Saturday, April 24, 2010

Lisbon Day 2


Michele and I had stayed inside the big cities except for when we were in Villanueva with Caroline, so we decided to take a day trip on this day. Our choices were Mafra and Sintra. We chose Mafra because the bus to Mafra was just outside the metro station. We weren't sure where we would need to catch the bus to Sintra. We finally found one of the green busses we were looking for. We asked a driver if we were at the stop, but we were actually in the area where busses parked when not in use. He gave us directions to the actual stop in English. His English wasn't great, but it was understandable and enough to get us where we needed to go. This illustrates another way Lisboa was more accessible to Americans than just the food. English is more often understood and spoken here than in Spain.

It took about an hour and a half to get to Mafra on the bus. One thing I saw along the way that I'm curious about was the three bladed wind turbines. I wonder how much power those put out when they're spinning at 20 RPM. I looked around online a bit, but couldn't come up with anything conclusive.

Mafra is the site of a hunting palace for King Juan the something. (I looked it up online and it's Juan V.) I don't have access to my vacation photos since I'm typing this up at Panera, so I'll just link to its wiki page.

We went through the church incorporated into the palace before lunch. It was modeled off St. Peter's in Rome. It wasn't as big as the old gothic cathederal or the Sagrada Familia, but it was still very impressive. I'd say it was on par with the gothic cathederal despite the size difference. The Sagrada Familia is so unique, that it's hard to compare anything else to it, and it's still under construction. There were six different organs, and forty plus statues, any of which could have been on displayh as the centerpiece of the art museum we had seen the day before.

We were hungry, so we got lunch before we saw the paid portion of the tour. We picked a little caffe and got the local burger offering. It's a little unusual in that it doesn't come with a bun, but is instead topped with a sunny side up egg. Despite being odd, it's actually a tasty combination. I got a 375 of wine with my meal, so I was feeling pretty mellow by the end of lunch. The caffe worker's (owner's) daughter played behind the counter while we ate. She would hide if Michele or I smiled or waved at her, but by the end of the meal I caught her watching us from behind the counter. She was very cute and looked to be about four.

We toured the palace, which was the complete opposite of the castle we had seen the day before. Somewhere between 100,000 and 150,000 man years of effort went into the construction of this palace. The effort was financed by gold returned to Portugal from Brazil. My notes say that the pictures provide a better picture of royal comfort than I can describe, so I guess I will need to attach a few to this blog post when I get home.

The game room had an immense pocket billiard table, it had to have been at least a 6x12 foot table, but it could have been 7x14, 8x16 or maybe even larger. Apparantly, side pockets had not been added to the table yet, so everything would need to be shot into the corners. That would make any game played on that table difficult beyond belief.

Another oddity was the trophy room. I have never seen so many antlers in one place. The legs and backs of every chair were made of antlers. The legs of every table were made of antlers. All the wall decorations consisted of antlers.

My favorite part of the castle was the library. The had 40,000 books, which is a vast store of knowledge in the 18th century. The monks who did the book binding kept bats in the library to hold down the population of book eating insects. There was even what looked to be an early copy of Newton's Principia Mathmatica on display.

When we took the bus back to Lisboa, I'm not sure what the posted time was for our stop, but it seemed like we waited at least half an hour more than we should have. This had been a good day for a side trip. It had been drizzling most of the day, but we spent most of the time we would have otherwise been getting rained on indoors or on the bus.

After we got back to town, we found the bus station to get tickets for the bus ride back to Madrid. We had to follow the red line all the way to the last stop to get to the bus station. It was confusing to find the right ticket stand to buy tickets. We ended up having to ask someone where was obviously not the one we needed to buy tickets from where to go. We used most of our remaining Euros for the tickets and the rest for dinner. The woman who sold us the tickets spoke very litte English, but she was able to tell us where to wait for the bus. The bus didn't leave until 9:45, so we were a little worried about how to spend our last day in Lisbon since we were going to have to check out of the hotel in the morning.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Lisbon Day 1


When we got up for breakfast, it was raining. My stolen umbrella would have been useful. We got complementary breakfast for staying at the hotel. That consisted of a hot drink, I always got tea and Michele coffee, either a ham or a cheese sandwich, and a little yellow muffin which was more like a cupcake without icing. Very tasty!

The little teapots they used were tricky. You had to lift the lid up to pour without making a mess. The lid was still hot on my second attempt to pour, and that didn't go very well either. Even when I finally had the hang of it, I still dribbled a little tea when I poured.

On the way back to the hotel, it was pouring. My umbrella would have come in really handy now. I got completely soaked going half a block back to the hotel. It was more the water coming down off the roof than anything. I was afraid I was going to have to pitch the t-shirt it was so wet. However, I was able to ring it out enough to get it to dry by hanging it in the window. While we were waiting for the weather to clear, we watched a top 10 countdown of Aerosmith videos and a show called Geezers Gone Wild which showed celebrities over 50 doing strange things.

Once it stopped raining, we headed to the Baxia district and worked our way down to the waterfront. The Baxia district is the old center of town, and it's where we had eaten the night before.

The streets in the Baxia district kind of merge with the plazas and walkways because you're always walking on Marble. After a few surprises the day before where cars were driving in places we didn't expect them, we learned to follow the crowd.

We were going to try to find an archeological museum, but we ended up finding an art museum instead. Other than a few priceless statues, the rest of the musuem was underwhelming. I guess seeing a few priceless statues was worth four euros though.

Our main goal for the day was to see the castle in the Alfama district. This is the old Arabic part of town; it is also the portion of the city which survived an earthquake a few jundred years back. The guide book warns that you will get lost even with a good map. Our map wasn't that good, but more on that later.

Finding the castle wasn't too bad because it was located on top of a hill. Even when you would take a staircase up to an unlabeled road, you could just keep heading uphill. About one third of the way up, we stopped at a church. According to my notes, I need to look at the photos to see what kind of church this was. We saw so many churches, this one really didn't stand out in my memory. However, as you can see from the images above, it's still a rather nice example of a medieval church.

About another one third of the way up, we stopped to eat. The special of the day got me a huge slab of salmon, boiled potatoes, bread, wine, and grapes for desert. Michele got 2 pork chops, fries, bread, wine, and creme brulee for desert. This was the best meal I had in the entire vacation, and it was just 20 euros for the two of us to eat. I liked the restaurant so much, I got a photo of its name. Now that we were well fed, we headed up the rest of the hill to get to the castle.

The castle was amazing; the walls kept getting higher as you moved into the central keep. There were so many ways defenders could shoot or drop things down onto the heads of attackers who managed to clear the previous wall. There would have been nothing romantic about living in this castle. It was all function and no comfort unless you count a stone chair as comfortable. The views of the city were absolutely amazing, especially from the towers.

We should have tried to come up with our exit strategy for leaving the castle while we still had a bird's eye view of the Alfama district. Just heading downhill isn't a working strategy, and we quickly got turned around on the nameless streets and stairways which hadn't been a big problem when heading uphill.

We kept looking for a way to get back to the Baxia district, and according to the map we should have been able to get their multiple ways. It seemed like our best bet was to head due West, instead of heading South the way we had come to the castle. However, we obviously were not in a tourist area any longer. There were mothers with young children about, so it seemed like a safe residential area we were in. However, once we saw four men doing something that involved exchanging money, Michele ducked into a shop to ask for directions. I would describe it as an area where you could find trouble, but trouble wouldn't come looking for you. However, I wouldn't want to trust that statement to hold true after dark. Fortunately, it was still mid afternoon.

We pointed to the Baxia district on the map and said metro. The shop keeper and his wife started giving us directions, but we couldn't understand a word of them. The Michele pointed to our stop on the metro and said "Intendente." (The name of our metro stop.) Immediately, the shopkeepers said, "Oh, Intendente!" The motioned for us to follow them to the front of their store. When we reached the doorway, the motioned for us to keep following the road we were on as far as we could. We followed that little street until we saw an obviously larger one running parallel a block over.

That was Avenue Almirante, the same road our hotel was on. We exited the Alfama district three blocks south of our hotel. That night, after getting thoroughly lost, we wanted to stay close to the hotel for dinner, so we just ate at the same cafe where we got breakfast. We ended up eating there a lot. We got a cold flatbread pizza with several toppings and then some sweets. I also tried one of the Portuguese beers the guidebook mentioned, Superbok. I don't think the Germans would describe this beer as a bok; it seemed more like a pilsner to me. However, it was good.

Monday, April 12, 2010

From Spain to Lisbon


We had gone to an internet cafe, and it had looked like there would be plenty of space on the bus from Badajoz to Lisbon. The bus ride from Villanueva to Badajoz was uneventful. Unfortunately, that's when things started to go wrong. The people working the ticket counters were extremely unhelpful passing us back and forth between two different windows without telling us why. Not that I would have understood, but Michele might have. After going to the information desk to find out that we had been at the right desks, Michele wrote out the question of how do we get to Lisbon. Only then did the guy at the counter write back that the bus was full.

We called Caroline but couldn't get her. We tried calling Juan Carlos, who was at a different school, so he couldn't have her call us immediately. When Caroline did get the message to call us, she told us to try taking a bus to a different destination, and trying to get to Lisbon from there. There was one to Elvas Portugal, and a guidebook told us that there should be plenty of busses running to Lisbon from there. Badajoz and Elvas are both very close to the border, so you don't actually need tickets for the bus between them. You just give the driver a Euro or two for the fare.

We got a little nervous waiting for the bus, because the noon bus was about fifteen minutes late. While we were waiting, an American couple from Columbus Ohio asked what we were waiting for, and they wanted the same bus. We talked to them on the bus ride. They had been down in Morocco and had come back through Gibraltar. They said they had crossed five different languages in a day's time. French and Arabic in Morocco, English in Gibraltar, then Spanish and Portuguese.

When we arrived in Elvas, we had a little over an hour to wait because of a time zone change. It looked like there were interesting sights to see, but I just took what pictures I could from the bus station. The other Americans were more adventurous. They had and extra half hour to wait for their bus, so they took their backpacks and went sightseeing. They would have been happier with some lockers to stow their stuff in, but they were willing to lug it around for a closer look at the town. Michele and I were content to sit and read after the difficulties we had securing passage to Lisbon.

Driving through Portugal, I was struck by how much greener it was than Spain. The terrain was still rocky, but green. Actually driving into Lisbon is an impressive sight. It is almost like the city was built on the side of a bowl and at the bottom of the bowl you have the Atlantic Ocean.

We discovered that our guidebook was a bit out of date when we went to buy metro passes after getting off the bus. You only got 9 trips per pass instead of 10, and you couldn't share 1 pass for two people. It ended up working out, but we did a lot of walking our last day in Lisbon to conserve those final few trips.

It was only a half a block from the metro stop to our hotel, Residencia do Sul. It was the most modest of all the places we stayed. We had seen the street from Google street view, so we knew we were in the right place. In fact the picture below is from Google, which is really kind of Amazing when you think about it. This was the most modest of the three hotels we stayed in. The lift was a tiny little thing and you had to shut the door manually. We only used it to get our luggage into or out of the hotel. (That is, twice.) There was just enough space in the room to walk around the bed, and it was a 3/4 bath instead of a full bath. This room was also tiny. One hazard of this was that the pipes ran atop the tile, and you could burn yourself on the hot water pipe if you weren't careful.

The hotel was old, but it was also nice. It was also the least expensive of the places we said. Only 162 Euros for 3 nights. One modernization was that the hallway lights were on motion sensors. One oddity was that it used a real key instead of a keycard, and you left it at the desk when you went out into the city.

After unpacking, we took the metro down to the main square and looked around a bit. Once we picked a place to eat, I decided that Portuguese food was more accessible than Spanish food. I might be in the minority, but it seems like a pretty good guess that the average American would agree with me. The pictures on the menu all looked good to me. In Spain, my reaction was, more often that not, what in the world possessed anyone to cook that? I had read that cod was an important food in Portugal, so I had some fried cod. Granted, that's not very exotic, but it was tasty. Michele, got a saussage which tasted like it had some seafood in it when I tried a bite. The other difference I noticed was that the portions served here were larger than anything I received in Spain with the exception of the hotel meal in Barcelona. There were fewer fries than you would get in America, but the piece of cod was huge. Perhaps it was no accident that the average Spanish person I was was skinnier than the average Portuguese. After we were done eating, we took the metro back to the hotel and rested after a stressful day of travel.