23 March 2008

Sun and Fun in Lisbon and Madrid

Wednesday (France, Lisbon)
Wednesday I spent the morning packing and procrastinating (I didn’t have class, because I’ve dropped literature: my schedule has gone through so many ridiculous transformations...) and I took an early afternoon train to the airport in Paris. Then I flew to... Lisbon! It’s so relaxing to fly when you haven’t checked any bags, although I’ll admit that having my bags lost has scarred me for life. I’m nervous about my bags, and I have some deep-set paranoia about them being lost, even when they’re carry-ons and can’t be. Having your bags lost is a truly harrowing experience.
The flight to Lisbon was uneventful, and I didn’t even get lost in the airport. The hostel had recommended taking a taxi (as opposed to taking either a bus or the metro and then having to hike up a hill) so I went outside to look for one. They have a strange queueing system for the people, and the taxis line up behind a line as well. A police officer blows a whistle at them when they can move forward to pick up a passenger, so that there are about four taxis being loaded at a time. It’s quite efficient. The taxi ride wasn’t too long, since Lisbon’s airport is very close to the city center. I’ve never seen an airport that close to downtown, in fact! It didn’t even appear to be expensive, the meter was just over ten euros when we arrived at the hostel. Yes, “didn’t even appear to be.” Because it’s apparently standard practice for cab drivers to charge a supplement for their return trip, and therefore the price was double what I expected. So it was typical taxi fare instead of amazingly cheap. Bummer.
The hostel was like the taxi: overall nice, but with a disappointing twist. It’s a relatively new, nice hostel, and is cheerfully decorated. However, they have some sort of a problem with the water... and therefore only one working shower. For a whole hostel, which has beds for about fifty. At least they lowered the price significantly to make it up to their guests. Jakob and Meghan (for those who don’t know Jakob and Meghan: we went to high school together, were in various classes together starting with science sophomore year, and played cards together a lot) met me at the hostel shortly after I arrived. Meghan is studying in Bilbao, Spain this semester, and Jakob came to travel with her for his spring break, and I skipped a few days of classes to travel with them... does that make sense?
Late as it was, this is southern Europe, so we headed out to get some dinner and hopefully hear some live fado music. Fado is a rather melancholy type of music, usually a singer accompanied by guitars or mandolins. The best we found was a touristy fado restaurant, whose kitchen was open for another fifteen minutes.
We ordered a small dinner to avoid the cover charge (I got prawn soup, Meghan and Jakob got omelettes, and we shared garlic mushrooms). They had several singers and several musicians, and tried to encourage guests to buy their CDs. My critique? It would have been great if there wasn’t singing. The guitar/mandolin playing was beautiful: usually you don’t get a chance to hear guitars playing in an ensemble like this, it was lovely. The singing was (for the guy) too loud and (for the lady) off key, and in my opinion it detracted from what otherwise would have been awesome. I would have bought a CD from the musicians if they didn’t have singing on it. (For those who find it interesting, they sang in a very chesty way, and used lots of turns though no trills and very little vibrato.)

Thursday (Lisbon)
Thursday morning I woke up naturally quite early, and only had to wait about five minutes to use the shower. Remember how all the showers were broken but the one? It wasn’t in peak condition either... the water worked, but the temperature and pressure were inconsistent, and the door was broken! Good thing there were few people up and everyone was good about giving people privacy, because otherwise it would have been a terrible situation.
The hostel provided us with cereal and warm milk (as it is southern Europe), rolls with jam or nutella, and tea. Not a bad breakfast: it was the bright side of the hostel experience. We left our bags locked in a locker and set off to explore Lisbon. [I apologize for the lack of names in this blog entry... I don’t speak any Portuguese and I speak very little Spanish, so it’s not easy for me to remember what things are called or know how to spell them. Or pronounce them.] We started off the day in a rather famous central neighborhood that’s built on a grid pattern. After the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, this area was rebuilt in an orderly, symmetrical pattern of straight streets, supposedly to model London. It’s very easy to navigate, so kudos to the designer. Lisbon has a lot of really beautiful architecture, and lots of it is painted in very bright colors.
Here’s a view of the city. On the opposite hill (Lisbon is a hilly city) is the castle.

This is the gate to the Praça do Comércio which has a big statue in the middle and pretty buildings.

Here’s the other side of that arch.

We next walked towards the castle, and stumbled upon the Sé cathedral on the way. It’s shaped like a cathedral, and it’s very pretty. The stained glass windows were quite small though... perhaps since Portugal gets so much sun they don’t need to let in as much light as French and English cathedrals do.

We then climbed up the hill to the castle through a number of windy streets. Meghan is an incredible navigator: not only does she have a good sense of direction, she can follow a map. Maps are little more than artwork for me, if I don’t know the city a little bit already (since I navigate by landmarks) it’s useless. She figured out where we were and led us through the maze to the castle. Wow. Anyway, the castle is at the top of Lisbon’s tallest hill, and it offers a beautiful view of the river and the city and the mountains in the distance.

There are benches inside the castle walls with an incredibly cheesy poem on them... one in Portuguese, one in English, one in French, and one in Spanish. Try reading this poem declamation style... it sounds funnier the more serious your tone.
I say: “Lisbon”
When I arrive from the South and cross the river
And the city opens up as if born from its name
It opens and rises in its nocturnal vastness
In its long shimmering of blue and of river
In its rugged body of hills
Lisbon with its name of being and nonbeing
With its meanders of astonishment insomnia and shacks
And its secret theatre sparkle
Its masklike smile of intrigue and complicity
While the wide sea stretches westward
Lisbon swaying like a sailing ship
Lisbon cruelly built next to its own absence
- Sophia de Mello Breyner

Here’s a self-timer photo of the three of us at the top of the hill.

Here are Jakob and I sitting in a window in a tower. It was Meghan’s idea.

This is a view from one of the other windows in that tower.

From one of the towers, we spotted this church. It looks like a French basilica. We decided to head in that direction once we left the castle.

Here’s the castle that we climbed around. It looks like a castle should look, I think:

With very little difficulty, we found the basilica-like church. It’s not actually a basilica, just a big white church with a monastery attached. It was quite pretty.

We stopped at a grocery store to buy lunch, and ended up with a picnic of fresh fruit, nuts, yoghurt, and cookies. The sun was nice and bright, so we ate in a deserted park-like area, that was all concrete but had benches and seemed like a park. Then we walked to the metro, and rode north (uphill, to avoid the hike) to go to a museum with an unpronounceable, unspellable name. It’s a collection of art from every corner of the world from every era, and it was neat. On our way back we walked through Lisbon’s biggest park, which has, among other attractions, a very strange fountain and some artful hedges.

Here’s the fountain, which to me looks like it’s in ruins. It’s not.

Here am I with the artful hedges. Way in the background is a big statue, part of Lisbon, and the river. Way behind that are some mountains :)

One of the coolest things about Lisbon is its sidewalks: they’re sort of cobblestone, but they’re small stones and most are arranged in some sort of pattern. Every block is different, so looking down while you walk is nearly as interesting as looking around. Here’s a bit of sidewalk in the park:

We walked back to the hostel to get our bags and take advantage of the internet, then took the metro to the train station. Side note on the metro: it’s beautiful! Big and airy, new and clean, and lots of nifty features like escalators that move very slowly until someone steps on them, at which point they move at normal speed. We took an overnight train to Madrid, which wasn’t very comfortable. I’m so glad I’ve recently developed the ability to sleep in planes and trains, since a few months ago I wouldn’t have been able to sleep sitting up in rigid seats with no leg room. This time, I got a decent, though broken, night’s sleep. I woke up several times to change position, but slept about eight hours all the same.
Friday (Madrid)
We took the metro to the opera house, which is a block away from our hostel. The Spanish metro is even shinier and fancier and niftier than Lisbon’s! To think I used to be impressed by Paris’ and London’s and Moscow’s... nothing compared to Madrid. The hostel, on the other hand, was less impressive. We had a three-bed private room, which is nice, but the whole place was run down. [Since I won’t go into detail later... the shower was ridiculous (bad pressure, inconsistent temperature, no ventilation, small tub with a potted plant in it that naturally was full to the brim with shower water), one of the toilets didn’t flush, the room wasn’t very comfortable, the beds moved, we weren’t allowed to use the kitchen, there was an enormous beetle exploring the hallway, and the staff were never there so checking out and returning the key was guesswork. Water under the bridge.]
Near the rather disappointing hostel, however, were the rather incredible palace and cathedral! Half a block from the door we could see the palace, and it’s quite a sight. We bought breakfast in the bakery and ate it in the little park, which was nice. Here’s a picture of the three of us by the fountain in said park:

I got a pastry with almonds on it which I think must be fairly traditional, since I saw it all over the place. It was delicious, and the little birds liked it too. I had fun feeding them, and testing their limits: two were brave enough to grab a piece from my shoe when I put it there.

And here’s the palace! Well, as much of it as would fit in the frame... it’s enormous.

Here are Meghan and Jakob inside the courtyard of the palace. Also enormous.

We spotted this peacock, who was showing off his colors. Just in case there was a peahen among the tourists, I suppose.

Much of the inside of the palace is still furnished, since they have fancy events there. And there’s still a King. The place was full of lavish painting and gilding and fabric-covered walls and fancy furniture that looks very uncomfortable... beautiful but I couldn’t imagine living there! The chapel was really pretty as well, but it had nothing on the cathedral next door. Here’s a picture of me in the courtyard. The basilica-shaped church behind me is the cathedral.

After a quick visit to the Royal Armory and the Royal Pharmacy (which had lots of empty jars and bottles, and a nice distillery) we went to the cathedral. Here’s a slightly closer picture of it:

If I didn’t feel any particular loyalty to Notre Dame, I think this would be my favorite cathedral. From the outside it’s fairly normal (incredible is normal for cathedrals), but the inside is extraordinary. It’s modern and very colorful. Look above the Gothic pointed arches and you see this bright, geometric ceiling:

Glance into the dome and instead of seeing plain stone or flaking paintings, you see color:

Look for the traditional side rose window, and you see this colorful dome and paintings. The windows say “Word” (as in “In the beginning was the word”) in a few languages, including Russian for some reason.

Look in the back and you see a really cool looking organ:

Everywhere you look, there’s something beautiful, and it’s all cheerful to boot. Awesome.

We explored towards a grocery store, and bought an eclectic lunch to eat at the hostel. I forgot I wasn’t supposed to be eating meat (Good Friday) and got a chorizo sandwich. Meghan and Jakob got pasta, which is how we found out that we weren’t allowed to use the kitchen. So they just had raisins and cookies. Then we set out to walk across the city center to Madrid’s biggest park. On the way we walked through Plaza Mayor, which is full of restaurants, street performers, and hundreds of people:

Here’s one of the more impressive buildings on the side, complete with Spanish flags and a sign saying “Plaza Mayor.”

In the park, called Parque del Retiro, there are several things to see. One is a big artificial pond covered in boats, full of fish. There are some impressive monuments at the other side.

Another is an art museum, which was closed. The third is a greenhouse-style building which has modern art inside. It was also closed, but we could look through the windows!

The fountain outside this modern art greenhouse was creating rainbows, which were fun to take pictures of:

We took a picture of the three of us as well... although Meghan decided to make it a bit more interesting than usual!

We sat around enjoying the sun for a while, then headed back into urban Madrid. I had fun, as usual, taking backlit pictures:

Down the street, along the road outside the Botanical Gardens, is a large collection of statues of faces. Many are faces found in strange places, such as this:

I stopped to get a chocolate-covered churro (a Madrid necessity) and then we walked back downtown to look for a cheap tapas restaurant. It took a long time to work our way through the area, since it was absolutely packed with people. There were Good Friday processions going on (carry a statue through the streets) and the somber holiday didn’t stop the Spanish from going out on a Friday night!

We didn’t manage to find a reasonably-priced tapas restaurant, so we ended up eating at a buffet near the hostel that had plenty of salad and pasta for Vegetarian Jakob and temporarily-vegetarian (because we’re Catholic) Meghan and Kel. It was reasonably priced, and good food. I had a couple bowls of spinach soup, which was delicious. And they had lots of good fresh fruit for dessert. It wasn’t tapas, but it was a great meal. After dinner we headed back to the hostel, where we checked e-mail and watched the first half of Singin’ in the Rain before falling asleep.
Saturday (Madrid, France)
Saturday Meghan had to leave around 6:30, Jakob had to leave around 10:00, and I had to leave around 1:00. So we hugged Meghan goodbye when she left, then slept more. We spent a few minutes walking around by the palace before Jakob had to leave, and then I explored on my own for a while. I got more of those almond pastries in the bakery, one and a half for me and half for the birds. Then I went back to the hostel to try to check out, but there wasn’t anybody on staff. I hung around for a while surfing the internet, then gave up, locked my bag in the room, and walked around downtown. I came across some people decorating a statue of Mary with flowers, probably for an Easter parade. This is the size of whatever they were carrying (I couldn’t see it clearly) on Friday night!

As usual, I went a bit astray from my intended path, but I came across the beautiful town hall (I think), on my way back.

I went back to the hostel (where there was finally someone to give my keys to) then got on the metro to the airport. As far as I can tell, there is only one fault to the metro in Madrid: some of the trains are used on more than one line, so they have several route maps inside. This is fine if you’re expecting it. If you’re sure you’re on the number eight line to the airport, and are pressed for time, and upon glancing up see a big number nine and think you’ve gotten lost... not so fine. I figured it out though, and the panic subsided.
At the airport, I got to use a tiny bit more Spanish, but that was the most exciting thing that happened. Didn’t get lost, or have my flight cancelled, or have my carry-on lost, or anything. On the flight to Paris I seriously lucked out and got a whole row to myself! Plenty of leg room; it was a great flight despite the turbulence. As I write this (sans internet, it won’t be posted until tomorrow once I’ve uploaded all the photos...) I’m sitting in the airport’s train station’s waiting room, which has plugs. A happy discovery from my last trip, which makes my long waits a lot more interesting. I know that a day and a half in each Lisbon and Portugal is a really short time, but it was great. Some sun, some time with good friends, time to explore and time to use the tiny bit of Spanish I know. A wonderful three days.


Jakob said...


Lori said...

Dude, Jakob totally looks different than he did in high school. (Oh, I see he's commented. If you see this, hi!)

Sounds like a cool trip. I'm so excited about you coming to Cairo... we're gonna have a blast!

Also, near the end of your entry you were like, I'm writing this from such and such place... they have plugs! And it reminded me of Arthur Weasley. ^_^