Friday, February 12, 2016

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon from the castle.Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, was the very last stop of our vacation. I guess we somehow expected it to be somewhat more along the lines of boring and underdeveloped being on the outskirts of Europe, especially seeing the signs of all that in Spain in many respects. But we were very pleasantly surprised when our expectations turned out to be all wrong. In fact Lisbon ended up being one of our favorite locations we have visited throughout this trip.

Bus station in Seville.Of course getting there was a whole other story. As I have possibly written before, we booked the plane tickets and hotels well in advance and left the planing of the logistics pretty much to the last minute, expecting that we’ll just book train tickets with ease online as we usually do. Were we wrong or what? Not only we couldn’t book anything online, but I was somewhat shocked to find out that there simply aren’t any trains running from Seville to Lisbon.

Entering Portugal.There were few options to solve the problem, but each one of them had quite a significant downside. In order to get there via a train we would have to backtrack to Madrid and catch an overnight train. And I typically tend to stress out on trips like that so I really prefer to travel during the middle of the day and spending nights and mornings at a hotel.

Streets of Lisbon.Another option was renting a car which would end up running us close to $600 and we would still have to spend hours upon hours driving. Third option was catching a plane for even more money.

Streets of Lisbon.And the very last option, option that we decided to go for, was taking a bus. The journey on the bus takes 8 hours. And on most days buses only go to Lisbon overnight. Meaning that there was no way we could get a good night of rest and then there is the above mentioned stress. Luckily for us since we had to travel on a weekend there was a day bus departing at about 3pm and arriving somewhere around 10pm. That’s what we did.

Streets of Lisbon.We got to the bus terminal at around 1:30pm since our tickets said that boarding would end 30 minutes ahead of the departure and our departure was at 2:30pm. Little did we know that they don’t really care for schedule in Spain. The actual boarding did start much closer to 3pm. Oh, well.

Streets of Lisbon.Our bus driver decided not to let anybody use the restroom either. I guess he didn’t want to deal with cleaning it. When somebody asked for it he asked to hold on a little bit. About 40 minutes later he did pull into some bus terminal and let people go. Luckily for us we didn’t really have to go on this trip, but it would sure suck if we did have to.

Alёna.On the positive side the bus had WiFi that actually worked. So we did play some Hearthstone and even managed to do a good quality video call with our family.

Streets of Lisbon.Nothing else noteworthy happened on the trip beside the fact that everyone had to have their passports inspected when crossing the Spain-Portugal border. I suppose that was somewhat new and was caused by the recent refugee crisis that Europe has been going through.

Our DoubleTree hotel.Upon arrival to our hotel we checked-in and got some recommendations for a nearby dinner place. The hotel itself turned out to be and ultra-modern kind. DoubleTree hotels tend to be that way from time to time. It had totally black hallways, a bathtub in the middle of the bedroom, practically no light in the restroom (who needs any light beside the glow of an iPad screen, right?), but it did have a nice balcony. Maybe they overdid it a bit on the hip side, but it was a really nice hotel nevertheless.

Lisbon.Back to dinner. We got a recommendation to visit a nearby place called À Parte Grill. It had a sister part on the other side of the street which was full on that night and both parts had pretty good ratings on TripAdvisor.

Streets of Lisbon.And what a place. This was probably the best dinner of our whole vacation. Everyone spoke English, the service was great, the food was great and this was the first time we ordered a sangria. Alёna didn’t really want to get one since she doesn’t like sweet wine (nor do I), but being in the region and not trying sangria would just be wrong.

Sangria.Imagine our surprise to find out that if done properly this was one of the best tasting alcoholic drinks that I have ever tried. Our negative predisposition to it came from the fact that we did try it before in New York and several times after our trip, but now I know that it wasn’t done properly. We liked it so much that we ordered another pitcher. It was really really good.

São Jorge Castle.One of our first day in Lisbon we decided to explore São Jorge Castle, a castle built in the 11th century upon what seems to be the biggest hill in Lisbon. We decided take the shortest route from our hotel (2 mile walk) which would give us a chance to experience the views of the city within.

Tiled buildings.The things that stood out the most were all the sidewalk that were made out of stones and lots and lots of buildings which were covered by various colorful tiles.

Lisbon trams.On our walk to the castle we also noticed colorful trams scurrying around the city. I kept taking photographs of the trams, but I don’t think I ended up with a perfect one like I wanted to. Also by taking this route we went through some shady neighborhoods with shady elements, but overall the character of the city looked pretty new and interesting to our eyes.

Castle.The castle itself indeed looked like a castle and one could climb atop the walls and walk around. A lot of good views opened up on the city below, but the most interesting side — looking toward the water and the bridge had a sun shinning right into the lens. After wandering around the castle for a while we kept walking in the same direction as to the castle and eventually ended up near the water.

At the castle.The tiny little cozy streets were littered with little restaurants. We ate lunch at a place that ended up being more of a chain than a private restaurant, which was a mistake, but we corrected it the next day by preparing before hand with TripAdvisor. And after lunch we kept walking through the streets.

Streets of Lisboa.One weird aside about Lisbon — numerous people tried to sell hashish to us. All over the place right in the open. Sunglasses? Marijuana? Hashish? Strange.

Full store of sardines.Back to our day. Eventually we came upon a store that specializes in canned sardines. Apparently sardines are a big deal in Portugal. And we thought that those cans would make for a nice souvenir for ourselves and for our parents. By now most of these have been eaten, but it’s a much better thing to bring that some useless trinket that will stand on a shelf collecting dust until eventually being thrown out.

On our way to the castle.That’s pretty much was our first day. In the evening we decided to try the 2nd part of À Parte and were sad to discover that both of them are closed on Mondays.

Streets of Lisboa.The next best thing that TripAdvisor led us to was a restaurant called Viva Lisboa which was located inside a hotel. And typically hotels have overpriced restaurants with mediocre food, but this one turned out to be amazing. The was yet again extremely tasty.

View from the top of the castle.And sangria that we drank a pitcher of was also amazing. I think I’ve ended up being drunk for hours after we were done. I’m glad we made it to our hotel OK. It was really good.

Lisbon.Our second day was even simpler. We headed out towards the central streets taking a different route. This day was more like walking around central streets of Manhattan (without the skyscrapers) and stopping by some 5th Avenue-like stores, doing a bit of shopping.

One of the central streets.We also came up with a decent present for Arosha. We got him an official Euro 2016 soccer ball made by Adidas. We ate a tasty lunch at a nice place. Then we tried traditional Portuguese pastries called natas at some coffee shop and we just enjoyed the day.

Streets of Lisboa.In the evening we did make it to a second part of À Parte, but it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. I think our waiter was not very good and turns out it’s a big factor.

More trams.And that was it. Portugal was great. Lisbon was one of our last stops and it ended up being a pleasant and memorable one.

And some more trams.
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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Spain & Portugal

Spain, PortugalAt the very end of September we have booked ourselves a new vacation to Spain and a little bit of Portugal. This one is just for Alёna and myself. Alёna’s mom and my parents are going to look after the kids. The plan is again simple — Barcelona, Madrid, Seville in Spain and we finish our vacation off in Lisbon of Portugal.

Right after we booked our hotels and our flights we left things off for a bit. All the hotels are Hilton’s as always except for Madrid where there was no conveniently located one. We assumed we’ll just book trains later on. Imagine my surprise to find out that there are no trains running between Seville and Lisbon. Shock even.

We were left with three options — rent a car for an insane amounts of money, fly, or take an overnight bus. Overnight bus was the cheapest bus, but it would ruin the next day because of a lack of good sleep. Luckily for us because we had to get to Lisbon on Saturday there was an extra trip available throughout the day. Of course the bus will take over 6 hours. Far from stellar, but decent enough of an option.

We fly1 to Barcelona directly from JFK leaving on the evening of November 19th. And we fly back from Lisbon with one change of plane. Both flights are serviced by Delta. I want to write down the highlights of the trip for each city so we could use it as a bit of guide for ourselves.

We arrive to Barcelona on the 20th. We’ll be staying2 here for 3 nights. The points that we want to visit are Catedral de Barcelona and the Gothic Quarter (Barri Gòtic); La Sagrada Família and Parc Güell. Everything I read about Las Ramblas scares me. We’ll have to figure out public transportation as our hotel is not as close to all these locations this time.

On the 23rd (our anniversary) we’re taking a train to Madrid. We’ll be staying3 here for only 2 nights. On the first day we want to walk through Plaza Santa Ana, Puerto del Sol and Plaza Mayor. We also have to find an interesting place for our anniversary dinner. On the second day we could possibly take a side trip to Toledo.

On the 25th we take a train to Seville where we are going to be staying4 for 3 nights. We plan to see Catedral de Sevilla, Alcázar and climb Giralda Tower. Apparently portions of the 5th season of Game of Thrones was filmed at Alcázar.

And on the 28th we take a BUS which takes approximately 8 hours to get to Lisbon. As I said earlier, if I knew of this beforehand we would’ve probably excluded Lisbon altogether. We’ll be staying5 in Lisbon for 3 final nights of our vacation. We plan to visit Castelo de São Jorge among other things.

And that’s our plan. Looking forward to another memorable adventure. And all that starts tomorrow!

  1. Round trip tickets came out to $895 per person. []
  2. Hilton Barcelona — 90,000 points total. []
  3. AC Hotel Carlton Madrid — €248 in total. []
  4. Hilton Garden Inn Sevilla — 60,000 points total. []
  5. DoubleTree Lisbon — 90,996 points in total. []
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