Monday, March 7, 2011

Vila Real for Valentines

We don't take many train rides in Europe, as bus tickets are usually cheaper and we have the extra time on our hands. That being said, we enjoy going by train very much and our guidebook recommended  a line from Porto into the Douro Valley for it's scenery alone. We thought we'd take the train into Vila Real and use the town as a base to take the train further along the line the next day. The train ride was as advertised and Matt and I were completely enchanted as we rumbled by our lush but mountainous surroundings. Our neighbors for the train ride were three Brazilians who were enjoying not only the view but a bottle of Vinho Verde a piece, sipping and corking by turns. I always forget I can drink in public here. Although it isn't conscious, force of habit seems to stop me from taking advantage. The rail lines have been cut off past Regua for repairs so unfortunately we had to take a short bus ride to Vila Real. Our plans for visiting the other towns further up the line evaporated and I do regret it. However, Vila Real held plenty of charm with it's amazing variety.

Vila Real is a small town of smaller town neighbors and climbs up both sleep inclines that lead step by terraced step into the Douro river. The river is small at this far eastern point and the town is dominated by several bridges that cross it, both high and low. Matt and I walked down a trail tucked into the side of the cliff facing the river and marveled at the ancient looking stone houses clinging to the terraces. Young couples lounge on the rocks and enjoy the view with a beer. Wherever space allows there are vines climbing posts and you feel that time might not exist on these slopes but that people most definitely do. But this kind of silly make-believe only lasts until you look to the west where a giant front-lit shopping mall dominates the view by day and night.

The river roars below it all and Matt and I spent our first evening walking around and watching people go about their routine. A gentleman was on his patio terrace striking stones into the right shape for his rock wall that separated him from the chasm. The shoemaker hammered in a small shed as we walked past him and onto a new red bridge. On the lower and older stone bridge the cars took advantage of the extra space and parked to the side. Old ladies leaned out their windows as the streets fell empty and dark.

Well, I don't recall now all that happened in Vila Real. What do you call house wine when it comes in an unlabeled green bottle, is of passing fine quality, and too much is perhaps ordered only because you think a large bottle simply can not cost so little? True house wine? The food was nice, I especially enjoyed a grilled octopus at a local churrasqueria, although Matt and I become a little tired of steak (although some of the most delicious) and chicken cutlets or grilled fish. We are still escaping from time to time to the odd Italian joint to liven up the variety.

We celebrated Valentines day with a pastry from our favorite shop in town and fruit juice and a Taekwondo tournament at the mall. It attracted quite the crowd. I tried to order the local tripe dish that night but no luck again. Soon, soon.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Leaving Lisbon, Bound for Northern Portugal

The highlight of Lisbon for Matt might have been the castle situated on top of one of the seven great hills of Lisbon. It took us a while to find which road took us to the entrance side of the castle walls but once we were in we enjoyed the palace gardens, the old Moorish fortifications and the small archaeological exhibit. As for me, the grilled sardines were grand and I liked seeing the young people busy hanging out in squares and drinking. We both are glad we put time aside to go see the museum housed in a semi-restored cathedral that took terrible damage in a great earthquake. Quite a few royal tombs were still maintained inside and had great carvings of boar hunts and etc.

We liked Lisbon, but knew it was time for a slower pace outside of the big city. We wanted to give Braga a try and heard of the exquisite Bom Jesus cathedral just out of town. Braga was a fine university town, full of energy if you knew the right spot. Also a bit of a residential wasteland if you walked the wrong way. We stayed at a very affordable private room that is let out by the Methodist Church that operates on the ground floor. I enjoyed the change of pace from the regular hostels but it was a little far from the bustling center and finding dinner was a little bit of a pain from time to time. That being said, the people were very friendly, the University student joints were cheap and delicious, filled with the basic grilled fish or meat or breaded fish or meat fare and Matt and I both had a great time watching the soccer games alongside everyone else. We went and saw Bom Jesus later on in our stay and if Braga was a little more of a pain than we were anticipating, Bom Jesus was spectacular. Take-out was big here and you could get a mix of barbecued meats that would feed two and more for very little. Becoming at last tired of gastronomically somewhat simple fare, a restaurant that seemed perpetually closed finally opened for the weekend and we leapt at the opportunity. We dined sumptuously on gratined Cod and aoli, thinly sliced steak that was incredibly flavorful and still medium rare and an entire bottle of the local Vinho Verde. Smoother and a little sweet, this green wine was easy going down and I'd like to have it again. Braga sits right next to all sorts of great wine territory. Didn't have a bad glass, but the green wine was by far the best.

From Braga we wanted something a bit more picturesque and booked a train ticket that went from Porto to Villa Real. The track followed the spectacular Douro Valley and it's river. Matt and I loved watching the scenery go by as the vineyard owners were out pruning their vines for the coming spring. Just around the corner in Portugal. We will save Villa Real for the next post.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

This Almost Got Posted Yesterday

But the wifi on the bus dropped off at the critical "send" juncture.

So, we left to go to Drogheda, had a fine time with the buses, had trouble finding our hostel, were not too happy with the state of it but it being to only affordable option in the town kind of limited us and then we stayed out at the pubs because we didn't really want to spend much time there. The owner wasn't in, it was being half-run by the maintenance man, the courtyard was a junkyard and the sheets were falling apart and it was very cold. Which probably sounds more terrible than it was but not by much. We really wanted to see nearby Newgrange though so we stayed out and enjoyed the pubs that night as Drogheda is a fine little place that is seeing some growth, came back to sleep and then were out early next morning to see if we could catch a bus to Newgrange. But it was Sunday so no buses to speak of. We hiked it which was a pretty brisk way to start the morning but the walk was fine, if a bit long. We were starving when we got there so we grabbed a soup and sandwich and then it was time for our tour.

The last time I wrote this I gave you a nice little report on all things ancient burial grounds in Northern Europe. This time you get well... Matt enjoyed seeing it and I thought it was very nice the second time around. I'd like to see more excavations done of all those other little hills in the area but I guess there's only so much time in an archaeologist's day. We took a taxi back into town and had dinner at a sad Americana bar we were recommended by the taxi driver. I ordered nachos out of some twisted desire to be let down. Salsa is apparently analogous to spaghetti sauce. Ah well. We went to bed and headed out really early the next morning to catch our flight to Faro, Portugal. So warm! well, once we got there. In between was a lot of waiting around to switch to a plane that could seal and things... but eventually, Portugal!

We got a great deal on a pay by day studio apartment in Albufeira, 150 meters from the beach. It was a perfect place to get some sun in and our clothes dried so quickly! We enjoyed the cheaper accommodations and food, but quickly realized that it was still a little too cold to swim in the ocean and the place was too empty for our tastes. We found people eventually but they were all British retirees escaping the cold weather just like us. Still hoping for some night entertainment, we went to the busiest place in our part of town which was full of a variety of people but terrible ballad-type karaoke and Sinatra. Sometimes both in one! So we cut out of town a day or two after that experience and have been enjoying Lisbon ever since. It's a great city full of things to do, beautiful, warm, loud energetic locals, and just a generally laid-back kind of vibe. My biggest complaint is that everything looks like you could read it and speak in a Spanish accent but Portuguese is a different language with a different pronunciation method and I still haven't gotten a grasp on it really. We try, but it makes you a bit wistful for Spain.

Yesterday Matt and I toured the southern neighborhood with it's large spacious avenues. Our hostel is much better than the last one and close to the action. There's a neighborhood in town devoted to all things eating and drinking until the sun comes up and youth tour the streets, beer in hand having a great time. Matt and I tried to do the local thing but I don't think I can last until 6:00 in the morning and we had to throw in the towel at a measly 1:30. Wish us better stamina in the future, or give us some pointers.

Having a good time but miss you all. Also, I know Matt sent an e-mail but happy birthday Luke!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Beating the Icy Fields

Leaving a city is an easy thing. How quickly you leave the city can be quite a different matter. We left our hotel in Athlone around mid morning, helped ourselves to the continental breakfast and headed to our next destination of Kilnaborris House in Banagher. We found the correct road to take out of town thanks to a city center map next to Athlone Castle and began to walk. When hitchhiking it's best to walk to the road that leads to your destination and then start thumbing, otherwise someone might pull over take you one mile and dump you at your turn off. Not the ideal situation. The walk to the turn off was a bit further than we anticipated (I don't think that map was to scale) and along the way a professor at the Tech College gave us the directions we needed. He then went even further, got in his car and drove us to the turn off we needed because he knew how long of a distance it was. I'm pretty sure he saved us at least twenty minutes.

When the professor dropped us off, he advised we stay there at the intersection and hitchhike there as the road ahead was narrow and curvy. Colleen and I did as he suggested for about ten minutes, then decided to start walking. (Would you rather pick up someone who is standing still, or someone who is walking determinedly to their destination? This is a debate between us that is still unresolved). So we walked and the further down the road we went, the more we realized our lives may have been more jeopardized with each step we took. A couple of times we had to step off into the hedge to let large trucks go by. Once a big truck didn't even bother to move over, despite the lack of oncoming traffic. I think my nose was three feet from being roadkill.

About thirty-forty minutes later, we decided to stop at a place where a driveway into a field provided a safe place to hitch. About five minutes passed before a car pulled over. We were picked up by a welder on his way to a job, but had to stop at his house first. We were in no rush, so that was fine by us. He invited us in for tea, where his place was not as filthy as Jimmy's in Glen Colum Cille, but probably will be in about 30 years. We continued on and felt our way to the Kilnaborris House.

Michael and Louise are very warm people, easy to get along with, great parents and busy between a dwindling business, an aspiring PhD, a second business getting underway and four children. They handle it all remarkably smoothly. They make it look easy. Our job while we were there was to turn the flower patches, and weed the herb garden for 5 hours a day. Turning the dirt was more difficult than usual as the ground was frozen at least one inch deep. We felt like our five hours a day were not being used efficiently as it took us to three days to get all the patches done, when usually it might have taken one.

We ate dinner with the family every night, and cooked for them on our final night there. All the kids are very friendly towards each guest, and their youngest daughter, around age 5, couldn't get enough attention. She attached herself to Colleen, which I'm sure she didn't mind at all. I would play games with their eldest, and got used to the feeling of being shot in Call of Duty when we played against each other.

Michael drove us to Ballinsloe so we could catch the bus to Galway. Galway has been an entertaining city, with incredible structures and lovely walks along the River Corrib. We spent some time in Garvey's Bar last night, wrote in our journal and listened to a few comedians. Some were okay, some forgot their bits and walked off the stage. I guess that's show business. Today we shopped a little (finally a place that sells men's hats and gloves) explored the city thanks to a lady who was inspired to paint by the local surroundings of Galway and ate the best fish and chips in town.

Tomorrow we head to Drogheda so we can see the ruins at Newgrange. I'm looking forward to them. Anything bigger and older than Stonehenge should be pretty cool.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Not Exactly Tourist Season

We had a great time in Dublin but the city is a little busy for two still jet-lagged travelers. We booked two bus tickets to Donegal Town in the county Donegal set up on a peninsula in the northwest. I had visited here once with Kelsey when we were on our way to Gleanncholmcille a few years ago. The weather was great up until we walked to our hostel but even then, just a light rain. We stayed with Linda at the Independent Hostel 1 km out of town and somehow I think a name change might make for good marketing. It was a cute house set up on a little hill and Linda had a peat fire going for us when we arrived and served us hot chocolate. We chatted for a little bit about the winter and the bad economy until she headed to her family's wing of the house for dinner with her husband. She even upgraded us to a private room.

We grabbed some sandwiches in town for dinner and had a couple of pints before turning in early, trying to kick the last of the jet lag. I slept and slept until Matt gave up on waiting around 11. I'm glad he woke me. After that, I think I was pretty much cured. We still wake up at around 4 am every morning but we're getting back to sleep sooner and sooner. We were planning on leaving for Gleanncholmcille that day but the bus service is spotty on Sundays and we resolved to stay another day in Donegal Town. When we told Linda we'd like to stay another night she recommended we hitchhike. I have always considered it but knew Matt wouldn't be confortable doing it so I had never brought it up. We were assured that it was still common in Ireland and Matt seemed willing.

We spent what was left of the morning eating a triple-decker tomato chicken sandwich in town before heading out. Linda recommended a spot for us to stand and we gave that a try for a little while but gave up and started walking and thumbing. We had probably walked about a kilometer when it started to rain. We were pretty well committed by this point and the rain wasn't bad. We could see the cloud break ahead. But it turned out for the best. A nice old man picked us up in the rain and we chatted as he took us 1/3 of the way we needed to go. We thumbed it again from there and were picked up right away by a middle aged man who was going most of the way. It was a really great day for a drive, sunny with big clouds drifting by and we stopped by Killybeg's beach to get a view of Sligo across Donegal bay. He didn't mind the scenic drive so he took us the rest of the way into the Glen as it is affectionately called. He dropped us off in town and we took off to the hostel that was given glowing recommendations in the guidebook Jesse got us for Christmas. It is actually built into the cliffside and has great views of the beach, but it seems the host has fallen ill and it is locked up while she is away. We flagged down a driver and asked him about accommodation and he mentioned another hostel. It was also locked. We asked for accommodation down at the Gaelic school and Liam called over to the second locked hostel. He got a hold of Charlie on the phone. Turns out that Charlie had locked himself out of his own business and was waiting on a locksmith. I'm not sure how far out a locksmith is from the Glen... but it is a place with far more sheep than people so I'm thinking it might take some time. Liam called to the local bed and breakfast, but Margaret was out with her daughter for her birthday. Her son, Jordan, offered to set up our room though and Liam gave us a lift down to the house. Lodging at last.

We spent the rest of the night down at Biddy's, one of the three pubs in a tiny little town where were met a committed old bachelor who had always lived in Donegal county. It was interesting to hear his stories but we got wrangled into coming to his house for a cup of tea. It was absolutely filthy inside, but he was so happy to have visitors over, we chocked down a little tea from a couple of grimy mugs and looked at some old photos. We made our excuses eventually and were happy to be home and to bed. I don't regret it though, so far no ill effects from the bit of the chicken sandwiches he forced on us.

The next morning we enjoyed a traditional Irish breakfast of black pudding, white pudding, three sausages, and egg, and a slice of ham butchered in such a way that there is bacon on the end. All protein and a little toast or brown bread on the side. I tucked away some of it for lunch. We said goodbye and enjoyed the scenery as we hiked up out of the valley. The only bus of the day had been long gone. Not many cars were around so I imagined we were up for a hike but a nice old lady picked us up in no time. We saw the most beautiful shifting of a gossamer sunlight between clouds over some of the most breathtaking scenery, not only green, but very stark and lovely. We were planning on going to see the Slieve League cliffs and she decided to take us most of the way there. It was a great walk up to see them and the view was much more enjoyable that way I think.

There was no hitching back into the nearest town, Carrik, which was about 8 km away as there are few houses and fewer cars on the road by the cliffs. More sheep though. Margaret from the B and B had recommended the pub in town for lodging so we were glad to see it in Carrik but they don't provide it in January and February. We met a nice old fisherman in the pub who was from the Glen. He told us about when he used to fish on Canada's west coast. We have a standing invitation to stay with him.

So we took off once again, and I felt a little discouraged. The nearest town with a decent bus system was Killybegs, an all day walk away and so many cars were passing us by. A van pulled over when we were not too far out of town, and it was Margaret! She was taking her kids and one of her longer lodgers into to town for shopping. Her young sun got into the back and we had a great talk all the way to Killybegs. She dropped us off right at the tourist info center who called around for us for places to stay. The hostel was closed but the hotel in town wasn't a terrible price and I felt a head cold coming into full swing. I enjoyed a great long bath and we had a fine dinner at the hotel. Chicken Goujons are apparently chicken fingers but come with a sweet chili sauce. Matt had the cod fish and chips. Killybegs is a fishing town and it tasted great.

Today we took an early bus into the middle of the country. We arrived in Athlone at 2 pm and I really like the town. It is larger and has a huge modern shopping center and seems busy but with the old charm still present. We had trouble finding our hotel - no hostels here - and an older soldier walked us most of the way. My head cold is stronger today but I'm hoping this might be the end. From here we go to Banagher, just south of here, to work for our room and board at a couple's stable turned self catering house rental location. They say they would like some gardeners for a while and I think we'll enjoy it. The weather isn't very cold at all. Wish us luck!

Friday, January 14, 2011


Arrived in Dublin yesterday after uneventful flights. Many movies were watched. We've started off on this thing for real now and I'm excited. We started with a whimper when we arrived in Dublin, sleepless and with a full day ahead of us. We had a carvery pub lunch, a bit like a buffet, bought a computer case as our other sorry case for it was already slipping out the shoulder strap, and took a nap. We were both happy to be here, and because it was off season we had our hostel dorm to ourselves. We woke refreshed enough to take a roundabout walk (I might have led us astray) and settled down at a nearby pub for a couple of Guinness. Matt tried the Smithwicks but wasn't too keen.

Today Matt went in to see the book of Kells and it was a fortunate day as the pages are turned every day and both of his pages were turned to the full page illuminations. Beats the small doodle I got to see last time I came through this town! We saw a wonderful collection of illuminated manuscripts and such in a museum nearby and then spent far too much time looking for the Guinness Storehouse. Dubliners are terrible at giving directions, but it's hard to hold it against them, they are so eager. Matt figured out that the huge building in the skyline was probably it, despite my reservations. We had a great time going through the presentations. I especially liked the display room concerning coopers (cask-makers). Hilary had told me before that it was a dying art and I can see why. The labor is long, the skill is exacting. Their long leather aprons to protect their legs are really charming though. At the end of the tour we enjoyed a pint at the Gravity Bar, a 360 degree panorama bar at the top. It was very fun and we stayed till an early closing time. We wanted traditional pub food for dinner but everything seemed to be beer only. Too busy for food I guess. So we settled for some cheesy American 50's diner. Oh well. Much love to everyone!

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Capitol Building is Way Cool

Shawn and Sandi had invited us up for the very cool and swanky Pretentious Thanksgiving and Matt swore to them if he had to quit his job to come, he would be there. Sean replied appropriately that that would be very pretentious. So a couple of days after we came back from Montana, Matt and I flew out to Raleigh, NC. We visited with Luke for the night and borrowed their car to visit Jesse the next day. We were able to meet his new girlfriend which we liked quite a bit and hope to see more of her in the future. The next morning Matt and I needed to catch a train up to DC to get to Shawn's house and Jesse drove the car back to the Smithinger house. We lost some time on the drive an barely made it to the train, but all's well etc. Matt loved riding on the train and I have to say, there was an extreme feeling of leisure. Comfort-wise it seems the best way to travel.

We were warned half-way through the ride that Alexandria would be the best stop for us to get off on and I think I confused the lady who was counting heads when we got off too early. We took the Metro the rest of the way and Sandi and Merissa were nice enough to come and pick us up. We had the best time hanging out with everyone. Emmelyn, Shawn and Sandi's daughter is getting cuter by the day. Sandi is pregnant with her second and was a cooking and preparing powerhouse for the party. She was amazing.

As for the event itself, the food was amazing. The tobacco course was really enjoyable, the salad was perfectly light, the sweet potato souffle was flavorful and creamy, the smoked turkey was moist, and the desert looked and tasted great. The wine (and one pumpkin beer) pairings with each course were so fun and I really liked seeing so many of the girls from the wedding. One by one they went upstairs to get in bed with Merissa and we teased Luke about it. He tried to look brave enough for the task. Matt and I were piled on top by the end, Merissa's thigh makes a great pillow.

Shawn and Sandi were nice enough to let us stay for a few days after Pretentious Thanksgiving to see DC. We toured around with Kyle, a friend of the Gremminger family, and saw Arlington National Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, the White House, Lafayette Park with it's tame squirrels, the Vietnam Memorial, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, The National Botanical Gardens, the Library of Congress, and the Capitol Building. I'm so glad I saw everything I did. It was all very interesting and I especially enjoyed the conservatory in the botanical gardens. Apparently when someone gets caught smuggling rare plant species into the states, the US just gives them to the conservatory. There were all sorts of amazing flowers there. I'm sure if I knew more about the different types of rare botanicals I would have been even more impressed. They had the very rare and endangered Ghost Orchid just sitting there, no big deal. You might remember it from the movie Adaptation. I'm thinking that instead of going through all that trouble to get it from the dangerous swamps, they might have tried sneaking it out under their coat from the conservatory. The staff was busy anyway setting up some sort of Christmas event they were shutting down for.

Poor Kyle had visited the Library of Congress' lobby before but it was an entrance that was not particularly nice looking. He assumed it all looked as institutional and drab so he wasn't so hot on visiting it with us. Turns out the Library of Congress has an awesome entrance and a not so awesome entrance. He was so surprised and pleased with the awesome Jefferson side. It was breathtaking. Pictures will be posted to do it justice.

The whole construction of the library was kind of interesting. Congress didn't see much of a need for a huge library but they had been basically forced to take on Jefferson's entire book collection. They kept it in the Capitol building. It didn't grow much until the librarian at the time tricked them into putting the copyright office in the library which adds a copy of every book that gets a copyright. The dude wanted his own building, you can just tell. So when the little library room in the Capitol was overflowing with books, he asked for money to build a larger building. Smart guy. But he died and someone else had to build it. They weren't given a ton of funds though. They really could only afford to build a decent structure. Any extra embellishment wasn't fitting in the budget. So they took a chance and went around to artists and sculptors of the time and said, "Look, we can't pay you. But we're building the nation's monument to learning and you want to be in on that. Do the patriotic thing and work for us for free. They really didn't expect it to work, but it totally did. The interior of that building is fabulous. It looks like there were loads of money thrown at it. Turns out the building finished under budget and ahead of schedule. The only national construction project that ever has, they said. So they used the extra to throw some money the artisan's way. Anyway, I liked the story and those rooms were breathtaking. I appreciate the hard work.

The Tea Party was near the White House.
We left a couple of days later for New York. We made last minute plans to have real Thanksgiving with Matt's family down in Atlanta, so we had time to kill. Sean and Sandi were amazing and we loved seeing DC. Thanks guys!