Lovin’ Lisbon!

I love Europe.  Where else can you so easily spend a weekend in another country?  While working on my Masters in Salamanca, Spain one summer, I had the chance to do just that.  In Portugal!  Portugal 1A word about this little brother of the Iberian Peninsula—it was not really on my list of places I HAD to go, but after a few days in Lisbon and surrounding towns, I was hooked and ready to go back for even longer. Some other teachers from my program and I arrived in Lisbon on a Friday afternoon.  After settling in, we popped into a restaurant near our hotel in the center of town.  As none of us knew any Portuguese, we had a fun time deciphering the menu.   Once we were able to put in our order, trying to pass off our Spanish as Portuguese (do not attempt!), we were discussing our plans for the rest of the day when the waiter returned to the table with a fabulous plate of artisan cheeses.  As none of us had ordered this, we just assumed it was complimentary.  You know what they say about the word “assume”…  After polishing off the plate, including the sampling of one cheese that was absolutely awful, we got our meals, and then proceeded to get the bill.  Imagine our surprise when we saw we were charged 12€ for the cheese plate!  This is a good thing to know before you sit down at a Lisbon restaurant!  Needless to say, we left the cheese plates untouched at the rest of our dining stops that weekend.

Moving on from the lunch, we headed down to the neighborhood of Alfama—this is where visitors should plan to spend most of their time.  Walking around the Praça do Comércio gives you a feel for Lisbon and the sites nearby like the Torre de Belém Portugal 6and the Cathedral give Europhiles the architecture fix they need.  As someone who had not planned to visit Lisbon, I was shocked by its similarities with San Francisco, California.  Hills, cable cars, and even the Ponte 25 de Abril—the twin of the Golden Gate Bridge—gave me a feeling of déjà vu.  Just substitute the Tagus River for San Francisco Bay.  And did I mention some of the views reminded me of Greece as well?Portugal 2

From the river it was impossible not to look up and notice the formidable Castelo São Jorge so we made our way up the hill (working off that cheese plate!) and were rewarded not only by magnificent views of Lisbon and the river, but also a beer festival!  What luck!  With roaming musicians Portugal 4and outdoor tables stacked with plastic mugs (a status symbol of how many beers one had had), we knew we were in the right place.  As a language teacher, I became an excellent student of Portuguese learning the only two words I needed (and still remember!):  cerveja and obrigada.  Beer and Thank You, in that order.  Repeated often.  Practice makes perfect.  Between the four of us there, we had a nice mug stack and made new friends. Portugal 5 Eventually we decided it was time to make our way down the hill, stopping for dinner at Resto do Chapito at an outdoor table with more great views. Portugal 3

The next day brought us out of the city and heading north to the seaside resort town of Cascais. Portugal 9 This picturesque fishing village turned beach resort made me want to return for an extended visit, but as we were with a group and only had the weekend, we moved on to the cutest village of all time:  Óbidos.  Portugal 7This romantic, preserved Medieval town perched high on a hill, surrounded by walls, is topped off with a castle that that is now an inn.  Bring lots of €€€ if you want a room there.  And sure, cynics will say that this town may seem kitschy, but I loved it.  People I met there said that nearby Sintra is even more amazing, but we were heading back to Spain the next morning so this stop will have to be saved for the next trip.  And yes, there will be a next trip.  I mean, I can’t let my Portuguese skills go to waste now, can I? Portugal 8





Feeling American in DC

100_0124 After being in several other world capitals, I decided I should probably visit my own so we set our sights on Washington, DC.  In April, right in time for the Japanese Cherry Blossom Festival, we arrived.  As this was almost a decade ago, my stepkids100_0131 were on the trip with Russell and me—a perfect trip for kids (and parents) to better learn some American history.

We surprised the kids with a limo pickup from the airport and made our way to our hotel, the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown DC.  Some tips on going to DC—staying downtown, especially near a Metro stop, is the way to go.  All major attractions are within walking distance or a subway ride away.  The great thing about DC is that almost all of the attractions are free—from the museums of the Smithsonian Institute to the National Zoo.  So maybe you’re thinking—cheapest family vacation ever!  Not so fast.  Just wait till you walk into a restaurant downtown.  Adiós, dinero.

Not sure why the restaurants are so pricey—it could be they know the attractions are free and are trying to cash in on all those unused tourist dollars.  Or they can overcharge because of all the people in DC on expense accounts, or because of the lobbyists working round the clock to wine and dine our congressmen in the name of democracy.  Whatever it is, you have to just accept it or you will have a miserable time in an otherwise amazing city.

We usually ate our breakfast at Old Ebbitt Grill www.ebbitt.com near the White House, a great spot where we willingly dropped $60 a day on breakfast for four.  You may be thinking, “the heck with that, I’ll just take my family to McDonald’s.”  Good luck with that!  Normal Mickey D’s prices don’t apply here.  We paid $40 for our “value” lunch for four at the McDonald’s in the Smithsonian.  (remember, these prices are from nine years ago)

Enough on the food prices and onto the highlights!

Of course the Smithsonian Museums of Air and Space, Natural History, and American History are must-see destinations.  Prior to our trip I had contacted our senator, Russ Feingold, and his office set up a White House tour and a fabulous tour of the Capitol for us.  The emotional walk around the World War II Monument 100_0123and Vietnam Wall and the sobering visit to Arlington National Cemetery are sights probably better appreciated by adults.  One of the favorite days of the trip for our kids was the day we spent at the National Zoo.  The big hype at the time was the new baby panda, Tai Shan.  100_0169Adorable!

I was very impressed with the museums and monuments of our capital, but the highlight of the trip for me happened on our way out of one of the Smithsonian museums.  Here on The Mall was the beginning of a huge immigration rally/protest and thousands of Latinos were gathering by a stage near the Capitol building.  100_0138I had never been part of a protest and as a Spanish teacher, these were my people!  I enthusiastically turned to Russell and said, “Let’s join them!”  He simply looked at me with that face and told me he would meet me when I “was done” by the base of the Washington Monument.  I looked to my stepkids hoping they would join me in this historical experience.  My stepson Earl was already fleeing with his dad, but my middle school aged stepdaughter Charli was ready to chant!

She and I moseyed over to the rally and were given signs and American flags by some volunteers.  100_0140100_0142We weaved into the crowd near the stage, passed a newspaper photographer who took our picture, and joined in with the protesters and the many chants.  I gave Charli a mini-lesson in Spanish language protest phrases, most important of which:  Sí, se puede.  As we stood there among the Latino people, joined in solidarity for their cause, I realized that we were the only non-Latino people I could see around us.  100_0139No big deal, we were blending in with our chants, our signs, and our flags.  That is until someone on the stage began the chant (in English): “What do we want?”, which of course is normally followed by “More rights!”, then “When do we want them?”—“Right now!”  Well, I had failed to teach Charli this one, so when the question “What do we want?” came over the speakers, Charli screamed “Food!”  Um….awkward.  A bunch of people turned and looked at us and I figured we were probably done at the rally.

Ten minutes later we met up with Russell and Earl by the Washington Monument, still riding high from our big protest march.  Later that night we had dinner at Oyamel http://www.oyamel.com, an upscale Mexican restaurant downtown (need I say what the bill was?) and a few tables away from us were the organizers of the rally.  No, they did not recognize us, but like Charli said, “We all got what we wanted.  Food!”

Jacobean Party in Santiago de Compostela

Año Xacobeo, or Jacobean year, refers to years when the Feast of St. James, July 25, falls on a Sunday.  The famous pilgrimage El Camino de Santiago culminates in the city of Santiago de Compostela in the northwestern Spanish region of Galicia.  This is the location of the great cathedral that is home to the remains of St. James the Apostle.  Many pilgrims plan for the end of their pilgrimage to end near the feast day, so we were not alone in this idea.100_3308

Our planning began back in 2002 on a weekend trip to Santiago while I was working on my Masters at the University of Salamanca.  We decided then that we too would return to this city as pilgrims of the Camino and set our sights at 2010, a Jacobean year.  During these years, pilgrims not only partake in amazing festivities during the two weeks surrounding July 25, but also receive a plenary indulgence and are able to enter the cathedral through the Puerta Santa, or Holy Door.

After walking the Galician section of the Camino, approximately 160 km, (see previous blog post on walking the Camino), we arrived to Santiago on July 22 and proceeded to the office of the cathedral to wait in line with other pilgrims to get our “compostela”, the document attesting completion of at least 100 km of the Camino.  100_3306We had hoped to make it to the pilgrims’ mass at noon, but the long line disallowed that and so we checked into the Parador Reyes Catolicos,  the oldest hotel in the world, adjacent to the cathedral.  http://www.parador.es/en/paradores/parador-de-santiago-de-compostela This hotel was opened by Ferdinand and Isabella back in the 1400’s to house pilgrims arriving to the city.  It is now a luxury hotel with a price to match.  100_3247Our reward for our hike was going to be a five night stay here, but after making our reservation a year in advance, I was notified that we would have to vacate the Parador the night of July 24, in the middle of our stay, as the Spanish royal family, including King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofia, would be staying at the hotel.  Well, I never!  After I recovered from that, we decided to only stay the first two nights at the Parador and then move for the final three nights to Hotel Virxe Da Cerca http://virxe-da-cerca-compostela.h-rez.com/ located a few blocks behind the cathedral next to the market—a fabulous hotel that was once a Jesuit residence.

During our five days enjoying the festivities in Santiago, we attended the pilgrims’ mass twice.  The main draw of this mass is in the final minutes of the service when the botafumeiro is swung.  This massive incense burner100_3263 is swung by a team of eight men, spreading the aroma of incense and awe throughout the cathedral.  Cameras are flashing and mass goers fill the aisles capturing this moment, giving the mass a bit of a circus feel for a few minutes.  What an ingenious way for hundreds of years for the cathedral to freshen the air of a building filled with the non-pleasing scent of hundreds of ripe hikers.  Well done!

Other activities while in Santiago included a variety of parades and processions including the typical gigantes and cabezones (big heads) 100_3311that make appearances at most Spanish festivals.  We also checked out the carnival rides set up in the city park and I bravely rode on the huge Ferris wheel set high on a hill looking down on the cathedral.  Terrifying! 100_3287 I screamed for most of ride while Russell stood safely on the ground laughing.

A fare share of people-watching was also done over these days, much of it on the Rua do Franco, the pedestrian street leading from the cathedral to the park.  Where else do you have the chance for a photo op with St. James AND Jesus?100_3345

Excellent seafood is the trademark of Galicia and the eateries lining Rua do Franco showcased an endless variety of shellfish in the window cases. 100_3464 After hearing much talk of the famous mariscada, a heaping plate of shellfish for two, we went to A Barrola http://restaurantebarrola.com/ and dropped 80 Euro on a mariscada lunch. 100_3351 Ouch.  As with most of my purchases, I made sure to rationalize it by referencing money saved on other inexpensive meals on the trip! Darn this Catholic guilt of mine…

The real highlight of the St. James experience though, was the light and sound show in the Plaza del Obradoiro facing the cathedral.  This show combining images projected on the cathedral showing the history of St. James, the Camino, and the Galicia region set to music including a group of bagpipers was punctuated with the most amazing fireworks display I have ever seen. Here is a video link to the show—pyrotechnic fans—watch minute 22 till the end.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=177O9i6Etb8

The show was to begin at 11:30 pm on July 24, the eve of St. James Day.  We had attended mass that evening and as we walked out of the cathedral around 7 pm, noticed the plaza already filling with people and so we joined the masses to wait over four hours to snag a spot in the middle, surrounded by others from Spain, Germany, and Uruguay.  During these hours spent on the stone plaza, we alternated between levels of discomfort standing, sitting, and even lying down to secure our spots.  I was able to run over to a small market and grab a picnic dinner for us—a gourmet affair of Spanish ham on baguettes accompanied by Cheetos and Toblerones.  Sipping my water I was jealous of the group next to us having a little sangria party until hours later I noted the lack of bathroom facilities on the plaza.  In the middle of our waiting, we were also witness to the arrival of the King and Queen to the Parador.  They and other VIPs enjoyed a dinner on the second floor of the hotel before coming onto the balcony to watch the show.

And what a show!  Hundreds of thousands of Euros had to have been spent on the production!  The tens of thousands of onlookers packed into the square saw the show of a lifetime.  The fireworks display in the sky and also on the front of cathedral and simulated “burning of the façade” were overwhelming to say the least, including the ash dropping on the crowd for 30 minutes.  It was an emotional show, especially for those of us who had done the Camino and at the end, the streets and bars were packed with revelers but exhaustion hit us hard and forced us to turn in for the night.

Our final day in Santiago was spent on an excursion to the End of the Earth—Finisterre.  We endured a three hour ride on a crammed bus—one of the most uncomfortable rides ever—to arrive in the town of Finisterre.  After that we walked another 24 km so we could see the kilometer zero sign 100_3426of the Camino near the lighthouse high on a hill outside of town.  After spending five hours on the hard stone surface of the plaza the day before and wedged into a bus seat for three hours, the walk felt good 100_3419except for the shortage of water on a relatively warm day.  I was exhausted as we boarded the same, miserable bus for the three hour return trip.  As we pulled into Santiago that evening, we did one last stroll through the city, stopping at the cathedral to enter through the Holy Door, hug the statue of St. James, and reflect before his crypt.

It had been a magical time in the city of Santiago de Compostela, made all the more special by the pilgrimage hike that had brought us here.  We were thankful to have chosen 2010 for our trip, knowing that the next Jacobean Year is not until 2021.  Who knows—maybe we will be back…