Saturday, November 13, 2010

Welcome to... the Best Place... in the World

Upon landing in Dublin after the trip to Edinburgh, Katie, Serena and I quickly got a cab back to Serena's apartment. That is where the last entry was written from. After meeting up with Laura we got back in a cab, went back to the airport, and flew to Lisbon. Safe to say, that was a whirlwind of a day. But I am now back in Howth and actually ready to tackle this "reading week". Once we got through security at the Dublin airport, we made our way to the Guinness gift shop (how Irish) to bring to Dan, our host for the week. Keeping with my usual trend, I conked out as soon as I sat down on the plane. Keep in mind that I had stayed up the whole night before too to make the 6am flight from Edinburgh to Dublin. But apparently, according to Laura, I was gone. The stewardess needed to push the cart down the aisle and she didn't see my elbow sticking out over my armrest. So, she hit it. I still slept. Laura shook my arm to wake me up. I still slept. Eventually the stewardess lifted my arm just enough so she could get the cart by. And, I still slept. When the plane touched ground in Lisbon, however, I woke up instantly. Sometimes I just don't understand myself.

Soon after we landed in Portugal, all four of us reached the depressing conclusion that we were in a country where they don't speak English. Thankfully, being tourists, we found the tourism office just outside of the passport check. Dan had told us to take the metro to the Arroios Station and that he would meet us here. That would have been easy, if there was a metro station in the airport. So we got a bus into the city centre and, thankfully, found a woman on the bus who not only spoke English, but was going to the metro as well. Epic win. We got off at Arroios at around 7pm and since we still had two hours until we met Dan, we went to go get dinner. Craving any sort of food at this point, we popped into a Portuguese restaurant just up the street from the station. Again, we were confronted with a language barrier. Using the combined French and Spanish from the four of us, we attempted to decipher the menu.  Katie and Serena both went with Salmon, and Laura and I still aren't too sure what we had. It was under the "Carne" section, and we think it was some kind of pork. Either way, it was really good. From here we made our way back towards the station stopping at a pastry shop along the way. Food was so extremely cheap, and so extremely good. It really is the best of both worlds.

A little bit before 9pm we trekked back to the station to meet Dan. We had found him through Couch Surfing, which is an online travel forum...I guess that's its technical classification. But basically, you host travelers (or surfers) for free but this also gives you the chance to surf on other peoples couches. Explaining this to some people can be really difficult because they cannot get past the image of a couch on a surfboard. Regardless, it is not as sketchy as it seems. Surfers write references and you need to have your location verified by responding with a postcard and they go through a lot to make sure this is as safe as possible. So we met Dan in the station and then walked back up to his flat, which wasn't far away at all. I don't know how this guy does it, but he started hosting surfers at the end of the summer, and he's already had more than fifty stay with him. But his apartment is amazing. It's really hard to believe that he's a student and he owns  this amazing flat. Usually Dan goes around showing his guests around Lisbon, but this was the middle of the school week. Because of this, that night, he planned out the whole three days with us. Quickly establishing Portugal as the best place in the world, Dan told us what to do, where to go, how to get there, and even a few key Portuguese phrases. After this quick lesson, the four of us turned in. We were extremely tired and needed to sleep if we wanted to see Sintra the next day.

Tuesday was Sintra day. I woke up at around 9am while the girls were still asleep. I walked out on to Dan's balcony and was welcomed with the warm weather that I had been missing for months. The balcony looks over a courtyard formed by the surrounding apartments and I was still in disbelief that I was actually in Portugal. Everyone gradually woke up and we were out the door by 11. From there we walked up the street away from the metro to a fruit stand where we essentially bought breakfast and lunch. I got two pears, two apple, a mango and some grapes for less than one euro. And it was good fruit too. We then backtracked to the station and stopped at a pastry shop along the way to further add to our meal. Laura and I both got this fried bread, french toasty thing. But it was delicious. After this we wandered down towards the station with our bags of fruit and hopped on the train to Sintra.

Right after getting off the train, we approached the tourism office, picked up a map of the village, and made our way up the street towards the town centre. Looking up the face of the hill, we were able to see both the Pena Palace and the Moorish Castle, the main sights of the town. After walking for a half hour, we quickly realized that we weren't going to make it to the top of the hill to see both the palace and the castle before they closed. So we reluctantly forked over four euro and hopped on a bus up to the top. Right as we rounded the final corner we were able to see our first stop, the Pena Palace. Although it was founded as monastery during the Middle Ages, the Pal├ício Nacional da Pena was built in the nineteenth century. The actual facade of the palace is extremely beautiful. No two sections of the palace's exterior are the same color and it takes to its historical roots lending to a very cool Arabesque style. Although it was an amazing palace, it was on top of a hill and it was extremely windy. As we were walking around the side on the balconies that surrounded the building, there were multiple times where any one of us would cling to a column or back into a corner to avoid the wind. All things considered, the wind being all things, the palace was amazing. The outside architecture was easily matched, but not surpassed, by the inside. Every room we walked through it was "The Queen's This" or "The King's That". They were obviously some rich folks living in Sintra. Hands down.

After leaving the Pena Palace we made our way a little bit further up hill to the Moorish Castle. Originally built in the ninth century, the Castelo dos Mouros was restored by King Ferdinand II in the nineteenth century. The structure is more of a fortress considering that it is comprised of walls surrounding something that could function as a village.  But the actual construction is unbelievable. The wall wraps itself around the hillside making the perfect fortification site. On a smaller scale, it actually kind of looks like the Great Wall of China. Kind of, but not really. Probably more impressive, however, is the view that it provides. When we got to the top of the tower the wind was extremely strong. At the highest point in the tallest tower (starting to sound like a fairy tale) I seriously felt like I was about to be blown away. As we were starting to make our way down to the exit of the castle, it started to rain. It is very hard to run on wet stones. They were extremely slippery, and we were running down the stairs, and it was really windy. With every step I took, I worried about tumbling down the stairs. Thankfully that didn't happen. We got down to the exit, made our way down the hill to Sintra and, of all things, got Chinese food for dinner. We were all extremely hungry and it was the first restaurant we came to.

When we got back into Lisbon, we were in for a couple of hours and then we went out for the night. The Portuguese are huge fans of the fruity drinks so this was definitely a night of those. All five of us got the same drinks because only one of the five of us knew Portuguese. Seems like a pretty reasonable plan. The three main drinks from the night, which are apparently hallmarks of Portuguese night life, were the Black Vodka Cocktail, a Champagne Cocktail, and a Chocolate Shot. The Black Vodka, I think thats what it was called, was primarily fresh berries. And a lot of sugar, then topped off with, well, blackberry vodka. I think thats what it was at least. To be perfectly honest, I have know idea what went into the Champagne Cocktail other than Champagne. Go figure. The Chocolate Shot wasn't an actual chocolate shot, but a berry vodka out of a chocolate shot glass. It was pretty amazing. So in addition to a one euro beer, the night out in Portugal didn't surmount to much at all!

Wednesday was the day that Serena almost got stuck in the metro doors. But more on that in a bit. As per usual, we had our breakfast of cheap fruit and fried french toasty cinnamon sugar bread. Soon after we made our way back down the main road towards the metro station. That is where things got complicated. As we were walking down the stairs to the train, we see the train pulling in. Obviously, we legged it to the doors. This one person was forcing the doors open for us so we could make it in time. I got in. Laura got in. Katie got in. Just as the doors were closing, Serena got stuck. I didn't realize what had happened until we heard a loud scream and then we were prying the doors open to fit her and her bag through. But we finally got her through. Having survived this experience, the train pulled away from the station and we were on our way to Belem. We changed trains in Cias do Sodre and there we had an epic picnic lunch on the platform consisting of a one euro loaf of bread, and a fair amount of cheese for only two euro. Again, epic.

We finally got to Belem and started to make our way down the main boulevard. Across the street we saw the monastery that we knew we were gonna see on our way back, so we didn't fuss over pictures or anything of the sort. The first actual monument we came across was the Discoverer's Monument. This is an amazing sculpture that has carvings of all these Portuguese explorers and advocates of Portuguese imperialism. This is also where we started to get artistic with our pictures. With the sun in the background, we took countless pictures of each other trying to obtain a black silhouette in all these random poses. This was another dangerous moment, for Serena again, because she almost fell off the side of the pier into the water. She and Katie were doing one of those jumping pictures as those black silhouettes. She lost her footing when she landed and almost fell into the water. Thankfully, some quick feet saved her from going for a swim in the Portuguese waters. We proceeded down the side of the water towards the Tower of Belem, a sixteenth-century fortress designed to protect the banks of the river. We took more of the silhouette pictures by the tower, but because we were too late we couldn't actually enter the tower itself. Disappointed, we made our way back down the boulevard and to the train station to get back to Lisbon.

Our final day in Lisbon started like all others did. Fruit and bread. From the Arroios Station, we went to the end of the line and got off at the Lisbon Oceanarium. As the second largest in Europe, this venue is pretty amazing. In the centre of the building there's one giant tank that has all of the common fish, but then there are four surrounding areas for each of the four oceans. The penguins were an obvious highlight for me. But then the cool part about each of the four subzones was that when we went downstairs we would see under the surface of the water. So not only would we see the penguins chilling on the rocks, but we'd see them rocketing through the water. After the epic visit to the aquarium, we stopped at the market for another two euro lunch of not only bread and cheese, but salami. We're moving on up. This was our last stop on our way to the Lisbon airport. Although I'm missing the warm weather and cheap food, it is definitely good to be back home in Howth!!

Whew that was a lengthy one. Hope every thing is going well with everyone else back in the states! I'll talk to you all soon!!

FMS

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