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, December 30, 2015

General Observations and Barcelona

Streets of Barcelona.We’ve come back from yet another one of our European trips and I wanted to share (mostly with myself) some thoughts and impressions of our travels through Spain and a little bit of Portugal. I think it makes sense to go through some general thoughts and feelings at first and dive a little deeper into each city we have visited later on.

Overall the best part was just spending some “us” time with my wife. We love our kids dearly, but they are always a handful and it’s hard to really relax with them being around. During these fall vacations of ours we can really enjoy each other’s company while exploring new locations and cuisines of those locations. We can just wonder the streets of an unfamiliar city for hours upon hours. In fact during this particular trip we have averaged about 8 miles of walking per day, including the days when we took the trains from one city to the next.

La Rambla.Of course we have to say a huge thanks to our parents who stayed with our kids, allowing us to take the longest “alone” vacation since Arosha was born. We spent 3 nights in 3 cities and 2 nights in one city. On our previous vacation to Germany it was only 3 nights for 3 cities, meaning that we could have to drop Madrid from this trip — which frankly wouldn’t be a huge loss though.

Alёna’s mom stayed with Anюta and my dad took care of Arosha. My mom helped on both fronts, but she didn’t have to spend her own vacation on us. Again, we’re extremely grateful for having this opportunity to take some time for ourselves every year.

La Rambla.With respect to the cities we visited — Barcelona, Madrid, Seville and Lisbon — if I had to pick my favorite I would have a hard time choosing between Barcelona and Lisbon. I can easily pick my least favorite by far — Madrid. Seville also was very likable. But more on all of that later.

Spanish cuisine has surprised us. We have tried quite a number of places relying on some random choices or TripAdvisor ratings and various other guides and recommendation — which never failed us before — and ended up with a quite unremarkable impression of it all. Not that it was bad, it was just very unmemorable and not special as during our previews trips. Granted, it is possible that we in fact did end up with a bad selection of eateries, but nevertheless that’s what we have taken away from it all.

Streets of Barcelona.We did try numerous tapas, we tried paella and other things guides recommend. My most favorite entries from the tapas selection ended up being Ensaladilla Rusa and a selection of Iberian Acorn Ham (Jamón [xaˈmon] Ibérico) served on a bread with various tomato pastes.

As far as Ensaladilla Rusa goes — it turned out to be a dish commonly present on our holiday dinner tables at home — variations between what we call Olivier and Mimosa salads. For the Jamon — I was never really a big fan of these kind of food — but the Spanish version was quite tasty. And it really has very very little in common with the thing that is called ham in America.

Barcelona.Another surprising thing for us was a complete and utter lack of English in Spain. Nobody speaks it with very few exceptions. For example for our anniversary dinner we ended up in a highly rated places of Spanish Cuisine which didn’t have any menus in English. However we were provided with an English expert that would help us out with anything we needed. The only problem with that concept was the fact that this English expert’s English was only slightly better than my Spanish which is saying quite a lot — I don’t speak any Spanish.

At one time we tried to buy a bus pass which took about 15 minutes instead of 30 seconds. Or our lunch where we basically just somehow managed to get our waiter to pick four tapas for us. Portugal on the other hand was a complete opposite — everyone had great English — like every other European country we visited before. Or Japan.

Barcelona


Avinguda Diagona.Barcelona was the first stop of our trip. Our plane got in quite early and we were by our hotel at around 10am — way to early to normally get a room. But we haven’t slept for the most of the night and I got really motion sick (normally never happens) during the flight for some reason. Very luckily for us they saw our Diamond status with Hilton and gave us a nice room right away. That really saved the day for us. We took a two hour nap and decided to explore the city around the hotel — that actually helped me off walk off my motion sickness as well.

The hotel itself wasn’t exactly in the center, but it was located on a pretty big street called Avinguda Diagonal. We decided to walk towards the center as far as we would feel like. On a sidenote I’ve read through a number of guides of Barclona and for some reason all of them mentioned that you have to be real careful around another famous street called La Rambla because chances are you are going to get robed. So I was thinking to avoid that place altogether.

Streets of Barcelona. Not La Rambla.Funnily enough after talking quite far along Diagonal we saw another big street mostly closed off to traffic. There was a good number of people walking around and a whole bunch of open air restaurants in the middle of it. So we decided that it looked like a nice place to explore so we turned into it. After walking for a couple of blocks we noticed the name of the street. You guessed it, La Rambla.

And I have to say that not a single time throughout our whole trip we felt threatened or uncomfortable in any way. We walked through a lot of touristy places, used public transportation in multiple places and not a single time we didn’t feel as comfortable as we feel at home. So indeed, if you act with common sense nothing will happen. We kept our documents in Alёna steel mesh purse just in case, but I carried my cell phone in my front pocket — as I always do. We did see some people walking around with 1/3 of their phones sticking out of a back pocket — that’s like asking for it to be stolen. Anywhere.

Gothic district.Anyhow — we ended up at the old gothic district — one of the places that we planned to explore. So on the very first evening we saw the main cathedral of Barcelona — another one of our objectives. There was a number of street musicians playing Spanish music and it created a really nice, special atmosphere. We wondered around for quite a bit through the old tiny streets.

Barcelona Subway.It was already getting dark, and we were feeling pretty tired, so we decided to take subway back home. Luckily for as all of the stations are equipped with vending machines which could be operated in English. It was quite easy to figure out and we did easily get back to our hotel.

Streets of Barcelona.We ate our first Spanish dinner in a place right by our hotel called Piscolabis — not the best sounding name for Russian or even English speakers. What they had going for them was a menu with pictures for all the tapas. It was a decent dinner, but as I’ve said before — nothing really stood out. If after Japan or Italy we wanted to find good places specializing in those cuisines in Brooklyn we got no drive to find anything Spanish here.

On the roof at Park Güell.Another thing that stood out for us in Barcelona was how clean it was. A really pleasant city to walk through. It was also covered in Catalan flags. Felt very much like the good old US of A. We really do love our flag over here and so do Catalan people. After all, Catalonia did vote to split off from Spain in a very recent referendum. Not sure it’s going to go anywhere, but they sure do wish it.

Park Güell.On our second day we took a taxi to Park Güell. The most interesting part about this park was the fact that it was designed by Gaudi. Although you need to buy tickets to get into the architectural part of the park, the park itself is pretty big and has a lot of free zones. You can actually rise quite high above the city for some good views, but the sun was shining right in our faces, so no good pictures came out of that. And as far the the Gaudi buildings themselves — they are as visible from outside as they are from the inside for the gated section — as became apparent after we got in. So we’re not quite sure why we paid to get inside after all.

Inside Sagrada Familia.And from there we set course to Sagrada Família — a massive cathedral designed by Gaudi that is still under construction, but it is open to the public. The thing is that we’ve been to a lot of cathedrals all over Europe now. And most of them look very similar, especially inside. Sagrada Familia is nothing like any of them. Gaudi really was an architectural genius. We also had to buy tickets to get inside, but thanks to this being November, lines everywhere were quite short. Also we didn’t get a chance to get onto the top of the towers because the day was windy and they were closed off.

Sagrada Familia.And after that we set course to the gothic district again to wonder the old streets. We did a really nice dinner here this night — thank you TripAdvisor. We walked all the way over to the water with a huge monument to Columbus. Not everyone likes Columbus on this side of the pond, but they sure love him in Spain. And by this time we were spent. Over 10 miles of walking. We jumped onto a train again to get back home for our mandatory 12 hours of sleep.

On the roof at Casa Mila.One the last day of our stay in Barcelona with all our main goals met we decided to knock off a pair of other famous buildings designed by Gaudi. Both of them were located on the next street that runs in parallel to La Rumbla. It was less than a 2 mile walk from our hotel via Av. Diagonal and we had a full day ahead of us. Since it was a Sunday all the stores on Diagonal (lots and lots of fashion stores) were closed as in pretty much any other self respecting European country.

Casa Mila.The first of our two stops was Casa Mila also known as La Pedrera. It really does look like nothing else. We bought the tickets for the inside tour (no lines again) and were able to walk through the inner yards, get up to the roof and take a walk through an apartment-museum where all the old furniture was left in place. We asked our parents who traveled here with a tour group if they have been to the roof, but because of the group size these kinds of things are skipped often — they haven’t been up there.

Casa Batlló.A couple of blocks further was another famous Gaudi building — Casa Batlló. For this one we just sat on a bench in front of it resting our feet and admiring the structure. We decided not to go in inside of this one as one was enough for us. Seeing these in person though did bring up some distant memories. I’m sure I’ve seen it somewhere (pictures) before, I just didn’t really know what it was.

From the roof of Cathedral of Barcelona.And after that we proceed to walk to the same gothic district again. This time we ended up there earlier than previous days, so we decided to take a tour of the main cathedral. We went inside and to our surprise discovered that one could actually get up to the roof, which we did. We took some panoramic pictures and moved on.

Streets of Barcelona.We couldn’t really get an internet connection so we picked a place for our dinner at random. We decided to try some traditional Spanish Paella, but we didn’t make a good choice of a restaurant. It had the illusion of being full, but it turned out to be just one big family occupying several tables. When those people left we were left alone. Tapas were pretty stale and Paella was … not tasty. That was our first and last Paella try. Luckily we were able to fill up on good tapas back at the executive lounge of our Hilton.

Streets of Barcelona.And thus our Barcelona stay has concluded. On the next morning we checked out from our hotel, jumped into a taxi and asked for a drive to the main train station. Our next destination was Madrid.

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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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