Around Lisbon

Today, some day-to-day images from wandering around Lisbon. The city is built on seven hills, and streets and sidewalks in the older areas of town are often narrow and cobbled. You can hear cars coming a long way off, but fortunately for us our apartment is in a very quiet area. Vehicles need special passes to enter it and usually streets are traffic-free and used as additional sidewalk space or as a yard. In places where sidewalks are wider, the pavers show their artistic side.

Sidewalk stone patterns.

We walk almost everywhere and get a decent amount of exercise just going to the grocery or butcher. Staircases are incredibly common, and funiculars and elevators move people up steeper hills, though tickets are relatively expensive. In older areas, streets that do allow cars wind around and rarely follow anything resembling a grid pattern; wandering around and getting lost is a good way to spend an afternoon.

The most popular mode of transit for tourists seems to be the Carris trams that run around the old town. They look as if they came directly from the 1920s and rattle around on their tracks between some of the major sites.

It was interesting to discover that old buildings, or at least their outer walls, are not torn down, even when they are gutted inside. Structures are close enough together that walls are shared; it is easier to remodel later than to start from scratch and worry about the neighbors having structural problems in the interim. Even empty buildings are poetic looking; mosses and weeds grow from edges of missing roofs as the walls slowly crumble.

Hilly staircases, side streets, abandoned building.

One of the fancier areas to grab a meal out is in the waterfront district. The Mercado da Ribeira has been remodeled from just a farmer’s market selling fresh produce and seafood into a major foodie center with chefs and restaurants from around Lisbon showcasing local meals. It is a little more expensive than many small eateries, but the selection is amazing; there is no way to try everything, even with a month in town. A dish I particularly enjoyed there was quail and mushroom risotto; it helped to warm me up after a chilly day of walking.

Overall the food here is just as tasty, though not as spicy, as in Southeast Asia. Local favorites are egg-based pastries, fresh cheeses and yogurts, oranges, and seafood of all kinds. We’ve also eaten horse for the first time, it was similar to bison and really tender. Maybe Ikea was on to something with their meatballs? And for drinking: inexpensive wine. The “expensive” bottle of wine we purchased was almost 6 euro; most are under 3 euro, which is why don’t feel bad bringing home a new bottle to try every time we go out!

Streetcar, the Mercado da Ribeira, gateway from the Rio Tejo.

Lisbon is covered in art, but many museums and churches don’t allow photos inside. Just imagine lots of gilt-framed paintings and statues of Mary, Jesus, and the Catholic saints, as well as all sorts of golden crosses, celebrations of naval power, and art brought back from colonies around the world.

Four miscellaneous arts.

Lisbon is justifiably famous for its centuries-old tradition of covering buildings in patterned and painted tiles. There are hundreds of designs and they can make any street feel like a work of art.

Building tiles and one elephant trying to stay camouflaged.

Lisbon has been a welcoming and fun city to explore, I can’t believe Portugal wasn’t higher on my radar earlier. Fortunately, we will be leaving behind more things to see, so when we return there will be new explorations waiting. We head to Barcelona in just a few days; the final main sight we plan to see in Lisbon will be the palace at Mafra, with its famous library, it has been something I’ve been looking forward to all month.



Somehow I never heard of Sintra until I began researching the region around Lisbon. Unlike Neuschwanstein in Germany, the castles and palaces at Sintra do not have the instant recognition and Disney associations, but they are just as breathtaking. I think I have new favorite castles.

From Lisbon, it was a 45 minute train ride to the end of the line at Sintra. Just around the corner from the station was a city bus that is purposely routed on a loop to stop at the main tourist sights. One of the main attractions about the area for the palace-builders was the forested hills; the road up is steep and windy enough that the bus had to back up to turn corners and had rear view mirrors that were more of a suggestion than functional (presumably because getting torn off on trees and other vehicles is a way of life).

Our first stop was the Moorish Castle, which looks out over the surrounding hills and plains all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Looking down to the National Palace of Sintra and the Atlantic beyond, very castley towers, moss-covered crenellations, Pena Palace on the next hill.

The Moorish Castle is a set of ruins that has roots at least as far back as the 1000s, and was added to and expanded by successive generations. Much of what is now standing was reconstructed in the 18oos by King Ferdinand II, who loved the idea of romantic palaces and ruins. It acted as a sort of fairytale escape with gardens and trees planted among the rocks and outer walls.

A real, live, and slightly angry black swan; in the Moorish Castle cistern; example of how rocks were broken – holes were drilled and wooden planks placed in them, then the wood was soaked with water and the expansion split the rock.

Set on a high hill and looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, February was not the best time to visit, but there were fewer leaves on the trees to obstruct views and fewer people. The ocean felt much closer at the Castle than in Lisbon, and the sea breeze was a constant during our visit. The trees with wind-honed branches reminded us of similar looking ones near the Washington coast. Of course, even with the chill part 1 of lunch was a chocolate Cornetto, though this was mostly because I wanted to see the ice cream vending machine in action.

The same bus took us uphill to the neighboring Pena Palace where part 2 of lunch was a lemon pastry. Most of this palace is more recent than the Moorish Castle, and it was actually used for a few years as a royal retreat in the mid-1800s.

It is the happiest palace I’ve ever seen. Sections of the building are painted in bright yellow, pale blue, and rust red, and others are covered in ornate tiles. There are towers, turrets, long entry tunnels, arches, and porches. Like Neuschwanstein, some of the features are a little faked – close up it looks akin a theme-park castle rather than a building to be taken seriously. But still, if central heating, a dishwasher, and wi-fi could be put in, I’d probably try to move in tomorrow. There were great views all around, and porches to take advantage of the sun at all times of day.

Pena Palace, statuary and tiles above some of the gates.
Closer to one of the towers, spikes on a decorative turret, from a view in the gardens.

Of course, the inside is just as ostentatious as the outside. The palace was built around the ruins of a monastery; an interior cloister was preserved and rooms added around it. While some of the more important rooms have mosaic or tile ceilings, many other are simply painted to give the impression of carved stone.

The interior cloister, and bright decoration in some of the castle’s rooms.

Not all the furniture is original, but all of it is museum-worthy. The old wardrobes and desks represent the best craftsmanship of the time and I would love to own any of them. However, seating has gotten decidedly more comfortable in the last two hundred years; stiff-backed leather chairs and couches with oak arms would not be good for relaxing.

Leather chair, the small dining room, and the chapel altar.

There are acres of gardens below the Palace, and we spent part of the afternoon walking the trails, happy to do something that resembled woodland hiking. There were a few small structures that served as picnic areas and viewpoints, as well as an active farm with horses and goats. A row of duck ponds filled a valley, and one of them had a pair of black swans feeding in it. Honestly, I didn’t think black swans were real until I saw these.

There are several other castles in the area, including some we could see, but I can only take so much royalness in one day. We will have to see the rest on another trip, and maybe in summer when hiking and biking in the area is less subject to cold wind.

Carmo Ruins and Cemiterio dos Prazeres

The sun came back for part of this week, so we headed downhill to the Carmo Ruins and Archaeological Museum. The Church of Santa Maria do Carmo was partially destroyed in the 1755 Lison earthquake but the main pillars and arches managed to stay upright as the rest of the church collapsed around them. A reconstruction was begun but halted in the 1830s. The ruins have since become a memorial to the victims and a reminder of the destructive earthquake.

The Church’s remaining arches, a newer statue, front of the church where the rose window was.

The remaining structure is stark; backed by bright blue sky it makes for beautiful photographs that doesn’t do the height of it justice. I’m not sure there are too many ways to take an uninteresting picture inside.

Sarcophagus in the library and the side arches.

There is a small archaeological museum in the partially reconstructed chapels at the front of the church, it features arrowheads and ancient pottery all the way through a couple of royal tombs from the 1700s. In addition to old and rare books, the library has two Peruvian mummies and an Egyptian sarcophagus that is showing its age.

The Carmo ruins.

Keeping with the general theme of mortality, I also visited the Cemiterio dos Prazeres. It is almost a literal city of the dead; unlike most cemeteries I’ve seen, many graves here are above ground and housed in family tombs.

A particularly house-looking tomb, firefighter’s memorial, one of the cemetery’s streets.

Each tomb is unique, but the structures often follow a similar pattern: there are one or two tiers of shelves for coffins, sometimes a small altar in the middle of the back wall; a front door of decorative wrought iron keeps out unwanted visitors. Many doors have glass behind the metalwork and those without curtains reveal the wooden or stone coffins inside, often covered in lace shrouds.

Purchasing a plot here isn’t forever; after a certain amount of unpaid rent, the tomb is considered abandoned and the bodies moved elsewhere. The building that housed the caskets is then demolished and a new one built to the new residents’ specifications. I walked by a few stacks of concrete slabs waiting to be removed and a couple of new tombs under construction and being touched up by stone masons.

Memorials and tombs around the cemetery.

Many feature unique artwork – crosses, angels, ensigns, or images of the Virgin Mary. It seems to be just fine to outdo your neighboring graves and some of the newer buildings feature stained glass and Greek columns.

Another feature of the cemetery is territorial feral cats. I don’t know what secrets they were guarding because I wasn’t going to venture past them and end up with another animal bite. One is enough for this trip! Maybe there is something to the tradition that cats tend to be harbingers of bad luck or spirits.

Castelo de Sao Jorge

The Lisbon region has at least a dozen castles and palaces, an embarrassment of riches compared to the lack of such structures in the US, but not surprising for a capital city that was the seat of a monarchy for centuries. So far, though, it has been a rainy week and we’ve only made it to the Castelo de Sao Jorge and walked by the Belem National Palace, which is now the residence of the President of the Republic.

The Castelo overlooks Lisbon from one of the seven central hills and the upper ramparts have great views of the Tagus River and red-tiled roofs. Church domes and spires stand out over their surroundings and are useful points of navigation among the shorter buildings on narrow, winding streets.

Looking northeast from the Castle walls, the Church of Sao Vicente of Fora, the ramparts.

Though much of the castle has been reconstructed during the last century, there are plenty walls that have been left half-repaired to fuel the imagination. And, of course, the castle accoutrements of a moat, drawbridge, murder holes, slit windows for shooting arrows, and crenellations evoke storybook medieval sieges and armored knights.

View to the southwest toward the river and the ruined Carmo Monastery, steps down to a watchtower, crumbled walls.

A small museum contains items found during archeological digs inside the walls like glass wear, jars, and plates. Some are dated to the destruction of Lisbon during the 1755 earthquake and bear blackened edges – traces of the fires that engulfed the city. Good to know that we left the earthquake dangers in the Pacific Northwest for a city that is just as prone to sudden destruction…



We’ve been in Lisbon for almost a week and love it here – the hills, food, beer, and wine give it a Seattle-like feel, though with cobbled streets and Portugal’s famous tiled buildings. Fortunately we were here for the first Sunday of the month, when many museums are free. We spent all day sightseeing in the Belem district along the waterfront of the Tagus River.

First up was Belem Tower, a fortification built in the early 1500s to protect Lisbon from enemy ships sailing up the Tagus River. There was a long enough line that we waited for about an hour to enter, but no admission fee will do that! Prison cells in the basement were tiny enough that we could only stand in the middle of the rooms and would have been horribly cold and damp for anyone kept there. Though it was defensive, the tower was too delicately ornamented to look imposing, even with the main floor’s cannon battery. The view from the tallest level of the tower looks out across the river and the 25 de Abril Bridge – which looks like the Golden Gate’s twin, and the Cristo Rei statue – which looks like the Christ the Redeemer statue’s little brother. Closer to the tower is park space that had lots of soccer games and picnics taking place.

Monument to the Discoveries, Belem Tower, Portuguese egg tarts from Pasteis de Belem.

Down the waterfront is the massive Monument to the Discoveries celebrating the role the Portuguese played in the Age of Exploration. Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, and Ferdinand Magellan are included, as are a host of other captains, missionaries, cartographers, and kings. The biggest names rang a bell, but the rest did not; our history classes only covered the most famous explorers and were a long time ago.

A block inland from the waterfront is the Jeronimos Monastery, my favorite stop of the day. Taking over a century to construct, it was funded by taxes on profits pouring in from Portuguese trade routes. The interior cloisters are every bit as ornate as I’d want; arches ringed the interior, each one uniquely carved to showcase the power of the Portuguese empire, nautical symbols, or floral motifs. Even crowds of people didn’t detract from the stunning calm the architecture creates – I’d move in tomorrow if they’d let me. The interior of the connected church was one of high vaulted ceilings held up by a spiderweb of stone. Like most European churches, it is impossible to be inside and not spend much of the time gaping upward.

Jeronimos Monastery

Fortunately for us and our hungry stomachs, one of the most well-known pastry shops in Portugal is just a few steps away from the Monastery. Portuguese egg tarts are said to have originated at the Pasteis de Belem shop, and the bakery make a convincing case that they are the best in the world as well. We managed to keep our consumption to four tarts between us; they came still warm and with portable packets of cinnamon and icing sugar. Light flaky crust surrounds a flan-like filling that tastes a little eggy. I could eat them for every meal and, judging by the line at the shop, others can too.

One happy coincidence is that this is the period of Carnaval leading up to Ash Wednesday. In Portugal, kids are encouraged to dress up for several days beforehand and we saw lots of adorable princesses and superheros wandering the streets with their parents, as well as one intense Darth Vader.

Filled up on calories, we spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering through the National Archeological Museum and the Maritime Museum. There was a decent assortment of Roman and Egyptian artifacts, mosaics, and tombstones; even a couple of Egyptian mummies with carefully painted and hieroglyphed sarcophagi. A Treasure Room showcased centuries of jewelry, some of which is clearly inspiration to more modern designers – layered bangles and delicate gold chains never go out of style.

Inside the monastery’s church, an altar taken along by Vasco de Gama’s expedition, interior of one of the royal yachts.

The Maritime Museum was a tribute to a nation that prides itself on its history of seafaring. It included hundreds of model ships (several kids were geeking out), real ships, cannons, maps, and navigational equipment. Old globes and maps are my favorite – some cartographers were good guessers, while others completely missed the size and general outline of, say, India, or the fact that California was not an island. It’s a good thing we have maps on our phones now… I completely underestimated the distance to get to the museums even after looking up directions. I can’t imagine trying to navigate to a city using a map that may or may not include all the continents, much less any sort of true-to-life distance measure.

We pretty much museumed ourselves out for the next few days, so on schedule this week is wine tasting, eating more pastries, wandering down more narrow, winding streets. We still aren’t used to the ‘chilly’ weather, though it is warmer here than in Seattle. At least the early spring climate gives us an excuse to wear all the clothes we brought along so we don’t feel like we are lugging around useless items.



Last Hours in Penang

We spent our last day in Penang making sure we left with a vivid final impression. The Dhamikarama Burmese Temple and Wat Chaiya Mangalaram Thai Buddhist Temple were on our list, as was another visit to the Kapital Keling Mosque, this time during visiting hours rather than Friday afternoon prayers.

Like other Buddhist temples, the Dhamikarama Temple has many buildings and altars scattered around the grounds, and the far corners of the complex were relatively tourist-free. We wandered to a bell tower in the back, and climbed up four floors in order to get a view of the temple and the new glass-and-metal high rises going up around it. We were the only ones there and admired the carved marble reliefs showing sacred Buddhist sites from around the world. We also tried our hand at tossing coins into alms bowls circling above a pond, but had no luck.

Temple roofline; bell carriers; statue of Garuda, the mythical King of the Birds

The main hall was the tour group stop, and its towering Buddha statue was the center of attention. It was surrounded by some of the most detailed carving we’ve seen so far – what looked to be a fine lace mesh hanging around the walls was actually hundreds of wooden panels fit together to look like cascades of foliage. It must have taken years to create and assemble. Behind the main Buddha was a row of statues of revered monks, each representing a country with a major Buddhist populations, and all life sized.

Standing Buddha, a row of honored Buddhist monks, seated Buddha in another hall.

Directly across the street from the Burmese Temple was the vibrantly decorated Wat Chaiya Mangalaram, a Thai temple that looked similar to the ones we grew familiar with in Chiang Mai. This temple is famous for its reclining Buddha statute; at over 100 feet long it is one of the largest in the world.

Wat entrance, a statue of a monk covered in offerings of gilding gold, the reclining Buddha.

Outside, the nagas protecting the front of the temple are covered in glass mosaic tiles and were my favorite so far because of their bright, jeweled colors. Other guardian statues stood near the entrances and several side pagodas held altars to various deities. Incense, flower garlands, and bright fabrics seemed to be common offerings.

Nearby was a mee goring stand that had the most delicious tofu we’ve ever tasted… and more of the famous Penang white coffee with ice.

Nagas outside the Wat, other temple guardians, altars from some of the other buildings at the temple.

Our last stop for the day was the Kapital Keling Mosque. We arrived as the mosque itself was closing for prayers, so we spent a few minutes in the Islamic Outreach Center located in the minaret. We came back after 2 p.m. to see the interior of the mosque itself. I donned a robe to cover my hair and bare arms. Modesty works both ways though – Kevin also was given a wrap since he was only wearing shorts and men need to have their legs covered to their ankles in order to enter. The mosque itself was peaceful and quiet, just a few people were finishing their prayers and greeting one another.

Kapitan Keling Mosque and its minaret.

The Islamic influence in Penang is something I didn’t touch on yet, in part because the island is so diverse. However, Malaysia is officially an Islamic country, so there were a few interesting things we noted. For example, shopping centers and large attractions have prayers rooms for Muslims to use if they happen to be there at one of the five times each day the call to prayer is given. From our apartment, we could hear both mosques in our neighborhood broadcasting the call to prayer from their PA systems.

Placards for the prayer rooms at Fort Cornwallis, sign pointing to Mecca in our apartment, the Non-halal section at Tesco, sinks for washing at a hawker stall.

Consuming pork and alcohol is forbidden in Islam, but stores still carry those items to cater to other segments of the population. The beer/wine/hard liquor was in its own corner or room in the store, so it was still easier to get than in some US states. Pork was also in the same section or its own room, usually with “BACON” emblazoned prominently above the door. Washing is a must before eating, so restaurants and areas with hawker stalls have sinks readily available out in the open. I got the sense this was also part of the local secular culture – napkins were few and far between.

Malaysia was such an interesting mix of influences that I can’t wait to go back. We were told multiple times that we should see Kuala Lumpur in all its crazy-traffic, delicious-food, impressive-building glory. As long as air conditioning is part of that, I agree.


We’ve already made our 24-hour trek to Lisbon, Portugal. Our first flights on Malaysia Airlines, which booked us on an earlier flight after we arrived at the Penang Airport early, and on British Airways, which has those fancy new Boeing Dreamliners, were uneventful except for a mad dash of a transfer at Heathrow. (Does anyone else get the feeling that a transfer from one gate to another that requires walking, a tram, more walking, a bus, even more walking down back-hallway looking corridors, going up escalators, meandering through another maze of corridors, passing through security – which we had already done once at Penang and once at Kuala Lumpur – and then a mad dash from security to the gate… literally as the gate is closing… is badly misplaced British humor?)

Lisbon feels like half a world away from Malaysia, and reminds us a lot of Italy so far. We’ll have to get used to driving on the right again, and 60 degrees does seem rather cold. Still, time to explore a new corner of the world and Europe!




Penang Hill and Kek Lok Si

Renovations work on the Penang Hill funicular was finally complete and the weather was super nice, so we managed (after only three weeks here!) to make it to one of the main tourist attractions on the Island. Hiking up was an option, but 90 degrees is not ideal outdoor exertion weather, and the tram has tempting a/c. After a steep and slightly bouncy ride to the top, the cable car dumped us right at the viewing deck. A jutting platform gives near 180 degree views of the east side of Penang Island – all the way from the airport to the mainland north of Georgetown. Views are breathtaking – Georgetown below, blue ocean, and mainland stretching to distant hills as the view fades. Highrises nestle right up to jungle-covered hills and then the forest takes over without visible interruption.

The view toward the bridges and our suburb of Gelugor, a watchful monkey, looking toward the coastal plains on the mainland.

I made the mistake of not looking both ways for monkeys and, while admiring the view, one came up on the railing and made a convincing show of batting my face out of the way. The first I knew of it was its paw coming at me. I jumped back, as did the girl next to me, screaming in fright. I mean, they are small and fuzzy and cute, but they also tear apart metal pop cans with a single paw and then stick their faces right past the jagged metal edges to lap up the remaining residue. Clearly the monkeys have cushy lives – they have no problem flipping open trash cans for leftovers and harassing passers-by for a snack.

Long-tailed macaque snacking, the steep ascent, enjoying the view, the funicular tram car.

Penang Hill was built as a Hill Station where Georgetown elite escaped the worst of the heat – some individuals are lucky enough to still live there. Since it was a neighborhood, places of worship were built at the top. A Buddhist temple and mosque stand right next to each other; nearby is the more recent tourist-trap addition of an Owl Museum and food court with a fence full of love locks atop it. This tribute to affection might hold up better than the famous one in Paris – the locking loop is metal, but the pink hearts are lightweight plastic. We sprung for fried rice and laksa but no lock.

Decorations on the Hindu temple, the mosque, and a fence full of love locks all on Penang Hill.

The Friday afternoon curse of the unavailable Uber struck right as we got back to the base of the hill and were trying to get to the Kek Lok Si temple. It was only a couple kilometers away, so we braved the heat and walked. Thankfully juice and water are sold in stands around the temple, and the neighborhood below it has the usual assortment of small convenience stores and drink stalls. In some areas Penang has great sidewalks, in others, like the way to the temple, we dodge moving traffic while weaving around cars parked along the edge of the road. Fortunately Chiang Mai taught us well.

The temple is not just a single building, but a sprawling complex that takes over a large portion of the hillside. Supposed to be the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, it is still being added to. Temple buildings form something of a maze, and I could have wandered around for hours. While we are going to miss Chinese New Year – it is February 8th and we fly out the 2nd – the temple was already heavily decorated with lanterns.

The sprawling temple complex.

The first temple’s interior walls were covered floor to ceiling with thousands Buddha statuettes, and the frescoed ceiling showed a pantheon of deities. A wishing tree near the back was heavy with colored ribbons; we added one of our own. Just outside the main doors, dozens of candles and incense sticks were lit and more were for sale.

A small portion of the Buddha-covered wall in the first temple, candle offerings, and lots of paper lanterns for New Year celebrations.

Wandering around the buildings, we saw smaller side temples containing offerings of incense,flowers, fruit, and even fish to be freed in the temple’s ponds – we hope. Monks chanted afternoon prayers. We took the second funicular of the day – a new record! –  to the statue of Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy. The 99-foot tall statue and her pagoda tower over the rest of the site. We were there just as everything was closing for the day, so the crowds had already dispersed and it was very peaceful.

Kuan Yin, bags of teeny fish, one of many altars.

As I post this, we only have about two days left on the ground in Malaysia. I’ll be sad to be leaving the vibrant culture and delectable food, not to mention the cheap cost of living, but it will be exciting to move on to our third stop. Even with more than three weeks under our belts here, Penang continues to tempt us with new things!