After wrapping up the year that was with my last post, I popped over to England for Christmas with Helen and her parents and a couple of weeks in slightly colder, slightly grayer weather than we’ve got down here in Madrid. Before returning from our holiday excursion, though, Helen and I stopped into Dublin for a couple days to ring in the new year with her friend, Carmel, and to take an all-too-brief tour of the city.
This was my first time visiting Dublin (and Ireland for that matter), so I was excited to add it to the list of visited countries. It was a brief stopover, though, so if you’re looking for tips on what to do in Dublin or wondering if I hit up your favorite Dublin hotspots, chances are this post isn’t for you.
Which is not to say I didn’t see a lot. We packed in as much as we could in our short time in Dublin.
It was a bit of a whirlwind tour, but across a total of two full days—New Year’s Eve & Day—and a brief morning drive before our flight out on the 2nd, we managed to see Phoenix Park (twice), the Forty Foot (and the Dublin coastline), Clondalkin Round Tower (it’s both a tower and round), Temple Bar (though we didn’t stop here; as Carmel explained, “It’s a tourist area with overpriced drinks and people playing Irish music.”), and St Patrick’s Cathedral.
Up above you’ll see the famous Molly Malone Statue in front of St. Andrew’s Church. Can you guess which part of the statue tourists like to touch?
New Year’s Eve in Dublin, Ireland
We didn’t go out clubbing in Dublin for New Year’s Eve, which I’m sure is a thing people do. That isn’t really our scene (or at least not mine). Instead, we stayed in with Carmel, a few bottles of wine and a fifth of whiskey. Carmel is currently hosting a woman from Ukraine and that woman’s daughter was visiting while Helen and I were there. The mother actually went out on the town for NYE, but the four of us—one American, one Brit, one Irish, one Ukrainian—stayed in, drank, ate chocolates, and discussed life.
It might not have been a Lonely Planet guide to New Year’s in Dublin, but it was a memorable night and a chance to do what I like most, hear people’s stories.
New Year’s Day involved two major stops.
The first, Dublin’s Phoenix Park, was an absolute treat. I’d never heard of it and had no idea there was this big, beautiful park right in the middle of the city. We initially drove through on the morning of NYE (before going into town for lunch) and then on the 1st, we took a walk through it. We saw the giant Papal Cross, the gate to the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence (that must be a prime gig), and all the deer that roam freely through the park.
The Forty Foot
Later in the day, Carmel drove us along the coast until we reached the Forty Foot. You’ve possibly heard of it because Matt Damon was photographed there not long ago going in for a swim.
The water is freezing off of the coast of Dublin, but tons of people like swimming at the Forty Foot, including Carmel and Helen (I stuck to photography duties; my hands are cold enough without submerging them in arctic waters). As it turns out, it’s a bit of a New Year’s Day tradition to take an ice dip at the Forty Foot, so we weren’t the only ones there, even though we went later in the day as the sun was starting to set.
St Patrick’s Cathedral
Before we flew out on the 2nd, another of Helen’s Irish friends, Dawn, offered to drive us around so we could see a bit more of the sites and sights of Dublin. One of our brief stops was the Kilmainham Gaol, the former prison where the UK government used to hold and execute Irish revolutionaries before the nation’s independence.
We spent a little extra time around St Patrick’s Cathedral, one of the city’s numerous ornate churches (as Carmel said when I asked her to identify one cathedral, “I don’t know, we have a lot of churches here.”). St Patrick’s is the national cathedral of the Church of Ireland and, as Helen likes to say, has been around longer than my country. The famous satirist, Jonathan Swift, was at one time the dean of the church. To this day, it continues to be a central structure in Dublin’s religious culture.
There are two things I did not get to do this trip: tour the Guinness Storehouse or drink my way through the Jameson Distillery. I know, sad face. But, don’t be too bummed, because I did get to have my very first “real” Guinness (I have it on good authority from at least a dozen people that Guinness tastes best in Ireland; which, I suppose it did) and I consumed a couple liters of Irish whiskey, including Jameson, Bushmills (American Oak Cask Finish), and one or two others. I also returned with a bottle of The Busker, which I’ve yet to crack because my liver is on strike.
There are undoubtedly hundreds of things to do in Dublin that I missed, but, hey, this was my first visit and I fully expect to be back. Go ahead and sound off in the comments what I should do the next time I’m in Dublin. Until then, I always have my whiskey to take me back.
Here concludes a three-part series with a third destination in two weeks: Catania, Sicily in Italy. After just over a week in Greece, with stops in Athens and Hydra, Helen and I tearfully parted ways with the souvlaki. But, that was okay, because our last stop overflowed with pizza, pasta, and pistachios.
Catania, Sicily, Italy
Sicily is an island just off the tip of the “toe” of Italy’s boot (not even 10 kilometers separates them in places). Formerly a province under the Roman Empire, it, like Athens, is littered with ancient ruins. Among them is a former Roman amphitheater that sits in one of the city’s busier intersections, along with other sites sprinkled through the neighborhoods.
For much of its history, Sicily was a separate kingdom, only unifying with Italy in the 19th century. The island’s deep historical roots touch the present, from the ever-present backdrop of Mt. Etna, a volcano enshrined in ancient mythology that continues to smoke daily, to its abundance of churches and religious iconography, to its still functioning Sicilian Mafia (or Cosa Nostra).
There’s also a personal history for me. When they were first married, my parents lived in Sicily for 6 months, well before I was born. My oldest brother was a baby at the time, and I’ve long heard stories of old Sicilian women simply picking him up with my non-Italian-speaking mother unable to stop them. Sicily has long existed in family lore, so I was excited to finally see it for myself.
The Sights of Catania, Sicily
While in Catania, one of Sicily’s most popular port cities, Helen and I stayed at Diletta Oasi, a charming B&B run by a talkative Sicilian woman. She kept the kitchen stocked with breakfast foods all day round and even left us a handwritten note at one point as a means of checking in on us.
Diletta Oasi is on the edge of the city center, just a few blocks away from the Catania fish market that bustles in the morning. Steps past the fish market is Piazza del Duomo, a central square filled with some of Catania’s most popular photo spots. Among them is the Fontana dell’Elefante at the center of the square, featuring Catania’s most iconic imagery, the elephant. (Elephant statues appear all around the city.)
The square is surrounded by cafes and restaurants where you can stop for a drink and enjoy the gorgeous backdrop, including the Fontana dell’Amenano.
Also on the square is Cattedrale di Sant’Agata, one of the many Roman Catholic cathedrals throughout the city. Adorned with statues and sculptures, the church is a picturesque example of Baroque architecture. The towering dome of the Catania Cathedral can be seen from miles away.
The Churches of Catania, Sicily
Though the Cattedrale di Sant’Agata may be the most photographed cathedral in Catania, Sicily (due to its proximity to tourist hotspots), its just one of numerous impressively designed churches throughout the city. There’s a slew of them that line Via Crociferi, including Chiesa di San Francesco Borgia and Chiesa di San Giuliano. You can’t turn around without spotting a cross or statue of a saint.
For my money, the most impressive church I found was the Chiesa di San Nicolò l’Arena. I had just been walking aimlessly one afternoon through a residential neighborhood when I came upon this massive structure dating back to 1687.
Inside, the church is filled with art, statues, and other stunning works of religious imagery. Paintings that depicted various saints and angels were displayed in ornate, marble altarpieces.
The most affecting room was a mausoleum dedicated to local soldiers who died in World War 1. In two alcoves, marble plaques told of the dead, while at the end of the room stood an imposing statue of an angel carrying a wounded soldier.
Adjacent to the Chiesa di San Nicolò l’Arena is the Monastero dei Benedettini di San Nicolò l’Arena. This enormous monastery, which took over 300 years to construct, is now used by the University of Catania. Its various rooms are used as lecture halls and along the marble-decorated hallways students read while staring out on two beautiful courtyards.
Sure beats the study halls at Kansas University.
The Beaches of Catania, Sicily
While the architecture and sculptures of Catania made for impressive views, it’s hard to compare with the wonders nature creates.
We, of course, had to spend some time at the coast. Our first stop was Catania’s southern beaches. A series of private beaches occupy a few miles of coastline, with free access to the water limited to random spots (we had to essentially sneak through a parking lot to get there). The major selling point of these particular beaches is the view of smoking Mt. Etna in the distance.
As nice as those were, though, we enjoyed the coastline up north more. Admittedly less beach than rocky coastline, Catania’s northern seaside is nonetheless awash in beautiful views and natural wonders. One cool feature of the coast are the Islands of the Cyclops, 500,000-year-old rock structures made of ancient volcanic lava. Like much of the land in the Mediterranean Sea, these jagged rocks played a significant role in Greek mythology.
The real feast for our eyes was the Castello Normanno (Svevo di Aci Castello), a former Norman seaside castle that was built upon a magnificent mountain of hardened lava. An imposing mix of human architecture and natural formation, Castello Normanno is nearly 1,000 years old.
As you approach it, it simply looks like a grandly designed, but somewhat modest castle. It’s only once you descend to the rocks below (in reality, a lava beach) that you grasp the imposing form of this millennium-spanning fortress. These images of Helen standing at the base of the lava mount will give you an idea of its size (you might have to squint to see her).
If there was any drawback to our accomodations, it was merely that there was no easy way to get to the coast. Going south took about a half hour bus ride (we didn’t realize we needed to buy a ticket ahead of time and ended up riding for free), and going north was roughly an hour on the bus. The views were worth it.
Swimming was difficult at these northern spots, though, because the lava rocks were sharp and the water was shallow for quite a ways (we kept forgetting our swimming shoes that we originally bought for Croatia). The sandy southern beaches were much easier to swim at, but they were, again, very shallow (I walked out maybe a quarter of a kilometer before I was no longer touching with my feet).
Thankfully, we found the “Danielino surf school” that let us sit on their deck for free so Helen could slip in for a brief swim.
Overall, the coastline of Catania did not disappoint.
The Best Food in Catania, Sicily
While the architecture and the beaches of Sicily are worth the price of admission, everyone knows the real reason to travel to Italy: the food.
The first thing we wanted was, obviously, pizza. Unfortunately, we arrived in Catania at an odd time, just after 5 in the afternoon. By the time we had checked in to Diletta Oasi and headed back out for food, it was around 6 and nobody was serving pizza. Most restaurants don’t turn on their pizza ovens until 7 or 8, which makes some sense. Spain is similarly strict about when certain meals can be eaten (don’t even try to get lunch at noon at most Spanish restaurants).
We did eventually find a restaurant just up the road from Piazza del Duomo that would serve us pizza. While it was good, my first mind-blowing pizza experience came a couple nights later when we finally got to try Pizcaria in Piazza Santa Maria dell’ Indirizzo: Diavola for me, and Norma for Helen. Under a canopy of colorful umbrellas, we enjoyed Italian perfection.
On our last night in the city, I had a third pizza, a pesto-based one. It was excellent, but Pizcaria won the trip. Naturally, we had pasta a couple places, including at Al Tubo near the Castello Normanno, all of which was delicious.
One evening, we walked over to Via Gemmellaro, a rapidly developed avenue of the city that is now a promenade of hip bars and Italian and non-Italian eateries. Based on the signs hanging from balconies above the road, not all the neighbors were happy with the transformation of their street.
Like revitalized neighborhoods in cities across Europe and the States, it’s clear from the surrounding, downtrodden areas that new development has transformed this portion of Catania into one that’s now making money (for whom, I don’t know). The gentrification vs. revitalization debate is certainly a worthy one, just not one I’m prepared to jump into here.
We went down to the area to try out a place called Vermut for, appropriately enough, a vermouth aperitivo. It was only 6:45 and we were told we had to be out by 9 because there was a reservation. We scoffed at the idea we’d be there that long; we were only having drinks, after all. But then, we smelled the food.
An intoxicating aroma was wafting out of the kitchen, so eventually we had to order something. We didn’t have a full meal there, just a couple rounds of drinks and what were essentially fancy Italian tapas. But that ended up being our dinner.
Rounding out our culinary tour were various pistachio-flavored pastries and desserts. There was the pistachio-filled croissant near the beach, and the salted pistachio gelato near Piazza del Duomo, and, finally, right before we left for the airport, a pistachio granita with brioche bread (a special shout out to the espresso granita we had one afternoon while we took shelter from the sun; think a Wendy’s Frosty, but about 2 times creamier and 10 times tastier).
Helen also partook of fresh oysters straight from the fish market a couple mornings, which she thoroughly enjoyed (not my thing). Sadly, a couple days later, her stomach got dodgy, so we won’t discuss the oysters any further.
Like Athens, Greece, by the time we left Catania, we had eaten enough food to last us a month.
Saying Goodbye to Catania, Sicily
As I mentioned, Helen had a bad stomach near the end of our trip, so on the second-to-last day, while she rested, I walked about the city solo, taking detours down random streets. That’s how I came across Chiesa di San Nicolò l’Arena.
One thing I often think when walking through the non-tourist, residential areas of many European cities is how much they remind me of parts of Brooklyn. It’s not so much that they resemble Brooklyn, it’s just a vibe. The non-trendy or picture-ready areas tend to have a similar, homey, lived-in feel. It always makes me miss NYC a bit.
They’re just normal neighborhoods where people go about their city lives, shopping at mini markets and local eateries.
But then I turn the corner at the mini market and come across a castle that’s older than America and I remember that I’m definitely not in Brooklyn.
After two weeks, the trip ends and I return to my home in Madrid. And I immediately start thinking of all the other places I want to visit. Eventually.
Thanks for reading along on my voyage through Greece and Sicily. Next time, I’ll post some bonus photos from my Mediterranean adventures. Cheers.
Welcome to the island of Hydra (alternatively, Idra, or Ύδρα). For five days, Helen and I stayed on this idyllic isle in the Aegean Sea, swimming, laying out on beaches, drinking, and eating enough food to burst. Also, playing with cats. But I’ll get to that. Here is Part 2 of our three-part trip: Hydra, Greece.
The Port of Hydra, Greece
After our first weekend in Athens, Greece, Helen and I spent five days and four nights in Hydra. We stayed at Hotel Kirki, a two-story home converted into a B&B-style accommodation. Our room included a large balcony off the back with a view of the surrounding red terracotta roofs and the towering hills that surround the main port of the island.
The Hydra Port is the first thing you see when you reach the island (by ferry). An active, commercial port, the area transforms throughout the day. Both pleasure yachts and fishing boats are docked there overnight. In the early morning, locals and delivery workers moved about, unloading shipments from boats and transporting them by cart or donkey to the various stores and eateries.
(Hydra is an island that purportedly doesn’t have cars, but we actually saw quite a few work trucks and vehicles. Tourists, though, should expect to either walk or ride a donkey.)
As the day progresses, Hydra Port becomes a tourist haven, with dozens of restaurants, cafes, and bars serving both day visitors and long-timers. Additionally, there are clothing stores, souvenir shops, and food markets, providing you with essentials (and non-essentials). The port is sliced into sections by streets that lead up to the rest of the island town (Hotel Kirki is a few meters up one of those side streets, Miaouli).
Serving as the focal point of the port and a kind of visual pinpoint as you wander is the Hydra clock tower. Day or night, you can spot it, and even when you can’t see it, you’ll hear it.
Hotel Kirki’s proximity to Hydra Port turned out to be a major plus, as getting out of the town and to the various beaches on the island involved cutting through the port and turning either left or right. And the beaches were our main reason for visiting Hydra.
The Beaches of Hydra, Greece
For our birthday – yes, our; we share a birthday to Helen’s chagrin – we wanted a relaxing, even decadent day on a beach. The goal: lounging on a beach and having people bring us drinks. So we walked the half hour from Hydra Port to Mandraki Beach Resort.
It turned out Mandraki Beach Resort was the most expensive option we could have picked for renting lounge beds, but we figured, what the hell? We’ll indulge. Unlike most of the beaches we encountered on the island, Mandraki was a sandy beach (as opposed to pebbles or stones). We swam, read our respective books, napped, and had a drink brought to us, as we wanted.
Other beaches we visited included Spilia Beach Bar (our first stop upon arriving) and Hydronetta Beach, which are essentially at the port’s edge. Slightly further out (15 to 40 minutes on foot), there’s Avlaki Beach (Paralia Avlaki/Παραλία Αυλάκι), Vlichos Beach (Παραλία Βλυχός), and Vlychos Plakos Beach (Παραλία Πλάκες).
Of those last three, Vlichos Beach is the most touristy, but not in a bad way. You can rent beds for €5 and there are restaurants and cafes around so you don’t have to really leave the beach to get lunch. We ate at Taverna Marina, which turned out to not only have some of the best food we had on the island, but some of the best views too.
The Best Restaurants on Hydra, Greece
As in Athens, much of our time in Hydra was spent eating far too much food. Progressively throughout the week, we tried ordering smaller portions, but it never worked out. Appropriately, most of the restaurants on the island served traditional Greek food (if you’re hoping for Mexican or Sushi on Hydra, well, why are you there?).
For our birthday lunch, we ate at Mandraki 1800 (Μανδρακι 1800), which serves a variety of mostly seafood-based Greek dishes, including shrimp saganaki (prawns with feta) that Helen absolutely loved. Like Mandraki Beach Resort, Mandraki 1800 was nice, but pricier than other options that ended up being just as good or better.
For our birthday dinner, we ate at Sunset, which, appropriately, is positioned high above the water’s edge for spectacular sunset views. Again, the food was delicious, but the prices definitely had a View Charge added on. Our waiter was helpful and happily took our picture (“That’s my job,” he smirked when we asked), though after finishing our main course, we struggled to find him (or, really, the back waiter) for a dessert order. A manager eventually came and gave us a free dessert (a sweet Greek yogurt-based concoction) that was fantastic.
We ended up visiting another restaurant, Kodylenia’s Taverna, twice, once for dinner and another time for drinks. It overlooks the Kamini Fishing Shelter (an enclosed boat dock about 15 minutes from the port). It’s not as elevated as Sunset, but Kodylenia’s views were still some of the best we found (at a restaurant). This was a spot where we only wanted a small bite but nonetheless left stuffed. I only ordered a Greek Salad!
We didn’t have to venture far to get great food and drinks, though. Across from Hotel Kirki was Lulus Taverna, where I had what I erroneously thought would be a small souvlaki plate. On a cold and overcast afternoon, we had a cocktails-and-Shithead session at Plakostroto, the terrace bar right next to Hotel Kirki. We also enjoyed breakfast, gelato, and drinks at the various Hydra Port cafes.
One of our best meals in Hydra was on our first night, a local spot we happened upon. We had taken off from our hotel and walked up a hill, away from the port, only to find ourselves blocked by a cemetery. We could either go back or cut through the cemetery and pass through a closed gate. We chose the latter. It’s good we did because we were greeted by a stunning view of the port town from high above.
After coming down the hill, we chanced upon Giasemi Taverna (Γιασεμί). There, the woman who served us steered as toward the night’s special, roasted chicken, which, typical of our experience, was both delicious and more than we needed.
Giasemi proved to be emblematic of Hydra restaurants for another reason: we spent the meal with a squadron of cats.
The Cats of Hydra, Greece
Giasemi’s waitstaff kept coming by to shoo the begging cats away, but honestly, we enjoyed it. Like typical tourists, we fed a bit of our food to the cats, which ensured they stuck around throughout the whole meal. This became the theme of our week in Hydra.
We couldn’t turn around without spotting a cat (we made a game of pointing out every one we saw, which I’m sure annoyed any locals who heard us). Most were indifferent to us when we didn’t have food. Clearly, Hydra belongs more to its cat inhabitants than to humans.
I understand why locals find the overwhelming feline presence a nuisance, but for us, the cats of Hydra were a bonus.
Speaking of cats, we stopped by the former home of one cool cat who used to live on Hydra: Leonard Cohen. (Seamless segue). Cohen, the beloved Canadian singer/songwriter known for writing “Hallelujah,” “Suzanne,” and “So Long, Marianne,” lived on Hydra throughout most of the 60s and, as a result, is claimed by the island. His former residence is marked by a sign, and there’s also a Leonard Cohen Memorial Bench on the way to Avlaki Beach.
Saying Goodbye to Hydra, Greece
Our last two days on Hydra were slightly marred by a morning cold front that covered the sky in clouds and ripped through the town with gusty winds. It ruined any attempt at a beach day on Thursday (hence the Shithead tournament), though it did make for some cool photos.
On Friday, even though the clouds lifted, the strong winds had made swimming all but impossible because they brought with them a horde of unwelcome guests: jellyfish.
The water was pocked with these translucent pink monsters. As a result, even if the water hadn’t been too choppy for swimming, we were blocked from entering the sea. We made do with reading in the sun on this Grecian island. Truly a struggle.
We didn’t get much reading in, though, because about 30 minutes after we arrived at Avlaki Beach, we were engulfed by some sort of soft erotica/porn shoot. A group of young (18, maybe) boys and girls descended on the beach (literally; you climb down cement stairs to get to the water), and within a few minutes, two of the boys were dick-swingingly naked.
Eventually, a middle-aged British women arrived with a team of photo assistants and started taking pictures of the boys (and a couple girls) in various stages of undress (with a banana at some points).
(No juicy bits are visible in these photos, as far as I can tell.)
We didn’t stick around to find out if the photo shoot turned into a video shoot.
Despite our last beach day being interrupted by two different invasive swarms, we still enjoyed our final romp on the island before we had to catch the ferry back to Athens.
We both hope to go back. Five days, it turns out, is not long enough for a stay on Hydra. But, alas, we had to go, not just because we needed to see more of Athens, but because, in three days, we were flying to Sicily. More on that next time.
We return, now, to the second and final leg of my trip to Portugal, which involved two days in the northern city of Porto, and a return to Lisbon.
First, though, a brief aside:
There are worse airlines than Ryanair. So I’ve been told. Ryanair’s reputation has been trash for so long that it was inevitable they would make some minor improvements and allow one of the other discount airlines to slip below them. But, being the second or third biggest turd in the pile doesn’t make you a Snickers bar.
Look, discount airlines exist to sell cheap tickets for the bare minimum of luxuries (i.e. none), and that’s fine. Greyhound buses can be excruciating means of transportation, but I know what I’m paying for when I buy the ticket. With Ryanair, though, on top of offering no amenities, they find every possible way to charge you more once you’re in the airport.
One of their sliest, sleaziest techniques is charging a printing fee if a ticket isn’t pre-printed before the gate. No, it’s not a massive ordeal to print a ticket, but a) it is inconvenient when literally every other airline has adapted to 21st century digital tickets, and b) people of modest means (i.e. their customer base) likely don’t own a printer. It’s essentially a “poor tax” and like all such fees, it can seem like a minor quibble, but it penalizes the least well-off.
Another one of their less than reputable techniques is making their maximum sized carry-on luggage slightly smaller than the industry standard (55 centimeters instead of 56). Again, a seemingly insignificant difference, but one with a massive 53€ fee for owning luggage that almost every other airline accepts. And as my travel partner, Calla, and I learned, quite unhappily, they don’t make exceptions.
In summary, screw Ryanair.
Other than that aggravation, visiting Porto (Oporto) was quite possibly the highlight of the trip for me. Two weeks ago, I posted some of my first impression photos of the city; check them out to get a sense of the grandeur. When people – or, at least, I – imagine charming European cities, it’s places like Porto we are conjuring.
Mixing vibrant, classical architecture with intoxicating riverside views and, of course, excellent wine, Porto charms effortlessly; even the city’s dilapidated areas still exude a historic dignity. Like many European cities, Porto has known better economic times, and perhaps that is why it felt so welcoming to visitors.
As was our routine throughout the trip, Calla and I were guided by the recommendations of others, and the one culinary must-have everyone was in agreement on was the Francesinha.
Ostensibly a sandwich, this Porto original stuffs various hams and sausages between two pieces of white bread covered by melted cheese and gravy; often (but not always) an over-easy egg rests on top. This is a fork and knife affair, to be sure. To reiterate, it’s meat, cheese, bread and gravy: how hasn’t this become a standard in every American diner?
Our waitress, like most of the people we interacted with in Portugal, spoke English well, which was good since the only word of Portuguese I know (that isn’t the same as Spanish) is “obrigado” (thank you). She was very excited to learn my surname as it was hers as well, and she took to calling us “cousins” (though, she was perhaps disappointed when I admitted I knew very little of my family’s Portuguese roots).
After lunch, Calla and I explored Porto by foot, eventually coming to the Dom Luís I Bridge, which spans the Douro River. Heavily trafficked by pedestrians, this two-level bridge connecting the city center of Porto to the more suburban Vila Nova de Gaia provides mesmerizing views of the city.
At night, we reconnected with our friends from Madrid for drinks and dinner. It was a Saturday night and the city was abuzz with tourists and revelers. We patronized a few bars and even a Jazz Club on only its second night of business, but for me, the most diverting aspects of Porto at night were its gently lit streets and, at times, almost ghostly pathways inhabited by stray cats.
Our second day in Porto was Easter Sunday, which seriously hampered our ability to find lunch. Calla and I wandered for upwards of an hour and a half before we finally settled on a restaurant directly across the street from Café Santiago (itself closed for the holiday).
Suitably fed, we allowed ourselves to get a little lost, crossing the Douro not on the Dom Luís, but by the Ponte Infante Dom Henrique, the less pedestrian-friendly bridge. Our aimless wanderings eventually brought us to a seaside cliff and to a series of stairways and passages that led to a row of burnt out and decimated buildings that once must have boasted the best views in the entire area.
After our detour, we returned to the waterfront to drink port wine at a riverside café. That was the plan, at least, but the server seemed to have a hard time remembering two drinks. After 20 minutes, we vacated our table having received 50% of our order.
That evening, back at the Yes! Porto hostel, we dined on a purportedly authentic Portuguese fish-based dinner with a group of fellow travelers from the U.S., Canada, Bulgaria, and elsewhere. Hostel living has its downsides (snorers, louder talkers, people humping each other three feet from your head), but it also helps you feel connected to the world of travelers, like a slight stream feeding into a roaring river.
Before leaving Porto, we had one other recommendation to track down: the Prego. Not, in fact, a pregnant lady, the Prego is another Porto must-have sandwich, this one consisting simply of succinctly steak and melting cheese on a roll. The cheese is optional, and like the Francesinha, an egg is a not uncommon part of the recipe, but we were told that the best Prego was found at Venham Mais 5, and after tasting a little bit of heaven there, I’d consider their steak-and-cheese only version the standard.
We returned to Lisbon with two days before our flight back to Madrid and a few more items on our to-do list. First up was finding one of the best views in the city at Miradouro de Nossa Senhora do Monte. We were informed by both our walking guide, Luis, and the manager of the Travellers House where we were staying, that even though Castelo de Sao Jorge draws the most tourists, the view from “Our Lady of the Hill” was just as good, and free (plus, it includes a view of the castle).
We made the trek through the winding roads and up the hill to be greeted by spectacular views, as advertised, but also by gusting winds that could have likely carried us out over the city if we had skipped breakfast.
Before we could leave Lisbon, I had one final stop on my list: Restaurante Ponto Final.
Located on the banks of the Tagus River, reaching the restaurant and idyllic viewing spot requires a short ferry ride to Almada, across the river from Lisbon. After exiting the ferry, head west along the water by the pop culture-infused street art that decorates the cement pathway. At first it’ll seem like you’re walking to nowhere, but eventually you’ll come around a corner and see your destination.
At this point, I wasn’t hungry, I simply wanted to enjoy a glass of wine along the water while looking out over the city I would be leaving in less than 12 hours.
With the day fading, we walked back to the ferry. We had just a few hours until we needed to head to the airport for an uneventful (albeit, a tad delayed) return flight on Iberian.
It was just after midnight, Thursday morning, when we landed in Madrid, having left the previous Tuesday night. In the course of our travels, we drank our respective weights in wine and beer, enjoyed a smorgasbord of Portuguese cuisine, and stood in quiet appreciation of some of Portugal’s most inspiring views. We also didn’t kill each other; a successful trip by all standards.
Semana Santa – Holy Week – is the week from “Palm Sunday” to “Easter.” During this week in Spain, you will find essentially all academies and numerous other businesses closed. Many people either head back to their hometowns or take a trip. For myself and the various expats I know here, the latter was the preferred option.
My good friend (and former roommate), Calla, and I booked eight days in Spain’s neighbor on the Iberian peninsula, Portugal. Part of booking a Semana Santa trip – especially when booking a little late – is scrounging for what deals can still be found and adapting your travel schedule to the cheapest flights and hostel rates.
We found our flights to Portugal through Iberian (always a good choice) and for hopping around within Portugal, we booked Ryanair (do not do this; avoid, avoid). Our four (!) different hostels were found through Booking.com which resulted in some mixed results. Pro tip: Make sure you’ve scrolled past the front-loaded positive reviews to get a fuller picture of your accommodations.
Our initial destination was national capital, Lisbon (Lisboa). We arrived without any specific itinerary, instead opting for my preferred method of traveling: making it up as I go. On our first morning, after making it to our hostel after midnight, we met up with my current Madrid roommate, Casey, for a free walking tour. I would highly recommend, if only because after the tour I had a much firmer grasp on the layout of the city.
The tour, led by Luis, lasted three hours, and followed a circuitous, slithering path that stayed contained to the city center and the most heavily trafficked tourists spots. Luis helpfully explained that, since Portugal had decriminalized all drugs, we could expect to be propositioned quite openly for weed and other narcotics (we were).
The tour took us by a number of the important sights and literary monuments of the ancient city, including Livraria Bertrand, certified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest bookstore in the world still in operation.
I’m generally not one for tours or group activities (or groups, for that matter), but as a way of getting my bearings on the first day in a new city while also getting a succinct history of Portugal, I’m glad we decided to participate. Plus, it was free – with a heavily suggested tip for Luis (I’d recommend 5€). When the tour ended around 2 in the afternoon, we had arrived at the waterfront, in view of the spectacular Arco da Rua Augusta.
Meeting more Madrid-based expats later, our first night in Lisbon was spent exploring Alfama, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Lisbon, famous for its confounding winding streets and the numerous restaurants that offer Fado performances during dinner. Fado is a traditional Portuguese form of musical performance heavy on sad tales of lost love and heartbreak. Though we could hear the strands of Fado streaming through the streets of Lisbon, we unfortunately never got around to stopping for a proper performance. We did, however, try Ginja, a sweet liqueur that’s been a Portuguese mainstay for over two centuries (of course we made time for an alcoholic tradition).
There are countless Sintra day tours offering any variety of sightseeing packages, but despite Luis’ halfhearted effort to sell us on one, Casey, Calla, and I opted to make the journey on our own (for better and worse). For five euros, we bought tickets for an hour train ride to the city famous for its numerous castles and spectacular views.
Sintra, a village overflowing with charm, is planted in the midst of mountains and history. No descriptions would do as much justice as a few pictures, so enjoy:
After wandering around aimlessly for some time, we paid for a bus ticket to take us up the mountain roads so we could explore some of the castles. We should have been paying better attention, though, because after riding the bus for an hour, we found that we had done a full loop and were back where we started. Sheepishly, we stayed in our seats and went back up again. Worth it.
Each castle has its own price for viewing, and we weren’t trying to blow all our funds, so we picked one; a good one: Castelo dos Mouros (The Moors Castle). Built of stones and towering high into the sky, it can be a bit vertigo-inducing, but just grip the wall tightly and take the climb. You’ll appreciate the views.
Despite storm clouds threatening us most of the day, the rain held off for us, only falling once we had returned to the city square for a late lunch. In fact, I’d say our whole trip was characterized by lucky weather. Rain was in the forecast for essentially all eight days, but it rarely interfered with our activities (other than making for some gray photo backdrops).
Pastéis de Belém
Before Casey could leave Lisbon the next day, we had one last stop we had to make: Belém. Located on the western edge of Lisbon as the city inches towards the Atlantic Ocean, this district is known for having the one, true Pastel de Nata – an egg tart pastry (a description that doesn’t do it justice). Supposedly only three people know the original recipe.
The place to get them is at Pastéis de Belém, located on the Rua da Belém. Upon entering, the renowned restaurant gave me flashbacks to the famous Café du Monde in New Orleans. Just as that shop is known for its beignets, Belém is where you go if you want authentic Pastel de Nata. You can get similar tarts throughout Portugal, but like Highlanders, there can be only one.
When we arrived, there was a long line out the door (another similarity to Café du Monde), but Casey had been clued in by the manager at her hostel that we could slip through the line and go straight inside for a table. We still waited in a short line, but it only took us ten minutes to be sat. Unlike du Monde, there is a full menu of food and pastry options to choose from, but if you’re not getting the Nata, why did you even get out of bed?
Now, what everyone wants to know: are these pastries worth the hype? Well, put quite simply, they are delicious, unquestionably. Are they the greatest things I’ve ever tasted? I wouldn’t go that far, but I would definitely make it a point of going back to Pastéis de Belém the next time I’m in Lisbon.
Of course, some will wonder if getting a Nata in Belém is really necessary if other shops sell them, too. To that, I’d say: unequivocally, yes. I had actually tried a similar tart earlier that very morning at a café just outside my hostel and it wasn’t even in the same category.
If you’re a pastry devotee, there’s no reason to settle, Pastéis de Belém is a 30 minute detour outside of the city center. Make the effort. (Also, if you’re a pastry devotee, you’ve made some weird choices in life, but you do you.)
After we parted ways with Casey, Calla and I returned to our hostel. This was our second hostel (the reason for the change is a long, uninteresting story), and a definite upgrade, even though it was further outside the city center.
Our first hostel was a mistake. Overbooked and poorly designed, it had only two single-occupancy bathrooms for some 30 guests. Sure, the loud-whispering, drunk bunkmates who were a few steps short of reaching third base in a room of eight people were annoying, but that’s just part and parcel of hostel life; the bathroom situation, though, that was unacceptable.
Following our night’s stay in the less crowded and far less grunt-filled hostel, Calla and I had to catch a flight to Porto for the second leg of our trip. But that’s a full post in itself, so you’ll have to come back next week if you want to meet this cool dude: