Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Portugal: Part 1

September 2008: Thiago and I begin to talk about spring break. Ibiza immediately takes the lead. 2 weeks later in September, Ibiza falls through after we realize that no one goes to Ibiza unless it is during the summer months. October 2008: We continue to spend every waking minute of the day thinking about Europe, and Greece becomes the frontrunner for spring break. However, after realizing that we would rather go to Crete instead of Athens and that Crete is rather hard to get to, Greece falls apart. November 2008: Athens, Lisbon, Prague, South of France, Sardegna, and Corsica are all considered for spring break. We are a wreck and cannot make up our minds. December 2008: Lisbon takes the lead. After looking at pictures of Sintra, we think Portugal might actually be the place. February 2009: After much debate and months of trying to decide, we buy plane tickets to Lisbon. Therefore, as the story unfolds, spring break Portugal...

After catching a quick one-hour flight from Madrid on Friday afternoon, we arrived to the beautifully sunny Lisbon airport from which we took a bus transfer to our hostel. Immediately upon exiting the airport, the first thing we noticed was that all the taxis were Mercedes. Nice. Not a bad way to say hello to your guests. While we took the bus to the center of the city upon arrival, we would only later realize that on our return trip to the airport at the end of the week that a 20 minute taxi ride costs only $7.50. Shocking, but true. One thing that I looked up when I got back to Berlin is that Portugal is the cheapest country in western Europe, something that I'm sure you'll realize as I go about this blog. So, we arrived a little after 5 at our hostel, completely exhausted from going out the previous night in Madrid, and took a much needed nap. Of all the hostels I've stayed at throughout Europe, this was by far the best. We paid only 15 euros a night (per person), had our beds made for us every day and our room cleaned, breakfast laid out for us every morning, free internet, and the friendliest staff yet. Plus, we were only a block from the river and just a 5 minute walk from the train station and center of the city. So, after finally waking up Friday night, we went to the grocery store where we bought the most inexpensive dinner I have ever purchased at any grocery store (and I do all my grocery shopping for myself in Berlin, so I've gotten to know prices fairly well). To give you an idea, the water in Portugal is not the best to drink, so we purchased 1.5 liter bottled water for only 12 cents a bottle! Thiago and I are still trying to figure out how they make any money off of this. We took the food back and cooked dinner in our hostel's kitchen as we did every night, and had a great pasta and pork steak meal. After finishing dinner, we went out to explore the Lisbon nightlife which is unlike any other nightlife I have seen before. For the first night, which was Friday, we decided to explore the bar scene and were told we should head to the Baixa district. After hiking up the hills of the city, we finally arrived to see thousands upon thousands of people roaming the streets. Having no idea what the social scene was here, we decided to follow the people to figure out where everyone was going, only to realize that the streets ARE the location. In the Baixa district, there are hundreds of tiny little bars that serve sangria and beer for only a euro a glass, and everyone buys their drink and then brings it back out onto the street. The cool part about it too is first off all it's not age exclusive; there were just as many 16 year olds as 25 year olds as 50 year olds all participating in the nightlife. It's also not a loud and crazy atmosphere, just a chill spot to kick back and have a few drinks with your friends. I've literally never seen anything like it where thousands of people just show up to an area of about 5 square blocks to hang out outside every night. It's really quite a cool thing to see and be a part of. The funniest thing by far this night, and an ongoing joke between Thiago and I for the entire trip, is we were offered hash and coke at least 50 times just in this one night. These well-dressed guys would walk up to you (also in the pure daylight as happened to me throughout the weekend) and say "hashish, coca?" It was hilarious and by the end of the trip I would be saying "no" out loud before someone even offered just by the way they were walking towards me. I found out that the quickest way to get rid of them is to just start speaking German because they clearly know at this point they can't communicate. So after a few delicious sangrias and hanging out amongst the crowd Friday night we headed back to the hostel to sleep before our first full day in Lisbon.

After waking up Saturday morning at our own pace, we strolled out of the hostel around 11 or so and headed toward the Castelo de São Jorge. After finally reaching the castle, which was just a few blocks from our hostel but all uphill, we walked through the castle gates and probably spent around 2 hours or so inside. For the first hour, Thiago and I found a stone bench carved into the castle wall and sat while we admired the panoramic view of Lisbon looking out both onto the river and into the city streets. It was a great view from the top as the castle sits atop one of the tallest hills in Lisbon, and was also nice to lay around in the sunshine and warmth that I had not seen in Berlin. Once we decided we had sat long enough, we walked about the castel walls until finally leaving a couple hours later. The castle really was not that big, but had such good views of the city from the top that we decided to stay for quite some time. After leaving the first castle of the trip, we took the public bus, which was a pure nightmare of a public transportation system, to the other side of Lisbon where we went through a monastery and small tower along the river. These were both fairly quick sites to see, and luckily we got in free to both thanks to being students. Upon finishing up our sightseeing for the day, we made our way back to the hostel where we again took a nap before this time heading to a club. The club scene in Lisbon is also unique, but in a different way than the bars. For being such a laid-back city, many of the clubs are ridiculously exclusive. For instance, there were clubs upon clubs that you could not enter unless you were willing to consume minimum 100 euros of drinks. And for the college kid, while a bottle of Don Perignon certainly signals baller status, it just wasn't in the cards. We did find a cool club though right on the water (it was also ladies night so that was a big plus) where we ended up dancing for most of the night which wrapped up our first full day in Lisbon.

On Sunday, Thiago and I headed to Cascais, a small beach town that was just a 45 minute train ride outside of the city. We basically walked up a down the coast for the day, hiked the rugged cliffs that lined the ocean, and enjoyed yet another day in the sun. We were a bit unfortunate not to rent bikes (well, we rented one). The city tourism office rents out bikes for free to visitors, and they have 3 stands set up throughout the city. We got to the first stand and they only had one bike, so we took it anyway and walked to the other 2 stands to pick up another, but both were completely rented out. Slightly unfortunate, but made for some hilarious attempts at double-biking. After walking up and down the coast for the day, we grabbed a couple beers and sat around for an hour or so on the beach just hanging out. I guess there wasn't much more to Cascais - maybe worth mentioning is the Boca de Inferno which is a huge archway in the cliffs where waves fly in and explode on the rocks. Other than that, just an quaint picturesque beach town which is nice to do for a day of relaxing.

Monday- Sintra. The original inspiration for going to Lisbon, we took another 45 minute train ride outside the city to the mountainous region. This time it was Thiago and I, plus another Stanford student Oliver who was in town for a couple days, and a Brazilian girl we met on the train who hung out with us for the day. After winding our way up the mountain for an hour, we finally reached the top and headed first to the Castelo dos Mouros (the Moorish Castle). Walking through the castle, hiking up the stone walls and through the archways, it literally felt like you were walking through a Disney set. From the top, we had incredible views of the country side surrounding the castle in addition to the ocean just a short distance away. We hiked through the castle for a couple hours, climbing every pathway and tower, until we'd finally run out of things to see. Following the Moorish castle, we hiked across a ridge to the Palacio de Pena, again which appeared to be straight out of Disney. Like the former, the castle had equally beautiful views from the top, and we sat around like we did the whole trip just admiring the scenery. Adjacent and surrounding the palace is a huge park that has hundreds of endagered plants and trees and is beautifully landscaped. We wandered through this park for a while, and probably the funniest thing of the day was feeding both a white and black swan. Thiago had an apple so we decided to break off pieces and see if we could get the swan to take them from our hands. I was the first to do so, and I think Thiago got it on video, which is probably pretty hilarious cut the swan bit the sh*% out of my fingers and I'm pretty sure I reacted with a few pretty loud explicitives. I definitely did not realize it until after the fact, but swans have these go-go-gadget like necks that extend extremely far, and the damn swan definitely overjudged where the apple was in relation to my fingers. Made for a funny experience anyway. So, this wrapped up our day in Sintra. The city is absolutely beautiful, and there's a ton more to see that we didn't have time to do. I think we all wish we would have had more time there, but Thiago and I had to get back to Lisbon to catch a 3-hour train to Porto.

24 Hours in Madrid

After writing 2 film essays, taking a German language final and moving across the city, I headed out on an early flight Thursday morning for 24 hours in Madrid before Thiago and I were to leave for a week in Portugal. As I tried to keep my eyes open on the train ride to the airport, I was thinking how nice Spain was going to be since it was going to be the complete opposite of Berlin in many aspects: warm and sunny plus the cultural. I further decided in my head that if any one culture in Western Europe were to be the complete antithesis of German culture, I would probably pick the Spanish culture to fill this category. Having already seen Barcelona but not yet Madrid, I was fairly confident this was true. However, should there be any doubt left in my mind, a 2 hour flight day (all of French public/private transportation decided to go on strike this day messing up flights throughout Europe) erased any residual doubt. Germans, for the most part, tend to be very much to themselves especially in public places. No one makes eye contact, people talk very quietly amongst small groups, and body language is at a bare minimum. So while sitting/sleeping in the airport waiting for our flight, I awoke to a group of Spaniards sitting in a circle playing the guitar, with the German's just looking at them awkwardly, yet trying to hide the fact that they were actually looking. I just started laughing, and frankly I was pretty excited to be jetting off to a different culture. A change of pace was going to be nice.

Finally I got to Madrid and met Thiago at my hostel for the night. I wasn't able to stay with him at his homestay - in Spanish culture it is apparently not common to invite guests into the home until you have known them for a least a full year. Instead, they meet at public places such as parks, bars, and restaurants. The Stanford in Madrid program is very different from our Berlin program in many ways, one of which is that the students in Madrid eat lunch and dinner with their host families every day. So, upon meeting Thiago, he immediately had to leave for lunch which was completely fine with me as I wanted to go do sightseeing stuff that he had undoubtedly already done. Walking around the city was extremely nice, for the most part because it was 72 degrees and I saw the sun the entire day! This just does not seem to happen back in Berlin. I walked throughout Sol, an area of the city near my hostel, through plazas and down streets that had what I thought was some pretty cool architecture. During the day, I saw Plaza Mayor, Plaza Espana, and the Palacio Real. The Palacio Real was incredible, wish I could have gone inside, and had a nice garden/park area at the base of the palace in which hundreds of people were lounging and soaking up a few rays. After spending a couple hours roaming the city, I met up with Thiago in Retiro Park, the only thing I told him I had to see while I was in Madrid. The park is incredible and extremely massive, likely comparable to Central or Golden Gate Park. While I have been to the latter of those two but not Central Park, Retiro Park is definitely my favorite park I have seen. There were thousands upon thousands of people in the park, an enormous lake, plenty of green space, and paths lined with flowers, street vendors and artists. We spent probably an entire 3 hours in the park, just laying around, messing around with a mini soccer ball, and also running into at least 7 or 8 other people from the Madrid program. The nice thing about Spanish culture is that it is so laid back: the people walk slower, eat at 2 and 10, use the parks on their lunch breaks, and are generally not concerned so much with time. It was perfect just to lay around in the sun for the day as the sun is the thing I have missed the most while being in Berlin (after my family of course!).

After spending some time hanging out with Thiago, he eventually had to go back to have dinner with his host family, so I went and hung out at my hostel for a few hours before going out that night. One thing I noticed in Madrid during the day, or maybe I should say one thing that was impossible not to notice, was that Madrid has the most beautiful women you have ever seen in your life. And I'm honestly not exaggerating. At least 1 of every 2 women you see is not just good looking but is absolutely gorgeous. If you follow soccer, I can now see why Cristiano Ronaldo said he would consider a move to Real Madrid just for the women. Anyway, I don't know how this many attractive people ended up all in one place, but I can understand why Thiago enjoys Madrid so much. After Thiago had finished his dinner with his host family, I met up with him and 3 other girls from the Madrid program that night to go out dancing. As I've noted before, it's been an interesting scene throughout Europe going to a club to dance, usually more so on the negative side of things than the positive. On the whole, I've enjoyed bars much more than clubs, but Madrid definitely made me question this. As I told Thiago, if every night at a dance club were like the night in Madrid, I would be at the club every night. We had a phenomenal time dancing all night with the girls, the club had a great setup and played great music, and overall it was by far my best club experience. The key really to having a good time is to make sure you go with a group of girls, because contrary to the US, you do not meet nor dance with girls you just met in the European clubs. It's just a different scene. So, after getting home from the club and getting 2 hours of sleep before I had to check out of my hostel, Thiago and I headed off on Friday to Portugal for our spring break week. Madrid was an incredible city, and I truly wish I could have spent more time there, but for only having 24 hours, I'd say I definitely made the most of it. Just means that someday I should go back, which is never a bad thing.

As always, photos have been updated.


Again, it's been a long time since I've posted on this blog. With the chaos of finals week, moving homestays, saying goodbye to the winter group, and heading off for spring break, the blogs have taken a back seat. But don't worry - they're back in action and hopefully within the next week or so everything will be up to date. So here it is, beginning with Amsterdam.

Back in the beginning of March, Remi, Tenzin, Tenzin's cousin, and myself headed off for another weekend of travel to Amsterdam, city of red lights, Anne Frank, Van Gogh, canals, and oddly constructed buildings. Remi and I arrived late Friday night, luckily with a place to stay as Remi had a former frat brother who is studying law abroad and had a place in the center of the city. Besides our group of four, two other kids from the Stanford program in Madrid met up with us. On Friday night, we all went out for a night of bar hopping throughout the city. The bar scene was okay, nothing special, and for the most part Berlin's bars are much better, but still a pretty fun Friday night.

On Saturday, Remi and I got up to explore the city for a bit. We started it off by taking a free 3-hour walking tour, hosted by an extremely good tour guide who literally seemed to know everything about the city. My first question for him was if I was seeing things, or if the building were actually slanted and actually did hang over the roads. He pointed out that all the building have these wooden boards mounted at the top with a large metal ring. Because it was difficult the carry furniture and other items up to the top floors, they would fashion a pully system through these metal rings to hoist items up to the top floors. This means that the buildings actually need to slant over the road so that whatever is being hoisted to the top does not scrape against the buildings. Makes for some interesting architecture as you feel as if you're walking through some sort of expressionist set to a play, or maybe it is normal to see slanted buildings on every street. The walking tour was actually very good and extremely informative, the only problem is it was hosted in Amsterdam. My main complaint with Amsterdam, besides the aweful food, is that I felt like I saw the entire city in 10 minutes. Yes, I realize I did not have the desire to go see works of Van Gogh or the Heineken museum, but the city itself looks exactly the same all over. Each street has the same looking slanted brick buildings, the same looking canal, the same ridiculously tall people, and of course bicycles. Another random question I asked our tour guide, again regarding if I was seeing things or not, is that I swore all the people, especially men, were way taller and had much bigger frames than a normal sized person. He again confired I was not hallucinating, and that actually the Dutch are the second biggest white race in the world behind the Danish. They are massive people. Overall, on Saturday Remi and I basically spent the entire day walking, partially because of the tour and partially because we got lost for 3 hours. The city of Amsterdam is firstly a nightmare to navigate for the reasons already mentioned in that everything looks the same, but also because of it's layout. The center of Amsterdam is surrounded by horseshoe-shaped roads and canals, so every street is curving in a half circle. This made it a complete nightmare for us to try and figure out which direction we were going and it's probably a miracle that we made it back to our place to stay by the end of the day.

The red light district: actually not nearly as cool or big as it is hyped up to be. Basically, if you don't already now, the district gets its name because prostitution is legal in Amsterdam. The prostitutes rent out small little rooms along the street with windows that are illuminated with red lights from which comes the name. I must admit, it is pretty funny to walk through the district and see a man walk out of the room as the prostitute opens the curtains again. Other than sex, you can also legally buy marijuana all throughout Amsterdam, although again most places are located in the red light. However, the district is not nearly as big nor as crazy as I had pictured in my head before arriving. Another tour guide fact, the red light district won't be there by 2015, but at the rate the current government in power is shutting down coffee shops and red light shops, it will be nonexistent by 2012. Over the past 5 years, the number of coffee shops and red light shops being shot down has doubled each year, starting with 4 the first year and rapidly working its way up. So, if you want to go get there while you can, because it probably won't exist in 5 years time. Although as seems to be the case with everything in Amsterdam, it will just go underground but won't actually go away.

Other random facts about Amsterdam. Beware, or you will get killed by one of the millions of bicycles flying about the city. Every single person in Amsterdam rides their bike everywhere, and they do not stop for pedestrians. Also, for someone who lives in Amsterdam for at least 8 years, they will go through an average of 30 bikes in their lifetime due to theft and wear-and-tear. A tip for males: do not pee on the corners of buildings after a night of drinking. Amsterdam city officials are so mad at people peeing in the streets that on every building corner they have installed "piss deflectors" as you can see in one of my pictures. So, if you do decide to go pee here, it will literally bounce right back onto your legs and shoes. Gross, but pretty funny to think that the government paid to have these installed everywhere. Urinals are also very open. Think of a portapotty on the street corner, but just the toilet and no actual portapotty. No big deal I guess - it is Amsterdam. All in all, Amsterdam was a fun weekend, but definitely just a one time trip. There's really no reason to go back, and I definitely would not recommend it for tourists. It's basically an overrated destination/experience for the college student that can actually be found to a much greater extent in other European cities. Then again, if Anne Frank, Van Gogh, or Heineken is your thing, maybe Amsterdam is the travel destination for you.

A big thanks to our tour guide for the weekend. While Amsterdam was definitely not my favorite city I have seen, I know by far more about Amsterdam than any other city I have travelled to thanks to a free walking tour.