Sunday, October 30, 2011

Welcome to Sevilla!

A pretty picture to start the blog.

Ah, Sevilla! We made it, bright and early on what day...oh yes, Saturday. On vacation all days tend to blur together. Spending the night on a bus doesn't really help with that.

As I said, we arrived in Sevilla at 5 a.m. at a bus station, so I can't say my first impressions were anything memorable. It was very dark. A little chilly. We were outside and the restroom was very sketchy. As we were trying to get ourselves situated and refreshed, Lea realized she had left her iPad on the bus, which had just recently pulled away. Well, crap. Fortunately, despite the somewhat deserted nature of the bus station, there was a security guard around who informed Lea that the bus would go to the next station in Sevilla. Lea, Amit, and Alan grabbed a taxi and off they went to rescue the missing iPad!

The rest of us hung out at the bus station for about an hour. What did we do? Gosh...I don't remember. Stared into the darkness? Wondered why approximately 15 teenagers were at the bus station at 5:30 a.m.? Considered opening some bottles of wine?

And...about an hour later...the iPad was rescued! Lea, Amit, and Alan informed us the Sevilla was beautiful in the dark. They walked along the river, saw lots of people heading home from the clubs, and spotted a churro stand a bit away which was to become our little spot for the next hour and a half or so.

Mmmm...napkin holder

We couldn't drop our stuff at the apartment until 8:30 a.m., so we needed something to do until then. That something was coffee and chocolate pastries. Yum! We ordered like this, "Dos cafe solo y dos...those things".

We all look a wee bit tired.

It was a little windy, a little cold, but we survived. There was a surprising number of people up at that time. It was hard for us to really tell how early it was because the sun doesn't come up until after 8 a.m. in Spain. The people could have been clubbers headed home, early risers, or maybe just normal risers. I didn't feel like checking my watch. It was dark. That was enough info for me.

It looks like the middle of the night, but it was really almost 8 a.m. at this point.

Finally, it was late enough that we could put on our packs and navigate the winding roads to our little apartments on the Alameda de Hercules. It's a nice little park, which were were later informed has been cleaned up quite a bit in the last 20 years. It used to be full of prostitutes and there was a market on Sundays where you could buy things, such as the car radio that was stolen from you on Wednesday. Now it is the "Soho of Sevilla".

Lookin' pretty good for someone who slept on a bus!

From what we could see, the apartment was beautiful (the foyer anyhow) and the little park was charming. But, we could not stay. We could not actually check in until 3 or 4, so off we went again.

Not too far though. Just across the part was a little cafe that was open...Las Columnas.We got croissants, toast and ham ( we would eat much ham in Spain), coffee. We actually visited this place several more times during our stay in Sevilla.It was just across the park and a nice afternoon respite.

Jamon Jamon!

Fortified with some coffee and food in our tummies, we were off to explore Sevilla!

First stop...fruit!

We headed to the main part of town, found the tourist office, got some maps. Oh, Sevilla! So charming! Beautiful buildings! Horse drawn carriages! A bike sharing system! Old guy playing accordion on the street. I fell in love with the city. So, so charming.

This is actually from later in the day, in the Barrio Santa Cruz, I think. Note the sun shades spread between the buildings over the street.

We headed over to the Catedral de Sevilla. This is the largest Gothic Cathedral and the third-largest church in the world. We snuck in. Yes! We did! There was a side door open and we just wandered in and had a look around. You are supposed to pay 8 euro to get in. Needless to say, it was awe-inspiring. I didn't get any decent photos, but it is huge and so full of fancy ornamentation. We were not able to see all of it...there was a service going on so we did get to hear the organ and see some of the clergy filing out. Christopher Columbus' tomb is in this cathedral. I really encourage you to go online and see some decent photos. Or just go there and visit.

This was one of the SMALLER altars at the Cathedral. 

After that, we sat and rested and planned where to go next, while some of us went to Starbucks because they have a restroom.  Starbucks in Spain is just like Starbucks here. We rarely went there, preferring the smaller cafes we saw. The coffee there was better too. I mean, the coffee at the little cafes was better...not Starbucks.

We wandered around through a park. Didn't really have much of a plan. The weather was beautiful and we weren't in a hurry.

Me and my best friend.

Eventually, we came upon the Plaza de Espana, which was amazing. Such detailed tile and brick work. I would have loved to have gotten back here later or spent more time, but I think at this point we were all a little hungry and looking for food, and also a little tired.

 What a beautiful day in Spain!

We did manage to avoid the gypsies. The guy in the photo below was not so lucky. I had read a blurb in one of the guidebooks about these gypsies that will approach you and give you a "free" sprig of rosemary for good luck. Then they grab your hand and tell your fortune and expect a tip. The guidebook advised, "Don't make eye contact, say "No Gracias", and keep walking". I don't know what happened to the guy below. I'm sure he was out 5 euro.

 Don't make eye contact with the gypsies!

We stared heading back towards the apartment and headed into the Barrio Santa Cruz. Narrow winding streets, little cafes, it was all very lovely.

 Oh, you could get lost in here and be perfectly happy.

We found a wonderful little place to stop and have lunch.

Happy to be sitting after a long day and still no sleep.

At first we only planned to have wine and snacks because the waiter told us they didn't have anything on the menu. About 15 minutes later, they had everything on the menu. Apparently, we crossed some threshold in time where the food appears.

 The English side of the menu.

Lunch was wonderful. I had a beet salad, ham and potatoes, and some dessert, I think.

 Beet salad and yummy gazpacho.

I might have just had coffee. This was our first experience with the "menu del dia", where you choose from two courses and then finish up with coffee or dessert. We did this a couple other times in Spain and it was usually pretty good.

There was a little hotel right across from the cafe and I told David I wanted to stay there the next time we came to Sevilla. This little area was just so cute and charming. How could I want anything else? Well, once we got to our apartment, I decided that was where I will always stay in Sevilla. Kelly did a wonderful job finding our home away from home. I can't imagine that is easy when you have nine people.

The apartment was amazing. Actually, we had three apartments. There were four total in the building, so it was pretty much our group. There was also a wonderful rooftop terrace from which we could watch all the evening activity and daytime activity in the park. Lots of dogs!

 Hi Lea! The lovely stairwell of our building.

Most of us napped for a bit. I chose to spend an afternoon in frustration trying to upload photos to Facebook. Eventually I succeeded, but missed my napping opportunity. In Sevilla, as in many of the cities we stayed in, the supermarket is in the lower level of the department store, El Corte Ingles. It's a pretty high end department store - Prada, Coach, etc. Imagine if Nordstrom had a Cub Foods in the basement. I headed over with Alan, Erin, Kym, and Kyle to get groceries for dinner. Since there was only one way in and out of the market, we had a bit of trouble, but once inside we were able to get everything we needed, including lots of wine.

Kym made a wonderful dinner, sort of a stir-fry veggies with noodles. We enjoyed our dinner on the rooftop while we listed to all the activity down below. A wonderful evening with wonderful friends. I couldn't ask for anything more perfect.

Our lovely chef, Kym.

When all was said and done, this is all that was left. Lots of empty wine bottles. Full tummies. And a restful night's sleep. It had been a long day, but it was everything I had hoped our trip would be.

A small representation of all the wine that was consumed on our trip.

The Bus Ride

Yes, we took an overnight bus from Lisbon to Sevilla. No, I would never do this again.

Getting from Lisbon, Portugal to Sevilla, Spain is not as easy as you may think. I suppose we could have flown, but I don't think it really occurred to us. There is no train from Lisbon to Sevilla, and renting a car to cross into another country was problematic and pricey.

So the bus it would be. An overnight bus seemed like a good option. It was a seven hour bus ride and it just seemed to make more sense to spend that seven hours traveling over night than during the day. One less night at a hotel or apartment to pay for AND we wouldn't waste precious sightseeing time.

I should back up a little bit here. We returned from Sintra and while we walked back from the bus station to our apartment, we passed the Metro Station where we would catch the train to the Oriente Rios bus station where you can catch international trains and buses. David asked me if I wanted to head down there and check out how much the ride would be. Actually, I really DIDN'T want to. I just wanted to get back to our apartment. But, I said sure and we proceeded into the station.

We went down a flight of escalators. And then another flight of escalators. And then another...and then another. Four flights total. I felt like we were traveling to the fifth circle of Dante's Inferno and it was certainly hot enough to feel like it. Why are subway stations always so hot?

As we traveled down, David said, "You've got a key for the apartment, right?" Well, no actually I didn't. When we got back, we stood on the street for a minute or so yelling up to our fourth floor apartment. Turned out the door wasn't locked anyway.

After checking out of the apartment, we headed back to the Metro station, the four flights of escalators, and after some disagreements with the ticket machines, we were on our way.

The Oriente Rios station looks pretty cool, but when you get there and don't really know where to go, and there does not seem to be any kind of an info desk to go to, it's just a wee bit frustrating. The bathrooms are also gross. I read someplace that this station is as busy as Grand Central, but now I cannot find the link. Regardless, it was one of two stations at which we could have caught the bus, and I picked the wrong one.

Turns out, we were the second stop, so by the time we got on the bus there were only single seats left. You of course have the people that are already asleep sprawled across two seats, the people that need a seat just for their plastic bag, and the married couple that each need two seats to themselves and will wave off anyone that tries to sit with one of them. I found a nice seat next to a woman who at one point tried to ask me or tell me something. Unfortunately, I have no idea what she said, so from that point on I tried to sit as still and quiet as possible so that nothing I did could possibly be a problem. She seemed very nice, but I had no idea if she was trying to ask me not to do something, or do something, or compliment my bag. No clue.

On the plus side, the seats reclined very far. On the negative side, an hour or two into the ride a woman got on who decided she was going to be the only person on the entire bus to have her overhead light on. She also gestured to me that I should not recline my seat so far. Argh! It is 2 a.m. lady! You are the only person awake on this bus! Your light is keeping other people awake! Invest in a personal book light! Eventually, she did turn her light off, at which point I attempted to recline my seat further, but it appeared she had placed a curse on it. It would not move.

In addition, the woman next to me decided she would try to sleep sideways so that her hip and leg were encroaching on my seat space. :-(

And since I am complaining, it was NOT a smooth ride. Overall it was pretty bumpy, and since the seats were leather or pleather or some such thing, sudden stops would leave you sliding further and further towards the floor. Oh, and I really think there was a point there where the driver was lost - we seemed to be going in circles in some little town for quite some time.

No one else really enjoyed the bus ride either. All my friends commented on how hot it was. My seat was actually chilly, so I must have chosen somewhat wisely. There was about a 20 minute break at some sort of travel plaza, at which we all stood around in the cold complaining about the bus. Oh, and then there was the family that got on and when it was suggested that the little boy would not be able to sit with his mom, he started to wail. I had earplugs in at that point, but I could still hear him. Fortunately, someone did offer to move...another husband and wife I think that were trying to monopolize seats, I think.

Overall, bus ride...not so great. I wouldn't recommend this unless you have no other choice. Crowded, uncomfortable, bleck. At least it didn't smell weird, although my friends might disagree with me.

We arrived in Sevilla about 5:00 a.m. Yay! Someone left their iPad on the bus! No! What happened? Check back for more.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Friday Friday!

 Me, a door, and some graffiti. My Lisbon glamour shot.

 Just a pretty picture for you to enjoy.

Ah, Friday! Another day to enjoy some cornflakes and the Lisbon sunshine! Except today we were headed to Sintra, a favorite summer retreat of the Portuguese royal family for centuries. Now a Unesco World Heritage site and a short train ride from Lisbon. If you can find the train - which we did after a bit of searching.

My new Portuguese sunglasses! 

I should say, David was not feeling well this day. He looked quite green on the train and many times I thought maybe we'd be better off just getting off the train and heading back to Lisbon. I'm not sure if it was the cod or the firewater. Our party was also short one as one of the late night revelers decided to stay in Lisbon.

Well, hello! Care to join us for a little castle hopping?

The main attraction in Sintra is the Palacio Nacional de Pena. It boasts the first shower in Portugal, as well as sort of a candy-confection of a castle with yellow and red walls, walls covered in tiles, and all sorts of creatures carved here and there. And the view - let's just say it's no wonder why the royal family stayed here. Sadly, they don't allow photos inside so you'll just have to trust me that it was as lovely inside as outside.

Why yes, I would love to have my summer vacation here.

 Another view of what my guide book called "pure pastiche".

These people look familiar.

Our next stop was the Moorish Castle (Castelo dos Mouros). We had a lovely walk through the woods to get down there, although we did seem to take a wrong turn somewhere. For a bit there, I thought we were going to have to scale a wall. Fortunately, we found our way.  Most of the group walked up to either of the turrets, but I stayed in a nice sunny spot closer to solid ground.

It looks all warm and sunny, but was rather chilly actually.

At this point, we were all pretty hungry. Sightseeing does that to you. We hopped back on the bus and to the train station where we found a little restaurant with the most amazing chicken empanada things.  First Amit had one...then David and I went back for one...then Kym...and then Alan. The guys working there thought we were pretty funny. We also had these yummy desserts called "Queijadas". They were so very very very yummy. I might have to try making these.

 Kym with the empanda-y goodness!

And then...time to head back to Lisbon. We had a bus to catch! We were taking the overnight bus from Lisbon to Sevilla, Spain. This turned out to be a mistake, but that's a story for another day.

More empanada goodness!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Day Three...also known as Thursday!

Finally, I get to our first full day of vacation. A normal day of waking up, eating breakfast, and then walking all over a city I've never been in before. Okay, maybe not so normal. But no airplanes, no boarding passes, no trying to sleep in an upright position.

Here is what I wrote in my sole travel journal entry from the entire trip. I wrote this early Thursday morning: "Without a doubt, the hardest bed I have ever slept on in my entire life. I am up - the sun is up - I have no idea what time it is. Maybe 8:30?" That's it. I never wrote another word. I sat on the terrace for a bit, ate my cornflakes, and then we got going on a very full day.

First stop: The Praca do Comercio, right along the River Tagus. As you can see, it was an absolutely beautiful day in Lisbon. I don't have a picture, but in the square is a statue of Dom Jose I, who was king at the time of Lisbon's great earthquake. The arch behind me is the Arco Triunfal which marks the entrance to the Rua de Augusta which is full of shops and other fun stuff. We'd be back there later.

 Hello from Lisbon!

The river was really beautiful too. The water was pretty cold though. No swimming for us.

Less than an hour of sightseeing and already we are resting.

Our next stop was to get on Tram 28, which is one of those stereotypical street cars....think Rice-a-Roni...only a little smaller. It was fun to ride, and easier than walking up the steep hills of Lisbon. It's known for pickpockets, but our tram seemed pretty tourist heavy. Our pockets were safe.

We were on our way to the Miradouros de Santa Luzia. Miradouros are lookout points in Lisbon. Being so steep and hilly, there are lots of these around the city. This miradouro had a lovely cafe where we had lunch (gazpacho, melon and ham) and also a little church, the Igreja de Santa Luzia, which was not open. I was disappointed, but need not have been. If there is anything in Europe, there are a lot of churches. Plenty of them awaited.

David with a Superbock, the common beer in Portugal which was neither super nor a bock.

Lunch was yummy, and our waiter taught us how to say "Thank you" in Portuguese. Obrigadah if you are female, Obrigado if you are male. We now knew one word in Portuguese.

Next we wandered up to the Castelo de Sao Jorge. Great views of Lisbon up there and well worth the admission price. My brother had posted on Facebook that we should see this and who am I to not follow the advice of my older brother?

There were also a lot of peacocks there. A whole flock of them it seemed.. And lots of little baby peacocks. Ever seen a baby peacock. Now you have!

After we left there, we just wandered back down the hill. I wanted to find this cathedral I had read about. On the way, we passed what appeared to be a woman who was chasing a guy who may or may not have stolen her purse. She was following him, they weren't moving very fast, and she was saying, "you can keep the money, I just want my purse back". Weird thing was, she was holding a purse, and he wasn't so...who knows what was really going on.

We got a little lost, but that was okay because we stumbled upon some Roman ruins and that was really cool. Then we stumbled upon the Cathedral. Yay!

It was really beautiful. One of many many cathedrals and churches we were going to see on our trip. David suggested we light a candle for my grandma while we were in there (she passed away the day before) so we did that. This was one of many cathedrals we saw that were built on the site of former mosques. The pictures at the link above are much better than any of the photos I took.

By this time, I was feeling pretty tired, but in a good way. The weather was beautiful and we were just enjoying the winding roads. We wandered our way over to the Elevador de Santa Justa.

Just an elevator built at the end of the street.

We didn't actually ride it, but we did make our way via streets up to the top, where the views were really amazing.

Since it was so hot, we of course had to stop for gelato. Yum! We went to a place called Santini which seemed quite popular. You choose two flavors, and somehow the servers twist them together. Amazing.

At this point, we then wandered back up the Rue de Augusta, stopped into H&M (there were like three H&Ms in Lisbon...if you want to go to H&M here you have to go all the way to the Mall of America. In Lisbon they seem to multiply), and gave some spare change to this living statue. Yes, that is a guy dressed as Mozart's tombstone (I think...he may have taken some poetic license). He winked at me.

There were several more items on out itinerary, but we were pretty tired. We walked over by the Convento do Carmo but didn't go in. It was destroyed in the earthquake and will be on my list of things to see when I return to Lisbon. After a full day of sightseeing, it was time to head back to our apartment on the Rue de Hera.. I think we were in the Bairro Alto neighborhood.  Kym had some leads on dinner options! Yes! Dinner!

Our first stop was the Port Institute, which seemed pretty swanky. I do not like port, but I did like the cheese and crackers.

Then we wandered up the Rue de Atalaia which had lots of restaurants and bars. Some of the bars were so funny....they looked to be the size of a large closet. Enough space for just the bar and maybe a couple stools. As such, much of the festivities were out on the street. Very vibrant and seemed like a lot of fun.

But, I was hungry! We settled on Bota Alta, which means Old Boot and there was a lot of boot decor inside.While we waited for them to have a table ready for nine people (no small feat), I believe each person in our party was approached by either a man in purple pants who appeared to be trying to eat the cast on his hand, or a guy in a gray hoodie, asking if we wanted to buy some cocaine or pot. They were charming fellows. Just so charming - guy in the hoodie totally looked like a meth head. Eventually they left, wandering down the hill towards someone rolling a keg up the hill.We were seated shortly thereafter.

Our wine was served in these fun jugs and there was plenty of cheese and bread on the table. David and I each ordered the special for the night which was cod with caramelized onions and fried potatoes. Lots of potatoes. Cheese, bread, and potatoes were to be a common theme on this trip.

After dinner, our waiter offered to bring us "firewater", which was essentially paint thinner. More on that later. Tomorrow.

Kym, Kyle, and Kelly all opted to hit the bars after dinner while the rest of us headed back to our apartment where we sat on the terrace until the poor woman below us asked us to please go inside as she had to work the next day. Ooops.

Overall, a wonderful first day of the vacation...I know - it was really day three, but the first day was all spent traveling and doesn't count at all. The second day was mostly traveling, so that only counts a little.

Even after only one day in Lisbon I wanted to come back. I loved the skinny, windy roads, all the outdoor cafes, people dressed as someone's grave. Other than the purple-panted guy and his hoodied friend, everyone was very friendly.

More to come about how we overcome the ill effects of the firewater, find the train station, and head to Sintra to see more castles and ruins.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The trip continues!

Lisbon. A lovely city.

Picking up with Day 2 - after the nightmare at the Amsterdam airport, I was happy to buy my souvenir "I AMsterdam" magnet and get out of there. David and I weren't able to sit together on the plane, but I was directly in front of him, so we were able to touch hands over the top of the seat. So romantic.

The flight was a nice one for sleeping - the kind or sleep where every few minutes your head falls forward and wakes you up and you realize you are drooling all over yourself. Lovely.

Before I knew it, we were landing in Lisbon. Yippee! Now, there were six of our group on our flight: me and David; Kim and Kyle; and Alan and Erin. Lea and Amit were on a separate flight. They were scheduled to arrive in Lisbon first and Kelly would arrive from Texas shortly thereafter. I think the plan was that they would go to the apartment first and perhaps have wine and cheese waiting for us.

I was eager to get a Portugal stamp for my passport, and was upset when I realized no stamp was coming. Apparently, once you are in the European Union they don't give you a stamp again until you leave. Total bummer.

Well, as we left the baggage claim, we were greeted by the warm smiles of Lea and Amit. Immediately, we knew something was wrong. Kelly was missing.

Not really, her flight was just delayed and no one really knew when she would be arriving for sure. Fortunately, there were eight of us, and a couple people actually had phone and or internet access and it was quickly decided that a small crew would wait at the airport for Kelly, in the wine bar...and the rest of us would take the Aerobus to a location someplace approximately close to our apartment.

 Waiting for the Aerobus.

We would then navigate on foot through the windy and steep hills of Lisbon to our happy home for the next few nights.

Lisbon - where the sidewalks are made up of little white tiles. It is also much hillier than I thought it would be. And graffiti everywhere, which pretty much summed up most of the trip. There is a lot of graffiti in Europe.

These pretty flowers contrasted nicely with all the graffiti.

It was quite warm, but David navigated us expertly...although we discovered we had to go up quite a ways, just to go down, and then back up...and then up four flights of stairs to the apartment. No elevator, but that was okay because it was early in the trip and I was not yet carrying around bottles of wine and a small arsenal of magnets.

The apartment was really nice...five bedrooms, two and a half baths, a kitchen with a refrigerator with a strawberry on it.

There was also this odd painting of a woman eating a baloney sandwich.

Alan, Amit, and David went to the little grocery store up the way and came back with wine (1 euro a bottle!), cheese, pasta, tomatoes, and corn flakes. Yes, corn flakes would be the breakfast of choice on this trip.

Eventually, Kelly and the others arrived and we all relaxed on the terrace with wine, cheese, bread, and guidebooks aplenty.

 Where's all the wine?

While David and Kym prepared dinner, we planned our course of action for our first full day of sightseeing.


We all went to bed a little early, full of good wine (well, for 1 euro a bottle I'm not sure how good it was) and good food.

 We were all very tired.

Check back tomorrow to hear about our marathon day seeing the best of Lisbon and our experience with Lisbon drug dealers.