Monday, February 26, 2018

Tram and Amsterdam

Tram 28 has a reputation as a “must do” for tourists in Lisbon, as it showcases (or at least passes by) many of the primary sights of the city – St. George’s Castle, the Alfama district, and the Lisbon Cathedral, to name a few. Unfortunately, it seems that a number of the tram operators are unaware of TripAdvisor’s recommendation. Two nights ago, Mindy and I tried to catch tram 28 from the stop right near our apartment in Chiado. One of the transit drivers there (same company but driving a bus) told us that the tram 28 was no longer heading downtown from there, only the other direction. He recommended picking up the tram at a later stop. It was late, so we didn’t pursue it. Last night, we went to Martim Moniz square where – according to TripAdvisor – we would be able to pick up the tram at its starting point and probably get a seat. There, a tram driver told us that tram 28 goes nowhere near Alfama from there. He suggested tram 15. When I asked him about “the famous tram 28” he looked confused. So when we got on the famous tram 28 from Martim Moniz this morning, and then ultimately passed through the stop right near out hotel where “the tram 28 doesn’t go anymore”, it was hard to tell if the locals were just having a laugh at some tourists’ expense. After all that effort, too bad that the trip wasn’t as impressive as the reviews made it sound.

With our final tour of the city complete, we ventured off to find breakfast (Mindy had been doing her research); Sama Sama Lisbon was a hearty treat!

Our chef was Irish, so I don’t suppose we can consider this Portuguese fare, per se…

Taking advantage of the bright sun on our last morning here in Lisbon, we wandered along the river and back to the main square…

…and back through the main promenade to our apartment one last time.

Like so many international destination cities, Lisbon’s metro connected easily to the airport (Toronto finally has a rail link, though not the subway). We were on our way to our next destination: Amsterdam!

A quick jaunt to Amsterdam for 17 hours would not normally be worth it, but we haven’t seen our friend Paul since our wedding, dinner will have to do for now! (I love the Netherlands and look forward to another real holiday here.)

Paul picked us up and took us to a restaurant on the water (a little outside of Amsterdam) just as the sun was setting.

Good food at de Dikke Muis; even better company.

Eventually we parted ways and headed back into Amsterdam for the night. It was cold and late. So we deferred sight seeing to the morning, when I did a quick tour of some of my favourite sights along Damrak and the nearby canals.

We even found time for some traditional Dutch cheese tasting (and buying)!

Eventually, we directed our feet back to Amsterdam train station, Schiphol Airport, and ultimately back home.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

A Palace at Sintra

When we were planning this trip, Mindy learned about the various palaces in the city of Sintra, a short train ride away from Lisbon. Mindy wanted to see the beautiful palaces and breathe in the fresh air of the mountains, and I wanted to learn about the history of the place – another Sandeman’s tour seemed appropriate.

We arrived a few minutes before the designated time and were told to grab a coffee as our guide hadn’t arrived yet. A few minutes later, breakfast in hand, we returned to the meeting spot and were told our guide had already left??!! Slight breakdown in communication…. Anyway, the small group was only just leaving the square so we caught up easily enough and started the journey to Sintra.

During the tour yesterday, Pascal referred to Sintra as “Disney” and we soon learned why. Sintra appears to be a series of middle ages palaces built in the shadow of an ancient Moorish fortress. The fortress atop the mountain is genuine, and one other palace actually hails from Portugal’s golden age. The rest was recreated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by those with money and a romantic notion of Europe’s romantic era.

The Moorish fortress was built to protect Lisbon from Viking invasions (they landed away from Lisbon’s fortified harbor and marched on the city from the mountains).

The striking twin chimneys of this palace reflect its primary use as a hunting lodge. Each chimney could handle several animals being roasted on spits in the palace kitchen.

In Portugal’s checkered past of royal succession, this palace also represented the bastard King John’s efforts to solidify his reign. He enlarged the palace and built houses for client’s wishing to receive his patronage. Inside, a hall is entirely dedicated to those noblemen who supported his claim to the throne.

This fountain was built in the early twentieth century as a homage to the old style of making tiles, where the tints are prevented from bleeding into one another through shallow depressions in the tile itself – made while the clay is still soft.

Though Quinta da Regaleira palace was built in the 1920s by the fabulously wealthy Carvalho Monteiro, (this palace was one of two private residences with electricity when it was built; the other being the King’s palace...) its novelty as a fantasy land doesn’t detract from its picturesque beauty.

The grounds also reflect a number of Masonic characteristics, suggesting that Monteiro was one of that secret society.

The inverted tower or initiation well leads to a labyrinth of caves. When a new member of the order was initiated, he would have to then make his way through the unlit caves in the black of night and walk on water to be reborn.

Mindy’s ability to walk on water looks a little less impressive in the daylight. Also, the water level used to be high enough that the stone were ever-so-slightly submerged.

And finally, we were at the house, itself.

Until the 1970s, this house and these grounds were all owned by a Japanese corporation that used it for company retreats. When they planned to knock it down, a Portuguese citizen (believed to be a Mason) lobbied the national government to purchase it from this private company and turn it into a heritage monument.

Tired from the walking and the intense history lesson from our guide Francisco, we returned to the train and journeyed back to Lisbon. (We planned to meet the group for lunch at Lawrence’s restaurant, the oldest restaurant in Sintra, but ultimately decided we would be better served by a meal on the train and more time in Lisbon.)

Back wandering through the city streets, we bought some Ginginha from the original store (and a shot of it right there) and found a tasty little sport for a smoothie to tide us over until dinner. (It may seem like we ate lunch and then immediately needed a snack before dinner. The truth is that we had a light breakfast, then subsisted on a sugar high from a couple of pastries in Sintra until a small sandwich each on the train back. We hadn’t eaten much, and most of what we did eat was flour and sugar.)

Mindy found another tasty vegetarian spot for dinner...though in her pregnant state, I suspect the 700m walk up steep streets and stairs made her rethink this destination. (NAME) was tasty and in my opinion well worth the walk. (Not quite as good as Jardim de los Sentidos, but they can’t all be “tens”.)

While Mindy got settled in the apartment, I spent a few more minutes wandering through Lisbon to soak in our last evening here. While Mindy and I had been out together, we were occasionally approached by people looking to sell drugs. (It was hilarious and scary how quickly it would escalate: “Psst, want some hash? Marijuana? Cocaine?”) When I was out solo on the streets at night, I literally had someone following me trying to get me to buy. “Want some hash? Marijuana? Cocaine? I’ll give you a good price. Really cheap. I’ve got anything you want? Tell you what – try some for free and if you like it you pay me? Ok? Deal? Want some for free?”

Mum, I guess you were right. Sometimes they really will offer you the first one free!

Friday, February 23, 2018

Racing to Lisbon

It's not often these days that I get out of bed first thing for a run, but the appeal of a sunrise run along the beach made it happen!

I tried running barefoot along the beach but...I'm not as fit as I used to be. It was frying my legs! I put my shoes back on and ran along the road and boardwalk...

I loved this relaxing morning sitting at breakfast and listening to the waves crashing upon the shore just steps away.

And all of a sudden, as I chilled out and relaxed at breakfast (brunch, by now), Mindy pointed out that we had to leave right now to catch our tour in Lisbon. As in, the drive was expected to be 2h 40m and the tour started in 3 hours. Eek! We threw our stuff in the car and bolted. (Thankfully the apartment where we are staying is 160m from the 

Plenty of signs advertised exciting ruins and archaeological sights along the way from Faro to Lisbon - I felt taunted by all these compelling stops along the way with no time to visit them! (Stopping for gas was nearly too long...)

We made it! Running up to the square and Sandeman's characteristic red umbrellas with only moments to spare, the English tour guide (who actually is English, too - moved to Lisbon "for no reason at all" and then fell in love with the city and subsequently one of its inhabitants) had just started his introductions. I was distracted for the first few minutes of the tour - trying to connect to WiFi to email the hosts at our apartment as we had planned to get the keys before the tour... Eventually Pascal handed me his phone and invited me to use that to email them, instead.

For me, the tour started at this old church ruin. It was a church, until the day Portugal suffered an earthquake, fire and flood all in one day. (If one ever needed a reason to think god is angry....) The earthquake was the first to damage the church, causing the roof to cave in - crushing some of the parishioners and knocking over candles that were lit for the service. While the candle flame spread to the wooden frame of the church, the "lucky" survivors in the church ran out and down to the river. These Lisbon-ites saw the hand of Moses at work as the riverbed was dry, affording them opportunity to flee across the river. Instead, they fell to their knees in prayer to the holy saint, right as the tsunami of water rushed back in and flooded lower Lisbon. The church up the hill was partially flooded, but not enough to put out all the fire from the toppled candles. The fire spread through the wooden structures and ultimately consumed much of the city.

Avoiding the fare for the elevator ride to the top, we looked out from the platform across the city.

Making our way to the main square of Lisbon - the erstwhile execution grounds back in the middle ages (known as a good place for dates, according to written records of the era - we also learned that the Portuguese liqueur Ginginha was borne out of the Portuguese government's attempt to dispossess the religious class. When the government took their lands and their ability to raise funds, the monasteries looked to what they had at hand to make money. One thing some of them had at hand was sour cherries, and knowledge of fermentation into alcohol. (Later, I went back to this original shop for Ginginha to supply our bar back at home.)

Walking down the main thoroughfare of Lisbon to the old city gates, Pascal explained various Portuguese specialties such as vinho verte (“Green wine”) and tinto vinho verte (“red green wine”) – freely admitting that the latter held little appeal to most Portuguese. He said it was an experience to be had…but I never ended up having it. We arrived at the gates to the city with a large square and the river beyond.

At this conclusion of the tour, Mindy and I rushed back to meet our hosts and get into our apartment, and also to return our rental car. (I highly recommend SurPrice car rental, by the way – easiest process for picking up and dropping off the car with no attempts to upsell us on things we didn’t need.)

Our spacious Chiado Apartment overlooked the main square in Chiado and gave us a great view of the bustling city below. (At night, this had the downside of putting us within hearing range of a terrible busker singing (kind of) on the street below. As our bedroom was toward the back of the apartment and away from the street, this was only a minor disturbance.)

Though we were warned it may be difficult to find vegetarian fare in Lisbon, Mindy found the delectable Jardim de los Sentidos for dinner that night, where I also tried Ginginha for the first time.

When we return to Lisbon – because before this first day was out we already knew we would come back for a more dedicated Lisbon holiday – we will be returning to Jardim on a routine basis.