Archive for the 'Lisbon' Category

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 Don’t believe any of it! The locals view timetables and book their tickets through, 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 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 clich├ęs. 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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Feb 09 2008

Baseball, Hot Dogs, and Apple Pie (Or, the Essential Portuguese Experience)

Published by under Lisbon,Portugal

A week in Lisbon might not make me an expert on how to achieve the authentic Portuguese experience, but then again, it might. We arrived in Lisbon with very little idea of what (if anything) defines this strip of coastline that has managed, through all these years, to not be Spain. I have to agree with Brittany’s assessment that Portuguese sounds far more like Russian than Spanish, which teaches us one important lesson: don’t trust the testimony of your Spanish friends when it comes to the Portuguese experience. Instead, trust ME when I tell you that THE authentic Portuguese experience comprises the following three elements…

You ever hear the one about the undersized European nation with the oversized heart? Their unquenchable thirst for discovery meant that they were the first European nation to scope out all sorts of prime colony and trading location in Africa, the Americas, and even Asia. But their tiny size prevented them from holding on to their claims when the bigger bully countries showed up. And so it was that Portugal kept on a-findin’, and England, France, and Spain kept on a-lootin’. Sucks, right? Portugal thinks so too. And that’s only part of the painful story – back on the homefront, the country’s domestic history can be summed up as one oppressive, and entirely disastrous, regime after another. But since the people can’t do much else in the face of their star-crossed fortunes, they have decided to sing. This is fado.

Fado in Lisbon: The fado singer is in the background, wearing redYou can’t sing fado until you’ve really been kicked to the curb. By 6’10″ WWE Superstar The Undertaker. Wearing cleats. Not because there’s a background check, but simply because you wouldn’t be ABLE to. More than singing, fado is a gut-wrenching wailing that keeps the neighbors awake down the street. Except they don’t yell at you to stop that racket – they just close their eyes, look to the heavens, and mutter in Portuguese, “sing it, sister.” Again, Portugese sounds like Russian to us, but I assume this is what all the teary-eyed patrons in our fado bar were saying as they shook their heads at the ceiling. Our Israeli friend Dvir told me that he doesn’t like fado because he dislikes music he can’t dance to. I suppose he has a point, but look at it from the Portugese perspective: you probably don’t feel much like dancing when you realize Spain just stole South America. Again.

Football (aka Soccer)
We hit Portugal at the end of January, meaning we’d been in Europe 5 months without seeing a football game. I know, I know… inconceivable! Cut as a break though: we tried to go see AS Roma play in their home stadium, but then there was the small issue of arriving at the stadium to find the terrified riot police barricading themselves inside against the masked pyromaniac hooligans, and screaming at us to run for our lives. I still don’t get why that match was canceled. But now, with only two cities left on our European tour, we were determined to attend a football match while in Lisbon.

Fortune smiled upon us this week. Portugal has 3 major football clubs, who, between them, have won every single national football championship for something like the last 75 years. Two are based in Lisbon, and one in the northern city of Porto. Whenever two of the clubs play each other, the event is called a “Classic,” and everybody who’s anybody wants to be at the match. Soon after arriving in our hostel, we learned from some football fanatics that Lisbon’s Sporting Club would be hosting Porto in the latest “Classic” match during our stay. I’ve been searching for a football club to make my own throughout our European tour, and destiny was made clear when I discovered the Sporting wears the same glorious green as the New York Jets* and Boston Celtics. As the locals say, “Sporting sempre!” (“Sporting forever!”)

The big game was set for Sunday night, but fearing a sellout, we headed to the stadium to purchase our tickets in the early afternoon on game day. There, at the box office, we received painful news: the cheapest tickets available were 50 euros ($75) each. At this point, we actually debated whether or not to go to the game. But all the Sporting enthusiasm from the fans partying around the stadium convinced us that we needed to be a part of the upcoming spectacle. We bought our tickets (which, presumably, have liquid gold cores) and headed back to the metro station, excited about returning in the evening.

But on our way out, we spotted a tiny cellar-looking door at the base of the stadium, surrounded by a few loitering Sporting fans. We decided to check it out, and discovered the dark little closet to actually be the Sporting Fan Club office. And lo and behold, they were selling off unclaimed Fan Club tickets for the night’s game at the attractive price of 30 euros each. Already tasting the instant savings of 40 euros, I immediately sprinted back to the box office and tried to return our expensive tickets. No dice. Which I suppose is not surprising, since the entire operation is probably a scam to fleece stupid tourists like us. But never ones to give up so easily, we decided to try on the hat of that rightfully despised third-lowest form of life: the ticket scalper.**

For the next hour, we hovered in front of the box office, accosting every potential ticket buyer with our broken and unintelligible mix of Spanish, English, and Portuguese. In the beginning, Brittany asked if scalping was even legal in Portugal, but there were two police officers posted at the box office, and neither was making any effort to stop us, so I figured it must be OK. Waving our two tickets wildly in the air, we made every shameless attempt possible to unload them on OTHER unsuspecting tourists, even going so far as to engage the box office in one or two hotly competitive pricing wars. After an hour’s worth of failure, I really couldn’t believe what terrible luck we were having. Especially when I noticed a rival scalper hook two buyers out of the ticket line. But then he did something strange – he led his prospects away from the box office, and around the corner of the stadium to a darkened corner. I know this because I followed them, in hopes of stealing his business. I noticed that only once they were there, in the shadows, did they conduct their exchange. And then it struck me: what we’re trying to do IS illegal. The only reason the cops have left us alone is because we haven’t committed the crime YET. Suddenly quite happy to sit in our overpriced seats instead of a Portuguese prison cell, I ran back to Brittany to call off the scalping plan, and we made a hasty escape.

Sporting vs. Porto January 27, 2008Returning to the stadium that evening, we bargained for a couple of green Sporting scarves from a vendor outside the stadium, and made our way to our 50 euro seats. Which turned out to be at the midfield line, in the 2nd row of the upper tier. From this prime vantage point, we finally watched our first European football game. And perhaps more importantly, we wached the passionate football fans, in all of their flag-waving, homemade-smoke-bomb-throwing glory. Together, we cheered on the underdog home team to a satisfying 2-0 victory. One of the most lasting impressions I’ll take away from that game is the behavior of the visiting Porto fans. Despite their team going down early, and never really threatening victory, the Porto fanbase stood and cheered loudly the entire game, and not a fan seemed to leave before the final whistle. The stark contrast to the behavior of my own fanbases back home made me more than a little ashamed. I’ll try to get things turned in the right direction back home with a few well-placed homemade smoke bombs.

Pasteis de Belem
The third and final element of the essential Portugese experience is our favorite dessert in Europe, a Portuguese specialty called pasteis de nata. But we visited a bakery in the Belem neighborhood of Lisbon which has (perhaps arrogantly) renamed its own version of this dessert: pasteis de Belem. Fittingly, the bakery itself is also called Pasteis de Belem, and it’s been around since the 1830s! Even if the fine folks at this bakery aren’t arrogant, they would have every right to be, because these are the only pasteis that matter.

Brittany enjoys Pasteis de BelemThe dessert itself is a palm-sized tart of sweet, fluffy egg custard in a light, flaky crust. It’s served warm out of the oven, with shakers of powdered sugar and cinnamon for sprinkling on top. In an effort to fit in with the pasteis conossieurs at the tables surrounding us, we had ours with coffee, and the effect was unforgettable. We ate four at our table, brought four more back to the hostel to eat that night, and on our last day in Lisbon, made the 40-minute round-trip tram ride to Belem, just to eat four more. Words are frustratingly inadequate to describe the epic perfection of this dessert, but trust me when I say that if you ever visit Lisbon, put Pasteis de Belem at the top of your itinerary. Brittany says that, much like Naples pizza, this is one of the things that will cause her tears of longing in years to come.

So there you have it: the 3 keys to THE authentic Portuguese experience. And since I’m just some guy who wandered around Lisbon for a week with little directional bearing and no grasp of the language, I should know.

*Please no comments on the Jets’ 2007 season.

** For the record, the 3 lowest life forms are…
3rd lowest: Ticket scalper
2nd lowest: Gypsy pickpocket
Lowest: “Alexander Nava” from South Star Company in Barcelona. I’ll get you!!!

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Feb 06 2008

Lisbon Love

Published by under Lisbon,Portugal

We hopped the bus from Seville to Lisbon, Portugal, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, and ready to go. We wanted to TRAVEL and LEARN and DO STUFF. It’s unfortunate, then, that Portugal was our next destination, as the Portuguese aren’t really into the whole “doing stuff” thing. As the most laid back people I’ve encountered in my life, they spend their days eating and drinking in cafes, playing games in the park, and enjoying Portugal’s many warm, sunny days. By the end of our week in Lisbon, we spent most of our time eating pasteis, drinking vinho verde and playing cards with our hostel mates. Which, actually, makes this one of our more successful cultural immersions.

Our week in Lisbon did not start so smoothly. Naturally, we didn’t have a place to stay upon arrival, so we scooted on over to the nearest hostel, thinking we’d find more permanent accommodation the next day. Having heard so much about how inexpensive Portugal is, we were looking forward to cheaper nights’ stays.

The next day, I stayed back to do some work, while Ben went out to hunt for a hostel or pension that could house us. Apparently, Lisbon has taken advantage of its status as the new, hot backpacker destination, because when Ben returned, without room or prospect, he reported that despite wandering the entire city, he couldn’t find anything for less than 30 euros a night. Not a bad price, but not “cheap” by our trip standards. He was also in one of the foulest moods I’ve seen him in, mumbling about how EVERYTHING is THE WORST. Pretty much the only thing you can do when Ben’s in such a state is feed him, so we took a break to hit up a local restaurant for a good meal.

So, Portuguese is a hard language. I was expecting it to be pretty much Spanish, I guess. And many words are similar in spelling — but the pronunciation? Sounds like Russian to my American ears. So in addition to not being able to read the menu, we couldn’t understand a lick of what the waiter was saying to us. As usual in such situations, we pointed to something on the menu, ordered it (in a “uhhh…that one…i guess?” kind of way), and crossed our fingers.

Most of the time we get lucky and this method of ordering has produced some of the best meals on our trip. Other times, we’re not so lucky. Like that time we were served what was basically olive oil soup.

This meal, our first in Portugal, turned out to be incredible. Slices of meat (don’t know which kind, would probably like to keep it that way), rice, spinach, beans — all wonderfully seasoned and garlic-y. And when the waiter wheeled over the dessert cart piled high with moist pastries, the finest I’d seen since France, I officially fell in love with Portugal. Especially when the waiter looked visibly disappointed when we declined — not in the my-tip-will-be-smaller way, but in the genuine you-don’t-know-what-you’re-missing way.

Word of warning for those dining in Portugal: you’re charged for every little thing they put on your table. I’m used to being charged for bread in European restaurants, but usually the accompanying butter is complimentary. Not so in Portugal. You opened that tiny packet of garlic butter? Eighty cents please. And since Ben spent the first half-hour of our meal opening tiny packets of yummies he’d never seen before (FISH PATE? what’s that? I’ve never tried fish pate before!!), our bill was an unexpected surprise.

Thankfully, that evening, we were lucky to come across a recently-opened hostel in the Bairro Alto neighborhood of Lisbon, whose owner was willing to negotiate a weekly rate. We moved in, gorged ourselves on free rolls from a local bakery, and took advantage of free wifi by downloading episodes of all the TV shows we’re missing at home.

The next morning (okay, afternoon), we began our exploration of the city in earnest. Lisbon, like its people, is an extremely likable city. It’s wide and open and clean. And beautiful! The sidewalks are paved in tiny blocks of black and white stone, arranged in beautiful patterns. The buildings, interiors and exteriors, are covered in azulejos – decorated tiles — that are a proud and prevalent Portuguese tradition. From three-hundred-year-old ornate blue and white tiles, to modern, art-deco-style tiles, it seems that no structure in Lisbon (down to the interiors of the metro stations) isn’t plastered in these things.

Old tram in LisbonPretty much every European city has an “old town” neighborhood, which is inevitably picturesque and quaint. But modern life never fails to seep in: bars, boutiques, souvenir shops, and tourists never fail to remind you it’s 2008. I’m convinced the old neighborhoods of Lisbon haven’t changed a bit since the late 19th century. In fact, Lisbon built Europe’s first funicular in the 1800s, and the same funicular operates today. Granted, it moves so slowly it’d be faster to walk up the hill than ride it, but still. I also saw a tree growing out of someone’s window. That thing had definitely been around for more than 100 years, with no one bothering to cut it down. Instead the homeowners work around it, using it to hang their laundry. Which should tell you a lot about the Portuguese.

During our explorations, we came across a small neighborhood cafe in the Bairro Alto district that served gooey, warm sandwiches — the best we’d had since Italy. One of the many reasons this method of slow traveling is interesting is that many locals start to recognize you. We get to know the local patisserie employee, the market owner, the guy who works nights at the hostel. We ended up frequenting this tiny cafe in Lisbon so often that the staff (well, all two of them) knew Ben’s order by heart.

The Bairro  Alto at nightLisbon’s Bairro Alto also offers the best nightlife of any place we’ve visited thus far. Around midnight, the young people of Lisbon flock to the neighborhood, thanks to the concentration of bars and clubs that line its narrow streets. However, if you should actually go inside one such bar on any given night of the week it would be completely empty. Why? Because no one is actually inside the bars. Instead, the crowds pack the streets, mingling and drinking while wandering around aimlessly. They pop into bars for a quick, cheap refill, and then run back out into the street to continue the party. The bars don’t even stock glasses — all drinks are served in portable, plastic cups. It’s hard to fathom how awesome this is until you realize how it solves so many quintessential bar problems: no more fighting your way through a jostling crowd to ask the bartender for another drink, no more attempting to squeeze yourself and your group of friends around the only remaining too-small table in the back corner, no more wondering who is where and how in the world you are supposed to get to them.

We went out that first night with two American girls studying in Barcelona, and Dvir, an Israeli guy currently on a worldwide soccer game tour. Dvir recently finished his obligatory military service and also recently discovered alcohol, meaning with one glass of sangria, he was flirting with, pursuing and not-so-discreetly kissing both girls accompanying us. He was then confused as to why, instead of fighting, the girls couldn’t just calmly decide amongst themselves who should have the honor of making out with him.

A legitimate question, if you ask me. Paper, rock, scissors?

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