Day 99: Day Trip to Segovia

Today we took a bus a couple hours to Segovia and enjoyed more Spanish landscape along the way.

It’s a beautiful little city with a number of highlights. The aqueduct is over 2000 years old and spans the entire city, all constructed without mortar.

View of the lower town from the top of the aqueduct

View of the lower town from the top of the aqueduct

The cathedral is stunning, with a mix of gothic and Moorish styles.

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The fortress had shiny roof tiles, perhaps zinc. Great views of the valley from here.

It’s such an enjoyable dry heat here, baking in the sun, but pleasant in the shade. We spent the afternoon in the park watching birds in the fountain, and birds of prey soaring overhead. A St. Bernard, undoubtedly sweltering, flopped down beside us and ate my sock.

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A bird nest on top of one of the towers.

A bird nest on top of one of the towers.

The whole city smells of flowers, and poppies are in bloom everywhere.  The buildings, tan, yellow and orange have various relief patterns in the stucco.

We declared it a pretty perfect little town.  The streets are the right scale, nice little shops, buildings with lots of detail, with just a touch of crumbleiness, and a smattering of accordion music. They also had the most amazing carousel, which I missed getting a picture of.  Every seat was different, from a dinosaur, to an octopus, to a spaceship.

Once back in Madrid we passed by the Mercado de San Miguel, a beautiful market hall built in 1916. It’s newly renovated with glazing on the exterior to lure you in with the delicious looking food inside.  We tried gazpacho and smoothies.

The area around our apartment is so lively, and always a little messy, looking and feeling like there was just a huge party that’s winding down, and all that remains are your close friends.

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Day 97 & 98: Melting in Madrid

I blame the heat, but we are in compete slo-mo mode since arriving in Madrid.  After a late sleep in and dawdling to leave the apartment, we hit the streets. We’re in a really great neighborhood, the lively buzz of the chatter greeting us at we stepped outside.

Community garden on our block.

Community garden on our block.

So many tiny adorable old ladies

So many tiny adorable old ladies

The city has done a lot over the past few years to shift the priority from cars to pedestrians. It was readily apparent as people flooded the streets as if was a car free day.  These weren’t official pedestrian streets, but the low volume of local traffic that passed through allowed them to serve that purpose on this busy Sunday.

There were a number of markets (one specifically for pet food) and craft sales.  We squeezed into the street that had the weekly El Rastro flea market and ambled along with the crowd for a few blocks.

Madrid is not lacking for great places to eat, drink and shop. We did a number of double takes as we wandered around, checking out menus and stores before finally settling on one great veggie one with tapas and soup. The menu del dia is government sanctioned, and all restaurants are required to have a well priced meal available for lunch.

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Sunday is free entry day at a number of museums, and being our thrifty selves we took advantage and visited two. First was the Reina Sofia, the gallery for 20th century art. These an amazing collection of Picasso and early Dali, and a Calder sculpture – my favourite!

Next we went to the Prado gallery, an awesome gallery that was like walking into an art history textbook. We had fun making up captions for all the portraits!

The next day we had a reservation for a jam-packed little vegan restaurant called Rayen.  It was worth the wait – 100% organic and savor-every-bite delicious.

We checked out the famous bear and strawberry tree statue, which is the city’s coat of arms.

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The afternoon was a nap in the Parquet del Retiro, a huge park that spans multiple city blocks.  We’re finally getting into this siesta thing.

Our only complaint is that what we’ve seen so far all looks more or less the same. One street leads to another without much sense of distinct neighbourhoods.

Day 96: Beach day at Miramar!

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On our last partial day in Portugal, we took a short trip out of Porto to the beach at Miramar. It was perfect! I loved every second of it and wish we could have spent more time here.

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We watched and listened to the waves crash on the shore, dipped our toes in the too cold water and saw fishermen in wet suits braving the waves as they stood on rocks in the ocean.

The rocks and seashells were so colourful and polished from the waves. We searched for our favourite, and then had the difficult task of only picking a few to take home so we didn’t weigh down our bags too much.

We returned to Porto in the afternoon with enough time to grab lunch and enjoy our last pasties de Nata before heading to the airport to catch our flight to Madrid.

Arg! Ryanair is frustrating.  The flight was delayed by about an hour, but no announcement was made, I think they just hoped that no one would notice they’d been standing in line for ages.

Once in Madrid, we got a taste of some of the Saturday night life as we navigated to our place on the late night trains.  Our place is great – excited to spend the next 5 days here, our last in Europe.

Day 94 & 95: Port in Porto

We were going into Porto expecting great things. Along the way, a number of people had said how much they enjoyed the city, and it was voted best European destination in 2014.  We have lukewarm feelings.  There are little pockets, and aspects that we loved, others that we hated.

We left Lisbon in the late morning and took a very smooth train trip and arrived in Porto in the late afternoon.

We settled in and then headed out for a wander and dinner. The city is quite small, but very hilly. It shares the same dilapidated “charm” as Lisbon, but it’s kept up a bit better in certain areas.

We stopped in the Gardens of the Crystal Palace, which had a great view of the city and the Douro River, and a peacock!

Our biggest beef with the city are the drivers and where they allow cars.  The combination of narrow sidewalks, taken up by parked cars, coupled with overly aggressive drivers you encounter when you are forced to walk in the street is a disaster.

The river is lined with tall, skinny, brightly tiled buildings with a promenade of shops on the upper and lower levels.  It’s a great space, and certainly one of the most popular destinations of the city, but it’s such a shame that cars are allowed here.

You know there's a problem when you need a speed indicator sign on a narrow cobbled street.

You know there’s a problem when you need a speed indicator sign on a narrow cobbled street.

We had dinner at a vegetarian restaurant that we visited a few times over the next few days. We had our first taste of port wine. It’s delicious and much sweeter than I expected.  We put a bottle of port in a wedding time capsule to drink in 25  years, and now I’m quite looking forward to it!

The next day as we explored, the sunshine brightened things up, and we warmed to the city a bit.  The cloudiness had accentuated the dinginess.

The train station

The train station

We visited a traditional open air market hall and tasted our first Pastiel de nata, a traditional Portuguese custard tart that is the most delicious thing imaginable.  Though we didn’t try them all, I can confidently say that the best in the city is from Nata Lisboa.

There are a number of pedestrian streets (at least during the day) lined with local shops, patios and full of people.

We took a walk over the Ponte Louis I, a spectacular bridge where you can walk along the top, right next to the tram. It’s the best lookout in the city.

This neighbourhood has been completely overgrown, but there's evidence of people living there.

This neighbourhood has been completely overgrown, but there’s evidence of people living there.

The south side if the river is primarily where the port cellars are located.  The names appear in large letter on top of the buildings. We enjoyed this side of the river for its view of the other side (would you rather live in the most beautiful house, or across from it?) and its quieter riverfront.

We headed back to the apartment for dinner and narrowly avoided a massive downpour.

The next day Darren and I spent our first day exploring on our own, over the whole trip! He had a turn with the camera, and I navigated.  It was strange to be wandering on our own, and when we happened to bump into each other earlier than planned, it was a pleasant surprise and we had so much to tell about our days.  We had both visited the famous bookstore Livraria Lello & Irmao, which supposed inspired J.K. Rowling.  It’s a fairly small shop, with it’s beautiful staircase and stained glass ceiling.

Darren noticed a pigeon invasion.

We enjoyed the narrow alleys and the unique Porto style street art. The colourful graphic pieces seen below were commonly found on filled in windows and doors.

This was a common sight, neighbours talking, sometimes across narrow streets.

It was a common sight to see neighbours talking, sometimes across narrow streets.

We tried the other varieties of port – white, ruby and tawny – at a tiny little bar with a few tables set up in the pedestrian street.  For dinner we tried the local food phenomenon called the francesinha, a loaded sandwich with cheese on top, smothered in tomatoy sauce.  As my dad would say we tried it twice, the first and last time.

Day 93: Sintra and the beach

The trains in Portugal are very impressive – very good frequency, very easy to get between places.

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We took a short trip to Sintra, a nearby town that seems to be a town of palaces.  There are 4 palaces here, each with a different architectural style. We only visited one – the Quintana de Regaleira, the summer palace of the Antonio Moneiro.

The palace itself is very whimsical, with odd carvings featuring wallabys, frogs and pigeons.  The ground floor had incredibley ornate tile flooring.

The landscape surrounding the palace has grottos,  tunnels and various lookout points.  From the lookout you are able to see the Moorish Castle and Sintra Pena palace.

View of the Moorish Castle

View of the Moorish Castle

The grounds have two “initiation wells” which aren’t actual wells, but used for initiation ritual.  Very strange, but very cool.

In the evening we took the train again to a nearby beach.  Not warm enough to swim, but beautiful.  We had an amazing Indian dinner in town to celebrate our anniversary – 8 years since our first date!

Day 90 – 92: Lisbon

This morning we took a 4 hour bus ride to Lisbon, Portugal, with a stop in Faro.  First impressions from the bus: Lisbon is huge, hilly and very decapitated.  We crossed over the bay on a Golden Gate-like bridge and saw the city rising up on the hills, and an incredible aqueduct.

We arrived at our place in the mid afternoon and headed out for groceries. The city is very strange and walking around, the first vibes weren’t great.  There is a serious problem with dog shit, you can hardly enjoy yourself as you have to be super vigilent to not step in a pile of crap.  An entire neighbourhood we passed through smelled like urine, the streets were relatively empty and we got the sense that people just didn’t care about the city. There’s good dilapidated,  which is fun to photograph, then there’s bad.  We were comparing to Budapest, which has its share of derelict buoldings, but has done something creative with the ruin bars.

In the evening we hiked up and down hills (there are seven in the city) to a vegetarian place for dinner. They have amazing fresh juices, and we sampled a few. The next day in the apartment, the ant problem that we had noticed the day before had become an ant crisis, and we decided to get out of there. We spent most of the day on the phone with Air Bnb (who were very helpful) and found a new place, which was a major upgrade.

The view from our window

The view from our window

The next morning we headed out with open minds, ready to explore Lisbon properly. We’ll admit it grew on us quite a bit, and we got some great picture of derelict doors – who doesn’t like that?

We headed to a block with a number of street art works, oddly nestled into the downtown, and surrounded by shiny new buildings. There were works by Blu and Os Gemeos.

There are old streetcars (mostly filled with tourists) that climb up the steep hills. Very photogenic. At times the sidewalks are so narrow (half a meter) and the streetcars so close that they nearly brush past you.

The iconic shot of the trams climbing the hill

The iconic shot of the trams climbing the hill

Many of the buildings are clad in beautifully patterned ceramics tiles. I don’t know if there was a heirarchy with the colours, but it seemed the nicer buildings had bluish tiles.

Some of the more well kept tiled buildings

Some of the more well kept tiled buildings

The Alfama and the Bairro Alto neighbourhoods were fun to explore.  There were narrow streets, steep steps, residents looking out doorways and windows, and balconies crowded with plants and laundry.

There was an event space in the “courtyard” left by partially demolished buildings with a great view of the city.

These pigeons were resting peacefully on the steps until Darren got there!

Here's another - because you can never have too many pigeon photos.

Here’s another – because you can never have too many pigeon photos.

It was an odd weather day, back and forth from full sun to pounding rain in a matter of minutes. We took shelter under bridges and tunnels and in little shops throughout the day. During a sunny stretch we were on a patio enjoying an amazing sangria with gooseberries and cinnamon.

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Day 89: Ronda, the town on a cliff

Today we took a bus to Ronda, about 2 hours away from Seville.  The landscape in Andalusia is rolling green hills, rows of olive trees and wildflowers growing along the side of the road.  These photos are tinted from the bus window, but oh well.

Towns of white stucco were nestled into the mountainside. The plan was to visit Sentinel de Bodegas, a town built into the rock of a mountain, but it was a fiesta day (don’t ask what for) and the bus schedules didn’t allow it. As a result we spent a little more time waiting in the bus station and cursing our lack of Spanish.

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Ronda is breathtaking. It looks like any other town, until you approach “the edge”. It’s built on a plateau about 100 meters above the surrounding fields, with a sheer rock face around the edge. An impressive bridge spans the river and connects the two sides of the town.  The people walking below were tiny specks.

In the afternoon we walked along the cliff walk, which follows along the edge for quite a distance offing the most amazing views.  It was pure magic.  The smell of sweet peas, the sound of a harp and unparalleled views.  There is a time and place for harp music, and this was definitely one of them.

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Due to the messed up bus schedule we had a lot of time to enjoy this city and didn’t arrive back in Sevilla until later in the evening.