Friday, March 20: last day in Lisbon

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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.
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(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

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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.