A Travellerspoint blog

Porto

How I Love Port Towns!

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Porto is the second biggest city in Portugal, but it's not even really that big! It had a small-town feel to it, there were churches everywhere. We were reminded quite often that Portugal still holds many traditional values, one of them being that they are a catholic country, but this just added to the old world feel that I absolutely loved. In general though, I'm a huge fan of port towns, they're always so fresh and have seagulls flying all over (which remind me of Santa Barbara back home!). Once again, we continued couchsurfing and had another wonderful experience with Miguel, who showed us all about family values in his culture. I loved the kind of relationship he had with his family and how welcome they all made us feel even though they could hardly communicate with us. Unfortunately, we only had one full day to explore the city since I had to get back by the 3rd and taking a bus from Portugal to France, while being really cheap, also takes quite a while.

We woke up really early and went out to explore the town, we saw churches, the river, great views of the city and the other side of town, which is technically a part of Porto, but almost it's own little town.

Some of the cathedrals...
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Sé do Porto
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This is the view from the Sé do Porto... One of the best!
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We wandered through the narrow streets, took the bridge and went to the other side of town...
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We looked around for something to eat and since by now we'd had nothing but meat to eat for two weeks, aside from the one vegetarian meal in Madrid, we skipped out on a traditional meal and ordered some salads, which was a big mistake. I don't think the Portuguese believe in salads.
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Upon our return, our wonderful host took us out to eat, walk around the city and shake a tail feather.
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The next morning, before catching our bus, Miguel wanted us to try the most typical/traditional Portuguese snack. He said it was their take on the french Croque Monsieur. It's called a Francesinha. It's pretty much a meat sandwhich covered in cheese and meat sauce. It was really heavy and I can't believe I somehow ate it all.

Francesinha

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And with that lunch our travels finally ended. Spain and Portugal for two weeks was an unforgettable experience. Leaving France made me realize how hungry I am to discover other cultures because everything the locals do in each country is so different than France and so much fun in its own way. It made me conscious of how much more I want to travel. I really loved Portugal and I can't even exactly tell you why. It somehow felt so good to be there. Things were cheap (at least cheaper than France), the topography of the city was so animated- there's no such thing as "flat" space and I guess it's the most exotic place I've been so far. That said, I think I may have left my heart in Portugal.

Posted by Suzy_Belle 07.02.2009 09:52 Archived in Portugal Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Lisboa

The European Mexico

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Lisboa, the capital of Portugal is a city extremely rich in culture and history, which I honestly didn't know much about until speaking with the locals. The language, first off, is so fascinating. The words are sometimes similar to Spanish, mixed in with French and then spoken with a Russian accent. I loved hearing it and wanted to just jump in somehow. It's pretty easy to get around though because most people speak at least a little bit of English since it is required to take it for 8 years in school, otherwise many people also speak French because THAT USED TO BE the language that the Portuguese had to take for 8 years in school, in the 80's I believe. Anyway, speaking Spanish is fine too, I walked around asking, "Farla Inglez, frances, espagnol?" Although NO was often the answer with the older generation, they were INCREDIBLY NICE and would try to talk to me any way I could. So far, I'd definitely have to say that the Portuguese are the sweetest, kindest people around. I felt very comfortable there. Portuguese men are also very attractive. =P

By the time we reached Lisboa, my leg was really killing me so I really felt like I was dragging down my traveling companions and I wish they would have just ditched me because we didn't do as much as we would have liked, but thanks to our couchsurfing host, we still learned a lot about the culture. http://www.couchsurfing.com is a wonderful project aimed to help travelers connect with natives, save cash on lodgings and make friends worldwide. I had never tried it before and while I was nervous and excited, I never could have expected it to be as amazing as it was. Our host talked to us at length about Portugal's history, among various subjects, he also cooked for us, took us out on the town and bought us pastries. I couldn't have asked for more. I know that without João we would have been unable to really get a feel for what Portuguese culture was all about. Thanks to his hospitality, frankness and willingness to host Americans even during this rough time, I fell in love with this city.
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Castelo São Jorge

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We spent the better half of our first full day in Lisboa walking around and trying to get to the Castle, which was particularly hard for me due to my limp-ish leg. On this little journey, we got to see so much of the city and saw how old it is. Parts of Lisboa are really old, but I can't stress enough how awesome that was. Madrid and Barcelona were both cities so changed throughout the years, they're both so busy and capitalistic, that they've lost that old world feel that Lisboa still has. The city is very diverse, with areas that are very modern, others that are influenced by the arab and african cultures and then these buildings that seem to have existed forever.
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There's quite a bit to see while trying to get to the castle, since it's a nice hike to get there. We ended up getting really hungry half-way up and decided to sit down for some traditional food. In Portugal, they eat a lot of meat and fish, but as was mentioned many times, more than anything, they love cod fish. I'm not a big sea food fan, but I did try a manta ray dish that João made for us on the first night and also some codfish dish my roommate ordered at a restaurant.

Codfish Purée of some sort that Hillary ordered

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Baby Octopus Salad

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My other friend, Maggie, had this baby octopus salad that I was not a fan of. I don't get why people eat it, it's just rubber in your mouth that you chew in an attempt to try to swallow it, but I don't know if that ever happens.

I went for the most traditional thing I could find, which was a meat and pea stew with an egg in the middle.
Ervilhas com Ouos Escalfados
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Some other sights on our way to the Castle...

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I have to admit, I feel as though so much of the trip consisted of eating and walking a lot. Traveling is hard work. ^_^ After seeing the castle, we wanted to go see this monastery called Bélem, but by the time we got there it was already closed and I was only able to take a few pictures from the outside, it looked very impressive and I really regret being unable to see it. However, after being so horribly disappointed about our bad timing to Bélem, João came to pick us up and bought us pastries. They are these little custard cakes that we found later on also in Porto, but the ones from Bélem are world famous. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pasteis_de_belem

Bélem
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Pastéis de Bélem, also called Pastéis de Nata

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Our host gave us a little tour of Lisboa and even took us to see the ocean, unfortunately, it was night and raining so we didn't get to enjoy it as much as we would have liked. But in the little quick tour that João gave us, we got to see how much pride the Portuguese have for all of their achievements and how proud (in a good way) the people are about their history and culture. I really admired that about the people. More than once random people just started up conversations with us- I was traveling with two blondes and that's kind of unseen in Portugal, so we really stood out- people would try to talk to us and I was constantly surprised at how nice they were.
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On our last full day there we went to the Gulbenkian Museum‎ which is really huge. I think it's more like 3 museums combined into one. They had more tapestries than I'd ever seen, but in general I really liked it. This painting in particular because it's so sinister. Muahaha.
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The great weather, rich culture and friendly people made this city one of the most charming I've had the privilege of visiting and I'm also eternally grateful to João for living the couchsurfing lifestyle and showing us such a wonderful time.

Posted by Suzy_Belle 01.02.2009 09:19 Archived in Portugal Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Madrid

Adventures in the Capital

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Arriving in Madrid after a 7 hour bus ride from Barcelona, we quickly found our hostel only to realize that we were very conveniently located downtown. The black market vendors were right downstairs and I was quite often tempted to buy a reduced price D&G bag, but I restrained myself. It was funny to watch them scatter as soon as they heard the cops coming, though.

Since it was the holidays, we were constantly surrounded by activity. I awoke my second morning to some pretty decent violinists playing right on our doorstep. Looking over my photos of Madrid I ask myself, what exactly did we do there? haha.. Most of my photos are of the city, the massive park we visited and miscellaneous food items. Madrid seemed to me very much like New York, except everyone spoke Spanish, and it felt really good to be there since people weren't so stuck up about my accent. I loved Madrid and my only regret is that we couldn't stay longer.

El Museo del Prado
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On our first full day of tourism we headed to the most renowned museum in Madrid, El Museo del Prado, housing Goya, Titien, El Greco and so many more. They even had a temporary Rembrandt exposition. I was fascinated by Goya's collection titled Black Paintings (We weren't allowed to take photos inside the museum, so instead check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goya#Black_Paintings_and_The_Disasters). They were kind of creepy, but that's what made them stand out from all the other mostly religious art. However, the museum is huge and I know we only visited a very small piece of it before we started starving. We had waited in line to get in for over and hour or so and we had also walked to the museum so our small breakfast wasn't enough to hold us over. We wanted to grab a quick bite to continue our trip so after only a little wandering we found this tiny cafe that had probably the best prices I've ever seen in Europe. After traveling a little bit, I definitely realized how much more expensive France is in comparison to other countries.


Parque del Buen Retiro

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El Parque del Buen Retiro is a huge park. It's massive and actually has streets inside. There's also an area with a lake that you can rent boats at, and hidden even deeper inside the park is the Grand Palace or Crystal Palace, whichever you'd like to call it. There is ALSO a museum, that is unfortunately closed for construction until some time late this year. Anyway, it's a massive park, or small forest if you may, that I very much enjoyed walking through because it was so peaceful and probably a perfect place to come to for a pique-nique, or to just get lost in for hours.
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Tapas, Bocadillos, Mojitos and El Tigre
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It may sound extremely silly, but, going to Spain I figured I might be able to find some familiar foods or flavors of the Mexican variety and this was not the case. Spanish food has absolutely NOTHING in common with Mexican food, other than that maybe we both like to snack on meat. My mother stopped cooking really traditional food when I was little because she was too busy and preferred to take shortcuts, but I do remember that for snacks (botanas) sometimes we'd have some chicharrones de puerco (pork) and in Spain they are huge fans of dried Chorizo Iberico, which they put on pieces of toast or on a cheese platter to form Tapas or Bocadillos. Anyway, there are some similarities, but they're still a sea apart =P There is, however, a wonderful Tapas Bar that we stumbled into called El Tigre which is a super crowded local favorite because you get free tapas every time you order a drink. They have various types of tapas aside from the meat variety, some seasoned mushrooms, Patatas Bravas (fries in special hot sauce) and Croquetas (breaded treats often filled with cheese or chicken, or both). El Tigre is definitely a great place to go to get the best deal for Tapas and drinks. They also have the biggest Mojitos I've ever seen.

Plaza Mayor & The City
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I had a lot of fun just walking around Madrid because it's such a busy city. It doesn't have all the charm of Barcelona, but the friendly people make up for it. Unfortunately, it is such a big city that we didn't see as much of it as we would have liked. I don't even think we ever took the metro so all the walking around took a lot of time so we did quick sight-seeing as opposed to other activities. We stayed mostly downtown and ate way too much. On our last day we had had enough of all the Tapas and were starting to feel really weighed down by the ridiculous amount of fatty food we'd been taking in since we arrived in Spain, so for our last meal we went to a vegetarian restaurant. My favorite part was the desert, Buñuelos de Platano con Miel, which are deep fried bananas with coconut and honey.
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I love Madrid and would love to go back someday. It had a certain Je ne sais quoi that I'll always remember. One thing that I did find particular about Spain in general is the fact that you can smoke anywhere; in restaurants (the nice and the dingy) and of course in bars. People have the misconception that the French take the cake as far as smokers go, but the truth is that Spain does. There you have it, you learn something new everyday. ^_^

Posted by Suzy_Belle 10.01.2009 08:08 Archived in Spain Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Barcelona

The city that never stops, not even for a siesta

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The first stop on our winter wonderland adventure was Barcelona, Spain. We arrived at 3am at the bus station and for some reason thought it would be a good idea to wander around. Barcelona supposedly is the Vegas of Spain, so I figured there would be something to do. In fact, we saw a fairly decent amount of drunk people roaming the streets, a bunch of dudes hanging out trying to sell beer cans and bocadillos (this is the general term for any snack, like a little sandwhich). The rest of the night and most of the morning is blurry since we were absolutely delirious due to lack of sleep and being lost in a new country. We eventually arrived in our hostel and fell asleep for the large part of the day, then went around exploring.

Las Ramblas

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This is the street. That's all I have to say. It is THE street for just about anything, particularly shopping and food. It's also the place to catch street performers, but when I say that, I mean to say people dressed up as movie characters or something. My favorite was the guy pretending to be Edward Scissor Hands, he was seriously spot-on!
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Take a couple of the tiny winding streets from Las Ramblas and you'll hit bars or clubs. Even on Christmas eve and Christmas day, this street was jam-packed with people. Just off this street there's also a daily outdoor market that I unfortunately only got a chance to see as they were packing up. On Las Ramblas you will find all the comforts of home, such as a mcdonalds, burger king and starbucks... but beware! Everything is in Catalan. I speak Spanish, but it was still a little hard for me to get used to the differences. I went around and spoke to everyone in Spanish and they replied to me in Spanish, but the official language is indeed Catalan and all signs will be in Catalan. I also spoke to a native and he told me that about 5 years ago, you couldn't walk around speaking in Spanish because people would not reply to you. They are not the same language and should not be treated as such, but that doesn't mean you have to be a jerk, which I found some people were. When I went to a bar and ordered the lady looked at me like I was speaking Chinese and then I repeated myself and then she repeated the same thing with her own accent and I said yes. I know that living in such a touristy region must take it's toll, so I'll excuse the rudeness.


Paella

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Before going to Spain, I knew I would have to try the Paella. I have to admit, I didn't really like it, but only because it was "Paella Mixta" which had a little too much seafood for my taste, but I may have liked the chicken version much better. I really enjoyed the sangria that came with the plate, at least. We also ordered some fried squid and I'm not sure if I drank too much sangria or if I actually did like it, but I thought it was good... then again, anything tossed in batter and deep-fried is generally good. ^_^ Try them with ketchup!
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Montjuïc, Awesome Views, Gardens and Museums
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Our second day was one of the most productive of our entire trip. We did so much, especially since we practically had a "California Christmas". What I mean is that the weather was very pleasant... maybe even a little hot! We took the metro to Plaça d'Espanya and starting walking up Montjuïc, which is technically a hill, but it's also the "location" of about 5 Museums, 8 gardens and so much more. It's worth mentioning that although this could be a massive work-out getting through the stairs, there are escalators conveniently placed everywhere. So we walked around, enjoyed the view, and moved on.

Parc Güell
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This park has the best views of the city, it's a massive tourist spot. I hurt my leg at the beginning of the trip so this was particularly hard for me because it's a bit of a hike to get to the top and there are stairways everywhere (but no escalators this time) to get from one side of the park to the other. It was designed by Antonio Gaudí so it has some interesting architecture. Gaudí is kind of a big deal in Barcelona, he's like their hero for being such an out-of-the-box thinker (his work is worth checking out. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antonio_Gaudi).

He's got some buildings in town as well, such as Casa Batllo, which is one of his most famous.
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One thing that I began to notice/feel in Barcelona and never stopped thinking about during my trip is just how tourism affects a city, a country. I saw so many symbols of anarchy and anti-capitalism. I do agree that exploiting the culture and it's "national treasures" in some ways disrupts the lives of the people and the community, but I also don't want to miss out on traveling because of it. Catch-22 of moral dilemma v. desire to explore.
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This graffiti right at the beginning of the park says Capitalism is Death.

Anyway, due to my "gimp" leg and my own curiosity, I was separated from my two traveling companions at the park so I continued on my journey alone for my next two stops.


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Barri Gòtic is the Gothic quarter of town. I made a really quick walk through it since I was alone and also because it was getting dark. There's a couple of cathedrals and the Picasso Museum can be found nearby. Now, I thought that France had narrow streets, but I realized how wrong I was walking around Barri Gòtic. The streets are so narrow that you feel like you're in a maze and may never get back onto the plaza or main street you came from.

Sagrada Familia
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As anyone will tell you, La Sagrada Familia is Gaudí's most ambitious project, which unfortunately, remains unfinished. I don't even know how to describe it. When I got out of the metro station, I turned around and there it was. I thought I was going to faint. I don't care who you are or what your religious views are, this temple/church/cathedral, whatever it is, is definitely a sight to see. It literally took my breath away and captivated me in an unexpected way. I just wanted to stare at it from every angle possible. This feeling that I can't describe just came over me. It was an out-of-body experience. One of the most amazing things I've seen in my entire life. It's so surreal, beautiful and holy (mind you, i'm not religious, but it was still holy). I can't say anything more about it other than I'm so grateful to have seen it.

I finally managed to meet up with my friends back at the hostel and we went off to the most interesting bar I'd ever been to. It was fairy themed and even had trees inside.
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We only stayed there briefly because it was late and everyone was tired... BUT, I still had one order of business left. Since it was Christmas and also opening night for The Spirit, I had to take advantage of the opportunity to hit the cinema. The same film doesn't come to theaters in France until February so I went to go check it out. It was dubbed in Spanish, but I still really liked it. I have to watch it once more in English before I make my final judgments though. =P


Aquarium de Barcelona

Somewhere along this trip, I believe on the 24th, we went to the Aquarium, but I can't think of what else we did that day other than return to our hostel and make fajitas for dinner. I had never been to an aquarium so I wanted to go and I had a really good time. They had penguins and that alone was worth the over-priced ticket.
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Our stay in Barcelona was probably the longest out time we stayed anywhere throughout our winter adventure. We thought it would be the best place to spend a lot of time. I have to say, yes there are tons of "touristy" spots, tons of museums and gardens and also a booming night scene, but this city was by far my least favorite on our journey. Not to say I didn't like it or to say that it's not worth going, but in my mind it takes a lot more than tourist traps to make a great city. What I can say though is that the natives are very proud of their culture and history, which, not surprisingly, I found in every city we visited.

Posted by Suzy_Belle 06.01.2009 07:03 Archived in Spain Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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