Monday, April 27, 2015

Lisbon: Wonderfully Unexpected

We went to Lisbon is August,  Yes.  And one of the more vivid memories of the trip was us waiting in a searing hot street with no shade for forty minutes for one of the old-timey trams that were supposed to come every ten.  It was one of those situations where we waited, decided to switch sides of the street, then the tram would come right when we left, and so then we'd wait again, and switch sides, and the tram would come on the other side!! etc.  It was hot.  It was frustrating.  We didn't like it.  Bleh.

BUT, on our second try enjoying Lisbon, we really warmed up to it...and the trams too.  Our better plan that day was to just take it easy and not feel like we had to check off fifteen things in an afternoon.  That kind of jazz just isn't the way things go over there on the Iberian peninsula. 

So we went to the aquarium, strolled around the castle, got the view at the top of one of the more picturesque hills, and wandered down into the old (oooold old old, tiny alleyways, clothes hanging out to dry between buildings, cobblestone, etc.) Alfama fisherman neighborhood around dinnertime. 

I remember turning a corner to see a little restaurant where you ate on tables in a tiny courtyard underneath the shade of a single ancient olive tree with lights crisscrossed above, it was just a little bit of magic - and the bacala deserves its own special mention. 

I don't know, it was to take a day to just wander around and come across things on our own.  We don't let ourselves do that often enough in our trips because most of the time we're so worried about regrets for missing a "big site", but I have to remember that, for me, the best memories have usually been the little discoveries - a particular black and white pattern on the sidewalks (Lisbon is famous for the black and white mosaic sidewalks), a tiled wall in a flowered courtyard, a neighborhood ice cream shop, peeking out of the open window of a trolley car as it goes up a narrow hill street, coming up from the metro by our hotel at the bull fighting ring stop and walking it's red and yellow walls (surprisingly smaller building than I'd expected) one last time. 

We had a really nice time in Lisbon, you know.  Really nice.

Sintra(!): Go to There

August 2013, we went for a long weekend to Portugal.

Now, Portugal wasn't ever on our list of top trips, so when we had a chance to get there for real cheap, I have to say that my expectations were pretty low and I had a kind of, "Meh, sure.  It will be interesting at least...don't know much about Portugal" attitude.

And, in my rankings of European capitals, Lisbon is a solid C+, I'd say.  Interestin' places to see though, get to all that later, but overall it was kind of just a big, hot city as far as we got to in our first two days.   

But, then, on a recommendation from a friend who had just visited, we decided one day to take a train further toward the west coast to Sintra and Sintra was AWESOME.

First off, the second we got off the train, I was sold because suddenly everything was lush and green and ten degrees cooler (way different from the more scrubby, Mediterranean look closer to Lisbon).  We walked down a little street toward the city center lined with tiny cafes and got some lemonade - something which has just not existed in Northern Europe, at least not enough to find easily.  And after our little break found ourselves in this beautiful little town full of palaces and Moorish fountains and gardens and hilltop castles and it was just lovely.

 Our first stop was to the royal family's Summer Palace, full of all kinds of beautiful ceilings, weird animal head soup tureens, tiled walls, and paintings of saints in negligees (yes, that actually is the plural form there).  One of my favorites were the corn-motif tiles, made right when the age of exploration was really kicking off.

  Then, we found the (very, very necessary) bus that drove to the top of the hill nearby to the insaaaaane Pena Palace.  It's kind of like the Neuschwanstein of Portugal - a castle built with all kinds of crazy styles all mashed together to look "fairytale"ish.  The end result here, though, was just a little...uh...wild.

And finally, we ended our day a little lower on the hill to see the old Moorish fortress and look out over the city before hiking back down and in search of dinner.

Dinner, by the way, was unbelievable.  Some kind of shellfish stew that exploded my understanding of the universe.

And you know what was super awesome about Sintra, even after we left?  Two things.  1) The Amazing Race went to Sintra right around the same time we did (woo!  one step closer to fame!) and 2) The NYT highlighted it as a new hotspot for those who are hip and cool a whole year after we went ourselves.  So #trendsetting.

Takeaway message is Sintra, go to there.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Elsinore (Helsingør) - Something Not At All Rotten

For Paul's birthday in 2013, I surprised him with a trip to Helsingør, about a half hour train ride north of Copenhagen as part of our UNESCO World Heritage Site exploration goals.  Other than the basic motivation to "collect them all", we mostly wanted to see the castle since it is where Hamlet was meant to be set (Helsingør = Elsinore).  Which, you know, makes it already pretty cool.

BUT it was waaaay more interesting than even that and I'm so glad we took the time to get out there and learn a bit more Danish history.  Helsingør is massively important in Danish (even world) history and, as a strategic fortress located right at the narrowing of the only navigable way into the Baltic, essentially made the country extremely rich through shipping tariffs.

Don't want to bore anyone to death about what we learned in Helsingør, but just wanted to make a note that, hey, it was a great museum with great hot chocolate and gave us a beautiful view over to Sweden.  Two thumbs up to this most excellent fortress-castle, even on drizzly days.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Ærø - Bikes and Bed and Breakfasts

When my family was visiting in June 2014, I squeeeezed in an overnight trip to the island of Ærø to the south of our larger island, Fyn.  It's a very small island and very well preserved from the 1600s with very few cars.  So I wanted to get my family down there to spend the night in Pension Vestergade 44, a beautiful bed and breakfast with an amazing garden and take them biking into the countryside on the bike highway system.

It was a beautiful train ride down to Svendborg to catch the ferry for an hour and a half ride through the small islands - such a lovely sunny day.  And we could just walk a block or two off the ferry right to the front door of our bed and breakfast where we had some cookies and tea before renting our bikes for the next day and a half.

It was just a real nice time.  Personally, I'd say that I enjoy my time more on vacation in the Copenhagen area (for the Louisiana and Design museums, the canal tours, the pretty-citiness), but for a relaxing trip through little villages and out in the countryside and off on the tiny islands, it was a great choice and a great "away from it all" kind of place.

 And we found this neolithic tomb on our ride one day so #winning!
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