Portugal and my new favorite tiny town

After Nazare, Coimbra, and Obidos, we headed to Evora, about 1.5 hours east of Lisbon.  It’s a fascinating little town, with a walled in city center.  It’s got a lot of history and culture, but is predominately comprised of older folks (60+) and college age students, thanks to the towns university.  To say I was the only 30 something Asian in the town would not be an exaggeration.

But I still loved it!  It reminded me of Oxford – my other favorite small European town.  Cobblestone streets and tiny mom and pops shops.

And did I mention the roman forum?

Yeah, that was unexpected (except it was….since I’d read about it before coming).  And the church that lets you walk on its roof.

Or the warm chestnuts!  We’d never had them but were hungry.  And since every single person in the town square was eating them, we got a bag.  Kinda tasty!  Not as good as a cashew, but they did the trick and were an excellent source of protein!

Turns out almost everything in Evora is closed on Sundays, so we did a lot of walking and exploring.  We ended the night at one of only 3 (or so) restaurants open on Sunday.  And ate a bowl of rice stew that could have easily fed a family of 4.  The diet starts Monday (After thanksgiving:))!

Portugal and the other tiny towns we visited

Before heading to the bustling capitol city, we checked a few other small-ish towns on our Portuguese road trip.

Our first spot was Coimbra, the University town north of Lisbon.  I’m not gonna lie, I had high hopes.  I love me a good college town.  The visit didn’t have the greatest start as parking was pretty tough to come by.  We eventually found an underground lot and were on our way!  We grabbed some delicious pastries at the start of our Rick Steve’s walking tour and continued to the college.

And then it started to rain….Like epic downpour, chairs flying, old-men-in-white-shirts-gunning-for-first-prize-in-a-white-t-shirt-contest type downpour.  Each time we’d have a momentary break from the rain, we’d hustle to the next spot, slowly trying to get back to the car.  Finally, we had literally 1 block to go and the heaven’s let loose.  We braved it, and ended up soaked….which seriously sucked for my shoes.  They were already kinda smelly (yeah, yeah, I know, it’s gross) but were made even worse by the rain.

We finally made it back to the car and it was time to leave.  Remember that underground garage?  Well the exit was up a very steep hill.  I know what you’re thinking, get a running start.  Unfortunately it had a gate that was strategically placed on the hill.  Did I mention we had a manual?  Oh yeah.  1st gear was barely strong in enough to get us out.  We killed it 3 times, each time rolling closer and closer to the gate.  The wet ground didn’t help either.  I had to close my eyes.  Thankfully, years of driving a stick paid off and Nick got us out of there.  I would not do well in a car chase.

Thankfully, our next small town had ample parking and beautiful weather.  Naturally, I loved it!  Obidos is a tiny, walled in city north of Lisbon.  You can actually walk on the wall, and around the entire city.  It took us less than an hour and we were going at pretty leisurely pace.  Keep in mind that there is a wall on 1 side and nothing on the other.  So you could easily fall to your death if you’re not paying attention :)

Portugal and the sleepy little beach town

On a tip from our good ol’ friend Rick Steves, we headed for the coastal town of Nazare.  Known for its big waves and adorable charm.  Half of the town is right on the water, while the other half is up on a cliff.  It sort of reminds me of Cabo and Pedregal.

Since it’s the off season, we scored a pretty nice hotel, across the “street” from the beach.

We hiked up the hill to the cliff-y part of the city for some views of the town below.  So many red roofs!  Nick noted that the red roof tile guy has a monopoly in Portugal!  Don’t you love that random tree in the middle of the city?!  FYI – I captured roughly 70% of the city in this single image.

While the weather wasn’t awesome, the views were still quite nice.

And the graffiti was top notch.

See Nick’s shorts?  I wouldn’t say it was shorts weather, but he packed his shorts and flip flops and was determined to wear them, rather than admit he’d packed something and never wore it.  So the shorts and flip flops made their debut in 60F Nazare!

On our first night, we had dinner at a tiny restaurant called Restaurante A Tasquinha (but they’re all tiny….so that’s not a good descriptor).  The owner, Carlos, greeted us when we walked in.  Nick ordered the sea bass and I ordered a rice/stew dish.  Nick got a whole fish, which the waiter kindly de-boned for us and my dish was a gigantic pot of rice and seafood – the Portuguese equivalent to paella is the best way to describe it.  It was delicious, especially on a cold and stormy day.  Before we could leave, Carlos “forced” us to take a parting shot of port with him.  He’s adorable.  I’d go again just to hang with Carlos.

Portugal, and that time I ate an octopus tentacle

After Madrid, we were headed for Portugal.  We landed in Lisbon, a torrential downpour currently underway.  After grabbing our little Fiat, we headed for the tiny coastal town of Nazare, known for it’s north-shore-like waves!  Hungry, or was that hangry, from an early flight and no snacks, we stopped in the town of Torres Vedras for lunch.  Midi had great reviews, and we were ready for our first Portuguese meal.  On a tip from a Portuguese co-worker, I ordered the octopus.  3 tentacles served over a bed of greens and boiled potatoes.  So. Darn. Good!

The octopus was not chewy at all.  It reminded me of shrimp in both texture and flavor.  If you closed your eyes, I bet you couldn’t tell the difference.  Aside from the severe oil drenching of the greens, it was an outstanding meal to begin our time in Portugal.

Nick claimed he could feel the suction cups while he chewed, but I think he was fibbing a little on that one :)

 

Madrid is so delicious, and that time we got a bonus churro!

You could say I was a little underwhelmed with the Barcelona food scene.  I’ll chalk it up to it being our first city, and having a few misses, but so far we’ve been far more impressed with the food here in Madrid.

I will say that Barcelona served up one of the tastiest meals I’ve ever had.  Teresa Carles is a vegetarian restaurant, and I guarantee that I could become a vegetarian if she cooked my food everyday.  But it was more the exception than the norm.

Now onto Madrid!  We arrived and headed to the Mercado de San Miguel.  Right outside the Plaza Mayor, it’s very possible this place is a tourist trap.  But the food was delicious, so we didn’t care.

After a few trips around the market, we settled on the mozzarella guy.  Nick went a little more traditional, choosing a mozzarella/pesto/jamon/sundried tomato tapa while I chose the burrata/tomato jam/fig balsamic tapa (I’m a sucker for burrata – which is basically softer/creamier version of mozzarella).  OMG they were amazing.  They were also really big, so we only needed a few more small bites to curb our hunger.

food in madrid

We ended up deciding we needed a salad for dinner, so we got a pre-made Caesar from el Corte de Ingles (it’s a department store with a grocery store in the basement, random!).  Then we picked up a pizza from Pizzateca, just a few blocks away from our apartment.  I know what you’re thinking, “pizza?”! But it was the 2nd best pizza crust I’ve ever had – 2nd only to my dad’s crust.  The toppings could have used a few more spices, but we took it “to go” and missed our opportunity to add the typical (and not so typical) pizza seasonings at the restaurant.

Day 2 we headed to Ginger for lunch – on a tip from a fellow traveler we met in Barcelona (Ginger is near the Plaza Mayor).  She recommended their menu del dia for just 10.35 euros.  It’s a 3 course meal that comes with bread and wine.  I had a salad, the Spanish version of fish and chips, and this pear/orange dessert while nick had a quesadilla, meatballs and ice cream.  Delicious!  And the Spanish fish and chips were super tasty (FYI the chips are just seasons potatoes)!  The menu was Spanish only, and they spoke limited English, but you’ll be fine!

Dinner may have been Nick’s favorite meal so far.  The food to euro ratio had substantially improved and the meal also came with a beer.  Or rather, the meal came with the beer.  You see, there was a law passed in the 1800s that said you had to serve some food with alcoholic drinks.  People were drinking (or 2) at lunch, and afternoon productivity was on the decline.   So they passed the law in an effort to improve productivity.  And whether it’s still a law, or a just a tradition, we were happy to take part.

We headed to El Tigre on a tip from a friend.  Nick ordered a beer and walked away with this huge plate of food, all for 5 euros.  I said to him, “I think you could’ve gotten the same size plate if you’d ordered a smaller beer.”  To which he replied, “uh….but then I’d have a smaller beer.”  Touche.

so much food at el tigre in madrid

We ended the night in truly glutinous style with a trip to the famous Chocolateria San Gines.  The walls are adorned with the faces of all the famous people who have visited.  Yet, it was the cheapest churro/chocolate spot we’ve been to since arriving in Spain.  6 churros and a chocolate will set you back just 3.80 euros!  A steal!  And we even got a bonus churro! Win!

chocolateria san gines madrid

Barcelona, and the time I got a little hangry

Montserrat is a short, 1 hr train ride from Barcelona (see my notes below for tips on train tickets to Montserrat).  And it’s really pretty.  So we went.

Montserrat is a Monastery set amongst the mountains.  We didn’t think about this when packing, nor when we set off for Montserrat that morning, and we only packed our thin raincoats because there was rain in the forecast.  Turns out, it’s a bit cooler at Montserrat than Barcelona.  As we rode the gondola up the mountain, we looked around at our fellow travelers, most wearing snow pants and down jackets.  We were nervous.

Thankfully, it wasn’t actually that chilly on the mountain and we were treated to some pretty awesome hikes and views.

If you decide not to hike at all, you can still see some pretty awesome things.

But if you decide to go on a moderately sketchy hike, you can see this!

By the time we reached Montserrat, took the required gondolas and funiculars, and went on our hike, it was roughly 2:30PM.  We were running off almonds, cashews and a granola bar.  I was hungry, but the only food in sight was cafeteria food.  And everyone knows that food at the top of a mountain is always expensive and never that amazing.  Nick tried to convince me that we’d be happier eating something delicious back in Barcelona, but by that time I was hangry.  A little hungry and a little angry.  But logic overcame the hanger and we powered through back to Barcelona.

It’s about now that I need to mention Nick’s awesome Spanish skills.  4 years in high school + a few years running a painting business means Nick has pretty decent conversational Spanish skillz (yes, with a z).  This came in really handy when I accidentally sat on my metro card, making it unreadable.  When all was said and done, I had a new metro card.  Nick even threw in a “muchas” to his “gracias” which I thought was a nice touch.  This kid.

We finished the night at the Churreria Granja.  A little abuelita selling churros and chocolate.  Obviously we owed it to ourselves to try it.  We dipped them in the chocolate and they were delicious.  And we were hopped up on sugar for the next few hours.

NOTES on Tickets to Montserrat

I don’t think they make this as easy as they could.  But that’s ok.

1.  Go to the Plaza/Placa de Espanya station
2.  Find the R5 train
3.  Go up to the ticket machine. This is where it gets tricky.  There are a lot of options.  We went for the Trans Montserrat ticket – this ticket includes the train trip from Barcelona to Montserrat, the trip up the mountain, the additional funiculars once you are at the monastery, and 2 metro tickets (just because).  There are 2 ways to get to the top of Montserrat – either by cable car (5min, standing) or by funicular (15min, sitting).  It costs the same, but you have to choose (your own adventure, ha!) when you get the ticket.  And you can’t change your mind after.  The additional funiculars at the top of Montserrat take you to the many hikes at the top of the mountain, but this is where the views are pretty sweet and the hikes are kinda sketchy – don’t worry, there are lots of non sketchy hikes as well.
4.  Get on the train and take a snooze.  It’s going to be around 1 hr.
5.  There are 2 different stops depending on whether you go up the cable car or the funicular.  The cable car/Aeri stop is first, followed by the funicular stop.
6.  Enjoy your time!

A few more notes:

  • While the cable cars and funiculars are on a schedule, we found that they would skip or add a car from time to time.  We thought we were on the early cable car before our train home, but our cable car never showed up and we barely made it.
  • If you like climbing, there’s lots of climbing to be had.

Barcelona and the phrase, “I’m your bitch for the next hour”

We started off our 2nd day with a free tour from New Europe Tours.  Yep, you heard me right, it’s free.  And it was awesome.  The tour guides are paid in tips, and the free tour works as a mini advertisement for their other, more specialized tours.  Had we known about it, I might have signed up for their Tapas tour – although, knowing how much Nick disliked Tapas, I guess it all worked out!

Our tour guide, Leon, a British transplant, knew more random facts about Barcelona than anyone should, and used the phrase “I’m your bitch for the next hour” to make sure we got all of our questions and recommendations from him before the tour was over.  Turns out a lot of the other tour guides from other companies dislike him.  He’s super loud (which is awesome when you’re on his tour), but it bugs some of the other guides, and he mentioned that one local dumped a bucket of water on him one day for being too loud.  But seriously, the guy was hilarious and knew his stuff.  He also runs the daily Gaudi tour if you’re interested.

The tour was followed by a lunch of potato balls, meat balls and muscles.  Super random.  Ironically, there’s a big sign that says they don’t speak English….but then they handed us English menus.  So I’m not sure what that was about.

We hit up another Gaudi spot on day 2, Park Guell.  It’s on a really high hill – we’re talking SF style steepness.  Thankfully, there were escalators during part of the walk.  You can also buy Park Guell tickets online, which is probably a good idea.

So Park Guell is a park, with a lot of mosaic-y art.  This lizard is famous according to Nick.  And there are these benches that are also adorned with stained glass.  While sitting on said benches, a throng of school girls came racing towards us and plopped themselves down on our bench.  One of them turned to us, I assumed to ask us to take a photo of the group.  No.  In moderate English she asked us if we would “please move” so her friends could sit with her.  Ha!  It was only 5 euros to enter the park, but if you decide to go, I’d recommend taking a picnic and lingering a bit.  We were in and out pretty fast, and I definitely preferred la Sagrada.  Just saying.

Did I ever mention how it’s totally a thing to eat late here? Like really late. 9pm is a perfectly reasonable start time for dinner.  By our 2nd day we were feeling like locals and made it til 9:15pm before looking for dinner.  We went with pizza (la pizza del born, http://www.lapizzadelborn.com/ there’s another, thinner crust looking place a few doors down that people also seem to like). And it was actually pretty delicious.  Then we were on the hunt for some dessert.  Guess what.  All the dessert places close early.  This doesn’t make sense, but it also doesn’t matter.  We wanted dessert and couldn’t find any.  We eventually found some delicious, over priced gelato in front of the Barcelona Cathedral.  The cathedral was also very pretty. :)   And that was day 2!

Barcelona – When a 10 year old made a move on me

It’s been just over a year since the epic trip to Japan and SE Asia, and we were itching to leave the good ol’ USA, so we packed our bags and headed to Europe!

Things started off pretty awesome when we boarded our Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt and scored an empty middle.  I’m kind of a pro at scoring an empty middle, not to brag or anything.  Not only was there ample space to spread out, it also meant I could lay flat on my back to try and get some shut eye!  Take that, business-class-layflat-seats!  Yes, I had to bend my knees.

We arrived in Frankfurt an hour late.  And had less than 45 minutes to get through customs, security (again), and arrive at our gate.  We thought, “hey, it’s Germany, they’re pretty efficient here, shouldn’t be a problem.” Ha!  We were SOOOO wrong.  Long story short, we ended up running through the Frankfurt airport and were the last ones on our connecting flight to Barcelona.  Can we say, hot sweaty messes?  The 10 year old next to me clearly didn’t mind, as half way through the flight he fell asleep on my shoulder.  Nice move, kid.

After arriving in Barcelona, we dropped off our bags and were on a mission to keep ourselves up until bedtime.  We started off with tapas.

Tapas are basically stuff on crusty bread.  The tapas bar we visited was buffet style.  Lots of plates setup around the room, grab what you want and at the end of the meal they count your toothpicks.  They were perfectly fine but definitely didn’t blow me away.  Nick was not pleased with the food to euro ratio.  Needless to say, tapas did not make it back into the rotation :)

We decided that a trip to the famed Sagrada Familia was in order.  It’s Barcelona’s equivalent to the Eiffel Tower – it’s the place you pretty much have to visit if you’re going.

The conversation before leaving for Spain went something like this:
B: So, people are saying we should buy tickets beforehand
N: It’s November, we’ll be fine.
B: ok

Famous last words.  We roll up to la Sagrada, line around the block.  In a last ditch effort to make it inside before the sun set, I checked online and was able to buy tickets while we were still standing in line.  We walked around the block and waltzed right in.

**This will only work if you can roam while in Barcelona, otherwise we would have been up a creek.  Also note that if you want to go up a tower, they make you pick your tower while buying the ticket.  We went up the nativity tower – where we did not see a single baby Jesus, Joseph or Mary – and it was very pretty.  I think you may have a better view of sunset if you head up the Passion tower.  But I have no proof.
**http://www.sagradafamilia.cat/ (click ENG in the upper left for the English version)

Turns out, Nick was only familiar with the outside of the building, which reminds me of melted candles.  And had he known how much the tickets cost, he admittedly would have discouraged us entering the famous church.

But since I was in charge of tickets, and I knew what the inside was suppose to look like, Nick was in for a pretty awesome surprise. I think his words were literally, “Oh shitttt!”

The church is filled with beautiful stained glass windows that run floor to ceiling (hence my concern with getting in before the sun went down).  The inside feels surprisingly new and modern – or maybe not so surprising to those that know their history.  It’s still under construction, with an anticipated completion date sometime in 2026.

We finished the evening with a trip to the (famous) Mercado de la Boqueria.  Lots of fruit, veggies, spices, seafood, and MEAT!  My dad was particularly interested in having us try the jamon.  So we found a guy slicing thin pieces of meat off of a pig leg – hoof and all!  We were about to cheap out and try the serrano jamon that costs 50 euros/kg, but the butcher(?) smartly offered us a taste of the 110 euro/kg Iberica jamon.  And yes, you can taste a difference.  I was impressed, and promptly finished my 110 euro/kg jamon.

By this point we were a little delirious, having been up for 30+ hours and no showers.  So we headed off to our apartment (on the 4th floor – and by 4th I really mean 5th because the first floor is really the “0″ floor, and did I mention no elevators) and fell asleep – shortly after instagram-ing our first day :) .

Side note: We woke up the next morning to the sorest legs ever!  We think it was a combination of sitting for 12 hours followed by a dead sprint to make our flight, followed by hoofing it up 5 flights of stairs a small handful of times.  My legs haven’t been this sore since I sprinted to first on a cold night playing softball.

Vietnamese Date Night

We still don’t know why we call it date night – I mean, every night is date night when you don’t have kids.  Right?

Nick had this crazy idea that we should try and replicate our faves from Vietnam. It was actually much easier than you’d think, thanks to a really random Asian mall not far from our house!

We started the day with sweetened condensed milk in our iced coffee.  It’s amazing.  I recommend trying it.  It’s the perfect blend of sugar and cream.

That night, we tried to find our favorite dish from Hanoi.  It was good, but still not the same :(

We finished off the night with “cheap” foot massages – which are really fully body massages where you stay fully clothed and bubble tea!