Friday, October 2, 2015

Night [bus] to Lisbon

                                                       [Note: It's October. What?]

Stepping into Lisboa
Lisboa. I hadn’t really planned on going to Portugal this semester. It just didn’t seem like the most interesting or exotic place and I didn’t have anyone to stay with. I talked to Calee (who goes to SBC and did JYS last year) about Lisbon and she highly recommended this one hostel, “Home Lisbon Hostel” as well as Lisbon and Sintra in general. At the beginning of this semester I was talking with a few other girls about going and decided why not? I’m not sure if it was the city or if it was because this was my “first trip” or because I was clearly put on this earth to see the world, but the second I got off the metro in central Lisbon I was in love.
Close! But not actually
We took an overnight bus from Sevilla to Lisbon, it was a little over six hours long. It was decently comfortable and not a bad ride even though I didn’t sleep very much. It was a bit boring since it was dark out but I did get super excited when we stopped in Faro because it was my first time being in Portugal! After we got to the bus station at 6ish am we headed to the metro station. After some confusion and a bit of frustration (I couldn’t activate my city card there, which ended up being a waste of money anyway) we bought our metro tickets and headed to the part of the city where the hostel was. Stepping out of the metro station was the most magical thing I’ve ever experienced. I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that the sun was rising, the streets were empty, and we had finally arrived. As we were walking towards the hostel we looked down this long car-less street and saw a huge arch, the sun rising, and the ocean (not really, it’s a river that leads to the ocean). We made a detour, took some pictures, admired the hills of the city (compared to flat Sevilla) and watched one of my favorite sunrises.  After that we headed to the hostel and waited for it to be 8 o’clock so that we could eat breakfast. We then got ready, stored our bags, and then headed off to Sintra.

Tiles in the Palace
Sintra is a town about 28k west of Lisbon. It’s known for several things but mainly the palaces. There are several, but the highest on my list was the Pena Palace. They would have to wait though, our first goal when we got off the train was simple: coffee. We stopped at a cute little sardine themed gift shop (it’s a huge Portuguese symbol, along with roosters) before making a beeline for a café, though I will say that we were a bit distracted by the fairy tale architecture in the town.  We sat down inside and realized that the café was also an art shop. They were selling art and gifts as well as food. The waiter was a very nice man from Cuba who was actually a huge Mets fan. I ended up ordering a Portuguese café au lait and a travesseiro which is a pastry typical of Sintra filled with egg and almond cream. They were both amazing. Over the trip I discovered that the Portuguese have amazing coffee, maybe because of their connection with Brazil?

View of the Moorish Castle from the Pena Palace
Anyway, after we finished at the café we decided it was time to head up to the palaces. We didn’t really have a game plan so we just started walking. We followed the signs and found ourselves on a very “enchanted forest” and very uphill road complete with little hidden doorways and magnificent private houses. After 45 minutes or so we came to a gate on the side of the road. We went through, looked up, and saw the Moorish castle in the distance. It was amazing but very far away. We continued our trek (thank God it was mostly in the shade) and finally came to a sign that said we were only about 1000 meters from the Pena Palace! That actually meant that there would be a grade increase and the road would become cobblestone and very narrow and the destination was actually only the place where you bought tickets. But alas, what good is a view that you don’t work for? After more climbing and constantly almost getting run down by tuk-tuks and other “quitter buses” we got to the entrance. We purchased our tickets (reluctantly) and then headed up a very steep hill and a few flights of stairs. We saw a group of kids at the castle on a school trip, they were running around playing soccer. It’s funny how when something is so normal for you you don’t appreciate it. I wonder how many times they had been there before.
Pena Palace

When we got to the top of the mountain and saw the palace in full for the first time, I was amazed. It didn’t matter that I was tired, hot, sore, and thirsty. The palace is straight out of Disney’s imagination. It was so big and colorful and cartoonish but it was also but of intricate details: carvings, tiles, statues. It was ridiculously flamboyant but also very regal. It was situated so high up that it seemed to overlook the whole of Portugal. I could see the ocean in the distance and it was amazing. There was a wall walk around the outside of the castle that had amazing views, it’s unfortunate that my pictures don’t do it justice. I went through the inside, which was cool but I will say that it did not have the impact of the outside whatsoever. After that I sat down to rest and eat the bocadilla my host mom made for me the previous day, it was very satisfying. At this point we were all too tired to go to any other monument so we headed back to Lisbon. Sintra was perfect.

Street art we saw on Sunday
We were all exhausted by the time we got back, so after we were checked in (and had our complementary welcome drink) I took a nap. We decided that night we wanted to go to eat at a Fado restaurant. Fado is a type of Portuguese music that is somewhat similar to flamenco but is more melancholy. It’s associated with the feeling of “saudade” which is similar to nostalgia but a more intense feeling of longing-ness and desperation for happy times in the past. The hostel recommended a place to us but when we got there it was full. After walking around for a bit we met a very nice man who owned (?) a fado place. We talked to him in Spanish (yayyy similar languages) and he told us to come back in 45 minutes. It was close to 10pm, but that wasn’t such a big deal because we’ve been eating on Spanish time for a month. In the mean time we got drinks at a little bar across the “street” (read: cobblestone path that cars still try to drive down). There was a rather rowdy group of Austrians nearby and while I didn’t mind the one who wanted to talk to us, there was this one creepy guy who wanted to take pictures of some of the people in our group. So sketchy. Luckily it was time to go.

Famous Tram 28
I was surprised to find that the restaurant was so intimate. There was the five of us and one other couple even though there were a few more tables. We ordered food, pan and queso for appetizers (the cheese was on point) and I just got a salad for dinner because it was the only vegetarian thing besides an omelet.  The others got seafood and said it was really good. Once we were eating the show started. The singers were amazing! They were so soulful and invested and their voices were so raw and authentic. It literally did touch your heart. Since the lyrics were in Portuguese it was hard to understand but knowing Spanish helped and in reality the sound was so powerful you didn’t need to understand the words. There were various singers and including the waitress and the owner of the restaurant. It was an incredible experience. If you’re ever in Lisbon, head to Restaurante da Maria Fonte, you might want to make a reservation first though!

Torre de Belem
Saturday was good, but just not as exciting as Friday which is going to be a hard day to beat. I started off the day by meeting this girl named Neelam from Canada, she spent the day with us and was super cool! We did a tour of one of the neighborhoods, Alfama and it was pretty good. The guide showed us more of the “behind the scenes” parts of the city which was cool, but I missed seeing the main sights. We did pass this cute vegan (!!) restaurant that I will 100% go back to when I return to Lisbon. We went to Feria de Ladra which was a huge flea market that happens every Tuesday and Saturday. I could have spent all day there (literally, it was huge and I did not want to leave). I ended up with a bracelet and a vintage post card. I was looking for a funky, vintage, carry-on suitcase but I couldn’t find any that I liked. After that we stopped at the cathedral and headed to another neighborhood, Belém. I was very excited for Belém because of the famous Torre (tower) they have there. It’s in my book of 100 places to go around the world and I have this crazy goal of getting to all of them. We stopped for lunch once we got off the tram (I ate the sandwich I packed from the hostel) and then went to the Mosterio dos Jeronimos which was cool because it’s where Vasco de Gama is buried. Then we headed to the torre. When we first saw it, my first thought was “adorable”. It was just so stout and proud standing over the water. The whole area where the torre is is a park with food trucks and grass and music and vendors. You could spend a whole afternoon there. We got up to the gate to enter only to be told that we had missed the last entrance by FIVE MINUTES. It was a whole hour and a half (excuse me an hour and 25 minutes) before it closed. I was heartbroken. I started to play back all of the time we wasted at various points that day in my head but then realized that that wouldn’t do me any good. Sometimes things aren’t meant to be. I took pictures in front of it and reminded myself that I’d be coming back someday. Before heading back to the hostel be got the famous pastéis de Belém. They were good, but a bit eggy for me.

Our sweet ride
That night we did Mama’s dinner at the hostel which is where you sign up for this amazing home cooked dinner by “Mama” for 10 euros at the hostel. Our dinner was bread; carrot and ginger soup (1st course); pasta, bean and kale salad, stuffed tomatoes, and zucchini with toppings (2nd course/veggie option); wine; chocolate Pavlova and a bit of cake (dessert) all topped off with a bit of dessert wine. It was amazing. I’m just going to leave it at that. That night we also went on a pub crawl. I shouldn’t have gone, it’s just not really my thing. I was deciding between that and staying in and socializing at the hostel bar. I didn’t have fun but “es lo que hay”.

On Sunday morning I got up early and rode the famous tram 28 around for a bit and went to find the oldest bookstore in the world- Livraria Bertand. Honestly it was a bit underwhelming. If I owned that store it would be much cooler, maybe make it look more original? It would at least have more than a little certificate. We checked out after breakfast and took the metro to the Gulbenkian museum. It was amazing. It was a private collection with everything from Greek and Roman artifacts to 20th century French art. It was the perfect size, it took just over an hour to do and it was free because it was a Sunday! It was also a relaxing way to finish the trip. After a final Portuguese coffee we made it to the bus station just in time. I was nervous we wouldn’t be able to find it, but luckily our expert navigator, Bethany, got us where we were going one last time J The bus was much emptier on the way back so it was pretty relaxing. We ended up stopping one time and the rest stop had these weird bathrooms where it was only a hole in the ground. Weird, but surprisingly easy to use. One lady said that’s what they used to have all over Europe. We got to see the full moon rising which was pretty amazing, though I was glad when we got back home. It’s so strange that Sevilla is now “home”. I think it takes leaving and then returning to call a place your home. 

Other observations: I know they’re different but I got very frustrated at the Portuguese language, it’s so similar to Spanish, why can’t y’all just combine them!! (This is very unlike my language loving self but it’s crazy how similar they are). Traveling with other people has definite pros and cons, it’ll be interesting to compare this trip to my others. The best adventures happen when you don’t have a game plan. Don’t skimp on the sights, I probably didn’t need to pay to see the whole Pena Palace but going through it really completed the experience. Walking up to the castle was long but a great way to see the city and forest, I’m so glad we didn’t take the bus. Portugal is very rich in culture and history, it’s a shame that we tend to ignore it. Not only are they obsessed with sardines, but also codfish which they have to import form Norway…I don’t understand (legit it’s crazy, there are apparently 1,000 ways to cook codfish). There’s nothing as exciting as learning words in a new language and the people really appreciate it even if you can only say “thank you” (Obrigado/a).

Well, I think that’s that! I loved Lisbon and Sintra and could see myself spending a lot of time there!

P.S. Apparently there is a book/movie called "Night Train to Lisbon". It looks good, I'm investigating reading/watching it