Trains, Trolleys & Tuk Tuks-Getting around Lisbon

When you visit Lisbon, don’t even contemplate renting a car.  The traffic is crazy and the streets are uneven cobblestone narrow lanes.  Picturesque the crooked quaint streets are, but you do NOT want to drive here.  Trust me.  Instead, enjoy the public transportation system and treat yourself to a tuk tuk too.

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If you are a typical American, you are dependent on and feel lost without your own car.  In Europe, it’s practical and easy to let someone else do the driving.  So here’s a quick guide to public transportation in Europe.  Buy your travel card (could be paper or plastic depending on country) and use your credit card to put money on it to use as needed at the machine at the bus/train/trolley station.  We usually start with 10 euros on each of ours and then “top off” or add more $ at the machines as we use it up.  Ride costs vary but are usually 1-2 euros each trip.  Machines will be around the stations, usually with a line waiting to use, and just step up when it’s your turn, select your language and the machine will walk you through the process.  Easy peasey.

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As you proceed with your card/ticket, you will either just slap it on the pad at the machine turnstyles to enter the station or at the station just inside the door as you enter the trolly or sometimes it will be fed into the machine and spit out on the other side.  Just watch the other passengers and follow in style.  Grab a map of the subway or trolley lines at the station and off you go!  Most systems are color coded, i.e. in Lisbon we took the red line to the blue line to get around the entire town.  Inside the subway, trolley, etc. you will usually see a map of the system with the stops called out.  Just watch for your stop and if you miss it, get off at the next stop and switch tracks to go back.  It happens!  Keep your card handy as you sometimes have to use it to get out of the turn styles upon arrival.  Make sure you look for the green light vs. the red light so the exit you pick is active.  Don’t be that crazy American tourist trying to exit a closed lane.

I have to give Lisbon A+ for their public transportation.  In addition to a great metro (subway) system, they have trolleys/buses for easy around town travel and trains to get out of town and explore Sentra, Porto, Evora, etc.  All except the trains use the one transport card.  For trains, you have to get a separate ticket.  We found out that they assign seats on the train tickets after we sat in the wrong seats and had to move.  Oops.

For fun, we tried a tuk tuk one day for short ride.  For $10 euros for the two of us, the lovely lady took us in her three wheel golf cart-like tuk tuk and proceeded to tell us stories about Lisbon during our trip.  Travel + a story!  She explained that Lisbon is quite safe but there are lots of “soft” crime meaning pickpockets.  She told us about a tradition where the governor pays for 10 weddings a year at a big event in June.  Unfortunately, our driver is engaged to a Porto resident not a Lisbon resident so she was not qualified to enter the wedding raffle.  She contemplated finding another boyfriend but decided to keep him.  Ah, true love! Hint:  look for electric tuk tuk vs. a gas one so you aren’t sucking in deadly fumes on your lovely ride around Lisbon.  Cheers!

Chapel of Bones

“We bones in here wait for yours to join us.”  This message over the door greets visitors who enter the Chapel of Bones.  Disturbing and disruptive.  Unlike anything I had ever experienced,  Capela dos Ossos is in the Church of St. Francis in Evora, a cute Portugal city that has been around for 2,000+ years.

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Three monks, concerned with the values they saw in Evora’s society in the 1600’s, created this macabre chapel to give residents a place to contemplate their love of material things against their inevitable death.  Using locales from the cemeteries around town, skulls and bones were gathered to form the walls, columns and ceiling.  Full corpses of an adult and a child also are on display.  To stand in that room looking at this religious expression of protest against wealth and status from so long ago shows that society never changes.  You have that same wealth disparity today across the world.  Will  human beings ever learn?

Not my cup of tea usually but staring at the display made me reflect on the need to be in the present, appreciate my blessings and not take one minute of this precious life for granted.  Because, just like these bones and skulls staring back at me, we will all join them some day.  All that matters then is the lasting good that we are able to create while alive.  Unfortunately, though, most shun thoughts of our eventual demise and focus on gathering as many material things as we can while alive.  The old saying “you can’t take it with you” comes to mind.  Why on Earth then do we spending all our time working to buy stuff that we don’t really need?

On Mother’s Day, I appreciate that Thom and I created two really outstanding human beings who are now making a difference themselves in the world.  Hannah and James make me very proud every day of the worthy life I have lived.  Until I depart to be only bones, I can only hope to continue to do good work and live a life well served.

Scenic Sintra

After a sleepless night (falling FINALLY asleep at 5 a.m. after counting a herd of sheep) I woke up at 11:30 a.m. and off we went to Sintra.  After a metro stop, a short train ride, and the bus ride from Hell, we were transported to another time where palaces and castles were the norm.  Amazing!

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Of course, the bus ride up to the beautiful Palace of Pena scared the crap out of me.  OMG!  Blaring his horn to alert anyone crazy enough to drive this lane, the driver confidently took the hairpin curves in the big bus up the narrow path.  I thought we were surely going to die.  But we survived to climb up a steep hill and roam about the palace where safety is more of a suggestion than a standard, i.e. don’t bring your toddler or aging parents.  They’ll die.  With gaps in the railing and steep drops into crevices, we watched our steps and checked it all out.

The views were breathtaking looking out onto the Moorish Castle and the sea.  Inside, the kitchens still full equipped with the biggest mort/pestle I have ever seen.  What. The. Hell.  Were they grounding up trees in there not spices??  Two of the original ovens used by King Ferdinand II’s staff are still displayed along with lots of other relics.  You can only imagine the three man lift required to haul up one of the large cauldrons to make soup for the King.  Damn.  The chapel from the early 1500’s was serene and peaceful.

Deciding after waiting awhile in line for the bus down the mountain, we blew off the Moorish castle (cool from a distance but it was starting to rain) which was further down the hill and thought we would just check out the town square instead.  Of course, first we would have to survive the bus trip down.  Packed in like the favorite Portugal sardines, I warned Thom to hold on tight as we stood or he would wind up in the lady’s lap he was huddled next to.  As the “Eye of the Tiger” came on the bus radio, the lively British gals that had stood behind us in line as we waited for the bus broke out into loud song.  Bus Karaoke was on!  Hilarious.

Tired from all that singing, we quickly exited on the main square in Sintra, checked out the News Museum with it’s Macho Media exhibit and headed down the quaint curvy streets.  There I found the best thing ever-Ginja!  Cherry liqueur shots served in a dark chocolate cup for only 1 euro.  You nibble a little chocolate, sip a little liqueur and repeat.  Of course, you could just throw it all at once in your mouth but I wanted to savor it.  Tasting like a cherry cordial that my dad used to love at Christmas time but with booze, it was a perfect union of tastes.  Yum!

Walking down the mountain in the rain, it was the end of a perfect day in Sintra, a fairy tale land where you can easily imagine another time where knights defended their kings and queens.  Magical.

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Shopping in Lisbon!

While Lisbon is so impossibly picturesque that you feel compelled to take pictures of everything, it is also heaven for shopping.  Not even in London did I find so many unique items for gifts and myself, of course. 

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Where to begin?  Well, there is the LX Factory under the bridge that looks like the Golden Gate.  Filled with shops and cafes, it also houses the coolest bookstore I have seen and I LOVE bookstores.  Obolodamarta not only had multiple levels filled with books, it also had a temporary exhibit of Kinetic Art.  The inventor himself walked us around and told us stories about each of his creations.  From a miniature printing press to a Charlie Chaplin story machine, it was so fun and interesting.  I love just stumbling into these experiences as we often do as we wander.

Thom was tempted to get a tattoo at the local artist shop at LX Factory but I veered him away and took some great pics of street art instead.  Who knows if he will leave Portugal with new ink but maybe another day.  Tattoos are not a decision to be made in the moment but after careful reflection.

The next day we left our Alfama district and meandered up and down the cobblestone streets.  Definitely need to have sturdy shoes with grip to hike these streets in Lisbon especially as they get slippery in the rain that was off and on all day.  Finding a store that made bags out of recycled signs and garbage as well as bicycle tires, I was tempted but held off buying.  Pricey but worthy. 

Ducking out of the rain into the Cork Store by the fort proved to be an expensive interlude as we bought multiple gifts for folks who read this blog so I will say no more.  Let’s just say I bought so much I asked for a quantity discount and got it.  Always the bargainer I am!  Just expect Christmas present from Portugal my family and friends.  Thom is obsessed with man jewelry and got yet another bracelet for his already full wrist.  Seriously, that man wears way more bangles than I do. 

Thom also loves shoes so when we found a store with the unique concept of buy a pair of awesome shoes, get a bottle of wine, we both considered it but wisely remembered how full our closets are back home.  We also passed on the sardine shop knowing that while they look cute, they aren’t our cup of tea.

At Typographia, we could have gone wild but restrained ourselves to buy only 2 t-shirts. Very similar to our favorite store in Shanghai that had original creative designs on quality t’s, this little shop had so many cool t’s to choose from that it was hard to narrow it down but the one we choose for James was the best.  In chatting with the shop clerk as she rang us out, she asked if I had really read the words spelled out on the typewriter keys.  I had and it was hilarious but irreverent, just like our son, who will be the recipient.  We laughed and then the conversation somehow turned to weed.  In Portugal, the legal limit of pot is one gram but it’s still not legal though they won’t arrest you with that amount or less we were told. Sharing that we didn’t smell it all the time like we did in Seattle walking the streets, she said we just weren’t walking the right streets.  Point taken.  Shirts bought.

When visiting Portugal, I would suggest packing an empty suitcase and LOTS of Euros.  Whether you go for cork or sardines (they are obsessed with this salty little feller) or Port wine, etc. you will enjoy engaging with the locals as you find treasures to bring home.  Here’s hoping our luggage isn’t over the weight limit going home!

 

 

 

First Day in Portugal

16,554 steps and almost 7 miles later, we arrived back at our very “bijou” arbnb in the Alfama district in Lisbon, ready to kick back and reflect on our adventure today.  I.  Love.  Lisbon.

Despite a late start after sleeping off the jet lag, we put in a full 8 hour walk across town.  With rain coming down heavy all morning, we were lucky enough to cover some ground before the next storm rolled through.  Grabbing a table at a café on a viewpoint overlooking the sea under a dense tree that served as our leafy umbrella, we sipped coffee and ate heavenly custard tarts that Portugal is known for–I’m in love with this pastry and vow to have one a day.  At least.

A local sat down to busk for awhile playing us a selection of tunes including Amazing Grace.  Thom, of course, struck up a conversation and we learned he had been to the U.S. but not north of SoCal.  Thankfully he didn’t bring up U.S. politics as we are taking a break from the madness.  We’re looking forward to hearing Fado music at a bar tomorrow night.  Our arbnb host told us that Fado is soulful and melancholy, telling tales of love, the sea and tragedy.  Happy stuff.

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But the people here are friendly.  How friendly?  When Thom and I were arguing over what cheese to buy at the grocery, a local stepped in and handed us local goat cheese with a recommendation that it was delish.  Cheese intervention–Sold!

Other initial Lisbon observations:

LOTS of hills so no rental bikes here but they do have lovely trolleys and tut tuts that can carry your tired ass upwards when you just can’t take another step or have a heavy bag filled with wine.  It happens.

People smoke INDOORS here!  Could not believe it when we walked into this cool bookstore with a café and everyone was on their computers drinking coffee and smoking away.  Cough, cough.

Pay to pee here as in most of Europe with .50 euros required. I will say that the magazine rack in the ladies room at the train station made me smile.  Really?  I guess for .50 euros you can use the facilities AND rest your legs while reading a magazine.

Wine is cheap, plentiful and tasty.  We’re talking $2.99 average for bottle of good, smooth vino.  Yes, Thom and I have already decided to spend quality time here when and if I ever get to retire.  You can dream.  Cheers!

Treacle Tarts at The Wolseley

Harry Potter fans will understand my fascination with treacle tarts.  Why did Harry and his gang love eating something with such a funny name?  What is a treacle?  Well, thanks to The Wolseley in London I can now answer those questions.  Treacle tarts are amazingly delicious and treacle is golden syrup.  Yum!

I owe a big thanks to my friend, Karmann, who turned me on to this elegant yet approachable restaurant near The Green Park and The Ritz.  After cheering on the late finishers in the London Marathon that ended at Buckingham Palace today, we made our way through The Green Park, filled with marathon fans soaking up the last of the sun.  What a beautiful day it was whether you ran a marathon (how do they do that??) or just enjoyed a walk through a market or park.

Seated as soon as we walked in to The Wolseley and starving, I ordered the recommended chicken soup with carrots and dumplings that was light yet deliciously rich at the same time.  With bits of chicken, I quickly finished it while Thom shared with me a few bites of his chicken, bacon, and avocado sandwich and pommes frites.  Not only was the service impeccable but the prices were not too expensive given that London in general is very expensive indeed.  Surrounded by marathon finishers still wearing their medals and celebrating with champagne, steak and caviar, we quickly moved on to dessert.

Treacle tart-what would it taste like?  I had done no research and had no expectations.  I wanted to be surprised. Well, it came warm with a side of clotted cream that actually helped cut some of the sweetness.  Think pecan pie without the pecans and with a flaky crust.  Very dense and delicious.  No wonder Harry, Ron and Hermione ate these up when they magically appeared at Hogwarts.  After seeing Platform 9 3/4 at the Kings Crossing station this morning, it was only fitting that I end my day with their favorite Hogwarts dessert.  London is definitely a magical place.

 

Exploring London’s Parks

London has THE BEST parks.  Friday after checking into St. Ermin’s, we immediately set out to explore and push on to avoid the dreaded jet lag.  Unfortunately, we hadn’t gotten any local currency yet so when I tried to use the public loo later in St. James Park, I discovered there was a 20 pence coin required to gain entry.  WTH!  You have to pay to pee?  Thom’s solution was a suggestion to walk all the way back to the hotel.  NOT a  really timely choice so I went with my own solution-act really pathetic and prey on kind strangers who DID have the required coins.  Bingo!  Within seconds of asking the closest coffee kiosk barista in the park for directions to an ATM and explaining the situation, another customer quickly found the right coin and offered it to me, rolling her eyes at Thom and telling me there was no need to walk anywhere and she was happy to help me.  There you go!  Afterward, I promised Thom that I would “pee it forward” and help other desperate ladies out next time I go, keeping a stash of required coins just in case.  Ladies need to stick together!

Later, we checked out Golden Square on the way to Carnaby Street.  A park with stunning public art AND a communal ping pong table in heavy use, this may not be on visitor’s “hot” list to see but it was just lovely.   Shoe lovers will appreciate the largest stiletto you will ever see.  Now that’s art!  None of that crazy abstract crap you have to figure out in museums.

On Saturday, we headed out to the most popular spots:  The Green Park, Hyde Park and Kensington Garden.  Very close to our hotel, The Green Park showcases Buckingham Palace on it’s perimeter.  While we didn’t see the changing of the guards, we did check out the guards and the massive palace.  Really, who needs all that space???  Looks like a big money drain to me.  Walking through the Wellington Arch and checking out the many war memorials, you are reminded everywhere in London of WWI and WWII.  So many lives lost.

Right next door to The Green Park is Hyde Park, totally deserving of all the accolades I read out about it in the travel books.  From the cheap ($2 euros a day) bike rentals to the large lake with paddle boats and rowboats and horse trails, it is amazing.  Thom quickly got a hot dog to wolf down for energy before our long walk.  My only beef with the park system is the lack of trash cans in all the parks.  What’s up with that London?  Surprisingly given the lack of receptacles, the parks are very clean but the few trash cans overflow like crazy, the only unsightly view in the otherwise clean space.

Hyde Park even has chairs you can rent by the day to relax and gaze out at the water.  Very reminiscent of Central Park in NYC, one of my favorite places, people were stretched out on benches and the lawn enjoying the rare sunshine.  And can I say, the dogs here are SO well behaved it’s crazy.  Off leash in the parks, I have yet to see dogs growling or fighting.  They just walk docile and obedient with their owners by their side. Thom asked one dog owner why the dogs are so calm and he replied, “Lots of opium.”  Be calm and drug your dog?  I’m sure he was just kidding.  Probably.

Right next door to Hyde Park is Kensington Gardens.  We were needing a break from the sun so we ducked into the Serpentine Gallery on the park grounds to check out the spring show featuring the work of John Latham, a pioneer of British conceptual art (1921-2006).  Thought-provoking for sure, the use of books was prevalent in the conceptual art pieces.  Interesting exhibit but the bathrooms had the best technology I’ve seen.  Dyson water faucets also served as hand drying jet blasters–all in one and very cool.  Better than the art!  Heading over to the Prince Albert Memorial we enjoyed watching an intense street hockey game.  Damn, they were good.  Hockey scouts need to be checking these dudes out for their teams!

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John Latham’s art-these are books if you can’t tell

 

Moving on, we checked out Kensington Palace, with the beautiful Diana White Gardens to mark the 20th anniversary of her death.  We did feel that the security was pretty darn lax and gates were unguarded and would be too easy to hop over.  What?  In fact, walking down embassy row later in the day past all each country’s gorgeous building, we didn’t see any armed guards except for the Israeli post where they were armed with impressive weapons.  In China when we walked Embassy Row, you would see armed guards in front of every embassy.  Here, one guy came running out of an embassy yelling “YO!” to the Domino Pizza guy at the curb to deliver a hot pie.  Classy.

We tried walking by The Orangery next to Diana’s White Garden but a very fancy, or as the Brits would say “posh”, wedding was going on so here the security was tight and we were politely turned away.  So, they guard weddings better than they do embassies here in London?  With top hats and tails for the guys and long gowns for the ladies, this wedding was one fancy event.  We considered trying to crash it but thought better of it and moved along to continue our 11 mile hike that day.  What a great day!