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.

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