Madrid: A Tale of Boos and Yays!

Boo: Waking up in Granada on Thursday morning and throwing up all the lovely Moroccan food I ate the night before.

Yay: Making it on time to the train station anyways and having a solid nap on the train.

Boo: Having to wait an hour and a half at the hostel before my friends from Canada (whose paths I was crossing in Madrid) arrive.

Yay: Meeting a man named Ricardo in the hostel lounge who speaks only Spanish and French and actually using my French to have a half-hour conversation with him, albeit a very limited one. (“Ne sont pas cher!” I exclaim as we look at his souvenirs, because I can’t remember the word for cheap. “Magnifique!”).

Boo: Still feeling too nauseaus to really eat dinner or enjoy walking around the city with my friends.

Yay: Eating dinner and walking around the city with my friends. It’s nice to have them there.

Boo: Waking up on Friday and throwing up again.

Yay: Free and very bland hostel breakfast that makes me feel much better.

Boo: The Spanish Civil War. It was very bloody and lots of people died on both sides.

Yay: Informative, educational, and enjoyable Spanish Civil War walking tour. Did you know that Madrid was the first city to be blitzed (that’s right, the Nazis tried out blitzing in Madrid BEFORE WWII)? You do now!

Boo: Madrid’s glaring lack of monuments to the Republican (i.e. non-fascist) victims of the Spanish Civil War (not surprising given the decades of Franco rule that followed, ending only with his natural death).

Tempe Debod, Madrid. Bigger inside, "Tardis effect".

Yay: The Egyptian Temple Debod, which is full of cool things like heiroglyphics. It is the only Egyptian monument to be gifted to a European country (as in, all that stuff in the British museums is STOLEN!), for Spain’s help in preserving Egyptian monuments during the building of the Aswan Dam.

Also Yay: Ice cream and row boats on the large pond in the Parque Buen Retiro. Also yay to singing Canadian sea shanties while rowing (such as “Farewell to Nova Scotia” and “I’se the B’y”) and my friend Kayleigh’s siren song, performed while lounging siren-like at the prow: “Come to me boys/ Come into my lair/ I love you so much/ La la la la la!/ These rocks aren’t very sharp at all/ They’re actually very rounded/ La la la laaa!”

Rowing ´round Buen Retiro

Boo: Still not feeling up for drinking while on tapas/Flamenco tour.

Yay: Having a great assortment of tapas (with chorizo and goat cheese and potatoes with garlic sauce and fried hollandaise balls) at a nice bar while on tapas tour, and then moving on to a Flamenco show.

Boo: Pillar that blocks my view at Flamenco bar.

Yay: Actually seeing a Flamenco show and NOT getting kicked out, and seeing a show with dancing this time! Feel the fire! Feel the passion! Let’s just say if everyone behaved the way these people dance all the time, the streets would be red with blood. Epic.

All in all, Friday was a great day in Madrid. And then, just as I am laying myself down to sleep……

BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO: Bedbugs! Ew ew ew! Crawling next to my pillow.

Yay: Checking out the very next morning (after checking my pjs for more bugs and finding none) and heading out to spend the next two nights in the Holiday Inn Express – Alcobenda. Luxury!

Boo: Me being too careless to write down the actual address of the Holiday Inn, or drawing us a map, or anything. Showing up at the metro station in Madrid’s equivalent of industrial South Burnaby with no idea where you’re going is silly indeed.

Yay: Helpful taxi driver who saw us wandering around being lost. He goes into a gas station, gets directions to the hotel, and takes us there. Gracias, senor!

Boo: LONG metro ride back the centre which means we will need to take an expensive cab back after Saturday night dancing.

Yay: Free afternoon at the Reina Sofia art gallery.

Boo: The destruction of Guernica and death of its citizens during the Spanish Civil War.

Yay: Picasso’s “Guernica” (it’s huge) and the preparatory sketches also on display at the Reina Sofia. The piece is full of movement and grief and, in comparison to some of his sketches, surprisingly subdued. He was searching for exactly the eyes, hands, tongue, etc. that would best show the horror of that night, and the exploration next to the final painting is very interesting.

Boo: Paying 20 euro admission at Club Kapital, where they throw away not only my water and juice at the door, but also my baguette, for some reason.

Yay: Dancing in a massive club in Madrid on a Saturday night, a club so big and crazy it has exotic dancers on a stage and a sound and light show that rates about as epic as a “Pirates of the Caribbean” film, and silver confetti, and seven floors, AND some kind of crazy machine that blasts the dance floor with ice cold air every once in a while that makes you think the world is ending but completely rejuvenates you for more dancing!

Boo: Realizing on Sunday that my shins hurt and I’m tired of walking.

Yay: Riding the Teleferic cable car over the city! Wheeeeeeeee!

Boo: The first rain I’ve seen my entire trip.

Yay: Getting to spend a lot of time indoors at the Prado (fine art gallery) where I enjoy the Titians and Goyas but mostly the painting known as “The Garden of Earthly Delights” by Bosch.

Boo: Final night in the awesome comfort that is the Holiday Inn and having to say good-bye to my friends while we continue our separate journeys.

Yay: Heading onwards to beautiful Barcelona! Stay tuned…

Granada: the Sierra Nevada and the Alhambra

As a lone traveller without a car, it can be very difficult at times to escape the trap of simply travelling from city to city to city without ever escaping into the countryside. My heroic attempts at hiking in the Serra da Estrela in Portugal had come to naught and although I knew that the Sierra Nevada mountain range rose up behind the city of Granada, I had no plans to visit it.

This is where the awesome organization at the Oasis Granada hostel comes in. On my very first night I saw that a trip to a thermal pool outside the city was running that evening for 12€ so I hopped aboard. I have no idea where exactly we went, or what the pool was called. All I know is that we bumped along unholy roads before being dropped off, in total darkness, at the pool. It was warm, the stars were bright, some nice folks from my hostel shared their beer with me, and I had an interesting and relaxing evening (my evening made more interesting by a group of men whose actions I will perhaps recount someday as The Tale of the Naked Frolicking Spaniards). Then it was back into the too-full van, back onto the unholy roads, and back to the hostel, where I discovered a layer of bright red clay now covered me and my bathing suit. In some ways, though I’m sure I was completely safe the whole time, the experience felt so weird I’m just glad we all returned unscathed.

Sierra Nevada, Spain

On Monday, on a whim, I decided to join up with a walking tour into the Sierra Nevada. I am so glad I did. Our guide took us on the bus to a little mountain village called Monachil and from there led us on a hike into the mountains, over wood and cable bridges, through a gorge, into a gorgeous valley with the red cliffs of the Sierra on all sides, and back again with a stop at a small waterfall. I’m glad I had good walking shoes because the hike was a little more intense than I had anticipated: crawling almost on my hands and knees under rocks, walking on an embankment so narrow that where the rock face hung over the trail there were handles put into the rock so you could lean back over the river and navigate around the rock without falling backwards. The landscape was impossibly rugged and wild and beautiful, with cacti, boulders, and a backdrop of blue sky everywhere you looked.

Such is the artistry of Mother Nature.

If you are interested in human artistry, Granada can certainly provide it in the palaces of the Alhambra, the city’s most famous landmark:

Oh. My. Stars. It was beautiful.

While the Alhambra and Generalife (garden) complex is actually huge, the most beautiful (and famous) parts of the site are the Nasrid Palaces. These are the parts you need to pay to see, and these are the parts you need to purchase a ticket for. If you want to purchase a ticket on the day you go, people begin to line up at 7am or so and the available tickets are usually gone shortly after the site opens. I did NOT line up at 7am, I paid the extra 2€ to book a ticket through my hostel (I could have saved a little booking on my own online but I would have needed to do that two weeks in advance).

Nasrid Palaces, Alhambra

I ended up spending almost five hours in the huge Alhambra complex and about 45 min in the Nasrid Palaces alone. These palaces are the location of some of Spain’s finest Islamic architecture (I’d make the leap and say it’s the finest but some people I met liked the Alcazar better). The attention to detail and the level of skill required to make something so intricate and so beautiful is absolutely mind-boggling, almost overwhelming, and truly has to be seen to be believed. My photos hardly do justice to the exceptional work of the artists who created these palaces.

The entire time I was wandering through the Alhambra I tried to imagine what it would have been like for the noble personages inhabiting these grounds: what it would be like if the Generalife gardens were mine for my own private enjoyment, how it would feel to be a commoner summoned to one of these palaces for an audience with royalty, how daunting (or perhaps excitingly challenging) the task of decorating and maintaining these spaces would have been. I wonder if any of those people had an inkling that one day, long after they were gone, these palaces would be here still, with thousands of people walking through these rooms daily, exclaiming at their beauty, taking photographs, writing blogs and postcards, and wondering.

Wall detail, Alhambra

Occupying Sevilla

Flamenco bar in Seville

When I arrived at my Seville hostel on Thursday afternoon, it was so hot (35 degrees!) that I decided not to do anything with myself until the evening (good call). I signed up for a little tapas and Flamenco tour being offered through the hostel and figured it would be a nice way to make something of my first evening in Seville and to meet people in my hostel.

Check and check. Seville is a tapas town, and although that evening was unfortunately the only time I actually “did the tapas thing” during my time there, I enjoyed my sangria and beer, as well as the two tapas I ordered (fried vegetables and, much to my eternal delight, fried camembert). The Flamenco was, unfortunately, fleeting. When we all packed ourselves into the tiny bar it was pretty obvious that it would be soley a Flamenco music show, as there was no space for any dancing. I knew I was too tired to last until the show ended at 3 am so I stood near the door (and the tiny bit of breeze that was wafting in) and prepared to enjoy the music.

I certainly did enjoy the music. The three musicians (two guitaristists and a man playing a drum) played and sang with love and their ability to project their voices in such a packed and acoustically poor space was incredible. I have no idea what they were singing about but their music provoked a longing feeling I often get when I listen to something that sounds beautiful and powerful and sad, even if I don’t understand the language.

What the tapas and Flamenco tour leader forgot to tell us, and what made my Flamenco experience “fleeting”, is that the owner of the bar would require us to buy a drink to be able to remain in the bar. That actually makes a lot of sense, but since I didn’t know, and since I was sort of standing all squished in at the back, I didn’t really feel like ordering a drink when she came by, so she kicked me out of the flamenco bar.

That’s right. I, Lauren Kresowaty, who has never been kicked out of anywhere in her life, was kicked out of a Sevillian Flamenco bar. Oh well. I tell myself I was about to leave soon anyways, and at least two of the girls standing near me ended up in the same predicament so we were all able to walk back to the hostel together (which was on the other side of the river). Absolutely sumptious raspberry gelato, which I found at a gelato bar still open after midnight, made everything better.

I only officially visited two tourist sites while in Seville. On Friday, I went to the Seville’s cathedral, and on Saturday, I visited the Real Alcazar, a huge palace and garden complex (sometimes referred to Seville’s answer to the Alhambra).

Cathedral, Seville

Perhaps the fact that I have visited so many cathedrals already coloured my feelings about Seville’s, but I feel that for an admission fee of 7,50€ (compared to other cathedrals so far which charged about 3€), something really ought to be pretty cool. Seville’s cathedral is impressive because it is very VERY big, and very rich. It also houses the remains of Christopher Columbus (although there are still many reasons to believe his remains are actually still in the Dominican somewhere).  For me, the most interesting part was the tower of the cathedral, which is actually a minaret left from on earlier mosque that had been on the same site. If you like cathedrals and haven’t already gotten sick of them, I think you may really enjoy Seville’s. If, however, cathedrals don’t really float your boat and/or you’ve already seen so many that it doesn’t impress you anymore, you may wish to take pictures of the impressive outside and give paying the 7,50€ admission fee a miss.

Another aspect of the cathedral you should also pass on are the women outside who will try to give you “rosemary” and read your palm. I unfortunately fell prey to this one and before I knew what was happening I had some green sprigs in my hand and was being told I’d have two children, and also that Santa Maria would now like me to give this woman 5€. I wasn’t into a confrontation so I gave her the 3€ that were in my pocket, but I wasn’t too happy about it. The fortune she told me was quite nice but I don’t trust her palmistry any more than her horticultural skills–the “rosemary” in my hand did not look or smell like rosemary, and I’m quite certain that it was just a clipping from a nearby hedge.

Islamic architecture, Real Alcazar, Seville

Saturday’s visit to the Real Alcazar was another slightly pricey affair but much more worth it to me. The palace complex is so large that even though I spent two hours within I don’t think I saw everything there was to see. My favourite parts were probably the Mudejar Palace (the section featuring the beautiful Islamic architecture) and the huge gardens. The gardens were complete with fountains, benches, a hedge maze, and peacocks. In fact, the gardens were so big that I almost forgot I was in the middle of a city. I guess it just goes to show that anyone can have the tranquility of country living in the city provided they have enough money and space.

It turns out that because the Alcazar gardens are so beautiful, it is a favourite spot for wedding photos in Seville. I saw five or six different newlywed couples wandering around the Alcazar, being followed by a photographer. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many brides in one day. It was kind of exciting to see so many people celebrating a special day in one place.

Aside from the major landmarks, the thing I actually loved most about Seville was the atmosphere. Although the city was almost intolerably hot (and therefore completely quiet) during the siesta hours, its evening life more than made up for it. As I was wandering through the streets at around 9 pm on a warm Friday evening, I found the city incredibly active, but also not at all busy. People were drinking and eating tapas in restaurants. Families were bringing their children into the squares and the kids were all over the place, skateboarding, playing on scooters, and chasing one another. While I was eating dinner in the Plaza Encarnacion, I watched a little boy practice kicking his soccer ball, completely intent on getting it over a concrete retaining wall and heedless of the passers by. I absorbed the activity all around me but still felt relaxed and centred as I enjoyed a beer with dinner.

Occupy Seville, Plaza Encarnacion

On Saturday night the square became even more active as the Occupy Wall Street movement found its way to Seville. I watched from the roof of the hostel as hundreds of people poured into the Plaza Encarnacion, dancing, drumming, blowing whistles, waving signs, cheering, singing. People at home asked me what the police presence was at the protest but as far as I can tell there wasn’t any. Occupy Seville was a completely positive experience, with families present and venders selling roasted nuts to the protesters.

My evening (and my time in Seville) ended with pizza in the Santa Cruz district with a Winnipegger I met in the hostel. We talked about travel, we talked about politics, but mostly, we talked about love.

And truly, what else is there to talk about on a warm night in Seville? Warm hearts and warm-blooded passion are all over the city and it was such a priviledge to stop trying to be such a rush-rush tourist for three days and simply drink it in.

Deserted: Nifty Goes to Faro

Since arriving in Portugal I don’t think I have seen a single cloud. Not one. This made it a very good idea to make Faro my last stop in Portugal. I’d heard about the long stretches of sand on the little islands that help make up the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, and I thought Faro sounded like the perfect place to slow down, hit the beach, relax, and maybe take a dip in the Atlantic.

Lagos, farther west of Faro but still in the Algarve region, is probably the most famous (and most touristy) of Portugal’s southern beach cities. From conversations I had at the hostel in Lisbon, and my own research, it sounded like by skipping Lagos I skipped a whole lot of beach, a whole lot of resort feel, and a whole lot of party. Fine by me. If I wanted only to drink and get a tan I’d go to an all-inclusive somewhere.

Despite being definitely more touristy than, say, Guarda, Faro does retain some Portuguese character. When I arrived yesterday I was mostly interested in the logistics of checking into my hostel and looking into boat trips to the Ilha Deserta for the next day, and had only the late afternoon for seeing the city itself, but what I saw of Faro’s centre was absolutely charming.

First stop, as usual, was Faro’s Se, which probably contained more gold paint than I have ever seen anywhere in my life. Best was probably the trip to the roof, which allows you a view of Old Faro’s rooftops, as well as a clear view out to the sea.

Da Silva's colourful tapestry all about Portugal's postal service

In order to get out of the afternoon heat, I then made a quick trip to Faro’s Museu Municipal, where I discovered the work of two contemporary Portuguese artists: Rosario da Silva and Faro artist Carlos Filipe Porfirio. I found their work colourful and whimsical, and, in the case of Porfirio, containing quite a bit of mystery. I didn’t really plan to see any contemporary art while in Portugal but I am quite glad I did.

Wednesday I awoke bright and early and after the usual spartan hostel breakfast I headed down to the pier to catch a ferry to the Ilha Deserta to spend the day.

Sand, sand, and sand on Ilha Deserta

By “deserta” they really do mean deserted. This little ilha is nothing but a narrow strip of soft white and coral-coloured sand. The north side has a pier, the middle has scrub bushes and a restaurant (with a WC–very important), and the south side has beach. That’s it. Beach. As far as the eye can see. It was beautiful. I kept giggling to myself because I really couldn’t believe my good luck, to be wiggling my toes in warm water and soft sand, and staring across a turquoise Atlantic. What a day!

I shelled out the 7€ to rent a sunbed from the restaurant for the day, and spent the next five hours lying in the sun, with a couple of dips into the beautifully clear, refreshing, and especially salty sea.

My big mistake was assuming, for some reason, that the sun in October would be at such an angle that I would not be sunburned, since I’d been wandering all over Portugal for a week and hadn’t been burned yet. MISTAKE. BIG BAD MISTAKE. I used sunscreen very sparingly that day, only on my nose and cheeks and the back of my neck really, and you can tell, because everything else is an angry red. In short, I have one of the worst sunburns of my adult life. I have now purchased a brand new bottle of sunscreen, which I am using LIBERALLY while I try to appease my poor burny skin.

Sunburn aside, I had one of the most relaxing days I’ve had in a long time. It’s amazing how much you can enjoy yourself on the beach when you’ve literally nothing to do but lie on a sunbed, cool yourself in the sea, and gaze at the sumptious view.

My day on the Ilha Deserta was a perfect way to end my time in Portugal. While it pains me (quite literally, at the moment) to say good-bye, new adventures await across the border to the east, and it is time to say adeus, Portugal, and obrigada, and greet my next destination with a hearty ¡Hola, Espana!

Lisbon and Evora: Old Cities, Old Streets, Old Bones

“I’m in Lisbon. I’m in Lisbon. I’m in Lisbon.”

This is what I had to keep telling myself after the man at the information desk at the Lisboa-Santa Apolon train station refused to grab me a map or help me once I arrived because he wasn’t the tourismo, and the tourismo was closed.

This is what I had to keep telling myself after I (clever me) figured out how to get from the train station to the Bairro Alto neighbourhood (where my hostel was) on the metro ALL BY MYSELF but, because I was looking at a flat little depiction in my Lonely Planet, did not realize my 20-minute hike from the metro to the hostel with my 40 lbs. of backpack would be almost exclusively uphill, or up stairs, in weather that was much MUCH hotter than it was when I left Guarda.

This is what I told myself when I checked into the hostel and realized all the other beds in my mixed dorm room were occupied by men and something got stuck in the door lock mechanism and I almost locked myself in the dormitory.

But hey, I was in Lisbon. And after a rocky start to the relationship, I eased into both the city and hostel life (lots of interesting people, drinks on the patio, a full moon for my last night). My only regret is that I did not stay longer.

On Sunday morning I set out on foot for the Alfama, Lisbon’s old Moorish district. My companion for the day was Ori, an Israeli life-coach who was also staying at my hostel and who, like me, was travelling for a month through Spain and Portugal (though he did Spain first). We got lost several times and wandered up and down through the twisting labyrinth of the district but the entire experience was enriched by our conversation. We discussed religion, politics, and world affairs, among other things, and I was particularly interested in hearing the Israeli side of the story regarding Israel’s boarding of the Gaza-bound flotilla last year. It was also interesting to be called upon to describe the Canadian viewpoint of these same events and others regarding that area of the world (as if there’s only one viewpoint, but I did my best).

Castelo de Sao Jorge, Lisbon

As tourists, Ori was most interested in the “points of view” (referred to as miradouros) from the high points of the city (it’s a very hilly city, so there are many), and I was interested particularly in the Castelo de Sao Jorge. It seemed a bit much to cough up the 7€ admission for the castelo (why oh WHY did I leave my student card at home?!), but once inside I did not regret it. The castelo is actually HUGE, and its outer walls contain not only the fortress itself, but also a museum, a garden, and restaurants. I was not all that interested in the museum (I saw enough old bronze swords and Iron Age loom weights in Guarda’s museum) but the sheer amount of battlements and towers open to the public (almost all of them) was enough to keep me entertained for a full hour, climbing up every staircase I saw, passing through every archway, and peering through every arrowslit. As I explained to Ori: ‘Nothing captures the imagination quite like a castle.’

Se, Evora

Yesterday’s day trip to Evora was also, well, plain old fun. I visited the medeival Se, of course (I’ve seen the Se in every Portuguese city I’ve visted so far) and the old Roman temple standing beside it. I peaked in at the Roman ruins contained within the Evora town hall, ate lunch in the square out front, walked along the Aqueduto da Agua de Prata (Aqueduct of Silver Water), and spent the siesta strolling through the Jardim Publico (public garden) and eating a pastel de nata (a sweet custard tart that Portugal is famous for). Not a terrible way to spend an afternoon.

Roman Temple, Evora

Something that was rather amusing about the university town of Evora is that I happened to visit just as the October semester was beginning and I got to see groups of freshmen undergoing a bit of hazing and public humiliation at the hands of their older peers. My favourites included the young man dressed as Miss Piggy forced to order at the cafe, and the group dressed as Crusaders and Turks, singing what seemed to be ABBA’s hit “Thank You for the Music” in Portuguese.

After siesta was over I visited the Igreja de Sao Francisco, but to be honest I was more creeped out by this church than uplifted spiritually. There comes a point when the more gold and statues you stuff into a place the less the incredible balance and heightened sense of tranquility created by the architecture can have its desired effect. I think the Igreja de Sao Francisco reached that point, and then some. But it’s still quite a sight, and I’m not surprised the Lonely Planet listed this church as Evora’s most well-known.

Bone Chapel, Evora

If I thought I was creeped out by the Igreja that was nothing compared to how I felt visiting the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) adjacent. That’s right, a chapel whose walls and ceiling were made completely of the bones of and skulls of long-gone Evora residents. Even though I felt really weird about it I paid the extra so that I could take photographs. The only way I can morally justify taking photos of people’s bones is the purpose of the chapel itself, emphasised by the inscription above the chapel door: “We whose bones are here, wait for yours”. This was a place built to remind us of the impermance of our lives, and the futility of our vain pursuits. The image is meant to be taken with you.

Even so, old bones. It’s just……creepy.

I’d hate to leave you with a startling mental image of your own mortality so instead I will leave you with a mental image of what I saw as I rode the train back into Lisbon: a full moon rising over red tile roofs, the Rio Tejo sparkling beneath, and a sense of heat and magic and colour breathing from the entire city. De nada.



Port in Porto and (Mis)adventures in Manteigas


Your favourite nifty traveller (that’s me, of course) arrived in Porto, Portugal, Tuesday evening and through the help of the internet, a map, and the kindness of strangers, managed to navigate the metro and the bus to reach the Porto Youth Hostel at around 9:00 pm. I scrounged up a towel (they don’t usually supply them to the dorms but I had my ways), called my TC to confirm that I had arrived safely from London, and fell into a deep sleep.

In case you are wondering about the Portal Youth Hostel (part of a Portuguese group of hostels called Pousada Juventude), it was clean and bright, the staff was helpful, and it had beds and showers. Otherwise it was pretty spartan. For the traveller on a budget it is a good place to stay, however, you need to bus 4km to get to the centre of Porto.

Porto Se, from the Torre dos Clerigos

Porto itself is a beautiful city. I unfortunately arrived in the centre during siesta (12:00 to approx. 2:00/2:30 pm daily) and on a national holiday, so several attractions I did not get to see because they were closed. I was able to go inside the large Se (cathedral) which dominates the Porto skyline, and to climb the Torre dos Clerigos, the large tower which allows a view of the city and also of the Se. I purchased a Porto card from the very helpful tourismo beside the Se, which provided me with free admission and discounts at main attractions, as well as free public transport in the 24 hours from validation of the card, but as many attractions were closed and I only needed to take the bus twice, I think I would have been better off to save my 8,50 euros and pay admission for the few attractions I visited.

Porto, from across the Rio Douro

Wasting my money aside, I am very glad I decided to continue my adventures from London in Porto. It is a beautiful place simply to walk around (I organized my journey so that I could take the bus to the top of the Ribeira district and walk down, towards the Rio Douro, and avoid too many uphill climbs). The Ribeira district, with its narrow cobblestone streets and tiled buildings snuggled closely together, is the reason I decided to visit Porto, and I was not disappointed. As per my Lonely Planet: Portugal‘s suggestion, I finished my little walking tour in the evening by walking across the Ponte de Dom Luis I to the other side of the Douro. There I found one of several waterfront restaurants where I could sit on a patio as the sun set and enjoy a nice glass of port.

Well, I wish I could say I enjoyed a nice glass of port. As it turns out, I do not like port. It is too sweet and too syrupy for me. But when in Porto…

Thursday morning  my 40 lbs. of bag and I boarded a bus to Guarda. I had intentions of visiting the Parque Naturel da Serra da Estrela, and Guarda is one of the small cities that borders the park. I had no problems with the bus, or with checking into the Residencia Filipe (recommended by my Lonely Planet and also by me…nice private room and bathroom, with breakfast, for less than I am paying for my Lisbon hostel). The minute I got into my room I washed my socks and underpants and hung them on a makeshift line stretching from the wardrobe to the bedpost. Clean laundry! Heaven.

That, however, is where my luck ended. The women in the Guarda tourismo were incredibly helpful, but there was nothing they could do to fix the following:

To hike in the Serra da Estrela, you must go to the town of Manteigas. Buses to Manteigas leave Guarda in the afternoon, but only go from Manteigas to Guarda in the morning. It is therefore impossible to take a day trip by bus. It was suggested that I go to Manteigas that afternoon and return the next day, but as my underpants were hanging wet on the line in the Residencia Filipe, I thought it would be a bit gauche to check out at that point. I could travel to Manteigas the next day (Friday) but as buses do not run from Manteigas on the weekend I’d be stuck until Monday.

In the end I decided to extend my stay in Guarda, bus to Manteigas Friday, make the most of an afternoon there, and swallow a 36 euro taxi fare to head back to Guarda after a lovely day of hiking (I needed to be in Guarda to catch the train on Saturday). What a great plan!

No. The bus to Manteigas was lovely, though I found myself fearing for life and limb as we navigated hairpin turns and narrow mountain roads, with a rock face on one side and steep cliffs on the other. Once in Manteigas it turned out to be–SIESTA! The tourismo was closed! My Lonely Plantet gave me no map! The town did not have signage to mark their hiking trails! I ate my lunch in the sun and waited for the tourismo to open. When it did, I almost cried when I realized the women in the office spoke no English. There were English maps, but although they listed the forty kinds of flora you might meet on your journey, the maps themselves were badly pixelated and did not tell you how to get to the start of the route (besides a land location: 40 degrees west, 700 m altitude, etc.). It also appeared as though you could not reach the start of these trails from town, you had to reach them by car. I suppose I could have taken a taxi to one of them, but at that point it was too late to start a 5km hike far from town when I wanted to return that afternoon.

It is then that I went outside and DID cry. To have gone all that way, and spent all that money and effort to see the Serra da Estrela and not be able to was very disappointing. I walked up and down the road a bit for an hour or so and did get a nice view of Manteigas and the valley below, and I suppose a small Portuguese mountain town is not a terrible place to spend an afternoon. But I had envisioned myself clambering over the granite boulders I had seen on the mountainside, buffeted by mountain winds and scorched by the heat of the sun in a cloudless Portuguese sky. Instead I was scorched on the sun on a small Portuguese mountain highway. Close, but no mountaintop for me.

Guarda, near the Se

My misadventures were caused by a lack of planning on my part and a lack of adequate information on the part of the Parque’s publicity department and tourismos and although it seemed silly to spend two nights in Guarda to see a park I didn’t see, I do not regret visiting the town at all. It was incredibly relaxing, and although I wasted a lot of time on misadventures, the centre was just small enough that there was plenty of time to see every single attraction Guarda had (the museum, the beautiful medieval Se, the judiaria, the towers, and the old town gate). I believe if I have a chance to return to Portugal in the winter, I would love to bring a car and skis, more money, and my TC and really see the Parque properly.

A note about the judiaria: during the time of the Spanish Inquisition, north eastern Portugal was one of the last holdouts against the Inquisitor zeal and many Jewish families fled to mountain towns like Guarda from Spain and southern Portugal. In the end, unfortunately, the Inquisition reached them even there, but the historic Jewish quarters remain. The small dilapidated buildings and narrow winding streets were one of my favourite finds in my explorations of Guarda.

Part of travelling is, of course, moving on, and as Saturday morning dawned bright and beautiful, I boarded a train for Lisbon, watched the landscape become flatter, the earth become pink (yes pink!) and then orange, felt the weather become warmer again, and readied myself for the adventures of NiftyNotCool to continue…

In case you’re wondering about me and the granite boulders, I saw some large ones beneath the Torre de Menagem in Guarda. I could have taken the stairs up to the tower like any old sucker, but not this gal. I climbed those boulders like a champion, and reached my mountaintop after all. 🙂

England: Punting, Picasso, and Mystery

Christchurch College, Oxford

After landing in London Gatwick on Saturday morning and dropping my bag off at my sister’s place, I was whisked away to Oxford on a double decker bus (and yes, I got to ride on the top!). London was experiencing the warmest beginning of October in probably ever, and with temperatures at 28ºC I couldn’t think of a nicer way to spend my first day in England than double-deckering it to Oxford and punting on the Thames.

Punt-boat Captain Lauren, at your service

For those who don’t know, ‘punting’ is the time-honoured tradition of sitting in a low, long, flat-bottomed boat and relaxing while someone who isn’t you pushes the craft along the river by pushing a long pole against the riverbed. ‘Punting’ can also be the time-honoured tradition of pushing a long pole against the riverbed while locomoting some lazy-bones passengers around the Thames in a flat-bottomed boat. For a jet-lagged traveller such as myself, it was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon (did I mention was also eating a cornish pasty and feeding the ducks?).

For the record, I did try actually punting, but it didn’t work out so well for me. I’d like to say I spent most of the time careening from one riverbank to the other, but in actual fact, I spent my entire poling experience careening into the same riverbank again and again. Sigh.

Compost-lovers, it’s your lucky day

Sunday was another hot day which my sister and I spent in Kew Gardens. Their star attraction right now seems to be some ‘aerial walkway’ that puts you ‘right in the canopy’, but to be honest, the tree-top adventure at the Capilano Suspension Bridge in North Vancouver really puts this one in its place and I wasn’t too impressed with it. What I was impressed with was almost half a square mile of garden space with pleasant walks, benches in the shade, water features, and the massive old-fashioned glass houses that house their tropical and temperate plant collections. Spending Sunday afternoon strolling the grounds in Kew Gardens felt like a very English thing to do and was very pleasant indeed.

Required tourist shot of Big Ben over the river

On Monday I decided to take some time to be a real tourist and take in London’s South Bank. I took a snap at the outside of Shakespeare’s Globe but at £12.50 admission I decided to head back to the Tate Modern where I could get in for free or by donation (encouraged). With eating and other attractions feeling so expensive in London, the fact that their galleries and museums are, for the most part, free or by donation is really helpful to the cash-strapped traveller. I popped £3 in the donation box at the Tate Modern because that’s what I had on me and wandered around the place for two hours. I don’t usually read the title cards/info beside the artwork but I did notice that I was looking at some Picassos, Matisses, and Jackson Pollocks. Just sitting there. On the wall. Y’know, there’s a Picasso. Oh look, there’s another. No biggie. It was pretty cool.

I also visited the Covent Garden marketplace and got my Punch & Judy fix at Benjamin Pollock’s Toy Shop. The shop is worth a look for their paper diaramas and reproductions of old stages, even if you’re not into buying anything.

That evening, my sister and I went to St. Martin´s Theatre and took in the Agatha Christie play, ‘The Mousetrap’. ‘The Mousetrap’ has been running in London for over 50 years and is, I believe, the longest-running play of all time. I would tell you more about the show but the audience is sworn to secrecy at the end of the play so that future audiences will enjoy the mystery for themselves. The play itself was rather delightful but it does leave me with artistic questions about the pros and cons of a show that runs for so long, in the same way. It does not seem as though there is much emphasis on reimagining or rediscovering the play or the characters. And how can there be? Even when the show moved to a different theatre, or had its entire set replaced, it did not miss a single performance. In a way, ‘The Mousetrap’ is more like a moving museum piece than a play. It’s funny, and enjoyable, and I do love a good-old-fashioned murder mystery. But it is a play that speaks to the world and the genre in which it was written, and not to me on a personal level. I’m not sure that I needed it to, though. I love tradition, and I love the idea of physically keeping a tradition alive on the stage.

As delightful as London was, unfortunately it was time to move on and yesterday I flew out to Porto, Portugal. Stories from Portugal to come.

Adventure stats:

Number of necessary items forgotten in Vancouver: 3

Number of above replaced: 1

Number of items lost on trip: 1

Up, up, and away! Nifty’s European Adventure

40 lbs of adventure in $300 worth of backpack!

I’m no stranger to European travel. I’ve lived in Latvia, Poland, and England (in addition to Canada) and travelled through many other countries besides. But never by myself. I’ve always had a family member with me (a parent, sibling, or cousin) and most of the planning was done by them.

I’m also no stranger to adventures, though most of them are in BC, the city, my neighbourhood, or in my own head.

Now it’s time to take the plunge and have my own big adventure in a faraway place. Ladies and gentleman, for the month of October, NiftyNotCool will be coming to you from Portugal and Spain. And I will be ALL BY MYSELF.

(Ironically, my Travelling Companion, TC, will be unable to accompany me on this journey. Such is the life of a freelancer.)

My mom and I were talking on the phone the other day about my preparations for my upcoming big adventure. My mom said, “Are you getting excited or are you just scared?” I said, “I’m scared.” And I am.

I’ve bought all sorts of gear for the trip (expensive travel backpack, Lonely Planets, etc.), likely a few things I don’t need, and I think somehow I feel comforted by having done this. As in, look at me. I’m ready for this. Look at my Money Belt. Look at my Not-too-heavy Jacket That Will Keep Out The Wind. Look at my Quick Drying Underpants For Easy On The Go Laundering. I’m capital “P” Prepared. I even remembered to get my tetanus booster.

But in actual fact I am capital “P” Petrified. When I see myself in my Keep Out The Wind Jacket and my Walking Sandals and my Hat With A Brim I see an impostor. “Hey there Girl With a Hat,” I think, “what makes YOU think you’re ready for this? Who are YOU to presume you can be an adventurer and go on a caper all by yourself?”

Portugal will be lovely. Spain will be beautiful. I will meet people in hostels, drink port (that’s the plan, anyways), immerse myself in Moorish architecture and natural wonders, take trains, and look at art. I will visit places whose names whisper like a sand-worn dream: Porto, Faro, Seville, Granada. I will probably get mixed up somewhere along the line, or lost, freak out, and wonder why I possibly thought I could do this.

And that’s why I’m going. Less than 24 hours now. I’m ready. I’m prepared. I can do this. Even if I have to stroke my expensive backpack and Quick Drying Underpants for assurance.