Sights in Europe

This rambling features a bunch of ‘favorite’ European sights that is entirely based on today’s mood (and then basically pulling a name out of a hat if we couldn’t decide) and our current state of melting in ~85+ degree heat and 90% humidity. Anything that reminds us of a cold day probably got moved up subconsciously. And of course, our experiences were colored because some places were under renovation while others were too crowded to make our experience feel worth the admission cost.

Best Art Museum: National Art Museum of Catalunya (MNAC) in Barcelona. This was the only museum we visited multiple times because Saturday afternoons are free. 🙂 The palatial building has art-filled wings and frescoed domes. It dominates a hillside above Venetian-styled towers, waterfalls and fountains. MNAC’s collection is incredible – 13th century altarpieces (with mayhem-causing demons or saints boiling away in pots), Art Deco stained glass and advertising posters, sketches of the Spanish Civil War’s destruction, works by El Greco, Rubens, Goya…

Favorite Mode of Transit: Seaplane from Split to Dubrovnik. Head to Split’s picturesque harbor, sip on drinks waterside, board to find there are only 3 passengers, enjoy gorgeous mountain and island views all the way down the coast. A 45-minute jaunt and the chance the shoreline slip by is much preferable to a 4+ hour bus ride featuring two bonus border crossings.

wp-1476590475003.jpg
MNAC, Croatian peninsula, view from Dubrovnik’s walls.

Best City for Drinking Outside: Budapest. This city takes summer drinking to a new level. Mix cheap beer, lots of public space, great transit and voila! Some parks have stands selling alcohol, but it is more common to bring your own. Time of day doesn’t particularly matter, though nights are better, especially if you come across live music or a soccer match screening. Fisherman’s Bastion and the pedestrian-only Liberty Bridge provide some great views and enough drinking space for everyone.

Most Impressive City Walls: Dubrovnik. Game of Thrones is filmed there for a reason. Several cities we visited had walls in the past, but Dubrovnik’s are complete and you can walk all the way around them, exploring towers and the intimidating Lovrijeniac Fortress across a small bay. The blue Adriatic and the tightly packed Old Town fill the views.

Happiest Palace: Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal. Move over, Neuschwanstein. Not only is the Pena Palace more brightly colored, it was actually lived in. The interior is just as cheerful as the outside with fountains and tiles. The grounds are pretty as well, with rambling trails, live black swans, and carefully planned views.

Favorite Old Town: Tallinn. Small, surrounded by towers, full of church spires, pastel colored buildings, and a pretty hill to climb. Yes, restaurants and souvenir poods dominate. We ignored those and focused on the cuteness, small parks, and quieter streets. Note: we avoided the high season, weekends, and cruise tour groups.

wp-1476590414951.jpg
Pena Palace, library at Mafra, Trinity College Library.

Library Nearest My Vision of Heaven: Trinity College Library, Dublin. One of about three places that looked like their Instagram images, no photoshopping required. Thousands of books, richly colored wood, gorgeous bindings. Large crowds detracted a bit. It isn’t a very wide room since the sides are cordoned off, but at least we could stay as long as we wanted to try to soak it in. The library at Portugal’s Palace of Mafra gets an honorable mention because it is equally beautiful, with far fewer visitors. The downside there is not being able to walk as far into it to get a sense of the scale. But the huge cross-shaped hall is gorgeous marblework worthy of a such an impressive royal residence.

Most Interesting Non-Art Museum: Village Museum, Bucharest. Outside in a city park, the Village Museum let us tour the Romanian countryside without leaving Bucharest. Dozens of old buildings – homes, churches, barns, windmills have been preserved, and turned into a living history museum. Lots of love has gone into furnishing the homes and keeping the carved gates and painted details. It was fun even in a storm (we sheltered in a wine press). The wide variety of structures showcased the different traditional styles from around Romania.

Sports Team with the Most Rabid Fans: Hadjuk Soccer Club from Split. Our hosts warned us that if we were ever harassed in a bar or on the street to just say “Volimo Hajduk” (“We love Hajduk!” – we never had to, everyone was really kind). Graffiti with the name Hajduk and their red-and-white checker colors was EVERYWHERE – sidewalks, buses, underpasses, huge murals on buildings. They have their own branded chocolate, liquor, snacks. Every kid must own at least one jersey. Even in Dubrovnik, Hajduk reigned.

Coincidental Event We Didn’t Plan to See But Enjoyed the Most: Red Bull Air Race, Budapest. Ok, so the weather was terrible, practices were cancelled, events cut short, and we didn’t get to see them fly under the bridge (a thing they convince the planes to do!). And it was still an incredible display of reflexes and flying planes stupidly close to water and between buildings in the center of a city with thousands of people cheering on either side of the river.

wp-1476590281244.jpg
Village Museum, Red Bull Air Race, tombs at Cemiterio dos Prazeres, La Sagrada Familia.

Creepiest Cemetery: Cemiterio dos Prazeres, LisbonGhosts clearly come out at night. Above ground tomb, with doors of broken glass, let the lace curtains covering the coffins flutter in the wind. Few people, but cats in surprising places watching you.

Church Putting All Others to Shame: La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona. La Sagrada Familia is otherwordly. It stands alone, strikingly different from any other church we saw.  Inside, the white stone canvas swirls with rainbows of colored light streaming through the stained glass. Statuary covers the exterior, the side portraying the Crucifixion is in violent relief, the opposite showing Creation is decadent with natural scenery. It is expensive, the priciest building we entered, but worth it – even with the thousand other people. While waiting to enter you can even watch the ongoing construction, and dream about what it will look like when finished.

Favorite Museum Artwork: Discovering the Body of King Louis II by Bertalan SzekelyIt’s a weird choice, but in person it is impressive and some parts are so realistic that it took me a while to convince myself the canvas was flat.

Most Heartwrenching Memorial: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. The preserved concentration, forced labor, and death camp complex is a sobering memorial to human suffering and powerful warning about the evils humans will commit. Crowds detract a bit initially, but it was easy to begin to ignore them and turn inward to try to understand the horrors that happened there. Auschwitz I was on a too-human scale, its brick buildings reminded me of college dorms. But of course, inside are the exhibits of human hair, items confiscated from the victims. It’s awful. My stomach churned for hours remembering that people tortured, murdered, starved so many. Auschwitz-Birkenau’s vastness magnifies the horrors of Auschwitz I. Everyone should visit to confront the world’s failure to stop the Holocaust and the ongoing need to keep it from recurring.

Historical Artifact We Should Have Learned about In School but Didn’t: Romania’s Steel Crown. King Carol I asked for a crown of steel made from cannons captured by soldiers fighting for Romania’s independence. He wanted to remember their sacrifice.

wp-1476590101338.jpg
Fortress at Omis, Romania’s royal crown, book fountain, gas canisters at Auschwitz.

Cheapest Deal: Castles during Croatia’s off season.  They often charge at least a small admission fee. But in April, some days no one will be at the ticket booth and the castles will still be open (can’t blame them for wanting to hike up if no tourists seem to be in town). 🙂 Happened at Omis and on Hvar.

Cutest Public Artwork: Book Fountain in Budapest. Water makes it look like the book’s pages are turning. It’s cute. The end.

Prettiest Hiking: Plitvice Lakes, CroatiaWe visited during the off-season and avoided the worst crowds, and it was peaceful and pretty. Boardwalks weave around the waterfalls and under the trees; it’s a perfect way to spend at least an afternoon.

Where to See Books & Manuscripts Up Close: Chester Beatty Library, DublinThe large libraries are beautiful in their own right, but only display a handful of books – they are all still on shelves. This museum focuses on individual books and has hundreds on display, all the way back to papyrus from ancient Egypt and fragments from the earliest copies of several books of the Bible.

wp-1476588274724.jpg
Plitvice Lakes, Chester Beatty Library, Suomenlinna Island.

Favorite Fortress for Exploring: Suomenlinna, HelsinkiA small series of islands in the Gulf of Finland have the preserved remains of a massive fort that guarded Helsinki’s harbor. The tunnels running through many ramparts and rocky waterfronts are open for exploring.

Stress-inducing Thing that was Fun Afterward: Driving in Romania. Driving laws in Romania appear to be suggestions. Roads are shared with speeding semis, horse-drawn carts, bicycles, cars pulling over for no reason. Everyone honks for everything. But the countryside is pretty, especially in the Transylvanian mountains.

City Walking that Doesn’t Suck: Barcelona’s Wide Boulevards. Outside the Gothic Quarter’s  tangled mess, sidewalks are huge, open, flat. The city is easy to navigate because just about every street is at a right angle.

Here are some other things grouped by city that I didn’t want to come up with individual paragraphs for:

Lisbon has a castle downtown! The ruined Carmo Monastery! The less ruined Jeronimos Monastery. Next door to the Pena Palace is the clamberable ruins of the Moorish Castle.

wp-1476588219118.jpg
Carving at Jeronimos Monastery, Carmo Monastery, Solin’s ruined amphitheater.

Barcelona’s Montjuic Castle has dark and checkered history, but beautiful views. Nearby, the Olympic Grounds are a great picnic/frisbee spot.

The damp of Diocletian’s palace basement in Split still shows how good Romans were at construction. Ruins at Solin add to that argument. Klis Fortress is also pretty but they clearly know people are coming due to GoT filming – the price keeps going up.

The shore path on the Babin Kuk side of Dubrovnik was more relaxing than ones nearer the Old Town. Ferrying out to Lokrum Island also avoided about 95% of the crowd and was a nice place to spend an afternoon being stalked by peacocks.

wp-1476588167331.jpg
Lokrum Island, Palace of the Parliament, Peles Castle.

Bucharest has a beautiful Orthodox church every few blocks. Towering over everything, the Palace of the Parliament is a primer in government waste. Two hours away in the mountains, Peles Castle proves that a country doesn’t have to have a royal family for very long before all the trappings show up.

In Dublin, the National Archaeology Museum and St. Patrick’s Cathedral  were my other favorites. And the whole city recalls lots of great literature 🙂 . Across the country, really just a few hours drive, are the Cliffs of Moher. Brave the wind and don’t get too close to the edge.

wp-1476588116683.jpg
Cliffs of Moher, inside St. Patrick’s, Dohany Street Synagogue.

Budapest is impressive all around. The quirky Pinball Museum is great for 5 hours until your wrists give out but the massive Szechenyi Thermal Baths can relieve all those arm cramps. A more sombre visit, the Dohany Street Synagogue is a reminder of how the Holocaust changed Hungary.

In addition to the Uprising Museum, the entire city of Warsaw is a WWII memorial. Walking anywhere you come upon plaques and statues commemorating events or people, letting you map out the destruction in your own neighborhood. In the suburbs, the Wilanow Palace serves as a reminder of the pre-WWII era.

Krakow crams a lot into a small space, which explains why it’s packed with tourists. The Franciscan Basilica is incredible. The park encircling the Old Town, the riverfront walk, or Kazimierz (the traditionally Jewish area) gets away from some of the horde. Further out, the now-parklike Plaszow Concentration Camp is Auschwitz’s lesser-known cousin that makes a thoughtful accompaniment to Oskar Schindler’s Factory.

wp-1476588065972.jpg
Wilanow, Krakow’s Franciscan Church, Lennusadam, Kadriorg Palace.

Tallinn’s St. Olaf church tower is a great way to view the Old Town and reveal a fear of heights. Tucked away in Kadriorg park is the impressive KUMU National Art Museum and the cute Kadriorg Palace (also housing art). The Lennusadam Seaplane Harbor has full sized boats and a submarine to explore

Again, these are the places that stuck out the most. Just about everything we saw was worth our time in some way or another. For every place we saw, there are more we heard about but didn’t get to. I suppose yet another reason to head back at some future point….

Advertisements

The Food Review of Europe

We’ve moved back to the Americas for the foreseeable future, leaving fall and winter behind. Sorry Europe, it’s time for some beaches in Mexico and Latin American culture. Coming snow and chill aside, I’m going to miss all the countries we visited in Europe. I thought it might be fun to do a recap of the best things we saw and ate and some of the oddities we noticed. New blogs will be light this month as we are staying in a beach town and well… basically going to the beach every day. This post is all about the food and drink in eight countries we visited in Europe, starting with the best food from each place.

  • In Lisbon, Portugal, egg tarts reign. Just all of them all the time; get them from Pasteis de Belem or literally any other bakery. How their eggs are so tasty is a mystery. Even the eggs we got at the store had richer yolks and seemed tastier than eggly possible.
  • Best meal in Barcelona is tapas, hands down. Away from the tourist streets they are much cheaper and about 483% better. Every possible combination of cheese, veggies, and meat is available. For a Euro, you can have a couple bites that taste like the equivalent of $40 meal. And usually there is a wide variety so it is perfect if someone wants hamburgers and another person wants fruit & cheese plates.
  • Ajvar is Croatia’s contribution to culinary heaven. A blend of peppers and eggplant, it fits between pasta sauce and salsa. Doesn’t sound too special, but it was my go-to topping for toast, eggs, chips, pasta, crackers, meat, or sometimes just by the spoonful by itself. Especially worth nothing when served on cevapi, a skinless sausage sandwich that may cause you to nearly ruin your shirt in your hurry to get it all in your face because YUM! I searched for ajvar in every European country we went to post-Croatia. (Romania has a similar food called zakusca, but it’s more soupy and forgettable.)
  • In Bucharest, Romania, the Caru’ cu Bere restaurant served up cheap lunch eats. We had superb sour kraut salad, polenta (with a rich topping of cheese, cream, and egg – it was the appetizer but basically became my main course), and tomato and cucumber salad.
  • Fish was the best bet in Ireland. There isn’t really any specific way to have it prepared as long as it’s fresh. Locals emphasized that Irish cuisine doesn’t have a ‘must-try’ dish. In fact, Dublin may have had the highest percentage of restaurants and shops focusing on cuisine from other cultures.
  • wp-1475270990115.jpg
    Horse and cous cous (Kevin whipped it up after a trip to the main market), egg tarts, winning chips.
  • Goulash soup was probably the highlight of Hungary. Full of meats, veggies, and paprika, it is warm and rich. It’s probably more suited to winter than summer, so we need to go back in a season when I can eat more of it. It’s definitely not the hamburgery noodles I grew up calling goulash. Also, in a possible tie, Hungary has deep fried potato donuts. These are exactly what they sound like: a mix of potato and donut dough, fried for a crispy outside and soft, warm inside. Though they are called donuts, they aren’t dessert, but another example of Hungary’s love of high-calorie goodness.
  • Poland claims victory on the pierogi front, naturally. I didn’t know there could be so many kinds. Duck, mushroom, salmon, and berries make excellent fillings though ruskie (cheese and potato) is the most traditional and is clearly the King of Pierogies. Done right, they are puffy, joyous food pillows that I would gleefully eat for every meal.
  • Estonia wins dessert. Never thought I would say that Estonia has the best (non-egg tart) pastries, but they pulled it off. We were just a block away from a bakery that served up supremely fluffy pastries with the richest, smoothest creamy cheese fillings and icings. And Kalev, the main brand of chocolate, makes some of the best anywhere in Europe. Sorry, Germany, Kinder doesn’t cut it anymore.
wp-1475270903708.jpg
Croatian peanut crisps, pierogies!!, Hungarian langosh, Estonian chips.

Other food takeaways that surprised us:

  • Frozen veggies are tastier in Europe. There are Italian, Chinese, and Mexican mixes that taste as fresh as a salad. The flavors are intense – like the veggies just came out of the garden. And at $1-2 dollars a bag that would feed both of us for two or three meals, America can learn something.
  • Horse meat is really tasty. Seriously.
  • So is moose. It fits somewhere between prosciutto and beef jerky on the meat-flavor spectrum.
  • Portugal does the egg thing, but Spain must be the beneficiary of the actual chicken. Chicken in Spain tasted like a unique meat, not just a bland food needing lots of seasoning.
  • Duck is really cheap at Lidl in Hungary. And in Estonia. We shamelessly ate a lot of it.
  • We ate risottos in several countries and they are now probably a necessary part of my existence. The ones in Portugal were richer, more flavorful, and more gravy-like. At the Time Out Market near Lisbon’s waterfront, I had the best risotto of the whole trip with game hen and mushrooms. Ones in Hungary featured paprika, naturally.
  • Sushi is common in Estonia and is happy to blend local flavors and products. We even saw a full-color book of Estonian-Japanese fusion foods.
  • Peanut crisps (think Cheetos puffs with less corn and more legume) seemed to be the most popular snack in Croatia. They are addicting. Hrusk Crisps were my personal favorite. I now prefer them to cheese puffs, though I will admit that I got addicted to Latvian-produced nacho cheese balls in Estonia.
  • Thank Hungary for fair and festival food. They are masters of fried dough and carryable meat.

    wp-1475270944012.jpg
    Baklava (it also comes in chocolate), various ajvars, milk sans refrigeration in Croatia.
  • Chip flavors vary by country – salsa, paprika, prosciutto, mushroom, hamburger, kebab, dill, steak. There are more traditional flavors as well, the cheeses, onions, sour creams. Missing were Doritos Cool Ranch and Fritos.
  • We had goose legs for the first time in Hungary. Better than turkey.
  • All of Europe is terrible at spicy foods. The only partial exception is Hungary, which corners the paprika market, but still only reaches a small percentage of what we got used to in Southeast Asia.
  • Dill doesn’t seem to exist in most places. It was only readily available in Estonia, presumably because they have salmon in large quantities. And salmon necessitates dill.
  • Peanut butter is an exotic rarity. While it can be found in some supermarkets, it is 2-5 times more expensive than in the U.S. and is often grittier and lacking spreadability. And often hiding out in the refrigerated section.
  • Europe loves cheese. The Iberian peninsula favors soft cheeses, while Romania northward seemed much more in love with hard, aged cheeses. Even so, finding appropriate cheese for nachos in Croatia was nearly impossible. Same goes for pre-shredded.
  • Most know Spain is famous for prosciutto, but Hungary and Poland should also be on the preserved-meat fan’s radar. Especially Poland. Though the Central Market in Budapest had a stall serving what might have been the best prosciutto of the trip.
  • Instant ramen is ubiquitous (college kids everywhere survive on that stuff), but Poland took it a step further and had beetroot borscht alongside the chicken and shrimp flavors. Sure enough, same cheap noodles, but this time with a spice packet that turned the soup bright reddish-purple. And yes, it was good.

    wp-1475270856705.jpg
    Veggies with duck & lingonberry sauce – made by Kevin :), moose jerky, salmon, beet & herring salad, Eesti pastry.

Of course, drinks go with food:

  • Literally ALL THE WINE IN PORTUGAL IS GOOD. We drank 3 -or 4-Euro bottles almost exclusively and had no regrets. The best ports were pricier. We shared a single small glass of 30 year-old port that cost about $7US and was smooth and flavorful. If only we had enough for whole bottles of that stuff…
  • Alcohol in Spain was disappointing; perhaps it was overshadowed by Portugal’s. The wine was more expensive and not to our liking, and the beers were forgettable.
  • Croatian wine, especially a grape variety called plavac mali, was the best thing to drink. The best bottle (we splurged for our birthdays) was produced by Zlatan Otok. We’ve never seen Croatian wine anywhere else, even other European nations, much less in the U.S. We were told their industry was growing, so hopefully we’ll be able to find it in the future.
    • An aside on Macedonian wine: They made their way frequently into Croatian stores, and it turns out they also deserve to be better known. Some are even aged in amphorae, modern versions of the containers pulled up from shipwrecks. This makes for more earthy wines, and is a fun way to feel a little more connected to the region’s history.
  • Sweet red wines are Romania’s forte. Even wines listed as dry are not. Kevin wasn’t thrilled by this, but I took it as a sign to make wine my dessert.

    wp-1475266378684.jpg
    Full spectrum of Spanish wine (protip: the boxed wine is pretty terrible), Croatian plavac mali, Portuguese deliciousness.
  • Hungary’s best drinking was sweet white wines from the Tokaji region. Like Romania, lots of residual sugar.
  • It turns out Poland does make a little bit of wine, but they make much more beer and (SO MUCH!) vodka. Too many (really cheap) drinkable beers to name, but there is one vodka that stands out. Bisongrass vodka isn’t available in the US (it’s just a teeny bit toxic), but it is the best vodka either of us has had.
  • Redcurrant wine in Estonia. Berries take the place of grapes here; thank goodness they can be fermented and aged the same way. More like drinking syrup than alcohol, it is another example of their domination of desserts. Though kvass (beer made from fermented bread that tastes like toast), should get an honorary mention.

    wp-1475266642446.jpg
    Tallin’s hard liquor, fruit wine, kvass, and more fruit wines. Poland’s lychee beer, and Hungarian corks.

Overall, the best countries for (grape) wine were 1. Portugal – a perfect blend of inexpesive and flavorful wines 2. Croatia – for their own unique grapes and the other Balkan countries that were represented, a little pricier but still lots of deals 3. Hungary has more sweeter wines and it matches well with their cuisine.

For beer, the rankings are mostly based on Kevin’s opinion. He appreciates beer more than I do, but the more we travel, the more I find ones I like. 1. Poland wins beer. It was cheap, there was a lot of it, and there was a wide variety. And all of it was good. Nothing randomly pulled off a shelf disappointed. They also are proud of a growing craft beer industry that has produced some interesting combinations. 2. Hungary snags second place because beer there is very cheap and usually of high quality. We did find a few duds, but for pennies a bottle, it is easy to experiment. 3. Estonia has a much bigger craft scene, so there is a lot of variety for a small country. Their overall cost of living means beer is pricier than any other European country we went to on this trip. But it is tasty and there is always something new to try.

wp-1475266499501.jpg
Polish beer cap collection, craft beers, Romanian wines.

Kevin gets to exclusively pick the favorites for harder liquor awarding first to: 1. Ireland for its smooth whisky. 2. Poland because they have all the vodka. Aisles and aisles of vodka. And all the locals love it. We saw an 80 year-old couple checking out at the store with chicken, three apples, a can of coffee, and about 8 bottles of vodka. Not sure if that is how they stand each other or their children or just because they are 80 and who gives? 3. Estonia has Vana Tallinn, which makes run-based liquors and some that have winter spices in the mix – cozy for the growing chill.

Europe takes alcohol seriously. Quality is important, but so is quantity… In Croatia and a few other places, wine often comes in 1 liter bottles (rather than the U.S.-standard .75 liter). And beer. Beer cans in Europe make the standard U.S. can look like a child’s toy. Mass produced beers also come in 1- and 2-liter bottles, because beer! In Estonia, Finns hop the ferry over to buy cheaper alcohol. Estonia obliges by providing 10-packs of vodka (aka the “Finn-pack”) at all stores near the ferry dock, as well as handcarts to make carrying it back easy.

wp-1475266565662.jpg
Yummy Hungarian Dreher Bak, Irish birds love beer, Irish whisky distillery, cork collection from Dubrovnik.

One of the interesting challenges was to try to find packaging with the most languages. The winner seemed to be a pizza box we got at Carrefour in Poland with full instructions and ingredient lists in 7 languages. (Two to four seemed to be about the average.) There was also a ketchup packet that had 11, but in almost every language the translation for ‘tomato ketchup’ is ‘tomato ketchup.’

In some cities, there are still wonderfully diverse markets showcasing local produce and meats. Some are considerably cheaper than stores for in-season produce, but others are tourist-focused and overcharge accordingly. Usually they are worth going to in either case.

wp-1475270801203.jpg
European markets. 🙂

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that food has become a main part of our trip. We mostly ate at home, Kevin taking the opportunity to try new recipes (paella and ratatouille and fish), while using local ingredients. Unlike Thailand and Malaysia, eating out often in Europe would have drained our budget too fast, though I will say that doner kebab is cheap and yummy and very common. It was a little tough moving each month because we never knew what kitchen utensils we would end up with or how well our stove would work. Some of our favorite foods were ones we’ve had before but that had new twists or tasted completely different because of the quality of the ingredients. While we are happy to have moved on to a place where spicy food is again available and taco trucks are on many corners (namely ones by grocery store parking lots), Europe has so much more deliciousness to offer that we will have to head back… Even eight months was only enough time to get to a small portion of it all…

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.

wp-1456602571209.jpg
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.

wp-1456602589794.jpg
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!

wp-1456602576821.jpg
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.

wp-1456602564589.jpg
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.

wp-1456602584933.jpg
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.

 

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.

wp-1455666391778.jpg
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.

wp-1455666397332.jpg
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.

20160215_144257.jpg
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.

wp-1455666406195.jpg
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.

wp-1455666410072.jpg
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.

Belem!

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.

wp-1455021089009.jpg
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.

wp-1455021083739.jpg
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.

wp-1455021069478.jpg
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.

wp-1454605010928.jpg
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.

wp-1454605004143.jpg
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.

wp-1454604998209.jpg
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.

wp-1454604992511.jpg
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.

wp-1454663346061.jpg
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.

wp-1454663639051.jpg
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!