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Jackie Steves Blogs Spain & Portugal — Part 1

Read Jackie and her best friend Zoe's adventures as they explored the Iberian Peninsula together in the summer of 2009.

Budget Overview: Two Young Women, Three Cities, Ten Days

Before the trip, my dad made the accurate estimation that we could travel on $60-80 US a day. We ended up making it on about 68 dollars a day, not including two flights and a train ride. In total, we each spent about $1,816.

Here's a rough summary:


  • Barcelona hostel: Sant Jordi Alberg (per person, per night) — $49
  • Madrid hotel: Hotel Europa (Thanks, Dad! He hooked us up with a free stay at his friends' hotel) — Free!
  • Lisbon hostel: Traveler's House (per person, per night) — $30
  • Round-trip plane from Seattle to Spain — $900
  • Train from Barcelona to Madrid (per person) — $157
  • Plane from Madrid to Lisbon (per person) — $43

We each withdrew about €280 ($400 US) from ATMs over the course of the trip to cover all our daily expenses. So that's about $35 per day.

We cut down on daily costs by being cheap with food. We would grab a snack of yogurt, fruit, or cheese from the grocery store for breakfast. We would pick up something like cheap sandwiches for lunch. Snacks consisted of fruit and veggies from produce stands and the occasional ice cream cone. We would usually sit down for dinner at a rather cheap restaurant, usually spending about $8-12 each.

Being card-carrying students cut museum costs down sometimes as much as $5. At Madrid's Royal Palace, for instance, showing your student card let you pay $7 instead of $12.50.

I have to admit that being a female at bars and clubs helps a lot. I don't think we ever had to pay for our own drinks. On more low-key nights, we would pick up a decent bottle of wine from the grocery store for just $5, and go out to share it while chilling in the town square. (Such public drinking is accepted over here.)

We hailed cabs on a couple nights to get back to our hostel when it was too late and dark to walk back safely. Otherwise we used the cheap subway, buses, and trolleys. Tickets for these forms of public transportation are usually just about $2.

Thanks to my dad, we got tours from four local guides for free, a free dinner, and a free fado concert.

We were very cheap here and there, but always comfortable. It was a happy medium between living on nothing but peanut butter (like my brother's friend did on their Eurotrip) and the way I travel with my parents.

— Jackie


Posted on July 30, 2009

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

This morning, employees of the hostel pleaded with us to stay a few more days, but we grudgingly checked out anyway. One of the employees, a Norwegian, told us that he had planned to visit Lisbon for five days and then go on to travel to Spain and France, but he never left. Now he's been living in Lisbon for five months and says he has never been happier. I am not surprised. It's difficult not to fall in love with this city. Zoe and I even contemplated telling our parents, “Oops, we missed our flights,” so we could stay another couple of weeks.

On the flipside of the bitter departure there was some sweet. Zoe was excited to get home to her boyfriend and parents. And I'm ready to go on to some of my favorite countries, take on the responsibility of an assistant tour guide, and replenish my depleted bank account.

Having reached the end of our trip, it's fun to ruminate about the experience overall. We spent a few days in three very different Iberian cities. Barcelona stands out for its boisterous nightlife and arresting Art Nouveau beauties. I'll remember Madrid for its illustrious paintings, bustling squares, and overall liveliness. At the mention of Lisbon, my mind will conjure up visions of regimented mustard yellow buildings, rickety people-packed trolleys, and the anguished expressions of fado artists singing their heart-wrenching story.

— Jackie


Posted on July 29, 2009

A Fado Finale On Our Last Night in Lisbon

Last night we walked to Bairro Alto, the area west of downtown Lisbon, with the fashion district and the best nightlife. My dad had emailed his friend, Gabriel, who owns a restaurant where they put on fado performances. So when we arrived at the restaurant, he had been expecting us (along with a French woman who could have either been his wife or his mother, I couldn't tell) and gave us the warmest of greetings.

He showed us into his cozy little restaurant, where the walls were decorated with paintings and sketches of fado singers. As soon as we sat down, Gabriel brought us a bottle of vinho verde, a sparkling white Portuguese wine. We ordered the seafood rice that he suggested, and he brought us out a big, steaming pot of it, with shrimps, crab, muscles, clams, scallops, and tons of flavor. The best meal of our trip by far! For dessert he brought us his special dessert, the name of which I do not know. It was like a cold frothy mocha cream. We felt like princesses because he kept offering to bring us all kinds of things and when we asked for the check he wouldn't let us pay.

Meanwhile, we heard three fado singers. Throughout all the performances, two elderly men played two different types of guitars. The first to sing was a short old blind man. His manner of singing was a bit jarring to me at first. I had never heard music like this before. It was a powerful guttural singing with the occasional vibrato. I couldn't understand a word, but it was clear that it was a terribly sad and dramatic love story. With each successive song I grew to like it more.

I don't remember well the woman who performed next because the woman who followed her absolutely blew me away. Her song was one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. Her heartfelt passion filled the room. During the few songs she sang, I was head-over-heels in love with fado. Zoe and I were mesmerized, staring at her face screwed up with fervor and torment. We didn't touch our food once during her performance. When she finished, Zoe was speechless, and all I could say was, “Wow.” This woman and her fado, Zoe and I will never forget.

Gabriel introduced us to his 18-year-old son, Tom, who showed us his family's bar upstairs. He made us mojitos and we talked about music and travel. The bar was decorated with rock band posters and Zoe commented that he must really like American rock bands. He said, matter of factly, “No, which band is American in here?” “ACDC,” I guessed. No, they're Australian. Zoe guessed Black Sabbath. No, they're English. The only American rock band we could find among the posters was Kiss. All the rest were actually not American. I barely know anything about rock bands, but that really made me feel arrogant for assuming most famous rock bands originate from the States.

— Jackie


Posted on July 28, 2009

A Zoe-Style Visit to the Postcard-Perfect Town of Sintra

This morning we took the train to Sintra, a town just 15 miles north of Lisbon. It used to be the perfect getaway for Lisbon's aristocracy and royalty. Now their palaces have been turned into museums and their gardens into public parks for tourists to enjoy.

Up until today we have followed a rather busy itinerary, seeing a few sights a day. Today I told Zoe, “Let's do today Zoe-style and just explore the town aimlessly.” So that was the nature of our visit to Sintra, and in the end we were very glad for it.

We wandered away from the train station, up the delightfully green hillside, in the direction of the castle. Most of the buildings are centuries-old mansions so rustic they meld with nature, seeming to belong perfectly. A few little areas of touristy cafés and shops interrupt this harmony, but even these little businesses were charming.

Zoe and I took turns doing silly poses with the sculptures that stood at intervals along the path winding up to the palaces. We couldn't stop taking pictures of the hillside and the water — really the epitome of picturesque. Every once in a while we came upon groups of little children following each other in a line like little ducklings, all wearing the same color hat, either blue or red or yellow. They must have been summer day camps for Portuguese young children — very cute.

We didn't go inside any of the palaces or the castle. Instead, we meandered up random alleyways and came upon a little peaceful refuge with a fountain at the center decorated with Moorish tiling. The trickling water and cool shade called us to rest and read our books for a bit.

— Jackie


Posted on July 27, 2009

Sweet Sweet Sintra

On our last day, Jackie and I agreed to go to a small, charming, picturesque town — without any type of itinerary. With clothes on our backs and books in our bags, we rode the train to the last stop — Sintra. It was a destination we had been told would be criminal to miss, so we committed the entire day to it. We were feeling melancholy about our impending departure from one another (and for me, from Europe entirely), but it made our last hours together all the sweeter. Sintra immediately lived up to its reputation for beauty and charm. After walking not more than a few minutes, we saw on our left a stone wall, and on the right a breathtaking panorama. The town was built around a valley, and the valley had pretty structures amongst lush vegetation. Palm trees and a diverse array of statues, all by different artists, lined the road. The road ended in a hilly cobblestone-street neighborhood. Little winding streets were lined with shops selling touristy merchandise and restaurants boasting, "Real Portuguese Food" and "Hamburgers and Hotdogs."

We found ourselves a delightful little reading nook next to a pretty fountain and parked there for an hour or so, leaving reluctantly, slaves to our hunger. We retraced our steps, passing the train station to venture in the opposite direction we had initially walked. After some routine restaurant-choosing dysfunction, we sat down in the one restaurant in town that really did not want our business. After we had been seated in this particular restaurant, the waiter told us we could stay for 15 or 30 minutes. We respectfully scarfed our chow mein and cashew chicken.

After lunch, we returned to a spot we had scoped out on our way to lunch — shaded benches, pigeons, and a killer view. As usual, my book was not as captivating as my surroundings. Jackie and I grew restless quickly and headed home, eager for our night of food and fado — a genre of music we had heard much about.

No one could have prepared me for the romance that awaited me on our last night in Lisbon. Rick had alerted a restaurant-owner friend of his about our visit, and we were welcomed into his restaurant with open arms. We were ushered into an intimate corner and presented with bread, cheese, and tuna. Rick's friend insisted that everything on the menu was good, something we didn't doubt, but still probed him for specifics. Seafood rice was ordered, and it arrived just as the lights dimmed, and a blind fado singer and his guitarist took the "stage." In the dim red light, listening to the melancholy music, eating the freshest, most delicious seafood, Jackie and I agreed it was the most romantic date of our lives. Three performers and four servings later, after having pronounced ourselves stuffed, a frothy coffee-flavored dessert was ceremoniously served. Of course we obliged, just as we obliged when we were invited to his son's bar right above the restaurant. The son made us deliciously weak mojitos, and then argued confidently that music accompanied by lyrics was not, in fact, music. We exited the bar soon after our table was infiltrated by a frighteningly intense teenage boy with braces.

The streets were filled with young people with drinks and cell phones in hand. We worked our way through the crowd, striking up a few conversations here and there. We ducked into another bar so I could use the bathroom, and I am pleased to say it was there that I was finally mistaken for Portuguese. There isn't much of a story there, but it must be noted as a victory. The day having been one success after another, we were content to go home at a reasonable hour. We informed a couple of boys wishing to...get to know us better that we were going to walk home so, sadly, could not go dancing with them. They feigned astonishment, exclaiming, "Alone!? No, we will walk you." Without explaining to them that they could not act as our protectors, as they were what we needed protection from, we dashed off and hurried home. I was jealous that waking up the next morning meant the rest of Europe for Jackie and Home for me, but I left Lisbon content with my whirlwind of a trip. I knew no real goodbyes were necessary. Spain and Portugal haven't seen the last of me, and Europe hasn't even seen the beginning! I left confident knowing my friendship with Jackie will never fade, and neither will our drive for adventure. When we hugged goodbye in the airport, I couldn't help envisioning our next journey together...

— Zoe


Posted on July 26, 2009

“Absurdly Gorgeous” Views, Ludicrous Sexism, and Ridiculously Oily Fish

This morning we went on another Lisbon Walker walking tour. This time, instead of downtown Baixa, it was “old town” Alfama. Tons of rather dry history was a bit difficult to stomach at such an early hour, but we did witness some views that were “absurdly gorgeous,” as Zoe accurately observed. I had to pinch myself while looking out over Lisbon's charming jumble of rooftops and winding alleyways, and the expansive, dazzling Tejo River.

Before we earned the rewarding views, we had to walk up tons of stairs. Alfama is located on a steep hillside, so I could hardly believe our guide when he said guys race bicycles from the castle at the very top down these steep stairs and narrow alleyways, ending down on the waterfront—all in under two minutes. Red Bull sponsors the “Lisbon Downtown Downhill Race” each year. If you don't believe me, check it out for yourself.

We invited a guy from our hostel named Max, from Brighton, England, to join us for an afternoon at the beach. (It's nice to bring a guy friend along because then we are subjected to a lot fewer brazen catcalls.) We rode the convenient train route west along the river to Cascais. The beach was crowded with Portuguese youth. Zoe and I waded into the water, but it was too cold for us to go much past our knees since this is where the river nearly reaches the Atlantic.

Max was great fun to talk to except when he was lost in thought nursing his own heartbreak over a recent breakup with his Brazilian girlfriend. We discussed gender relations. He seemed to think it was acceptable for guys to go out and be loud and drunk, but it was not OK for girls to do so. He expressed concern that more and more “ladies” (his term for females who behave like disgusting males) go out and party obnoxiously. Zoe and I sure gave him an earful in response to his sexist views. He seemed to digest our contention, but then he went on to talk about how British girls these days are degrading themselves so much that they have earned Britain the highest teenage pregnancy rate. He was so oblivious to what a sexist mentality he holds.

For dinner we went to a restaurant recommended to us by Rita (our guide from Monday) to finally try dried and salted codfish—the dish Portugal is most well-known for. It's called bacalhau and they purportedly cook it a million different ways, so the locals never get sick of it. The version Zoe and I tried was almost like fried fish and chips, with all the oil they cooked it in. It was topped with onions and homemade potato chips. I liked it more than Zoe, but from my first experience with it, I wouldn't say I absolutely love bacalhau.

— Jackie


Posted on July 25, 2009

You Are the Beauty of Our House

The next morning, we finally hopped on trolley number 28, having already missed two of them because we were simply not standing at a trolley stop. Trolleys are the most charming mode of transport on which I have ever ridden. Although seeming quite antiquated, the trolley line is handy and practical. We got off the trolley and, after striding confidently in the wrong direction for about 20 minutes, realized our error and backtracked, discovering that the flea market we were looking for was, in fact, directly in front of the trolley stop we had got off at.

The goods of the flea market were underwhelming, but the location was, as I have found most of Lisbon to be, overwhelmingly picturesque. After absorbing an adequate amount of beauty and heat, we got back on the trolley, where another mishap was soon to unfold. Someone had parked directly on the trolley line, so about five elderly Portuguese women disembarked and began barking at passing strangers. Eventually, two men jogged to the parked car and sped away, impervious to the angry shouts of the trolley passengers.

We got off the trolley and onto a sleek, air-conditioned bus, where we met up with a solo traveler whose name is eluding me. He was from Columbia, but had been living and studying in the States for at least a decade. We went to see the monuments of Belém, the older part of Portugal. La torre de Belém (the tower of Belém) was a stunning sight to behold — a castle-like monument made of white stone (probably limestone) stands majestically against the blue sky, with blue water behind it.

Tonight Jackie and I were looking for a small adventure that didn't involve braving the intense club scene. In a moment of brilliance, Jackie suggested we try snails. We found a restaurant that claimed to serve authentic Portuguese food and ordered our snails before we even sat down. Food here, specifically food that was once alive, is served unaltered from its original appearance. If you order a fish, you will get that fish, cooked, on a plate with potatoes. For lunch, Jackie and I ordered a trout-like fish that was served whole, head and all. Our experience with snails was no different except they came sans potatoes. Raising a toast to bravery, and to being warriors and pioneers, we began fishing out the little snails from their shells with toothpicks.

With waning verve, we chewed, forcing as many as we could down, which was about one quarter of them (and that was with us splitting them). Against the protests of the male waiters ("You are the beauty of our house! If you two leave, we too will have to leave!"), we paid and left, a putrid taste lingering in our mouths. Regardless, it was a well-spent six euros, because it satisfied our small appetite for adventure, if not our actual appetite.

The next day we traveled to the beach, taking with us an effervescent British lad named Max. We grabbed fresh fruit, bread, and cheese from a small grocery that smelled like cod fish, then boarded the train. We got off at the last stop, and were hit by the heat like a ton of bricks. Following the crowd, we ambled down to the colorful beach. Each one of us had brought a book with us, but I found myself unable to tear my eyes from the half-naked swimmers and tanners. Wearing a bikini, I have never in my life felt so overdressed at a beach. Most of the beach's inhabitants were topless and/or nearly bottomless, with strategically placed shrouds of fabric.

Jackie and I tried to brave the Atlantic Ocean, but didn't get past our legs. We marveled at the physical maturity of the teens on the beach. The girls here seem to develop earlier, and it isn't uncommon for early teens to be openly (and surprisingly adroitly!) flirting and presumably dating. I was maladroit and immature at that age, thinking utter standoffishness was the ultimate bait. I left the beach in a state of sophomoric shock. The sun had also rendered me useless, so I napped upon arrival at the hostel.

Having promised Rita we would, Jackie and walked to a nearby restaurant later that night to try the infamous cod. On our way there, I was accosted by a young man, who, grabbing my arms, pleaded, "Marry me!" Not so coolly or calmly, I yelled for him to kindly not touch me. We, of course, arrived at the restaurant well before anyone else had sat down to dine, but the staff reluctantly served us our fried fish and homemade potato chips. I have to confess that I was unimpressed with this so raved-about dish, and left heavy-bellied.

— Zoe


Posted on July 24, 2009

McFlurry for Dinner, Snails for Dessert

This morning we took a slow, jerky trolley ride up the hill to Alfama, an older part of the city with small, windy streets and great views of the water and the rest of the city. We tracked down a flea market that seemed kind of tired and junky to me.

We caught another trolley going the opposite direction to visit Belém, an area three miles west of Lisbon's downtown. Belém faired much better than the rest of Lisbon in the 1755 earthquake and has some very old, precious sights to show for it.

We visited the Belém Tower, a stunning white stone structure, once used to protect the city's harbor. Now it stands as a monument to Lisbon's Age of Discovery.

It's fascinating to consider how Portugal was once the greatest and wealthiest power in the world. You would never guess this from walking the streets, the abode of a number of deformed and bedraggled homeless people. Lisbon especially feels like it has never been very wealthy since, thanks to the earthquake, it has few remnants from its Golden Age left.

Zoe and I shared a fish dish for lunch and, of course, it came complete with head, teeth, skin, and lots of little bones.

We visited the massive Monastery of Jerónimos, which contains the tomb of Vasco da Gama. Not much to write home about, just very very old-feeling.

A few days ago, back in the Madrid airport, I think Zoe and I were extra tired from waking up at six in the morning—tired enough to decide on a McDonald's McFlurry for breakfast. Before that, neither of us had stepped foot in a McDonald's for years. I guess we enjoyed our bizarre morning McFlurry experience so much that we needed an encore. Instead of breakfast, though, this time we had them for dinner.

While we silly American girls enjoy ice cream for dinner, Portuguese seem to enjoy fish for all three meals, as well as for snacks. For a second course, after a first course of McFlurry, we tried these fried little fish cakes that were quite tasty.

We decided to have a more laid-back night, so we just went on a stroll around Baixa (downtown). We stopped by a homey Portuguese-family-owned bar to try Super Bock, the popular Portuguese beer. I guess my taste buds don't discriminate much when it comes to beer, because it just tasted like Heineken to me.

We had heard something about Portuguese snails, so we decided to try them for dessert. I absolutely love French-prepared escargot, with all the garlic and butter they use. Portuguese snails are quite another story. They are much smaller, much more snail-like, and come in a salty snail broth. Instead of garlic and butter, you get little antennas. We managed to swallow a few, but the more we ate, the more grossed out we became. That's the last time I'll order Portuguese snails, but at least now I can say I tried them.

— Jackie


Posted on July 23, 2009

Dying Downtown and Dancing Buildings

Our tour began in Praça do Comércio, a vast square surrounded by mustard yellow buildings. Just as Inés had made art come alive for me, Rita brought buildings to life. We walked through the downtown area, completely enthralled by our history lesson. This tour was enough to make anyone an avid history learner. Each building's history was as rich as its facade was attractive. I found myself falling deeper and deeper in love with Lisbon for its quirkiness. I mentioned death earlier, and I was alluding to a couple of things. The first is that there was a notable massacre in 1506. A drought was plaguing the city, so the priests of a central Catholic church advised their congregation to go slaughter Jews in an attempt to please God. Thousands were murdered, and the drought did not magically end. The church later suffered a fire, which is apparent in the crude texture of the walls. Its interior is now painted red to commemorate both the fire and the blood shed in the massacre. There are also two monuments erected in the square where the church lies, expressing the church's regret.

Also, Lisbon's downtown is dying. People aren't moving away, and people aren't moving there. A freeze was put on rent prices some 50 ago, so now the rent is literally as low as 10 euros. The population is old because no one wants to move out — so they live there until they die.

This being said, the vibe in the neighborhood is anything but stale. The streets are loud and vibrant, just like the people. The layout of the city appears to be without rhyme or reason, but this is not the case. Portugal's leader of the mid-1700s, Pombal, was a prime minister who sought the powers of dictatorship. After the great fire of 1755, not wishing to compete with either the nobles or the Church, he mandated that every residential building be rebuilt identically. In Lisbon, historically stern (but now charmingly decrepit) buildings line the streets. The rhyme lies therein. No government money was allotted to the rebuilding of churches, and only very few were allowed to rebuild on their original holy ground. One particular church that was granted this right boasts its original ornate beauty, but lies directly behind Pombal's new, Stepford-similar buildings. And therein lies the reason for the apparent randomness.

Rita also described the buildings as "dancing." Having been built to withstand both earthquake and fire, the architecture was constructed very specifically. Over the decades, people have subtly—but possibly fatally—been altering the structural support of entire buildings with their minor remodels, such as the tearing down of a wall.

After our tour we went to our hostel for our routine siesta, but couldn't turn down an invitation to hunt for bacalhau (dried and salted cod famous to Lisbon). We hit the streets with two UW grad students, one of whom (Serge) turned out to be quite the character, stopping to buy a terrifying little electric dog with glowing green eyes. Street vendors quite persistently push "marijuana," "hashish," and "cocaine." The reality, which explains why these vendors are so open about their merchandise, is that their bags contain oregano. Police can take no legal action against them, so they plague the streets, dealing herbs at exorbitant prices. Serge justified his purchase of the dog by saying, "I either had to buy cocaine, or this."

We gave up our search for the bacalhau when we discovered a confectionary shop. An overly-enthused Serge ordered four recommended Portuguese desserts that we all shared with forks.

That night we enjoyed a home-cooked meal of sausage, cheese, and bread at our hostel. We filled ourselves to the brim and then traveled in an eager pack to the bars. We enjoyed yet another night of dancing and mingling, meeting people from all over the world. Jackie and I met a gentle Norwegian boy with whom we discussed love and other elusive topics.

— Zoe


Posted on July 22, 2009

Party in the Streets of Bairro Alto

We met a couple guys back at our hostel who were grad students at University of Washington (the school Zoe goes to). They asked us to come on a mission with them to find bacalhau for an afternoon snack. Bacalhau is salted codfish, a Portuguese specialty. We agreed, but instead of finding fish we ended up at the Confeitaria Nacional, a sweets shop that dates back to the 19th century, where we tried four different Portuguese pastries (which I don't recommend.)

Last night our hostel prepared an "authentic Portuguese meal" for us. It consisted of olives, rustic bread, a soft mellow cheese, a selection of salami and sausage, and red wine. Jean, a funny, short Portuguese guy who works for the hostel, made a show out of firing up a mini terracotta grill to cook the sausage. He and a couple of the other guys who run the hostel danced around to reggae music as we all ate. What a sweet job they have! Paid to eat, drink, and party with young tourists.

It´s impossible to get bored while staying at a hostel with so many young travelers from all over the world to talk to. They all put our trip to shame in terms of adventurousness. They travel for months, with no end in sight. Today they´re in Lisbon, tomorrow they decide they will go to the island of Ibiza, and by the next week they will have found their way to Morocco. It´s all on a whim and they can´t get enough.

I talked to this one girl from Russia who is traveling on her own. It´s astonishing that she has to go through lots of trouble to get a visa to be allowed to travel outside of Russia. She said that it´s risky for her to travel right now because the economy is bad and her boss might decide to let her go unexpectedly while she is away.

Two hostel employees led us up the hill to the Bairro Alto neighborhood, where all the young nightlife is in Lisbon. They took us to a small, empty bar first, and our group filled the place. After a round of drinks we moved to a club where they played Latin music. Pedro, a Brazilian guy with dreads who works at the hostel, taught me how to dance to Latin music the "right" way. He took the lead as I tried to keep up, swinging my hips to the quick rhythm. Such regimented dance is not my favorite, so I soon broke away to tango my-style with my favorite dance partner, Zoe.

The night scene in Bairro Alto is awesome in the summer because people take their drinks outside of the bar to hang out where it´s cooler. So instead of secluded parties in various bars it´s more like just one big party all throughout the streets.

— Jackie


Posted on July 21, 2009

The Best Hostel in the World

Lisbon was immediately and obviously different from the cities we visited in Spain. I felt disoriented and overwhelmed, with every fiber of my body entirely intrigued. This place is plagued, or rather blessed, by incongruities. It feels both rich and poor, forgotten and remembered, and most importantly, dying but lively.

Despite our initial directional misstep, we came upon our hostel easily. I know I raved about the last hostel, and I would still rave, but this hostel transcends all hostels, maybe all hotels for that matter. It's plushly decorated, with all the modern accoutrements of luxury and clean as the Steves' residence (and that's clean!).

Only photos will do it justice. There's free Internet, free computer use (IMacs), and free breakfast. It's full of vivacious young people, and being on a central street of downtown, right next to the central square, it stands among teeming crowds. I am surrounded by life. Also death, as I will explain later...

We grabbed a quick lunch of sandwiches and salad. Apparently my meal, which was called menu economico, came with a bica (espresso). I drank it with a little bit of help from Jackie, so we were energized for our walking tour with Rita.

— Zoe


Posted on July 20, 2009

It’s Mostly Yellow and Dying, But I Love It

Yesterday morning we bid “adios” to Spain and flew to Lisbon. We felt like sardines bumping fins and tails on our disorienting bus ride into downtown and got off a stop too late. We had to roll our bags a ways to finally reach our hostel oasis.

To call “The Traveler's House” a youth hostel, however, is a bit misleading because this place is luxurious! The common room is littered with plush bean bags, three Mac computers offer free internet access, a wide selection of DVDs are available to watch on their big screen TV, they make the beds for you, and an eggs and toast breakfast is included! Besides that, it's very spacious and decorated tres chic. All that for just 30 US Dollars per person per night.

We met up with another guide friend of my dad's, Rita, from Lisbon Walker in the early afternoon for a walking tour of Baixa, Lisbon's downtown. We met her by the river in a big square called Praca do Comercio. I had no idea Lisbon had such an interesting history.

Lisbon's Royal Palace used to be located on this square until it was destroyed by the huge earthquake in 1755. It was actually three earthquakes plus a tsunami plus a huge fire (sparked by candles Catholics were lighting for All Saints' Day) equals a very ruined city.

Afterward, the king was more interested in his mistresses than in ruling Portugal, so his prime minister, Pombal, seized the opportunity to rebuild the city himself. He acted like a dictator, doing everything to take away power from the nobles and the Church in order to maintain his authority.

He made the nobles all dress like plain old bourgeoisie. He built fire-and-earthquake-proof buildings in a uniform grid and painted them all a somber yellow. He required that all the shops be located on the ground floor, that nobles live on the second floor, and that lower classes live on the upper floors. Pombal was clearly a nutcase. I mean who in their right mind paints a city mustard yellow? At least choose a nice blue!

He allowed the Church to rebuild only a few of their churches, if and only if the new architecture was very discreet. We visited a couple churches hidden in the midst of large buildings. One of them was completely undistinguishable from the street unless you walked to see its small façade on one side. The other church was given away only by a tiny cross above it on the roof.

A third church she showed us is sparse inside with walls painted all red. This color eerily reminds visitors of the bloodshed in the fiery aftermath of the 1755 earthquake. In the square outside that church, locals massacred 4,000 Jews in 1506. Last year, the city built a monument in the center of this square to remember that horrific act of genocide. Much of the Portuguese Inquisition was also carried out in this square.

Lisbon's downtown is now “dying.” The river that runs beneath it is rotting the wood foundations of the buildings. Fifty years ago apartment rent rates were frozen so some people still pay a mere $10 to rent. Landowners have no incentive to fix the places up because they can't charge any more regardless. No young people want to buy such shabby apartments so all that is left are old people. It's not even a great shopping district because there are better shopping malls elsewhere. Despite all this, the squares are full of locals and tourists abound everywhere.

So far I like Lisbon even more than I did Spain. It has that metropolitan feel but it's intimate at the same time. Its got lots of quirks: hidden churches, an obsession with fish, legions of cat-calling men (some of whom literally “meow” at you), street vendors who offer us automated dog toys and hash, famous liquor named after a clown, and lots of old people with plenty of attitude.

— Jackie


Posted on July 19, 2009

Musical Chairs in the Geriatric Ward

Early Monday morning Jackie and I checked out of the hotel, and took the Metro, then a bus, to the airport. After a healthy and simple breakfast, we spotted a McDonald's, and in our tired stupor we decided that McFlurries were in order. So McFlurries were had. I will unabashedly admit that our morning has never been so full of smiles! Ice cream and Peanut M&Ms are quite the dynamic duo, a hard combo to beat.

Our flight (which we get on at "last call" because we had been calmly waiting at the wrong gate until we realized our mistake) seemed to last 10 minutes. Getting off the plane, Jackie said she was happy we had only one bus ride to take, instead of having to endure carrying our bags up more stairs in the Metro. We got our bags, found the bus stop, and marveled that we were really in Portugal, a country that, frankly, neither of us knew much about.

The bus arrived and we stored our bags and found poles to grasp. The bus was already full when we boarded it, but it got packed. Before long, it felt like we were in the geriatric ward of a hospital, an overflowing one at that. Jackie and I played a bit of musical chairs, occasionally sitting down only to give up our seats again moments later. Then we played nurse, helping lift an old man out of his seat and situate him with his walking crutches. Then more musical chairs, and then eventually we got off at a stop, the last stop, the wrong stop. The bus driver begrudgingly pointed us in the right direction, and we started off on the narrow cobblestone streets.

— Zoe


Posted on July 18, 2009