"To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield"
- Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1833
"live deep and suck out all the marrow of life"
- Henry David Thoreau, 1845
"Some guys, they just give up living
And start dying little by little, piece by piece
Some guys come home from work and wash up,
And go racin' in the streets."
- Bruce Springsteen, 1977
"...to the heart, there's no time for you to waste.
You won't find your precious answers now
by staying in one place."
- Frank Turner, 2009
All written content and photos by Rob Fulfer unless otherwise indicated.
All written content and photos by Rob Fulfer unless otherwise indicated.
Monday, January 3, 2011
LonLisBar Trip (Days 3 & 4) - 47 Hours in Portugal
Wednesday, December 29, 2010: It is about a two-hour direct flight from London to Lisbon, Portugal. We arrived at 10 AM local time. We had pre-arranged a transfer from the airport to our hotel, the Real Palacio, since we didn't speak the language and were a bit afraid of getting rooked on a cab ride (go ahead with the London cracks now). Anyway, the guy met us at the end of baggage claim with our name on a sheet of paper. Very efficient and courteous. His only warning about Lisbon was pickpockets. He said we could safely walk around on basically any street in Lisbon without fear of muggings. The ride was short to the hotel since the airport is very close to the city. We couldn't check in until noon unfortunately so we killed an hour or so just walking around a bit and having a drink in an outdoor cafe next to a duck pond. The glorious sun was shining down and it felt great on our faces after days without it at home and in London. Lisbon's climate is somewhat tropical being on the coast of the southern end of the Northern Atlantic Ocean. Their grass stays green year round and palm trees are common. It was only in the 60's but it felt like summer to us.
We ambled back to the hotel at noon and got our room squared away. The friendly staff said they gave us an upgrade, but no reason really why and at no cost. Sounds good to us! The room was very nice, quite spacious and included a large balcony with a table and chairs and a good view of part of the city (photo above). We rested and freshened up before our 2 PM city tour. We were to meet our tour guide in a large city square known as Rossio in the older part of town. It was about 10 minutes away by cab and the fair was minuscule. That solved the problem of getting back to the airport we figured. We grabbed a sandwich before the tour began in a little corner deli. A few minutes after 2 PM a little red van with a "14" painted on the side rolled into the square and parked. Out jumped, Bruno, our guide in what was to be a private tour since no one else had signed up for the afternoon city tour. Bruno, we came to find out, actually owned and started the tour company nine months ago which is cleverly called "We Hate Tourism Tours." It's a fresh approach to touring where young, educated locals who love their city take you on a fairly off-the-beaten-path jaunt much the way a friend would do if you were visiting. It's very informal with conversation back and forth between the tourists and tour operator instead of just a non-stop droning of dates and names by the tour guide.
Bruno's approach is very sincere. He is very proud of his city and his country, but doesn't whitewash the problems that Lisbon and Portugal are facing which include a somewhat crumbling infrastructure, general apathy toward national pride by its residents, bureaucracy in government, etc. There is a rich history in the city and nation, but instead of bombarding us with dates of historic importance, Bruno wove a tale of how tiny Portugal was at one time considered a superpower in the 15th and 16th centuries in terms of its successful navy and prowess in exploring and discovery led by such greats as Vasco de Gama. However, unlike the English, French and Spanish, the Portuguese never set out to conquer new lands and were content with what they had. Bruno says this attitude seems to linger on throughout history as Portugal stayed neutral in World War II for example and on to modern day while only gaining democracy in the mid-70's in a bloodless revolution. The city itself was almost completely leveled by an earthquake in 1755 (OK, that's a pretty important date to remember).
The tour we were on is called "The Seven Hills Tour" because Lisbon is surrounded by seven different hills and we went to all of them for some fantastic panoramic views of the city including its oldest neighborhood, Alfama, (photo above) which was actually able to survive the aforementioned earthquake. Probably the most amazing thing about the tour was the fact that Bruno could tell us about his city and his country while answering our questions all while navigating the little van through some of the craziest narrow streets you will ever see (photo above). Plus with all the hills you have steep grades and sharp turns to tend with as well. Lisbon reminds one of a very old San Francisco with its hills, curvy and steep streets, famous cable cars, and it even has a bridge that is similar to the Golden Gate. The tour ended before we knew it and Bruno took us back to our hotel (just like a friend would do) so we could get ready for dinner and another late night bar crawl tour with..guess who....We Hate Tourism Tours (WHTT)! It wouldn't be Bruno this time, but two of his associates, Vinnie and Ricardo. One doing the driving and one doing the bar crawling with us...just like friends would do. Bruno did give us a couple of good suggestions for dinner. One is very small and very popular, and was already booked for the night, so we went ahead and got a table for it the next night. More on that later.
We showered and changed for dinner and were back out the door and in a cab headed back to Old Town for dinner. The place we had picked out from Bruno's other suggestions was closed unfortunately, so we wandered around a bit and came upon a small place called Floresta do Calhariz ("the forest of Calhariz" which is the name of the neighborhood). It was VERY small and VERY local but we were treated nicely and as much English as could be mustered by the staff was given to us. We do have to give it up to Lisbon and what parts of Portugal we saw for being very English-language acceptable. Many signs are in English as well as Portuguese and a majority of the people (especially the younger ones) can speak fairly fluent English. Our dinner choices were as local as we could get: octopus and rice for Ashlee, and steak Portuguese-style for Rob. Before dinner was served we were given bread as well as a large plate of cheese and a Portuguese style of prosciutto that was delicious. It was well into dinner when noticed one of the staff slicing the prosciutto ham right off the shank with hoof and all (photo above). Prices were reasonable again taking into account that Portugal uses the Euro and the U.S. dollar is very weak to the Euro...about 60 cents to one Euro while we were there.
After dinner we made our way back to Rossio Square again to meet the WHTT folks. Many of the Lisbon streets were decked out in beautiful Christmas lighting (take note, London) and we enjoyed a nice stroll (photo above). Pulling in the square with little red #14 again to pick us up was the always-smiling, Ricardo, who bears a striking resemblance to Johnny Knoxville of "Jackass" fame. NOTE: Ashlee says Johnny Knoxville only wishes he looked as good as Ricardo does. Ricardo informed us that he would be the driver tonight during the "We Own the Night" bar crawl and our tour leader (and drinking companion) would be Vinnie who we were going to pick up along with a couple of other tourers. We found Vinnie as well as Nick from Texas and Raphael from Brazil (L to R in photo below) at a hostel nearby. Vinnie handed us two large bottles of beer as he climbed in the van and some plastic cups. "Hello. I'm Vinnie," he said. "Start pouring!" And we were off on quite an adventure some of which won't make the pages of this public blog. A few things we can mention include entrance into four very different kinds of bars that we would have never found on our own, interesting local cocktails and great wine ordered at each of these establishments, drinking wine that Ricardo (photo left) surprised us with that we drank up in a tree (apparently it's a tradition), buying "illegal" pastries from a bakery and buying beer in the street out of a guy's backpack. Most of their pub crawl tours go from about 10 PM to midnight...ours lasted to 3 A.M. Succinctly put, this was a "Top Night" to say the least. Thanks again, WHTT, you guys are two for two!
Thursday, December 30, 2010
Interesting side-note: A hangover in Portugal feels the same as it does anywhere else.
Our day tour today mercifully started at 9 A.M. instead of 7:30 like the one in England. We were going for the trifecta today as we had, yes, booked yet another tour with WHTT. This one is called the X-Day Tour and it would be taking us an hour or so outside of Lisbon to Sintra, a village and World Heritage Site set in a mountainous region sprinkled with huge palaces, and then on to the coast of Portugal through the beautiful resort town of Cascais and back to bay side of Lisbon. We were told the night before that it looked like there would be two vans' worth of people going on this tour and Ricardo would be our driver...which would certainly make Ashlee happy! We made our way back down to the Rossio Square in the rain with a few minutes to spare so we could get a Coke at the weird McDonald's there....yep, they sell beer in there just like they talk about in "Pulp Fiction"...they also serve spinach dip as an entree' and you have to ask for ice in your soft drinks. Hey, it's Europe.
Twenty minutes or so past 9 AM, the little red WHTT "14" van puttered into the square and a young lady got out. Ten people including us met her. She introduced herself as Marta and apologized for being late, but she had a bit of bad news. The little yellow van "27" was not cooperating this morning and Ricardo was working on it (he's got degrees in English and Portuguese literature and is also the company mechanic!). Marta went on to say that they only had room for eight people in "14." Would anyone consider going on tomorrow's tour? Everyone was quiet and although we couldn't go the next day, we both admitted to each other later that the thought crossed our hung-over minds to volunteer to not go and head back to the room and sleep. Finally, a couple of gals said they could and would go tomorrow if they could be promised better weather. It was a good point. As we climbed in the little van in the drizzling rain and headed out of Lisbon for what might be a long, dreary day, we wondered if we had made the right choice. It would soon prove to be one of the best decisions we have ever made.
As we climbed toward Sintra the weather did improve. The sky lightened and the rain pretty much stopped by the time we pulled into the little mountain town. We walked through the village looking up to the mountain-tops to where Marta promised there were large palaces overlooking us, but all we could see was fog (photo above). It still made for a lovely setting and we explored the first palace near town which was admittedly in a bit of disrepair in our opinion. We weren't overly impressed but there was no cost to see it. When we got to the next one higher up the mountain called Quinta da Regaleira, we had to pay an entrance fee. Marta promised it was worth the minimal cost and compared it to a Disneyland for adults. Hmmm?? Well, one thing about it. The place was absolutely amazing. It looked like it had been pulled out of a Lord of the Rings novel with cool accessible stone towers (photo above) overlooking the town of Sintra and the valley below. There were cobblestone paths through beautiful, lush natural gardens plus grottos and caves to explore. The palace itself was exquisite with multiple stories offering more great views and interesting rooms including a library with a mirrored floor that gives you a real case of vertigo.
Just as we finished the palace tour the rain came again. We climbed in the van and crested the top of the mountain and started heading down the other side toward the coast. We caught glimpses of other palaces along the way. Marta said Sintra was a great place to spend not only a few hours, but a whole weekend. She's got that right. What an amazing place. As we approached our lunch spot on the coast the rain suddenly stopped and blue skies began poking through the heavy cloud cover. It was as close to a miracle as we have seen in our lives. We pulled into our next destination, Caba da Roca (photo above), an amazing lighthouse set on a high cliff over the coast and the westernmost point of continental Europe. We picnicked out of the back of the van as the sun shone down on us with local sandwiches, chips and cheese provided by WHTT. The views here made it all worth the effort and made us truly feel fortunate for not backing out of the tour earlier in the day.
After lunch we reluctantly packed up and left this beautiful place, but Marta promised us a little beach time next and the weather was still cooperating nicely. We stopped at a famous surfers' hangout called Guincho Beach (photo above). The sand here was soft and beautiful. The waves were booming in beautiful chorus. It was hard to resist the urge to wade in to the surf. We have definitely got to come back here when it's warmer! We headed on into Cascais, a rather large resort and beach town that can be reached from Lisbon by train and is very popular in the summer according to Marta. We can see why. This looks like a great place to spend a week or so. They call it Portugal's version of Monte Carlo with tons of hotels, shopping and even a large casino. The road back to Lisbon hugged the coast for more beautiful views. The weather kept cooperating and soon we arrived in the Belem district of Lisbon which faces the river and bay that meet the Atlantic Ocean. We stopped at the Monument to the Discoveries which celebrates the exploring history of the Portuguese. You could pay a few Euro and go to the top of this 170' concrete structure for some amazing views of Lisbon (photo below) and the surrounding bay. Afterwards we strolled over to check out the country's amazing national cathedral and its surrounding parks and gardens. As a finale' to the great tour, Marta led us to a little pastry shop called Pasteis de Belem. This place has been a national treasure for a long time (1837 to be exact - see photo below) to the people of Lisbon and once you bite into their wares you know why. Delicious and decadent! A perfect way to end a pretty-much perfect day. Thanks again to WHTT for providing another great, affordable tour!
We got back to our hotel in time to rest up a bit and prepare for our dinner reservations at 8 P.M. at 100 Maneiras (100 Ways). Dinner starts late in Lisbon and this was their first reservation time of the evening that was available. In fact, when we got there at about 5 minutes before 8, they weren't even open yet. The concept behind 100 Maneiras is simple. It's a tapas-style, small-plate predetermined menu, but their are 12, count 'em 12, courses! What an array of taste sensations varying from seafood to beef. Below are photos of just a few of the courses.
We turned in relatively early (heck, our meal lasted three hours!) since we had a plane to catch the next morning despite some invitations we had from some of the WHTT folks wanting us to come out and meet them again. Too much of good thing can be dangerous, so we had to decline their offers! We really fell in love with Lisbon and vow to come back when the weather's a bit warmer and we can enjoy the beaches. This stop has been the real surprise of the trip so far for us since, admittedly, when didn't know a whole lot about Lisbon or Portugal before we came here. Thanks again to the wonderful crew of WHTT from making this one of our top 5 vacation memories so far.
It's on to Barcelona, Spain, in the morning!