A Travellerspoint blog

An Iberian Exploration: Marrakech

Despite our vigilance on the train we had little warning of our impending arrival in Marrakech. It was dark outside and we didn't realize we had pulled into the station until the train screeched to a halt. We rushed to haul our bags and kids into the corridor with no idea how long it would be before the doors closed. Everyone else who was leaving the train had gotten off in the first few seconds, and there was absolutely no one around to make sure that we all got out together. I got Mei Ling and the kids onto the platform and then began tossing the bags and the stroller furiously after her. In the back of my mind I realized I had absolutely no clue what Mei Ling would do if the train took me onward to God knows where. We had no way of communicating and she didn't even know the name of our hotel. Finally I leaped onto the platform with the last bag and it couldn't have been another two seconds before the train door closed behind me. We had averted disaster by the narrowest of margins. Due to our late arrival in the only dining option was sandwiches from a street cart. Our hotel in the medina was ensconced in a maze of narrow alleys with high walls and it was quite unnerving to hunt for it in the darkness. In the morning the labyrinth was less foreboding but we had to be careful to establish a series of landmarks to be sure of finding our way back to the hotel.

We had expected Marrakech to feel even more remote from Western culture than Fes, but here we were mistaken. As soon as we began our exploration the first morning we found that we were in a city that was very accustomed to European tourism. Much of the merchandise in the markets seemed designed for travelers, especially the hundreds of thousands if not millions of colorful leather slippers that were on prominent display.

The souk was even larger than the ones in Tangier and Fes and the prospect of exploring every inch of it was futile. Everything one could think of was available for purchase, from street food to chameleons. Exuberantly colorful local craftmanship was prominently displayed throughout.

One of the most emblematic sights at the Marrakech souk is the rows of multicolored cones at the many spice shops. No need to wonder what happens to the cones if someone actually wants to buy some of its contents. The cones are purely for show, paper shells coated with glue and a thin layer of spice to advertise the products stored in more conventional bins and jars.

Eventually all travelers find themselves at Jemaa el-Fnaa, a large open square in the heart of the medina. The square was the most distinguishing characteristic of Marrakech for us vs. Tangier and Fes. During the day it was filled with every type of vendor and performer who expected they could make a few dinars from the tourists who flocked to the square and its rooftop cafes. Some women tried to accost us to draw henna tattoos on our hands, but I knew this to be a scam from our guidebook and we refused. They rely on the tourist not wanting to refuse what seems to be a friendly approach from a local and then charge an exorbitant price once the design is completed. We did allow a snake charmer to entertain the kids with his reptiles and watched some acrobats and musicians perform, and we were sure to tip them fairly.

After dark Jemaa el-Fnaa is transformed into a huge open-air food festival filled with barbecued lamb restaurants and snail carts. The lamb was succulent and delicious but the boiled snails were truly an epiphany. There were dozens of these carts arranged in a grid on the square, with the owner standing behind an enormous bowl piled high with plump snails in their shells. Upon receiving a few dinars from a customer he would fill up a bowl and cover them with a steaming, spicy broth. Mei Ling and I loved the taste but by far the biggest snail aficionado was Cleo who kept dragging us back to the carts long after we'd decided to move on to more substantial fare.

The evening entertainment had changed as well. The acrobats and snake charmers were gone, although now there was a guy with an enormous vulture which I allowed him to place on my shoulder. When I felt the bird's talons pressing into my neck my first instinct was to play dead, until I realized that was probably the worst possible thing I could do.

People were also beginning to congregate around a few bands of musicians that were playing lively folk music on guitars and drums. The audiences were almost all local people but they were very welcoming and one young girl took charge of Cleo showing her how to dance and keeping her away from the lantern in the middle of the circle. It felt great to see Cleo laughing and enjoying herself and I made sure to record the moment so she would always be able to hold on to that experience long after she had forgotten the episode.

On our second day in Marrakech we also spent plenty of time exploring the medina and the souk, but eventually grew tired of the endless shops selling leather slippers and handbags. We stole away from the old town to visit one of the restaurants our guidebook recommended where the tables were arranged in a verdant courtyard around a tiled pool. We were joined by the restaurant's pet turtle who enthusiastically consumed lettuce from a dish on the floor while we had our own lunch.

Near the restaurant we stopped by the Jardin Majorelle, Marrakech's luxurious and colorful botanical garden. The vivid cobalt blue color of the buildings is named after the garden's creator, French artist Jean Majorelle. Afterwards we returned to Jemaa el-Fnaa where if anything it was even busier than the previous day.

All too quickly our time in Morocco had come to an end. We had an exhausting day ahead of us with an overnight train back to Tangier followed by an immediate transfer to the ferry and a full day of sightseeing at Gibraltar. It turned out that our decision to extend our visit in Morocco beyond Tangier had been the right one. I'm sure that someday when the kids are all old enough we'll return to visit some of Morocco;s other remarkable cities such as Chefchaouen and Essaouira and perhaps even spend a few days camping in the desert.

Posted by zzlangerhans 05:59 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: Tangier and Fes

The mighty Mediterranean begins meekly enough at the Strait of Gibraltar, where only nine miles separate the continents of Europe and Africa. The shortest ferry departs from the small Spanish town of Tarifa and arrives in the Moroccan port of Tangier just one hour later. Having no appetite to deal with Moroccan city traffic and rural highways after barely making it through Iberia, we left our car in the lot at Tarifa. Mei Ling encountered a group of Chinese tourists in the ferry terminal who were impressed no end by our kids. Soon enough we were on the boat headed to Africa, a first for everyone in the family except me.

Within minutes of arriving in Tangier it was clear that we were in a vastly different place from Europe. It wasn't that the buildings and streets were obviously old, they had been just as old in Lisbon and Cádiz. Everything was just a little bit rougher around the edges. The paint was a little more chipped, the tiles more cracked, the alleys narrower and twistier. We had a sense here that the rules were a little less firm and there was a little less orderliness about daily life. While that feeling may have been just a little intimidating, we quickly saw the innate advantages within the controlled chaos of Morocco. All we had to do was keep walking and exploring the city and the experiences that make travel worthwhile would come to us. The possibilities seemed endless.

We had a traditional hotel in the medina, the labyrinthine historic quarter of the city. Most of the medina was devoted to commercial activity, especially that related to food. It was hard to tell if there was a defined marketplace as food vendors seemed to be everywhere in the old town. The meat, produce and especially the olives were splendid. Eventually we found a restaurant that piqued our interest and had an excellent meal of the Moroccan specialties tagine and bastilla.

In the morning we had breakfast at the hotel and then headed straight back to the medina. On Saturday morning the old town was even busier. I think we must have been through every street and alley in the quarter and even found a terrace with a view over the ocean.

In the morning all the seafood markets were open and they were very busy and energetic. The counters were piled high with huge, exotic fish and spiny lobsters. The fish had the familiar gleam of having been caught early that morning. The fishmongers knew we were only there to look but they were still friendly and welcoming.

The butchers had rows of lambs' heads, viscera hanging from hooks, and even live rabbits. One vendor held a rabbit over the counter for Cleo to pet. Fortunately she was too young to have any idea what was going to happen to it.

There weren't may things that couldn't be found in the bazars and souks of the medina. Aside from things to eat there were beautiful displays of metalwork and ceramics. After some more exploration of the different markets and street foods we were finally ready for a delicious lunch that included many of the most appetizing delicacies we'd seen that morning.

In the afternoon we jumped on a train to Fes, our first experience with intercity public transportation with the kids. Fortunately we had the foresight to leave the large bag and Ian's stroller in the trunk of the car in Spain which made moving around a lot easier, but it was still a little unnerving hustling the kids and the remainder of our luggage into our seats. Cleo provided the entertainment for our compartment during the four hour trip to Fes.

We were glad we decided to explore Morocco beyond Tangier because Fes had a completely different feel to it. Now there were way fewer Europeans and there was a more authentic feel to the old town. We were based in a beautiful riad, a multistory estate home that had been converted into a hotel, and we were just steps away from the iconic Blue Gate to the medina.

The souk began immediately inside the Blue Gate and followed the widest street through the medina, although most of the sidestreets seemed to be devoted to stores selling food and dry goods as well. Eventually we gave up trying to keep track of where we were and went with the flow. As in Tangier, the stalls selling olives and pickles were the most colorful and intoxicating. The snail stalls looked as though they had been literally overrun with the striped gastropods which encrusted the doors and walls along with filling sacks and baskets.

The most exotic food we encountered was camel meat. It wasn't hard to figure out which restaurants sold it as it was generally advertised with a severed camel's head displayed prominently at the entrance. This was before any connection had been made between camels and MERS, so it was probably the first and last time that we'll be eating camel. It was an interesting novelty, but I wouldn't have known I wasn't eating ground beef.

The souk spilled from the covered arcades into the streets and squares. We braved the intermittent drizzle and plodding mules to traverse every branch of the market we could find.

Outside of the souk there wasn't much of interest to us in Fes. There are beautifully-decorated mosques and madrassas in the city but most of them are off-limits to non-Muslims and we had recently been immersed in Moorish design at the Alhambra of Sevilla. We admired the tile work and engravings at the entrance of one madrassa and then pushed on towards the far side of the medina where most of the city's famous tanneries are concentrated. On the way there were plenty of opportunities to appreciate the amazing diversity of Moroccan artisanship.

Some of the tanneries are a thousand years old and their design and techniques have never changed over the course of time. The large courtyards packed with dense arrays of stone vats filled with colorful liquids are a unique sight. From the terraces overlooking the tanneries are amazing views over the top of the medina.

We could have probably returned to the souk a dozen times and found an undiscovered alley or shop each time. However it was time to take our leave of Fes as we still had the city ahead of us whose very name was almost synonymous with markets, Marrakech.

Posted by zzlangerhans 08:45 Archived in Morocco Comments (0)

An Iberian Exploration: Sevilla and Cádiz

After three calm days of small towns we found ourselves back in a major city again. We arrived in Sevilla a little over an hour after crossing the border into Spain. Our hotel in the historic center had advised us that GPS would misdirect us but the detailed instructions they had provided didn't serve us much better. The maze of narrow one-way streets was even more complicated than in Lisbon and a good deal more crowded, but at least there were no winding alleys that deadended at the top of a hill. Eventually we found the hotel and disembarked. Our location couldn't have been better, smack in the middle of Sevilla's pulsating touristic core and a hundred meters from the legendary cathedral.

Once we were settled we couldn't wait to get out and explore. Sevilla's old town manages to accommodate its deluge of tourists very tastefully, providing appealing pedestrian streets and outdoor restaurants without the gaudiness that afflicts many other popular European cities. We realized as much as we tried we couldn't walk more than a block away from the hotel without getting lost, but that was probably the most efficient way to explore the city. At the bank of the Alfonso XIII Canal is the medieval Moorish Torre del Oro. One of the most famous cultural aspects of Sevilla is flamenco and it wasn't long before we came across a performance right on the street.

Although the restaurants in the Casco Antiguo looked appealing their menus and reviews didn't match so we decided to walk a few blocks north to a tapas restaurant that seemed to be a better bet. Here we found Las Setas, a huge wooden sculpture in Plaza de la Encarnación that is formally known as Metropol Parasol but acquired its nickname from its resemblance to a clump of giant mushrooms.

Dinner was good although I've had better tapas in my hometown of Miami. During the night my stomach was very upset and I didn't get much sleep. I'm not in the habit of blaming any gastrointestinal problems on the local food but I'm fairly sure the trouble this time came from eating beef tartare at dinner. I had almost exact same problem after having beef tartare my first day in Paris as well, although I've eaten the raw meat dish countless times at home without any problem. This time I learned my lesson and never again tried beef tartare in Europe. In the morning I was still queasy but not enough to get in the way of walking to Mercado de Triana for breakfast. Sevilla is a great city for food markets but unfortunately at this time I hadn't developed my travel research skills extensively and we only had one on our list. On the long walk to Triana we passed by Sevilla's brightly-painted bullfighting ring, known as the Real Maestranza.

Crossing the Puente de Isabel II into Triana we might have been forgiven for thinking we were crossing the famed River Guadalquivir, the only major navigable river in Spain. In fact it was the Canal de Alfonso XIII that runs along the old course of the river before it was diverted away from the city center to avert flooding. A similar phenomenon occurs with the Alte Donau Canal in central Vienna which many mistake for the Danube. Welcoming us to Triana was the Capilla Virgen del Carmen. Although reminiscent of 16th century Mudéjar architecture, the colorfully-tiled chapel was built less than a century ago.

The two hundred year old Mercado de Triana is located at the foot of the bridge. The current version of the market was inaugurated in 2001 and blends modernity and tradition in a very pleasing manner. I was still feeling the effects of the previous night's gastronomic misadventure and even the appetizing sights of the market couldn't awaken my appetite, but Mei Ling did quite well with the Sevillano specialty of stewed snails.

We didn't stay long in Triana because we still had the city's major sights ahead of us. Seville's cathedral is reminiscent of Spain's other majestic Gothic cathedrals but what sets it apart is its sheer size. At the time of its construction it replaced the Hagia Sophia as the largest cathedral in the world and it still holds that title, although there are now two basilicas which are larger. The cathedral stands alone in a large plaza without any other significant buildings to detract from its magnitude. The vast edifice has fifteen different entrances, each with a unique ornate design. In front of one entrance is a replica of the Giraldillo weather vane that crowns the belltower. Inside the cloister is an orderly array of the famed Seville orange trees surrounding a central fountain.

It's just a two minute walk from the cathedral to the other star of the Casco Antiguo, the Real Alcázar. Although this castle has a Moorish appearance similar to other Spanish Alcazárs, most of the structure was built after the Christian reconquest of Andalusia in the Mudéjar architectural style. Inside the castle the exquisite details in the cavernous rooms and courtyard are breathtaking. The Celebration Room has enormous tapestries and colorful tile designs that extend seven feet up the walls.

Behind the castle a lengthy loggia extends into the gardens, allowing visitors an elevated view of the beautiful landscaping without exposing themselves to the elements. The exterior of the loggia is encrusted with mortar outcroppings designed to give the appearance of the wall of a cave, hence the name of Grotto Gallery.

We spent the majority of our time at the Alcázar exploring the extensive gardens but I'm sure we only discovered a fraction of the many separate sections of the estate. Overall I would be hard-pressed to compare the Alcázar unfavorably to the Palace of Versailles, and it was certainly much less crowded and onerous. Cleo was thrilled to get out of her stroller and we even found a hedge maze which she thought was hilarious.

On our final morning in Sevilla my stomach was settled so we decided to return to Mercado de Triana. This time we had identified our favorite seafood vendor and we had a plan. We bought whole sea urchins and cut them open and ate them right at the stall for an appetizer, then had a full meal at the best of the little restaurants in the market.

As we were on our way out of town we had more time to explore the neighborhood of Triana. Triana was originally a separate city from Sevilla and maintained its independence until the first bridge to be built across the Guadalquivir made Sevilla's expansion inevitable. Few tourists make it this far from the Casco Antiguo, making Triana an excellent spot to absorb an authentic Andalusian urban vibe. There is plenty of energy in the streets, but the sidewalk cafes are filled with locals and the colorful building facades are more representative of neighborhood pride than commercial hustle.

One of my regrets from the trip is that we didn't stop in Jerez for a few hours en route to Cádiz. Since that trip we've made a regular practice of stopping over in cities that we otherwise couldn't have fit into our itinerary and it has worked out quite well. I looked at Jerez a little more closely after we returned home and it was clear that we shouldn't have missed it. We also managed to drive past Ronda, one of the most uniquely beautiful cities in Spain, so I have no doubt at least one more trip to Andalusia lies in our future.

Cádiz isn't one of the most well-known Spanish cities but it has several unique characteristics. It is the oldest city in Spain, having been founded by the Phoenicians who gradually migrated from the Middle East across northern Africa before crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. The city is also practically an island, being connected to the mainland by a narrow strip barely wide enough to accommodate a beach and a highway. The strip may technically be a tombolo, a sandbar that connects an island to the mainland, but I was unable to find any reference to corroborate that theory.

The modern portion of the city that is closer to the mainland is largely composed of unattractive block housing and has little of interest to travelers aside from a beach. The landscape changes dramatically on the other side of the old city wall remnant known as Puertas de Tierra. Here in the Santa María barrio the streets become narrow cobblestone alleys that feel like canyons between solid walls of antiquated four-story buildings. Further towards the end of the peninsula the streets of the historic district become mercifully wider and there are some open squares to alleviate the claustrophobia, but overall the impression of the Casco Antiguo is one of extreme density of buildings and population. I think it would have felt quite dystopian if it wasn't so beautiful.

Our hotel in the center of the Casco Antiguo had no parking, so after depositing the bags I found the municipal lot which had been constructed to fit as many cars as possible into the smallest possible space, thereby leaving almost no margin for error. I scraped the side of the car while foolishly attempting to maneuver into a space front-end first instead of reversing, which infuriated me after we had survived our trial-by-fire in Lisbon without so much as a scratch. I put aside my annoyance with myself so that we could enjoy our evening walk around the historic center.

A bright, sunny morning chased away the ominousness of the old town. Our focus was on the Mercado Central, renowned for its fresh Atlantic seafood. The singular market was designed in Neoclassical style by native son architect Torcuato Benjumeda in the early 19th century. Produce stalls fill arcades arranged around the central market hall, which has the appearance of a ancient temple supported by Roman columns. Within the hall we weren't disappointed by the beautiful display of fish and crustaceans.

In the arcades surrounding the market we found vendors selling bags of beautiful, plump live snails. Our appetites thoroughly awakened, we found a seafood restaurant where they agreed to grill the fish and boil the mantis shrimp we had bought in the market. We regretfully took our leave of Cadíz but not before making a reservation for the night after our stay in Morocco for the Carnival celebration.

Posted by zzlangerhans 06:38 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

(Entries 36 - 40 of 216) « Page .. 3 4 5 6 7 [8] 9 10 11 12 13 .. »