Sunday, August 25, 2013

Our time in Portugal

Ahh...that's better...

After a fair bit of "intense traveling" we've had a few days "off" relaxing poolside on the Algarve coast in Portugal and are now on the way back to Spain to continue our travels. But more of that later, we'll let you know what we've been up to since our last post.

Probably one of the most unique looking places we've been to so far, Porto is an old city built up on the steep banks of the river Douro. Famous around the world for it's Port wine, the city has been a mainstay of Portuguese trade for centuries. From a distance the place looks amazing with layers of buildings vying for space on the aforementioned steep banks. As you get closer it loses some of it's shine as you get the feeling it could do with a bit of a scrub down. With probably the highest concentration of fancy looking old buildings we've ever seen, it was hard to know where to look as you wandered the cobbled streets.

To celebrate Miriam's 35th birthday we checked in to a 4 star hotel for our stay here which, after camping and staying in budget "pensiones", was quite a treat, with Miriam enjoying the luxury so much I was starting to fear for my wallet if she insisted on continuing this trend. On the day we had lunch riverside, listening to some great live music. The following day was spent sightseeing and dropping into various wineries, sampling the local produce and learning about the history and manufacture of Port wine.

Billed as the "Venice of Portugal", Aveiro is a small city nicely decorated with canals that whilst pretty and provide a great way of seeing the place by boat, hardly compares to it's Italian counterpart. What it does have going for it however is friendly people. Fortunately for us we had arrived during a(nother) local festival, on asking the guy next to me what it was all about, we were pretty much adopted for 2 days by a local businessman who took us on a day tour around Aveiro & it's surrounding beaches and sites. Not content with this act of generosity he also invited us back to his place for an outstanding meal cooked by his lovely wife. That evening he also sat down with us at a local cafe and mapped out the rest of our Portuguese trip! This was very welcome as we hadn't really done our usual research and this had been concerning Miriam for some time.

An old University town, this place was great to walk around and see more old buildings. The highlight though was an evening spent at a local restaurant listening to "Fado" - Portuguese folk singing.  It may not sound like a great night out but the intimacy of the setting (cosy, dimly lit, stone walled building with no more than dozen patrons), a guy with a great voice and some very intricate guitar work made for a fantastic time.

A hot tip we received from a very friendly hostel manager was that the medieval festival in Obidos was a good night out. Set in an actual castle and complete with knights in chain mail, barbarians, jousting, sword fights, and more roasted meat than  is advisable, it was indeed a great night out - even if finding a taxi afterwards was a story in itself (one that will remain untold though).

This is the big smoke, the capital of Portugal and we were keen to sample it's wares. We'd heard that it was a bit of a party town and we put it to the ultimate test - a Monday night. It did not disappoint as we didn't need our fancy new phone's GPS to navigate to the epicenter of action in Bairro Alto, we simply followed the crowd noise. We rocked up at 12am and it was pumping. An eclectic mix of partygoers were enjoying the restaurants & bars that were serving up cheap drinks & good live music. We picked a (semi) quiet bar to enjoy the acoustic offerings where the friendly bartender shouted Miriam a cocktail that looked & tasted remarkably like the Portugal national dessert - Pastel de Nata.

More technology problems with our brand new phone dying and taking with it about 5 towns worth of photos. A day was spent getting it fixed, the day wasn't a complete loss however, ending on a high note with a meal cooked by ours truly as we had a kitchen for the first time. We enjoyed it so much that we cooked for the following 2 nights as well - a refreshing change from the mostly café food we have been consuming.

Whilst in Lisbon, we took a day trip to a nearby town called Sintra. Home of some of Europe's rich and famous in it's heyday, the place is littered with grand palaces and adjoining gardens. Having limited time and on foot we could only cover a castle and the most eccentric palace/garden. After what felt like about 100kms of walking (most of it uphill) we finished the day of with some great Chinese food and caught the train back to Lisbon.

This is where the weather got hot - Adelaide Summer hot. In 37C heat, walking with our backpacks from the bus station to our hotel to save the $7 fare, might not have been the smartest idea we've ever had, but we were fortified with the thought of a dip in our hotel's pool. Unfortunately we were told we couldn't check in until 3pm so we chose instead to traipse around the town checking off the sights. Big churches, check, Roman temple ruins, check, chapel with human bone wallpaper, check. Relieved to be done with the "touristy" bit, we checked in and headed to the pool. By now it was in shade and after about 2 seconds Miriam was frozen. In the evening we checked out the nightlife but after Lisbon it seemed a bit quiet.

Our last stop in Portugal was a campsite on the Algarve coast, we had heard about a popular seafood festival here and were  keen to sample the fare. We went twice to the festival and ate some pretty tidy shellfish offerings including mussels, prawns & crab - all the while being entertained by local music and a great U2 tribute band.

It wasn't all about the festival though as we did a day trip to a nearby town to see international sand sculptures, again seeing Bono and also Gandhi, Noddy and friends. A slight miscalculation on our (my) part sent us to the wrong place initially and it was a hot & stressed couple that made it back to camp that night.

To counter all the heat and activity of recent days much time was spent lazing poolside at the campsite, sunbathing and reading. This was a fitting way to finish off our Portuguese adventure.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Our (first) month in Spain

Where in the world are we?
(short answer - Portugal)

It's been a while hasn't it? Our laptop and iPod both died early in the trip and finding a replacement was less than trivial. Once this was sorted (Nokia 820 for those interested) the combination of a backlog of blog posts and having too much fun has worsened the situation. Compounding the problem is we don't have access to the photos from the first month of travel in Spain. NOTE: all the photos before Bilbao are from Google Images (that's why they're better than the ones we normally take)

So here's what we're going to do. Provide a summary of what we've been up to, throw some recent photos in and try and do better from now on.

1. Barcelona
Our first experience of both Europe and Spain & we loved it. We stayed a week (couch surfing through airbnb) in a inner suburb where we got to observe the local way of life as well as the plethora of tourist attractions. Highlights were meeting friendly locals, learning & practicing Spanish & Catalonian (very important to distinguish the two), the novelty of wandering the streets and also discovering the joy of picnicking in beautiful parks. An important task carried out was kitting ourselves out with camping gear for the travels ahead.

2. Calella de Palafrugell (Costa Brava)
This was our first camping adventure in Spain and was a great way to start. The tiny town boasts 3 or so small beaches with crystal clear (and freezing cold) water nestled in between rocky cliffs - think postcard perfect scenery. When we weren't lazing down by the beach we were roughing it back at the camp site either at the pool or at the pool table.

3. Girona
Miriam mistook this town for the fabled city of Verona of Romeo and Juliet fame, and I can understand why. Romance was in the air, most likely inspired by the gorgeous old buildings and rambling alleyways. We started getting adventurous in the culinary stakes, trying snails & rabbit (you can probably guess our preferred dish). We stayed with a lovely couple who made us feel very welcome and helped us understand more about Catalan & Spain in general.

4. Figueres
We did a day trip to here to see the surreal Salvador Dali museum. It certainly got you thinking, with some of the weirdest art you'll ever see. This trip was finished off with a delicious 3 course meal at a local restaurant and our first cider tasting experience.

5. Zaragoza
We only spent 1 night here as a stopover before Pamplona. It was quite nice, with beautiful buildings, canals and bridges. Our first real taste of delicious tapas was here, in a bustling group of ancient alleyways.

6. Pamplona
It's kind of difficult to summarise our time here. We were here for the famous San Fermin festival (Running of the Bulls). It was exhilarating, exhausting and entertaining. We were crushed in crowds, squeezed out of viewing spots and both fascinated and horrified by the craziness and brutality of it all. We were camping about an hour away from the action (to keep costs down) and the constant late night partying, early morning festivities and lack of sleep during the day (too hot) wore us down. We could only cope with 4 days before wearily heading off.

7. San Sebastian
Even now, 3 weeks on, this place makes me smile. Throw in equal parts relaxation, a beautiful city & beaches, the best tapas in the world and you have 2 very happy campers. We spent 5 days recuperating here. The highlight was the food - tapas, tapas & more glorious tapas. Everything from duck, pig's ears, calf cheeks, mussels, octopus, foie, scallops, chorizo, frittata, salads, risotto, gazpacho and the list goes on. This place would be a must-go destination of Spain for sure.

8. Bilbao

This was more of an administrative stop to purchase our new phone but when in Bilbao a visit to the Guggenheim is necessary. A mixture of styles, artists and historical exhibitions made 3 hours whiz by very quickly indeed. Miriam's foot started to give her some trouble - a sign of worse to come.

9. Santander
Our plan here was to use this spot as a hub for a couple of day trips. We had the good fortune to arrive at the beginning of a local tapas festival where each restaurant vies for the title of "Best Tapas". Naturally we booked a few years extra days which would satisfy our insatiable appetite for tapas and give Miriam's foot a chance to rest as it had blown up considerably and was jeapordising our entire trip!

10. Puente Viesgo
Whilst in Santander we
did 2 day trips to the "El Castillo" caves where there are ancient cave paintings of bison, horse and deer along with hand prints that are very similar to our own aboriginal art. It was a steep climb to the caves and while we were waiting for admission, we climbed further to the peak of the mountain where we had a spectacular view of the surrounding area. It was this climb that did Miriam's foot in and that night it balooned up and was very painful.

11. Santillana del Mar
This historic little town is kept in it's original form, with most cars banned and the outside of buildings unadorned with modern lights, signs and fittings. It was interesting to wander around the cobbled streets and imagine what it was like here yesteryear. We also visited the torture museum which, whilst light-hearted upon entering it, we were both soon saddened & disgusted by the pain that humans can inflict on one another. Most of the equipment was authentic which only served to worsen our horror of the place.

12. Oviedo
Because of changed plans due to Miriam's foot injury. We stayed one night in Oviedo, the capital of Asturias, a province famous for cider. Being a bit of an afficianado, Miriam was keen to try out the local brew. This is traditionally poured from a great height to produce the "fizz" as it does not contain gas. Because of the skill required, the waiters are always busy, circulating amongst the tables, pouring from above their heads to around their knees - a rather impressive feat.

13. Santiago de Composte
A very historic city, famous for hundreds of years as St James (Santiago) supposedly spent time here and is also (again supposedly) laid to rest in the magnificent cathedral. Pilgrims flock to this city, some having walked thousands of kilometres with most choosing to arrive on the 24th July to coincide with the "Feast of Saint James" day on the 25th. Tragically, not more than 30 minutes before the commencement of festivities a train entering the city derailed, killing 79 people and injuring 140. All the weeks festivities were cancelled and we therefore decided to head to.

Foot update: After resting it, it has come good again - woohoo!