These probably go without saying…depending on how much you travel

Miscellaneous tips and traps re traveling Portugal and Spain via Airbnb and trains:

  1. The US has laws about how hot tap water can be.  Apparently the EU has not–the hot water everywhere, from the modern apartments to the 300 year old house, was extremely, shockingly hot.  And, so, ALWAYS find out how to use the shower while you have the host there.  We had both annoying and one scary experience with setting the shower temperature (this was a mysteriously designed two level shower, and in the process of turning it off I got shot with hot scalding water at my groin–no harm but yikes).  And ask if you can run any water in the edifice, e.g. to get a drink or flush a toilet, while a person is in the shower.
  2.  Do not expect WiFi on trains–there was none on the high speed train Barcelona to Sevilla; if there is WiFi it will be quirky.  However we did have electricity so have your converter handy, not buried in your bag.
  3. Drink the house wine!  It was uniformly good, and often seemed especially good as food wines.  Funny aside–in Spain the server would ask in response to a request for a glass of vino tinto or vino blanco, “Dry or sweet?  Old or young?”  Never was I asked by varietal, nor were wine lists organized by varietal.  Made it fun and different, and I didn’t have a bad glass the entire three weeks.
  4. If you travel without data service on your cell devices (we do because we are cheap and you can manage without it) and therefore are dependent on the connectivity you have in your abode, remember to download offline GPS-enabled maps (many that are on Maplets, Google, special apps) for when you are out and about.  You cannot get the step-by-step or breadcrumb directions with just GPS, but you have a totally usable map to find your way.  And it’s good practice to not be blindly following step by step instructions or maps.  Look around you and get your head out of your phone!
  5. Book trains in advance to save significant money.
  6. Whenever possible go online for event or museum tickets.  Don’t be daunted by the “must be printed out on paper” warnings…these seem to be obsolete.  The difference between having a ticket you bought the night before and buying one onsite is about a 30-person line, and that was off-season.
  7. Do get the audio tours in places of interest and museums.  Worth the money every time.
  8. If you are traveling by train, DO NOT HESITATE to get on as soon as the doors open. They are not waiting for anyone or anything.  Pay attention to the car number and find it as soon as you can.  Ask a conductor if you’re not sure which direction to head–at least then an official knows you are getting on.  But be quick about it!  We also noticed that the indication on your ticket as to seat number is often labeled mysteriously (e.g., one ticket had “Plaza” as the field label for seat number).

Portugal and Spain—the dogs

The first difference I noted, on the very first hour as we sat in an outdoor table for lunch in Barcelona with our Airbnb host, was the dogs.

We had seen the typical number of dogs in Portugal (no street dogs, however) and without exception they were pulling their owners down the street or lunging excitedly at other dogs. The few times I approached them I was jumped on, slobbered on, or both. We never saw a dog off leash.  And they were all so off-putting that I failed to photograph any of them!

Barcelona dogs, we saw almost all mixed breed except for a notable number of dachshunds, are muy educados, very well behaved. Some pulled or barked at passing dogs, particularly when a dog was guarding his or her building by watching passers-by from a tiny balcony. But all–I think I noted maybe 2 exceptions–trot alongside their owners or sit politely behind while the owner is in conversation. We saw many dogs off leash, both walking alongside or directly behind their people or waiting silently, staring into a shop in order to keep track of their people. A young man crosses a small plaza, a dachshund scampering around, and as soon as the man stops at the curb the dog runs over, responds to a hand signal to wait, and then trots across at his heel.

Big dogs, huge dogs, little mixed breeds or chihuahuas, basically the same assortment in the states, all well behaved. From time to time we heard an owner correct the dog in a warning tone. No lunging, no pulling. Dogs were on trains (including the high speed train to Sevilla on which I am sitting), dogs sitting in outdoor cafes, dogs wearing the Spanish flag in the parade, even a dog gazing at the Roman columns. Los perros de Barcelona son muy educados.

Porto Eats

All we can say is Spain had better be good, because eating in Portugal is a delight.  And further, we can say we sure are glad we are walkers…a lot of calories to use up!

Our three and a half days in Porto were spent about 80% walking and 20% eating. The many, many restaurants are almost entirely Portuguese food, though we saw perhaps 2 Japanese and a few French.

The food prices are so low that it was a bit confusing. For example, at Pedro Dos Frangos the menu had two prices for everything, one in a column marked “1” and the other marked “1/2”.  Our waiter almost frantically dissuaded us from ordering the serving for 1. He was entirely correct. David struggled, sure that a 1/2 serving of sardines was insufficient, but his order had four eight inch grilled sardines, plus vegetables. This followed a 5€ appetizer, a large dish of octopus salad (so tender!). My so-called half order of grilled chicken was a mountain of fries and I left a large piece of chicken unfinished. Similarly, I struggled with how much wine to order–again at the urging of the waiter I settled on the small pitcher (less than 2€) which was three full glasses and very good.

Walking home from our first dinner we saw a captivating window–a man scooping meat from a large kettle of thin, reddish sauce, stuffing it into a small roll, giving it a quick half dip in the sauce, and tossing it on a small plate. The restaurant, Conga, was our destination the next evening and again for our last day’s lunch. The sauce was very slightly spicy, the meat tender, the entire sandwich addictive. The bacalau fritters were a nice fried addition…ensuring the meal wasn’t unacceptably healthy.

Our first day’s lunch and last evening’s dinner were at Tripeira, just a block or so from our apartment and found on Yelp. I was eager to try the tripas Porto style, which is meltingly tender tripe with white beans and chorizo, garnished with shredded cold chicken breast. I know. Strange combo and delicious. Speaking of strange combos, David had to try the francesinha, a Porto specialty available in many restaurants including one or two that serve nothing else. A “sandwich” in that there are two slices of bread, but this is knife and fork food and almost evil in its components and great, if intense and a bit salty, taste. In between the bread is ham, pork, cheese, covered with a fried egg and a red sauce. I am anxious to ID the sauce ingredients, as it had a hint of the dried red chilies in enchilada sauce but that would be a surprising addition. The whole thing is hot, so the cheese is a melted stringy mess. We shared one the last day as no doubt this is available nowhere else in the world. Yum.

We decided to splurge a bit our final evening, returning to Tripeira. It is such a lovely restaurant and the service is attentive, friendly and welcoming. We had walked quite a bit that last day and were famished when we arrived so decided to get a bottle of vinho verde and an appetizer plate to share.

It was generous–and we ate everything. A platter of thin, fatty, intense sausage slices with Azores cheese, a dish of what the menu called stewed peas with chorizo and was the tenderest fava beans I have ever had, and octopus salad. Again, the octopus was beyond tender in a vinagrette with diced celery and sweet diced onion. Thank goodness we had bread to soak up the fava bean liquid and the vinagrette. As a main course David had the tuna, in smallish pieces and cooked rare, perhaps the best I have tasted (we traded bites), and I had the sea bass, which was two thin filets, potatoes, and a bed of roasted vegetables. A fantastic final meal in beautiful Porto.

Pastries

The variety and quantities are astounding. We ate our fill of pastels de nata, napoleons, croissants (which in Portugal are more like a sweet egg bread than a French style laminated pastry). Even with all our walking we could only fit in so much!

Conservas

Portugal, like Spain, treasures its canned fish products and the variety of types and brands is overwhelming. We walked by a few “petiscos” places, tiny snack restaurants, which had a menu of conservas offerings but we didn’t try any, wanting to save our appetites for meals. There are tourist-aimed specialty conservas stores, and delis with wine, port, cheese, and preserved meat as well as, typically, a wall of tins with the many brands and types of conservas.

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We had stopped into one in our neighborhood the first day to ask a question…the man behind the counter spoke English and answered our question so cheerfully that our last day we returned to buy our souvenir conservas from him. He was so kind to pull down a variety for us, telling us what he especially liked, and we purchased 10 or so. Prices ranges from 2-5€. Now we are condemned to carry our little shopping bag of canned fish all over Spain, but I was fairly certain “latas” in Spain will be no higher quality and more pricey. We shall see…as I write this we are on the plane to Barcelona.

Porto—Let’s Start With The Architecture

Walking through the city is visually entertaining…almost absurdly so.  The city’s building stock is a mix of the falling apart, the beautifully preserved, and obvious gentrification.  Our Airbnb apartment is sparkling new, formerly a printing business of some kind, reached by a broad refinished wood staircase and outfitted in Ikea or Ikea analog modern.  Directly across the narrow street is a renovation in progress—almost every block has such change underway.  Good time to be in the building trades!

One feature of the older buildings is the gigantic-human-figure on a large number of public or quasi-public buildings.  It is a tiny bit creepy…they loom over the population, sometimes posed to be peering down, sometimes crowning the roof.  A few of many:

Along with the gorgeous buildings there is an array of street art.  I snapped just a few…but don’t you love that cat?

The river winds between Porto and Gaia, with the iron bridge that allows pedestrians on both levels, walkers sharing with cars on the lower and the metro on the upper.  We walked to Gaia on the upper level, then wandered our way down to river level and crossed on the lower level back to Porto, climbing the long stairway from sidewalk, past both abandoned and occupied buildings wedged along and under the bridge, finally coming out into the city proper.  So glad it wasn’t hot!

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People and vehicles seem to mesh rather well…cars, buses, and trucks always pause for walkers as in Lisbon and Evora, with a fair bit of jaywalking well tolerated.  Many of the streets are so narrow, with extremely narrow sidewalks (one person with a shopping bag wide) that it really couldn’t work any other way.

Of course Porto buildings often show off the gorgeousness tiles for which Portugal is famous, some of which are above.  When we arrived we scooted through the train station anxious to find our apartment, but returned to take it all in and snap a few pictures which do not do it justice.

I look forward to my next post…the food!  Have to go to dinner now.

Weekend Sojourn in Evora

The bad: it was in the high 80’s during the day.

The good: everything else.

What a lovely, peaceful, history- and religious art-packed town, a perfect weekend between hopping Lisbon and as yet unknown Porto. We had chosen to come here hoping for a contrast with the two major cities and it met our needs fully.

The historic center, a town within the town, is surrounded by a wall built in the 1400’s, though some is newer (1700’s?), and an aqueduct appears here and there, still functioning and in places the arches are filled in with houses. Every building is white, mostly with gold trim and dark green doors, but a few buildings are trimmed in grey…presenting a charmingly consistent look even in the commercial areas which have both cave-like mini mercados as well as modern stores and souvenir shops. Our weekend here turned out to be a holiday,  the long weekend celebrations  rather subdued, though Saturday morning on the main square were an exercise competition with perhaps twenty participants and a “motorway” around the central fountain on which little kids rode dune buggie bicycles to cheering grandparents.

We stayed in an old-fashioned B&B, converted from a long held family home of 3 or 4 stories, with a very pretty and practical kitchen outfitted with coffee. (French press), loaves of the delicious local pao (bread) which I am certain was sourdough, made of the local wheat which is white but extremely flavorful and made fantastic toast, milk and fruit, and capacity to cook your own food if desired. A tiny patio that held a two person metal table and chairs was open to the sky…several stories up. Free WiFi, a generous bedroom, a shared (with one other room) bathroom bigger than our dining room…sitting on a small praca (square) next to city hall. The location was perfect, and from our room we looked down on the square and out to the surrounding countryside.

The Cathedral 

Evora has been a cultural center for 2,000 years and we were astounded at the church wealth evidenced by several convent museums. The cathedral, Se de Evora, boasts a relic of the cross, plus many saintly relics housed in tiny glass windows in the chests of the saints’ images. The cathedral was built in the late 12th century and it is marvelous. While we wandered the cloister we could hear liturgical choir music occasionally wafting from the cathedral, which we wrongly assumed was recorded to add to the atmosphere, and were surprised to find a choral group rehearsing. The music, even in the short bursts as the director gave feedback and the singers made notes, was stunning. How lucky we were to find there was a performance that evening by the group Contrapunctus, 12 singers who tour the world and are in residence at Oxford University. For 7€ we so enjoyed the concert, in the cathedral with mind-blowing acoustics and a wildly enthusiastic audience.

For our two days in Evora we wandered the city with stops to see the Chapel of Bones, built in the 1600’s by monks, of monks’ bones from the area, as a reminder to the wealthy and materialistic residents that life is fleeting, several other churches and church museums, parks, and the seriously quaint neighborhoods of impossibly narrow streets and impractical small doors. Honestly I do know how they can move furniture into them! As the town was settled in Roman times there are the remains of a temple, lovely, and where the Roman town center was is now a museum.

Imagine Studying Here

Our last stop was the university, initially built in the 1500’s and reopened forty or so years ago. For 3€ you can wander the original academic building, built around a quad with fountain. They have all the classrooms open for tourists, each room decorated with a blue tile mural depicting the subject originally taught there, as well as an ornate wooden pulpit reached by marble steps from which the Jesuit professors spoke…because words from a pulpit are not to be questioned. On the second floor is the small, ornamented biblioteca and the Azulejos do Centro do Mundo Octogono, a small tall room with tiled murals depicting air, water, earth, and fire. I bet you were unaware that the center of the world is in Evora.

Hey, What About The Real Food?

Our first evening we were so tired…and so hungry. We started out for a restaurant our host recommended but en route came upon Mercado da Baixa…as mentioned above. I said it was fun and good and I meant it! to illustrate:

Tuesday night we did make it to the host-recommended restaurant, Cerqueira. We were a bit early and the only customers: sitting at the next table was the owner’s young boy, mesmerized by the soccer game on the TV, cheering his team’s two goals. We had grilled fish, David the bacalhao, I the dourada. Oh, yum for 24€ with wine. Note I started to dig into my fish before remembering to take a photo.

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Wednesday we were at a loss. I looked at my “maybe try these?” restaurant notes and found one that was intriguing. A no reservation tiny place with small plates, which was a 15 or so minute walk from the apartment. We threw ourselves out the door, as it was almost 6 and after looking at Yelp (“I had to wait 2 hours for a table and am still giving it 5 stars…”) we didn’t think our chances were good. Got the last free table…and feasted. Honestly if we could have eaten another dish we would have, after the mackerel tartare, a spectacular raw chopped oyster thing in a mysterious broth, a mushroom thing, and cool slices of intensely beefy beef with 3 scrumptious sauces…and the lime mousse with white chocolate shards. (No picture of the mousse…we ate it so quickly!). With wine (they only serve Lisboa wine and locally supplied ingredients) the bill was 54€? Is that possible? Oh, yeah, and bread and olives to start (in Portugal these are never gratis.)

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Thursday, we went to the famous Belém home of the ubiquitous pastry pastel de nata, Casa Pasteis de Belem. While they are scrumptious everywhere, here you eat them still warm from the oven. Oh, my. David also had a chocolate eclair which he loved and asked me to learn how to make choux pastry.

To round out our Belém experience we shared an enormous hot dog from a stand on the water because we were fascinated with the combination a customer ordered–crispy potato sticks, then ketchup, hot dog, mayo, mustard, and more potato sticks. Quite satisfying, and we knew we had a treat waiting for dinner…

Our final dinner in Lisbon was our only reservation which David made online before we left the States. Friend Laura (thank you Hannah for having Laura in our lives–not only for travel advice!) suggested Leopold, a 20 seat gem run by a husband and wife team who offer a set course and one seating a night. An uphill walk from our apartment turned out to be especially fascinatingly diverse, charming, and artsy in turns. We missed our street but had given ourselves plenty of time to wander and it was a lucky miss because it took us to a hilltop view complete with a Mozambiquian band, outdoor bar, women in headscarves and hip folk with kids…we paused a bit and enjoyed the scene before we realized we were headed in the wrong direction.

A few pictures from our walk up:

We easily corrected our route (again, hurrah for Google offline maps) and arrived 30 minutes before our reservation. As we stood looking at Leopold wondering if we were even too early to enter a woman stepped out, said “Catherine?” In we went. Started at 7:45, left around 11. ”Twas a great meal and great wine. Toddled down the hill and fell into bed.

I include the menu because the food was not at all recognizable (a few photos below). Wine pairing was really fun. The first was a truly flavorful sparkling wine (all were Portuguese), the vinho verde marvelous, the first red blend we loved (second one less so) and the fortified wine very much like a Madeira. All were surprising and creative!

I did take a photo of the vinho verde because it was virtually colorless!

I repeatedly forgot to take photos, but here is what I did manage to capture. First, the place. Yeah, it filled up but we had it to ourselves for a little while.

Okay, I missed taking a picture of the first course…it was a slice of a small pumpkin, charred, with a blob of coconut something or other with toasted coconut on top, and you dipped or spooned the blob onto the pumpkin. It was delicious!

“Bread, butter, seaweed” turned out to be a small half loaf of sourdough bread made with dark beer (?), a butter so good it was how you think butter should always be…and we finished it plain when the bread was gone, and a chopped seaweed, capers, mustard combo to put on top. Yummy.

Egg, onion, and buckwheat was a soup with a slightly cooked egg yolk, crunchy toasted buckwheat seeds, and a clear broth sweet from carmelized onions. Doesn’t make for much of a picture but we ate every bit. Oh, the green things were crunchy and salty…reminded us of the sea grapes we had in a salad in Kyoto.

Catch of the day was grouper (local, natch) sooooo good and perfect with the red wine.

The meat course was a very soft sausage, intensely flavorful and topped with purslane and shiitake powder. Oh, and a turnip purée (the white stuff). We were getting full…

I forgot to take a picture of the banana, avocado, and something or other sweet…I blame the fortified wine. And “box” was an intensely sweet thing, the ingredients of which we cannot remember. Paid the bill of 170€. Floated down the hill. Went to bed.

Wandering Baixa and Bairro Alto

Oh what a good night’s sleep can do! We awoke ready for coffee, pastel de nata, the wondrous, and we now know irresistible, custard tart, and a walk through the city.

What we learned: Lisboa is accessible–smaller than we had expected. It is hilly–but hardly difficult for Bay Area folks. It is friendly–and so welcoming to even the most primitive Portuguese language attempts. And it is soaked in history, from Roman times to the fairly recent prosperity that emanated in part from its membership in the EU. (Hey, Britain? You sure you want to go down the Brexit path?)

The streets are typically old Europe, narrow, a bit treacherous from cobblestones which are in mediocre repair, and often solely or almost solely pedestrian. Though we had a few close calls no falls or twisted ankles yet–nor have we seen more than two or three women in heels. Honestly I don’t know how a woman could walk safely in other than flat soles. The tiled buildings are lovely and common, even newer construction, adding an exotic and often Moorish feel to the neighborhoods.

A highlight of our first ramble was Convento do Carmo whose roof and some walls were destroyed in the earthquake of 1755. The soaring Gothic arches remain, seeming to be a pan-holiness combining the arch construction technology of humans and a ceiling of the infinite sky. The small museum in the smaller apse at the rear contains many relics from the Bronze Age and a Roman times that have been excavated from the site.

We also stopped in Sao Roque with “3-D” tiles on some of the walls, and doorways of stone worn down to a concave. A lovely church.