Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Evora - town of secrets

Mr B prefers taking the scenic route rather than taking the autovia (motorway) which would have halved the time but also would have halved the fun! Instead we drove through interesting little towns and rolling rather dry countryside, spotting modern windmills and the occasional old windmill, for more than six hours, to reach the most delightful little medieval town of Evora. We found ourselves driving through extremely narrow winding cobbled streets within the city walls. It took a lot of narrow misses squeezing past walls you could reach out and touch and avoiding pedestrians. When we finally arrived at the hotel after a few hair raising moments the hotel receptionist told us in no uncertain terms that we were parked on a pedestrian only street and we should move the car. We did however want to carry our bags up the stairs to our room first. We had managed to fit overnight stuff into our smallest suitcase and Manuel (he reminded me of Manuel out of Faulty Towers) grabbed the bag and ran flat out up the stairs waving his arms in vague directions on the way indicating the breakfast bar, lounge etc. We were exhausted by his anxiety which appeared to be caused by our car being illegally parked outside for five minutes!

Evora has a population of 41,000 and seemed uncannily quiet apart from a few tourists and locals wandering about. We re-parked the car and explored the town. It was gorgeous, so many narrow little steep laneways, cobbles everywhere and inviting little doors indicating hidden treasues behind them. There were lots of squares full of quite busy restaurants but we opted for the one recommended by Manuel which proved to be an excellent choice. Our waiter, who didn't speak a word of English, was like a little bird twitching around and trying to be helpful. Dave had the recommended pork and clams dish while I opted for Portuguese style lamb chops which proved to be a fantastic choice as they were so tasty and juicy. I would love to know what secret spices went into that recipe.

Later we walked and walked exploring every nook and cranny. In one of the main squares there was a large number of brightly coloured fibreglass model pigs. Apparently there was a meeting of the pork community and all the pigs had been painted by different schools to welcome them. It was quite bizarre!

Next day we were looking forward to checking out all those mysterious shops only to find that it was a public holiday all over Europe for Corpus Christi so those doors remain a secret yet to be discovered. This public holiday also meant that a number of tourist spots were closed. However we were lucky to find that the Capela dos Ossos (Chapel of Bones) was well and truly open for viewing. Oh boy, what a gruesome place that was! A small room behind the altar has walls and columns lined with carefully arranged bones and skulls of about 5,000 people! An inscription over the entrance reads "We bones await yours". It was truly macabre. Oh and to complete the picture there were two hanging mummified corpses - mmmmm, yes delightful!

Near where we had parked the car there were some ruins of a Roman temple to explore and some lovely views. We did like Evora and were sorry we didn't have longer there to enable us to walk along the Aquaduct which is an 8km walk in one direction which could pose a problem at the other end - somewhere to consider in the future perhaps.

Next stop - The Algarve and some time to run!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Putting the Port in Portugal

Here in Porto, about 300km north of Lisbon, we are staying in the Grande Hotel Porto and it probably once was! The breakfast room/restaurant has a self playing grand piano and large ornate chandeliers. It also has proper French pastries- yummo! The hotel foyer is grandiose with floor length mirrors and long hallways. The bedrooms however are fairly basic, the shower leaks and the floors rumble and shake whenever someone walks in the corridor or next room. We are situated in the centre of the main pedestrianised shopping area which is a bit of a challenge! The parking building however was a piece of cake compared to Lisbon!!

With just two nights and one full day we filled every minute of it! We took a tourist bus and covered the whole city and the riverside beaches. Porto is an interesting city full of tiny narrow steep laneways, zigzag paths leading to nowhere, houses on the tumble down hillsides, soaring bell towers, buildings piled on top of one another, baroque churches and so many photo opportunities that my camera batteries ran out twice as I tried to capture the moments. Our bus tour took us through the old and newer parts of the city on both sides of the river.

In the morning we also visited the Majestic Cafe - plush and amazing but definitely overpriced for pretty average coffee and juice! We also stared in amazement inside the train station where the walls are covered in tiles telling stories of the history of Porto in pictures. We visited the fruit markets and were surprised at the brightly coloured "artificial" flowers on display for sale.

We spent an hour on a tour of the port wine cellars in Gaia (on the other side of the river) including sampling of course, and later enjoyed port on the rocks as we basked in the late afternoon sun and watched the tiny boats in the harbour beside the tumbling cliffs.There's nothing quite like drinking port in Portugal! Later we walked over the bridge and up the steep cobbled streets back to the hotel - a much needed workout before dinner!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Lisbon in five days!

Our first impression of Lisbon was its size. It seemed huge so we were surprised to read that it only has a population of 580,000. We crossed a really long bridge to arrive at our hotel where we stayed five nights. This included breakfast and very lumpy pillows!

Thursday 16th was Mr B's birthday and we decided to thoroughly explore the city. We went for a short run before brekkie up the street and into a nearby park where again we had to climb uphill. To make it easier both on the uphill and the downhill on the other side we ran across the path in zigzags which made it seem less steep. What we lacked in distance we made up for in degree of difficulty!

After brekkie we caught the underground train into town and headed for the No 28 tram. This goes to the suburb of Alfama - up a very very steep street. The views were picturesque and the ride was very exciting as we wound round the steep very narrow street so close to the edge that you could reach out and touch the walls of the shops as we rode past. The tram itself was very old, probably built in the early part of the 20th century, tiny and creaky but such fun. We rode on lots of trams that day stopping to admire the amazing views at the top of the world and peeking in cute little souvenir shops and marketplaces. We stopped for pastel de natas and found an elevator (Santa Justa) in the oddest place which took us straight up to another amazing lookout. Oh, so many photo opportunities!

We found a cafe recommended in our guide book, aptly named Cafe Vertigo. Here we enjoyed a lovely lunch and had fun watching people walk up, up, up the steep cobbled street outside. The cafe itself was fabulous with wooden panels, walls covered with old photos and a steep vertical staircase leading down to who knows where, although I saw a couple of staff disappear down there! Here in Lisbon there are cobbled pavements everywhere and you have to watch your footing as both of us have nearly tripped a few times on the uneven cobbles.I wonder how many people have fallen flat on their faces as some of the high heels that are worn look a little precarious and we have seen a few near misses (no pun intended)!

In the evening we found a delightful local restaurant for Mr B's birthday dinner. The service was fantastic and we thoroughly enjoyed the recommended fish and pork dishes and of course the vino!

On Friday we headed for Estoril to spend time at the beach. The wind blew and the breakers were big with a strong undertow but it was sheltered lying on the sand and fun to cool off in the ocean. It was a lovely way to spend some relaxing time today. However parking the car back in the hotel carpark was another story. With me directing and Mr B maneouvering - backwards, forwards, sideways and phew, finally success with a squeeze! Now we know why there are so many 'Smart' cars driving round Spain and Portugal (way to go speedyMiranda)! We do have narrow tight carpark buildings in some hotels in Oz but this carpark is simply ridiculous. No wonder they offered to park our car for us when we arrived! Since that experience we have stuck with the trains and trams!

In fact over the weekend that is exactly what we have been doing - exploring every part of Lisbon by every means of transport available. We even included another short steep run. We have discovered a green ticket available at the station which covers all travel on buses, trams, trains, elevators and cable cars for 24 hours. We had such fun catching trams to the end of the line, catching all the cable cars straight up the steep, narrow streets and down again. We found an elevator in the middle of the city that shot us straight up to an amazing lookout at the top. We found 'miradouro' (lookouts) in the most interesting places, had daily indulgences in pastries, freshly squeezed juice and coffee (not often up to much but a dash of sugar helps the bitter strong taste). We also caught one of those 'on and off' tourist buses to cover all the sights in more detail.

One of the highlights was our visit to Castelo de Sao Jorge which towers dramatically above Lisbon. The bus took us to the hill nearby and we walked up the steep cobbled streets to the castle. Every tower involved steep (and I do mean steep) narrow steps to reach the narrow edge around the turret. I have an unadulterated fear of heights but I determinedly plodded up those steps, gripping on to the sides of the walls with heart in mouth, to be rewarded by breathtaking views at the top - so worth the beating heart!

The visit was made complete when we returned to the bottom of the castle to find a full orchestral band singing and playing Fado music - it was amazing.

On Saturday we decided to sample Lisbon's exciting night life. We took the train to the city at about 10.30pm and went into the centre of the city where it was all happening! Every night club was buzzing and the narrow streets were wall to wall people. There was music, loud laughter, singing and bright lights everywhere. We found a very quaint cafe/bar to have a drink where the walls were covered in vintage art decor. It was fun to experience such a fun city at night. However, when we caught the train back to the hotel just before 1am the station was quiet and there were few party animals heading home that early!

This morning we managed to wriggle our car out of the carpark building without scraping any walls and drive about three hours north to Porto where we are staying a couple of nights. This is the second largest city in Portugal and after an explore we have noted that there are more very old trams here - what fun! Life continues to be an adventure.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Sad to leave Seductive Seville!

The flamenco dancing last Sunday night (13th) was truly amazing. The small room was full upstairs and down. We sat on chairs and were provided with a free drink as we watched (sangria for us - surprise, surprise)! There were two guitarists and three singers - all male, taking turns so that there were three on the stage at a time. They played and sang soulful music as a dancer came down the stairs and began to dance. We couldn't understand a word but the general gist ofi it seemed mournful and probably about unrequited love. There were two male dancers and four female. My favourites were one of the men, in a black suit and bright red shirt, who was absolutely amazing as he swirled round and round in dizzying circles and a woman performer who wore a white flamenco dress (maybe she was a bride) and a purple shawl with which she performed fantastic moves. She also seemed happier than the others! As a finale all the dancers, guitarists and singers came on the stage to perform together - fabulous!
Later we drank cava with yet another wonderful meal followed by an icecream at one of the many heladios.

Monday 14th was our last day in Seville and we went for a very long walk trying to cram in anything we might have missed seeing before. We also caught the tram to the end of the line and back again - a long bendy tram. It was fun. We had tapas and red wine for lunch and tapas and sangria for dinner! We find that if we choose three tapas each we get a good selection and for dessert we usually indulge in one scoop of icecream at the icecream shop!

On Tuesday morning Mr B collected our hired car, an Opel Astra, and we said a sad farewell to Seville, definitely our favourite place so far. We really loved its narrow winding cobbled paths, outdoor cafes, low flying bats (yes, bats flying so low we sometimes had to duck), delightful restaurants and little boutiques.

We headed for Faro in the Algarve in Portugal just after lunchtime. Wow, this was another gem. What a stunning place. The houses on the hillsides were whitewashed with orange roofs until we reached a new little area of condomoniums which were all different pastel colours - so pretty amongst all the white ones. We went for an explore and discovered a little cafe where I finally had a good coffee - wowee! The hotel where we stayed for one night was not quite up to the standard of the others and my sleep was not good with a lumpy pillow and airconditioning that was either too hot or too cold. However, breakfast was supplied and the delightful surroundings more than made up for it.

We have also discovered pastel de natas (Portuguese tarts) - oh wow, they are just to-die-for - melt-in-the mouth morsels of egg custard in very flaky pastry with a crispy top - divine! Before leaving Faro we walked through the marketplace to check out all the different varieties of seafood, fruit and veges etc. After packing up we headed for Praia da Gale, a fantastic beach near Albufeira. Here we both had a swim in the Atlantic Ocean. It was cool and refreshing and just lovely to find such a beautiful spot for a break on the drive to Lisbon, where we are staying for the next five nights.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sunny Seville - it doesn't get better than this!

Have I died and gone to heaven? We arrived in Seville at about 4pm on Friday and checked into yet another amazing hotel. Every place we have stayed has been fantastic and very reasonably priced. This hotel doesn't include breakfast so we went to the nearest Supermercado to stock up on fresh strawberries, bananas and yoghurts which is our usual brekkie in Spain. In the late morning we often buy a pastry and I keep on trying coffee in the desperate hope that one day I will find a good one!! It hasn't happened yet unfortunately but at least the milk has been real since leaving Barcelona.

We walked through the busy shops and narrow streets and totally fell in love with Seville. It is pretty, quaint and full of atmosphere. There are even trams here and a band was playing as the musicians walked along the streets all dressed in white. We managed to become quite lost as we wound in and out through a maze of narrow streets, each one confusing us more, especially when the signs back to the hotel pointed straight ahead but the directions stopped when we faced a choice of several more narrow streets going in a number of different directions - all part of the experience and eventually we found our way.

There are cafes everywhere and the shop windows are amazing. We chose a restaurant to eat outside at 10pm. It was still light and people were still arriving to eat. We chose a selection of tapas and had a great meal with a very palatable bottle of white. We seem to have quickly become accustomed to eating lunch at about 2pm and dinner after 9.30pm just like the locals. We go to bed very late at night and sleep well. It is definitely a different lifestyle which we enjoy while on holiday. Oh and I made a discovery after dinner tonight. I ordered my coffee with Baileys and have decided that this must be the only way to enjoy my coffee. It went down very easily indeed!

The temperature in Seville is several degrees warmer than where we have been up to now and we will have to rise early in order to run before it is too hot.

Saturday 11 June
Rising early didn't happen today and after brekkie we headed out to explore the local area and peruse the absoutely gorgeous shops including a limitless supply of shoe shops. We love the fact that the shops all face the streets and we can be outside instead of enclosed in a mall. The sun was hot and we wore as little as was decent. We found the flamenco venue recommended in our guide book and have booked tickets for tomorrow night. We also found the "shoe street" of Seville and just couldn't believe the amazing window displays everywhere. When everything closed for siesta we headed to an outdoor cafe for a light lunch as we soaked in the atmosphere. This is a wonderful part of Spain.

In the early evening we continued to explore the delightful little alleyways, sometimes managing to peep behind grilled gates to the tree-lined courtyards beyond. As we walked past the town hall we found we were in the middle of a demonstration. We assume that it was regarding unemployment which is currently at 22% in Spain and everywhere we have been there have been tents erected and banners requesting improvements of conditions in Spain. This demonstration could have been a celebration of a footy win. There was loud singing and cheering and chanting. There were police everywhere and banners and lots and lots of people of all ages. It was quite exciting but we did stay to the edge so as not to be drawn into the crazy crowd.

We ate at a local restaurant after 10pm and had a fantastic meal. Mine included the most beautiful grilled veges with large flat mushrooms, zucchinis, green asaparagus this time and tomatoes. We chose a bottle of cava (sparkling light white wine) with our meal and it was beautiful. Dave had oxtails which are a speciality here. It was well after midnight when we wandered back to the hotel. It doesn't even become dark until nearly 10pm here.

Sunday 12 June
The goal was to wake early which I sort of did but then fell back to sleep as is easy to do in the darkened room. The only reason I woke before 9am was that the cleaners were rattling around in the corridor. This meant it was after 9am before we headed out for a run in the heat of the sun. In fact it was 28deg at that stage and the temperature has been climbing all day. We ran through the local park and across the road through the next park and over two bridges before heading back. It was hot but it felt so good to run. It took about 4km before the hammie loosened up but as long as I can run, at least a little, I am happy. I'm so lucky that Mr B leads the way as if I ran on my own I would undoubtedly become completely lost!

Total distance: 8km (it may have been a little further as my garmin had a mind of its own today and started off in miles!)

Later we headed off to have a look inside the enormous cathedral. It is the largest cathedral in Europe and work began on building it in 1401 taking just over a century to complete. Being Sunday there were some services taking place inside and we had limited access but we still saw a lot of the inside and it was truly magnificent and HUGE!

Next we decided to visit the Real Alcazar which is the royal residence, started in 1364! These dates boggle my mind! The Spanish royal family still use the upper levels when they are in residence today. We spent more than 3 hours being gobsmacked by this amazing place - the artwork, the gardens, the amazing ceilings and tiling, the ancient baths, the plasterwork, intricate designs on the archways and tiles - impossible to describe but just fabulous!

We ended up at a restaurant eating tapas for lunch at 4.15pm, absolutely starving! It's great having the opportunity to sample Spanish food this way - small portions, lots of variety, not too filling - perfect! We don't expect to be eating dinner until after 10pm again as we have the flamenco dancing to attend at 8pm - how exciting!

Sunday, June 12, 2011


I didn't think I could top the hotel where we stayed in Valencia but our hotel in Madrid was fabulous. The only thing missing was the bidet! Everything else was in plentiful supply even down to spare travel toothbrushes and razors each morning. Breakfast was included in the cost and it was amazing. It turns out that a handbag is a useful commodity to take to breakfast for collecting a few pastries, fruit and snacks for later in the day.

I did omit to mention earlier that our hotel in Valencia cost us the equivalent of Aust $75 a night, amazingly cheap. However, when we enquired what it would cost on the nights of the Spanish Grand Prix in late June we were quoted the equivalent of $750 a night - we may give that a miss!!

Wednesday 8 June
This morning we went for a short 5km run before brekkie. It was a question of weaving through traffic, demonstrations regarding unemployment and crowds of people, dogs and cyclists before finding the lovely gardens of the Parque del Retiro where running was pleasant, pretty and fun. After brekkie we walked and walked taking in all the sights, markets, churches, fabulous buildings and shops. We also included a visit to the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. This is housed in what used to be the general hospital and diplays 20th century art including a lot of Picasso's very modern cubism etc - interesting, strange, not really my style, but well worth a visit.

Later we walked through an enormous food market where we sampled tapas at 1 euro each and enjoyed many interesting tastes. The food markets in Madrid feature more cooked foods and tapas than in Valencia although fresh fruit, veges, nuts, cheeses, meats and fish are still in plentiful supply. In the evening we enjoyed paella and sangria and soaked up the sights and sounds of the city.

Thursday 9 June
On Thursday morning we had an early start as we planned to fit in lots. After brekkie we caught the underground train to the Principe Pio which is a huge shopping complex. We only saw a fraction of the amazing shops before heading to the oldest restaurant in the world where we had booked for lunch. This is the Botin and is featured in the Guiness Book of Records. It was built in 1752 and still uses the original wood-burning oven to cook the specialities of roast suckling pig and roast lamb, the latter which I chose and it was just like a lamb shank and absoutely delicious.

For starters we had white asparagus with cheesy mayonnaise and giant mushrooms - absolutely divine. The asparagus looks like large white sausages and melts in the mouth. In fact it was all delicious and lived up to its reputation.

Later, after walking off our lunch (and visiting the occasional shop - tee hee), we lined up for the Prado Museum which has free entry after 6pm. There was only 2 hours til closing time and we only managed to cram in one floor of magnificent paintings. Now this is what I call art. The Prado houses the world's greatest collection of Spanish paintings from the 12th to 19th century and also has Dutch, German, Italian and French artwork. The light in some of the paintings was stunning. It's all truly fabulous but we definitely needed to allow more time to do it justice. With all the amazing food we are sampling I am definitely becoming Rubenesque!!

Friday 10 June
This morning we ran another short run on the other side of the park. Both runs start uphill and this time we ended up by a lake at the top of the park - a strange place to have a lake. It was pretty and we managed to run on a gravelly surface which felt good underfoot. Running back to the hotel was good as it was mainly downhill.
Total distance: 7km
After enjoying another lovely brekkie and ensuring we had enough for our long train journey ahead we checked out of the hotel and walked to the station to catch the fast train to Seville. The train was delayed 30mins and the journey took 3 hours but the time went quickly. There was a movie on the telly in English with Spanish subtitles (that was surprising) and the countryside was really quite pretty and green as we whizzed past heading for Seville.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

A brief glimpse of Valencia

On Monday morning we started the day with a run from our hotel to the Jardines Del Rio Turio. This is a 10km strip of gardens which is actually a dried up river and is crossed by 19 bridges. It was a good place to run as we could see all the City of Arts and Sciences up close and personal. We ran 5km and turned back but on the return we found some dirt tracks and grass which was much easier on the legs than the concrete path we had run on the way out. The sun came out and it was a pleasant run.
Total distance: 10km
Time taken: 62mins!
After showering we took advantage of our 24hr tourist bus tickets and went into the city for a light lunch and browsed around the fabulous food markets where we bought delicious fresh fruit and yummy nuts. The bananas here are absolutely delicious and we are making the most of the great prices. We also discovered yet more outdoor markets before returning to our hotel on the bus just before the 24hrs ran out. From there we walked to the Oceanografic. This is a very modern aquarium where we walked through open tunnels and the fish, sharks etc swam around us. This is situated in the City of Arts and Sciences. It is a series of lagoons and pavillions linked by bridges and tunnels and is quite amazing.

There was time for me to browse round the enormous shopping complex below our hotel before we went for dinner at 10pm at an "all you can eat" complex - big mistake!! We ate too much and drank another large jug of sangria to wash it down! I have been a bit conservative with running distances as my hamstring has been bothering me but if we are going to continue to consume all this amazing food the time has come to up the distances methinks!

Speaking of food (which I am, rather a lot) I forgot to mention that on Sunday night we ate the most amazing paella. We caught our tourist bus to the beach where we walked beside the sea and browsed in the little beach market stalls before finding a restaurant. The paella was absolutely superb, as was the sangria! That was one of my favourite meals so far.

Currently we are on the "very fast" train travelling to Madrid. The speed of the train, current temperature etc pop up on a rolling screen on this very modern train. We are whooshing along at 300kph and the countryside is flashing past. It's a very comfortable ride and we should reach our destination in 1.5hrs.

Adios Valencia, next stop Madrid!