Tuesday, April 17, 2007

April 10th - day 2 in Barcelona

Did the usual breakfast thing and headed out to see Sagrada Familia. We headed to a metro station much closer, the reason we hadn't been going there was cos it involved changing lines a coupls of times, and sometimes that could take a much longer time to get to our destination. But after all the walking the day before, we were in no mood to walk the distance to Sants. We got to Sagrada soon and spent a couple of hours gazing at this bizarre Art Nouveau wonder by Antonio Gaudi! I had studied it in 20th century architecture in BCC, and was keen to see it, but was totally unprepared for how weird and fascinatingly bizarre it was. Sinewy columns, organic flowing interiors, flowery grape bunchy things here and there......quite grotesque. But when we looked clsoe it was amazing they had managed to build something like this at that time, without all the construction methods and engineering skills we have today. Gaudi died before it was completed and work is still continuing till today to finish it the way he had envisioned. What was more fascinating, was watching all the workers and craftsmen inside the building.

Then we left for the metro again intending to take a ride on the Montjuic Funicular, so we could get a panoramic view of the city. We exited the metro station at Montjuic, only to find the access to the funicular was tied in to the metro system and we could have boarded within the station. So we had to buy tickets again...drats! So back we went and took the funicular to the top of the hill. We got some amazing views from there, walked around the gardens a bit and then decided to come back to the hotel, take a siesta and go back to our fav place, La Rambla, in the evening. We stopped at a supermarket on the way back, I bought some Spanish dog chews for the pooches ( which they just sniff at...they don't seem to like them too much :-( ), had Patatas Bravas, marinated olives, bread and beer for lunch, stopped at an Internet cafe for the mandatory e mailing session and came back at 3.15pm. We left again at 5pm, walked to Sants, took the metro to Liceu/La Rambla and this time walked along the southern part. Since we were planning on seeing the flamenco show at Los Tarantos at Plaza Reial, we browsed that area, watched 2 amazing street guitar players, bought their CD, then some souvenier shopping including a gorgeous ceramic sangria pitcher. We had seen a veg restaurant called Maoz, the day before, so we had falafels and patatas flamencas (french fries) for dinner. It was huge and an effort to eat it all...but we managed alright.

Finally we got to Los Tarantos, went in and grabbed front row seats. It was only a half hour show and it began right on time at 8.3opm. All of us there got settled with a pitcher of sangria...thats the thing to drink in Spain, very good and very addictive. It started with 4 guys, one on guitar, one on drums and 2 taking turns singing loudly and lustily. We kept waiting for the flamenco dancer to show up but there was no sign of her. At about 8.45 or so, the front door to the bar opened and slammed, and a guy rushed backstage with a garment bag sort of thing. Ah ha....he's brought her flamenco outfit we thought. Good...so she should be out soon. A few minutes later, the same guy came onto stage in his flamenco suit. Turns out there was no female flamenco dancer that night, only this guy! But what a fabulous dancer he turned out to be. All us viewers were disappointed there was no woman in her flouncy flamenco skirt, but this guy was awesome. The show went on past 9pm, probably to make up for the delay....all in all it was amazing. Came back pretty tired at 10pm.

Monday, April 16, 2007

9th April - Granada to Barcelona

Yay! Its my birthday....i turned 47! Mom and Dad called to wish me @ 6am. I had told them to call early cos we had to leave at 7am for the airport. We went down for breakfast at 6.30am and were surprised to see the door to the restaurant was closed, but the light was on and we could see a guy puttering around in the back kitchen. So R pushed the door and went in and asked him if b'fast was ready and he said it started only at 7am. Again, just like room numbers, we had gotten all the start times mixed up. But nice guy Mamoon, knew we were leaving for the airport - cos he was the one who woke us up at 5am for our wake up call - and brought out some cereal, some OJ, milk and toast. Finished in 10 mins and headed to the front desk to check out - it was Mamoon again! Looks like he was wake up man, cook, receptionist...all rolled in one. We found out he was from Morocco and chatted about our Tangier trip. He kept talking and delaying our departure. All the while I could hear some hissing and sputtering from the next room and was wondering what it was. Suddenly he darted into the room, I realized it was the kitchen. In all his enthusiasm and talking, he had boiled the milk over!!!! FINALLY he got us all checked out and told us our taxi had arrived. Guess who our doorman and luggage handler was - yup, Mamoon again! Got to the airport well ahead of time.

We had a great flight to Barcelona. It left early and arrived 15 mins early, tho the last few minutes had been very turbulent! Baggage arrived immediately and we took the metro to Barcelona Sants station. From our metro map it looked like the hotel was quite a distance from the station, so we took a cab and got there at 11.30am! Usual procedure - we dumped our stuff and went looking for lunch. Had pizza and a great mediterranean salad at Pizzeria Genova! Came back and napped till 2.30pm.

We wanted to go to La Rambla, a famous marketplace as well as Barri Gotic, the oldest part of the city, so decided if we left at 3.30, we could walk to Sants, take the metro and do it all in one shot, and come back only after dinner. That was the plan anyway, so we would not have to come back after seeing one, and then walk to the metro station again. So we left as planned, walked to Sants, it was about a 15-20 minute walk, much further away than our other hotels had been from the metro. On the way we stopped at an Internet cafe and sent off some e mails. We had to buy our train tickets to Madrid on the 11th, so when we arrived at Sants, we went to the ticket counter. We didn't have to wait as long as we did at Madrid station, but when we finally got to the counter - shocker!!! The one way train ticket on second class per person was 102 euros...thats about $160 dollars!!!!! We sort of mulled it over while the ticket agent drummed her fingers...and then decided to go back to the Internet cafe and check out airfares. So back again we went to the same place. I quickly got onto Expedia and we found fares for $75 one way! Yippee...but wait....we didn't have our credit cards to buy it there, so back to the hotel we went!!!

As soon as we got there, I signed onto the Internet for a 15 minute session, got onto Expedia while R hurried to the room to get the c card. Soon after he came and while processing our request, it asked for passport info. So R ran up again, only by then it was almost timed out, so when i asked at the front desk for a 15 minute extension, they said i had to sign out of this one and sign on again!!!!! Unbelievable!!!! So it timed out. By then R got back and we started all over again! After a heart thumping, nerve racking 15 minutes we were all done! $160 for both as agaist $320 by train! feeling mighty thrilled, we had some coffee and back we walked to Sants. Of course by now it was way past 5pm, so all we did was go to La Rambla marketplace.

La Rambla was a fascinating place. It is a long stretch of road, actually a paved road inbetween 2 roads full of shops...souveniers, flowers, knick knacks, seed shops, birds and small pets, food items and street magicians and performers. See the pic of the guy with wind blown hair and his skewed tie in the slideshow....he actually stood like that for 15 minutes...the tie is sort of glued to stay like that! We walked along the stretch north of the metro station we had gotten off at. The best thing was that we FINALLY got Padron pepper seeds. Padron peppers are these small peppers about 2 inches long, a cross between bell peppers and chile peppers and mild tasting with a tiny kick - see pic above. They are served broiled or fried in olive oil with sea salt and a favorite vegetarian tapas with drinks. Ever since we tasted them at the Meson De La Guitarra in Madrid, we have been on the lookout for these seeds to plant back home (sshhhhh...don't tell the customs guys)!!!! Then we went to Mercat De La Boqueria, a farmers market and oohed and aahed over all the fresh produce and interesting fruits including Cherimoyas (custard apple) and something called Pitahayas. A few more purchases including a st. steel coffee percolator and some gifts for others, a quick bite of padron peppers, or better known as Pimientos de Padron, we headed to a local bar called Los Tarantos for a 8.30pm flamenco show. Really Madrid is the place for flamenco, but we never made it, so R had promised me a show for my birthday! On our way, we were handed a flyer for a Spanish classical music guitar performance by a duo at the Basilica close by starting at 9pm. Hmmmm.....it sounded really good and R's eyes were glistening with excitement and we could always see the flamenco show the next day, so thats what we did. We had time, so on Gautam's insistence that I MUST have these, we stopped at a chocolateria and R had choc ice cream and I had chocolate con churros - again see pic. Then we headed to the Basilica. It was an amazing concert.....the lighting in the Basilica, the stained glass windows, the architecture all combined with some amazing classical music...fantastic! We were not allowed to take pics even tho the guy next to us did! We took the metro back late and this is when we had our second encounter with pickpockets!!!

When we got to our metro station - Sants - we were at the end of the train and so among the last to leave it. 2 guys had boarded 2 stations ago and were sitting across us. Both R and I felt (even tho we didn't say anything at that time to each other) that they were a bit shady! They got off at our station and sort of kept lingering ahead as if to try and get behind us. They stopped to ask directions from people, they stopped to look at poster maps...they tried everything to try and get behind us. And every time they stopped, we did too and pretended like we too were lost. Finally we got to an escalator. One of the guys ran up and came down immediately on the other side and succeeded in getting behind us. The other guy was still in front of us as we were heading up the esc. As we reached the top to get off, he dropped his cigarette case and bent down to get it, forcing us to have to wait and so the guy behind came up close to R and groped his pockets. But by now, R who was FULLY convinced they were crooks, not only had both his hands in his pockets, he kicked the guy ahead who was bent down in the butt. They scooted down the esc. on the other side once they knew we were on to them!!! I forgot to mention that R had bought a new wallet in Granada and had stuffed his old wallet with used metro tickets (with words like idiot, jerk, moron written on them) hoping someone would steal it. But he did admit that the temptation to kick the guy overcame the urge to let them pick his old wallet! So that was that! Came back to the room and kept talking about the b-----y pickpockets!

Sunday, April 15, 2007

8th April - Alhambra, Granada

What a day!! There were no windows in our tiny room and with all drapes closed we had no idea of time, so when we woke up it was 8.55am!!! We had requested our hotel almost 2 months ago to get us tickets to see the Alhambra. Apparently they get sold out very quickly and our guide book as well as Indu and Venkat (who had been there last spring) told us to be smart and get them earlier, so the hotel folks had got us tickets for 11am. We had to be there an hour earlier to exchange our voucher for the tickets or they could get cancelled, so we had planned accordingly to leave at 9am, and here it was almost 9am when we woke up!!! We dashed around madly and believe it or not, were down at breakfast at 9.20am! We got done in 10 minutes and took a cab to Alhambra and were there by 9.50am! Whew! We stood in line which was fortunately a lot shorter than the line standing to get tickets. When we got to the counter the lady asked for our credit card to make sure it was the same number mentioned on the voucher. Bummer! We didn't have any cc. We usually leave all our passports, cards etc in the room safe! Then she asked for some ID!! Bummer again! No ID on us. Irritated at us she shooed us out of there and told us to get in the line for tickets!!! Darn darn darn! I quickly got in line while R stood there scratching his head wondering what to do. Suddenly we ( or rather "I") had this idea. The hotel had given us a sort of ID card, it didn't have a picture but it had our names and confirmed we were staying at the hotel. R fished it out, went back to the counter, he sort of cut in, and I guess the lady was so busy, she abstractedly gave him the tickets!!! That was close!

We spent about 4 1/2 hours at Alhambra, left at 2pm and took the bus back to our street. By now it was raining and not such great walking weather. We stopped at a Middle Eastern place for lunch and had spinach sambusek and veg lentil soup with beer and the mint tea which had become a real hit with us. We fell for this drink so much we bought a tea set - a sliver plated tea pot with 6 glass cups - so we could recreate this back home. We got back to our oom, browsed the Internet for a while, had a bath since we had skipped one in the morning, packed a little and left to go shopping for souveniers at 5pm.

We went looking for a dagger...R had been wanting one for a while but everytime he found one, he would ask the shopkeeper for some history on it...whether it was a Spanish dagger, how old, what do the motifs on it mean etc etc. Not one of them knew anything. so off we went again! We got everything but a dagger...had dinner at Kasbah restaurant - veg cous cous and soup- and came back at 8.30pm.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

7th April - Tangier to Granada

Woken up by call from home. All fine there, J and L behaving themselves. Yay! We were the only ones down at breakfast cos it was 7am and they had just opened up. After the check out process we left for the ferry terminal at 7.45am. We decided we didn't need a cab but only this time we had an extra bag, so it probably would have made sense. Anyway, we lugged our baggage all the way, got there well ahead of time and finally boarded the ferry at which left at 9.20am.
Not to make the same mistake twice, we grabbed seats in the main cabin to get ahead in line for passport checking. But wouldn't you know it....there was nothing this time!!!! We reached Tarifa port at 12.20pm local time (the ferry ride took 35 minutes but Spain is 2 hours ahead...). By the time we got to Algeciras port it was 1.10 pm and we had just missed the 12.15 train to Granada!!!! The next train was only at 4pm and got to Granada at 8.50pm, so we had a quick lunch at the same restaurant and decided to take the bus which was not only leaving at 2pm but also reaching Granada a good 2 hours earlier at 6pm. The fare was about the same - 19 euros each! The weather was yuk! Rainy and a bit cold but since we were in the bus it didn't matter so much. It was an absolutely beautiful drive all along the Costa Del Sol coast via Marbella and Malaga! The bus was fabulous....very long, spacious, air conditioned with reclining seats! We passed some great scenery and saw olive groves all along the way. We got to Granada a bit early at 5.45pm, took a taxi to the hotel, Casa De La Migueletes, and got there by 6.30pm. Its a beautiful hotel, a 14th century restored building, with a courtyard, wood beams and rafters and handmade wood furniture in all rooms! The room itself was tiny though, but beautifully done.
We left our luggage and went to Calle De Elvira, a well known shopping street. It was a blend of Spanish, Moorish and Arabic shops selling mint teas, lamps, tapestries, rugs, jewellry, brass ware and occasionally Indian kurtas!!! After walking around for more than an hour, we stepped into a restaurantm Cafe La Orientale, from where we could hear the sounds of Spanish guitar. There was a guy in the bar upstairs playing music on the Classic guitar, so we got a table and listened for an hour or so while sipping mint/rose tea! He was excellent! All these guitar playing guys have long hair and R has been saying he wants to learn how to play the Spanish guitar, but for that he will have to grow his hair and the nail on his little thumb long!!!!
After this we browsed shops some more and then had dinner at Samarcanda - hummus, hammara, falafel, red wine and some fab dessert the waiter recommended. Came back to hotel by 10.30pm. Usually this is when we watch some CNN to catch up on all the news, but the Tv wasn't working so the guy at the front desk was nice enought o get us another one, tho by the time it happened it was close to midnight, so we just crashed!!!

Friday, April 13, 2007

6th April - day in Tangier

Woke up at 6 am after a very restless night. Like in Madrid and Lisbon, the hotels have not yet turned on their A/C's as it is still cool and spring like, so with the windows closed its too warm and with them open its too noisy. And here in Tangier, esp being on the beach, it was noisy till way past midnight. And starting about 4 am you could hear street sweepers and garbage collectors clanking around...so all in all sleepless night!!! Had a very interesting breakfast.....strange looking items. There were those paratha sort of breads like we had had the evening before, there was something that was a cross between pancakes, dosas and crepes with a jar of honey next to it, a huge silver pot of mint tea, a hundred varieties of sweet rolls, baklava.....! Since we were up early and it being a Sunday we were told nothing would open before 11am, we decided to walk to the beach and dip our feet in the Mediterranean! Interestingly, there were a lot of men and young boys playing football, not a woman in sight! I looked extremely out of place and since we had to dodge football playing guys to get to the water, I chickened out. So R went ahead and did the mandatory foot dipping and came back.

Since we were sort of sleepy and still had time, we took a quick one hour nap and then headed to the bazaar.

Our first purchase was a duffel bag for 6 euros since we were short on space for all the things we had planned to buy.Then we went to a bazaar we had seen the previous evening and I bought a pair of Moroccan shoes for my mom. I had taken the outline of her foot and it seemed right, but as it turns out when I got to the room and tried them against my foot, they fit me perfectly and ended up being too big for her! The next store had some beautiful thin cotton floor rugs but language was still a problem, so with great difficulty and sign language, she agreed - or so we thought - to selling a 10 dirham rug for 5 dirhams. When we gave her the 5 dirhams, she almost threw it back at us. It turned out she dropped the price from 100 to 50!!!! All we knew was that there was a 5 somewhere in there! She glared at us and we scooted!

We went back to the casbah and the maze of narrow streets and bought a bunch of stuff. I bought a tagine at the old market for 4 euros (which was a great deal cos I found out later that the new modern souvenier shops sell them for as much as 10!!) , a prayer rug for mom. We checked out an interesting vegetable market and I really wanted a picture of the women vendors with their old wrinkled faces, but they kept covering their face every time I tried to take a pic! Not wanting to offend them, I gave up. R bought a leather pouf ( a low moodah sort of thing you sit on, which can be stuffed with old clothes etc) for his dad and a t-shirt and some odd knick knacks. It was 1pm by now and we had pretty much exhausted all of the old city and Medina. So we bought some exotic fruits - mangos and cherimoya, sort of like custard apple, and some dates - for lunch and came back to our room and ate them.

After a 2 hour siesta and some time on the Internet, we headed out towards the new part of town by the beach. Again I was fascinated to see mostly men on the beach. We happened to catch some fishermen bringing in their haul for the day like they do in Kerala. Very cool! We walked all along the waterfront, saw a very Moroccan looking McD. There was nothing more left to see in Tangier, we had walked the entire city so we stopped at a supermarket and bought some packaged dates to take back and then for dinner at AliBaba again! I tried the tabbouleh salad and R stuck to tried and tested falafels. The owner had given us finger chips free w/dinner the night before, but our waiter this time didn't, so I asked him and he said he would bring it. We waited and waited and actually finished dinner before he came by and apologized for having forgotten. To make up for it, he offered us free mint tea...we weren't sure exactly what it would be like, but we accepted! Well.....believe it or not, he forgot that too and after a while came back and apologized again and offered us free cake for forgetting the mint tea which was for forgetting the chips!!! Poor guy returned soon after with both mint tea and some sort of orange cake...both were fabulous! He said this was his last working day for the week and he was excited at seeing his family after so long and was distracted!
Walked back to the hotel, packed up for our early departure the next morning!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

5th April - Madrid to Tangier via Algeciras

Left our hotel at 7am, went looking for a breakfast cafe on the way to the station, found nothing suitable. So we ended up having a criossant and coffee at one of the many station cafes. Sounds simple but in actuality a very complicated process. By the time you describe to the lady what you want from the array of sweet rolls in the case, then tell her how many and if you want it heated or not, then coffee with or without milk, then trying to figure out all the coin denominations to pay her...all this can take a good 10 minutes! Then went up to the first floor, waited for a while and boarded the train at 8.35am. What a lovely train and train ride through Cordoba and Ronda to Algeciras. As we were nearing Algeciras we saw all these birds' nests on top of electric poles. Some had birds sitting in them and from what we could make out they looked like some sort of cranes. Got to Alg. at 2.10 and found we had just missed the 1.45 bus to Tarifa port. Note - even tho Alg. is a port, one has to go to Tarifa port, a half hour drive away to board the ferry to Tangier. Anyway, it gave us time to have a quick delicious veg sandwich lunch outside the station, then we walked 15 minutes to Alg. port to catch the bus to Tarifa port. There were about 8 buses at the terminal and not one of them had any signs to where they were going. We asked a few people for help trying to figure out which bus we should take but they spoke either French, Arabic or Spanish! Then as luck would have it a Moroccon who spoke English came by to help. The bus arrived, then left to fill gas, came back and left again at 4pm. The conductor on the bus kept asking us something...he tried in all 3 languages and when he realized we spoke only English, he shook his head as if to say....what dumb people, going to Morocco and they don't speak the language!!!! We reached Tarifa at 4.30. We hurried to get in line for the passport control authorities and were in second place or so. The others were all standing in line to buy tickets. We had already bought ours at the train station. Cool we thought. We're so smart! Then as more and more people got in line behind us, we noticed they had some sort of boarding cards. By the time we realized we had had to exchange our tickets for boarding cards, almost everyone was behind us in line. So I stood in place while R rushed back to the ticket counter. Any minute now the passport guys would start checking and I would have to give up my place and move to the very end!!!! In about 15 minutes, just as the counter opened R came back! whew!
Went thru all formalities and boarded ferry at 5.15pm. It was supposed to leave at 5pm by finally left at 5.30pm. Once on board we grabbed the front seats with a nice view outside. There was a constant stream of announcements on the loudspeaker but we could not follow anything. Every now and then we could make out the word "passport". Some time later, we noticed the cabin was almost empty. We figured people had gone to get food or something. R decided to see what was happening and found in the main cabin a long line.......we had to get our passports stamped again by Moroccan authorites on board!! Thats what the announcements were about!!So R was back at the end of the line. The 35 minute ferry crossing took almost an hour and just as the ferry docked at Tangier, R was done. Fortunately Tangier is 2 hours behind Spain so it was still only 4.30pm. We had to go thru more passport formalities. Even tho our hotel was 500 meters from port, we got persuaded by a glib cab driver and paid 5 euros to get to the hotel. FABULOUS five star hotel on the beach! We got checked in by 2 giggly girls who told us how they loved Indain movies and blushed when I asked them their fav hero....SRK of course!! Followed by Big B!! FDumped our luggage in the beautiful room and left for the old city and Medina.

Tangier reminded us a lot of India....lots of people, noise, traffic, children...but NO animals and cleaner! The shops and stores were noisy and as we walked by spice shops and markets, the heady smell of herbs assailed us. We went in search of the Casbah or bazaar....bought some fresh plump dates on the way. We were not having much luck finding the actual casbah but knew we were in the vicinity according to the map. We must have looked lost, cos suddenly a guy appeared with his son, and told us he would show us the way. We said we didn't need him and he kept saying he was not a guide and didn't want money etc etc. Anyway, he walked us thru the casbah, gave us a history lesson and finally asked for 5 euros!!!

On our way back thru the tiny colorful alleys we stopped and had a paratha sort of thing from a street vendor....a flaky layered bread smothered in honey. It was soooooo yummy!Passed by many souvenier shops selling brassware, pottery, tagines, rugs, hookahs, lanterns, dates. Then later we had an amazing falafel dinner at Ali Baba restaurant for all of 40 dirhams/4 euros/6 dollars!!!!

Came back to the hotel and tried to open our room door with a key but it wouldn't open. It took us a moment to realize we were trying to get into room 516, instaed of 408. All these days of staying at different hotels and the room numbers were all blurring together. Before anyone thought we were trying to break in, we scooted back to the 4th floor!!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

4th April - Lisbon to Madrid

We had to catch our flight to Madrid this morning much against our will. We really loved Lisbon and were wishing we had planned a longer stay here. After our usual breakfast, we checked out and took the Aerobus to the airport. Then the usual check in procedure etc etc and boarded the flight at 10.10am and got into Madrid at 12.15pm. From the AP we took the metro to Atocha Renfe station, one of Madrid's main train stations and where we had to buy the train tickets for our next day trip to Algeciras, a small port town next to Gibralter, on the southern border of Spain. After much asking around we got to the ticket counter. There were hordes of people around and we found we had to pick a number from those machine things. Our number was 434 or so and they were still serving number 200 something. So we were in for a long wait!!!! Unfortunately it was something we could have done during our previous 3 day stay but we kept putting it off. Serves us right!!! Finally at about 3pm they got to us and we bought our tickets.....very expensive tickets. They were 61 euros/90 dollars each, one way.....!! Much more than our guide book said they would be, about 35 euros!! Even tho it is a 2006 guide book I didnt think prices would go up so much!!! We then walked to Hotel Carlton which was close by, not the same cramped place we had stayed at before, but a much larger better roomed one. Left our baggage and headed out for lunch cos we were both starving after our 7am breakfast! We decided to go back to our favorite Pinicchio Trattoria for salad and pizza. Found a long line for outdoor seating - locals eat lunch very late - so went inside. After a 10 min wait we got seated and found to our dismay that our fav Mediterranean salad which we had had just 4 days ago had been scratched off the menu!!!!! I guess there isn't much demand for a veg salad!! So we ordered a grilled veg platter and a pizza, fruit juice and beer. The drinks were taking very long and the owner was rushing around with a frazzled look on his face. We stopped him while he was dashing by to remind him of our drinks and soon after, in about 30 seconds they appeared. Wow! That was quick! Then about 10 minutes later the same frazzled owner stopped by with another set of drinks, saw we had already been served and went to the kitchen in a huff and poured it down the drain. I know cos from where I was sitting i could see all the frenzied activity in the kitchen. Soon after the food appeared. A quick note about food in Spain - everything is swimming in olive oil! So even tho grilled veggies may sound very healthy, I am not sure it really was. It tasted good, no doubt, but there was enough EVOO left on the plate for Jharna (our cook) to cook us a decent meal!

By the time we were one it was close to 4.30pm, so our second attempt, no, actually 3rd attempt to see Palacio Real failed since it closes at 5pm. Not really having enought time to do any significant sightseeing, we opted to do some Madrid souvenier shopping. So we walked back to the hotel, napped for an hour and left at 6.30pm or so. We bought some keychains, magnets, T-shirts, postcards...the usual. We were saving our serious shopping for the very end of our trip so as not to have to lug everything around. Didn't take any pictures at all today!!! Since we had had such a late lunch we bought some fruits and ice cream for dinner and came back to the room. All in all a pretty dull day! Our train was at 8.45 am the next morning, so we had to check out by 7am, walk to the station and have some breakfast there before boarding.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

3rd April - walking tour in Lisbon

We woke up to screeching sound of cars and breaking glass.....right outside our window, down on the street below there was an accident. We couldn't really see everything cos it was obscured by some trees, but there were police sirens and a lot of chaos. After our usual shower and solid breakfast, we headed to Roosio square to meet our guide for our 3 hour walking tour of Lisbon. We figured since we only had a day left and so much to see, this was a good way of covering it all. We got to the square by 9.30 or so and had a half hour wait. We could see other tourists also hanging around for the guide. He showed up exactly at 10am, a Purtugese chap called Edgar. There were about 8 of us, a fun couple from Calgary, a jolly guy fcalled Alejandro from Mexico, another couple from Australia and a very quiet guy from Germany. We hit it off with the Calgary couple - Sandy and Grainger - right away esp R and Grainger who worked for the Canadian Oil and Gas Co. Our guide Edgar introduced himself, gave us a brief run down of Portugese history and was soon joined by his asst. Calea. The walking tour took us thru some very interesting parts of Lisbon, a few places R and I had already been to including the Alfama area. On the way, the guide stopped at a liquer store and introduced us to a very potent Portugese liquer called Ginginha. The tour was supposed to end with a tram ride to the top of one of the 7 hills of Lisbon, but as luck would have it, the street power was off so we all had to trudge up....it was quite a hike but probably more interesting than the tram ride cos we walked thru some narrow residential areas of the city and got a good look at how people live. Finally it was done by about 2pm. The Canadian couple and R and I visited the nearby Castelo De Sao Jorge, spent some time there and then went our separate ways. R and I hunted for a restaurant called Resto De Chapito near the castle that Gautam had recomended for lunch and we stopped there for a great pasta lunch and a magnificent view of the city.
We walked back to Rossio square, stopped at an Internet cafe for an hour or so, met the Canadian couple there again, bought some strawberries and candy, picked up our clean clothes from the laundromat and went back to the hotel. We slept for a while, woke up at 5pm and decided to just hang out at the hotel itself for the rest of the evening.

Monday, April 09, 2007

2nd April - at the Sintra coast near Lisboa

Got woken up again by a phone call from home. It was comforting to know that Junglee and Lucy were doing quite well in our absence. Showered, went down for breakfast and stuffed ourselves silly with all the goodies! By this time, we had collected quite a load of laundry that needed to be done, so after getting directions to the nearest laundromat by the lady at the front desk, not finding it, coming back for directions again, still not finding it, stopping and asking at stores, getting directions in Portugese, arguing, fighting.....FINALLY we located the store at the basemet of the shopping mall across the street - see pic above 

of round brick building with domes. Thankfully it was not too expensive - 9 euros, about 13 1/2 dollars for 4 kilos. So we dumped it all there, including my one and only sweatshirt which was starting to stink a bit, and left. We stopped at a shop on the way and I bought myself a jacket of sorts, cos in spite of the nice weather it was still a bit nippy at times.

We took the train to Sintra, a nearby seaside resort. It was a 45 minute ride and we got to see a good part of the coast along the way. Once at Sintra station, we opted to take the bus which loops around the station and all the major sights at Sintra. We were interested in the Castelo Dos Mouros and Pena Palace. On the map everything looked close by and we were wondering if maybe we should walk, but as it turned out, it may have been close as the crow flies.....the map failed to mention that the castle and palace were at much higher levels, and if we had started to walk, we would still be walking to the castle right now.

We were done with both by about 3pm or so, so we headed back to the station and back to the room by 4.30pm. After a short nap, we left for The Baixa at 6pm. Baixa is sort of the commercial center of Lisboa. After wandering around Baixa for a while, we headed towards Alfama and the riverfront, one of the oldest areas of Lisbon. Alfama is also famous for its fado restaurants. These are restaurants which serve dinner along with fado, a style of Portugese music. We stopped at the restaurant highly recomended by Gautam and our guide book, but when we looked at their menu there was nothing vegetarian on it. So we checked out all the alleys and byways till we saw another promising looking fado restaurant. While we were peering at the menu posted outside, the entire staff that was hanging around outside, asked us what we were looking for. Once they knew we were looking for a good veg restaurant and this was after much hand gesturing and sign language and a bit of dumb charades too, they called the chef, one Raul Rodriguez, from inside who spoke English and who assured us he would make us a fabulous veg salad. We went in and got seated just as the fado musicians - typically one singer and 2 guitarists - were setting up. We had never heard Fado music before and were wondering what it would sound like. It was beautiful....the guitar strumming was spectacular. Some of the songs were surprisingly pretty upbeat. There were 5 singers who took turns singing, and every now and then the entire kitchen staff would come upstairs and join in. It was really fun. The salad which the chef obviously had taken pains to make, was a huge platter each with a bed of greens and some seaweedy thing, with carrots, tomatos, asparagus, artichokes, potatoes, peas and hard boiled eggs on top! R and I could have eaten it for 3 meals, but so as not to offend the chef who was watching us very anxiously, we ploughed thru it and stuffed ourselves. Unfortunately, it had no dressing or anything, just a mountain of steamed veggies, so we kept dousing it with salt and pepper after every mouthful! By now, almost 2 hours later, we had become very chatty with everyone, the singers, the chef, the staff. One of the singers sold us her CD and signed it for us. It was a small cosy restaurant and when we left there were lots of hugs and kisses all around with promises to send postcards to each other etc etc....very touching! We made our way slowly back to the hotel - slowly cos our bellies were too full to move any faster - and got back by 11.30pm or so.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

1st April - Madrid to Lisbon

We decided to try breakfast at the hotel's restaurant this morning. Fortunately an English speaking local helped us order toast and coffee. After it arrived, R decided he wanted eggs and so ordered "uno huevo"...that is, one egg. We waited for an eternity and then figured something must have got lost in the translation, so decided to skip it and pay for the bill. As soon as we were done paying, it arrived!!!! Why it had taken so long we could not figure our cos it was a barely cooked fried egg and must have taken all of 30 seconds in the pan. Anyway, R ate it and we hurried out of there. We took the metro to the airport. A small note here - ever since our pickpocket adventure on our first day, we were very careful with our money. We distributed it in various bags and pockets...some in the backpack bottom pouch, some in my pocket, some in R's back pocket, some in his wallet and so on. The only disadvantage to doing this was whenever we had to make a purchase, it took us some 5 minutes to collect all the money!!! Also, we were always on high alert and steered clear of anyone who looked suspicious, especially if they were in pairs. R claimed he could tell them apart - they had a sallow pallid complexion from spending way too much time underground!!! No pun intended!
We got to the airport and after Iberia Airlines' convoluted check in process, boarded the flight and arrived into Lisbon at noon. We bought a Lisbon guide book at the AP, and a hurried croissant lunch. We boarded the Aerobus from the AP, which dropped us off a few feet from our hotel on its way to the city center. Very convenient. The weather was fabulous....mid 70's, nice breeze! We got to our hotel about 2pm or so. What a fantastic hotel it was! After the cramped surroundings of Hotel Mora in Madrid, this was pure luxury! Plasma TV and all! We dumped our luggage, had a quick wash and left at 3pm to Rossio square, in the heart of the city. From there we took a tram to a city called Belem, pronounced Balaim, the city from where Vasco De Gama set sail! We checked out the Jeronimos Monastery, a building is an example of Manueline architecture and was built as a monument to VDG's successful voyage to India. From there we walked to the Maritime museum, where at the cafe, we had the famous Portugese custard tarts. From the museum we walked further on thru the delightful streets of Belem to Torre De Belem, the tower of Belem. Unfortunately, it was closed since it was past 5pm by this time, so back we walked to our tram stop, took the tram back to Rossio square. We had planned to eat dinner at a highly touted vegetarian restaurant called Tao, at Rossio. But too bad that ended up being closed too!!! Not sure why! So, even tho we had decided to stay away from Indian food on this trip, we trudged back to an Indian restaurant we had passed along the way and had dinner there. The owner, Massoud, from Bangla Desh, alerted his chefs that they had Indian customers, so to make the food authentic, they doused everything very liberally in oil!!!!! But, all in all it was a decent meal and obviously we were missing Indian food, the way we polished it all off!
Back to our room by about 10.30pm.