Sintra – A Town of Castles

Sintra, Portugal is located to the west of Lisboa, a short train ride out of the busy capital.  It is a magical mountaintop on the edge of a national park that is the home to many castles built by many conquerers.  Romans, Moors, and Christian crusaders fought many battles and all occupied the space for a time before Portuguese kings began to use the town as a weekend retreat, (Wikipedia Sintra will explain the complicated history better than me.)  Now it is one of the most touristy places in Portugal but well worth fighting the crowds to see.  From perfect castles to ruins of ancient fortresses to cobblestone hikes through thick forests, Sintra has a lot for everyone.  We didn’t actually go inside any of the castles because they are expensive and we would rather just take pictures and walk around the outside.

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Quant old houses with the Moorish Castle visible on top of the hill

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The town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (like everywhere else in Europe, it seems) and has many nice restaurants and cafes.  We brought some food for a picnic because everything in Sintra is overpriced.

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Hiking to the Moorish Castle at the top of the mountain.

6We enjoyed the hike to the top.  There were amazing views and it felt like we had escaped the city life for at least a short time.

Part of the Moorish Castle

We continued along the trail to Pena National Palace.  They made you pay like 15 Euros before we could even see anything, so here is a picture that I stole from the internets.

Pena National Palace

If we had a little bit more cash to spare, we definitely would have gone inside the palace.  As it was, we felt more like hiking and enjoying some nature anyway.  Sintra was a very good escape from the big city!

 

Lisbon, and how to not fight with your travel buddy

There comes a point in every trip, when you’re traveling with just one companion, that you may start pushing each other’s buttons a bit.  Especially once the novelty of travel has worn off and the annoyances of living out of a backpack, worrying about money and buses and rain, and walking endless miles every day start to seem more acute.

This point for us came in Lisboa (“Lisbon”, in English).  We had been rocking through one big city after another and maybe we were more tired than we realized.  You’ve probably been there.  Suddenly, getting lost isn’t fun anymore, and then one of you is hungry but you can’t agree on where to eat, and then you stop being patient, and then “WHERE ARE WE GOING????  WHY ARE WE STILL WANDERING AROUND THIS TOWN LOOKING FOR FOOD AT SIESTA TIMIE??????  I’M GOING TO EAT MY ARM AND THEN I’M GOING TO FLY HOME WITHOUT YOU!!!!!”  Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but you see what I mean.

How do you deal with frustration on the road?  For us, I think it’s a matter of space.  No matter how much we love each other, we both need some alone time, which is hard to create when you are literally spending every waking AND sleeping moment together!  It helps to let each other off the hook from being social every now and then.  Read a book at a cafe instead of trying to talk all the time!  Go running or for a walk by yourself!  Just do some yoga in the hostel room while the other person surfs the internet.  Escape into your own thoughts every now and then and don’t stress about always being “on” for the other person.  Also, get some rest!!!  It helps us to have a lazy day every once in awhile, where we just catch up on planning, blog stuff, and reading instead of traipsing around in the sun all day.  Usually any rainy day is a good excuse for a rest!

Communication is also key.  We often fall into the trap of expecting the other to read our mind, since we know each other so well.  But that’s not fair.  You have to constantly communicate your needs when traveling, unless your partner really is psychic.  Otherwise you end up with, “How was I supposed to know you weren’t in the mood to wander aimlessly right now, isn’t that what we do every day?”

That being said, most of the time we are pretty cool with each other on the road.  We’re always learning how to communicate and take care of ourselves better.  Traveling together can definitely make or break a relationship and I highly recommend you try it before settling down!

Without further ado, here is Lisboa, which was really big, really tiring, but really beautiful too!

Cool surfboard design on the front of the modern art museum

Cool surfboard design on the front of the modern art museum. The museum is FREE and has some really funky stuff!

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Praça do Comércio in Baixa- the central neighborhood

View from the top of the Alfama

View from the top of the Alfama

Awesome samba band playing for tips!

Awesome samba band playing for tips!

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The plaza at night

The plaza at night

Lisbon has fun yellow trolley cars and amazing graffiti everywhere

Lisbon has fun yellow trolley cars and amazing graffiti everywhere

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Bairro Alto has beautiful architecture and great cafes

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Torre de Belém, the city’s most famous cathedral

Lisbon has an unending supply of gorgeous views, great food, and happy nightlife.  I hope we’ll be back to explore more someday!

Porto, Oporto. You’re old but still awesome.

Upon seeing Oporto (Porto in English), Portugal for the first time, we felt a little lost in time.  The streets were narrow and cobblestone and a bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel looked down upon us.  The old boats once ferried barrels of wine up the Douro River from the Douro Valley to be stored in the cooler cellars of the city.  Now they existed to taxi tourists up the river to view the city and six bridges.  The old city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a great place to get lost.

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Puente Maria Pia, Designed by Gusave Eiffel.

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We walked up the river then across the top of the bridge where the view was amazing.  It was hot and sunny which was a nice change after a lot of rain in northwestern Spain (Galacia – The Tower of Hercules in A Coruña, another UNESCO site).  We loved the colorful buildings and streets, too small for most cars.  The people were extremely friendly, helping us out with our poor Portuguese.  Our method was to mix the few words we knew with Spanish and change the pronunciation.  It worked pretty well after some practice but people would still use English before we even opened our mouths.

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After getting lost for awhile in the old city, we made our way back to the river and did a tour and tasting at Sandeman Cellars, one of the more famous port producers in the world.  It’s hard to sample a lot of port because of the high alcohol content but they still give you very large pours!

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A terrible picture but that’s vintage port from 1904!

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We loved Oporto and would like to return someday.  Unfortunately it rained our second day there so we were forced to take a much needed resting day.  Stay tuned for details of our adventures in Portugal’s capital, Lisbon.

San Sebastian, Nos Gusta Pintxos

San Sebastian deserves a post just about food.  With 14 Michelin stars in the whole town, there’s no debating that the small city  in northern Spain deserves its place among the food capitals of the world.   Their staples are “pintxos” – Basque tapas-style small bites.  These are available for lunch (1pm-4pm) and dinner (7pm-11pm) and range in price from 1-4 euros.  All of the cold pintxos are laid out on the bar for you to look over, or you can buy hot pintxos off of the menu.  Almost every bar has them and they are all good.  We ate A LOT of pintxos.  Here were some of our favorites!!!

Pintxos

Jamon (ham), brie, corn salsa

Pintxos

Sandwich with Tortilla de Patata (in Spain a tortilla is an omelette…so potato omelette)

Pintxos

Roasted red pepper, mushroom, fried padron pepper

Pintxos

Caramelized onions, sun-dried tomatoes, brie

Pintxos

Cheese, raspberry marmalade, anchovies, walnuts

Pintxos

Sun-dried tomatoes, brie

Pintxos

Tuna, anchovy

Pintxos

a tart of salsa

Pintxos

Jamon, roasted pepper, egg, anchovy, shrimp, cheese

 

 

 

 

 

The best Couchsurfing meal ever!!!

The best Couchsurfing meal ever!!!

Our Couchsurfing hosts where all chefs, so they generously decided to cook us up an amazing Basque-style feast.  We spent the whole morning driving around the city picking up the best ingredients and wine.  First was a refreshing tomato gazpacho (cold soup), then we had local tomatoes, ried padron peppers with sea salt, bread, “cocochas en salsa verde” (fish throats), and fried “bacalao” (salted cod) in tomato sauce.  All sooooo delicious and paired with amazing Rioja (local) wine.  I couldn’t have been happier, hanging out in the kitchen learning how to prepare these amazing dishes.  This is what Couchsurfing is all about and why we love it so much!

Cocochas en Salsa Verde

Cocochas en Salsa Verde

If you like food, DO NOT MISS SAN SEBASTIAN.  This was my favorite town EVER for eating.  I want to go back; I want to live there.  It was that good.

San Sebastian

We were so ready for Spain.  After struggling with French all we could think about was getting to a place where we understood what was going on again.  I fell asleep on the Rideshare from Bordeaux and awoke to hills and green trees and houses with tiled rooftops.  We had made it!  San Sebastian was small and came out of nowhere, the ocean bright blue and full of surfers.  The surf wasn’t good, but it was nice to be in a slightly more familiar setting.

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Our Couchsurfing hosts welcomed us into their house but had to run back to work so we relaxed for awhile then headed out to grab some of the famous “pintos”, the Basque word for tapas-style small bites of food.  San Sebastian is very famous for its cuisine, having more Michelin stars (14) per capita than any other city in the world.  The pintxos are served for lunch (around 1-4pm) and dinner (approx 7-11pm).  They cost between 1 and 4 euros each so it can add up if you are stuffing your face like we did.  I was in heaven.

Pintxos!!!

After having one of the most amazing eating frenzies of our lives, we needed to burn some calories so we could eat more for dinner.  We headed up the trail to Monte Urgull to where an old castle and a large statue of Jesus looked down on the city.  The city appeared even more beautiful than we first thought.  Two beaches were split in half by the peninsula with the fortress and Jesus sculpture atop it, complemented by a large bay with a pretty little island, and bright blue water that reminded me of the Caribbean.   We were ready to find jobs and move in, seriously.

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Isla Santa Clara

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We got a long nap along with everyone else in town (the Spanish do love their “siestas”), then headed out for more pinxtos.  I was obsessed.  My inner chef kept telling me to eat eat eat until I could eat no more.  Did I mention that La Rioja, one of the premier wine regions in the world was right down the road?  This meant amazing wine at amazing prices.  “How much is rent here?”

Coming soon… All about Basque cuisine.

The Bordeaux Adventures

After wandering through Paris for three days, we caught another Blablacar rideshare to Bordeaux, capital of one of France’s most famous wine regions!  The small city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, fun university town, and a great place to depart for a wine tour to the surrounding countryside.  It also has the longest pedestrian-only street in Europe!  The surrounding streets also prohibit cars, so it’s a great place to walk around freely, stopping at any of the myriad shops and bars.

Ancient architecture with modern train

Ancient architecture with a modern train system

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Basilica de Ste. Michel

Basilica de Ste. Michel

We didn’t end up forking over the cash for an official tour because we had heard there were many opportunities to taste the local offerings at the many wine bars in town.  That was true; although we couldn’t find anywhere that actually did small 1-2oz tastings, there were always many local glasses on the menus.  The first night in Bordeaux we did a blind tasting of two different reds from nearby and I guessed mine correctly- Cab Sav!  It was massive and tannic.  Zach’s merlot was also great.  The highlight though, was the best cheese board I’ve ever had in my life!  We got cream cheese, goat cheese, brie, and camembert.  “Oh la la,” indeed!  I never truly understood cheese until I went to France.  My waistline, however, is not appreciating this newfound understanding.  Oh well, Europe is not the place for diets, I keep telling myself.

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Very happy Zach

Best cheese in the world

Best cheese in the world

Cheesy paradise

Cheesy paradise

On our second day in Bordeaux we wandered around a bit more, tasted some more wine, had a wine and cheese picnic, walked through a huge and beautiful park, and made some friends at Grizzly Bar, a Quebecois bar with a delicious hefeweizen on special–Edelweiss from Germany.  All in all, the town was very nice and mellow, while still having enough entertainment for two days.  Next time I’m sure we’ll explore the surrounding villages more, as we definitely got our palates excited about Bordeaux varietals!

Oh la la! Three Days in Paris

While in the States we found BlaBlaCar.com, a ride-sharing website that seemed popular in Europe.  We tried it in California but no one seemed to use it.  The train from London to Paris was almost 100 euros each so we were happy to find a rideshare that was only 70 euros for the both of us.  We met up with our driver at 6am and two French girls and a guy joined us in the van.  It was early so no one really talked, but our driver buzzed through the busy London streets with ease and we soon found ourselves in the British countryside, flat land with trees and small villages with farms of corn and sheep.  I soon fell asleep and before I knew it we were at the white cliffs of Dover waiting in line for the ferry to France.

Dover from the ferry

Once on the boat everyone woke up and started talking.  Kindred spirits, we talked about our plans and they taught us some last-minute French.  We were soon out in the English Channel and before we knew it the hour-and-a-half trip was over and we were docking on the shores of mainland Europe.

The French countryside reminded us of Ohio with its flat, never ending corn fields.  We both fell asleep again and soon were on the edge of Paris in terrible traffic.  Our driver dropped us off a few blocks from where we would spend the night CouchSurfing and since our host was not home until nighttime we stopped at one of the many cafes for our first wine and cheese of the trip.

wine and cheese

Paris was so different than what we were used to.  Everyone sits outside on chairs that all face the street.  The locals can spend an hour drinking an espresso and chain smoking.  Sitting down and having this relaxing lunch time is a very important part of their day.   After work, everyone is walking home with a baguette or two; the bread is amazing here.

The next day, despite having all day passes for the Metro, we ending up doing a whole lot of walking.  I can’t remember ever seeing so many famous things in one day.  Drum roll…

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The Louvre

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Pont des Arts bridge over the Seine river in Paris. The locals ask people to NOT put locks on the bridge because the weight of the locks is about to collapse the bridge.

Bridge of love locks.

I cannot even guess how many locks are already there. I would bet more than a million.

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Notre Dame.

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Carrie at the tower. We had a nice picnic in this park.

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The Arc de Triomphe.  It’s surrounded by the worlds most impressive round-a-bout.

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The Moulin Rouge

Sacre-Couer (Sacred Heart)

Sacre-Couer (Sacred Heart)

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The view from Sacré-Coeur in the Montmartre district

Monument where the Bastille used to stand

Monument where the Bastille used to stand

Yes, the French can be a little grumpy – especially when your French is as bad as ours.  But they grow on you and we soon figured out how to properly order food and drinks at the restaurants.  The city was like nothing we’ve seen before.  Old and grimy in parts, but full of flavor and overflowing with history.   We were able to see a lot in our three days but hopefully we will be able to return someday to continue our explorations!!!

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