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Saturday, August 09, 2003

Sleeping at Sunrise and Waking Up at Sunset
Seville, Spain

After our 3 hours here at the Internet cafe (yes, we are back at the same place), we walked around Sevilla Centro. Just a short walk from here is the Cathedral, the third biggest cathedral in the world. It is huge indeed. We walked through it, and sat through a few minutes of the Friday 8am mass. It was held in the middle of the cathedral, with seats extending all the way to the back. Many women were using their fans as it was warm inside. It was neat to listen to the chants from the Priest as well as the congregation.

We found a wonderful bakery/bar to have breakfast. They made fresh pastries there and the smell was wonderful. We sat down and enjoyed tea, coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice (zumos de naranjas) and several different types of pastries. What we have noticed here in Spain is how much ham is available. It is listed on all menus, and we see the legs of ham strung all over the place as well, whether it´s high end restaurants or the corner cafe. Something we have noticed in several places here, and in Portugal, is that the serviettes (napkins) we get from the cafes are all wax-paper thin. Not very absorbent at all.

We finally checked into our hotel at 10am yesterday morning. Our room was a luxury compared to the youth hostel rooms we´ve been staying at. First of all, there is air-conditioning! Yay.. a must in Seville. Then there was the marble bathroom, with a full bathtub, and all the little conveniences we see in higher end hotels.. shampoo, bath gel, sponge, hair dryer, magnifier mirror, etc. Yes, we were definitely feeling quite comfortable. There was also a TV in the room and BBC World, so we were able to catch up on some news.

Needless to say, being tired from our bus ride and getting here so early, we spent the afternoon napping. By the time we got up, it was already 5:30pm. Hehe. It was 9pm when we finally left the hotel in search of dinner. Our schedule was definitely quite messed up. We walked through narrow cobblestone streets, admiring the neat architecture of the city. We ended up in the Jewish quarters at the Barrio de Santa Cruz where we enjoyed a very pleasant dinner of Paella. Yummy! We did more walking around and getting lost and ended up seeing very quiet residential streets, stray cats, remains of roman columns, and many more people still eating and drinking at midnight. It was weird to hear lots of booming loud music - mostly North American pop music from car stereos. There were also several street cleaners blasting water all over the cobblestones. No wonder the city looks so clean!

We bought tickets to the flamenco show for Saturday night (tonight). We are very much looking forward to this traditional dance, which is a Sevilla specialty. It includes dancing, singing and guitar. I´m sure we´ll have more to say about it afterwards. We walked through the park on the way back across the river to our hotel. It was surprisingly easy to fall asleep considering the fact that we only woke up in the late afternoon.

This morning, we had a late start. I guess we must still be catching up from yesterday´s travel. Hopefully we will be able to adjust our system so that we can take full benefit of Seville during the coolest time of the day. I must say that walking around after 10pm was very pleasant indeed. It seems to be a bit more humid here than in Madrid, though I haven´t felt as hot here (even though the temperatures are supposed to be higher). Well, it has probably helped that we have spent more time in air-conditioned places here than in the capital city. We´re off to the bull fighting museum soon (it is closed for an hour of siesta); hopefully we can also get tickets to tomorrow night´s show. The bull fights happen every Sunday, so we´re lucky to be here at the right time. We are keeping our fingers crossed that there are still tickets available.

Thursday, August 07, 2003

To Hostel or Not to Hostel
Sevilla, Spain

Since entering Spain and Portugal, we´ve stayed mostly in youth hostels, most belonging to the Hostel International network. Most of them have been just fine, but there are a few things that we're going to have to get used to.

There's of course the privacy issue; if you're in a dorm room, you obviously can't be shy, since you're sleeping with 3, 5, or even 7 roommates, all of whom are complete strangers. The first hostel we stayed in in Madrid unfortunately didn't have much in terms of privacy even in the bathroom areas... the sliding accordian doors didn't close, so Jen was apparently quite visible from the hallway while stepping out of the shower, and in the morning, I saw something that somebody was doing that really shouldn't be in public view! In that same hostel, we hardly got much sleep because a whole group of people were having a pre-party outside our room at 1am.

There's also a security concern; apparently things go missing quite often at hostels. We've got locks on our bags, and all the valuables we have with us, but there's sometimes this nagging thing in the back of our heads... "Is our pack really safe here?"

The other things that kinda sucks is the whole segregation thing, where typically males and females are separated on different floors. I can see why this makes sense, but for husband and wife, well... I can't imagine doing this for a whole year!

However, there is a happy medium for us... twice we secured accomodation in double rooms at the hostel, which are basically private rooms (not bunk-bed dorm style) with a private bathroom. Very nice, very inexpensive, and includes breakfast, which is basic, but definitely more than sufficient.

It will be interesting to see how long we stay in hostels or how we mix things up as we continue to travel. Stay tuned!

Historic Portugal
Seville, Spain

You know, we had no idea what to expect from Portugal, since we really don´t know much about this country or its people. Needless to say, after spending 5 days there, we realized that it is a very interesting place to visit, and there is lots to learn from its rich history. We were also initially a bit apprehensive since we don´t speak ANY portugese, but as it turns out, most of the younger folks all speak some since they have to take English as a second language in school. Also, most of the tourist signs and explanations all have English on it so it made it very easy to navigate.

On our second day in Lisbon, we went over to the Expo 98 site. There is a huge train and bus station out here (where we got our tickets to Seville), a very modern mall with cinema and a wonderful oceanarium. We spent quite a bit of time wandering through the oceanarium which showcases species from the 4 different oceans, as well as one tank where they put all of them together. We were also lucky enough to catch a 120-piece underwater photography exhibit by a National Geographic photographer. They were very impressive indeed.

We hid from the mid-day sun in the nice mall, enjoying lunch and watching the locals. Remember how we talked about how well the Madridians dress? Well, things are not the same here in Lisbon. Not that they were poorly dressed, just not as stylish. The bodies (mind you, we only paid attention to the girls) were definitely more slender in Spain too. Once it got cooler, we headed downtown and joined a open double decker city tour. It was neat to go on a 1.5 hr drive along very interesting parts of old and new Lisboa. One thing to note, if you ever visit Lisboa, almost all the museums are closed on Mondays. We arrived on Sunday, August 3rd, and most of the stores and restaurants were closed as well. It looks like most of Portugal operate on a Tuesday to Saturday work schedule. Very different, eh?

We had an early night as I wasn´t feeling too well. I think all that smoke inhalation was terrible for my already sensitive lungs. Bleah. Anyway, I am feeling better now, but still congested and hacking. Cest La Vie. The next day, Tuesday, August 5th, we picked up our rental car from Avis at the Oriente (Expo Site) station. We had a Peugeot 206 (tiny 4 door, that was brand new - only 45km when we got it) and headed east to Sintra.

Sintra is a town that is less than an hours´drive from Lisboa. It was the holiday place for the royalty and nobles of Lisbon back several centuries back. Hence there are several mansions there, along with a castle and a couple of palaces. Sintra is situated on a hill side, with lovely views of the surroundings. That, along with the fact that it is a very touristy town made it difficult to park. We drove up and down narrow lanes several times, but eventually decided to visit the Palace de Pena first, which is at the highest point in town. It used to be a cathedral which was converted to a palace in the mid 1800s. The architecture is quite interesting - the different wings look like a mix-match of styles. The interior was quite elaborate - all the furniture and other household items were all left so we could see how the royalty lived. Indeed it was all a cluster of fancy furniture, ornaments, porcelain and portraits.

Portugal is famous for Azulejos, which is painted tiles. They are seen all over the country, on the sides of buildings. The most popular ones were just blue on white, which scenes of nature, or christianity. While we were in Sintra, we picked one up to add to our wall. Lucky for us Jon has agreed to bring it back home for us (of course, we chose a small one). They are very pretty. Some are simple, consisting of just one tile; the longest one apparently is 36m long. I´m sure we´ll have some to show on our webpage later.

After Sintra, we drove up to the town of Coimbra (north). This town is famous for its university, which was built in the 12th century. Set against the bank of the Rio Mondego, the entire city is beautiful to see, which all the buildings on a hill facing the river. The university is at the very top of the hill; the view driving into the city is quite amazing. We arrived without a map, but thankfully was able to pick up one up from a downtown
hotel. Throughout Portugal, there are Turismos in just about every city. These government run tourist centers offer maps and tips in all languages. It made it very easy to go anywhere as we know we just have to follow the symbol (i) posted around the city to get any information.

We enjoyed dinner outside at a cafe that is located right on a square that faces the river. After dinner, we went for a stroll through town, and wandered upon a performance. It was a free performance of fado (portugese blues) and was wonderful. We sat there and listened till the very end. The songs were all slow, and sad sounding, but with 3 string accompanists and 3 different soloists, they were all enjoyable to hear. We felt so lucky to have had the chance to visit this as we were trying to figure out how we were going to go to a fado show (pretty expensive in Lisboa).

The next morning, we drove up to the University, where of course, we had to visit the library. Everything was very fancy inside - engraved wood lacquer in green, red and gold, large exotic wood tables and two storied bookshelves made of the same wood. There were ladders fitted into the shelves to climb to higher shelves - I was tempted to climb one but of course, would not have been allowed. All the books on the shelves were of leather binding with gold leaf lettering, though according to literature, they were mostly chosen for their aesthetic looks. I´ll write more about the library when we get our ´library´page set up. It was quite impressive. Oh, there was also a grand piano at the end of the hall.

After Coimbra, we drove up to Porto, which is the second largest city in the country. It was suggested that we visit the north instead of the south since the south is like "Florida for north americans". Needless to say, we were glad we did this because Porto was amazing! Again, it is situated along a river, the Rio Duoro (Gold River). Porto is known as the world´s producer of Port. Of course, we went for a sample and it was very good. We had not known that there was such a thing as white port. I think we´ll be trying more port when we go home now that we know how tasty it is.

The local speciality here is tripe, so we tried a dish for dinner. Boy, the restaurant we went to was quite cheap. We ordered a half size (for 4.50 Euro) but it would have been sufficient for a full meal. Served with rice, it comes in a dish of baked beans, and chorizos. It was very soft, much softer than the chinese ones. We walked along the river taking LOTS of pictures of the sunset and then the neon lights across the river when it was dark.

The morning of August 7th, we checked out of our youth hostel and headed for town. By the way, this is a nice youth hostel, with a view of the river down below, and the beaches across. We were surprised to learn that almost all the youth hostels have private double rooms, so we might be doing quite a bit of that. With a private bathroom and free breakfast, they are a pretty good deal.

We walked around the old part of town, looking at the old architecture, pressing our noses at the windows of the Pastellerias (pastry shops) and just enjoying the atmosphere. There were many beautiful azulejos to admire, and just the general feel of everyday life here. Since it´s been so hot, we´ve made a habit of having ice creams about once a day (ok, maybe I´ve made it a habit to have ice cream once a day) :)

We left Porto at 1pm, and drove back down south. Before heading back to Lisbon, we took a detour to visit the ruins of Conimbriga. Considered the most important Roman ruins in Protugal, this is definitely a very impressive site. The Romans have been here since 1BC, and apparently the city was quite a wealthy one during the 1st century. That was evident by the many statues, marble, brass tools, pottery, and beautiful coloured mosaic tile floors that remained. There were also several areas for gardens and fountains. We could only watch in awe and imagine what it was like during its days of glory. I also have to say that this was the HOTTEST day so far. We could not stop sweating!! It was great though, and we were glad we stopped by.

We headed back to Lisbon, passing by some forest fires along the way. There was a lot of black smoke in the sky, most scary was bright yellow flames right next to the highway. We have heard about the forest fires in interior BC and Washington, and it appears that the recent heat wave has also affected Portugal as well. Apparently 13 out of 15 counties here have been affected.

It was still early from having to return our rental car, so we drove across the bridge to Almada, to see the Cristo Rio -statue of Jesus Christ- (a "modest replica of the one in Brazil"). It was perched high on the hill, so you can see it wherever you are in Lisbon. Almada is across the river, in case you were wondering. Connecting the two sides is their 25th of April bridge, a replica of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco (built by the same architect).

We returned our car and spent the next hour and a half at the Internet Cafe, and shopping at the huge supermarket inside the mall next door. OK, I was shopping, and Winston was on the Internet. I find it fascinating to browse through the aisles of supermarkets around the world. One can really get the sense of what the local people use. This supermarket is comparable to a Superstore in Canada, or the Super K-mart or Fred Meyers with the super food centers (I can´t remember what they are called).

We boarded our bus to Seville at 9pm, and arrived at 4:00am this morning. It was too early to check in and we did not want to pay for an additional night, so here we are, at an Internet Cafe, which is open 24hrs. Yippee! At least I am now up to date with our adventures, and will keep updating whenever we can, or if I think of anything else.

Talk to you again later. We will be here in Seville for the next three days, so no doubt I'll be back online again. Considering that the temperatures will be over 100F, we may want to escape during the mid-day heat. Gotta go. My 2 hours is almost up. Hasta Luego!

Obrigado, Portugal!
Lisbon, Portugal

Weşve just returned from our three day journey north of Lisbon to Sintra, Coimbra, and Porto. We just returned the rental car, and will be taking a bus to Seville, Spain in about 20 minutes. We will have lots to say about what weşve seen and visited in Portugal, but for now, I'll just say that we really wish we had more time to spend here! Of course, our timing had to coincide with the warmest weather Portugal has seen in years, but it didnşt detract from the sights, smells, and sounds we experienced, especially in Coimbra and Porto.

Lots of pictures to post, and hopefully weşll be able to blog a few more details once we settle down in Seville for a few days. Bye for now!

Monday, August 04, 2003

"Cough, cough..."
Lisbon, Portugal

I guess if thereşs one thing that we havenşt been thrilled about what little weşve seen of Spain and Portugal so far is the amount of cigarette smoke there is. It seems that there are more people who smoke here than donşt... in cafes, restaurants, and especially the hostels. Weşve all developed tickles in our throats from it so far, kinda sucks. Işm thinking that weşre going to have to get used to it though, at least for the next few months, given the countries weşre visiting.

Anyway, weşre at the Expo ş98 site in Lisbon right now, about to check out the Oceanarium, the largest one in Europe apparently. These keyboards are mapped differently... all kinds of neat keys: ç Ç ş Ş € ¨§ £ etc...

Sunday, August 03, 2003

Bom Dia (hello!)
Lisbon, Portugal

It took us 9.5 hours to get here from Madrid, and that´s on their 'express' train. Apparently the rail system in Portugal isn't the same as those around the rest of Europe so there are no high speed tracks/trains. We travelled in their first class compartment, but that´s only because they were sold out of second class. Fortunately it was only 10 Euros more so it wasn't too terrible. Unfortunately the seats hardly reclined, I guess I was expecting first class service like they have on the planes :)

As Winston mentioned yesterday, Segovia took our breath away. What a treat to be walking through narrow medieval lanes, seeing the ancient buildings and just thinking about how thousands of years ago, people were walking on the very same cobblestone streets. The old part of the town is situated high on a hill, at the very peak lies the Alcazar, a castle. In fact, the Disney people were inspired by the design of the Alcazar when they built Sleeping Beauty's castle (not Cinderella's - that one is from Germany).

We also went to see the Cathedral, which is huge. There is currently an exhibit taking place inside the building so we were unable to much of the original decorations, etc. However, what we could see tells us that this is a very impressive cathedral indeed. It is always amazing for us to visit these great churches and to think of the number of years, and people that went into building these monstrous buildings. Not only are they big, they are also ornate and extravagant (gold, silver, etc). In a way, it is too bad that now cost has restricted the type of buildings that are being constructed.

The aquaduct is very cool - it stands 26m tall, and is built entirely without any binding material. We guessed that gravity and the shapes of the arches are all the support that is needed. Apparently it's estimated to have been around since 1 AD.. pretty cool. Winston took some great pics of it at sunrise. We stayed in a tiny apartment there, decent price, but too bad they didn't give us any kitchen utensils or pots so we couldn't cook. Still, it was very nice to have a break from staying in a dorm with 7 other breathers.

Lisboa is quite beautiful. We didn't really know what to expect since we know so little about Portugal. Lucky for us, we met a Canadian couple from Toronto, and the girl grew up in Portugal so she gave us some tips on where to visit. We checked in at the youth hostel this morning. Actually when we made reservations a few days ago, there was only enough room for the 2 boys, and I thought I was going to have to check in to a 5 star hotel by myself if I couln't get a bed. Hehe. Luckily for our bank account, some beds opened up and I was able to secure one yesterday (online booking). Whew. After checking in this morning, we took the Metro (subway) to an area called Baixa. The underground system here is very inexpensive to use. A whole day's pass is only 1.40 Euro. Madrid's subway system was also very affordable, and convenient. Too bad we don't really have anything like that at home yet.

We walked along the old cobblestoned streets of Lisboa, and after getting breakfast (which was very yummy savoury pastries with seafood filling), we visited the Tourist Information booth to get some city maps. We also signed up for something called a Lisboa Card which will give us free access to the public transportation system and numerous museum entries, in addition to discounts at several other attractions. We're looking forward to making use of it starting tomorrow morning. Lisbon is quite a hilly city, and is surrounded by water on three sides. We walked through an area called Alfama, before making it up to the top of Castelo, where the Castelo de Sao Jorge sits. This old castle was built in the visogothic times, and has an impressive 360ş view of the city. It is quite wonderful to be up there, where there was a nice breeze. Unfortunately the day is quite hazy, so we couldn't get very great pictures.

Before returning to the hostel, we went to visit the Museo Calouste Gulbenkian. This museum consists of the personal collection of the late Mr. Gulbenkian and it's quite wonderful. There were ancient rugs, jewellery, porcelain, wall tiles, vases, paintings, sculptures, from as western Europe all the way to China. I cannot forget to mention that in the collection were also several beautiful manuscripts from the 15th century onwards. I love the old books, with their leather binding, gold leafing and ornately coloured illustrations. Ah.. a bit of a rush for this old-fashioned librarian :)

I would like to check out a chinese restaurant close by to this Internet cafe. Not sure what to expect here, but I've had a craving for chinese food these past few weeks so we'll see. I'll let you know next time how that goes! Adeus for now.

A Robbery Attempt
Lisbon, Portugal

Well, it had to happen, at least once. On our last day in Madrid (not here in Lisbon), we were in an Internet cafe checking our mail as usual. I had my daypack on the ground in front of my feet with the zippers locked shut, but the bag wasn´t locked to the chair or desk.

While looking at the computer monitor, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the bag move, ever so slightly. I quickly turned around to see a guy in his mid to late 20´s pull his foot back from my pack strap (he was trying to draw my bag towards him by toe-dragging a loose strap) and walk straight for the door, not making any eye contact with me. I jumped up to follow him out the door, but then stopped short to see if he had an accomplice who was taking my bag while I was distracted. By the time I turned back, the guy was gone.

So, nothing was taken, but boy did that little incident get my adrenaline going. We´ll have to get into the practice of locking our bags to the table/chair, or looping a shoulder or belt strap through a leg or something like that. We´ve obviously been taking the usual precautions with money belts and locked bags, etc, but all it takes is one brief lapse, and we could suddenly find ourselves bagless! This little incident was certainly a reminder of THAT!


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