A Long Weekend Lisbon

Portugal is such a lovely country – beautiful towns, friendly people, officially the best wine, and very convenient. From renting a car and driving to Fatima, using Lisbon’s metro system from the airport, and finding public WCs… everything was smooth sailing. (Never underestimate the importance of public toilets!!!) We found a great Airbnb in the Alfama neighborhood which is the oldest district and consistently listed as one of the top areas to explore in Lisbon. If you don’t mind lugging your suitcase up and down the cobblestone maze-like streets, we highly recommend this neighborhood as home base! Thanks, as always, to my wonderful husband for being Minister of Suitcase Schlepping.

This trip we focused on exploring outside, taking advantage of the sunshine, trying local flavors, and relaxing by the river front. Lisbon also has museums and a highly rated botanical garden for chillier or rainier visits.  Continue reading “A Long Weekend Lisbon”

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A Long Weekend Lisbon

Unplugging in Portugal’s Algarve

After a hectic summer, I started to feel like I needed a vacation from myself. Have you ever experienced that? Like you need to get away from your habits and unconscious thought processes, turn your phone off, empty your brain, and just exist. My head is so filled with random travel information and my neurons haven’t figured out a proper way to file everything. Junk is just floating around up there. I needed to get away from technology and the (self-imposed) pressure to fully take advantage of our time abroad, and just go bliss out in the sun with a good book (not a guidebook). And so, with Hemingway and Amor Towles in my reading queue, Connor and I flew to Portugal to celebrate our 4th anniversary.

Quarteira iPhone

Straw sun shades

The Algarve is a popular destination for the sun-starved English, and we’d heard of the parties and clubbing and restaurants that specifically cater to British tourists. But where there is a sea, there is usually fishing, and somewhere there had to be a quiet fishing village full of locals, peace, and quiet. Normally, the west end of the Algarve would have been our obvious choice – rocky, rough, good hiking, surfing. But, we didn’t want to rent a car and the bus routes were unclear online. So we stayed in lovely Quarteira, just west of Faro, easily reachable by taxi from the airport. We swam in the ocean everyday, huddled under a sun umbrella with our books, ate breakfast on our balcony looking out at the water, and enjoyed amazing seafood. The town was super walkable, it was sunny everyday, and extremely hot. Also, Vinho Verde. Slightly sparkling, crisp and acidic, I’ve found my new favorite summer wine.

Quarteira from the water

Igreja de São Pedro do Mar, Quarteira

PS – the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are my go-to sources for quick lessons on the wines of Europe. It’s detailed enough to satisfy my OCD need for all the information but not so detailed that I’m overwhelmed. If you’re horrified to learn this and want to point me toward a more oenophilic publication, be my guest.

One afternoon we wandered to the neighboring village and hopped on a sailboat that took us past Albufeira (party central, if you’re interested), aiming for the the hidden beaches and neon turquoise coves carved into the rocky cliffs. Talk about beautiful… the crew helped us into a little dingy and we zoomed in and out of caves, ducking our heads to avoid the low rocks and marveling at the colors. This was definitely a highlight of the trip and I was tempted to ask Connor if he wanted to do it again the next day. For only 18€ we had 3+ hours on a catamaran, fabulous views of the coast from the water, and little tours of sea caves. Kind of felt like stealing. It also felt like something that would be a lawsuit in the States – getting people in and out of those dingys and making sure no one was decapitated in the caves…

Quarteira iPhone

Yes, I bought myself a new hat in honor of our anniversary. That ratty old Marquette hat that I’ve been wearing everywhere is like a scarlet letter for American College Student. Connor’s anniversary gift was a bathing suit (“swimming costume” in England) since he apparently decided he wouldn’t be needing one in Europe and therefore didn’t pack one. Fun times looking for men’s bathing suits on Amazon UK. Brace yourself. Actually, don’t even go there. #scarredforlife

Quarteira iPhone

Quarteira iPhone

Quarteira iPhone

Quarteira iPhone

Overall, everything in Quarteira was very affordable. For under 50, we had a feast of sardines, sea bass, acorn-fed pork from the Alentejo, an excellent bottle of wine, and bread. Sardines are popular in the area, and we’d see locals carrying big bags out of the fish market every morning, so naturally I had to try them. They were fantastic!

Quarteira iPhone

We spent a night in Faro before heading home and the city surprisingly empty. Almost everything was closed, including the Chapel of Bones church I wanted to see. It was Sunday so I’m not sure why this was the case. Perhaps it had something to do with the intense heat. Empty streets make for efficient wandering, so we saw quite a bit and then chatted with a nice man who owned a Portuguese craft beer shop. He introduced us to a few of his faves and that was that! It was the perfect unplugged getaway, especially since sightseeing material is sparse.

Old Castle and Cactus

Exploring Faro

The Portuguese were some of the friendliest people we’ve encountered and they made us feel so welcome. Hope to make it to Lisbon and Fatima someday!

Sunset

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Unplugging in Portugal’s Algarve

5 Days in Barcelona

Two days before we left for Barcelona we discovered that our flight home was on Wednesday, not Tuesday as we had originally thought. Cue ridiculous surge of excitement! A bonus day! With 5 whole days at our disposal we decided to try to have a more relaxing trip and not cram in a million museums. I was fine with this since I could get my art fix by walking around and looking at architecture. I did hope to see the Picasso Museum, but if you don’t leave something for next time, there will never be a next time. Amiright?

I’ll be as brief as I can here, but 5 days in a FABULOUS city is a lot of material, especially at the pace we’ve set for ourselves. PS: if anyone has a Mac version of Photoshop they want to give me, I can shorten these posts up by doing some sizing/combining work on all the images. Just want to throw that out there.

We arrived late on Thursday, and had great luck catching the last train out of the airport into the city. This time I followed the signs instead of running like a fool in all the wrong directions. Barcelona’s public transport system is really great and we used it all week. Very affordable, too, if you buy the T-10 ticket from any of the machines in any of the metro stations. It’s a 10-ride that can be used by multiple people, priced under 10 euro.

Day 1: Friday was Good Friday and we had 9am tickets to Sagrada Familia, so we were up early and over to the basilica before the crowds. Definitely a good choice. By the time we left it was crawling with people and not as peaceful as when we arrived. Entry tickets are rather expensive, but after you’re inside you don’t care about that anymore. Also, the ticket sales are helping fund the construction of the basilica, and the city is very open about this being a community effort. Gaudi, the famous architect who died in 1926, ran out of money for the project so he went door to door in Barcelona begging for contributions. Usually I’m averse to church entrance fees, but paying to help build a church? I can get behind that. Especially if it’s as awesome as this one. Connor and I agreed this is one of the most stunning buildings we’ve ever seen. The detail is incredible and varied. One facade looks like a drippy sandcastle. Another is polished and bone-like. The inside is built to resemble a forest and the ceiling looks like palm fronds. All the light inside is natural, and Gaudi took great pains to ensure the interior was neither too bright nor too dark; he described each extreme as blinding. The doors and windows are magnificent, and the colors inside change as the light shifts through the stained glass. Don’t skip Sagrada Familia if you visit Barcelona.

Sagrada Familia  Sagrada Familia The Scourging at the Pillar Sagrada Familia Sagrada Familia

We went up into one of the towers (there will be 18 but only 8 are completed at the moment) which gave us a great view over the city and an up-close look at some of the basilica details. There’s a lift to take you up into the tower, but the way down is all you – lots of spiraling stairs. I tried to SnapChat this while walking and that was stupid.

 More spiral stairs

Our tickets included an audio guide and while nice to have, it was too simple for my taste. I ended up reading about the basilica quite a bit that evening and after arriving back in England. I would recommend skipping the provided audio guide, reading before you visit, and taking along a simple printed guide to orient your time there. I’m sure there are free podcast episodes somewhere too, but I didn’t look into it.

We also visited the crypt beneath the main basilica and a museum-like area that contains models, sketches, and items related to building the church. You can see into the workshops where artists and architects do their thing. I enjoyed this glimpse into artist life immensely. The crypt is accessed through a separate entrance, no tickets needed. Mass is held here until the basilica is completed.

Later, we made our way towards Las Ramblas, the main pedestrian drag into the city. We stopped at a few buildings designed by Gaudi and other Modernisme gems along the way. Modernisme architecture is really fascinating. So colorful and fun. The lines to enter these buildings were quite long, and after being inside all morning we were grateful for an excuse to skip out.

La Pedrera Casa Batlló Casa Amatller

Our goal for the evening was to catch a Good Friday procession. Holy Week in Spain, or Semana Santa, is full of festivities and I was so looking forward to this. Very different from anything back home. We had a rough idea of where processions were leaving from, but no idea what route they took and where we should go to see this happening. Then it started raining and I was miserable without a rain coat. We took shelter in the closest open building, the Cathedral, and went through the Holy Door. At this point it was around 6pm and we were exhausted from having only 5 or 6 hours of sleep the night before, so we decided to skip the parade situation. I was disappointed, but also had no idea where to go. I was envisioning some spectacle similar to Dia de los Muertos that would be tough to miss, but that was not the case.

Pictures of the Cathedral, Placa Reial, and an initial wander through Barri Gotic are up on Flickr. I am backing up my photos there and have little narrative comments on some of the pictures so I don’t forget anything. Everything is in chronological order. You’re welcome to have a browse if you like more pictures than words.

Day 2: Saturday was a long, busy, and very fun day. We started at Parc Ciutadella, built in the 1800s and the only green space in the city for many years. Fountains, little boating lakes, museums, walking paths, gardens, a zoo… lots to see. We packed a lunch and wandered for awhile.

Barcelona Fountain in Ciutadella Park

That afternoon we took a break at a restaurant outside Santa Maria del Mar, a 14th century Gothic church in the Ribera district. We checked out the church once it opened again in the late afternoon and explored the El Born area for awhile. Santa Maria del Mar is so unlike Sagrada Familia and gorgeous in a totally different way. Just massive, very Gothic, beautiful windows, but no superfluous detail.

In my Top 10 Most Beautiful Churches list Stained Glass in Santa Maria del Mar the beautiful Passeig del Born

Next we went to Mercado de la Boqueria, the huge, popular, main market off Las Ramblas, and very very crowded. We picked up some olives to snack on (soooo delicious!!) and I wanted to buy something from everyone. Spanish sausage, olives, tapas, wine, fruit, FISH, so much fish. The only thing stopping me was the crowds, honestly. Also the image of raw fish in my purse.

Then we went to the water!! Sunshine!!! We had our first successful barter experience of the trip when Connor decided he wanted sunglasses from one of the sidewalk dudes. He mimed that he needed some extra large glasses, so they would fit his head. (“Cabeza grande,” I offered. Their Spanish was worse than ours.) Not the most successful conversation. We moved on and at the next sunglasses dude, we offered half what the first guy was charging and Connor walked away with some slick new shades.

Made it to the beach! Impressive sandcastles! There's fire on the top!

Barcelona has great shopping… many small places selling handmade, really unique, quality items. I’m not exactly a shopper, but I had quite the list of places that I wouldn’t mind popping into if we happened by, including an ancient candle shop, La Manual Alpargatera (traditional espadrilles), and a beautiful shop selling Spanish masks made on site. The masks were disappointingly far outside my price range, but the espadrilles were not! You pick a number, tell them your size and color when your number is called, and off you go. While I waited I watched a lady stitching up a new pair in the roped-off workshop.

Tada! Legendary La Manual Alpargatera!

Later on, we had tapas and awesome Spanish wine at Zona d’Ombra (very very good! one of the best places for local wine in the city), then we went to a flamenco show at Los Tarantos in Placa Reial. Shows were only 30 minutes and more affordable than the fancy theatres. While it caters to tourists, it’s definitely a good option if you want espadrilles AND flamenco but don’t want to devote your whole evening to dinner and a show. Such a fun way to experience this piece of Spanish culture!

Goodies at Zona d'Ombra Flamenco!

Day 3: Sunday we checked out Montjuic, a hilly area south of the city where the Catalonian history museum, Font Magica, and Montjuic Castle are located. There are great walking and biking trails, beautiful gardens, some restaurants and cafes, and quite a bit we didn’t have time to see. The fountains were beautiful and we had another picnic in one of the gardens. The Volta Catalunya cycling race took place in Montjuic that day and we watched and cheered for the cyclists for awhile. I’ve never seen a live bike race and it was very exciting!

Despite my weak protestations, we took the funicular down the hill because we were tired. It’s just a stupid gondola and way too expensive. 10 euro or something each for a 5 minute gondola ride. Skip this for sure.

Barcelona  Racers! Montjuïc Castle

We walked from Montjuic back towards the beach for an hour’s rest, and then went to Easter mass at the cathedral. It wasn’t swimming weather by any means, but sitting on the sand and staring at the water was so refreshing and glorious. Evidently we weren’t the only people to flee gloomy Britain during the Easter holiday. We saw many British families sleeping on the beach, kiddos playing in the water even though it was freezing, and all of us had sunburns by the end of the long weekend.

Barceloneta BeachEaster Mass at the Cathedral

Day 4: Monday was wine tour day! Catalonia produces the vast majority of the world’s cava (sparkling wine, fermented in the bottle like champagne) and Sant Sadurni d’Anoia is the region just outside Barcelona that churns out more cava than anywhere else. Neither Connor nor I had ever visited a vineyard and we had a great time on this excursion. Freixenet is the major producer in the area, and they have a combined train ticket/winery tour deal that is really great value. At the train station, you buy a “Freixetren” ticket and off you go. Tours need to be reserved via email in advance but you buy the combined ticket in person at the train station on the day of. (Ignore my usage of vineyard/winery/producer/whatever. I realize they are all different and no, I don’t really care.)

As it happens, champagne and cava are made exactly the same way, and all the rules apply about only being allowed to label yourself as cava/champagne if you are using the specific grapes that grow in that specific region. After fermentation, the wine is bottled and a secondary fermentation takes place in order to carbonate the wine (like beer! who knew?!) and eventually they remove the sediment by reopening the bottles. Crazy! There’s a whole process of rotating and tipping the bottles upside down over the course of months to get all the sediment to settle in the right place, and then they freeze the neck of the bottle (the reason for the bottle’s unique shape), pop open the cork, shoot out the ice cube with the sediment trapped inside, and then re-cork the bottle. Sorry if you already knew this. I did not. Super fascinating, and the tasting at the end was delicious.

Freixenet Cava Tour Freixenet Cava Tour Freixenet Cava Tour

Freixenet has something like 15-20km of tunnels, and 3 or 4 different floors or levels all underground. It was a total maze and so gigantic. Our tour guide had to go find a few other girls who had wandered off. Very easy to get lost.

We decided to turn the day into tasting day, so we also visited Mikkeller Bar Barcelona and tried some of the famous Danish gypsy brewer’s incredible beers. This was way out of our way and totally worth it. We also visited BlackLab Brewpub back down in Barceloneta area near the water. Also a great place with outdoor seating. We went out for tapas that evening to hold us over until a later dinner, and we walked through Parc Ciutedella again and watched the sunset. DISCLAIMER: Tasting your way around breweries in Europe is a lot easier than in the States. Everyone offers pints and half pints, and many breweries offer 1/3 pints. Some offer flights of even smaller glasses. The majority of places we’ve been to simply cut the price of a pint in half or thirds, so you don’t lose out by buying the smaller glass, either. So there you have it. We were by no means drunk the whole time. I wish places back home would offer 1/3 pints. Perfect for someone like me.

Day 5: By Tuesday we had walked quite a bit and we just wanted to enjoy the beautiful weather. A market sets up not far from the Barceloneta beach so we planned to buy some food there and spend a few hours relaxing near the water. First we stopped to check out the Hospital de la Santa Creu which was pretty close to our Airbnb – a bit outside the main part of the city. Beautiful Modernisme building! We walked by Sagrada Familia again for a last look, braved the crowds on Las Ramblas, and made it to the water.

A final look at Sagrada Familia

One thing about Barceloneta beach: every minute, no exaggeration, someone walks by you trying to sell something. Under normal circumstances, this would drive me up the wall, but I think traveling is teaching me to be more patient and less irritated in certain situations. Also, I wanted one of the beach blankets. I had been eyeing them all week. The first day at the beach, I only had 3 euro in coin. You can’t barter and then hand them a 20 and ask for change. Not worth the trouble. We tried various ways to barter down to 3 euro, and after an hour we knew it wasn’t going to happen. The next day we tried again. Only this time, all the guys recognized us as the couple who only had 3 euro. They started avoiding us. A few had a sense of humor and kept coming back. After yelling “solo tengo tres euro” countless times I realized that very few of them actually knew Spanish. The ones who did weren’t that desperate to part with their wares.

We tried again the next day, and Connor held up 3 fingers to the first guy who approached us and said “tres” and the man thought we wanted 3 blankets. He was thrilled. When he realized solo tengo tres euro, he laughed in our faces. “Where are you from?” “Chicago.” “I see. I’m from Pakistan. Chicago must be very poor country.” Wah Wah.

He came back a few times but I just wasn’t going to pay 20 euro for one of those things. We eventually settled on 10, but I sort of feel bad… he has to make his money somehow. Also, I was so focused on the fun of bartering that I ended up buying a white beach blanket. What is wrong with me? What am I going to do with a white beach blanket? Connor thinks we’re going to have all these lovely picnics on the lovely new blanket that will cease to be lovely the first time it hits the slug infested grass. Ugh.

Other things we could have purchased: mojitos of a very vivid green not found in nature, tattoos, massages, beer… The people selling drinks were the worst. They were walking around with half empty bottles of booze that were all different shades of brown that they would mix into the unusual green mojitos. They do that trick where they somehow manage to force one in your hand.

Him: Five
Me: Five what? No, I don’t want this.
Him: OK special price. Four.
Me: No.
Him: OK special price for you. Two for eight.
Me: That’s the same as four. I don’t want one.
Him: OK fine. Two for seven.
Me: NO!
Him: OK fine. Special price. Only for you. Two for six.

I mean I was about to just dump out the drink or tell him I was pregnant. He was actually rather mad that I didn’t want his drink.

Another fun beach story: two super jacked bro-like dudes were sitting behind us all super handsy with each other, and really enjoying having their shirts off at the beach. I positioned Connor so he wouldn’t have his beach time ruined by PDA, but he eventually noticed. Maybe half an hour after we arrive I hear one guy say, “So… you travel a lot for work?” Answer: “Well, I recently moved into a different role and I’m traveling more than normal, but no, not really.”

How very fascinating! They didn’t even know each other!! Pleasantries continued to be exchanged for quite some time and I was just amazed. Am I missing something? I lean more towards the Stranger Danger end of the spectrum, but apparently some people are more Stranger = Opportunity for PDA on the Very Public Beach.

So anyways. Sorry for that. After a few hours fighting off the drink guys we wandered through the Gothic Quarter again and relaxed at a cafe, checked out a few more shops and just enjoyed some favorite spots before packing up that night.

Casa Almirall

Such a fun trip! The city combines modern conveniences like great public trans and longer opening hours (two of our gripes about Italy), has all the great food and bev that you hope for on vacation, great places to hike, a waterfront, really friendly locals, fabulous markets, colorful and accessible cultural events, and many many day trips to choose from. If we make it back, we’ll add a museum or two to the itinerary and maybe a trip to Parc Guell, designed by Gaudi, or a day trip up the coast to a small town. Scooter rental! We almost did this, but sort of ran out of time to make it work. While locals speak Catalan, they know Spanish and were really friendly about switching to English when our rudimentary skills ran out. They didn’t mind letting me practice though, which I appreciated. Now it’s time to cram our brains with Budapest, and a week later, Bruges. Wish us luck!

 Port of Barcelona

5 Days in Barcelona