago it was still fall - pleasantly cool and sunny and the trees were still colorful. One week later and I hear Xmas music on the radio when I stepped out for groceries. Once again I'm a cat-carpet (literally - they walk all over me, including my head, jockeying for a spot to sleep). Here is my last email - some overall impressions, and let's not forget some photos too. (not all of them, don't worry).

As it turned out the only rainy day was Monday - while it called for rain all week, it only rained at night and was cloudless and sunny in time for the day's adventure (and the rain would come back in again each night...) So for anyone who is concerned about Portugal over Thanksgiving vacation next year - I'd say go for it! I might consider heading south instead though - while Porto in the north is supposed to be amazing (another place I wanted to see, but didn't...) my understanding is the Algarve is Portugal's Riviera and should have a lot of sun regardless.

I was really glad I spent 4 nights in Lisbon - so many of my trips have me on the road to the next town after 2, maybe 3 nights (Rome, London notwithstanding) and while Lisbon is small 4 nights isn't even enough. By the last day I didn't even take my map out with me - I had a pretty good idea of the lay of the land and just took off.

The walking tour I enjoyed on Friday was FABULOUS. (not to overuse that word or anything). It was called Lisbon, City of Spies. It mostly related to the fact that in WWII, Portugal was neutral which actually means it just played both sides without getting really "involved' - and made buttloads of money in the process... for instance, profiteers in Portugal were selling wolfram to both sides (also known as tungsten).

James Bond was actually based upon a spy who centered himself in Lisbon - the Casino in Casino Royale was actually the Casino in Estoril, a suburb of Lisbon. Ian Fleming was alerted (somehow - never did figure that out!) to this man and his flamboyant habits and decided to tail him to use him as a character in his books. Supposedly this man knew he was being observed and decided to show off and dumped the equivalent of 60,000 dollars on the roulette wheel because it was "banque ouvert" meaning "accepts all tips". He played the Casino's bluff since they clearly wouldn't accept that (60K back in the 30s was a lot of money..) but the "damage" was done - Ian Fleming was so impressed he started the story based on this man. (who knows how apocryphal this story is, but it made for an interesting tidbit on the tour!). This same spy well after the war wrote a book called "Spy Counterspy" based on his exploits:

I also was reading a book that was reco'd to me relating to Lisbon during WWII and the Wolfram connection. It was a novel called A Small Death in Lisbon. I don't usually read crime novels but this one was very well done if rather graphic. I'd recommend it for the story and the writing unless you are squeamish (think Nazi Germany, spies, and a present day crime that ties the past and present together very powerfully).

Random impressions:
Lisbon's buildings are either cotton candy colored (pastel pinks, blues, greens, yellow...) or beautiful handpainted tile.
Now that I've given you a positive view in your head... bear in mind that many of these beautiful buildings are COVERED with graffiti and utterly filthy. They could use a good pressure wash to get rid of the grime. In many cases the tile (at least on lower levels) are also covered with posters/stickers (you know, concert posters, etc.) and clearly elbow grease is needed to remove them.

The sidewalks are mostly hand-laid tiles or stones - intricately carved and in beautiful patterns. The streets and sidewalks are pretty clean - I saw street washers out every single morning.

The people are very friendly and for the most part I encountered a lot of English speakers (apart from the cabbies for some reason!)

as an aside, a funny cabbie story:

Monday night, after the deluge, I decided I wanted to go to a little town near Coimbra to have the roast suckling pig. This small town is FAMOUS for this meal. Jancis Robinson of the Financial Times, and a well known wine writer, wrote an article about this town and its specialty - it's that good. I couldn't face another drive after being soaked so I took a cab to have this meal - it was still cold, raining, dark etc.

The cab driver on the way home was this tiny sweet little old man. Didn´t speak a lick of English.

He had a CD in his car that was FILTHY. I mean really bad - I won´t repeat what the songs said. It was hard rock-guitar but the words were BAD. Naturally I suspected this little old man had no idea what was being said.

In my very bad Portuguese and some sign language I asked him who the artist was. he pulled it out and showed me that it was a "home made" CD. I immediately asked him if his son (which I think is filho) made it for him. "yes yes", he smiled and waved. "My son". (in Portuguese). He told me his son speaks English. Now that is a mean son!! I was tempted to write a note to his son saying "NAUGHTY NAUGHTY!"

HAHAHA. Oh dear. The meal was amazing, btw. The only damper on the evening was that there were the beautiful handpainted tiles (azulejos) on the wall in front of me: The first scene showed Wilbur, Babe, and the Piglet sibs hanging out with Mama Pig. The next scene showed baby piglet with a spit up his arse, and farmer Joe holding the spit in front of the fire, with the title "entrada al forno" (meaning, entering the oven). Hard to enjoy the meal when you are looking at Wilbur and Babe.

ok, back to the impressions:

The ways Lisbon reminds me of San Francisco:
A suspension bridge that looks suspiciously like the Golden Gate Bridge
Very hilly
Cable cars
It was utterly devastated by an earthquake on All Saints' Day in 1755, and was consumed by fire in the aftermath. In other words Lisbon's buildings are post-1755 for the most part.

The ways Lisbon does not remind me of San Francisco:
No micro-climate. It gets a lot of sun and is temperate even in winter. (warmer than a San Francisco summer, in other words...)
Narrow rabbit warrens of streets, higgledy-piggledy all over the place. The "grid" of Lisbon is in a fairly narrow area.

and that's all folks! For now anyway... I hope you enjoyed my stories. Drop me a line!

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