Thursday, 6 May 2010

PORTUGAL, My Grandparents, and Becky!

Having to leave Amsterdam so soon was sad, but 3 days in that city definitely seemed like a good amount of time. And whatever sadness I may have been feeling about saying goodbye to Alice's and my vacation was completely replaced with excitement every time I realized I was now on my way to Portugal!! Yes, next up on my European vacation was a week of sun in Lisbon with my grandparents and Becky. After spending the semester in Edinburgh, and despite the nice weather I lucked into in Switzerland, the idea of spending some quality time with the ocean and the sun--and of course my grandparents--was absolutely splendid.

Day 1 of Portugal: Wake up in Amsterdam, fall asleep in Portugal
One of my favorite things about Europe is the ease with which one can hop on a plane in one country, and a few hours later, be in a completely different country on the other side of the continent. After a pretty painless morning of flying from Amsterdam, I arrived in Portugal and immediately found my grandparents waiting for me at my baggage claim. It turns out their travels had not gone as smoothly initially as mine had, and they had already been separated from their bags coming from Chicago. However, we were finally about to embark on the trip we had been talking about for months, so the excitement overwhelmed the frustration with baggage almost immediately. The drive from the airport to the hotel only confirmed our excitement. The city of Lisbon is gorgeous! Again, another completely different city with it's own feel, culture, and architecture, and I was blown away by the buildings and the tiled sidewalks that filled the city. Everything was so bright, colorful, and artistic, and the atmosphere of the city definitely matched the sunny weather. Once I saw the ocean, I was hooked on Portugal. Anyways, we arrived at the hotel by early evening...our hotel had an amazing location. It was right off of the main street through Lisbon that eventually lead down to Rossio Square, through Lisbon's 'downtown' area, and ended at the waterfront. After settling in and resting for a bit, we headed out for our first authentic Portuguese meal at a local's restaurant right outside our hotel! We quickly learned what a traditional Portuguese meal consisted of--either fish or meat, both served with fries. Since I'm not a huge fish fan, I stuck with steak, and it was absolutely delicious. The waiters in this local's place were so much fun, and combined with wine and a fabulous dessert, it was a great first night in the city.

Day 2 in Portugal: Sintra, Cais Cais, and Rodrigo!
For our first real day in Lisbon, we decided to leave the city and go explore Portugal with our trusty driver, Rodrigo. This turned out to be an absolutely amazing idea. First of all, Rodrigo was incredible. He knew so much about everything involving Portugal from politics to cork trees. So, as we ventured out of Lisbon and towards a quaint little resort town called Sintra, my grandparents and I bombarded Rodrigo with questions and listened as he told stories and listed off fun facts about the country. As we drove, we got to see the Portuguese country side (which we would see more of on our next day trip), but this little introduction was stunning. Our first stop on our day trip was Sintra--this town is set up on a mountain (by Portuguese standards) and therefore benefits from cooler weather during Portugal's hot summers. Because of this attractive climate and semi-exclusiveness of the area, the Portuguese kings and queens enjoyed summers in Sintra. Thus, we spent a lot of our time there touring their magnificently tiled palaces and gardens. And, since people usually followed royalty around wherever they went back in the 13th-or-so century, the town of Sintra prospered because of the attention given to it by the kings and queens. The buildings and streets in the town were old but beautiful, and being built on the side of a lush mountain side added even more charm to the gorgeous town. Everything, we quickly began to notice, was decorated with tiles. Streets, buildings, palaces, furniture--literally anything you could think to stick tile work on, Portugal did it, and we would only see more of these beautiful decorations as we continued our tour around the country.

The town of Sintra from the Royal Palace
The inside of the Palace with all of the amazing tiles!
Colorful buildings in Cais Cais. I want my next house to be that color!
Next up on our list of stops was Portugal's, and therefore Europe's western-most point and lighthouse. The white-washed lighthouse on the cliffs was eerily reminiscent of standing at Dunnet head's lighthouse in Scotland and being at the northern-most point in Great Britain. So, having made it to the western-most point now, all I needed to complete the hat-trick (if you will) would be south and east. That seeming quit improbable, I settled for soaking up this point in Portugal, because the ocean, cliffs, and lighthouse were definitely an amazing sight to see, especially with my grandparents standing at my side. Once we had our fill of the wind that refused to leave us alone at the cliffs though, we headed for Cais Cais, another resorty-type of town on Portugal's coast that proved to be yet another reminder of why everyone should visit Portugal--beautiful tiles, amazingly colorful houses, the ocean, and super friendly people everywhere. We walked around the streets for a while before ducking into a really great restaurant for some lunch. Afterwards, we attempted to visit Cais Cais's famous casino so we could test out or gambling skills, but it wasn't open until later in the evening, so we would just have to wait to put our skills to the test.

The western-most point in Europe!!!
Having soaked up a good taste of Portugal's smaller towns, we headed back to Lisbon and took a little driving tour of the older and most noteworthy parts of the city with Rodrigo, who of course, had lots of knowledge to share about every place he took us to. We drove past the various monuments dedicated to all of Portugal's explorers (and there are impressive amount of these!), lots of cathedrals and nunneries, and finally, around Lisbon's most historically rich section of downtown. Rossio Square and the Alfama neighborhood are traditionally recognized as Lisbon's jewish quarters, and the neighborhood is one of the only surviving areas of the massive earthquake that flattened the city in the 1700's. Rossio Square, historically, is also sight of extreme violence against the Jews that were forced out of the city's walls, and so as we passed through the square, my grandparents and I said the Yahrzeit prayer in honor of that memory. With Rodrigo's special privileges, we were also allowed to drive all the way through the Alfama, which consisted of some of the smallest, steepest streets I'd seen yet, and houses that were so close to each other, that you could literally reach out of one window and be able to shake hands with your neighbor across the street. This, as Rodrigo explained, is one of the foundations of Portuguese culture--the concept of a neighborhood being so engrained in one's life. When you live that close to your neighbors, a family type of environment is almost impossible not to cultivate, and it was really interesting to try and imagine coming from that type of atmosphere.

Lisbon's Alfama neighborhood
After a long but amazing day touring around Portugal, we got rested up in the hotel and set out to one of the fanciest dinners I've ever been a part off. As a birthday gift to my grandma, my family bought us a dinner out at Lisbon's nicest restaurant, so my Grandpa and I were able to tag along on my Grandma's present, and it was incredible! This restaurant sat on top of a hill overlooking the water, all of Lisbon's down town, and the castle walls, and as the sun set and all of the city lights began to turn on, we felt like we were the king and queens of Portugal. After 4 courses of amazing food and wine, we finished up the dinner with the best strawberry rhubarb pie I've ever tasted, and proceeded to roll on back to our hotel vowing to never eat again. Since the next day was Easter Sunday, we all agreed to sleep in a little and try and recover from our massive food coma, so we called it a night and went to sleep dreaming of the amazing dinner that capped off an incredible day perfectly.

Day 3 in Portugal: The Expo, casinos, and more meat (of course)
As we suspected, Portugal shuts down on Easter Sunday. For our first full day in Lisbon, most of the shops and all of the museums were closed, so we decided to check out the Expo area of the city and take advantage of the extremely warm and sunny day we had been given. So, after a delicious breakfast at our hotel, we headed out to the Expo. However, before we made it into a taxi, my Grandpa and I spotted a little Sunday fair going on steps away from our hotel and took my Grandma over there with us to check out the vendors. I spotted a beautiful ring at one of the stands, and after telling my Grandpa about the rings I've been able to collect from China, Spain, and Scotland, he helped me pick out one that I could add to my collection from Portugal!! After that though, we headed to Expo--this part of the city was recently renovated and remodeled by a couple of famous architecture and with the aid of lots and lots of government money. The result is an entire area that was saved from swamp land and is now home to fancy apartment buildings, nice restaurants, lots of space to walk and meet near the water, and lucky for us, and enormous casino!! So, after walking along the water and admiring all of the new buildings that had intricate tile designs everywhere, we stopped for lunch at nothing less than a restaurant that featured meat (not that we hadn't had enough Portuguese meats by this point) before we finally made it to the casino for some serious gambling. When I say serious gambling, keep in mind this was my first time ever sitting down in front of the slot machines, but with some quality tips from my Grandma and lots of support from my Grandpa, I proceeded to loose every penny I had. We all decided after that to give up our hopes of hitting it rich, but I know get to say I've gambled, and in Portugal for the first time of all places!

New train station in Expo--isn't it cool?
After coming up short in the slots, we headed back to Lisbon and walked back to Rossio Square to soak up some of the Easter Sunday crowds. I can't even explain to you how much I loved being in the sun, after being separated from it for about 8 months, so any excuse I could find to be outside I took. We walked around for a while, but after almost too much time in the sun, we decided to head in for a light dinner and then bed. We began to realize though, that our stay in Portugal was just over half way done which was not a very comforting thought. However, another day trip around the country and a visit from my friend Becky were all still ahead of us, so life was still ok.

Day 4 in Portugal: 2nd Road Trip and Becky's arrival!!
Day 4 started early, with Rodrigo picking us up at our hotel and setting off up north, through the beautiful countryside and past the heart of cork-land in Portugal. We learned all about hour cork, Portugal's number one export, is made and how it takes trees 9 years to replenish their cork bark after it has been removed. That's a really long time! We also heard more about Portugal's history, how they are adjusting to their new membership in the EU, and we even heard stories about Rodrigo's history. His family was incredible to hear about. His grandmother became Portugal's first female working tour-guide in a time where work permits were not given to women under very many circumstances. His grandfather used to be an extremely wealthy land owner until he gambled away his fortunes (a lesson to us after all of our gambling the day before!) and left his grandmother with something like 11 children! As we drove, Rodrigo pointed out all of the small towns built up around various castles that stood in ruins along the countryside. It was incredible to have a tour guide that knew so much about the country and who really loved his definitely added to the entire experience.

We made it to our first stop of the day, a very small Portuguese rug-manufacturing village that consisted of one central square and a few surrounding streets. Rodrigo explained that the houses were all white and had one of two colors painted around the windows and doors for a very specific reason. Either blue or orange paint could be seen on the houses because those colors had significant meanings of protection and health. So, the entire town looked the same, but it was gorgeous. We got out to look around a rug making store, and saw two old women working hard on a few massive rugs. They were so beautiful and just trying to imagine sitting in a dark room and having to painstakingly stitch every inch of these massive rugs was hard to do. After the rugs, we walked around a bit and finally made it to the main square, where we saw old men gossiping on one side of the benches and old women gossiping on the other. After soaking in the sun and getting a little caffeine, we headed back out into the countryside though and headed for the next big town we wanted to see that day.

The small town of Tapetas de Arraiolos
Making rugs...look at how big they are!
Our next stop was Evora, a slightly larger town where the majority of the city is crammed together inside 5th century temple walls that still stand today. The streets are narrow and Rodrigo hesitated even driving through the city because of the massive traffic jams that are caused within the castle walls. However, after taking us on a quick driving tour, he dropped us off in the central square and let us explore for the afternoon. We picked up a map from the tourist center and proceeded to walk to the Roman ruins that stood at the top of the town. These were incredible and after taking some mandatory pictures there, we were able to go into the public library that boasted incredibly old books that were caged away out of reach. We were lucky enough to also see some really old letters and papers that one man had out while he worked on restoring them. The history of the entire country just continued to boggled my mind. We kept walking around after that, eventually ending up at an outdoor lunch place and some beautiful gardens where I befriended a peacock. Finally, since the outdoor market was closed for the day, we made our last stop in Evora at the Temple of Bones. This, to say the least, was quite the experience. The Temple of Bones is exactly what it sounds like...and entire temple constructed out of human bones. The walls were made out of femers while the pillars were made out of skulls and arm bones. It was really eery and kind of gross, but something about it was also pretty neat. I'm not sure if I never need to see another temple like that one (even though we were assured there are more out there like this one), but it was just another experience to add to my list of them over the past couple of months.

Me and Grandpa in front of the Roman ruins--we're a pretty good looking pair
My grandparents in Evora!! You guys are the best!
The narrow, crowded streets of Evora
The Temple of Bones!!!
After digesting the bones, we headed back to Lisbon with a quick drive around one of the main marble and tile manufacturing towns of Portugal first, but we had a very important person to meet up with back at our hotel, so we hurried back. My friend Becky had come down to Portugal to meet us from where she was studying in Spain, so I was super excited to see her once I found her sitting in my hotel room. I haven't seen very many people from Bowdoin this semester because no one else chose to study in Scotland, so seeing Becky was so nice. My grandparents agreed to let her tag along on the last portion of our trip and we all had a blast together that night as we took her back to the local Portuguese restaurant that we had found on our first night. Becks got a little taste of the real Portuguese food....meat, of course...and afterwards, Becky and I walked around the city and down to the water before getting a glass of wine and going to bed.

Becky arrives!
Day 5 in Portugal: Museums and Taxi Troubles
With Becky with us, my grandparents and I were determined to get in a little museum time on our last day in Portugal. We all decided to go check out the big art museum that boasted one man's private collection of all types of art from B.C. artifacts to Van Gough paintings. Not really sure what to expect, we were all blown away by the museum. The extent of the man's art collection was mind-boggling, and to think of one man collecting all of these beautiful and so completely different artifacts throughout centuries was pretty impressive. He had bibles and old testament books, Roman and Greek coins, amazing sculptures dating wayyyyy back, and an astonishing painting collection to top it all off. After some serious time being impressed by all of the art, we went out for lunch at the museum's cafe and were even more impressed by the gardens that the museum had. As a little present to Becky and I, my grandparents got both of us jewelry that was inspired by these gardens, so not only is it extremely unique, but it will also always remind us of the amazing museum and our overall incredible trip to Portugal! After having our jewelry in hand, we set off to the next museum we had chosen, but would never make it there. Instead, the taxi we got into took us to the Electricity Museum which was a twenty minute ride away from where we actually wanted to be, even after showing him the address of the museum we actually wanted to go to. Before we could realize his mistake, he had dropped us off in basically the middle of nowhere and drove away. Well, that was interesting. We decided to walk to the main street that was near the museum to look for another cab, but the main street turned out to be a highway that proved to be nearly impossible to catch a cab from. After trying for about ten minutes on the side of the busy road, we spotted what turned out to be a smaller square where a line of taxis had lined up, so our crisis was averted, but after having that many troubles and being that far away from our museums, we decided to give up and just take Becky back to the Expo to relax and walk around some more.

Expo area with all of the flags, water, and cool tiled sidewalks!
This ended up being perfect. We made it back to the Expo unscathed and walked around the huge mall there for a while before getting some ice cream, wandering around outside for a bit, and finally going back to our hotel before our last dinner. Becky and I got some afternoon wine, because you know, why not?, and then met up with my grandparents for dinner. We decided we had had enough meat for...ever we set out to find a restaurant that had chicken. We found one that was off of the main drag on a little side street and had the most amazing roast chicken. A very delicious and fitting meal for our last one in Portugal. It was hard to believe the trip had finally come to an end. It was an absolutely amazing 5 days in one of my new favorite countries. All of the people we met were incredibly nice, the weather and cities both were absolutely beautiful, and spending some quality time with my grandparents was incredible. Also, being able to have them meet Becky and see her in Portugal was so much fun. All and all, it was a trip for the ages...thanks Grandma and Grandpa--I'll never forget it!

Day 6 back in Edinburgh: Becky comes to Scotland..Without her Wallet!
Leaving Portugal meant another day of traveling, but this time I was doing it with Becky, so it was all much more fun. Everything ran smoothly enough until we got on our flight to Edinburgh when mid-way through we were approached by the flight attendant and asked if anyone in our row had lost a wallet. Becky and I both shook our heads, but the flight attendant asked us again and then asked if we would just check our bags to make sure. Turns out, Becky had indeed lost her wallet, or at least left it, at the airport in Portugal. Luckily, some nice person had found it and returned it to the desk, and we were now assured that it had been airbussed up to Edinburgh. However, this still left Becks without a wallet, which meant no money, no credit cards, and no ID. We realized things could be worse because at least we were together and I could help her out until the wallet came, but we also quickly realized that we had no confirmation of the wallet being sent or any instructions on where to pick it up once it arrived in Edinburgh. It turned out that the wallet would never make it to me in Edinburgh, but instead, Becky was contacted almost a month later by the US consulate in Scotland who had somehow ended up with it, and she eventually got it back. A very interesting start to Becky's trip up to Scotland.

The rest of the flight went well enough though, and as we flew into Edinburgh, I started pointing out all of the amazing sites we were going to see in the next day. Once on the ground, we headed straight to the Elephant House for some coffee and sandwiches--both of which Becky has had to do without while in Spain. In fact, her entire trip to Edinburgh turned somewhat into a food and coffee fest of all of the things she had been missing while in Spain. I didn't mind that at all because it meant a lot of time spent at my favorite sandwich shops and Starbucks, and really, what could be better? Anyways, after dinner at the Elephant House, I took Becky to my favorite pub in Edinburgh to get a little taste of Scottish culture to finish up the night.

Day 7 with Becky: Busy busy busy busy busy day
So, since Becky was only in Edinburgh for ONE DAY, we got up super duper early and tried to pack as much into the day as possible. We met up with Nora, who Becky actually went to high school with, immediately got some Starbucks coffee, and proceeded to take Becks up Arthur's Seat to get a nice little view of the city. On our way down, Nora explained to us how she had semi-forged annual passes for Becky and I to the Holyrood Palace, so we went straight there to get a tour of the place. The passes worked flawlessly and so for the next hour or so, we toured around the magnificent residence of the Queen when she comes to Edinburgh. Afterwards, we got some bagel sandwiches (another one of Becky's food requests) and headed towards the castle and down the Royal Mile for some more cultural tours of the city. Basically, we just did a bunch of speed walking and tried to get Becky to see the entire city in a couple of hours. Once we had worn ourselves out sufficiently, we decided to take a little afternoon nap before our final dinner together, and then we all met up for Indian food that night! For Nora, Becky and I, Indian food is one of the greatest things on the earth, and since my flat is right next door to the recently voted "Best Indian Food in Scotland", we went there for our farewell meal. Afterwards, we continued to walk a bit and just talked for a while before going all saying goodbye. I dropped Becks off at the train station the next morning super early and spent the rest of the day doing laundry, trying to get over the cold that had suddenly appeared and worsened, and re-packing for my week in London with my Dad and Grandpa!

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