Pera Palace Hotel, Istanbul

Pera Palace (View from late 1800s) By Canerol86 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46742193
Pera Palace (View from late 1800s)
By Canerol86 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46742193

Established in 1895, this hotel was built to house the elite who traveled on the Orient Express between Paris and Istanbul. Everyone who was anyone stayed here.  As Wikipedia says, “the very name inspires visions of Ottoman grandeur, the great European fascination with the East, the immortalisation of Istanbul’s unique culture in Western literature, and the very beginnings of world tourism as we now know it.”

The writer Agatha Christie was a regular guest from 1926 and 1932 and “Murder On the Orient Express” was possibly written in Room 411. Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, first stayed at the Pera Palace in 1917 and found Room 101 his personal favorite. Kings and queens, the famous and the infamous all stayed here.

With this kind of history, I had to find the hotel, still overlooking the Golden Horn and within walking distance of Taksim Square. This was once the Pera district,  Istanbul’s “Little Europe.” It is now Beyoglu (Bay oh loo). With everything that’s grown up around it, you don’t suspect the history, nor the opulence inside.

Pera Palace, Istanbul, 6

Current prices are not as bad as might be expected. The Ernest Hemingway room was about 1000TL a night (about $325), but it’s possible to get a single room for half that.

Pera Palace, Istanbul, 4 Pera Palace, Istanbul, 3 Pera Palace, Istanbul, 2 Pera Palace, Istanbul, 1

I would have loved to see the museum rooms, but they didn’t appear to be open the day I arrived.

Coming home to Istanbul

Bucharest, Romania, June July, 2015, 66

Old and new,
Old and new,

July 2, 2015 Bucharest
I am checking out of my hostel today. First, another lonely (Spellcheck just changed that to “looney”) breakfast prepared by unseen hands. It’s kind of creepy. And it seems that they are losing out of money by not interacting with the guests. They clearly have tour services posted (though the placement of the information is poor) and I’d have gladly arranged something with them if I’d been informed. I needed to check out by 9:30a, so I ate my breakfast and moved out.

Men playing chess in the park, Bucharest, Romania. There were many more playing backgammon.
Men playing chess in the park, Bucharest, Romania. There were many more playing backgammon.

I’m currently in the park across from the train station as I’m typing this. Most of yesterday’s missive was pounded out at a street-side bar while drinking a beer. There are lots of bars, but most in this neighborhood are so seedy I’d have been afraid to have stepped inside. The only females were women-of-the-night, plying their trade. At least I hope they were professional women, since no one should dress like that unless they are advertising. Still, I’m surprised at the short skirts, and not just on the young girls. Have the styles changed again? I’m so out of touch with fashion. Or maybe I’m just used to Istanbul’s “cover everything” mode of dress.

The park is frequented by retired folks, visiting or reading on benches. You can see it was once a lovely park, but the bushes and trees have not been trimmed in a few years. The weedy grass hasn’t been mowed yet this year. Still, the shade is nice and my park bench supports my weight, though it might collapse if three Americans tried to sit down simultaneously.

I’m surprised at all the plants I recognize. I’m halfway around the world and you’d think the flora would look unusual to me. I don’t mean the ornamental butterfly bush and iris. I recognize the weeds: Lambs quarters, burdock and plantain. We brought it all with us to America.

My impression of Bucharest is that the city is improving. So far it is ready for tourists with money—those who can afford the best hotels and restaurants. The metro is fair, but doesn’t connect quite as well as it could. The streets are dirty. Most everything needs an upgrade and that’s in progress in several places. It’s coming along. But Bucharest has lost much of its Old World charm to war and dictators without quite setting foot into the modern era. Still, you can drink the water from the tap and that better than in Istanbul.

At the train station I buy water and snacks for the road. I purchase a bag of chips that are bacon flavored. They just barely taste of bacon, but there’s none in Istanbul (unless you count the pound and a half of bacon in the freezer).

Tiny church with no visible name, old quarter.
Tiny church with no visible name, old quarter.
This was the entrance to a small monastery.
This was the entrance to a small monastery.
Another dry fountain, but I'm sure they will be beautiful when restored.
Another dry fountain, but I’m sure they will be beautiful when restored.
Dry fountains, under repair.
Dry fountains, under repair.
The skirts were SHORT in Bucharest. Is this the current style? And most had the hose you see this young woman on the left wearing--mostly opaque, except for the transparent part at the top. He hookers wore them too. And several middle aged woman. With my thighs, this isn't a look I'm likely to copy. This isn't a great photo.
The skirts were SHORT in Bucharest. Is this the current style? And most had the hose you see this young woman on the left wearing–mostly opaque, except for the transparent part at the top. The hookers wore them too. And several middle aged woman. With my thighs, this isn’t a look I’m likely to copy. This isn’t a great photo.
The Bulgarian countryside.
The Bulgarian countryside.
Waiting for a bus in the middle of the night, which was late. Every bus and train was late on this trip.
Waiting for a bus in the middle of the night, which was late. Every bus and train was late on this trip.

(The trip home from Bucharest’s Gara de Nord to my apartment in Istanbul took from 12:50p to 9:00a. TWO two legs of the journey were by bus, decidedly faster than the trip out. Still, I was very tired and spent most of the day sleeping, waking only to eat and deal with laundry. Will investigate plane flights or buses for future trips. )

A day in Bucharest, Romania

My hostel, Vila 11, was located close to the train station. Not the best part of town, but it was convenient and cheap.
My hostel, Vila 11, was located close to the train station. Not the best part of town, but it was convenient and cheap.

July 1, 2015 Bucharest
I slept for almost 12 hours. Yesterday’s 23 and a half hours of constant travel was exhausting. My hostel room has a daybed, but it’s comfortable enough for a couple nights. The cost is only $24.50 (paid in Romanian leu, cash) a night for a private room and bath, so I can’t complain. It is–naturally–on the top floor with no elevator. Nature seems to be conspiring to force me to walk a dozen flights of stairs a day. (Who needs to train for a hike next year? I just live my normal life!) The room is on the third floor–and that a European third floor, not U.S. The ground floor in Europe (and much of Asia) is floor 0.

Breakfast, laid by unseen hands. Maybe the hostel was run by ghosts?
Breakfast, laid by unseen hands. Maybe the hostel was run by ghosts?

I found a breakfast set out promptly at 9a (included in the price), but no host/hostess. The pancakes were warm, thick and flavorless, but there was butter and some apricot jam to spoon over them. I made some of the worst instant coffee I’ve ever seen. How can instant coffee have grounds in the bottom of the cup? Seriously. There were more grounds than I’d expect to see in Turkish coffee. But sugar and milk helped. But of course it WAS Turkish coffee—finely ground to resemble dust. You pour over hot water and left the grounds settle, forming a sludge at the bottom of the cup. There were also fresh peaches and some salty goat cheese. I was satisfied.

I get the impression that guests are ignored here at Vila 11. The website talks about how this “friendly Canadian family” helps guests, but that’s not my experience. When I first arrived it was clear that the young woman who answered the door felt quite inconvenienced by my stay. Last night, when I went up to my room, I said hello to one of the sons, but he just glanced over his shoulder, silently. This morning I saw no one at all. Last night, I had to give the internet passcode to one guest who couldn’t find the staff. Later, I gave the door code to another. I certainly hope the guests aren’t bothering the owners by staying here! LOL

A street like any other in any big city. Same advertizing, too.
A street like any other in any big city. Same advertizing, too.

I’m always interested by the folks who run hostels, particularly out of their homes. It takes a special person to invite unknown strangers on a budget to spend the night in a spare room. You usually end up with a fair share of young, hard partying men wearing backpacks, filthy shoes and a couple weeks from their last bath or laundry stop. Having stayed in many hiker hostels plus a few European “youth” hostels, I’ve had a chance to observe a few hostels up close. Almost all include a (slightly to extremely) run down shelter with odd collections of books, magazines, used furnishings and mismatched sheets. Things are piled in a mishmash and coated in a gentile layer of dust, as though they’ve been mislaid for a month or so.

Vila 11 is no exception. The horsehair couch is sagging with a perfect imprint of a derrière on the left side. Clearly an antique, it needs both refinishing and new upholstery. Books and knickknacks line any horizontal space that can pass as a shelf and most corners include a short stack of paperbacks. There’s no reception desk, just an old sewing machine table pulled up against the arm of the couch. The building is narrow and straight up, reminding me of the architecture in Vietnam—one room wide with a winding marble staircase up one side to the 2-4 floors above. The “front room” is really a wide hall, the sides of which are stacked with furniture. On the walls are various family photos and oils paintings. The photos are all prior to 1980, mostly shots of regrettable 60’s and 70’s clothing and hair styles. The paintings look like something you’d see at the last hour of a yard sale and buy for a dime, just to get the frame.

Didn't expect to see a street named after a Danish author.
Didn’t expect to see a street named after a Danish author.

You can pass right through the front room to a backyard. I can make out the bones of an old garden, now overgrown trees and bushes. A couple of parakeets sing from a cage hanging from one limb. I expect to see a sign “future home of a junk yard” in the middle of it all.

Perhaps the word “future” is generous.

The host family seems to live either in the basement or somewhere past the open back door. The first floor has a kitchen and dining area. Climb 3 floors to the hostel, a series of small rooms. Most have 2-4 beds crammed in. “Maria” is my private room and bath. The wooden floor complains as I enter. It sinks almost an inch when I stand from the bed. There’s no air conditioning and I can’t see how it’s heated in the winter. Outside my window I get a glimpse of how badly the slate roof and stucco walls need repair. The window stays open since that’s the only ventilation on this summer day. In the morning, I found a few mosquito bites. The pigeons coo constantly, but that’s almost soothing. I’m grateful for the single electric plug-in on the wall. The room looks clean but this is in contrast to the notes of urine wafting from the bathroom. I’m guessing long term leakage based on the spongy floor. Also, about once an hour the toilet spontaneously flushes. I have to keep the bathroom door shut to deal with the stench. My sheets look freshly laundered, which is good since the pillow and the mattress are not of this century.

Usually the owners of these places are gregarious. Not so here. I barely saw anyone else in 2 days.

The river had many fisherman, but no one seemed to catch anything. The water looked fairly clean. In fact, you could drink directly from the tap, something I never do in Istanbul.
The river had many fisherman, but no one seemed to catch anything. The water looked fairly clean. In fact, you could drink directly from the tap, something I never do in Istanbul.

I had bought and read a Lonely Planet guidebook about Bucharest before I came, but I can’t say as I had a plan to explore the city. I knew I wanted to see the Palace of Parliament building and had a couple museums earmarked, but little else. Unfortunately, Lonely Planet is not my favorite guidebook. Safe to say I am not their target audience. By their standards I am ancient. The books are light on history but informative about beaches, nightlife and where to buy cheap beer. It was the only guidebook I could find in Istanbul and the maps and basic transportation information were helpful.

The Palace of Communications, in the middle of more construction.
The Palace of Communications, in the middle of more construction.

First I went to the bank and was able to change Turkish lira for Romanian Leu (though I usually saw the word “lei” on signs. Hummm. Current exchange rate: 4 Romanian Leu to $1 USD). Then I checked on an overnight train to Budapest. Despite the schedule on the Internet, the woman at the ticket window assured me there isn’t one. (Actually, there is. I later talked to people who had done it in both directions. Seems the woman didn’t want to be bothered with me. Or perhaps there was no train on the particular day I was interested.) I’d been told that the English versions of the train website were not always up to date. After consulting a calendar, I realized that I was both short on funds AND time. Budapest will have to be a future trip. <sigh>

I figured out how to buy a metro card for the underground train and made it to the old town section. Unfortunately there are two metro stops there with the same name and I didn’t realize it. I had gotten off at stop #1 and my map was for stop #2. I wasted over an hour wandering around trying to figure out why I couldn’t understand the map. It was noon before I found the Palace of Parliament, but they stopped giving tours at 11a.

Palace of Parliament. According to my guidebook: "Impossible to miss....the world's second largest building (after the Pentagon near Washington DC) and Ceausecu's most infamous creation. Build in 1984 (and still unfinished), the building has 12 storys (sic) and 3100 rooms covering 330,000 sq meters - an estimated 3.3 billion Euro project."
Palace of Parliament. According to my guidebook: “Impossible to miss….the world’s second largest building (after the Pentagon near Washington DC) and Ceausecu’s most infamous creation. Build in 1984 (and still unfinished), the building has 12 storys (sic) and 3100 rooms covering 330,000 sq meters – an estimated 3.3 billion Euro project.”
Finally, some fountains that were working. This is the wide boulevard that leads to the humongous Palace of Parliament.
Finally, some fountains that were working. This is the wide boulevard that leads to the humongous Palace of Parliament.

I did, however find one of the double-decker tour buses and hoped on for a mere 25 leu. Pretty cheap! And it really was. Worst tour I’ve ever been on. The English audio guide barely gave any information and so many sites were under construction or refurbishing that it hardly mattered. The Arch de Triumph is covered over for at least 2 years. The Old Princely Court (now a museum) is closed for the foreseeable future (though you can still see the statue of Vlad the Impaler out front). Almost none of the various (mostly tiny) churches were even mentioned by the audio guide. Later, when I visited a few of them, it was extremely difficult to even find their names. Lovely parks, but the fountains were mostly dry (they did appear to be getting a thorough cleaning and refurbishing, though) and many trees and buses were being replanted. While it’s nice to know that work is being done, it isn’t much fun to arrive before it’s finished. According to my guidebook, it is just past high tourist season, so perhaps that explains some of it.

Timing is everything.

The Arc de Triumph is completely covered.
The Arc de Triumph is completely covered.
BucharestDailyPhoto http://www.bucharestdailyphoto.com/2010/04/the-statue-of-the-aviators.html
The Statue of the Aviators “…dedicated to the Romanian airmen. Its official name is “The Monument of the Heroes of the Air” (Monumentul Eroilor Aerului in Romanian) but it is more commonly known by the people of Bucharest as “The Statue of the Aviators” (Statuia Aviatorilor in Romanian). It lies in the Aviators’ Square, on Aviators’ Boulevard (go figure 🙂 ) and it was built between the years 1930 to 1935 by sculptors Lidia Kotzebue and Iosif Fekete.” from

Still, there was a lot to see if you knew what you were looking at. I didn’t. This is just one of a thousand times I’ve been traveling and wished my dear fried David H. was with me. I hope to attain half the knowledge he has forgotten about history, art and world affairs. I read everything in my guidebook, such as it was. Visited the Museum of the Romanian Peasant and a Bucharest City History museum. Little English signage, so I didn’t get much out of it. I did learn a bit about their horrible dictator, deposed and shot in 1989, but that’s history I frankly lived through and should have been more aware of. I hate feeling so stupid. I’d saved a stroll through the Old Town for last as it’s listed as a highlight. But it’s only a special place for those who like expensive restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. Not my kinda place.

Glad I came, but this has not been my most interesting trip.

Newly renovated, this was in the old town, also called the Lipscani after one of its streets. The church has several names: The Annunciation church, Saint Anthony's but is best known as The Princely Old Court church. Founded in 1559, it is probably the oldest church in Bucharest. It has a neo-Gothic appearance, after repairs done after a fire in 1847.
Newly renovated, this was in the old town, also called the Lipscani after one of its streets. The church has several names: The Annunciation church, Saint Anthony’s but is best known as The Princely Old Court church. Founded in 1559, it is probably the oldest church in Bucharest. It has a neo-Gothic appearance, after repairs done after a fire in 1847.
Statue of the Roman Emperor Trajan in front of the National Museum of Romanian History. He's holding a Dacia wolf. Not one of my favorites, but interesting. Seems that Romania tries VERY hard to focus on their tie to Rome. Maybe a little too hard.
Statue of the Roman Emperor Trajan in front of the National Museum of Romanian History. He’s holding a Dacia wolf. Not one of my favorites, but interesting. Seems that Romania tries VERY hard to focus on their tie to Rome. Maybe a little too hard.
I'm pretty sure there's a story here, but I didn't figure out what it was.
I’m pretty sure there’s a story here, but I didn’t figure out what it was.
Iuliu Maniu statue in Revolution Square. "Iuliu Maniu (January 8, 1873 – February 5, 1953) was one of Romania’s foremost politicians, serving as the Prime Minister of Romania for three terms during 1928–1933. He was an adversary of Russian influence and for this reason he was imprisoned in 1947 when the communists came to power. He died in 1953 in Sighet prison. His statue, the work of artist Mircea Spătaru is located in the Revolution Square, in front of the former Communist Party Headquarters which are now housing governmental offices. I like the statues because it is modern, expressive and full of pathos, something different among the standard 19th century statues which fill Bucharest." BucharestDailyPhoto http://www.bucharestdailyphoto.com/2009/08/iuliu-maniu-statue.html
Iuliu Maniu statue in Revolution Square. “Iuliu Maniu (January 8, 1873 – February 5, 1953) was one of Romania’s foremost politicians, serving as the Prime Minister of Romania for three terms during 1928–1933. He was an adversary of Russian influence and for this reason he was imprisoned in 1947 when the communists came to power. He died in 1953 in Sighet prison. His statue, the work of artist Mircea Spătaru is located in the Revolution Square, in front of the former Communist Party Headquarters which are now housing governmental offices. I like the statues because it is modern, expressive and full of pathos, something different among the standard 19th century statues which fill Bucharest.” BucharestDailyPhoto http://www.bucharestdailyphoto.com/2009/08/iuliu-maniu-statue.html
Revolution Square, beside the Iuliu Maniu Statue.
Revolution Square, beside the Iuliu Maniu Statue.
Statue in The Revolution Square (Piaţa Revoluţiei in Romanian), downtown Bucharest, located on Victory Road (Calea Victoriei in Romanian). It is called the Rebirth Memorial. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, "It was ridiculed when ti was first erected in 2005, but the public has now grown accustomed to it and it's one of the most photographed subjects in Bucharest."
Statue in The Revolution Square (Piaţa Revoluţiei in Romanian), downtown Bucharest, located on Victory Road (Calea Victoriei in Romanian). It is called the Rebirth Memorial. According to the Lonely Planet guidebook, “It was ridiculed when ti was first erected in 2005, but the public has now grown accustomed to it and it’s one of the most photographed subjects in Bucharest.”
The Kretzulescu Church, Kretzulescu Church is an Eastern Orthodox church in central Bucharest, Romania. Built in the Brâncovenesc style, it is located on Calea Victoriei, nr. 45A, at one of the corners of Revolution Square, next to the former Royal Palace. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kretzulescu_Church
The Kretzulescu Church, Kretzulescu Church is an Eastern Orthodox church in central Bucharest, Romania. Built in the Brâncovenesc style, it is located on Calea Victoriei, nr. 45A, at one of the corners of Revolution Square, next to the former Royal Palace. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kretzulescu_Church
The Kretzulescu Church
The Kretzulescu Church
Kretzulescu Church, ceiling of the entryway.
Kretzulescu Church, ceiling of the entryway.
There was a surprising number of statues. "Centrally located in front of Romania’s National Theatre (which is currently being rebuilt), not 20 yards from the Bucharest InterContinental Hotel, the bronze Caruta cu paiate was created by sculptor Ioan Bolborea in honour of Romania’s favourite playwright, Ion Luca Caragiale. It was unveiled in December 2010.  The statue features characters from Caragiale’s plays (Domnul Goe, Nae Catavencu, Tache Farfuridi, and so on) and was unveiled in December 2010. Next to the Caruta cu paiate is a seated bronze of Nenea Iancu – Caragiale himself. " From InYourPocket. http://www.inyourpocket.com/bucharest/Caruta-cu-Paiate_85812v
There was a surprising number of statues. “Centrally located in front of Romania’s National Theatre (which is currently being rebuilt), not 20 yards from the Bucharest InterContinental Hotel, the bronze Caruta cu paiate was created by sculptor Ioan Bolborea in honour of Romania’s favourite playwright, Ion Luca Caragiale. It was unveiled in December 2010.
The statue features characters from Caragiale’s plays (Domnul Goe, Nae Catavencu, Tache Farfuridi, and so on) and was unveiled in December 2010.
Next to the Caruta cu paiate is a seated bronze of Nenea Iancu – Caragiale himself. “
From InYourPocket. http://www.inyourpocket.com/bucharest/Caruta-cu-Paiate_85812v
The sign on the side called this church "Capitala Romaniei Europene" and it was dated 20 September 2009,
The sign on the side called this church “Capitala Romaniei Europene” and it was dated 20 September 2009,
Wooden doors were ornate, too, but the entire church was tiny.
Wooden doors were ornate, too, but the entire church was tiny.

West to Bucharest

It was a short train with an ancient engine, pulling cars through the countryside. Sometimes the scenery was green, sometimes weedy and dry, but always rural. Like the train, the small towns we passed through were tired, small and sleepy.
It was a short train with an ancient engine, pulling cars through the countryside. Sometimes the scenery was green, sometimes weedy and dry, but always rural. Like the train, the small towns we passed through were tired, small and sleepy.

June 30, 2015 Bucharest
Yesterday I started a trip to Bucharest (which I got to) and Budapest (which I didn’t). I had decided that because of the romance of it (and the low price tag) I’d take the train west, following the old route of the Orient Express.

The glamor of train travel has tarnished, completely. In short, it was a grueling ride to Bucharest–few toilets, no water, no snacks. It was an older, slow train, to put it diplomatically And it wasn’t even a train from Istanbul to the border.

Was not sure what I was facing on this trip–no one on the internet seemed to have updated information. Glad I stopped at our little neighborhood store and picked up a couple bottles of water, some peanuts and dates. That’s all I had from 6:30p when I left the apartment until 6:30p when I arrived in Bucharest (only one hour late!). That’s one metro bus and a tram to Sirkeci Train station in Istanbul. Then another bus to the boarder of Turkey that finally left at 10pm. That right, it’s a BUS from the train station! It takes you from Istanbul to the train station at Edirne, on the edge of the Bulgarian boarder. After a security check, we were harangued by some seedy looking characters trying to get the passengers to smuggle cigarettes for them (obviously with the tacit consent of the folks who operated the train). No one would, though they tried to strong arm one older couple before the train operators finally shooed them away.

The bright spot of the trip were the endless fields of sunflowers.
The bright spot of the trip were the endless fields of sunflowers.

We finally boarded a train in Edirne that crossed the Turkish border and took us through Bulgaria (though the back cars split off to Sopia). This was an older model train and “slow” does not begin to describe it. I can’t imagine why the bathroom smelled so strongly since there is no holding tank for the urine. If you look down into the toilet bowl, you see the tracks speeding past below. The sink had a sign warning that it was not potable, but there was no water anyway. Changed trains in the-middle-of-nowhere, Bulgaria. Then when we finally crossed the Danube we were finally in Romania. The train arrived an hour late.
If I wanted more stamps in my passport, I was in luck. There’s a passport check at each side of the border. My ticket was checked at least a half dozen times too. Despite the information from the Internet, there wasn’t a single sleeper car at all, nor a dining car. And since I had no Bulgarian currency, I couldn’t buy anything from the one stop that had a cafe.

Met a lovely Australian group on the train–older group, very funny, well traveled. One had been raised in China and another had lived in India for a time. They assured me this flea bitten train was luxury compared to travel in those countries. Without the Aussie’s sense of humor and a couple audiobooks, the ride would have been unbearable. I am not looking forward to the return trip.

No sleeping berths, just six seats to a compartment. No air conditioning, no dining car and I doubt there's heat in the winter.
No sleeping berths, just six seats to a compartment. No air conditioning, no dining car and I doubt there’s heat in the winter.
A river valley in Bulgaria.
A river valley in Bulgaria.

But when I got to Gara de Nord train station in Romania, I found both my credit cards were blocked (even though I put in travel notifications for both). I could get no cash at the ATM and the hostel had changed their policy and did not take cards (I’d booked over the Internet). Had some U.S. Currency that I could exchange for local (running quite low on this commodity, BTW) but no one would exchange Turkish lira. Maybe a bank tomorrow? May have to come home early since my funds are limited by no credit. If I can’t fix the issue with the money tomorrow, will skip Budapest. Am OK and can afford to get back, but not all trips go well. We will see. My first impression of Bucharest is pretty grim, however.
Currently raining, but I got in before it started. Exhausted. A shower, a walk around the neighborhood to find the Metro and a bank (not open) and I’m down for the night.

The Gara de Nord,  Bucharest's train station.
The Gara de Nord, Bucharest’s train station.
The train station is always a busy place.
The train station is always a busy place.
I was exchanging some money and noticed this Christmas decoration behind the cashier's head. It was June!
I was exchanging some money and noticed this Christmas decoration behind the cashier’s head. It was June!
Train station, Bucharest, Romania
Train station, Bucharest, Romania
Sometimes if you say it out loud the words make sense, even when it's a language you don't speak. The word "coafura" is Romanian for coiffure--a hairdressers shop.
Sometimes if you say it out loud the words make sense, even when it’s a language you don’t speak. The word “coafura” is Romanian for coiffure–a hairdressers shop.

The hills of Lisbon, Portugal 2009

5/5/09 day one

The flight to Lisbon was not too bad. My seat mate was a woman who had not flown much, never internationally. She had had bad luck so far on the flight—bad weather had grounded her in Atlanta overnight. But she, was certainly taking it all in stride, seemed to be interested in it all. Quite shocked when we were offered wine with dinner—trust me this only happens on Air France. It was kind of fun answering her questions—how to adjust the reading light or the air, how to use the earphones for the movie, how to put the seatbelt on top of the blanket when you slept so no one would wake you until you landed, why you might want earplugs or the night masks they were handing out, when is the best time to got to the bathrooms, and why her feet were swollen. She wanted to know what we’d have for dinner and I said probably a choice of chicken or pasta, probably a cheese tortellini. I reasoned that everyone liked chicken and they also needed a vegetarian dish. I tried not to look surprised when I was right. She could not understand the announcements even though they were in both French and English. She thought I was “translating” for her and I didn’t have the heart to explain it. Marcella was a long haul truck driver who lived either in her truck or the trucker’s hostel between jobs where they shared a car. So when she was laid off in January, she lost her home and transportation in addition to a paycheck. She is visiting her daughter who is living in Marcelle for a few months. She spent a lot of time detailing packaging for potato chips, telling me about pallets and forklifts. She detailed banding, labeling and plastic wrapping pallets. I think she forgot that I told her I did manufacturing training, so have documented all of this. But she seemed to believe that I had shared my travel wisdom with her, so she should share her life knowledge.

I left her at Charles de Gaul airport and walked to the far end of the terminal to board my flight to Lisbon. No worries, a smooth flight. I’ve had little sleep. Took a taxi to my hotel, the Residential Princesa, a budget hotel. The ride was 9 euros. The rooms are small, but clean and have all I need. I showered and should not have laid down because I fell asleep immediately. Decided to use the rest to my advantage and call it a siesta in preparation for a tour I’m signed up for tonight. I’m doing a Lisbon by Night tour, includes dinner with Fado music. The tour doesn’t start until 8pm, dinner at 10pm. I will be up past my bedtime!

I booked the tour at the hotel with the young man at the front desk. He is very new and his English is only fair, but it seems better than anyone else’s. He does a fine job as long as you do not rush him or get him flustered. He must be barely out of high school and way too thin. He has the perfect skin of a child who has not spent time in the sun, but his eyebrows are so wild they may have a life of their own. I have not met his boss, but I have heard her yell at him. He had never booked a tour before and had to go to the back “room”, really just a partition screen, several times. Each time she would yell in Portuguese and while I don’t know the language, I understood the sentiment. “Stupid” sounds the same in so many languages. He always came around the partition smiling as though I could not have heard or understood the manager. After the third time, I asked if she was having a bad day. He smiled broadly, “Oh no! This is a good day. I am happy.” and then wiped the imaginary sweat from his brow. “Phew!”

I spent the afternoon walking in ever larger circles around my hotel, trying to get my bearings. I am essentially the walking dead as I have not had enough sleep. I have not found a subway stop, but have written down the number of the tram and bus that stop in front of the hotel. So far this just looks like any large city with graffiti, narrow streets and working people. I am in a downtown area and must figure out the trams and subway to get around. Maybe tomorrow. The hills are killers. If I lived here I would either get in better shape or die. Possibly the latter as one of my trail names is Flatlander. I earned it after a particularly difficult climb when I tried to talk my bunk mates at the shelter that night into renaming the stretch “Hell, with switch backs.”  It never caught on, but my nickname stuck. But there are some lovely old buildings with tile facades and narrow balconies. I am near a hospital, small park, grocery and a police station, so all the essentials are covered.

There is wireless internet in the breakfast room and I brought my netbook, so will not have to type everything on my tiny blackberry screen. Do not expect my spelling to improve.

later 5/5/09

You can tell this is a budget hotel for what is missing. There is no stationery, notepad or pen with the hotel logo. I have no bathmat, which makes the move from the shower to the green tile floor treacherous. The hotel, by the way, boasts repeatedly that it was remodeled extensively a decade ago. In light of the green tile, the color of the popular 1970’s shade known as avocado, does not seem in line with this timing. There is also only a single electrical outlet in my room, which is why I have learned to bring a multi plug in addition to an adapter when I travel. There is a room safe, as advertised, but one must rent its use. I solve this problem by bringing little of value with me on trips. What I have I lock in my suitcase so that at least if a thief steals it, he will have to endure my dirty socks as well. This should be protection enough!  As advertised, there is a an air conditioning unit in the room. It is located high above the door and the remote to turn it on seems to be missing. Even if I could find the remote, the electric “eye” is covered by a band aid, and not even one of those fancy decorated ones my niece sports. Again this is a Budget hotel. But it is clean, seems safe, even if only because the police station is visible from my 3rd floor window and I think if I yelled loudly enough, they would hear me. The hotel has something else you don’t see in the states: There is a coin operated dispenser that has water, snacks and beer by the can.

Tonight I arranged a Lisbon by night tour that included a drive around the city and a traditional meal with Fado music. In the Iberian Peninsula, they eat dinner late. The tour started at 8pm, dinner at 9, then the driver picks me up at 11pm to continue the tour. It was well past midnight when I got home.

later that night

I would like to say that I dressed carefully and elegantly for dinner. I would like to say this, but I would like even more not to lie. In truth there are two obstacles. The first is that I don’t bring dressy cloths when I travel. My black Capri pants and red shirt are practically a uniform for me at all times. They will have to do because they are all I have. The second problem is that I woke up suddenly one morning and found that I was both portly and middle aged. None of my old clothes fit and nothing new looks good on me so I don’t buy it. In theory, I can do something about the weight. Based on results, this is still just a theory, however. But unless I manage to live to be at least 200 or, better yet, discover the fountain of youth, I can’t do much about the age thing. I must age gracefully, fight it every step of the way, or just age. Or die. Well, I’m not ready for that yet.

I added a black and white scarf, draped loosely around my neck the way I see in Europe. I do this under the theory that a scarf instantly males one look civilized, if not fashionable. And it hides the lunch stains on the shirt. Bonus!  I wore make up—even a little eye shadow. I don’t own blush as I’ve no need of t. Even with heavy stage make up, my naturally ruddy complexion, common to all who descend from hearty peasant stock, shows through.

And if it doesn’t work, I’ll probably never see any of these people again. One of the great, but seldom discussed, reasons to travel abroad is the statistical improbability of running into your high school sweetheart after you’ve let your self gain 50 pounds. While you may be very likely to have your worst hair day ever, be caught in a sudden hurricane, or even spend 73 hours getting to your destination while wearing the same clothes, you usually don’t have to meet someone you know at the end of it. Though it is not impossible.

The sights included the Edward VII park, named in honor of an English king’s visit and sporting English box hedges in geometric patterns. The statue of the Marques do Pombal, who rebuilt the city after the devastating earthquake of 1755 (which was immediately followed by a tsunami and fires). Commercial Square, the National Pantheon, various churches all more interesting than the last. We crossed the bridge, a smaller version of the Golden Gate Bridge and made by the same company, to get a better look at the Christ the King statue, a replica of the one in Brazil. We drove around the Bullfighting arena, the narrow streets of the Barrio Alta and the narrower ones in the Moorish district. All of these places I want to see today and more.

Dinner was not as touristy as I expected. Half the crowd sang along with the music and appeared to be Portuguese, if not locals. We were treated to a troupe of 4 traditional dancers accompanied by an accordion player and three different Fado singers. Fado is distinctly Portuguese, usually central to Liston, and seldom heard outside of the country. It requires and strong and expressive voice, one that can show pain and loss and still project to the back of the room. There was no amplification, and the singer must be heard over the guitar and the mandolin like instrument that gives a distinct sound. Fado is reported to be the music of slaves, lovers separated by the sea and/or students sent away to university. Sort of like the US spirituals, blues and country music rolled into one, but with classy clothing.

The food was a simple fish fillet in a tomato sauce with onions and chunks of potatoes. It was served with white wine, bread and olives. Dessert was a “caramel cake” which I would have called a flan, followed by the very strong coffee. I met a lovely couple, retired real estate agents, who were well traveled. The had just gotten off a cruise that day. They planned to drive to Germany to see his family, but expected to stop in Madrid, Seville, and maybe Paris along the way. They were funny, it was a second marriage for both and it seemed to be working out.

I met my driver after dinner at 11pm and he continued my tour. It was 12:30 before I got back to my hotel.

5/6/09 Day 2

I got a bit of a late start today. I’m blaming it on lack of sleep but I just could not figure out the public transportation system. First I had to buy a metro ticket, which turns out to be something you get at the post office, though that is not what my guidebook said. Then I could not find the metro stop. There isn’t one near me. I just couldn’t find it. Then I found my way back to the hotel and decided to try a bus. I don’t have good luck with buses, but the schedule said the number 100 bus was going exactly where I wanted and stopped in front of my hotel. Except it didn’t. Not even sure if there is a 100 bus anymore. There was a very nice, very helpful man who gave me directions to where the  bus now stopped, except that he was wrong and now I had managed to get pretty hopelessly lost. My map only shows main streets and I clearly wasn’t on one.

So I walked. My theory was that if I just went downhill I’d eventually find a main street that was on my map or I’d hit the river, which is a pretty good landmark in anyone’s book. Water runs downhill, right?  My only concern with this theory is that Lisbon is reported to be built on 7 hills, so I could just get stuck in a valley this way. (BTW, my tour guide last night assured me that Lisbon only has 5.5 hills. The last dictator just wanted it to sound mythical like Rome.)  The walk gave me the opportunity to notice that the majority of the sidewalks are almost on the same level with the street, a convenience for automobiles which drive and park directly on the sidewalk. In a few areas, they have metal posts to keep the cars on the road. And I found that you can complain about the traffic with anyone, even if you don’t share a common language.

And it eventually worked. I found a lovely, broad boulevard called Liberdade. There is pricey shopping on either side and the strip down the middle was a shaded park, with extensive landscaping, fountains, pools for fish. Perfect for walks. But I had walked enough already. So I boarded a double decker, sight seeing bus and let it drive me around while I listened with earphones to a recording of someone with questionable English skills tell me what we were passing. There is no pick up point near my hotel, but the ticket will be good until tomorrow. Seriously, these bus tours are a great way to see a lot in a little time and are budget conscious. You can usually jump on and off at will.

The big sites I saw today:

l Torre de Belem–sort of the symbol of Lisbon and built in the Manueline style found only here. It is a defensive tower that used to sit on an island in the middle of the river Tajo (Tagus in Portuguese), but now is at the river’s edge, since the swampy land between the tower and the monastery have been filled in. Built 1515-1520. Manueline is decorative without being fussy. It has both religious and nautical motifs.

l Monument to the Discoverers–built in 1960 to mark the 500 anniversary of the death of Henry the Navigator. It faces the river and includes the likenesses of the heroes of Portugal’s age of discovery, the 15th Century. At the top of the column of heroes, it Henry, holding a model of the Caravel—the sailing ship that made it all possible. And i thought it was just a chocolate bar!

l Jeronimos Monastery–also Manueline style. Dom Manuel I built the Monastery and abbey in the early 16th century, as a thanks for all the maritime discoveries that had made the country rich. Buried there are Vasco da Gama (first to sail around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope) and Henry the Navigator (son of Dom Joao, Prince Henry was the driving force behind overseas expansion in the 15th century. If he were alive today, he would be a rock star.). Also, Luis de Camoes, a great Portugal poet. My tour guide last night told me that I could never understand Portugal unless I read this poet, so I must do so.

l Museum of Antique arts–which is at he Monastery and I accidentally paid admission thinking that I was paying to go into the church. It was worth the 3 Euro, though. they have a large display of Egyptian mummies, art. And an interesting collection of photographs taken in Egypt in 1902.

I also drove past the bullfighting arena (and I understand they may have a bullfight Thursday?); several lovely squares; the bridge that looks like the Golden Gate, the statue of Jesus from across the river and an aqueduct system (not Roman, for a change). I’m happy with most of my photos and can’t wait to share them.

The weather is hot. Temperatures are 80+ with not a cloud in site. I think I burned the top of my head.

Other ways to tell this is Europe:  There is a hand towel, but no face cloth, called a face flannel here. You are expected to bring your own as it is more sanitary. My room is on the 3 floor, though you would climb 4 flights of steps to reach it. The ground floor is not counted as one.

Another clue is that dinner is late. I have just come back from a lovely meal at Clara’s, located 3 blocks from my hotel, just across the park. I left at 10:30pm, just as the real diners were arriving.

I was seated in the garden, and even with the smokers, two tables over, could smell the flowering vines. I had planned to order the cod, but the waiter talked me out of it. He felt that boiled cod should not be served to anyone who was not raised in Portugal. He suggested the bream, filleted with the head on, and grilled. It was served with a buttery wine sauce, new potatoes and greens in garlic butter. I started to order a white wine, but he assured me I would enjoy the local beer with this dish much more. Both suggestions were less expensive than I would have ordered, so how could I refuse?   He laid out a crisp white linen cloth for me and real silverware. He lit small votive candles in shimmery cut crystal globes. My bottled water was served in a goblet and came with fresh bread, chewy on the outside and tender just inside the crust. Served with a soft cheese, with just a hint of blue veining. I could see the moon—one day short of full—over the ancient garden wall and listen to the fountain. The only incongruous thing was a rooster, crowing well past his bedtime. But the crowing cock is the signature of Lisbon and, more importantly, it may mean that the eggs are very fresh.

And of course the waiter was right about the selection. Perfectly grilled. Perfectly seasoned. I ate all the fish, did not mind the small bones I had to set aside and considered how much flesh might be in the head. And even though I am not much of a beer drinker, this was wonderful beer, served in a chilled glass and carefully poured so as to create only the tiniest foam across the top. Alas, it is not available in the states.

The two French women, the smokers, were much more friendly than rumors indicate. It may have been that I volunteered to take their photograph. Or it could have been the enormous bottle of wine they had just finished. The young women, I would guess mid 20’s, asked me to join them for coffee and dessert. They were on holiday from Paris, their first visit to Lisbon. They seemed completely unaware of the tourist sites. And uninterested. They listened politely to my descriptions of Belem and the monastery and then asked if I could recommend a bar that would stay open until morning, preferably one with dancing. I was no help. The ladies ordered a chocolate cake that they would split. My waiter suggested that I trust him once again, he would make me something special. But, of course!

He served their cake with two silver forks. Then presented my plate with a flourish. He had cut me a thin slice of each of the four desserts!  A sponge cake, soaked in orange and topped with marmalade. A lemon cheesecake—light as air—topped with raspberry jam. A rich chocolate cake with chocolate icing. And a sugary vanilla mouse, whipped with toasted coconut and candied walnuts. The French are so unattractive when they are jealous.

I left an enormous tip by Portugal’s standards, though it was only 20 percent. He practically carried me to the ladies room when I asked for directions and walked me out the door offering to call me a cab personally. He kissed my hand, which seemed excessive based on my khakis and red t-shirt. And the fact that the money had come from a pouch worn around my neck and stuffed in my bra.

I did not take the cab, but walked back through the park which was now quite occupied now that the cool of the evening had taken over. Two boys were shooting hoops, each trying to impress the girl on the sidelines in the short blue jean skirt. We could have been back in my hometown. There were a half dozen young children playing on the slide and swings. I estimate their ages at between 5 and 7. It seemed late for them to be out on a school night. Their parents were talking and when I greeted them “Hello” they asked if I was from the UK. I’ve gotten that a lot since I got here, though I suspect it has little to do with a confusion of my Midwestern accent and that of the English. The UK is very near and they are probably guessing with the odds. Besides, it is not offensive for a US American to be mistaken for English, though I doubt the reverse is true. One of the parents confessed that when her children got home from school she gave them, “the cookie and then the wine. And then they take the long nap.”  Maybe it wasn’t so late for them.

I am now in my hotel room, sitting at the tiny desk in the niche of the window, which is open. The breeze is very cool, delightful after the sunny day. In the distance I realize that the stone wall I see is part of Castelo de Sao Jorge (St. George’s Castle). It is lit at night. I did not notice it during the day. This is where I plan to visit tomorrow, along with the Se convent. Assuming I don’t get lost.

I mentioned that my hotel is located between a hospital and a police station. It makes for poor sleeping when the ambulance or the police sirens go by. but I need the window open. What I failed to notice is the Military Academy straight across from my room. At 7am they play music, I assume the Portuguese version of reveille  (spelling?), over the loud speakers. Who needs an alarm clock?

Day 3 in Lisbon, 5/7/09

Honest, I’m a bright woman. I’ve travel a lot, with nothing more than a guidebook and a vague sense of the exchange rate. And I’ve gotten along well. But the public transportation has me beat here. Now that I’ve walked about a third of the city, I begin to understand. First the trolleys mostly take you where you need to go if you live and work here, not to tourist sites. Same with the metro lines. Can’t tell about the buses because they have changed from my map. They are also different from the public transportation map that I got at the Tourist Information booth. And some nuns assured me today that the maps on the bus stops are also out of date. (and I don’t think the nuns would lie!)

This morning I had not figured all that out however. I found my way to the Bullfighting ring, only to find that the fight is next Thursday. I really want to see a bullfight and the Portuguese bullfight is distinctive from the Spanish. New plan. I was lost for an hour trying to find a metro station. In desperation, I hailed a taxi. The driver spoke no English and I confused him by pronouncing Jorge as “HOR hey” and Castle as “cas STEEL”. Finally I pointed to the words in my guidebook. He says, “Oh castle GEORGE!” and away we went. He drove fast in the narrow streets but it was all up hill so I wasn’t about to complain and walk some more. I was on my way to Castelo de Sao Jorge, St. George’s Castle, the highest point in Lisbon. And it only cost 5 Euro. On the way, I noticed, but did not get a chance to photograph, a condom dispenser located right on the street. Nice to know they are safe here!

The earliest archaeological evidence indicates that the hill that the castle stand on was occupied as early at the 7th Century BCE. They have found iron age tools. Under the Romans, this was a fortress and residential area, known as Olissipo by 138BCE. There were large pottery operations here, due to the proximity of clay along the riverbank and plenty of trees to fire the kilns. And there was much trade, as amphorae of wine and oil have been found from Italy, Spain, Greece and Mid East. The castle was built by the Moors in 11th Century and the area was renamed Al-Uxbuna. The named changed to Lixbona in 1147 when Henry (Dom Afonso Henrigues, first king of Portugal) captured the city after a 5 month siege. Over the years the name morphed to Lisboa.

All that history is actually pretty difficult to glean from the castle itself as the displays are “rustic” at best. There are few signs in any language. The site is an amazing vantage point for photos of the city and the river., so the admission price is worth it for that alone. You can walk the upper walls of almost the entire fortification, assuming your balance is good since it is narrow, uneven and there is virtually no railing. A site like this would be considered too dangerous  for tourist in the US. Personally, I walked the walls but decided my knees didn’t need to view the city from the top of every single tower.

At this point in my travels, I’ve seen a lot of Medieval castles. I am struck by how cold and uninviting they really are. These are forts, not palaces. But I did find all the water collection points interesting—hard to get more than rain water on the top of the hill and you have to be prepared in the case of a lengthy siege. One thing I had not seen before were several “seats” built into the walls. I don’t mean just the court yards, but also at the top where the guards sat. Along one side several of the stone seats even had a round indention that would have perfectly fitted a tankard of ale! I have the photo to prove it.

Other than that, the castle grounds are compact, with a few statues, a couple peafowl and a couple dozen stray cats. There was LOTS of shopping just outside the gates but there just wasn’t a thing I was interested in. Sorry if I don’t bring people back anything, but I didn’t see anything anyone would seriously want. And the older I get the less I want, outside of new experiences.

As I left the castle, a taxi pulled up. I pointed in my guidebook to Se’ Catedral. Four Euro later, I was in front of Lisbon’s cathedral, built by Dom Afonso Henrigues (the same King Henry who seized the castle), shortly after taking over the city. It stands on the site once occupied by the city’s main mosque, and you know there was a message in THAT. The current building is a restoration and reconstruction. Like much of Lisbon, it was greatly damaged in the 1755 earthquake. I found the building severe. Without a guide or at least a guidebook, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish this from any other old church. Highlights include: a baptismal font that may have blessed St. Anthony as a child; two bell towers—a taller, third tower collapsed in the earthquake an was not rebuilt; the Romanesque Nave is nice and is about all that remains of the original building although it was heavily restored.; and a Gothic Ambulatory with chapels and tombs. There was a treasury, but the relics it once held were all lost in the earthquake.

I know that all sounds like a lot to do in one day, but frankly it takes longer to tell about the above than it did to see it and take a few photos. When I walked out of the Cathedral, it was noon and I literally had nothing else on the agenda for the day.

So I walked. That’s how I figured out the city. I walked downhill towrd the river to the Praca do Comercio (Commercial Square) which is being reconstructed. I walked up the Rua da Prata and through the grand Triumphal Arch that marks the entrance to the Rua Augusta—the pricey and touristy pedestrian shopping area of the Baixa (pronounced BAA he ah) . From there I saw lovely town squares, Praca da Figueire and Rossio , Praca Dom Pedro IV).

I wandered over to the Elevator de Santa Justa. I had seen it from the tour bus, but it is located in a narrow street and I couldn’t get a photo as we moved quickly by. This is the oddest structure I’ve ever seen and as far as I can tell, serves no purpose except to take the money of tourists. It was designed by a student of Eiffel (think “tower”). It literally just lifts you about 3 stories from the Baixa to the Carmo ruin in the Chiado (she AH doe) district so that you can go to even more expensive shotp and restaurants. I didn’t go up, but I took photos.

I continued up the Avenida da Liberdade—the one I found yesterday with the lovely pedestrian boulevard in the center of the wide street. Today I walked the length of it to the Praca (the word seems to mean square?) Marques de Pombal. The statue of the virtual dictator who reconstructed Lisbon after the earthquake is located in the center of a huge and busy roundabout where all the major roads of Lisbon converge. It is at the foot of the sloping hill that is the Edward VII park. From there I walked to my hotel in the Estefania District. Roughly 4 million miles. Give or take a million.

I do not shop in the pricey areas. I make it a rule to go a minimum of 2 blocks off any major shopping area, 4 blocks if there is a Louis Vuiton store. But the Estefania neighborhood is mostly residential, so on the way, found a Dora the Explorer bag for my niece. It is silly and cheap, but she is 3 and will love it. And I can say I actually bought something in Lisbon.

Phew!  That walk should make up for my missing my walking group both days this weekend. I was glad to get back to my room, shower and type all this up. Greater Lisbon has 3 million people, and on foot it seems they are all tourists. So far my favorite photoso far is the graffiti on a church wall, “Tourist, go home!”

But all this means that I’ve actually done all the sites I considered most important in Lisbon and I still have two days left!  Rick Steves says Lisbon is worth 2 days and he is right. So for tomorrow, I’m getting out of town for the day. I’ve booked a tour to Sintra, Cascais & Estoril. It is called the “O Verde e o Mar” Tour (Green and Sea?) I hardly have any idea what all that means, though. Here is what the brochure for the tour says: “Visit to the National Palace (Palacia da Vila) and its Historical Centre with free time to taste the traditional cheese pastries. Drive through the National Park of Sintra-Cascais, till Roca Cape, the most western point of the Continental Europe. Visit Hell’s Mouth (Boca do Inferno). Walking tour of Cascais, a charming village with a traditional fishermen harbour. Panoramic view over Casino Estoril and its gardens.”

Pastries, a palace and panoramic views. I’m there.

Tonight’s dinner was a restaurant within walking distance. I find that is a safer bet when there is so much wine involved and I am what is known as a “cheap date”.

Dinner was at O Adade, which seems to be a local place as they could not find an English menu for me, even though it said there was one on the door. This is often the best kind of place. The waiter was young and could understand English, but not confident enough to speak it. With the help of the cook, I was told that their meat dishes were their specialty, not fish, and they particularly liked pork. So I ordered something called The Secret of Black Pork with the house red wine. When I asked what it was they could only pantomime that it was from the pig’s leg. I wonder how many of us know what part of the animal we are eating?

The restaurant was small, you could watch the cook work and inspect most of the pantry from your chair. The place is spotlessly clean, more than I would expect from a local restaurant. The walls are wainscot in a blue tile with a much painted stucco above. The tablecloth and napkin are linen. With my wine, I am served toasted bread, a column  of soft “cheese” and a plate of individual tubs of butter and sardine pate’. The cheese is later described on the bill as queijo fresco, fresh cheese. It tasted like whipped Crisco, but I have had fresh cheese made in the Indian style and it has much the same lack of flavor. With trepidation, I tried the sardine pate’ and it was actually good. You have to be careful with these “starters” since they aren’t offered free. If you eat them, you will be charged and you can be quite surprised by the price.

The Secret of Black Pork turns out to be a simple, pan fried pork steak. Fatty but flavorful. But if you are concerned about fat, don’t order pork!  I did some trimming of the meat, but honestly it would not have been much improved by a sauce. It was served with lemon wedges which cut the fatty taste. I also got a salad of lettuce, tomato and shredded carrot (no dressing) and french fries. For dessert, a mango mousse.

Not much of a meal, but a nice evening.

Now I am back in my room. I’ve rinsed out a few things and they are drying at the open window. I carry laundry soap and a braided clothesline that needs no clothes pins. I don’t carry many clothes so I expect to have to wash underwear and socks myself.)

I have managed to learn three words: Ola which means Hello and is pronounced just like the Spanish Hola (Oh la). Adeus, Goodbye. And Obrigado, which is Thank you. I remember it because it is so like the Japanese word for the same thing. Why would that be?

Day 4 in Lisbon 5/8/09

I was rushed this morning. My tour started at 9am, with a pick up at my hotel. I barely got yesterday’s travelogue sent!  Problems with the power here at the hotel—not serious, just a glitch.

We drove directly to Sintra, the site of the summer palace. I would have loved to have visited the mountain above the palace where the ruins of the original Moorish fortress stands. Several of my photos have this as the background. The town of Sintra is probably lovely, if you could manage to get the tourist out of the way long enough to see it. Again, lots of shops and nothing I was interested in buying. My guidebook warned that the place could get crowded in summer or on weekends. If this was NOT crowded, I would hate to see what that would look like.

Sintra was the summer retreat of Portuguese kings from the 13th to the late 19th  centuries. Before that it was a small Moorish town. Many of the doors and windows contain these influences. The  palace is easily recognizable by the twin chimneys, which I found very odd, even out of place. Joan (John) I built the majority of the rooms of the palace in the 15th century.

We had a tour guide for the palace, a lovely woman named Clara who had to conduct the tour in Portuguese, French and English. She claimed English was her worse language, but the only English word she didn’t seem to know was “trident” when referring to a statue of the god of the sea. My Portuguese and French should be so bad.

The palace is lovely. Highlights include the lovely tiles on the walls, some original, some added in the 17th century and some reconstructed to replace those damaged in the earthquake of 1755. They talk about this event like it happened just a few years ago. They are still reconstructing and repairing from it. Also, I loved how the rooms were constructed around several inner gardens and accessible to the outside.

 

We stayed in Sintra for lunch and I chose the lovely Cafe Central because I could sit outside under an ancient tree and view the entrance to the palace. Later, they explained to me that this was the Tree of Tilea and a tea can be made from it’s leaves. The cafe had chains draping the branches and I’ll bet at night they hang lanterns. It must be lovely.

I ordered the special of the day—a bread casserole. I’d never even heard of such a thing. It is essentially a wet stuffing, made with lots of garlic and olive oil. On top was an outer ring of perfectly steamed and peeled shrimp, an inner ring of cilantro leaves and a raw egg yolk in the center. The waiter, asked to serve me. When they say that, just go with it. It’s always the right choice. So he took about half the shrimp off the top and put it on my plate. Then he mixed the cilantro, yolk and remaining shrimp together thoroughly before scooping some on my plate. “I have been practicing my ‘flourish’. What do you think?” It was such an adorable line, I practically applauded. The meal was excellent!  If—like me—you prefer the stuffing to the turkey on Thanksgiving, this is the dish for you.

The hostess who seated me was quite impressive. She was from Brazil and I heard her speak English, French, Spanish and Italian. She told me that the hardest language was Portuguese from Portugal as her native Portuguese was nothing like what is spoken here. She asked me if i liked the coriander in the dish and it took me a minute to remember that Cilantro is the LEAF of the coriander plant.

For desert I was offered either cheesecake or chocolate cake. Both sounded too heavy. I had heard so much about the local pastry. When I declined the waiter said he would bring me something special. “Just a bite!” He came back with a small torte filled with sugary egg custard, and a large rolled pastry filled  with an almond paste. Goodness, what if he had brought me a large serving and not a sample?  They were wonderful, of course. When I complained that he had not charged me for the pastries, he looked offended. “It is a gift! I offered it to you. No charge.”  And hardly anything will get you a larger tip that THAT.

Up the hill from the Sintra Palace is the Quinta da Regaleira. Quinta means “farm”. This is an unusual and extravagant summer home built in the neo-maneline  decorative style for Carvalho Monteiro, described in my guidebook as an eccentric millionaire. The house is amazing—especially the carved wooden ceilings. The “book tower” was nothing but a room room with shelves, but they had carefully placed a ring of mirrors about 6 inches wide on the floor abutting and reflecting the shelves. It looked like the floor was suspended between two towers of books. I had to touch the glass to be sure. The gardens and grottoes were even better, particularly this time of year when everything is fresh and green or blooming—particularly the bird of paradise. I took way too many photographs. If you want to see them, you will have to sit through them all.

From there we drove to Cabo da Roca, Cape Roca, the westernmost point in Europe. The road there was narrow and winding, so that’s what I thought the driver was referring to when he said, “this is the most accidental place in Europe.”  I thought this was just a quirt of learning English. Later, when I checked the brochure, I realized he had said “occidental” which translates in Portuguese and Spanish as “western”. Silly me. Glad I didn’t “correct” him.

Cabo da Roca, can best be described as rocky and windswept. At first I thought the place was landscaped because there were different flowers everywhere. The ground is mass of succulents, which happen to be in bloom, along with the occasional spreading juniper and century plant—like a giant agave. The driver told me they call the flowers “smiling” “because it bring the rain”. He had to spell the word for me: Choroes, pronounced Sure ORANGE. It was just a 10 minute stop, but I got a couple amazing photos.

From there we drove to Boca do Inferno, the mouth of Hell. It is an area where the waves hit the rocks so hard that the spray could drown you. Basically, it is an interesting, windy, tourist trap. The entire coast here is nothing but black, craggy rock with the occasional beach. I was surprised to see so many fishermen with long poles. It must be a dangerous sport, what with the wind and unpredictable waves. On the beaches were kite surfers—a sport I am far too chicken to even think about trying.

Then a short drive to Cascais (cash KA-EYE-ISH, run all the last three syllables together) a small beach with a big casino. I dipped my toes in the Atlanta, which is surprisingly cold for a place with palm trees. We drove around the Casino Estoril and were told it is the  largest in Europe.

The route we took back to Lisbon was along the coast and the weather had cleared by then, so it was a beautiful drive. I was seated up front with the driver. This is one of the lucky accidents of being a single traveler because usually the driver feels obligated to talk to you. (In Puerto Rico the driver sang to me!) And I think I fell a little in love with my driver, Jose’. He is 51, a widower. His only child is a woman of 30. His life sounds very hard, though he did not complain. His regular job is as a taxi driver from 5pm to 5am. He works 6 days a week. He only drives for the Mr. Friend tour company one day a week, which means that he will not sleep for a day and a half. The money is good and he hopes to drive more regularly. He confessed that he felt terrible lying to his regular boss about the tour work. He gets back late and doesn’t start the taxi until 6:30, but he has convinced his boss that he is seeing a doctor for mysterious “treatments”. Like most of the world, Jose’s income was small and has gotten smaller in the current economic downturn, so he feels he needs the extra work.

Jose’ may be the most sincere man I have ever met. He told me that he goes to Fatima every year to light a candle for the health of his child, who he says has a hard life and lives 200km away. Still, she drives to lunch with him every Sunday. He said he was sure her continued health was because of the Lady of Fatima. He made me take his phone number in case I got lost at night so that I could call him. Jose’ promised to rescue me in his taxi and he would not charge me. Based on his complete refusal to accept a tip from me, I think I believe he would do this.

And I decided not to go to Fatima tomorrow. After witnessing his complete devotion, I feel it might be wrong to visit. I am not such a believer, nor even a seeker. I’m a tourist.

Pointless, but interesting things today:

You know you are an American when you wait in front of the elevator, just assuming the doors will open for you. In old buildings, elevators were installed well after construction and resemble a closet with push buttons. The door often looks just like any other door and you have to open it yourself to get in or out.

At breakfast, I saw a French woman peeling an orange with a knife. I had an orange for the same bowl and the skin was thick and peeled easily.

On the way to Sintra, I was struck by how much of the roadsides just outside the city are tilled for gardens—it is spring and you can see young plants.

The orange trees are full of fruit. Our driver explained that in much of the world the orange is known as portcullis—literally “coming from Portugal”. The word for tea here is chai, same as China, though pronounced with a hard K sound.

The hotel staff must like me—I got a bathmat!  The bad news is that there is a sewage smell coming from the sink. No U trap on the sink. Fortunately I carry a universal sink stopper—since these sinks have typically lost their stoppers long ago. I normally use it to wash out socks in the sink.

Day 5, final day in Lisbon, 5/9/09

I was finally successful in figuring out the metro, though I never did figure out the buses. I managed to find a station from my hotel, negotiate two different lines and get off at the right stop: The Metro Oriente, literally the east most station on the subway line. This is also Santa Apolonia Train Station. My train wasn’t until evening, but I had to check out of the hotel and this was the best place to leave my bag for the day.

And I was starting the day with a disadvantage—lack of sleep. This is a difficult place to rest at night because of the police station and hospitals and their sirens. And since the air had not been turned on yet, you have to have the widow open. This hard enough, but it seems that the louder travelers are all on my floor. At 3am, I woke to laughing, giggling and loud talking in the hall. After 15 minutes, it was clear that this was young people flirting in about 3 languages, none of which was English, so it was pretty uninteresting. The ear plugs didn’t cut the sound, so I got up, stepped out the door and said in a commanding tone the “some of us were trying to sleep.”  I may even have threatened to call the front desk. They were all properly chastened and said that they were about to go out anyway, as though this is the time everyone leaves for the clubs. But as they turned away, I saw on their faces an expression I’m sure I once delivered well: You poor old woman, don’t you remember what it was like to have fun? When you were young?  Like us?  Ick!  That kept me awake longer than their talking.

The train station is along the river at the base of the Alfama, the oldest residential district. The Arabic sounding name and the warren of streets are proof of its Moorish origins. The street plan remains mostly intact from those times. Not a single building, except for bits of the castle, survive from the years before “Reconquest”, as the 1147 campaign of the Christians to defeat the Moors is called. Technically this neighborhood was probably poor fisherman and sailors along the river and the higher you climb, the more prosperous houses. From what I read—and what I’m about to say is considered heresy—Alfonso Henriques didn’t do anyone any favors. By all accounts, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived side by side in peace for hundreds of years before he came to “save” everyone from the Moors. And we are still fighting.

After I found a locker for my bag—it cost 4.5 Euros for all day—I headed up the hill to the Campo de Santa Clara. Campo is the same word in Portuguese, Spanish and Italian and it literally translates to “field” but it has come to mean a small town square. Here I found the weekly Feira da Ladra—The Thieves’ Market. It is a combination of flea market, antique bazaar and yard sale. In addition to cloth, jewelry and leather goods, I spied solid wood furniture, gilded picture frames, porcelain doll heads, old tiles, used bras, musical instruments, old coins and a gas mask. My favorite find—a Soviet era flack suit with helmet. I actually considered it, but those outfits are so hard to accessorize.

I’m not a shopper, but I enjoy the unusual items for sale and the sounds of haggling, even if I did not inherit my mother’s penchant for it. I did buy an inexpensive, funky necklace for myself.

Back down hill toward the dome of Santa Engracia, now the Panteao Nacional (pronounce the “c” as “th” and you get the Castilian list)—The National Pantheon. The dome is a standing joke for those from Lisbon. It was finally added in 1966, only 284 years after construction of the church. The Portuguese have a saying, “a job like Santa Engracia” for any project that takes just this side of forever. There is a 2.5 Euro admission, though if I were staying on more day the admission is free on Sunday. (Note to others:  Lots of museums are free on Sunday, closed on Monday)   The interior is marble with almost identical marble sarcophagus(sarcophagi?). My guidebook calls them cenotaphs so there is a word I must look up when I have internet access. Regardless, most of them in the central area are empty. Vasco de Gama and Henrigue de Infante (Prince Henry, The Navigator) are there in name only as both are interred at Moesterio dos Jeronimos (though after 500 years, I wonder how much can be left?)  The side chapels held Portugal’s politicos and artists, though everyone has plenty of room to spare—nothing like Westminster Abby.

A lovely older couple were putting fresh flowers on the tomb of Fado singer Amalia Rodrigues. They were devoted, but dignified, groupies. I had not intended to take a photo, but they were just finishing up arranging the third bouquet when I came in. At the sight of my fancy camera, I was told, “Um Momento” as the woman made the finishing touches. I raised my camera. I was considering just pretending to take the photo. “Nao!” , she yelled. (it sounds like nown  and means “no”) She pantomimed that another second was needed. Then she got down on her hands and knees to scoop up a fallen leaf and some debris from a fern. How could I not snap the picture now?  So I framed the photograph very seriously and took two, at different settings, so the couple would know I was serious. The gentleman knew a few words of English, about as many words as I know of Portuguese. “Amalia! To singing the Fado. BEEE U TEE FUL!”  Amalia died in 1999, so these people may have seen her sing, may even have known her personally. She was moved here in 2001.

The other memorial thing about the Panteao Nacional is the bathroom, or WC. They are without a doubt the most inconvenient and poorly marked ever. There is one room, shared by all comers (goers?) located up two flights of stairs with signs pointing in every direction except up. Clearly the restroom was an afterthought. The doorways up are dangerously low.

Back at River level, I went to the Museu do Fado—The Museum of Fado Music. Before I decided to come to Lisbon, I had never heard of Fado. In my research, I had read bits and pieces about it and wanted to know the official story. The museum is a series of new displays in an old building that also houses a school. This essentially Portuguese music began in the early 19th century and the first documentation seems to be the 1830’s. Fado was the music of the ruffians of the streets. An 1860’s description of a fado singer, fadista, portrays a heavy drinking street brawler, sporting tattoos, a knife wound or two, and having spent time in prison. His girlfriend was always a prostitute. Over the years, it became a respectable art form for both men and women. The songs are only in Portuguese and read like poetry.

The museum was sparse, but the entrance price included an audio tour, in English. There were stationary displays, as I expected, but this one also had film clips projected on the walls. If you saw one you liked, you could punch the number and the music would join in progress. I listened to several, but without an English translation I was lucky to catch a half dozen words, and those were the words I know from Spanish. One of these audio visual displays was of a popular current singer, Carlos. If you are famous enough you only need one name. He is the Cher or Madonna of Fado. This song I listened to twice because it had the English translations and because this was more than a film clip—it was a music video. The song was achingly, painfully beautiful. He likens the city of Lisbon to a flower, one that does not bloom for him. He wanders the city at night, loving the streets, the energy. He is wistful but not regretting his devotion. But in the fall of his life, on this night, as the moon sets and the sun rises, the flower blooms for him. Lisbon finally loves him.

OK, so it sounds sappy, but it was lovely.

I took a late lunch at a cafe along the Rua de Jardim do Tobacco (the Tobacco Garden Street). I started with the toast and sardine pate’. I never would eat this at home, but here somehow it seems just the right thing. For soup I ordered the Acorda, Alentejo style. Originally a poor man’s soup from along the Tejo River area: Al en Tejo. Personally, I think “acorda” is short for “according to what you have” because the soup started as only hot water with garlic and oil, a bit of old bread and an egg on top. More was thrown in if you had it to spare. My soup was a rich broth, probably chicken. A slick of olive oil floated on top, along with a few shredded cilantro leaves. The garlic was fresh minced and abundant. I pity the person who sits near me on the train tonight. On top of a raft of bread was a coddled egg with a runny yolk. It was served piping hot, as all food is here. Simple, perfect food. I loved it.

The main course was chargrilled sardines. They were served with a simple lettuce, carrot, red cabbage salad, garnished with tomato slices, vinegar and oil on the side. Two cold, boiled potatoes, that had been finished in the pan with butter and salt, sat on one side of the plate. These were not the tiny tined sardines covered in mustard that my father loved. (My mother would refuse to kiss him when he ate them.) These were 6 to 7 inches in length and about as big around as three of my fingers.

I have little practice eating fish prepared with the head on. It is a meal to be eaten slowly, thoughtfully separating skin and bones from flesh. I quickly found that I needed to completely remove all traces of the green stomach/intestines or suffer with the bitter taste. The English would refer to this as the “wobbly bit”, the animal part you want to avoid, but can’t, or perhaps don’t want to, identify.

When in doubt, I order the dessert I can’t pronounce. Today it turned out to be a rich walnut layer cake. Between each of the 4 layers is an impossibly sweet buttercream frosting—which may have been made with lard—and a generous layer of crushed walnuts. Whole walnuts and a drizzle of caramel on top. Yum-O. The whole meal, including bottled water, coffee and tip came to 15 Euro.

I was sitting outside the tiny cafe, facing the square in front of the Fado Museum. This is slightly off the tourist route. Sitting in the shade on the bench were two old men. They reminded me of the pensioners I saw in Italy. They sat smoking, following the movements of the passersby with faint interest. They were silent. One was rail thin, his mouth hung open and he was in need of a shave. His hands were calloused, his skin leathery from a life spent out of doors, though he now looked fragile. I imagined him as an old fisherman. He wore an ancient, frayed sweater, but the second sweater, draped over his shoulders, looked brand new. The backs of his leather shoes were broken down to make them more slippers than slip-ons. I did not see him walk, but I suspect he shuffled.

The second man was almost, but not quite, portly. He was in better health, smoking a pipe and wearing a woolen suit jacket that had probably been his best at one time. He was shaved and wore a shapeless, black cap, with gold rimmed glasses. I imagined him as a retired businessman, drinking a single glass of port at the corner bar before coming home to his wife each night.

 

Though they did not talk, I felt they were long acquainted and their’s was a friendship that didn’t need trite conversation. Both the men and their clothes were faded to the color of the bench so that they seemed to become part of the square, fixtures, statues. As my dessert was being served, however, I saw their faces light up. They were looking at a laughing child of perhaps a year old, thrilled with his first wobbly steps. The child shrieked with enjoyment each time he plopped down in the campo (square). Then a single “Ha!” when he regained his feet, helped by his father who held one hand. The old men looked at the child and smiled. Then they wordlessly exchanged a knowing nod ….and a shrug. The gesture said it all: In the blink of an eye the child would be running, driving, and—if he was lucky enough—holding the hand of his own wobbly child. They had seen it all before, done it all before themselves. And I got the feeling they would do it all again if they could.

After lunch, I walked to the Museu Nacional do Azulejo—The National Tile Museum. The way I remember the word for tile is that most early tiles were blue (azul). The Turkish word is similar. This museum is beyond the Alfama district, much farther than I realized, and by now it was raining. I walked 2.5 km before I came to it, though it was along the river and fairly flat. Still it is amazing how hilly “flat” can be when you are walking in the rain and don’t know how much farther it will be. The museum is housed in a former convent. I enjoyed the exhibit on how to make tile, though it is really a type of pottery. I recognized tiles from the Sintra Palace. The extensive collection of Moorish and Portuguese tile was lovely, but frankly I was museum-ed out by this point and should not have attempted it. I did enjoy the Manueline cloister—now glassed in to protect the collection, and the visitor, from the elements. And the small Madre de Deus Church, no longer an active place of worship, was stunning.

As I type this I am at the Train station. I had to confirm my ticket since it is “internationale” and not regional. I followed the signs that said to walk to the far end of the station to porta (door) 54, the furthest from the entrance. Porta 54 was locked tight. There was a sign saying that this was permanently closed and I needed to go back to the entrance and check in at line one. Well, they are still busy with the reconstruction from the earthquake of 1755, so what can you expect?

Pointless observations:

People here have better knees, or at least their knees get more of a workout. The seat of the average bench is little over a foot off the ground.