A Travellerspoint blog

July 2020

An Iberian Exploration: The Algarve

We didn't want to spend too much time driving so we scheduled an overnight stop on the Atlantic coast before proceeding to the Algarve. Not far out of Lisbon we stopped at a farmers market in any tiny town off the highway that I had discovered in my research. After touring the stalls we had a lunch of grilled meat in a pop-up churrasqueria. It was a great beginning to a road adventure.
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Vila Nova De Milfontes is a popular coastal vacation spot for Lisbon natives, although it's not really on the international tourism radar. It's best known for beaches so we pretty much had the small town to ourselves in February. We stayed in a small bed and breakfast which only had a couple of other guests. It was run by an elderly couple who were enchanted with Cleo. Their adult children and grandson were over in the evening when we arrived and Cleo was able to try out his toys.
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By the time we mustered the energy to walk to dinner it was already dark. We had a hearty and delicious dinner at the town's best restaurant, Tasco da Celso. In the morning we ate our fill of the delightful breakfast that was waiting for us and then took our leave. By the light of day it was easy to see the town's attraction to city dwellers. The narrow lanes were lined with picturesque whitewashed houses with colorful trim.
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We continued our drive down the inland highway until we reached Sagres, the town at the southwest corner of Spain. We didn't stop in town but proceeded to the end of Cabo de Sagres, one of those places that has an end-of-the-world feel to it due to its desolation against the backdrop of a seemingly infinite ocean. Due to the high winds nothing grows at the tip of the cape except scrub and the only sign of civilization is a tiny abandoned fort. There wasn't much to do there except celebrate having arrived at the only well-defined corner of Europe.
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We were now in the part of Portugal known as the Algarve. The region encompasses the entire southern coast of Portugal and has become one of the most popular vacation areas for tourists from the British Isles and Northern Europe, many of whom have returned there permanently in retirement. The coast is largely over-developed with inexpensive vacation apartments and extensive beaches so we kept to the larger towns where we would have more opportunities to experience authentic Portuguese food and culture.
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We spent our first night in the Algarve in Lagos, not far east of Sagres. Lagos is one of the larger cities in the area so it was a natural choice since our only desires were a good dinner and an atmospheric town center. Our hotel was sprawling and beautifully landscaped with tropical vegetation. We had dinner in a small seafood restaurant that seemed to be the top choice in Lagos, as it was absolutely jam-packed. Once we had recovered from the stress of parking in the narrow streets and wedging the strollers into the crowded restaurant we were able to appreciate the warm atmosphere and open kitchen. Here we had the best version of cataplana of our trip. Cataplana is Portugal's answer to bouillabaisse, a seafood stew slow-cooked in a hinged metal pot. Cataplanas are traditionally seafood but the technique can be used for meat as well. In the morning we strolled around the pretty but somnolent town center for a while before resuming our journey eastward.
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We made a brief stop in the coastal town of Olhão for lunch. This relatively large fishing port has beautiful cobblestone plazas and rows of antiquated buildings with chipped tile facades and Moorish stylings.
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For those of us who aren't traveling just for beaches and fruity drinks, Tavira is the prize of the Algarve. The town is set back a couple of miles from the ocean, along the banks of the River Gilão, and is best known for its picturesque old town and the ruins of a hilltop castle. Our hotel was one of the most beautiful we had ever stayed in, a sprawling estate of classic whitewashed Portuguese buildings with fresh blue trim. Paths led out to intriguing gardens with a circular above-ground pool and a grove of orange trees.
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For dinner we drove to Santa Luzia, a fishing village on the bank of the inland waterway that forms the Ilha de Taveira sandbar. Santa Luzia is famous for the many seafood restaurants that line the avenue along the waterfront, all of them specializing in octopus. Our waiter spoke excellent English, which was a rarity in Portugal, and helped guide us through the many different preparations of octopus that were featured on the menu. We love octopus so it wasn't a problem for us to try several of them. Aside from the deliciousness of the food, what took us aback was the generosity of the portions. In the United States it's common for an octopus dish to include just one tentacle but here it felt like we consumed the equivalent of two entire cephalopods.

As in Lagos, the antiquated town center was blissfully free of tourists but here there was much more to see. There was a promenade on either side of the Gilão with a Roman-style bridge connecting the two sides of the city. The town center was a maze of narrow cobblestone alleys filled with mysterious churches and somber stone buildings.
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We encountered more travelers as we ascended the steep hill to the Castelo. On the way we were rewarded with a terrace with views over the red roofs of the town as well as the iconic clock tower of the Church of Santa Maria do Castelo. The ruins of the castle were enjoyable to stroll through with a bright and colorful garden in the remains of the courtyard.
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We would have liked to have stayed one more night in that beautiful hotel but our trip was only beginning and we still had much ground to cover. I would finally be returning to Spain after thirteen years, now with my own family with whom I could share its wonders.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:27 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: Lisbon

After our son Ian was born a few weeks premature in 2013, we had to put travel on hold for a few months and focus on helping him catch up with his weight and his milestones. By the time he was six months old it was pretty clear that he hadn't suffered any serious injury and was ready to join his sister Cleo as a world traveler. We were desperate to go back to Europe but the only problem was that it was now winter and we didn't want the additional stress of freezing weather. We had to find the most temperate place in Europe that would also provide us with an interesting itinerary. It quickly became clear that we would be going to Portugal and southern Spain. I remembered that when I visited Andalusia as a child we had taken the ferry over to Tangier in Morocco and thought that was doable. When I investigated Morocco more deeply I realized that Tangier wouldn't even begin to give us an appreciation of what appeared to be an amazing country. We expanded the itinerary to include an ambitious train journey to Fes and Marrakesh. It was the first of many times that we would let our curiosity overcome our trepidations on a road trip.
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I'd been to Western Europe countless times with my parents and on my own, but somehow never made it to Portugal before. It felt good to dust off my Portuguese phrasebook again five years after its last use in Brazil. This would be our first time renting a car in Europe as well but we felt confident we could navigate the roads with an unlocked smartphone, a local SIM, and Google Maps. The only problem was that there weren't any stores open to sell us a SIM card at the Lisbon airport. We weren't too worried, since we still had navigation and the map from the rental agency. We did pretty well at first, getting into the center of the city without too much difficulty. Once we were in the area of the hotel we ran into the problem that has subsequently plagued us many times in Western Europe. While the main streets may appear modern and wide, one ill-advised turn can quickly place you into a maze of narrow alleys that are only suited for a miniature car. Trying to navigate those streets with a full-size sedan was a nightmare. At one point we found a twisting road that I crawled up at a snails pace with minimal clearance at every curve only to reach a retractable bollard obstructing our exit. I was forced to retrace our path the entire way down, with Mei Ling walking outside the car to help guide me through the curves. It was an incredibly slow and painstaking process but miraculously the car made it through unscathed. We got ourselves back out on the main street with frayed nerves just as a downpour began. We reached a large square with minimal traffic and I parked at the side of the road to ask directions. As soon as I got out of the car, I saw the sign for our hotel less than a hundred yards away. The desk staff brought umbrellas and helped me bring Mei Ling and the kids to safety with a minimum of drenching, after which I found the parking garage underneath the square. Once we'd finally settled all we had energy for was dinner near the hotel and then a bath for Mei Ling and the kids before bedtime.
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Having learned our lesson about driving in Lisbon immediately, we began our exploration of Lisbon on foot. We had a brisk walk to Mercado da Ribeira by the bank of the Tagus Estuary. The Tagus River, or Tejo in Portuguese, is the longest river in the Iberian peninsula. It begins humbly in the Sierra de Albarracín of Aragon and meanders through iconic Spanish cities such as Toledo and Talavera de la Reina before bisecting Portugal and emptying into its estuary northeast of Lisbon. The Tagus provides Lisbon with a harbor sheltered from the Atlantic Ocean, which made Lisbon an important port for the Romans and helped Portugal launch the Age of Discovery in the 16th century. The estuary is also one of the most important wetlands in Europe.
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The neighborhood close to the water was full of classic, charmingly dilapidated apartments and cafes on cobblestone streets. Some of the buildings had the iconic tiled facades and wrought iron balconies that are emblematic of Lisbon. The market itself was slightly disappointing, a rather low-energy affair without much in the way of unusual food. Unfortunately our visit occurred only a few months before the market was renovated with the addition of a Time Out food hall.
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We worked our way back inland through the Chiado neighborhood. Many of the buildings here had beautiful and colorful facades that were in much better shape than the ones around the market. Although this is one of the busiest areas in Lisbon during the tourist season we had it largely to ourselves in the coolness of winter. Mei Ling couldn't resist sampling the product of a sidewalk chestnut roaster.
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One of Lisbon's nicknames is The City of Seven Hills, and we were to learn that as in San Francisco the city's hills are not to be taken lightly. It seems quite a number of people were weary of the ascent from the sea level commercial center of Baixa to the hilltop neighborhood of Bairro Alto so at the dawn of the 20th century the city constructed a forty-five meter elevator from Baixa to Largo do Carmo. The Neo-Gothic iron Elevador de Santa Justa has become one of the iconic sights of Lisbon. One of the advantages of visiting Lisbon in February was that we did not have to endure the legendary wait to ascend. After just ten or fifteen minutes we were on the observation platform with incredible views of the city in every direction. My favorite was the jumble of red roofs in Baixa with Alfama and Castelo de São Jorge in the background. On the opposite side was the eerie Gothic ruin of the Convento do Carmo, abandoned since an earthquake in 1755.
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On our second morning we tackled Alfama, the original Lisbon of the Middle Ages. The neighborhood is a web of narrow lanes that ascend the São Jorge hill towards the Castelo. We followed our navigation which provided us with a circumferential route up the back of the hill to the Miradouro da Graça at the summit. It was a much more grueling climb than we had anticipated but the views from the terrace of the little park were spectacular. The haphazard rows of multicolored buildings topped by roofs in various shades of red and orange looked more like a giant Lego model built by a madman than a genuine city.
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We commenced a somewhat sloppy exploration of Alfama that was cut short by rain. We toured the Castelo de São Jorge with its impressively dense medieval fortifications and towers. The former palace inside is mostly in ruins and has been largely replaced by a collection of gardens. To the east we encountered the 16th century Church of São Vicente of Fora, whose architectural style has been variously described as Romanesque or Mannerist. The facade is notable for ornate alcoves containing detailed statues of saints.
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Further along we came across the National Pantheon, whose enormous white dome makes it an instantly recognizable feature of the Alfama backdrop. The edifice began its existence as a church which was desecrated and partially destroyed in the mid 17th century. It took three hundred years to complete the construction of the Pantheon, which now serves as a final resting place for many of Portugal's most venerated citizens.
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In the morning we drove to another market outside of the center to purchase ingredients for a self-catered dinner. This was a much more lively scene than we had encountered at Mercado da Ribeira and even the seafood looked fresher and tastier. I've forgotten the name of the market but here's a good list that includes the ones outside of the center. From what I can determine, Mercado da Ribeira has been greatly improved since our visit under the management of Time Out with the addition of a food hall.
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After whetting our appetites at the market we headed to Cervejaria Ramiro for lunch. This was already a local favorite before it was featured on Anthony Bourdain's travel show, but afterwards it moved to a whole different level of popularity. Fortunately we arrived at the very beginning of the Portuguese lunch interval or we may not have made it in, but as it was we were shown to a table in the corner fairly quickly. Unlike some seafood restaurants that stick to the basics, Ramiro offered many of the most exotic specialties of Portuguese waters including scarlet shrimp, crab soup served in its shell, and best of all percebes. We had seen these unusual edible barnacles in the markets and were thrilled at the opportunity to try them, despite their intimidating price. They had a pleasantly firm texture and were a little more salty than I would have liked, but they were fun to eat.

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We spent the afternoon at Oceanário de Lisboa, one of Europe's premier aquariums. Cleo was just old enough to appreciate some of the displays, especially the penguins and the impressive central tank with enormous rays and sunfish.
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In the evening we returned to Alfama where my brother was now staying in an Airbnb with his family, having made a detour in his own European vacation itinerary to meet us. I was chagrined to learn there was an elevator an easy walk from our hotel that went straight up to the Castelo. Our long slog up the back side of the hill the prior day had been for nothing. We were really impressed with the Airbnb, a modern and spacious two bedroom apartment with a well-equipped kitchen right in the middle of Lisbon's most walkable and historic neighborhood. Best of all, it was about half the price of our hotel room. We had stayed in Airbnb's before in the US but had no idea it was such a viable option internationally as well. This was a watershed moment in our traveling because we were just arriving at the point where single room accommodations were no longer satisfactory and Airbnb was now a very economic choice with the ability to prepare our own meals as well. Mei Ling and my brother's wife went to work in the kitchen while the kids got acquainted. It was the first time Cleo had seen her cousins from China since she was six weeks old. Cooking dinner for ourselves in Europe was a great new experience.
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The next morning we left Lisbon, but before we began the coastal drive south we stopped at a couple of historical sites in the western district of Belém. The Belém Tower is one of the most recognizable features of Lisbon, an ornately decorated limestone fortification at the bank of the Tagus that resembles a miniature fairy tale castle. Although it was constructed to defend to port of Lisbon from invaders in the early 16th century, over the centuries it became recognized as the ceremonial gateway to the city for those arriving by sea. This was probably the longest line we endured in Lisbon and we wouldn't have missed much by skipping the tower's interior, although the view of the river from the upper terrace is quite good.
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The Jerónimos Monastery is just a short walk from the tower. Like the tower, the monastery is constructed in the Manueline style named for the Portuguese monarch who ordered its construction. The ornate facade blends many contemporary architectural movements with nautical themes intended to honor the country's oceanic exploits. Everything about the monastery was intricately decorated with sculpture, from the entryway to the church pillars to the cloisters.
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Lisbon had given us a very good start to our road trip. It's a beautiful city with a great deal of antiquated charm and plenty of interesting areas to explore. I think visiting in winter may have given us an impression of a less vibrant city than we would have gotten in the summer, but on the other hand it was nice to see things in their natural state without being overrun by tourists. Years later we visited Porto and thought it was much more impressive than Lisbon. Of course Porto is a very different city with the river running through the middle and all the action along the banks, but it seemed to have that special kind of energy and vitality that we weren't overwhelmed with in Lisbon. Perhaps we'll be back in Lisbon again one day in the spring or fall and we'll have a better atmosphere for comparison with the other great European cities.

Posted by zzlangerhans 07:16 Archived in Portugal Comments (2)

The Legendary Pacific Northwest: Vancouver


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Vancouver is a fairly large city, not much smaller than Seattle, but since we only had one full day we limited ourselves to the small peninsula on the north side of the city that most people call Downtown Vancouver. The peninsula actually contains three separate areas: Downtown, the West End, and Stanley Park. Vancouver's better known attractions are heavily concentrated around Downtown. No doubt there are interesting neighborhoods in the rest of the city but we chose to go on foot only during our stay which limited us to the local area.
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Driving into Vancouver was a remarkable experience because of the amazing skyline of tall glass office buildings and condos that reflect green light from the cloudy sky and the water that surrounds the peninsula. Driving over the Cambie Bridge into Downtown felt like we were entering the Emerald City from the Wizard of Oz. Our Airbnb was in a high-rise condo and our host met us on the street to guide us to the parking garage. She got in the passenger seat and Mei Ling went to the back with the kids. As we turned the first corner the host made a horrified gasp. I looked around but couldn't see anything amiss outside and asked her what was wrong. "There was someone in the crosswalk!" she said. It was true, although I had barely registered it. A woman had just stepped off the curb on the opposite side of the street from where I was turning, and she was probably thirty feet away from the minivan. It never would have occurred to me in a million years to have stopped at the crosswalk until she passed. "Drivers here would stop at a crosswalk even if someone was still on the other side of the street?" I asked. "Of course!" She seemed shocked that I would even question it. Fortunately we didn't have to drive much further to the garage so there wasn't time for me to commit any more antisocial infractions. Inside I was laughing though. If she ever found her way to New York City or even worse China she was going to get the shock of her life. If she expected turning cars to stop for her in a crosswalk there, she was going to have to be prepared for a ride on someone's hood.

The Airbnb was a spacious and clean two bedroom on an upper floor with nice views of the surrounding forest of glass high-rises. The kids quickly launched on an exploration of the new territory.

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The main thing we did during our stay in Vancouver was walk around the different areas of the Downtown peninsula. We were fortunate that while it was almost always overcast in never rained while we were there. Vancouver has a very clean and pretty downtown, in no small part due to the upbeat design of the high rises. The peninsula is surrounded by water of course which means there are promenades on every side to enjoy the views over Burrard Inlet and Vancouver Harbor. Downtown is subdivided into lots of miniature neighborhoods. Yaletown on the south side is a hipster neighborhood with converted warehouse lofts, boutiques, and seafood bistros. To the north by the harbor is Gastown, a historic neighborhood with cobblestone streets, vintage street lamps, and a famous steam-powered clock on a street corner. Unlike San Diego's Gaslamp District, Gastown doesn't get its name from the street lamps (which are electric) but from a 19th century saloon owner who was nicknamed Gassy for his renowned loquaciousness.
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Next to Gastown is Vancouver's small Chinatown which is most notable for the Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden. The compact and tranquil garden was reminiscent of the Lan Su garden in Portland. In my opinion these beautiful and culturally rich gardens add a great deal to the cities they inhabit.
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On the opposite side of the peninsula the Granville Bridge connects Downtown to Granville Island, an artificial island that was created by dredging in the early 20th century. It's more like a polyp than an actual island, being connected to the mainland by a wide isthmus. Granville Island contains a lot of mid-market shops and restaurants that are popular with tourists and locals as well as the Granville Public Market, a farmers market and food hall where we were able to self cater an excellent brunch.
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The middle part of the peninsula is occupied by the West End. This neighborhood is largely residential but is traversed by the intersecting commercial thoroughfares of Robson Street and Denman Street, which are lined with boutiques and Asian restaurants. We ate at a Korean restaurant our first night that made us feel like we were in Seoul. The West End is also the center of gay culture in Vancouver and has a concentration of bars and nightclubs.
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The jewel of the downtown peninsula is Stanley Park, an enormous and wild green space that occupies the entire northern half of the peninsula. The park contains gardens, beaches, and recreation areas but most of it is a natural wilderness. We felt like we were seeing Vancouver exactly as it had been before humans had ever come across it. We came across a beautiful barred owl as well as a flock of inquisitive ducks at Beaver Lake in the middle of the park. It's probably the closest to nature I've ever felt inside a major city.
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We walked out of the wilderness onto the paved promenade that encircles the park. At the farthest point of the peninsula the majestic Lion's Gate suspension bridge connects Downtown to North Vancouver. We saw a few people gathered on the promenade by the bridge and realized they were watching a group of otters that had congregated on a small sandbar by the seawall. It was the first time we had ever seen otters outside of a zoo. They had no fear of their human observers and spent quite some time playing around near the seawall, at one point even climbing onto a staircase that rose from the water to the promenade.
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I was really glad we had made time to explore Stanley Park because its probably the most unique feature of Vancouver. It's a very pleasant, livable city in a great location on the Pacific coast but I didn't get the same sense of a true international destination the way I did in Toronto and Montréal. We may stop by again some time in the future as a stopover on the way to Asia and that time we'll stay longer to explore the rest of the city and Vancouver Island.

Our stop in Vancouver was pretty much the end of the road trip. All that was left was the drive back to Seattle, a quick dinner, and then an early flight back to Miami. This was our first real road trip in the USA as a family and it awakened a desire to explore all the diverse regions and major cities of our fascinating country. Since then we've done trips of similar length in the Deep South, the northern Midwest, New England, Texas, and southern California and we hope to do many more. I have to say the star of this particular trip was Portland and it remains one of my favorite cities in the United States.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:09 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

The Legendary Pacific Northwest: Seattle

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When I was young I don't recall Seattle being famous for anything except rain. Then two things happened: Nirvana and Starbucks. Suddenly Seattle became an American cultural touchstone for all things related to rock music and coffee. Twenty years later some of the Seattle mania had died down but the city's allure was still somewhat out of proportion to its population rank among America's largest cities. We stayed in the International District, a small neighborhood not far from downtown. The area had formerly been known as Chinatown but the name had changed to reflect a more diverse Asian population. Our Airbnb was quite an interesting place, a three story home whose hideous dark-green siding concealed a comfortable, chic, and environmentally-conscious interior.

Pike Place Market is one of the iconic tourist attractions of Seattle. The market was created in 1907 to allow local farmers to sell their produce directly to consumers without having to use wholesalers as middlemen. The market rapidly expanded to include butchers, bakers, and restaurants. Over time the market grew so much they had to build more levels underground. Since becoming a well-known attraction, the market has pivoted to businesses that cater largely to tourists such as souvenir shops and craft kiosks. The best known stall is still the original fish market, where the staff has developed a tradition of tossing the fish to each other around the store once it has been purchased. There are always more people gathered around to film the fish tossing than there are actual customers. We scanned the prices and quickly saw there wasn't anything close to a bargain. There were a few other interesting sights at the market but we quickly grew tired of the crowds and the general artificiality of the place. I have a feeling its a pretty rare event for anyone who lives in Seattle to actually go shopping at Pike's Place.
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Outside the market there was a huge line for the original Starbucks, even though it apparently isn't the original, but we couldn't have cared less anyway. The appeal of brands like Starbucks is something I'll never understand. Outside a supremely talented street musician was playing the guitar and harmonica while keeping a hula hoop twirling on his hips. It irritated the heck out of me that people were leaving the Starbucks after paying something like ten bucks for a coffee and couldn't spare a dollar for this entertaining and hardworking guy.
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Pike Place is also home to one of Seattle's most unique sights, the Gum Wall. In the 1990's people began a tradition of sticking chewed gum to the outside wall of the Market Theater while they were waiting in line for shows. Eventually the multicolored wads covered the entire brick wall and tourists began to add their own sticky contributions. The year after we visited the wall was pressure washed but apparently locals and tourists immediately began to rebuild the installation.
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A block away from the market the tourist crowds thin out rapidly and the downtown streets become practically empty except for numerous homeless people camped out or roaming the sidewalks. Of course homeless people are nothing new to us but downtown Seattle was remarkable for their sheer numbers as well as how many appeared to be psychotic and potentially aggressive. It seemed that as soon as we were out of earshot of one large person walking along and shouting at nobody we were coming into the range of another. There were a few fast food restaurants and shops around but I didn't see anyone inside. It's kind of hard to imagine how any business could survive in that kind of environment.

Our next stop was the Broadway Farmers Market in Capitol Hill, a neighborhood in central Seattle well-known for ethnic diversity and gay culture. The market was decent but not on the level of the best ones we'd seen in Portland. Afterwards we walked up Broadway and had a really good lunch in a Nepalese restaurant, the first one I could remember eating at. We also stopped by the iconic drag bar Julia's for a show, where Cleo got a big kick out of handing tips to the performers.
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On the other side of the canal that connects Puget Sound to Lake Washington is the neighborhood of Fremont which has a historic reputation for being a home for artists and countercultural types. Underneath the Aurora Bridge that connects Fremont to the Queen Anne neighborhood is an enormous concrete statue of a troll crushing a Volkswagen in his fist. The Fremont Troll was constructed in 1990 as a protest against the commercialization of the neighborhood that was squeezing out the artists. It was quite creepy and we were glad we'd made it to the troll while it was still broad daylight.
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Our Airbnb had a pretty awesome kitchen so that evening we drove into the southern reaches of Seattle to shop at a huge Asian supermarket. We found a pretty awesome selection of seafood including amazingly cheap Dungeness crabs. It was too late too cook so instead we ate at a Vietnamese restaurant where I impressed Cleo by pretending to sneeze out a rubber toy I'd bought for her in a vending machine.
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Besides Pike's Place Market, the Seattle feature that most people can identify is the Space Needle. Constructed for the 1962 World's Fair, the 605 foot tower has since welcomed over 60 million visitors. We made the obligatory ascent to the flying saucer at the top and checked out the panoramic views of the city and the bodies of water that surround it.
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Adjacent to the Space Needle is Chihuly Garden and Glass, a permanent exhibition of the glass sculpture of Washington native Dale Chihuly. Chihuly is recognized as one of the most skilled and influential glass sculptors in the world and his work is strongly influenced by flowers and plant life. Besides the indoor gallery there is a large garden outside the exhibition hall which is filled with vivid sculptures that are evocative of plant life as it may have developed on other planets.
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There are several other museums and recreational facilities in the Seattle Center including a children's museum, but it was already well into the afternoon and Mei Ling wanted to start on our home cooked meal. Besides the crabs and halibut we had bought the previous night at the supermarket we had fertilized chicken eggs, which I had eaten before in China. Some people are familiar with the Filipino version which is known as balut. Mei Ling prepared a delicious and healthy feast that was by far the best meal we had in Seattle.
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The next morning we took our leave of Seattle. Our first stop was an arts festival in the suburb of Bellevue on the other side of Lake Washington. It was the first sunny day since we'd arrived in Washington and the outdoor festival was a perfect place to be. I've always loved the experience of going from stall to stall never knowing when I'll come across a artistic creation that blows me away. There was also sidewalk chalk for Cleo to play with and a fountain to help her wash away the summer heat and chalk dust. In the distance I could see a rather odd cloud that was shaped like a pyramid. With a start I realized that I was actually looking at the snowcapped peak of an enormous mountain. We had never seen Mt. Rainier in Seattle due to the cloudy weather. From Bellevue it looked almost surreal, a white pyramid floating high in the air while the lower part of the mountain was invisible against the background.
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Half an hour west of Bellevue is Snoqualmie Falls, a powerful 268 foot waterfall with a clear view from an observation deck. The surrounding valley is filled with farms and hiking trails and is one of many pleasant getaways within an hour of Seattle.
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The fractured northwestern coast of Washington is filled with inlets and islands that are reminiscent of the fjords of Norway. If we had had more time we could have explored the Olympic Peninsula, but I didn't regret using that time to visit Portland instead. I considered taking the short ferry to Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound on the way north to Vancouver but ultimately decided not to risk a late arrival. The island has a reputation for being quite scenic and full of wineries so perhaps we'll find our way there some time in the future. We did find one cute roadside market when we pulled off the highway for gas and loaded up on berries one last time before crossing into Canada.
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At this point there was nothing left to do except get back on the interstate to Vancouver. The day we left Seattle had been our best day in Washington. The city had been a marked letdown after the incredible experience in Portland, so we were very glad we hadn't limited our vacation to Seattle as originally planned. Seattle may be a great place to live for all I know, but I really can't recommend it for a family trip and we'll probably never go back. All the things that we travel to experience like a vibrant ethnic culture, beautiful neighborhoods, authentic markets, and interesting architecture were nowhere to be seen. Downtown was a scary, deserted wasteland. Afterwards I wondered if we might have missed something about the city, but every time I've seen any article praising Seattle since then it always dwells on the Pike Place Market and the Space Needle. As far as I'm concerned those are two tourist traps that we could have done without. We still enjoyed ourselves, of course, but I can't imagine what we would have done if we'd had to fill up another day in the city.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:08 Archived in USA Comments (0)

The Legendary Pacific Northwest: Oregon Wine Country

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On Friday morning we had one last amazing Portland brunch and then set off for Sauvie Island, a huge island at the fork of the Columbia and Willamette rivers just northeast of Portland. The island is filled with lakes, trails and beaches but our destination was one of the many private farms offering pick-your-own berries. We already knew from the farmers markets that it was the height of the season for blackberries and raspberries but we were still blown away by the enormous volume of fruit on the vines. Ian was still too small to do much but Cleo immediately got into the excitement of filling her basket and turning raspberries into hats for her fingers.
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No one would mistake the Willamette Valley wine country for Napa but it is regarded as one of the best areas in the world for Pinot Noir. Despite the absence of ostentatious chateaux and Michelin-starred restaurants, this wine region less than an hour from downtown Portland provides beautiful landscapes and warm hospitality. We had the winery we visited to ourselves and sipped Pinot Noir while admiring the rolling hills carpeted with grape vines and grazing land. Our bed and breakfast was a colonial style farmhouse that wouldn't have been out of place in New England.
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After a filling breakfast we drove back to Portland for the Portland Saturday Market. This high energy outdoor market on the bank of the Willamette River was a showplace for a great collection of local artists and craftspeople and also had a live band and plenty of food. As usual, Cleo didn't mind at all being the only one dancing and the band made it clear how much they appreciated her.
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We'd been north to Sauvie Island and south to Oregon wine country, so the only thing left to do was drive west to the Columbia River Gorge. A scenic road called the Historic Columbia River Highway took us on a winding path through the hills and evergreen forests overlooking the majestic Columbia River. The highway is dotted with trailheads that penetrate deep into the Mt. Hood National Forest and offer access to a number of beautiful waterfalls. We weren't about to set off on any hikes with the two little ones and the nanny so we contented ourselves with a view of the only waterfall that was right beside the highway.
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Thoroughly amazed and satisfied with Portland, we set a course north to Seattle. After the last three days I couldn't help wondering why Portland isn't more recognized as one of America's most attractive destinations. With a population under two million, Portland's urban area isn't even one of the twenty largest in the country yet it has more to offer travelers than almost any American city other than New York City or Los Angeles.

1. Cool downtown with riverside park, food truck culture, beautiful Chinese garden
2. Vibrant food scene with many high quality bistros, ethnic restaurants, and gourmet brunch seven days a week
3. Awesome art scene with galleries and art walks in the Pearl and on Alberta Street
4. Immediate proximity to Columbia River Gorge and several state forests with fishing, winter and water sports, and one of America's iconic mountains
5. Washington Park with Japanese Garden, Rose Test Garden, and hiking trails
6. Portland Saturday market
7. Friendly and eclectic natives who don't feel bound by mainstream cultural trends
8. Willamette Valley wine country
9. Great farmers markets with excellent local fruit and produce
10. General upbeat, positive vibe with no depressed or decrepit areas near the central city area.

If all that isn't impressive, Portlanders are just an hour away from the Pacific coast and beaches. It's enough to make one wonder if there's any downside to living in Portland. I couldn't think of one so I started doing a little online research. It turns out people's main complaints are the frequent and heavy rains, high cost of living, traffic, and the steep Oregon state tax. The main issue for me would probably be the state tax since Florida doesn't have one, and after that the weather. Miami gets plenty of rain in the summer and fall but it seems that Portland is on a whole other level during the fall and winter. We were there in July and had beautiful temperate weather without a drop of rain to be seen, which may have biased us a little. In the end we decided that we weren't really so bored with Miami that we needed to transplant ourselves across the country, but six years later we still miss Portland and are looking forward to going back for another taste as soon as we can. One of the best things about traveling is the opportunity to discover unheralded cities that are secretly beautiful and magical, and Portland had proven to be an unexpected epiphany.

Posted by zzlangerhans 05:39 Archived in USA Comments (0)

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