Saturday, May 28, 2011

Portugal: Round II

When a good girlfriend from San Francisco said: Hey Mere! You wanna come meet me in Lisbon for a couple days?! I couldn't help but jump on the opportunity to get some high quality girl-time, the chance to hit up a new beach, and visit Lisbon again. And since I was flying in/out of Porto (3 hours north of Lisbon), I'd see another part of country I've heard a ton of great things about. 

Collage of azueljos, decorative tiles that blanket Portuguese houses and buildings

Quite seamlessly, I left Rotterdam on Wednesday at 8:05am and with a train, bus, flight, metro, and then another train and metro, I finally arrived at Cais do Sodre station in Lisbon a whole 5 minutes early for our 5pm meeting time. And there was Crystal sitting on her huge backpack (she could've nearly fit inside the thing herself) waiting for me! Perfect. I love European travel. 

We immediately hopped on the next train to Cascais (pronounced: kash-KAISH), only about 30 minutes from Lisbon. We easily found our adorable little guest house, Dolce Guest House, and after a quick tour of the place, the hotel owner drove us to the quaint old town and recommended a hidden gem of a restaurant. We got the last table in the small joint, ordered a bottle of rosé, the grilled dorado, and two salads. Delicioso! The chocolate mousse and almond tarte didn't blow our minds, but satisfied our sweet tooth and helped us close down the restaurant with tons of laughs and good times. Around midnight we headed to the Irish pub down the street, where we were the only women in attendance--the other 15 people there were 70+ year old Brits on a golfing trip. Once the solo guitarist started his gig, a few of the old men convinced us to dance with them. Boy, their two-step was off the hook! 

YAY! girls.
We took it easy the next morning, enjoyed our hotel's sunny backyard and Ikea-themed basement lounge. Finally around 5pm we headed back to Lisbon. Crystal was in Portugal, lucky enough, on a 'business trip' with about 10 other landscape architect and environmental planner grad students from Berkeley. Saturday they were heading out to a remote part of the country, near the border of Spain, to work on a plan for the national park in the area. One of the grad students is Portuguese, from Lisbon, and had set up a series of outings for the next few days in Lisbon--apparently this guy knows everyone in the city. We checked in to Oasis Hostel, near Barrio Alto, and headed out to the event of the evening: wine tasting. We tasted three fermented Portuguese beverages: a fruity rosé, a light and dry red, and a silky port (of course!). After the tasting, accompanied by fantastic cheeses and paninis, we were ready to tackle the bars of Barrio Alto. What a scene! When we left the neighborhood around 3am things were just getting started...

Shannon the birthday girl and a magnum of red wine...she was determined to fill that decanter to the brim!

Barrio Alto at 3am, the festa is just starting!!
The next morning, Crystal and I scouted out some shopping in the Chiado neighborhood. I only bought a few light-weight items, since I was already at my 10-kg RyanAir limit on hand luggage. Good thing, too--I easily could've filled up another with all these wonderful clothes from all these wonderful boutiques. O meu Deus. For the rest of the afternoon, we all decided some good beach time was in order, so we hitched on the next train to Cascais and went to the beach. Niiiiiice. 

[top] Ponte de 25 Abril [bottom] Barrio Alto sights
That evening (Friday) we all had an exquisite tipico dinner at a local Portuguese restaurant. It wasn't my dish, but the octopus was to die for--so buttery and just melted in my mouth. Crystal and I shared the sea bass and fish soup. Freshmade sangria topped off the meal. After a couple caipirinhas at a neighboring bar--made with real cachaça--we were all ready for some good sleep. That is, the best sleep you can get sharing a room with 18 other people. 

Saturday afternoon I had to say good bye to Crystal and her clan. It was a tearful good bye, but we had oh so much fun. After a quick bica and pastéis de nata at the famous 1905 art deco café Brasileira, I was off to Porto for two more nights. 

 pastéis de nata and bica and Jeff

What an incredible city. By the time I checked in to my hostel--Oporto Poets Hostel--I had only one hour until the 7pm amateur Fado outing organized by the hostel. In that hour, I checked out the immediate neighborhood while I still had some light. 

The Sé cathedral from Oporto Poets Hostel

[clockwise top] The Art Nouveau facade of the Lello bookstore, Universidade do Porto, Clérigos, Papelario do Carmo 

Around 7pm, a French couple, two Brazilian girls who just got off their flight, and I walked with Maria to a small, hole-in-the-wall of a restaurant/café. Luckily there were just enough seats for us all. Right away, the master of ceremonies started the night off. I couldn't understand a word, but Maria translated that these are not professional Fado singers. 

One by one, three different men sang their tales of life, love, and above all, loss. Often, it's a very sad sounding music, though not all of it is. One man, instead of singing, recited a spoken word poem--complete with the three guitarists--that recounted the country's problems with drugs, especially cocaine. He also touched on the country's economic issues, asking the people to maintain faith in their country. He ended with an emotional Viva Portugal, viva Português! 

Wandering the medieval alleys of the Ribeira neighborhood
Sunday was the only full day I had in Porto, so I was determined to do as much as my feet could handle. Although I didn't make it outside the city center--and if I had one more day I definitely would have taken the full-day boat tour up the Duoro River to the famous terraced vineyards--but I was able to check off everything on my Lonely Planet list in about 6 hours: 
  • Torre dos Clérigos: wonderful old church and tower    
  • Sé: a cathedral that towers over the city
  • Ribeira neighborhood: known for its medieval alleys and a gorgeous antiquity
  • Ponte de Dom Luis I: the famous double-level iron bridge that crosses the Duoro and stands about 15 stories high
Tram passing the Clérigos

More Ribeira

Woman and cat: finding my way to the top of the Dom Luis bridge
The first thing I stumbled upon was the bird market. The nice lady at the front desk described it as the 'normal bird market' though I'm pretty sure she meant 'weekly' or 'usual.' This was definitely not your average bird market. Apparently, birds are very important to the Portuguese, as the hostel lady explained.

Bird market

Sights and sounds of Porto bird market

The Dom Luis bridge might be my favorite sight in Porto. This iron masterpiece was designed and constructed by an apprentice of Mr. Eiffel. It has two levels; the bottom level is for pedestrians and cars (and whomever dares to cycle in Porto), while the top is reserved for the metro and more pedestrians. The levels are about 12 stories apart. I started out at the bottom and wound my way up the mountain to the top of the bridge. It's amazing: the top level has a 3' railing and that's it! It's a long way to the bottom! 

At the bridge

On top of the bridge

Above the bridge

On the other side of the bridge
Of course, I saw many more sites along way. A highlight was Mercado Ferreira Borges, adjacent to the Palacio da Bolsa. This unique iron building built in 1885 originally housed the neighborhood market and now is a cultural center with a upstairs café. Really cool space. Love the red-painted iron.

The Mercado from the street
Inside Mercado Ferreira Borges
Since it was only about 3pm when I finished my tour, I decided to check out some of the local beaches. It was Sunday and no shops were open anyways. I took the 500 bus outside the gorgeous São Bento train station. I fell asleep and missed my stop, but it was a lovely ride back along the Atlantic. Priai dos Ingleses was gorgeous and I enjoyed a long walk on the beach. 

São Bento train station

Walking along Praia dos Ingeles

That evening I went to dinner with the two Brazilian girls who were bunked next to me. One was an architect and the other a policymaker for the government. We exchanged stories about our home countries over a big, juicy Portuguese red wine, fresh caught sea bass and dorado, and the best potatoes I have ever had--I'm sure butter had everything to do with it.

And yet another lovely stay in this country. Friendly people, fantastic food, and majestic vistas. Ahhh, Portugal.

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