Archive for February, 2008

Feb 20 2008

Paris: Celebrating a birthday

Published by under France,Paris

So the next day, Feb. 5, was officially my mom’s birthday. Not that it mattered much because she had declared it to be her birthday week and we were all to greet her with a “happy birthday!” every morning we were in Paris. For all I know, she’s now made it her birthday month. Just in case: Happy Birthday, Mom!

A daily ritual evolved in which we would walk to our desired destination – to soak up as much Parisian atmosphere as possible and see what fun surprises and yummy treats we would discover on the way – and then metro it back. So that afternoon we set off on foot to visit the Notre Dame cathedral.

My mother’s checklist of things to do and see in Paris was determined by her favorite movies – in fact, she made me Google certain movie scenes to find out exactly where in Paris they were filmed, so we could visit that site. One such movie culminates in a dramatic scene on a Parisian bridge where the romantic leads finally unite. So it was imperative that our route to Notre Dame take us across that bridge, the Pont Neuf, where Mom could pretend that she was Diane Keaton.

(Fun historical tidbit: even though its name means “new bridge,” the Pont Neuf is actually the oldest bridge in Paris!)

Notre DameAfter an hours-long trek with many such sidetracks, we did manage to see Notre Dame. The cathedral is, of course, beautiful, with its famous flying buttresses and rose windows. We spent a while admiring the church (and resting our feet!), before trying to visit Quasimodo by ascending the towers. Unfortunately we arrived just in time to miss the last group climbing to the top.

We comforted ourselves by deciding to instead visit a shop touted in our guidebook as having “the best chocolate in the world” (which, let’s face it, is what we all really wanted to do anyway). The fact that it was also the most expensive chocolate in the world did not stop us from buying a sampler of delights. Although I can’t say I’ve tried all the chocolate in the world (it’s on my to-do list), I have to imagine this chocolate is a contender for the title of Best Ever. Upon leaving the chocolate shop, we stopped in a bakery for cinnamon-sugar fried apple slices. Oh, and we picked up some Nutella and banana crepes on our walk from the metro station. I love France!

We began the next day with a self-guided walking tour of the Montmartre district, starting with the notorious Moulin Rouge. Of course, to get there, you have to walk through Paris’ red-light district. Historically, I guess that’s what this area has always been (the Moulin Rouge was essentially a fancy brothel, after all), but the modern translation means giant stores called SEXODROME and lots of posters of naked women. Needless to say, walking down this street with a family of five was, well… uncomfortable, and it wasn’t long before Jamie was screaming to get out.

the moulin rougeSo the Moulin Rouge is basically a building that says “Moulin Rouge” and has a giant red windmill on top. Thanks to the movie, my sister had expected more – can-can dancers, flashing lights, and, at the very least, Nicole Kidman and Ewan Macgregor singing a duet out front. She was understandably (and vociferously) disappointed.

Montmartre as a whole is picturesque and charming and we wandered the winding streets until everyone was clamoring for food. To celebrate Mom’s birthday, we decided to splurge on a meal out. I’d searched in vain for a restaurant that was good and reasonably priced – an impossible task in Paris. During my research, I’d run across favorable reviews of a restaurant in the Montparnasse neighborhood called Aux Artistes. Reviewers claimed that the food was good, not great, and the atmosphere was nothing special, but there was just something about this place that made it a perfect Parisian dining experience. And at less than $30 a person, it was a steal (ridiculous, but true).

The reviews were spot on: the food and atmosphere of Aux Artistes are fine, but there IS something about restaurant that makes it great. And I can tell you exactly what that something is. His name is Marvin.

MARVIN
Lindsay, Marvin and Mom. Too bad the sun
obscures the beautiful view.

Imagine a tall, blonde Jake Gyllenhaal type that is impeccably dressed, has a sexy French accent, and brings you food. That’s Marvin. Lindsay was rendered speechless each time he passed and my mom giggled throughout the entire meal, though she did work up the nerve to ask him his name and snap a photo.

We decided to follow up our delicious meal/waiter experience with a café au lait at a small, nearby café. Here’s a tip about dining in France: always have your drink at the bar. If you sit down in the restaurant, your coffee costs nearly twice as much. When we entered this particular café, the bar was full of old French men. So we stood towards the back and I called our order to the bartender, but remained standing to clearly indicate that I was not interested in being seated in the restaurant area. Seeing Mom and I standing, a nice man scooted two bar stools to a tall, round table next to the bar. We said “merci!” and sat down.

And then the bill came, and the prices were twice as expensive as those listed out front. I protested. The bartender merely nodded at our table. Using emphatic hand gestures and my limited French, I pointed out that there had been no room at the bar, and we had not wanted to be seated. Even though it was obvious he understood what I was saying, the bartender shrugged, said something in French that translated to “tough luck, sucker!” and then LAUGHED IN MY FACE.

Few things on this trip have made me angrier. Even as I write this, I’m getting heated just recalling the incident. Have we told you how much we hate Parisians? Well, we do. Everything you hear about them is true. Okay, to be fair, it’s only mostly true. We did run into a few kind people. Marvin, for instance, who is perfect. But most of our local interactions were not friendly.

Don’t be confused, though. The people in Southern France were some of the nicest we’ve encountered. It’s some sort of Paris-specific affliction.

The Eiffel Tower was next on the agenda. Ever since we’d realized just how tall the tower is, we’d all been a little wary of the ascent. Moreover, Jamie was insisting that we climb the 1000+ stairs to the top instead of taking the sensible elevator — not because it was minimally cheaper, but because it would “totally own.” He followed this with lots of manly roars and muscle flexes. If you voiced dissent you were, of course, a “total noob.”

group shot at the Eiffel TowerTurns out you can only climb the stairs to the second level, which was fine by me. If you want to proceed, you have to purchase an additional ticket and take the elevator from there. I say “only” climb the second level, when really it was quite a feat, and even after hiking up and down the moutains of Greece for two months, my thighs were feeling the burn.

Mom and I opted to not to continue on, as she was already feeling weak-kneed and nervous at the second level (we had all been instructed not to touch her or talk to her at the top), and I’ve already climbed the tower once and it was terrifying enough the first time. I mean… who needs to see it twice? That’s just greedy. So you’ll have to ask Ben, Lindsay, or Jamie about their experience at the tip top. Mom and I stayed put and enjoyed the tower’s evening twinkle lights from the inside.

We ended our day with warm homemade paninis on crusty baguettes and several raucous rounds of spades. And since this is my blog where I can say whatever I please, my memory recollects that the girls won handily that night. Oh, and the boys cried. Now it’s recorded for posterity.

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Feb 17 2008

Getting to Know Paris

Published by under France,Paris

Monday was the first full day in Paris for Brittany’s family, and we got things started off on the right foot by sleeping until noon. You could blame this on jet/train lag for all of us, but the truth is that noon was simply the first moment that the girls remembered France has chocolate croissants. If one of the girls had dreamed of chocolate croissants at 5am, she would have instantly sprang from bed to rouse the others, and force us on a pre-dawn death march to find an open bakery. This I can assure you.

Pain au chocolate for the ladiesLuckily for them this week, there’s a bakery on every corner in France, and every bakery sells chocolate croissants. The treat is so ubiquitous that the French simply call it chocolate bread (pain au chocolate). I’m sorry to disclose that I have officially overdosed on chocolate after five months in Europe, but happy to report that that French bakeries have plenty of sweet alternatives, including my favorites, apple-filled anything. Apple pastries in France are actually filled with cold applesauce, which comes as a mouth-flooding surprise the first time you take an American-sized bite.

We dedicated the afternoon to exploring the city on foot, and locating a flea market that we’d read boasts 2500 stalls! Paris turns out to be a larger city than we bargained for, and although the flea market looked tantalizingly close to our apartment on our city map, the journey spanned several hours. Which is maybe not such a bad thing, because when we finally reached the famed flea market, we were frustrated to find that Parisian shop owners are far less willing to haggle than any European merchants we’ve encountered so far. Also, while Jamie and I were admiring some outrageously fabulous running shoes at one stall, a nearby shop owner called out something to us in French. We apologized as Jamie told him, “Je ne comprends pas” (“I don’t understand”), which earned us the admonition, “You come to France, you speak French!” Uh, sorry to break it to you big guy, but was anyone even talking to you? How about… no! Which I agree is surprising, considering you seem to deal exclusively in worthless ugly trinkets, you verbally accost passers-by who wanted nothing to do with you in the first place, and you smell like the men’s locker room floor. What’s that? Now YOU don’t understand? Wish I could help, but you come to my blog, you speak English. Au revoir!

Brenda makes friends with a Paris bar ownerAs I was saying, the long walk to the flea market was maybe not such a bad thing after all. Exploring on foot gave us a chance to see some worthwhile (albeit expensive) shops, and we inaugurated a daily tradition for the week by dropping into a cafe for an afternoon cafe au lait. Despite the fact that the cafe owner spoke not a word of English, and Brenda (Brittany’s mother) spoke not a word of French, they bonded instantly through the universal language of hand gestures. On second thought, the cafe owner did speak two words of English: “assassinate Bush.” This accompanied by the internationally recognized gesture of pulling his index finger across his throat. But before I go and paint the guy as a psycho vigilante, let me add that he was laughing as he said it, and it was clearly all in good fun. And now that the keywords “assassinate Bush” have appeared in my blog, skyrocketing me to the top of the Department of Homeland Security’s suspected terrorist database, let me also add that I would never wish harm upon Beloved Leader. I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Communist Party, and my favorite bedtime story is the Patriot Act. Four more years!

Sunset from the Sacre CoeurLater on in the evening, we hiked uphill from our apartment to the nearby Basilique du Sacre Coeur, or Sacred Heart Cathedral. We happened to arrive just in time for a little choir practice, so we sat in a rear pew to listen. The massive cathedral’s acoustics made the singing seem like it was coming from above and around me, which was an amazingly haunting effect. We sat there for a while enjoying the music, and then silently slipped back out the door. It had gotten dark while we sat inside the Sacre Coeur, and back outside we found a view that allowed us to see both the lit-up Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. After feeling like I was SO high up while atop the Arc the previous night, I now couldn’t believe how small it looked compared to the Eiffel Tower. We had plans to scale the Eiffel Tower in a couple of days, and although I dislike heights, I had never really considered just how high the monument actually is. I will always remember this moment, standing outside the Sacre Coeur at night, as the first time I thought the Eiffel Tower might be something to fear.

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Feb 17 2008

Paris Day 1

Published by under France,Paris

I stood in a crowded metro station, being pushed and bumped by hasty Parisians, staring at the large grid on the wall full of hundreds of dots and lines, knowing that, at one of those dots, my family was waiting for me. It was my job to somehow navigate this system to retrieve them. Even after months of negotiating foreign metros, Paris’ mass transit system is bewildering – it’s huge, contains two distinct rail systems, and is not at all well marked. After hopping a wrong train, getting off at a wrong stop, and running up and down (and back up) station elevators like a crazy person, I finally located my mother, sister and brother, who sat patiently waiting in the airport terminal.

It was a tearful and excited reunion. My brother, Jamie, was mostly excited because he’d never been on a plane before and – did you know? – you get ALL THE FREE COKE YOU WANT.

But no matter how thrilled we were to be reunited and in Paris, my family hadn’t slept on the plane and Ben and I were still recovering from our heinous journey from Lisbon, so it wasn’t long after we arrived at our rented apartment that we found Jamie snoring at the foot of a bed, and the rest of us quickly followed suit.

Because my mother had never been more excited about anything in her life and because we’d found out that on the first Sunday of every month many Paris attractions are free, we didn’t sleep for long. We lured my siblings out of bed with talk of yummy pastries, bundled up against the Parisian chill, and set off.

Our first stop was, obviously, the patisserie. My sister, Lindsay, had been jealously coveting pain au chocolat ever since I’d described my daily consumption back in Nice, so we ordered an absurd number of those. Jamie ordered a baguette, which he managed to eat nearly single-handedly while mumbling in between bites about how it was the best food EVER. Between the croissants and the baguettes, it was clear that the patisserie would be a staple on our daily schedule.

mom overlooking the seine
Mom crossing the Seine

We wandered the streets of Paris with no particular destination. My mother stared with rapt awe at the beautiful scenery and my sister kept stopping the group so she could snap photos. It goes without saying that Paris is, truly, a gorgeous city. I appreciated having my family there because, after five months in Europe, I tend to take such beauty for granted. It sounds horrible, and almost snobby, to say, but I hardly blink anymore when confronted with a one-thousand-year-old building or one-of-a-kind architecture. But Mom, Lindsay, and Jamie’s enthusiasm helped revitalize my own.

We found our away across the Seine River to the Musee D’Orsay, only to find that it was closing. The hordes of tourists being escorted out of the building did not stop my mother from trying to coerce a guard into letting us in, convinced that her Southern charm would work across the Atlantic. Unfortunately, Parisian men must have thicker skins, because we were denied entrance, again.

So we decided to traipse down the famous Champs D’Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe. Unfortunately, this simple stroll ended up taking hours as Jamie insisted on going into every store that sells shoes. I’m sure Ben appreciated the male shoe-shopping companionship after months of shopping with someone who insists that those so-called “Jordans” are just overpriced sneakers. WHICH THEY ARE.

arc de triompheThe Arc, a monument commissioned by Napoleon to commemorate French military victories, is located at one end of the Champs D’Elysees in what is the largest traffic roundabout in the world. Twelve streets radiate off the circle like spokes of a wheel. Thankfully, a clever, lawsuit-avoiding Frenchman developed an underground passage to shuffle tourists from one side of the street to the middle of the circle, so it was not necessary to put our lives in the hands of crazed motorcyclists in order to get to the Arc.

Having walked all evening, none of us were particularly thrilled about the idea of climbing nearly 300 steps to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, but the view – our first panorama of Paris – turned out to be very worth it. With the Eiffel Tower shimmering on one side, the Champs D’Elysees glowing below and the Sacre Coeur lit up in the distance, the effect was magical and we understood why Paris is called the City of Lights.

On the way home, since none of us felt much like cooking, we abandoned our budget-traveler stinginess and picked up some pizza from a nearby pizzeria. Ben and I talked the fam into getting egg pizza which, despite their initial moaning, they loved.

So our first day in Paris officially set the tone for the rest of the week: gorging ourselves on bread, cheese, and (mostly) chocolate, while perhaps trying to fit in a few sites in between.

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Feb 14 2008

From Lisbon to Paris on the Midnight Express

Published by under France,Lisbon,Paris,Portugal

We’re always writing about the deplorable travel conditions we’re willing to subject ourselves to in the name of saving a buck (or a euro, which is an unimaginable bounty of bucks). But the odyssey we endured getting from Lisbon to Paris may have been the most regrettable of all our almost-embarrassing-enough-to-not-do-it-again stingy decisions. We COULD have taken a delightfully convenient 2-hour plane ride from Lisbon directly into Paris, but we had the misfortune to discover an alternative option, involving 27 hours of travel, that was minimally cheaper. With visions of the one extra chocolate croissant we’d now be able to afford dancing in our heads, we foolishly booked our train tickets and started packing our bags.

As if one train ride from Lisbon to Paris weren’t bad enough, our itinerary required us to take one 14-hour overnight train to the French border city of Hendaye, where we would wait seven hours in the train station, and then board a different six-hour train for Paris. When one of our fellow hostelers in Lisbon heard us planning our route, he warned us that the overnight train to Hendaye is, in his own words, “the worst train in Europe.” But since I was, at that moment, in the middle of a recurring fantasy in which I swim backstroke laps inside Scrooge McDuck’s money bin, my ears were deaf to his warning.

It was only once we boarded the train for Hendaye that I remembered our friend’s words. Our train would travel overnight, but we discovered on board that our “seats” were not so much the individual reclining chairs you expect in lieu of beds on a cheap overnight train, but were, instead, numbered spaces on a dirty bench. Each toaster-sized compartment on the train was stuffed with two of these benches, situated so that they faced one another. And while the benches were obviously designed to accommodate two persons each, we noted that each bench was mysteriously numbered to seat four. Brittany and I took the “seats” next to the window, facing each other, and settled in for the ride. For the first hour of our 14-hour trip, we had the breadbox to ourselves. This was, of course, too good to last.

Sometime during the second hour, we were joined by two young French parents and their two-year old son. I should note here an inexplicable and recurring theme of this trip: American children are afraid of me, but European children love me. For every American toddler that has run away screaming after seeing what must look like pure evil in my eyes, there are two European children who I can’t seem to amputate from my ankles. So it was only to be expected when the little boy, upon entering our compartment, immediately decided that he preferred staring at me/scooting up next to me/lying as much of his body as possible across my lap to just about anything else his parents could suggest. Which was fine. What was NOT fine was that the kid’s parents smelled worse than I had previously thought possible for human beings. This coming from someone who just spent the last five months in the land that deodorant forgot.

Oh, and the kid’s screaming. That wasn’t fine either. Our claustrophobic compartment was not where you’d want to be trapped with a two-year old for fourteen hours, especially after two more occupants showed up in hour three, pushing us to three people over maximum occupancy. Still facing each other, but now more on the window than beside it, Brittany and I occupied ourselves by trying to remember exactly why we didn’t want to take the comfortable, spacious, and over-before-you-know-it plane ride. Luckily, my toddler attachment helped us all pass the time by throwing intermittent screaming fits that rendered sleep, conversation, and lucid thought impossible. He had several tantrums that would normally be very worthy of note, but they all paled in comparison to the one that was directly instigated by his own mother. Now, I’m the first to say that I know nada about parenting, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if your two-year old is whining for juice, it’s NOT a good idea to cruelly pitch an obviously empty juice box at his head. And then, when he discovers that you’ve played a prank on him, and whines louder because the juice box is actually empty, it’s an even worse idea to scream in his face and SHOVE HIM DOWN onto the ground. Really, this isn’t even just a terrible idea; it’s what we non-stinky rational people might call “child abuse.” Over the (clearly warranted) ear-piercing screams, I exchanged uneasy glances with the other passengers in the compartment. AWKWARD. Personally, I am unable to sleep sitting up, but Junior eventually fell asleep with his head on my lap, so the decibel level did recede during the night. Not so, I’m sorry to report, for the smell.

The next morning (or the same day… I didn’t sleep a wink, so who really knows?) our train arrived in Hendaye. I don’t feel bad saying that European border cities are the modern equivalent of old port towns, where everyone with any ambition/character/appeal fled for greener pastures long ago, and all that’s left are the few jerks who hang around in hopes of swindling the travelers who pass through. This may be a generalization based on limited experience, but I don’t feel bad saying it. Blame it on the bar owner in Hendaye who charged us SEVEN euros ($10+) for two plain donuts and a water at 7:30 in the morning. Oh, and the lady working the ticket counter at the train station. Once we realized the unscrupulous nature of Hendaye’s native vagrants, we tried to exchange our tickets for ones that might let us spend fewer than seven hours in the hellhole. The ticket lady was only too happy to explain that there were several trains heading for Paris between now and our scheduled departure, and that each one had “many, many available seats” but that she simply couldn’t exchange our tickets. Sorry! Actually, no, she didn’t even say sorry. She did try to suppress a laugh, with limited success. I guess I had hoped that she might not be a Hendaye native, and therefore had the possibility of a human soul, but I should have been thinking more clearly: no one would ever move TO Hendaye, North Korea, or Newark. The idea is to get OUT.

Like all non-criminals before us, we did manage to get out of Hendaye. It took sitting/unsuccessfully trying to nap in the train station’s waiting room for seven hours, but we did it. And after the first two torture sessions of our journey, stepping aboard one of France’s fast, comfortable, and modern TGV trains was a relief. Speaking of TGV, it was a good thing we spent time in Nice and Aix-en-Provence before booking our tickets to Paris. When we first tried to buy tickets in Lisbon, the ticket office told us that the train tickets from Hendaye to Paris would cost 75 euros each. We balked at this, and went online ourselves to the TGV website that we had used to travel through southern France. There we purchased our tickets ourselves for 25 euros each, saving about $150 in the process. Portugal’s station probably figures they can get away with this fleecing because the TGV website is difficult to find, and is entirely in French. If you’re planning to travel by train in France, everything you read will say that the TGV website is www.sncf.com. Don’t believe any of it! The locals view timetables and book their tickets through www.voyages-sncf.com, and so should you.

So we finally made it Paris, the last stop on our European tour. First impression: the city is HUGE. I thought we’d been to some big cities, but I’d seen nothing. Where Barcelona is serviced by a few dozen metro stops, Paris boasts an incredible 384. And this was really my first and only impression of Paris on arrival day, because we got into town after dark, took the metro straight to the apartment we’d booked for the coming week, and immediately proceeded to sleep like never before. Brittany’s family would be flying into Paris the next morning, and we would spend the next week exploring the city together. But for now, sleep, and sweet dreams of the chocolate croissant.

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Feb 13 2008

Baht Ate Our Dollars?

Published by under Bangkok,Thailand

I really want to tell you all about our sparkling week in Paris, which was a great last European hurrah, and I promise we’ll get to all of it. But I wanted to post a quick update to let everyone know that … [drum roll] … we’re in Bangkok! After nearly 14 hours on a plane, a strange layover in the United Arab Emirates, and a taxi ride (I know! A taxi. What unimaginable luxury!), we’ve arrived at a guest house just outside of the Bangkok city center which is costing us about $3 per night. It’s also sunny and ninety degrees. I love Thailand already.

On the other hand, there are ants crawling out of my computer keyboard, I am trying to get used to the idea of eating rice for breakfast every morning, and Ben keeps telling me everything tastes like Hepatitis A.

shots_sm.jpg
Disease-free in Thailand

Ben and I decided about a month ago that our budget would never allow us to stay in Europe for as long as we’d originally planned with the dollar weakening pretty much hourly, so we bumped our tickets to Thailand up. Unfortunately this gave us very little time to plan for our Southeast Asian journey, so we have no idea where we’re going from here. During our last days in Paris we frantically tried to prepare, and we did do some stuff: shipped our remaining winter/European trip items home, switched to tiny jungle-friendly suitcases, and somehow managed to muddle through getting all our proper vaccinations. Now we’re invincible! We did not, however, get a guidebook, as the cheapest we could find an English guide to Thailand was 30 euros, and that’s just far too much to pay for knowledge. So that’s the number one item on today’s agenda.

More updates to come, very soon. I would say goodbye in Thai, but since we don’t have a guidebook, I don’t know how. I just asked Ben how to say it and he said: “I don’t know! The only Thai word I know is ‘baht.’ Oh and ‘pad thai.’”

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Feb 11 2008

A Portuguese Fairytale

Published by under Lisbon,Portugal

Once upon a time in a far away land there was a beautiful (/intelligent/self-sufficient/independent) peasant girl on a mighty quest. She was seeking a magical castle deep in the enchanted forest, where Prince Charming (who appreciated her for her wit and personality) awaited to sweep her off her feet and make her the princess she longed to be. And THEN it would be perfectly socially acceptable for her to wear tiaras every day of the week and NO ONE could say ANYTHING because SHE’S A FRIGGIN’ PRINCESS, OKAY?

And then reality dawned, at the moment I realized I’d paid to enter this park, had been wearing the same shirt for a week, and my Prince Charming was running around up ahead pretending he was Link from Zelda. Theme song and all.

Although we really were in a forest. On our guidebook’s recommendation, we’d hopped a train from Lisbon to Sintra, a nearby small town that contained several noteworthy and picturesque palaces. The sight that most intrigued me, based on pictures I’d seen, was the Palace of Pena, a monastery-turned-royal-residence on the outskirts of town.

So after disembarking from the train in Sintra (okay, and after a brief stop at Pizza Hut because I was craving some good old American grease. Note: don’t eat at Pizza Hut abroad, where breadsticks = dry toast), we hopped a rickety bus to the top of a mountain where the palace was allegedly located.

Which is how I found myself trudging through a forest in the middle of Portugal, without a clue where to go and very much regretting my decision to let Ben lead. Although that forest really did seem enchanted — with dappling sunlight and moss-covered stones and so many other woodsy clichés. I felt that if I burst into song all the sprightly woodland creatures would bound of the forest to perch on my lap. I may or may not have tested this theory with the only song I could think of at the moment. FYI, “Who Let the Dogs Out” does not inspire nature to flock.

At the point I became convinced there was no way we were getting out of these woods alive, the towers of a gigantic castle emerged above the treetops just ahead of me. It was everything I knew a castle could be — and more! It is the castle out of every fairytale you’ve ever read. Seriously, people, check this out:

Pena Palace, Sintra

Now THAT is what I’m talking about! It looks like this awesome My Little Pony castle I had when I was little, with its pink, purple and lemon-tinted facade. But that one ALSO had a basket-lift for the purple baby dragon, which Pena was lacking.

Ben and I spent hours exploring the battlements, buttresses, and ramparts of Pena Palace. Okay, so I have no idea what those words mean, but I generally associate them with castles, so, you know, whatever. I mean, I probably saw those things, right? I was going to write as if I knew what I was talking about even though I have no idea (we’ll call that Ben-style writing), but then I figured it’d be really embarrassing to be called out on my own blog. I should really disable comments.

Visitors to Pena have a surprising amount of wandering capability when it comes to Pena’s exterior (we’re used to a large percentage of the sites we visit being closed to the public), but the rooms of the well-preserved interior were mostly roped off. Which meant that I couldn’t search for secret passageways like I’d planned, which was a bummer. Though the red-velvet-oil-painting-19th-century-esque decor starkly contrasted with the castle’s whimsical exterior, and I was quickly bored.

We then wandered down the mountain road and back a few more centuries to the ruins of an old Moorish castle. When we’d heard that the castle was ruined, I’d figured it was really ruined, along the lines of the Roman Forum. But entire sides of the defensive walls remained intact! And the scenery was incredible: the town of Sintra below, Pena on a neighboring hillside, misty mountains in the distance… unlike the ruins in Rome where, no matter how many times you tell me that those column bases once supported a temple to Zeus, I’m never really going to be able to get that, it was very easy to imagine Sintra’s Moorish castle in its prime.

Unfortunately, upon our return from a land called Honah Lee, we had some practical, real-life things to take care of to prepare for our trip to Thailand. Things like prevention of disease and imprisonment. So we promptly visited the local Thai embassy in Lisbon, having been informed that you need a visa for a stay in Thailand longer than 30 days. We showed up at the door of a building that looked a family home in what was a very residential neighborhood. But a small, gold plaque to the left of the gate confirmed it was indeed the Thai embassy. After ringing the doorbell (yes, a doorbell) for five minutes, the gate clicked open and we were permitted entrance.

We explained our situation, filled out all the proper paperwork, made copies of our passports, and were nearly finished our application when the old Portuguese woman behind the counter pushed a slip of paper towards me with a number written on it in a blank after the word “Amount”: 50.

“Fifty euros?!” I said, aghast. “EACH??”

“Yes, of course.” she replied.

So then I backpedaled. We were never entirely positive we needed a visa, but wanted to be overly cautious when it came to travel in SE Asia. It’s very hard to get into the nitty-gritty of Thai immigration law with a Portuguese woman who doesn’t speak the best English, but we were able to (eventually) confirm that you do NOT need a visa if you’re traveling in Thailand for less than 28 days at a time. This essentially means that we can stay in Thailand for 28 days, hop into another country like Laos or Cambodia for one night, and the next day be permitted back into Thailand for another 28 days, if we want. Seriously! It’s a nonsensical system, but it saved us $150. So it looks like we’ll be going to Laos or Cambodia and it might be time to actually consult a SE Asian map.

Our next stop was a Lisbon health clinic that our Portuguese friend Joao had contacted so that we could obtain Hepatitis A vaccines (I know, I know. This is stuff that should’ve been taken care of BEFORE our trip). We hiked up the stairs of the office building, took a number, and waited. When we were finally called, we quickly assessed that no one behind the counter spoke a lick of English, nor were they particularly concerned with helping us (pretty much the only grumpy Portuguese you’ll encounter are the ones who are working). But when it became clear to them that we weren’t going away — particularly when Ben kept attempting to pronounce “Hepatitis A” in various accents in hopes they might help us if he said Ehp-AH-Tee-Tees-Ah a couple dozen times — a large man lumbered over from behind a partition and grunted in our general direction.

“Hi.” I said. “We’re here for a Hepatitis A vaccination. We called this morning.”

“What is your address?” he replied.

“No, no. We don’t live here. We’re traveling.”

“Where is your hotel?”

“My hotel? I’m not sure of the street name.”

“What neighborhood?”

“Um, the Bairro Alto, I think.”

“We can’t see you.”

“What? Why not?”

“Health clinics divided by neighborhood. You must go to the Bairro Alto clinic.”

“You mean, because my hotel happens to be a couple blocks that way, you can’t see me?”

“Go here,” he said, shoving a piece of paper with a street name on it into my hand. Despite our attempts to say that we were just kidding! Our hotel is just downstairs actually! They wouldn’t see us. So we managed to achieve nothing we’d set out to do with only a week left before we hopped a plane to Bangkok. Oops!

We did see a few more sites in Portugal — a couple more ancient and priceless monasteries and palaces, none quite as impressive as those at Sintra. But mostly we ate, delighting in the fusion of foods Portugal offers, from South American to Northern African. I surprised myself with how comfortable I am eating fish that are served to me with the head still on. I also ate pig ears because Ben happened to leave that fun little detail out when he sat a plate of food down in front of me. He knows I can’t not eat food within my reach!

The final leg of our European journey was in Paris, where we were meeting my family and catching our flight to Thailand. Next on E.A.M.D.: our worst transportation experience yet!

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