Saturday, March 21: Sintra, Portugal

The past 24 hours have been terrific. Last night’s dinner was good, but the restaurant made it very special. First, it had two gigantic dark green doors in front, and a small sign with the name, Mesa de Frades. There was no way to open the door, and we stood there for a couple of bewildered minutes. A guy who had been talking on his phone out in the street walked over and showed us a small button to press. Soon, the owner opened the door a slight crack and asked (in Portuguese) whether we had reservations. I said we did and he ushered us in. I felt as though I was in a movie.

It was a tiny, dark place, five small tables against the wall on both sides of the room, each for two people. A few tables were pushed together. The place was ancient and we later found out it had survived the 1755 earthquake. All the tables were full once we sat down and since it was super-small, it seemed packed. The kitchen was at one end, partially exposed. It seemed that the cook was the owner’s wife or girlfriend, and he handled the tables.

Dinner was a set menu (cod fish) because the place is known mainly for its fado performances. Fado is the soul music of Portugal, we learned, and is mostly sad love songs sung with a lot of emotion. The show started at 11:15 and was to have 3 performers. Adding the three guitar players plus a singer to the front of the room by the door was an amazing feat of space utilization. We stayed for the first singer, and she was very good – young, beautiful, and so talented. We were very tired and left at about 12:30. I chatted with the singer outside about how much we enjoyed her performance. “This to me was all no problem,” she said, smiling. I love how some people here string English words together as best they can.

I later learned (from a couple we met on the tram today) that this particular place is the best of its type in Portugal and where the professional fado singers often get their start. It was an extraordinary experience.

This morning we reluctantly left Lisbon and drove an hour to Sintra, a city with beautiful architecture, some castles, and spectacular views. We walked around for a while, then looked for the tram we had read about. Soon, a group of cute, young, uniformed scouts approached us and asked whether we would buy a … pen. I said sure, but we needed directions to the train station. The scouts escorted us the three blocks to the station, chattering in English with us the entire way. They were the real deal: kind, fun, poised, and so polite. When we got there I suggested that we’d buy another pen (each scout had a fistful) but one boy said “We wouldn’t think of it,” so sincerely that I did want to hug him.

We didn’t realize the tram didn’t leave from the train station at all, although when we asked at the Information booth, it sounded as though we were close: go out the door, make a right, then a left… but we didn’t see tram tracks anywhere.

We walked past a museum and decided someone in there could probably direct us. There were three women at the front desk, which had a few people lined up to buy entry tickets. We stood aside for a second, then one of the women asked if we needed help. We mentioned our tram problem. She paused and then said something to the other two women and it looked for a second as though she was going to take us to the front door and point out where we should go.

Even better! Another woman from the counter joined her, and the one who spoke English said “Follow us!” Down some stairs, up a street, around a block, and there we were at the tiny, hidden tram station. With the two museum workers! We thanked them and presumably they headed back to work.

We took the tram ($3) to the end of the line and hung out at the ocean, then had lunch and caught the last one back at 4. We sat with a guy and girl from Lisbon who were amazed we had gotten a table at the fado restaurant last night and who loved hearing about the U.S. We hardly looked out the tram windows to appreciate the rambling beauty of Sintra, one big reason to take the tram in the first place – but that was fine.

We are staying in a very charming old hotel in the center of Sintra tonight, then heading out in the a.m. although we don’t have a solid plan yet. We have reservations in Barcelona for Thursday through Sunday, but are free to motor around until then.
(See photos on post that follows- they wouldn’t upload here)

Adios,
Susan

Photos from 3/21

The sign on the huge, old restaurant doors

The sign on the huge, old restaurant doors

Very dark picture, because it was a very dark, very small, very cool restaurant.

Very dark picture, because it was a very dark, very small, very cool restaurant.

Travesseiros: traditional pastries that originated in Sintra. The name means "pillow," and they're stuffed with an almond, egg, and naturally sugar mixture. They're very good (again: stopped at one, could've had more)

Travesseiros: traditional pastries that originated in Sintra. The name means “pillow,” and they’re stuffed with an almond, egg, and naturally sugar mixture. They’re very good (again: stopped at one, could’ve had more)

We took the tram from the center of the city to the end of the line- the beach. It's a pretty 45-minute trip

We took the tram from the center of the city to the end of the line- the beach. It’s a pretty 45-minute trip

We had lunch in this perfect location, and tried caldeirada, a fish stew with mussels, clams, shrimp, sea bass. Tons of them. Delicious!

We had lunch in this perfect location, and tried caldeirada, a fish stew with mussels, clams, shrimp, sea bass. Tons of them. Delicious!

Friday, March 20: last day in Lisbon

..

Today we planned to take a tour of the old and grand opera house, the National Theater of Sao Carlos. The opera house was rebuilt almost right away after the 1755 earthquake that leveled Lisbon (and killed 30,000 people). The king tried to rebuild most of the city within a year, and the original theater had only opened months before the quake. So this one was built in 1756 (and took just six months!) and it’s magnificent.

Our hotel tried to arrange our visit, but didn’t get a response to two emails. The tour started at 11, so it was suggested we get there early and see if we were able to get in. They gave us a copy of the email they sent, thinking it might be helpful to have.

When we arrived at 10:30, all the doors were locked. I stopped a woman standing near the place: she spoke English, she was in charge of the guest relations, and she welcomed us with open arms. It turned out that the email address the hotel was using had a letter missing so she never got either of them. She seemed so concerned for our happiness that it was astounding.

She told us the group at 11 was made up of German and French visitors, and that we wouldn’t get anything out of it since she wasn’t going to repeat the information in three languages. So she let us sit in one of the viewing boxes for just a few minutes and watch a rehearsal in progress. We were content with that unique experience but then she said we could come back at 3 and watch the whole rehearsal of the opera that’s opening 3/25, La Cenerentola.

We did go back and we sat in a box with her friend, Maria (who quickly became my best friend in Portugal) and watched and listened to the rehearsal. It was quite a thrill to be sitting in almost the best seats in the house and watch opera stars from around the world (there’s an American in the orchestra and we were asked if we knew him, as though all of us from the U.S. know each other.)

Then she gave us a backstage tour, snapped a few photos of us, kissed us goodbye, and we were on our way – four hours later. Maria has invited us to her home in Belem, the area we visited yesterday, on our next trip – which could be soon because I love it here.
—-
(Yes, those are new spring pants and a new top seen pictured. I may have enough clothes now, but will still probably do some shopping in the week ahead (why not?!)

There’s no talk of food today because I am writing this before we go to dinner. 9:30 reservations are late for this girl but that’s what our friends from last evening arranged for us, since the live music doesn’t begin until 11. So by the time I get back to the hotel, it will be very late. )

Adios,
Susan

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At the opera house. That's the President's box/viewing chamber behind us - it used to be for the king.

At the opera house. That’s the President’s box/viewing chamber behind us – it used to be for the king.

It was a beautiful spring day here. I shouldn't have brought my jacket since I had to carry it around all day.

It was a beautiful spring day here. I shouldn’t have brought my jacket since I had to carry it around all day.

Another view of the magnificent opera house. You're not allowed to take pictures of the stage, so I didn't dare. I'm trying to be a great ambassador!

Another view of the magnificent opera house. You’re not allowed to take pictures of the stage, so I didn’t dare. I’m trying to be a great ambassador!

Thursday, March 19: Lisbon

Today was a wonderful day!
I had read an article that suggested a number of must-see places here in Lisbon. Yesterday we went to that crazy bar and today I wanted to visit the Pasteis de Belem, a bakery that sells the traditional Portuguese custard tarts. Although these can be found all around the country, this particular place is supposed to make the best ones. They have a secret recipe that only three people know in its entirety and the exact ingredient list is in a safe with “100 keys,” as a woman told me today.
We got there at about 11 and there was a long line out the door and into the street. I noticed that there was a sign for Table Service and an arrow to go indoors. We found an empty table and enjoyed a snack of the delicious tarts. They are small pastries filled with a lemon/vanilla custard, and served warm, right out of the oven. I could have eaten 10 easily and understood right away why people queued up for these tarts.

President Silva’s house is not far away on the same street and it was amazing to see, with guards in uniform standing at attention in front and police directing traffic in that area. I think this was because he was there, at home today. There were demonstrations across the street but it was nothing like Washington D.C.: much smaller and generally calm. Portugal is a peaceful country and seems remarkably safe. This feeling of safety is noticeable right away (although there are pickpockets like any big city, of course).

Next we went to the Conserveira de Lisboa, a little shop that sells a variety of canned fish: salmon, octopus, tuna, mussels, sardines. They are canned in Lisbon, then labeled and wrapped in the shop. I enjoyed this unusual place and got some tuna, octopus, and mussels to (hopefully) bring home. (I read up on the customs restrictions just now and fish products seem ok to transport.)

We did some shopping and I got running shoes but no bathing suit. I still hope to swim while I am here but at least I can run now.

We went back to the seafood restaurant on the water for dinner tonight, mainly because we loved it for lunch yesterday. I had grilled squid. We met a super-nice young couple there who live in Lisbon. They made reservations for us for tomorrow night at one of their favorite traditional Portuguese restaurants that plays live fado – music of their culture. It sounds like fun.
We are also taking a tour of the opera house here tomorrow . It is hundreds of years old and still used during their opera season.
I am loving Lisbon!
Adios,
-Susan

…..

It is remarkable that the city keeps these stone sidewalks maintained. Laying rocks seems so tedious but two workers were adding rocks very quickly.

It is remarkable that the city keeps these stone sidewalks maintained. Laying rocks seems so tedious but two workers were adding rocks very quickly.

The Conserveira de Lisbon

The Conserveira de Lisbon

Pasties de Belem! Two coffee, two bottles of  water, two pastries =a bargain

Pasteis de Belem! Two coffees, two bottles of water, two pastries =a $6.25 bargain. Everything here is very inexpensive

The cans of fish are all wrapped by hand.

The cans of fish are all wrapped by hand.

Wednesday, March 18: Lisbon

We drove to Lisbon today and arrived at about 2. It is a big confusing city and even with directions it was hard to find our hotel. We drove around and around looking for the particular street and I really wished we had gotten a car with GPS. We did finally find it though, and we are happily living in our hotel in Lisbon until Saturday.

We haven’t walked around the city yet because we immediately went to lunch at Five Oceans, a restaurant at the port. We had delicious sea bass and sat outside since it was nice – just a little chilly. It was nice to be right on the water.

Next we went to Pavilhao Chines, a bar we had read about. An article said it was a must-be-seen-to-be-believed place, and that was sure true. The walls are lined with cabinets – every wall of every one of the five rooms – and these are filled with all sorts of toys, knickknacks, battle helmets, small toy army men, ceramic dolls, fans – I can’t even remember everything I saw. There are easily thousands of collectibles on display, organized well. We got there at about eight and when we left about 90 minutes later it was starting to really get busy. It was a strange and interesting place.

Tomorrow we will do some shopping and walk around to see what Lisbon is all about.

Adios,
Susan

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At the port where we had lunch today

At the port where we had lunch today

Seafood is pulled from the water and plunked on the plate (pretty much)

Seafood is pulled from the water and plunked on the plate (pretty much)

Every wall in every room had cabinets covering it. These were completely filled with collectibles of all kinds. It was nuts!

Every wall in every room had cabinets covering it. These were completely filled with collectibles of all kinds. It was nuts!

At the Pavilhao Chines

At the Pavilhao Chines

Tuesday, March 17: Toledo, Spain

We figured it would be relatively simple to pick up our rental car this morning from the rail station, and it sure would have been if we read, spoke, or understood Spanish. Instead, it took forever in the very busy train station. We got dropped off a level up from the street, and right away I realized there were no car rental signs or familiar Hertz icons anywhere. So we were forced to walk through the entrance and into the train station without a clue about which way to go. With our luggage. Which is getting cumbersome.

When we couldn’t find any signs at all within 20 minutes of searching, we first asked a friendly looking woman, who directed us to go outside; then a cop, who pointed to the parking lot. Finally we put the luggage in one spot, and I waited amid the rushing commuters for Roger to figure things out. He did. The car rental was two floors below and through a long hall- quite a walk but I realized I had a newfound spring in my step.

Lisbon is eight hours from Madrid, and we didn’t plan to drive much more than half of that today. We wanted to first go to Toledo, which is an hour from Madrid. It was the capital of Spain hundreds of years ago, so it’s full of history and beautiful architecture. It is a busy city, with people, cars, and busses all over, so not easy to drive around. We learned that quickly.

Parking is a serious problem and so is not having ample change for the meter when you miraculously do find a space. We gambled that we’d get some more change before the meter ran out, although there were no stores at all to get some in the area where we were parked.

The streets are the original stone in the historic part of the city. They’re uneven and not easy to walk fast on, but the stores and restaurants (owned probably forever by the same shopkeepers) on those streets are worth the exercise. We needed to spend more time in Toledo than we were able to today – there is so much to see. We only had time to walk around a monastery from the 1500s and grab a quick bite to eat. We got back to our car just as it was being ticketed. Luckily, she let us pay the fine there, since if it went through the rental company and back to us, it would’ve multiplied at every point in the process (spoken from experience).

We drove for a few hours and stopped for lunch in a very small town. I had no idea what we were ordering when I simply pointed to two different phrases on the menu.These turned out to be pimentos and bread, and eggs with rice and sausage. Both were good Spanish fare, and the one-room restaurant was full when we left.

We continued to Badajoz, a city near the border of Spain and Portugal. The drive was pretty, with olive trees growing in farms on the side of the road, and a nice landscape. It rained heavily during parts of the drive and we considered stopping early, but that wasn’t an option since the small towns had no hotels. So we pressed on and I am glad we did. We found a nice hotel in the center of Badajoz (“Please have a room…”) and have just had dinner at the restaurant here. There’s a decent pool here and I wish I had a bathing suit! (I realized earlier that this is the first day I haven’t bought any clothes.)

Tomorrow we go across the border and drive to Lisbon, where we will spend four days.
Adios,
-Susan

Sheep being herded at the side of the road. I wished I grabbed my camera earlier.

Sheep being herded at the side of the road. I wished I grabbed my camera earlier.

Restaurant in the middle of nowhere, where we had lunch today.

Restaurant in the middle of nowhere, where we had lunch today.

The old, old stone can be seen here, plus a couple gargoyles peeking out.

The old, old stone can be seen here, plus a couple gargoyles peeking out.

Monday, March 16: last day in Madrid

Today we went to the Prado, the main national art museum in Spain. They are featuring a Goya in Madrid temporary exhibit, but the classic (Goya and Velasquez) masterpieces were what we wanted to see. There are over a thousand pieces of art on display (out of a collection of about 7,500) at any given time, and the building is (of course) huge.

As soon as we got there, a tour guide approached us and asked whether we wanted her to show us around. I was apprehensive but the price was right so Ana escorted us through the museum.

What a wealth of very interesting information she shared! There is no way to take in everything in the hours we planned to be there, but Ana showed us the highlights, or the must-see works. She had details and trivia about each one and I found it all fascinating. I left there thinking I may take an art history course, and that I want to learn more about the Spanish royal family. Some of them were characters and I haven’t read any Spanish history in decades.

Next we went to the barrio de La Latina – the Latin neighborhood of Madrid. It has narrow streets, old shops and restaurants, and is buzzing with people and action. (There’s a picture below of a street performer who looked like a gold statue. He was just sitting in front of a chess board. It was only after a few minutes that he stared out and revealed the whites of his eyes. He drew quite a crowd and I wondered how many hours he sat there motionless.)

We had lunch at a little Latin cafe and did a some shopping (to include the peach-colored sweater pictured) then headed back to the center of the city. Dinner was light: some tapas (small plates to share) and a bottle of wine at a restaurant near our hotel.

Tomorrow we pick up a car and drive toward Lisbon. We won’t make it there in one day, but I’m not sure where we’ll stop. I’ve really enjoyed Madrid!

Adios,
-Susan

After dinner tonight

After dinner tonight

Cafe con leche is why I'm awake right now, at one a.m.

Cafe con leche is why I’m awake right now, at one a.m.

A very-believable street performer posing as a statue.

A very-believable street performer posing as a statue.

Sunday, March 15: Madrid

Sunday, Madrid.

(We are here until Tuesday morning, then we pick up our rental car and begin driving – to Lisbon, then back into Barcelona, stopping all along the way. We have to finalize our route there, and may figure that out later today.)

It is nice weather to walk around Madrid, and that’s what we’ve been doing. That, and drinking more coffee than I ever drink in an effort to get myself on Spanish time.

Last night we had a delicious dinner at a restaurant sort of close to the soccer stadium, Asador Donostiarra. We shared some Spanish wine and appetizers first: prawns, anchovies, croquettes – and could have left it at that.
But, no. We ordered more food.
Me: squid. Him: steak (cooked at the table, which was interesting) . We should have left it at that and I certainly intended to. I had seen nothing chocolate on the menu, and mentioned that to the waiter as my excuse for skipping dessert. He told me they had chocolate cake in the kitchen and it was fantastico, and that I had to have some. Backed into a corner, I heard myself say “Really? Great! Uno slice, por favor,” as Roger ordered rice pudding.
It turned out the cake was good as he claimed, but it turned out I was glad we didn’t skip dessert. The young couple sitting next to us got chatty after agreeing to take our picture. They were on a weekend getaway from their home in Israel and were very interesting to talk with.
(This is known as Justifying Dessert.)

Today we went to the Museo Sofia, a contemporary art museum in a beautiful, very old building. It was fun, but some art just annoys me (did those colored wood pieces really need to be under the protection of glass?) and causes me to ask myself whether I could have made a name as an artist had I just realized a painting can be finished after drawing just a simple line down the center of the paper.

Tomorrow: the Prado museum!

I bought a couple of shirts/blouses this afternoon (but am nowhere near being wardrobed) and we had lunch at a very good tapas place. I’m loving Spanish food! Since I’m eating so much of it, I need to find and buy running shoes, shorts, and a bathing suit pronto, then put them to work!

Adios,
-Susan

This painting could be of me: jet lagged (still), eating too much (this will continue), and physically inactive (must change that).

This painting could be of me: jet lagged (still), eating too much (this will continue), and physically inactive (must change that).

I should have glued down my kids' creations and sold them!

I should have glued down my kids’ creations and sold them!

At dinner Saturday evening.

At dinner Saturday evening.

Saturday, March14: Madrid

Before I left ( sort of blurry as Roger wanted to get moving already)

Before I left ( sort of blurry as Roger wanted to get moving already)

Saturday afternoon in a coffee shop near our hotel.

Saturday afternoon in a coffee shop near our hotel.

Here I am, reporting from the center of the city and sitting happily in a hip coffee shop. I’m jet-lagged but sipping strong coffee as I post this. Most of the people here seem to be very interested in the soccer game on TV.
Our flight to Chicago, JFK, then Madrid was largely uneventful. What a great feeling it was to tote around my light-as-a-feather luggage and not have the zipper threatening to burst from being over-stuffed. This, my friends, may be the only way to travel!
I wore a shirt and sweater that I may be happy to have later on in the trip, and black pants that I will for sure wear again. Photos of departure clothes should appear above.
When we arrived in Madrid, it was 9am and of course (1) there was no room available since check-in is at 1pm, (2) I was so tired from not sleeping on the plane that I may have been seeing double, (3) I really wanted to take a shower.
None of those things were going to change for a while, so we did what needed to be done: had breakfast then set out to shop! We went to the Salamanca district, which has many wonderful stores and was bustling with activity on a Saturday morning. I did well on this first trip. I found a really pretty top that I’ll wear to dinner one night (not tonight though), a couple pairs of pants, a top I’m wearing now, some shoes, and (crucial): undergarments.
Roger is a good sport about shopping, and by that I mean he wanders off and buys himself what he wants (gloves, socks) and then looks for me (this is complicated by not having our phones on to text each other).
Eventually we walked back to the hotel, shopping bags in hand, and got our room. Right now, he’s asleep and I guess I should be, but I ventured out instead (I’m thinking that I may not be back in Madrid for some time, so I won’t waste it napping). There are all sorts of street performers, flamenco dancers, some magic acts, and plenty of people milling around on this sunny Saturday. I ended up getting another pair of shoes and a pair of pants that I didn’t try on (feeling lazy). Then I popped in here and asked a joven to take my picture. As you can see, my outfit today is nothing special: it’s Spanish, though and I am very happy to be off to a good start!
Adios for now,
-Susan

Welcome

On March 13, I left for Spain and Portugal. I carried one suitcase. It only contained toiletries.

Yes, that’s right. The only clothes I have brought on this 17-day trip are the ones I wore on the plane. Packing was amazingly stress-free.

My plan is to buy clothes as I travel. That may or may not be the smartest idea I have had in a long time. Regardless, this blog will document my trip.

Thanks for reading and sharing!

-Susan