We’ve been in Barcelona a few days now, and most of our time has been spend wandering around the city. Our first impression was the towers and oversized, grandly-columned  buildings of the Plaza de Espana, where the airport shuttle dropped us off, followed by the Avenue de Paral-lel, one of the city’s many grand boulevards.

It is the most walkable place we’ve been during this trip so far, even though treks to some sights will be longer. Unlike Chiang Mai and Penang, we don’t have to dodge vehicles to cross the road or navigate narrow quasi-sidewalks; unlike Lisbon it is mostly flat, so no tedious hills on the way to the waterfront or the store! Of course, our 5th floor apartment is in a building with a sketchy elevator, so we still deal with at least a couple of good climbs a day.

La Boqueria Market and Santa Madrona in Poble Sec.

In Barcelona, life takes place out of doors. There are plenty of open spaces and playgrounds. Behind our apartment is Montjuic, a hill topped with a castle and with gardens around its sides. The waterfront also features lots of public space – amid the docks is a massive mall, restaurants, and a large promenade.

There are cafes on virtually every block with tables outside, even on chilly evenings. Fruit shops have merchandise sitting outside their doors, the city’s meat and produce markets spill over onto the sidewalks. The market nearest our apartment is Sant Antoni – the beautiful structure it is housed in is undergoing renovation so, for now, vendors are all squished into a glorified tent across the street. It is very much spiritually akin to Pike Place.We waited in a cramped line to buy a local fish, dourada, that ended up being really tasty baked whole in the oven.

Statue on Montjuic, an pretty building serving as art space, Venetian Towers at Plaza de Espana, the harbor.

Staying in town for an extended period has some extra perks, like being able to schedule our museum visits around free days. Our most touristy sight so far was Montjuic Castle (free on Sunday after 3pm!) – at the summit of a decent hike past gardens. The current castle was built during the second half of the 1700s as a defensive fortress, there are well-guarded entry points surrounded by walls 12 or more feet thick. The under-defended seaward side was at one point shored up with massive cannons, the picture of ferocity from every direction.

We were taken by the 360 degree views of the city, the port, and the Mediterranean. A light house was documented here as far back the 1070s – it definitely would have been the best position for one. The port sits right at the base of the hill, and it appears as large or larger than Seattle’s. One of the grain terminals must have been loading rice because the entire area smelled like it all afternoon, making me hungry. There were probably 20-30 cruise docks, and one of Norwegian ships in port was larger than any I’ve ever seen. (And it looked like there couldn’t possibly have been enough life boats, though I’m sure they did the math.)

Montjuic Castle: the inner courtyard, the Catalonian flag, the tunnel entry, the immense ramparts.

The castle has played an important role in the history of the city, and has been used at various times by French, Spanish, and Catalan forces – oftentimes the cannons were even turned on the city itself. The democratically elected President of Catalonia was executed by Spanish forces here in 1940, and it was used as a jail and place of torture by both sides during the Spanish Civil War.

The front of Montjuic Castle, Barcelona and the port from its roof.

Barcelona itself is beautiful, ringed by low mountains and the sea. Aside from the Gothic Quarter and Poble Sec, it is laid out in a ridiculously consistent grid, countless lengthy blocks with 6- or 7-story buildings around central courtyards. A scattering are taller, but the Basilica of La Sagrada Familia towers above, as do some of the larger hotels and financial buildings along the waterfront. Montjuic would be great for sunset views… on a day with a little less chill in the air…



To cap off our time in Lisbon, we took a trip to the Mafra National Palace. This was something I was particularly looking forward to, since it was supposed to have a library that rivals any in Europe – both for the books it holds and how beautiful it is – but that’s reading a few chapters ahead.

Our journey started with a quick jaunt on the Metro out to Campo Grande. There we had time for a snack (pastries and espresso, of course) while we waited for our bus. Rather than running city routes, the Mafrense bus service reaches the further-out suburbs and uses charter buses with cushiony seats and decent wi-fi. Like the Uber drivers we had, our bus drivers were very leadfooted. Combine the speeding bus with lots of narrow and curvy roads, and Kevin and were both as close to carsickness as we’ve ever come.

But the bus dropped us off right next to the palace… which is suitably impressive. An empty courtyard out front makes sure the massive size strikes visitors. I gave up trying to get the whole of it in a single photo.

The Mafra National Palace, the interior of the basilica’s dome, a statue in the church.

The Palace is so large that the basilica in the middle of it only takes up a small portion of the facade. The King’s and Queen’s rooms are on opposite sides and sit about 700 feet apart in separate towers on either corner. They’re far apart, is what I’m saying.

Antler lamp from the Trophy Room, bookplate and map from old volumes.


The royal family did not actually spend that much time at the Palace. The building was drafty and mostly used for hunting parties, and they eventually had the more tropical option of vacationing in Brazil and later got deposed. There are no rooms of royal treasure or golden crowns. Still, there are the usual assortment of giant rooms for impressing important guests, multiple music rooms, a game room full of antlers and hunting trophies and a different kind of game room with billiard tables and some sort of prehistoric pachinko machine.

The palace even held a monastery – we toured the large kitchens and infirmary, as well as the interior cloister.

And then there is the grand finale, the library.

The library.

It is absolutely gorgeous; the best library I’ve ever seen in person.

The library was designed to be the most important part of the convent and palace; it is even larger than the basilica. There are hundreds of feet of ornate shelving and arched windows to let in light. Miles of books were bound in leather by local craftsmen, so they all look and feel like they belong to the same collection. Some were set out in display cases, showing off printing dates from the 1500 and 1600s and the ornate book plates and fold-out maps that were sent inside the front covers.


In total, there are almost 40,000 volumes comprising one of the great collections of old and rare books in Europe. In the 1700s, when such edicts were necessary, the Catholic Church provided the library with a dispensation that allowed books explicitly banned by the Church to be kept within its walls. Oddly, it is cared for in part by bats: the easiest way to keep the collection clear of insects is to let several hundred bats in at night to have a snack.


More photos of the library, just because; one of the statues outside the basilica.

The interior of the basilica, as gorgeous as it is, pales in comparison (in my mind at least) to the library. It is unique in that it has 6 organs; the library contains musical scores written for the church that can be played no where else in the world. It was our last stop before chowing down on some more pastries and grabbing the bus back to Lisbon

It was windy, wavey-feeling ride back to the Metro, and an uphill walk from the Metro to our apartment. Of course, we stopped for one more meal, an order of duck-sausage-asparagus rice with a side of crab-and-egg guacamole, at the Mercado.

We got up very early a couple of days later to catch our flight to Barcelona, where I am writing this. Barcelona is much larger than Lisbon, both in population and sheer scale of the city. Fortunately, we picked a decently-located apartment within walking distance of many sights (though most walks will be longer, and we might have to use transit a bit more). We’ve already noticed that they are more choices for supermarkets than where we were in Lisbon, though pastry shops are fewer and farther between…

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.