Tuesday, April 27, 2004

North Portugal

Coimbra - Porto - Braga - Guimaraes - Viana do Castello - Ponte de Lima

You know what I love about Portugal? I arrive in Coimbra from Salamanca (through some really nice mountainous countryside) with no accommodation, maps or any idea where I am late in the afternoon, and everyone I ask for directions is exceptionally friendly and helpful - even the bus driver didn’t want to charge me when he saw I had no change for the bus!

Anyway, Coimbra is a pleasant university town on the top of a hill, but that’s all there really is in the town. But I did learn something - having done a comparative study of the young female population of Salamanca (Spanish university town) and Coimbra (Portuguese university town), I can easily say that Portuguese girls are prettier and nicer than Spanish girls.

Porto is the second largest city in Portugal, but like all places in Portugal, they are more like big towns than cities. Porto is famous for its Port wine, which I indulged myself to as much as I could. There is a lot of construction work going on at the moment due to the fact that Porto will be hosting the Eurocup 2004 next month!

Another example of how nice Portuguese people are: I asked a girl if she knew where the bus stop for the bus I wanted to catch was, and she didn’t know. She runs back to me 10 minutes later to tell me she’s asked around and found out where it is!

I’ve expressed to some people how I am getting tired of looking at churches, so where do I end up going to next? Braga. What is Braga known for? Being the religious capital of Portugal and the City of Churches! However I did enjoy being in Braga, sitting in a cafe in the middle of the main plaza, watching an old woman yell at her husband for about an hour. I did go see a church, the famous Bom Jesus, where pilgrims would walk up the many many many steps up the baroque decorated staircase to the church at the top. However, since I am not a pilgrim (and just plain lazy), I just took the old funicular tramway up the mountain instead. (But I did walk down the steps back at least!)

Guimaraes is considered the birthplace of Portugal. Why that is I’m still not sure, but the historic area and castle ruins are nice, but nothing particularly special at that place.

Viana do Castello is a city by the river and ocean, known as a city of folktales. Though I didn’t really hear any. They do seem to have heaps of shops selling traditional folk clothes though, brightly coloured and decorated red and black dresses with head/neck scarves, aprons and shoes. There is also a cool church called Santa Luiz which is inspired by the Sacre Coeur church in Paris. This church is high up a very big mountain that the city is at the foot of. The views up the top are spectacular and rival the views in Sintra.

More for novelty value rather than comfort, for two nights I chose to sleep on the "Gil Eannes" hospital ship on the river that they converted into a youth hostel and museum. It was alright except I was the only person staying in the hostel, so no one really to say "Ahoy me matey!" to. I was quite disappointed!

My last day in Portugal started with a day trip to Ponte de lima, a beautiful peaceful town, with pretty gardens and an old long roman bridge spanning the river lima, with some mountains in the background. Muito bonito!

Went back to Viana do Castello for a big traditional Portuguese dinner and watched the UEFA Champions League Final to see Porto happily beat Monaco 3-0. As soon as the game was over EVERYONE in the town came out to the main street cheering, singing and chanting football songs and waving Portugal and Porto scarves and flags! Cars came driving through the street honking and flashing the lights and people were rocking the cars - it was an awesome party atmosphere and a great way to end my last day in Portugal, with a street party! Am I lucky or what?

Portugal in a Nutshell

I love Portugal, it is my favourite country (so far), and I will seriously consider settling in the country one day in the future....

Favourite place: Sintra (views, palace, ruins, village, gardens)

Worst place: Portalegre (due to rain and boredom)

Place with best views: Sintra, Ponte de Piade (Lagos), Santa Luiz (Viana do Castello)

Best meal: Nazare fish Casserole (Nazare)

Worst meal: Breakfasts at YHA's

Best nightlife: Lagos, Bairro Alto (Lisbon)

Best beach: Lagos

Best building/monument: Pena Palace (Sintra), Jeronimos Monastery (Lisbon)

Overrated tourist attraction: Belem Tower (Lisbon), Nations Park (Lisbon), Capo de St Vincent (Sagres)

Underrated Gem: Castle gardens (Abrantes), Ponte de Piade coast (Lagos), Castle chapel (Tomar).

Funniest moment(s):
-Enduring "Museum Appariticoes 1917" terrible light and sound show (Fatima).
-Note passed to Jasmine by love-lorn Brazilian guy during Fado performance (Lisbon)
-Watching a Portuguese old guy put on my "Aussie" hat and trying to act Australian. (Portalegre)

Unusual moment(s):
-Watching guy water a park bench (Lisbon).
-Being escorted by group of old people to YHA (Abrantes)
-Sign in cafe: "We have snails" (Viana do Castello)

Scary moment(s):
-Almost losing my luggage on arrival to Lisbon airport.
-Getting a haircut from someone who only speaks Portuguese (Porto)

Foods tried: bacalhau (dried cod fish served in a thousand different ways), Pastel de Natas (and similar custard cream pastries), Caldo Verde (cabbage soup), fish cakes

Beverages tried: Sagres beer, Superbock beer, port wines

Other cultural experiences: Fado performance (Lisbon), Impromptu Football Street Party (Viana do Castello)

Architecture: Manueline. Acelejos tiled walls. Mosaic patterned cobbled pavements, the pattern being
different in each town. Yellow, blue and white painted walls, window frames and doors.

Cool people met:
Erik (Spanish Johnny Depp look-alike)
Jasmine (Eccentric English girl)
David and Kirsten (Americans studying in Granada)
David (Lagos YHA worker)

Biggest rip off:
Handful of dried bananas - 3 euros (Nazare)

Best deal(s):
-3 Monkeys "All day breakfast" cocktail - A cocktail in a pint glass with 6 shots of white spirits - for 2
euros! (Lagos)

Best thing about Portugal: The friendly people, the peaceful beautiful towns and villages...

Worst thing about Portugal: Too far from home back in Australia to visit often.

Anyway, that’s all about Portugal *sob* back into Spain....

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Central Spain

Barcelona - Zaragoza - Madrid - Segovia - Toledo - El Escorial - Avila - Salamanca


Zaragoza is another "how on earth did I end up here" town for me (like Nazare in Portugal), I had no plans to go there, but I’m glad I did.

Zaragoza is the capital city of Aragon province (insert bad joke relating to Lord of the Rings here), but to me it seemed like a very big country town. It is a beautiful peaceful city by a dirty brown river.

It was good timing to be in Zaragoza because they had a medieval market around the main cathedral for the whole weekend where everyone dressed in medieval costumes and sold medieval stuff.

Also saw the famous basilica of the pillar, which contains a holy marble pillar that had apparently appearing out of nowhere, left behind after a vision of the Virgin Mary disappeared. Yes, people are worshiping a piece of marble, even decorated it and built a huge cathedral/house for it.

Arrived in Madrid next. I don’t really like Madrid that much, and everyone I’ve met in the youth hostel thinks the same thing. But mainly due to the really bad weather we are having. Madrid just has a whole bunch of museums (I’m not really a museum fan), and gardens, one garden has a cool statue called "The fallen angel", apparently the first statue to be dedicated to the devil.

Madrid is known for its museums (which I didn’t go to many of), and its nightlife (which is great but the hostel we stayed at run by really mean people had a curfew of 1:30am - when the nightlife actually starts! That didn’t stop half the hostel mutinying and turning up at 4am, and they had no choice but to let us in.)

Met some really cool people in Madrid, amongst them two Canadians who are "partying" their way around Europe on 10 euros a day, a funny Quebec girl called Catherine who I went to Salamanca with, a Korean girl travelling on her own with limited English (which goes to show those afraid of travelling alone, especially if you're a girl, how easy it is to travel), some Brazilians...

I even had a nice pretty Brazilian girlfriend named Carolina for a few days before we parted to our different destinations, shame really but that’s what happens when you travel, you met people and then you may never see them again. But then you never know what the future holds...

Went to a bullfight in Madrid. It was interesting and I went for the cultural experience and all, but I felt sorry for the bulls (6 of them being teased and killed in one night - how they call that sport I don’t know). The toreadors were all dressed in glitzy outfits and strutted around with their chests out whenever they succeeded in stabbing the bull etc.

The bullfight would start with several toreadors with pink capes teasing the bull. Then horses with men with long spears would try to stab the bull at the back of its neck a couple of times. Then the toreadors would get some long knives with arrowheads and when the bull charged them, would leap out of the way and stick the knives in the back of its neck. Then the main toreador comes out and with a long sword and red cape will continue stabbing the bull at the back of the neck at each charge, finally getting a sharp long sword and driving it in the back of the neck right into the heart! It really is quite horrific! Though sometimes the bulls are allowed to leave and live when the bull gets too tired too quickly before any real damage is done.

Did some day trips to places like Segovia, which is a beautiful walled city with an enormous aqueduct and an alcazar castle with fairy tale cone shaped turrets (apparently Rapunzel's castle), and houses and buildings with Mudegar decorations and carvings on the walls.

Toledo is a nice old Moorish town with a cathedral with so many intricate ornamentation and decorations almost to the point of being over the top! There are also heaps of swords and medieval stuff there too. Tried a fried deer sandwich and marzipan which Toledo is famous for. Yum, good for me, bad for the deer!

El Escorial has a palace, monetary, basilica, gardens, library, and school, which is pretty ordinary but is saved by the absolutely fantastic mausoleum of marble and gold containing dead kings and members of the royal family etc. All these buildings are contained within a huge building structure.

Avila is a extremely well preserved little walled town up at the highest point in Spain. Its 88 towers and walls are virtually complete and intact. Avila claims to be a town left in nostalgia untouched by modern technology and life. Which is why the kids there have mobile phones and the library has a large number of computers. Hey, wait a minute!

Salamanca rocks!!!

Salamanca is one of my favourite towns in Spain. Huge monolithic colossal old buildings, convents, monasteries and the two cathedrals loom over you as you walk the nice streets and gardens of the Spanish university town. The main plaza is meant to be the prettiest plaza in Spain, though I reckon the Plaza de Espana in Seville is.

Anyway Salamanca has an awesome nightlife, entries to the numerous bars and clubs etc are free, and Salamanca has places called Chupetarias which are cheap 1 euro shot bars that apparently don't really exist anywhere else in Spain or the world! And people there party till noon! I did not sleep much in Salamanca.

Spotted the little frog on the wall of the intricately detailed university facade (with lots of help). Apparently if you can find it you will have extremely good luck coming to you and you will get married. So since I got lots of help I suppose does that mean I will get an arranged marriage?!

Salamanca also has the best kebab place in the world, and it is cheap too! I ate nowhere else in the 3 days I was there and was never sick of it! And others I’ve met and introduced to the place think the same too!

I reckon I may have found my calling in life being a travel advisor, because I ended up helping most of the people I met in Madrid with their travel plans, and I also acted as a travel guide for some people I met in Salamanca! It would be nice to be paid for that sort of thing. That, or a world food critic would be my dream job!

Anyway, back into Portugal next....

Sunday, April 11, 2004

Spain - Andalucia and Catalanya

Lagos - Seville - Granada - Valencia - Barcelona - Monserrat

Hola amigos!

Example of people I can’t stand:
American girl to hostel receptionist in Lagos: "Do your sheets pill*? Because I can’t sleep here otherwise!"
*Pill = when clothes or sheets bunch up and get those little cotton balls in them.

Anyway, now I am in Spain!

Ah, Seville. Words to describe Seville are "Wow!", "Wow!", and "Ole!" You can't get any more Spanish than in Seville, and I’m surprised there aren’t many tourists or English-speaking people in the place!

Saw the very very big cathedral of baroque, gothic and Moorish design, the tower of gold, the alcazar and its gardens, and the picturesque Jewish quarter which is nice to wander around the small narrow streets and get lost in, discovering little cafes and plazas within. The architecture of Seville is exquisite, you would find different styles of architecture, from Romanesque and Moorish Mudejar**, to gothic, renaissance, baroque, neoclassical and combinations!

**Mudejar is Moorish square design architecture with Aculejo tiles on the bottom half of the walls and extremely intricate and detailed carved decorations in the top half of the walls. Unreal.

Spanish food = Yum! I had to have some tapas, tortillas de patatas (Spanish omelette with potato and other things), jamon serrano and other assorted style hams, paella of course, and bocadillos (white bread rolls filled with stuff) of various kinds! And of course Seville oranges, which I had fun picking from the trees outside the alcazar with some people I met at the hostel when people weren’t looking...

Despite what people keep telling me, there are no free tapas in Seville. Only in Granada, and I think random places in the north of Spain…

There are horse drawn carriages everywhere in Seville with the brightly coloured red or yellow wheel spokes and the horses with decorated bells dangling off their reins.

Seville nightlife is a little wild, students throng the streets by the riverside and certain areas of the centre, carrying shopping bags of soft drinks and spirits which they mix and drink on the streets. The following morning you would see broken glass and plastic bags everywhere.

There are some annoying hagglers in Seville and other parts of Andalucia. For example one guy kept grabbing some guys foot and scrubbing it with a brush despite repeated "no gracias!" - he was very persistent, complaining that his "bambinos" need food etc. There are also women who give you a rosemary leaf, and then demand money in return. No idea what that’s all about.

It was extraordinary good timing to be in Seville when I got there, as it was the start of the Feria de Abril, (April Festival)! But then Spain/Seville is always having festivals! Actually, I found myself in several festivals by mistake! One was walking into the "Caja Rural del Sur" which was a parade of 50+ decorated horse drawn carriages with men and women in a traditional Spanish dress, their horses strutting proudly down the streets. Another was the day after when I was sitting in the park about to have a picnic lunch on my own when I heard the sound of drums banging, people singing, and then a procession of exotic and traditional dressed and costumed dancers and singers waving flags came down past me and onto the front of the Archaeological museum, there they performed some frenzied, some funny, some promiscuous and some graceful dance routines for the next two hours. It was for some 20 years for Columbia anniversary thing, not quite sure, but it was spectacular!

Anyway, the Feria de Abril was essentially a huge carnival of rides, and tents with eating, drinking and flamenco dancing! They also built this huge arch of wood multiple stories high and covered with lights, just for the Feria! All the women and gorgeous girls are dressed in traditional frilled Spanish dress with polka dots and bright colours, scarves/shawls, flowers in their hair, lots of makeup, and big earrings. Flamenco dancing was everywhere, even in the streets people would spontaneously start clapping a rhythm and do flamenco. It was pretty cool! Saw the lights get switched on at midnight at the start of the festival, waited for imaginary fireworks, got on Spanish TV by climbing a lamp post with a Canadian friend and waving at the camera in the background during an interview, nearly got in a fight, saw the biggest fight between two girls ever which resulted in overturned tables/chairs, clumps of hair on the ground, people running in and out, and the tent almost collapsing! All over some guy apparently. Remind me never to make a Spanish girl jealous!

Anyway, after Seville I went to Granada to see the Alhambra, which has a world-renowned fortress and Mudejar palace and gardens. Met up with some American friends I made at Lagos and they showed/told me some cool places in Granada (like free tapas bars, Sacramento’s mountain caves homeless people live in) that I would never have discovered on my own in the two days I was there.

Caught an overnight bus to Valencia from Granada in the hope of saving money and sleeping on the bus. Not very comfortable and I didn’t get much sleep, so I don’t think I’ll be trying that again any time soon. Anyway I did wake up to a really surreal sight. All around me was a huge flat desert plain with really blue clear sky, but behind me was a big bluish tall mountain with vertical slopes that almost made it look rectangle, standing in the middle of nowhere! To the front of me rising out of the desert plain was a series of narrow flat red and white high-rise buildings. I felt like I was in another planet! And I’m not even sure where that was in Spain. It was somewhere between Murcia and Alicante, but that’s all I know. I don’t think I’ll ever find it again if I come back which is a shame cause it was eerily beautiful and mysteriously alien.

Anyway, reached Valencia to be greeted by bad weather. So no Valencian beaches for me. The hostel I stayed at that weekend was located right in front of the red light district, so it was quite scary walking to and from the hostel even in broad daylight due to the number of drunk Spanish men and unattractive prostitutes trying to talk to you etc. Apart from that though, Valencia is nice, has some nice towers, churches and the cathedral with 1 Romanesque, 1 gothic and 1 baroque side each which was quite interesting (What, couldn’t they decide on a style they liked or something? ) Anyway also saw some cool modern buildings near the port where they have these white curved structures sitting in a pool of water, architecturally more interesting than the museums etc they have inside it.

Now I am in Barcelona. I am staying at Johnny Depp - I mean Erik’s place (the Johnny Depp look-alike friend I made in Lisbon) for a few days which is nice of him because I am saving some money as a result. (Well would have if my phone battery didn’t die, so the money I saved has gone to buying a new battery. Easy come easy go I guess.) Anyway, his place isn’t actually in Barcelona, but in a nice town a easy train ride away called Sant Cugat, which is a nice town with a historical monetary, clean wide streets and apparently "the best looking Spanish girls in Spain" which I am inclined to agree. I wonder if they speak English... That’s the thing about Spanish girls, they are very attractive, but none of them speak English, even in touristy Barcelona! Sort of a catch 22 really. Or more motivation to learn Catalan or Castellan Espanol.

Barcelona seems a lot cleaner and friendlier than when I was last here in last September. And I got to see a lot more things I didn’t have time to see. Like all the Gaudi architecture, which is surreal, colourful, inspired by natural things and in my opinion, "freakishly cool". Park Guell is amazing, Casa Batillo is a colourful almost fairytale surreal house, Sagrada Familiar is a huge temple still under construction and held up with columns "inspired by trees" you’d have to see to believe. Barcelona is full of Gaudi buildings, you typically would walk down the street and think "normal building, normal building, WHAT THE..?!, normal building..." Barcelona is full of sights, and Barcelona knows it, and Barcelona likes to make the most of it by charging an outrageous amount of money to see them (for example, 18 euros to go inside Casa Batillo is ridiculous! Obviously I didn’t go in.)

Saw someone take a photo of a postcard stand. Now that is the meaning of being "cheap"!

Eric took me to some places and bars in the Barri Gothic area of Barcelona. His grandfather owns a little sandwich shop called "Conesa" (his surname) which is reputed to have the best sandwiches in Catalanya. Anyway got some free food from there, and I agree, absolutely delicious! If you ever go to Barcelona, look for this little sandwich shop which is south of the Cathedral.

Went to Monserrat for the day, which is basically a monetary teetering off a cliff face 700m up this huge mountain, which used to be an island millions of years ago. This is why you can find seashells up on the mountains of Monserrat (if you’re lucky that is - I couldn’t find any )

Anyway, next stop is Zaragoza, Madrid, followed by some places in central Spain, Salamanca etc...

Adieu! (Catalan for "bye" - Catalan being a completely different language to Spanish, and has lots of similarities to Portuguese and French)