We left Pittsburgh exactly 60 days ago. On one hand, it feels like we have been travelling forever, but we are only 2/12 of the way through our trip.
The first two weeks in Spain felt like a vacation: new, different, and fun. Then the second two weeks in Paris were like a more exciting version of home, with friends and homey apartment comforts. Then there was Morocco, and, well, you know how that was. Returning to Spain again felt familiar, and we’ve spent a lot of the time ironing out the kinks of our travel style and getting into a groove.
Some things are obvious: we get pretty cranky without constant internet; we are not a fan of shared bathrooms, but will do it if we absolutely have to; and a car is not always the best way to travel. It is fun bouncing around, but it is tiring and leaves little time for down time. So we’ve decided for the Eastern/Central Europe portion of our trip that we are going to try to see less and stay at least a week in each location. One thing that is pretty clear is that the quality of our accommodations directly affects our happiness, but it is also the biggest component of our budget. We added up how much we spent on everything so far, and if continue at this pace, we’ll be 50% over our yearly budget. Yikes. But that figure is misleading, because we are doing the most expensive part of our trip first. Or at least it better be.
Some homesickness has kicked in, particularly for me, and so to remedy that, we ended up chilling in an apartment for 10 days in Valencia. I’ll write more about Valencia later, but the reality is we haven’t been doing a whole lot other than enjoying life like this is our home and it is a perpetual weekend. (Well, what we imagine a weekend to be like, because Sean and I spent most of our weekends back left were either working at work (me) or working on our house (mostly him). We really like the idea of having a temporary apartment. It lets you daydream about living in a foreign land for a while. We actually have had two apartments in Valencia. We first booked one at 11 Flats for 3 days, and got a great deal (about $54/night) because it was booked last minute and filled the gap for the rental company. See – just like home:
Then we decided that maybe we weren’t in such a hurry to move on, and booked another apartment through the same company at 5 flats for 7 days (about $76/night).
Both apartments are in the heart of the Barrio de Carmen neighborhood, feel positively enormous compared to the tiny hotel rooms in which we have stayed, have fast internet, and modern decor. Our current place even has a washing machine, which is really the holy grail for “backpackers.” I decided to wash my clothes today just because I could. The apartments, of course, also have kitchens, which has allowed us to shop at the markets and cook real meals. (So Matt, tell your Aunt Ceci not to worry, we won’t have to eat out for 365 days straight).
We’ve also been filling our days with running errands, a need that does not disappear when you cross borders. One big errand we accomplished is re-purchasing our camera. It looks like our renters insurance is going to cover the camera, minus a $500 deductible. We’ve been scouring Valencia for a replacement since we arrived last week. There are not many camera stores in Valencia, and our internet searches turned up nothing. It took days of scouting to find what we needed, accomplished by a combination of asking the reception desk at the apartment company, asking a random photography studio, and keeping our eyes peeled while we walked around in popular shopping areas. In the off chance anyone is ever in Valencia and in need of a camera or equipment, check out the El Corte Ingles department store on Colon (think Macys, with electronics), a photo store by the bullring (think independent photo store), FNAC on some street I forget (think Best Buy), and FotoPrix in the Nuevo Centro mall (think Ritz Camera). Sean entertained himself by re-researching camera options. He dreamed of going smaller and getting something new to play around with, I dreamed of taking pictures with my SLR again. We pondered lots of alternatives, such as getting a compact micro four thirds camera, or reducing our zoom capabilities by getting a smaller lens. In the end, when we stumbled across the same camera and lens we had before as a set for a great price, Sean’s dreams of lightening our load were dashed one more time. We are now the proud owners of a Canon XSi (450D here in Europe) and 18-200 mm lens once again. Yippee!
Although our view of Lisbon will forever be tainted as the City Where Our Camera Was Stolen and We Stayed in a Ghetto, there is, of course, more to Lisbon than thieves and junkies. With its cityscape strewn over seven hills, old-fashioned wooden trolleys, and a long and high bridge designed by the same person who designed the Golden Gate Bridge, it is easy to see why people make comparisons to San Francisco.
|From Lisbon, Portugal|
The trendy Barrio Alto neighborhood is perched on a hill top with views of the rooftops below. We spent a little time there on a Saturday night, hopping between bars, drinking the sorrows over the stolen camera away. It seems that most people drink their beverages outside in the cobblestone pedestrian streets. The beer of choice in Portugal seems to be Super Bock or Sabre Sagres, both of which are unfortunately only a step above Budweiser. We had a Super Bock while we caught the end of the Inter Milan/Bayern Munich championship futbol game in a bar where rowdy patrons chanted in what must be their equivalent of Here We Go Steelers. Next, always drawn by live music, we wandered into a Cuban bar that had the best mojitos and a guy playing Beatles, Lenny Kravitz, and Bob Dylan on a guitar with a Latin twist.
Shortly after we sat down, the dorkiest tour group ever entered. In the span of 15 minutes, a group of about 20 middle aged people crowded the tiny bar. They were decked out with fanny packs, sweaters draped over shoulders, and flashing tiaras. They sipped one mojito, took a group photo, and then disappeared, leaving us and the other patrons to enjoy the guitar player. After checking out a couple of more places and the street scene, we followed the noise to an outdoor concert which sounded like skinhead music to us. The Barrio Alto is lively and festive, and definitely a fun place to spend a night.
One advantage of staying in our neighborhood was that there were many little restaurants where we were the only tourists around. Although truth be told, we much preferred the spicy piri-piri chicken or the dogfish in a traditional sauce we tried at a restaurant in Barrio Alto, not the salty grouper or fatty ribs we had a neighborhood place. It should come as no surprise by now that our (or at least my) favorite food was a pastry. After reading the glowing reviews of others who have gone before us, we travelled by tram to Belem to try pasteis de nada. Belem is a neighborhood with lots of museums and monuments, views of the bridge, and a lively park. In Belem, a bakery has renamed pasteis de nada nata to Pasteis de Belem. The line for the bakery wrapped up and down the sidewalk, but it didn’t take that long for a table. It appears that all this bakery does is churn out these Portuguese pastries, all day and night. I didn’t see one person out of the hundreds of patrons order something different. Once you try one, it is easy to see why. Served warm topped with powdered sugar and cinnamon, the pastries are flaky on the outside and creamy on the inside. This was the best Portuguese pastry we tried, perhaps because most of them are buttery and eggy, not fudgy and chocolately like I prefer.
Our day spent calling the insurance company, searching for the police station, and filing a police report (for insurance purposes) meant that we didn’t end up going to Sintra, a nearby fantasy land of forests and castles, like we wanted, for it was time to return our car in Spain. Having a car is fun to hit the open road, especially now that we picked up a cable for our Ipod, but it does hold us to a timetable. We already extended the rental once, and each day we spend in a city means potentially expensive parking and fees for a car we are not using. If we rent a car again, I’d do it for a region where we hopped around to small towns, because using it in cities is a waste.
If we thought finding our way in Seville with a car was insanity, that’s just because we hadn’t attempted to drive in Lisbon yet. One way streets, tiny street signs, very very very narrow hilly roads that are anything but straight, Lisbon has it all. Luckily, we didn’t encounter any trolleys on our drive. In some hilly parts of Lisbon, trolleys have to wait their turn, because they share the track with oncoming trolleys. They also share the roads with pedestrians and cars. On one of our trolley trips, a car had to drive in reverse up an entire hill to allow two trolleys to continue on their path.
We chose our hotel for three reasons: it was cheap, we thought it might be easier to park the car there, and we didn’t want to waste precious time in the Algarve endlessly searching for a hotel. We wanted to book lodging in advance because we knew from our experience in Seville that driving around aimlessly wasn’t going to yield good results and just make us hopelessly lost. We found a guesthouse on Trip Advisor that sounded promising. It was close to the old town and trendy Barrio Alto areas, but far enough outside them that it seemed we might be able to park our car. Some of the reviewers mentioned that they parked on the street or in the garage that the owner of the guesthouse had. Those are the reviews that I remembered, not the ones mentioning that the area surrounding the guesthouse was “a little dodgy,” possibly “requiring a taxi at night.” I guess we chalked those reviews up to overly cautious people, but perhaps we should have paid more attention because we accidentally booked a place to stay in the ghetto.
Okay, maybe the guesthouse was not technically in the ghetto, but Sean’s google searches after our first foray into the area confirmed that the guesthouse’s neighborhood indeed bordered a bona fide ghetto. During our first walk to the quaint old town area, we just noticed everything looking a little tattered. But everything in Lisbon looks a little tattered, so we weren’t sure. On our return walk from the old town, we noticed a lot of people loitering with nothing to do, which is never a good sign. Perhaps it is just the non-touristy section, we said. Everything looks a little sketchy when it is unfamiliar. Yes, that’s probably it. No less than a minute after we uttered those words, we passed a woman smoking crack in a doorway, in broad daylight, on a busy public street. Save for watching the crackhouse across the street from my friend Nicole, Kara and Sarah’s house get raided in college, I really had no experience with crack. Now there was a woman – if you could call her that because of the state she was in – smoking a crack pipe right in front of me. The image of the woman stayed in my head long afterwards. She was gaunt and agitated, and had huge sores covered her face. I don’t know what was more disturbing – that a human being could allow themselves to deteriorate to that condition, or that it was happening right in broad daylight in our temporary new neighborhood.
Save for the rowdy drunk homeless people that set up camp in the park across the street from our guesthouse, the streets surrounding the guesthouse seemed to be okay. After the first night, we took a taxi or trolley back to the guesthouse. If we walked, it was during the day, and we stayed across the street from the crackheads. (The next day, they multiplied, but still were smoking crack).
Further complicating matters was that the place where we were staying was kinda strange. Much of the lodging in Europe is run by private individuals or families, even if they resemble hotels more than bed and breakfasts. Lodging goes by many names – hostal, hostel, hotel, pension, B&B, guesthouse – and sometimes the names are not accurate descriptions. We’ve stayed at guesthouses before that seemed just like a hotel, but this place was truly a guesthouse. Many of the other places we looked at were booked because it was the weekend, and all we could find were places with shared bathrooms. Even though I am not a fan of sharing a bathroom with strangers, I decided to suck it up for a few days in the name of saving money. But even the places with shared bathrooms seemed to be expensive, so when we found this place with free parking for 44 euros, we booked it.
You literally felt like we were a guest in someone’s old musty house. There was no sign on the front, just the family’s name. We had a room with antique furniture. The room was fine and the bathroom was clean, but it was not my favorite place we’ve stayed. We were given a handful of old fashioned keys for the various doors. There wasn’t a front desk, and the owner’s assistants couldn’t always be found. When our camera bag was stolen, the old fashioned keys were in it. For a second, we thought we’d be locked out forever with no way to contact anyone – we barely knew the name of the place and didn’t know the phone number. Luckily, we were able to get the attention of one of the assistants and got new keys.
As a side note, ironically, our camera was stolen on the touristy trolley, not in our ghetto neighborhood we were so creeped out by.
Lesson learned: do more research on the neighborhood when you book in advance, even if it means losing some beach time!
|From Western Algarve|
The Algarve area of Portugal is tailor made for exploring due to the many beaches lining the southern coast of Portugal. As you go west, many of the beaches are tucked in between rocky cliffs. After Tavira, we headed west to Salema, a small fishing village in the southwest corner of Portugal, upon the recommendation of our friends Brad and Rachel. We used Salema as a base to explore the other beaches. Salema itself is located down a green meandering country road that leads to the ocean. (Unfortunately, most of my pictures of the town were the ones located on the camera card in our stolen camera, but I do have some.)
Since our hotel room had a small refrigerator, counter, knife, cutting board and a couple of dishes we took advantage and made some of our own meals. It also had a corkscrew, allowing us to get our own bottle of Portuguese green wine for under 3 euros. Since the Algarve is renowned for its seafood, we made sure to eat out one night and tried cataplana, a delicious and flavorful stew with fish, shellfish, tomatos, peppers and lots of spices cooked in special cookware.
We spent one day beach-hopping. Unlike the crowded, commercial or residential beaches at home, most of the land leading up to the beaches is protected and undeveloped. We drove down country roads lined with wildflowers, never sure what type of beach would pop up at the end. We happened to hit on the best one first. Tucked into between rocky cliffs, the sand was softer than the beach we visited on an island in Tavira. We found a spot between some beach rocks and listened to the waves crash up against the rocks. The Atlantic Ocean’s waters were still too nippy to do much swimming, but some people surfed in wet suits. Sean and a few other swimmers braved the waters for a quick swim.
It didn’t take long to figure out that the beach was divided into segments. Closest to the road, families with children made sand castles and frolicked in a pool of water leftover from high tide. Further down, it seemed to be mostly adults. Like the beach at Tavira, some, but not all, of the woman chose to go topless. But at the end of the beach – the most scenic part next to the rocky cliff – we quickly realized that many people, both men and woman, were full on nude. The men in particular seemed to strut up and down the sand in this section of the beach, scholongs waving back and forth. The funny part about nude beaches is that most of the people who are nude or topless aren’t the ones you probably would want to see. In case you were wondering, we both don’t feel the need for a head to toe tan. With my luck, I’d get a nasty sunburn in a place where the sun doesn’t normally shine.
Because of our delayed departure from Morocco that randomly placed us in the middle of Andalucia, we ended up meandering around Andalucia instead of following our original plan. So when we ended up in Seville, where a car was a hindrance instead of a help, we weren’t sure where to go to put our car to good use. We wanted to see the eastern part of Andalucia such as Granada and Costa del Sol, but it seemed our car would get in the way. Plus, we were less than 2 hours from Portugal’s border. In the end, the call of a new country beckoned too loudly, so we headed west. It fascinates me still that you can cross a country’s border just as easily as if you passed from Pennsylvania to Ohio.
We landed in Tavira, one of the first towns along Portugal’s Algarve region. Our friends Brad and Rachel recently visited Portugal and were smitten with the Algarve, and we could see why. Supposedly in July and August this area is overrun with tourists. While we weren’t the only visitors, it seemed like the perfect time to visit, as it was not crowded but the weather was warm and sunny (in the 80s) each day.
Tavira is a small little town with good vibe. It is not right on the coast, and you have to take a ferry to the beach, which is located on a nearby island. A small river runs through town, with pedestrian bridges leading you to each side. The buildings lining the river shine with the sunlight and reflect their images onto the water. Many of the buildings in town are white with red roofs, and those that are not are covered in colorful Portuguese tile. There seemed to be many ex-pats who have settled there, such as the British B&B owners, the shop owner from Wales, and the German woman running the Laundromat.
|From Eastern Algarve|
We sensed a strong UK presence. We saw magazines geared to British tourists, pubs with British and Irish beers, and English on all of the menus. Many of the tourists spoke English, but with a much different accent than our English. A waiter wanted to know where our unique accent was from, because we didn’t sound like the others. He said he didn’t see many people from the United States. We’ve heard that many tourists skip Portugal because it is just a sliver of land bordering Spain, and there is so much to see in Spain. While we love Spain, Portugal was fun and different and definitely worth seeing in its own right.
Some of our favorite things about this trip so far are located in Tavira. Every meal we had in Tavira was good, but our dinner at Restaurante Patio stood out. We ate dinner up on the terrace. The prawns I ordered were huge, and interspersed between grilled vegetables, sausage, and juicy chunks of pineapple. They were brushed with nothing more than a few spices, olive oil, and the pineapple juice. Sean equally enjoyed his traditional Portuguese dish, some sort of steak with a flavorful sauce. Unfortunately, although we heard rumors of Portugal being cheap, we found the meals to be more expensive than many of the meals we had in Spain. This is mostly because they practically force feed you starters. They will bring starters and charge you for them, whether you order them or not. There is a charge for bread, a charge for butter, a charge for cheese, a charge for olives, a charge for sardine pate, and a charge for marinated carrots (this charge I could forgive, because they were tasty).
Tavira also had a number of cute shops, but again, one stood out in particular. Casa das Portas is a small shop, but it is chock full of many treasures. Every direction in which you looked was filled with beautiful objects. I wanted to buy the whole store. Between the bags, the wall hangings, the pictures of Tavira’s doors taken by the owner, the scarves, and the jewelry, I was in heaven. The whole shop was filled with color. You can take a trip around the world right in the shop, because many of the items are from artists around the world. The owner, Jane Gibbons, told me she tries to buy items that are fairly traded. The owner is a very sweet and helpful woman with an adorable accent. She is originally from Wales. She began visiting Tavira a number of years ago, and opened the shop in 2007. She went out of her way to show me all of the options, and even volunteered that a necklace I was looking at came in a smaller, less expensive version in case I wanted to spend less.
I made a separate trip back without Sean so I could spend time lingering over all of the beautiful things in the store. To Sean’s dismay (but not surprise) I did not walk out empty handed. In my defense, we were headed to the beach later that day, and if I had not bought a purple and rose striped tote bag from London, we would have had to bring our small backpack and gotten it all sandy. It also came in handy for our trips to the grocery store for our picnic lunch. In my further defense, it is not like we planned to visit Columbia, so I could not have bought the bright, multi-colored necklace made from tagua (vegetal ivory) and dyed with natural dyes anywhere else. Nor was Indonesia a definite on our list, so the purple three strand bracelet made from coconut shells was a good buy. Believe me, only purchasing three items was restraint. If the multi-colored beaded or silver necklaces from an Australian artist hadn’t been over a hundred euros, I might have given them serious consideration. And then there was the spiral wall hanging made from recycled paper in Brazil…if only it wasn’t too big to fit in the backpack.
We also loved the place where we stayed. We did not have a guidebook for Portugal, and picked a hotel/B&B on a whim. We are very glad we did. The place where we stayed, Residencial Hotel Por do Sol, is hands down the best place we stayed so far. It had everything but a hairdryer. (I’ve only encountered about 4 or 5 hairdryers on this trip. Except for Matt’s Parisian apartment, all of the hairdryers have been puny, wimpy ones – nothing to get excited over). We had booked a room on the terrace, but Miguel, the owner, upgraded us for no charge into a bright and sunny room on the second floor. The room was stylish, and had a desk and two chairs in addition to the comfortable bed. (It gets very old having nothing but a bed to sit on all of the time). We had a television with English speaking channels. We had a balcony, which even came with a clothesline so we could dry our laundry in the sun as the Portuguese do. We had a small refridgerator. And after a stretch of many rooms without wifi at all or only in a common area, it was glorious to have wifi right in our room. The hotel was in walking distance to all of the shops and restaurants of Tavira, and Miguel was full of advice about places to eat in Tavira and things to do in the Algarve. Breakfast (fresh squeezed orange juice, coffee, croissants, meats and cheeses, and fruit salad) was served on the terrace overlooking Tavira’s rooftops. The best part? The room was only 44 euros per night (about $55).
We didn’t want to leave Tavira, and considered staying another night. But then the internet went down, so we headed West (you know, out Californee way) to get us some internet.