Travel Diary - Day Four

On Wednesday I flew home from a 24-day solo trip to Lisbon, Porto, Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Seville, and Lisbon again. I'm blogging excerpts from the (slightly neurotic) travel diary I kept, and illustrating from memory the memorable and not-so-memorable meals I had...Start from the beginning here.

Day Four - Travel to Madrid

I'm heinously early for my Ryanair flight here at the Porto airport and I had no idea they were so strict about the size of your carry-on luggage. Great big warning signs saying "Your Luggage Must Fit or You Aren't Flying With It" and "Penalty Fees for Stowing Your Oversized Crap" are littered around the check-in desk AND at the gate where I'm currently installed. I'm completely overwhelmingly anxious, convinced they're going to see my bag and tell me it's too big to fly. I'm trying to stay calm and not indulge the waking nightmare about having to obtain alternate travel from Porto to Madrid. The brain sometimes gets going without my full consent, you know?

These clouds out the window are so complex and layered, like sheets of cotton candy being pulled apart, or thick doughy white bread that baked with millions of air bubbles. Many wispy strata are visible down and down and down...I hope that I never get tired of looking at clouds from above.
I had a pretty hilarious experience boarding the plane (avec luggage, I'm happy to report - complete false alarm). As Ryanair is everyone's favourite budget airline, they make you walk across the open and unprotected tarmac to get to the staircar parked at the plane's doors, and of course that's exactly when the skies just open up and let loose on us. We're all, of course, dressed for an indoor plane ride, and our umbrellas are all safely packed away at the bottom of our carry-ons. I guess saving on covered walkways is just another way Ryanair can bring us flights for 10 Euros. Thankfully, there does come a point when you just can't get any wetter, and then it actually, strangely, becomes fun. You give in. You accept. You wait at the top of the stairs, buffeted but smiling, and when you eventually get to your seat it doesn't matter that you're dripping, because the person beside you is dripping.
Oy, well I'm still damp. But I forgot about the time change into Spain so my flight magically just got one hour shorter. Huzzah!

After that incredible airport experience, the bad sleep the night before in the hostel and the frustrations of Porto, I found my way to Agustina's apartment in Madrid and I found her extremely nice and non-English-speaking sister. (Note: I rented a room in this apartment from Agustina's AirBnB listing for my stay in Madrid, and it just happened that Agustina was actually out of the city for the weekend that I was there. Hence the sister.) She let me into the apartment and I very nearly cried.

A bedroom, a bathroom to myself - and not only that, but a living room! What, a kitchen too? I stood in the middle of the living room (a couch? Oh WOW) and raised my arms in victory. One hot shower later and I was ready...for bed. Even though I promised myself I would just nap for a bit and then go out for dinner, I guess the physical and mental toll of walking all day and navigating somewhere new
all of the time just got to me, so that when I woke up at 7pm I promply fell back asleep until 9:45pm.


And then I declared defeat. Into my pyjamas I went and slept until 9 the next morning. I sent apologies to my very empty and very protesting stomach, and got ready to explore the city.

Porto, home of the Francesinha. And, uh, Port.

On Wednesday I flew home from a 24-day solo trip to Lisbon, Porto, Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Seville, and Lisbon again. I'm blogging excerpts from the (slightly neurotic) travel diary I kept, and illustrating from memory the very memorable meals I had...Start from the beginning here.

Day Three - Porto

So, now to Porto on a rainy and very foggy bus ride. Helpful people found me the right bus, the right seat (you'd think I'd never taken a bus before). The older man beside me, even though we early in the ride established that neither of us could speak the other's language, he loved to point out the rain and the fog as we drove north. At least I hope that's what he was doing, because I did a lot of agreeing head nods and other body language.
But, oh, I got horribly, horribly lost in Porto. That kind of directionless, even-though-I'm-looking-at-a-map-I-have-no-idea-where-I-am kind of lost. I circled, I went up and down several hills, I went back to start all over again from the bus station, all with my little rolling suitcase bumping along the uneven surface behind me. Why did I choose a hostel so far away from the bus station? So far along the hilly streets and tiny alleyways, and up sixteen flights of wet, stone steps? (The hostel's name "Steps House didn't clue me in?) How do people live in a city at angles like this? I feel seasick just walking around the corner. My feet are so tired that I may have to give up the dream of a port tasting. I must remind myself never again to only book one night in a city. AND there's a dog inside this cafe where I'm hiding from the Porto rain. What is going on?

Ok, so yes in the end on the Port tasting, and yes I'm glad I did it. Walking across the Ponte Dom Luis I was pretty fantastic. The tour of the winery itself was fine even though all we saw were some infographic panels about the Douro region and its soil. The guide definitely killed any romantic notions by a) telling us the winery had recently been bought by a huge Port conglomerate and b) due to floods and fires the building was almost completely newly renovated. The fermenting cellar and some of the casks were originals, I think, and the guide showed us the line on the stone wall to where the water had risen, and also how they had had to tie down these enormous casks to keep them from floating away. And, of course, the Port itself: we tried a white and a tawny, which were both sweeter than syrup and yet I managed to empty both glasses. When in Porto, I say...

For dinner I decided I had to try the infamous Porto Francesinha sandwich. In Portuguese, the name apparently means "little French girl" and I believe it's a soggy take on the French Croque Monsieur. So after two hours of wandering up and down the near-vertical streets not being able to choose a restaurant, I finally, finally settled on this sort-of campus pub with a large English (and French, and German) section of menu, long communal wood tables, and a very jaunty nautical theme. The sandwich was nothing like I had imagined - thick slices of ham (I think) and other kinds of meat (I think) between two slices of white bread, slathered in mild cheese and floating in a bowl of salty tomato-beer sauce. The first few bites were delicious (in that sodium-overload kind of way) but I couldn't finish it.

(Cross-section of my dinner)

To be honest I haven't fallen in love with Porto, though the weather certainly hasn't helped. I wonder, too, for a homebody like me, if I could really, truly fall in love with a city when I'm living without a home base. It's like I need some home time to truly appreciate being out. Isn't that lame? That's a bit lame. Well, no offense, Porto, but I'm looking forward to having a room to myself in Madrid.

Oh, oh, and remember that time this afternoon when the plain-clothes Policeman stopped me, pulled out his badge, to tell me in Portuguese that I should always keep my bag zipped shut? Yeah, that was awesome.

Travel Diary Day Two - Lisbon

On Wednesday I flew home from a 24-day solo trip to Lisbon, Porto, Madrid, Barcelona, San Sebastian, Bilbao, Seville, and Lisbon again. I'm blogging excerpts from the (slightly neurotic) travel diary I kept, and illustrating from memory the very memorable meals I had...Start from the beginning here.

Day Two: Lisbon

Woke up this morning with a slightly puffy eye but I don't really feel like doing anything about it. Haven't caught anybody giving me strange stares yet so I think it just makes me look very tired. Guess I'll know in a day or two if it's a full-blown infection, which is pretty exciting for my second day overseas.

I've decided to really treat myself on this trip and sleep in whenever I can. Today I made it all the way to 9:30am (apparently it's working really well.)

After my comment yesterday about Lisbon's appearance I feel badly that I forgot one image of beauty: the white mosaic-ed pedestrian streets, white light, Christmas lights strung up above and smoke from the street vendors rising in great clouds. Another thing that was beautiful was after not being able to find somewhere to eat*, coming back to the hostel and being offered a hot bowl of buttery soup.
*(I need to interject something here: I don't speak Portuguese or Spanish, and though I learned a few words before I left - and eventually learned to order a whole meal in Spanish - having difficulty choosing the "perfect" restaurant is a recurring theme in the trip. Even though almost everywhere I went there was someone who spoke perfect English, I put a lot of pressure on myself to try to not come across as a "stupid North American tourist" and so there was more than one occasion where I actually chose to eat at a place where I could simply say "Bom dia," point at what I wanted, and "Obrigada" instead of having to resort to speaking English. Is that crazy? The answer is definitely yes. But the good news is I loosened up eventually, waiters were more than usually kind, and I let myself off the hook. But that's later, and this is now, hence "not being able to find somewhere to eat." Anyway, back to the diary.)

I'm having "uma bica" (espresso) in a delightful glass-walled cafe in Praca do Principe Real - escaping a quick rainstorm by accident - and gazing over the garden, which reminds me of the park I saw yesterday up in Bairro Alto with crowing roosters, giant black ducks, and a peacock all roaming freely. And that statue with marble slabs engraved with thanks to doctors (I think) for either saving their family members or for trying their best...

Sun's back out at the moment - I guess I should try to make a run for it.


To cap off the end of the day - I got horribly lost trying to make it up to Centre do Arte Moderna only to find out they were inbetween exhibits. Very exciting that was. So I went home for a nap - oh, no wait, first a zip down into Baixa/Chiado to the contemporary art gallery there to see a Portuguese painter whose name I have subsequently forgotten (it was Columbano). Turn of the 20th century portraits of Portuguese bourgeoisie, nice and moody and dark.

Oh, god, no before that I had lunch in another park, watching the ducks. What a strange cafeteria that was, following the curve of a man-made pond. The ducks liked it, and so did I. Managed to order a quiche that tasted a little like it might have had Cheez Whiz as one of its ingredients but I was so pleased that I ordered it correctly that it tasted delicious.

So after lunch then I had a Modern Art Fail and then Modern Art Success. Ok, back on track.

So, to the nap. Afterwards, chatted briefly with one of my hostel roommates over some truly terrible instant coffee. She, it turns out, is a professor from Kazakhstan here in Lisbon taking an English test (go figure) and she talked about how sometimes she notices that students who did really well in school weren't always the ones who really succeeded outside of it. The ones who made mistakes, who didn't do well on tests - those were the ones who sometimes ended up in the CEO positions. Her theory was that these particular people had to learn all kinds of different ways to get where they wanted to go, whereas grade A students knew only how to follow the one path. As someone who did really well in school and who is definitely not in a CEO position, I found myself agreeing.

The big joy of the evening though was fado at Esquina d'Alfama. I tried to get to A Baiuca like my friend Sean suggested but for whatever reason it was closed. But this place was great: it seemed like a little family-run place (whether that's true or just part of the show I'll never know). But it was just one room with seating for maybe 30 people, and the singers and guitarists played in a tiny space at the centre. There's no talking during the fado, but I don't know why you'd want to.

I tried "bacalhau a Braz" - salted cod with rice and onions and so, so buttery and my own 1/2 bottle of red wine - which may have enhanced the experience just a bit - but the men! in suits just so! And the women with their black fringed shawls, between making cappuccinos they took the floor and sang! Oh, the songs...and Ricardo who leaned against the tiled wall like his heart was breaking. And Maria with the red hair and smoky voice. And the guitarist who wished me a good meal and a pleasant evening. And my waiter who slipped off his apron when no one was looking and donned his suit jacket to sing the final songs of the evening. What a great experience.

Travel Diary - Day One - Lisbon

Yesterday I flew home after 24 days in various cities by myself in Portugal and Spain. It was a wonderful trip: I walked, I wrote, and I ate, ate, ate. And though I came home with over 900 photographs of buildings, the food I ate went woefully undocumented. So I've decided to post selected entries from the travel diary that I kept throughout the trip and to illustrate the food: the good, the bad, and definitely the ugly (squid stuffed with hake, anyone?). Enjoy, or should I say: Bon Appetit?

Day One: Lisbon

It was a nerve-wracking check-in on the Toronto end of things, not enough staff at the counter, a huge line, and just getting to my gate as the boarding started, but a very smooth flight. Not sure whose great irony it was to play Eat Pray Love on the flight, and I tried to resist drawing similarities between what Elizabeth Gilbert was doing and what I am about to do (not looking for my spiritual side in Spain, for instance) but darned if I didn't cry. Twice. Stupid watching-people-cry-on-film-inducing-tears reflex. That's what I'm telling myself, anyway.

As usual I've walked too much on my first day, and I've got blisters on the soles of my feet. But, tram ride to Belem, Pasteis de Belem (albeit shoved up to the counter when I didn't understand what the Portuguese man was saying - turns out he was saying "you go first") and 2 pasteis nata that were so creamy and flaky and warm.

When you get them "to go" they throw them in a bag or tube along with packets of cinnamon and icing sugar, but I wolfed them down au naturel as I wandered towards the contemporary art centre. Then I had to clean my coat and scarf from all the of the flakes of pastry, get my ticket and enjoy the art: some great quick pencil landscapes, photos of the Acores with President Bush's plane landing, and that freaky life-size human figure sitting in front of all those mirrors.

Lisbon is not exactly a beautiful town. It has its charming streets (especially when decked out in their Christmas finery) but a lot of it is peeling, covered in graffiti, or a bit squat. Tomorrow I should just take it easy - eat some more pastry - and fado!