Monday, February 24, 2014

Seville simplicity.

Jen had very fond memories of her visit to Seville almost 20 years ago so we stopped there for a few nights before heading south. (In hindsight, those fond memories involve trying to find good sangria, eating lots of churros, and something about a cathedral. But that's beside the point.)

By Seville we were tired of the Euro so in the interest of "free" we walked through a lot of neighborhoods and admired the architecture.

random buildings

random plazas

random narrow streets

We visited the Plaza de España and browsed the intricately decorated city monuments.

this place is packed in the summer -
hooray for low season travel

we played with the "pop art" camera feature

and the "fish eye" feature

and we went back at night too

We sat across from the Cathedral and people-watched for a while.

(is this rude?)

We visited Mercado de Triana a few times and finally decided on chicken chorizo for our pasta.

lesson: less chorizo, more fruit

We took Clarence to visit the Plaza de Toros. Well, from the outside, anyway.

(see him there?)

On a whim we visited the Convento de Santa Paula. This did cost €3 each but the money went to the sweet nuns so that was fine.

even thought they didn't offer us homemade pastries as advertised,
they gave us helpful tourist tips on Seville
and the artwork was museum-worthy

Food notes:
  • we found the churros...
oh yes, we found them
y chocolate tambien

  • we also got a tip on cheap tapas at Taberna Coloniales - actually, no tapas are "cheap" but at least we finally had some seafood in Spain...

fried cod, aged goat cheese, cured ham -
totally worth it

  • otherwise lots of hostel cooking

Lodging notes: Just to mix it up a little we chose our hostel using our wine-picking technique (by the price, followed by the name) so Feetup Samay Hostel was the obvious winner. It was clean and roomy and they played Radiohead so we'd call it "fine for two nights".

One could easily fill a week in Seville with sightseeing and delicious foods but we were happy to make it an easy, lazy, inexpensive couple of days.

Only one more Spanish town before Morocco... Crazy, just crazy.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Portugal on about $40/person/day.

Portugal was cheaper than Spain but still not all that cheap.

Initial budget: $100/day, $50/person/day
Actual cost: 16 days at $1298 ($81/day, $40.50/person/day)

Here's the breakdown with some details...

(note new categories)
  • Lodging: $620 - 16 nights at hostels or Air B&B apartments averaging $19/person/night
  • Transportation: $366 - trains/buses between major cities and transportation for day trips to the Douro Valley, Conimbriga, Buçaco Forest and Sagres; nominal dollars spent on public transportation everywhere
  • Groceries: $156
  • Meals: $40 - all pastries... not even kidding (okay, maybe there was one coffee in there somewhere but we didn't actually eat out at all)
  • Tours: $69 - Porto walking tour; admissions to various Porto museusm/sights, Conimbriga ruins, and the fortress at Sagres
  • Alcohol: $40
  • "Misc": $5 - $4 for port tastings in the Douru Valley (we call that "entertainment"), otherwise public toilets
  • Gifts: still $0, sorry...

Other fun Portugal facts...
  • Cities visited: 7 (Valença, Porto, Pinhão, Coimbra, Luso, Lagos, Sagres)
  • Pastries eaten: A BAZILLION
  • National parks visited: 0 (but Buçaco Forest Park is a Portuguese national monument and on the tentative UNESCO list)
  • UNESCO World Heritage Sites visited: 3 (Alto Douro Wine Region, Historic Centre of Oporto, University of Coimbra)
  • Wine tours: 0 (but we enjoyed the tasting!)

Looking forward to getting out of Euro territory soon...

Friday, February 21, 2014

Sagres: a fitting finale to Portugal.

The draw to Lagos was nearby Sagres (what explorers once called "the end of the world").  Lagos had more lodging options so we stayed there and took a bus over to Sagres for the day.

there it is
complete with handy stool

We spent several sunny hours in Sagres exploring the cliffs and the fortress/nature area where men fished precariously off ledges and there was a bastion every three feet.

no ropes

on guard

ready, aim...

But Lagos itself was worth the time and we're glad we stuck around for another day. It's heaven for golfers, surfers, and anyone who appreciates a good cliff side view.

we fell into the third of those categories

The day after we visited Sagres we confirmed that it was, in fact, Saturday (everyone at the hostel seemed a little surprised), so we visited Lagos's Saturday market and waited out the rain in a cafe.

twenty-five markets in eight countries later
they're all completely different
and yet exactly the same

Patience paid off, the skies cleared, and we enjoyed a full afternoon meandering along a trail near old town Lagos that followed the cliff.

Portugal's Bandon

some parts were steeper than others

Now and then we descended long staircases to check out the beach or the views.

toward "the grotto"
(yep, those are stairs)


And once we stopped to play with a kitty.

he liked bread

It was almost impossible to not stop every three minutes to take a photo. Some of the other bazillion shots we took that day start here...

Food notes:
- we found this gem at the Saturday market

figgy gingery hockey puck deliciousness

- and it's an expat town so we also found this shelf at the grocery store

heads just exploded

- and we were still supposed to eat salted cod

but we still didn't

- otherwise we cooked at the hostel

veggies from the local Saturday market

- and drank tasty inexpensive wine

from camel glasses in honor of upcoming Morocco

- and Patrick took the Pepsi challenge with local beers

winner: still undetermined

Lodging notes: The downstairs setup was a little odd at Bura Surf Hostel (one bathroom for up to 14 people, beds in the entry room) but whatever, it's a surfer joint.  Since it was low season we had the four-bed dorm to ourselves. The folks who worked there were really nice and there was definitely a chill vibe to the place. We probably would've hated it in the summer, but it was fine for us this time around.

Obrigada/o, Portugal.  We liked you a lot and we hope to see you again real soon.  Next time we promise not to speak any Spanish in your presence...  (Sorry about that.)

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Early Friday five: why you should go to Coimbra.

Coimbra ("queem-bruh") was another Olomouc, another Ždiar, another Llanes - in other words, another place where my reply was "um, you want to go where?"

I should know by now to stop asking that question.

Five reasons you should visit Coimbra at some point in your life, in no particular order:

1. It's a university town and in fact one of the oldest universities in Europe, which was interesting and all, but with university towns usually come large green spaces. In this case there was an awesome park right next to our hostel and the well-kept botanic gardens (free admission! and more importantly, the fifth oldest botanic garden in the world!) were just up the street. The trees were amazing...

ficus macrophylla
figueira - estranguladora

2. The Conímbriga ruins - one of the largest Roman settlements in Portugal - are just a bus ride away. To be honest, on the bus ride there we felt like we were doing it just to check it off, since we'd seen so many ruins in Turkey. But as soon as we saw the first excavated room we were so glad we went.

Judging from the elaborate mosaics, the numerous dining rooms larger than our Portland apartment, the intricate fountains and bath spaces, and the archaeological artifacts in the museum, this was mostly a place for rich people. But it was built in layers over centuries and they'd uncovered living quarters dating as far back as the 2nd century in areas of the city where the poorest people would've lived.

And so well preserved!  It was unlike any ruins we'd seen.

the house of Cantaber
the largest private residence in the city

3. Also just a bus ride away? The Buçaco Forest, where monks lived back in the 17th century. Today there's a giant 5-star hotel ("palace") and a giant (but really gorgeous) man-made fountain in the lower park, so it's mostly a tourist attraction, but the forest and building ruins are still serene, mysterious, and fun to explore. Even in the rain.

any person harming the trees
shall be excommunicated
- Pope Urban VII
(AKA the original Lorax)

4. The windy narrow steep streets are so much fun to wander through! The only grocery store in town required a hike so we constantly had views.  One of my favorite streets downtown is pictured below...

move over, San Francisco
there's an old kid in town

5. The town itself is so charming... Very green, very open, very well maintained. Even the sidewalks are lined with decorative stone.

right outside our hostel

Food notes:
  • we only ate one pastry the whole time we were there, I swear - it was alright
  • otherwise we cooked at the hostel
  • and by the way there is a giant fruit, vegetable and fish market near downtown but we kept getting there right as it closed

Lodging notes:
  • NS Hostel was super clean and had the best breakfast we'd had since Brasov... but the walls were thin and the hallways echoed, and the university kids crashing there over holiday or before school started up played guitar and sang bad pop songs all night in the lounge so we didn't sleep very well

It rained pretty hard one afternoon and we ended up staying in, reading and watching movies and generally goofing off. Coimbra is the kind of low-key town where we didn't feel guilty doing that... Even when we waited for the 7am bus the next morning with the kids who were going home after partying all night.

Many more reasons to visit Coimbra start here. And also here. Now, put it on your list!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The other side of Porto.

We were really comfortable in Porto, but in a strange way. It was the first city where we've encountered aggressive beggars on the streets. It was the first city we've visited where every single street in and around the tourist areas had countless boarded-up buildings. And it was the first city since... since we can't even remember... where we were subconsciously more mindful of our backpacks in public spaces from the minute we stepped off the train to the minute we boarded the bus out of town.

But wasn't this western Europe? And didn't we have an image of Portugal as a lush, exotic, thriving country? To try to understand the situation, we took a very biased but enlightening walking tour led by a young anarchist mostly-out-of-work architect.

(Ed. note: We said "very biased", right? So take all this with a grain of salt, and if we've misrepresented or misstated anything please correct it in a comment. It's been a few weeks. Obrigada!)

Portugal is the poorest country in western Europe. We had no idea. As we walked down the former main street, our guide explained why and how Porto (and Portugal overall) was hit so hard by the economic downfall as she pointed out shop after house after apartment that sit boarded up and empty.  

hint: the EU and the conversion to the Euro had a lot to do with it

Sounds like the current government isn't helping the situation. The mayor is all about tourism and wants nothing but 5-star hotels and businesses catering to their clients built downtown. This means that small local businesses are being run out because they can't afford increasing rent.

Or they no longer have the customers - it seems that a lot of the older people are being displaced from their homes and sent to the suburbs to live in housing projects. Portugal is very family-centric, and being alone when you're elderly is very difficult, especially when you have no money. Plus, it sounds like people are ashamed to admit they live in these projects, which causes huge life stress. Put all that together and this seems like a very bad idea.

us in a few years

The young people are moving out too.  There is no opportunity and no encouragement from the government for them to stay. Those educated youth who do stay, for love of family or country, often find jobs in call centers.  Or, like in Portland, they work at a coffee shop.

She explained that there are activists like herself ready and willing to fight the good fight but that the majority of people are just getting by day to day and don't have the mental energy to vote... so the current government can basically do whatever they want.

true in many other parts of the world too
including the US

She took us through "the islands" ("Ilhas"), 4x4 meter row houses hidden away in alleys that were once used to house workers. Back then they had bare necessities - one door, one window, no sewage or water supply. Now poor people reside in them, and pay little (or no?) rent. Now they have running water and interior bathrooms, and unlike the projects in the suburbs, these homes are coveted and there is a huge sense of community. People watch out for each other.

they even compete for "best kept island" awards

She showed us the old public wash station, which is now back in use because people can't afford washing machines (or the electricity to run them - Portugal's electricity costs are the highest in Europe right now).

a particularly sobering site

She told us about Es.Col.A da Fontinha, a community project from a few years ago that she was involved in. Volunteers occupied an empty building and turned it into an education center. Kids could go there after school for lessons on various topics, sports activities, and general community building. The police shut it down three times. The last time was the final time. There's a video about it with English subtitles. It's an interesting idea. And it is such a shame when perfectly good spaces go unused.


She took us to a private art school, one of the only places graffiti is allowed anymore. You know, because the tourists at the 5-star hotels don't like it.




Over croissants and coffee we discussed the high incidents of antidepressant prescriptions and heroin addiction in and around Porto. Meth will probably be next. They've been hit by all the other low-cost synthetic drugs as well.

She took us through a former shopping center that some musicians have turned into a cheap co-op, where they practice and hold concerts. The shop windows are blacked out and the escalator has been turned off to save costs, but with the paltry rent they pay, they still maintain the bathrooms and (some) light fixtures. Priorities in order: check.

the paved the shopping mall and
put up a recording studio

If this all feels a bit disjointed, that's because it was. Five hours (!) later, we had been completely inundated with information. She was awesome, her energy was contagious, and the tour was really, really interesting though. We definitely appreciated the perspective and we had to wonder if we were doing a good or bad thing by supporting the mayor's movement and contributing tourist dollars to tourist establishments in the city. She assured us that yes, we should spend money and yes, we should encourage visitors to Porto. (So please go! Really, we loved loved loved the city.)

And then she told us about the new job she'll be working on... a building for a tourist agency.

She'd fit in well in Portland.

Monday, February 17, 2014

What we did on our Porto vacation.

Porto was to be our magical reset. Our rejuvenation spot, our sleep-in spot, our "live like a local" spot. Our spot to buy more than a days' worth of groceries at a time. Our spot to fix Jen's boot (again).

It was to be our spot to catch up on emails and pictures and blogs, our spot to finally try to figure out this Twitter thing. Our spot to park for a week in between jetting around coastal Spain and our upcoming whirlwind Morocco trip. Oh yeah - and our spot to actually plan our upcoming whirlwind Morocco trip.

Porto is a few hours from port country and less than an hour from nice beaches. To a tourist's eye the city is split down the middle by a river lined with bridges (but really, the river divides Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia). Allegedly, Lisbon comes to Porto for its wonderful restaurants. It's an artsy, gritty, rainy-in-winter town with windy narrow cobblestone streets you could wander for hours.

We picked it somewhat randomly as a stopping point figuring if we hated it we'd just hole up indoors for a week. Long-term travelers often do this in places you might not expect - Prague, Budapest, Barcelona - just to rest in a comfortable city which allows some modern conveniences. Luckily, we ended up really enjoying Porto. Aside from the windy cobblestone streets (and lack of nearby mountains), it felt awfully familiar... and the longer we stayed, the more comfortable we felt.

We still did lots of touristy stuff that week - the most touristy being a day trip to the Douro Valley. Usually people take a boat tour up the river but it was cold and rainy so we skipped that.  And then of those who take the train through the scenic valley, most stop in Regua for the wine tours and tastings. We were more interested in seeing the countryside, so we took Lonely Planet's advice and went the extra half hour into Pinhão, a much smaller village.

the 8km hike was beautiful

the vineyards and olive orchards were stunning

and we did squeeze in a tasting at Real Companhia Velha
because when in Porto...
(and also it was right next to the train station
and we had some time to kill)

Totally worth the day and Euro investment.

Back in Porto we visited the São Francisco Church and adjoining catacombs. The church is about 600 years old; during the 18th century artisans covered every inch of the interior with the most incredible gilded wood carvings. (Around that time, Napoleon also decided to use the church as a horse stable. Quel bouffon!)

3 meters high? maybe 5?
google it for better pictures -
we had to sneak this one

Beneath the church are rows and rows of tombs. The church is the resting place for thousands of folks awaiting Judgment Day... but don't get any ideas - burials were banned in 1866 due to health concerns.

plaster skulls adorn the rows
and the floors are tombs too

It cost a few Euro each to see both, again totally worth it.

We visited a few museums. Many are free or free from 10am-2pm on Sundays, and the one we did pay for (because we went on Saturday) was at a reduced price since they were between exhibitions. Three museums for €5 sounded good to us...
  • Centro Portugues de Fotografia, our favorite of the three, is located in a former jail that's been remodeled. The architecture was beautiful and the permanent exhibit of cameras (from old spy cameras to Kodak disks to modern Canons) was pretty impressive.

    During our visit the main gallery featured an amazing exhibition by Gervasio Sánchez documenting the impacts of war in Central America, the Balkans, and Africa since the 1980s. Photographs of 10-year olds proudly sporting Uzis, villages in shambles, and bomb victim amputees were brilliantly composed and incredibly sobering.
the world's largest camera
was pretty neat too

  • Serralves (the one we paid for) was a combination foundation, art museum, garden, arboretum, tea house, and agricultural center... and probably some other things but we don't speak Portuguese. During our visit the art museum featured a temporary photography exhibit by Ahlam Shibli, including photographs of Palestinian families who built living room homages to family members who'd martyred themselves. Sounds gloomy?  It was, but it was also really interesting and not something we ever would've seen in Portland.

    The Serralves gardens are massive and manicured. Apparently, each year they spend 0.5FTEs keeping the fountains clean and over 20,000 hours maintaining the park overall (no idea how many FTEs that is - and sorry for mentioning FTEs).

    As noted above there's also a large herb garden, an arboretum, and a livestock area where cows, sheep, donkeys, and geese were living in harmony.
the garden part

the agriculture part

    It was a very bizarre but beautiful place and I'm glad we had a chance to visit it.

  • The Museu Nacional de Soares dos Reis was not really to our taste but the permanent exhibit of classic art and the temporary exhibit of digital works by Polish artists were still impressive, and the building itself was really beautiful.

The other big tourist thing to do in Porto is to wander to Sao Bento station and Se Cathedral, and then walk across Ponte D. Luis I bridge to the port side of town. (They reeeeeeally push the "walking across the bridge" part which implies that some people opt to take the tram across the river. Our walk involved sideways rain and high winds; still would not have traded it for the tram ride.)

Anyway. From there you can visit tons of wine caves and fancypants restaurants, but we don't do that sort of thing and the weather wasn't great that day so we just took a few photos and headed back for pastries and coffee. The views were lovely when the sun broke through the clouds though.

to the north

to the south

We checked out Livraria Lello & Irmão and Chamine da Mota, bookstores famous for their staircase/Harry Potter inspiration and completely random antiques, respectively. They were much smaller than we expected.

We visited the Mercado do Bolhao market, also much smaller than we expected since most of the shops are closed for the season or no longer in business at all.  More on this in a follow-up post.

We wandered down the "art spot" - a few blocks of informal walk-in galleries featuring works by local artists. On the way back we checked out the massive Cemetery of Agramonte but only got a little ways in before another downpour.  Wish we could've spent more time there.

Oh, and have we mentioned the pastries? We ate a lot of pastries. Our favorite shop was Bakery Ribeiro, we went there twice and attempted a third but it was Sunday and everything but the museums was closed. Which brings us to...

Food notes:
  • you're supposed to eat salted cod and something called a francesinha (heart attack on a plate, anyone?), but for us it was all about the pastries







  • we also enjoyed the tasty €2 wine
  • otherwise, we cooked in the hostels or at the apartment

Which brings us to lodging notes:
  • Rivoli Cinema Hostel was fine for a few nights. Very centrally located, big open kitchen, great breakfast, helpful staff, noisy electronic fancy schmancy lockers, tiny rooms.
plus crazy, sometimes creepy aht

    Fine for a few nights.
  • But our Air B&B apartment rental was awesome. You mean Jen can get up at 6:30am to do yoga in the other room? (There's another room??) The heater runs all the time? We can do laundry for free? We don't have to listen to snorers or share a bathroom?
we have our very own kitchen?

    Sold. As added bonuses, we also got a half bottle of port and some amazing sea salt with which to cook. We slept on a futon mattress on top of wooden palates but it was so much better than college. There must've been some fate involved because the co-owner of our apartment had studied viticulture at OSU...

... and had a very nice wine bar downstairs

How did we do on the "magical reset"? Well, we still walked a million miles. We still went to the grocery store almost every day. There is still a giant hole in Jen's boot. We didn't figure out our Morocco plan or Twitter.

But one day we slept in and only left our rented apartment to walk three blocks and eat pastry. And then we went back home, watched Sherlock, listened to traditional Portuguese music, made dinner, and went to bed early. That was a good day.

Think you guys call those kinds of days "weekends"? 

we have decided we need more weekends...