And then we got to Florence…

30 01 2009

Florence was great.  What is really funny is that I actually had a little trouble adjusting when we first got there…I suddenly felt as if I was in a huge city and my nerves were quickly rattled.  I was completely on edge.  I blame the Cinque Terre.  I think I had been taken to such a nice level of calm relaxation I was not quite prepared for noise again.  For some reason this did not happen to me in Venice, but that was such a quick whirlwind that was shocking in other, different ways, perhaps I was too distracted…perhaps it was the lack of cars in Venice (it certainly was not the lack of people). 

Anyway, when we first arrived in Florence we set out on foot to find our hotel (all the while I’m jumping out of my skin any time a car speeds past or someone yells) and there has been another hotel mix-up, but this time it was our fault.  It’s really not easy to keep track of which day it is, and when you’ll be where, especially after spending a few days in complete relaxation (in fact, we stayed an extra night in the Cinque Terre because we didn’t want to leave).  So, somehow we arrived a day earlier than we had told the hotel owner.  Seems like it would have been later, right?  No…earlier…we counted wrong.  No big deal, though, as we were confirmed for the next two nights at that place, and the hotel next door had a room for us the first night. 

On our first night in Florence we had dinner in this little hole-in-the-wall spot — Trattoria Sostanza.  Oh my.  It was fabulous.  We shared the bisteca fiorentina and tortellini (stuffed with ham) with meat sauce.  We also had an artichoke pie — pretty much artichokes in egg with lots of butter, oil, and garlic (I think).  The steak was juicy — fantastic flavor.  And the meat sauce on the tortellini was rich, full of depth.  So delicious.  This definitely helps calm my nerves.

The next day, a Sunday, we poked around town.  We crossed the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio and up to the Oltrarno neighborhood where we walked through beautiful gardens above town and found magnificent views in the Piazzale Michelangialo. 

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The next morning we went up to the top of the Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiori) — beautiful.  The mural on the ceiling was fascinating and the views from the rooftop were breathtaking. 

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That night we had dinner at a place called Bibo…really, nothing to write home about.  So I won’t.  I don’t even remember what I ate.  The next morning we wandered through the Mercato Centrale.  I am in heaven here.  I make a mental note to return to rent an apartment next time we stay in Florence so we can shop here and do our own cooking.  Here are a few shots from the market.

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Okay, that was more than a few.  But I was in heaven!  You would take a lot of pictures too.

We ate lunch afterwards at this wonderful place and I did not write down the name.  How could I have done that?!  I do know what we ate, however.  We started with buffalo mozzarella as an appetizer.  I had pasta with tomatoes and basil and Chris had the Florentine crepes (filled with ricotta and spinach).  We shared a carafe of the house white wine.  After a nice nap back at the room, we had a quick dinner at a wine bar and then went to an organ and oboe concert at a church not too far from the Duomo.  We had seen fliers posted for it that morning and we thought it would be great to hear Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor in a church in Italy…it was really cool.

The next day we went to the Bargello then walked south of the river to another fabulous restaurant – Alla Vecchia Bettola.  We started with paté on crostini and a couple of different varieties of meats and funghi.  I had the special pasta of the house — penne with vodka, tomato, and red chile.  It was delicious (and now something I love to make at home).  Chris had risotto with gorgonzola and some type of squash…perhaps acorn?  We also had a carafe of the house white wine.  Delicious.  After lunch we walked over to a local park and sat on a bench and dozed off occasionally while watching a few little kids play soccer for over an hour.  It was a gorgeous day and the kids were so cute.  A lovely afternoon.

Once we roused ourselves from the park bench we walked around some more, ending up at the Accademia.  David is a perfect, beautiful masterpiece.  Later that we night we caught a train to Rome.





Venice in 24 hours

26 01 2009

On Friday, September 8th we began our hellish trip to Venice.  Let me start by saying that I had been to Venice one time, maybe back in 1999 or 2000, and I was not exactly looking forward to our return trip.  I found it overcrowded and touristy.  But, Chris had never been and he did not want to take my word for it.  I really can’t blame him, either.  I mean, we’re here in Italy, we’ve all seen images of Venice…he does need to see for himself.

From Vernazza we took a train to La Spezia, then to Bologna, then to Venice.  Once in Venice we took a completely overcrowded boat (I’m still not sure how it stayed afloat) from the train station to the Piazza San Marco and battled our way through the massive crowds to the hotel we had called two days earlier (the Hotel Riva) only to discover that had not kept our reservation.  Chris maintained a calm anger and we sat and watched as the woman at the front desk started calling hotels for us, looking up every so often and telling us how it is very crowded, no rooms, etc.  To top things off, there were no seats on any trains leaving Venice that night.  We actually passed people crying at the train station, stranded in Venice.  Mayhem!

Anyway, after about 45 minutes, she finally found us a room at the Hotel Vivaldi at €300 a night!!  I can tell you that was NOT in our travel budget!  But, what could we do…things were going down hill fast.  This was, according to her, the last room in Venice.  At this point it felt like that to us, so we took it.  And it was lovely.  It was too expensive and too fancy, but a fun change of pace.  It was right along the Grand Canal just a couple of blocks from the Piazza San Marco.  We battled back across the crowds and checked in and headed straight for the rooftop garden for a glass of wine.  This is the view from the roof of our hotel. 

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After finally calming down and unwinding a bit, we headed out to the Piazza San Marco and went up into the bell tower where we encountered beautiful views.

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After taking in the view in all directions, we started walking around.  I did enjoy this aspect of our whirlwind Venice trip — we were actually able to find quiet little streets and even got turned around a few times (not hard to do here). 

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We had a great dinner that night at the Osteria de Mascaron, despite having to share a small table with another couple who looked to be enjoying a nice meal together until we joined them.  They were not speaking English, or Italian, Spanish, or French for that matter, so at least I wasn’t finding myself paying attention to their conversation.  We started out with the antipasto misto, which consisted of squid fixed two ways, conch, a white fish, and grilled vegetables.  For the main course we shared a delicious flat, wide, short pasta with crab and enjoyed a good white wine (house wine, of course) along with it.

After dinner we went to the Piazza San Marco again and sipped expensive coffee at Cafe Florian while listening to a quartet (accordion, piano, violin, and bass).  Apparently Woody Allen has sipped coffee here.  After coffee we got three gelatos — three, because my first one rolled right off the cone onto the ground.  So sad…

Saturday we had a huge breakfast at the hotel (included, thank goodness) and then toured the Doge’s palace.  It was very beautiful, though I’ll leave the history of this palace up to your own research.  Chris is my historian.  Here are a few shots from the palace.

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After another cup of coffee, it was time to catch a train to Florence.  Venice was crowded.  It even felt a little like Disneyworld, not that I’ve been.  I’m glad we went — at the very least I’m glad to have tested my first impression.  I’m sure there is a much better way to do Venice, but we did not have the time to dedicate to this portion of the trip and I guess it suffered for it.  I need someone to show me there’s more to Venice to this.  I saw a few lovely sights, and I had some good food.  I could have done without the stress, but…what are you gonna do?  I did score lots of really nice shampoos, conditioners, soaps, stationery, and other Hotel Vivaldi goodies!





And on to Vernazza…where we slow down.

22 01 2009

We left Barcelona early in the morning on September 6th and spent the entire day on trains.  The first train took us from Barcelona to Montpellier, where I found an internet café and was able to get us a room in Nice and touch base with the families for the first time.  On the train from Montpellier to Nice I somehow ended up sitting in the backwards seat and I hate that (okay…I lost rock, paper, scissors), but either way you face, the scenery along the way is breathtaking.

Once we got to Nice and checked in to our hotel, we ate dinner at L’Ybane.  We started with a big salad Nicoise that probably could have been enough — but we ordered more.  I had spaghetti with shrimp and Chris ordered a variety of mezes.  The restaurant seemed quite trendy but the food really was just average.  It was nice sitting outside though…and getting to hear a little French on this trip.  We strolled around after dinner, down to the water, then up to a place called Pinnochio for ice cream.  The next day, after a café au lait and pain d’ chocolate we boarded our first train of the day.  We stopped for a bit in Genoa and boarded a different train to La Spezia.  In La Spezia, we got on our last train of the day — the Regionale train that would take us to Vernazza.  

We finally make it to Vernazza– and it is simply wonderful.  When we arrived, we walked around the Piazza Marconi and located each of the places I had checked off in my guidebook as good lodging options, but they were all booked.  However, one of the people who had no rooms hooked me up with someone else who did have a room and, after checking it out, we agreed to take it.  It was perfect — Catarina Rooms.  The room is just off the square, through a passageway, up many steps. 

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When you open the door you walk immediately up a bunch of steps and there was a bed, a sofa, a table and chairs, a bathroom, and a window looking out into the carruggioor alley between the buildings.  No TV,  no AC, and I wouldn’t have it any other way — both of those would be completely unnecessary here. 

After setting our stuff down we put on our swimsuits and headed out to the water.  Even though there’s no real beach — just big rocks going down to the water — it’s full of people.  There are kids and adults alike lounging in the sun and playing in the cold water.

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The first night we ate at Ristorante al Castello.  First, this is the most amazing view I’ve ever enjoyed at dinner, surrounded by the sea, on a cliff…the floor was even sloping a bit.  I took this shot from the table (made Chris get out of the way).

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This is looking out to my right.

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Here is a view of the restaurant from the piazza — the red and green at the top.

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We had delicious DELICIOUS anchovies marinated in lemon juice to start and a fantastic Vino de la Cinque Terre (white).  Already at this point I know that life is good.  For my main course I devoured a plate of pesto spaghetti and Chris had spaghetti “on the rocks” (shrimp, mussels, clams).  For dessert we shared a tiramisu-like cake — not really sure what it was, but the waiter told us we’d love it and we did.

On our first full day in the Cinque Terre, we woke up and enjoyed a pastry and cappuccino on the Piazza Marconi then took the boat over to Monterosso.  We had read this town was great for lounging on the beach and it did not disappoint. 

I took this photo from the boat as we were leaving Vernazza.

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Getting further away from Vernazza…the hillsides are terraced and covered with grapes, tomatoes, lemons…

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I took this photo in the direction of the other three Cinque Terre towns.

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And now we are approaching Monterosso…

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We rented two chairs and umbrellas and planted ourselves on the beach for the day, getting up occasionally to take a dip in the cold water — so invigorating — or to walk into town for nourishment.  For lunch we got a few slices of pizza from Il Fronteio.  Simple, and absolutely fantastic. 

We hiked back to Vernazza along the trail that connects all of the towns.  The hike was long, hot, and a little strenuous (lots of steps!!) but absolutely beautiful.  I know I keep saying that, but seriously, it is breathtaking here.  Here are some shots from the hike.

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And here we have almost made it back to Vernazza…

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We had dinner that night at Ristorante del Capitano on the square, and not to sound like a broken record, it was fantastic.  I don’t know if environment can make food taste better, or whether spending the day on the beach and then getting in a good hike can do the same, but it was fabulous.  Our waiter must have been in his 80s – he was this adorable old guy who started us off with a carafe of white wine which, he told us, “I make-a myself.”  We started out with a fruti dimare plate — mussels, anchovies in lemon (I love what they do to anchovies here), stuffed anchovies, fried octopus, and seafood salad.  For the first time I realize I actually love octopus.  I have never liked it much before despite trying it many times — it has always been chewy.  Not this.  Not at all.  For my main course I had big raviolis filled with spinach and ricotta in a walnut sauce.  Chris had octopus with potatoes, olives, and butter and olive oil.  SO GOOD!  For dessert, we both had a sciacchetra, a local dessert wine (I must figure out how to get this here, oh my) and shared a panne cotta with strawberries and gelato with almonds and chocolate sauce (as the waiter said, “we make-a 2 times a day”).  Then the waiter, who would stop by every so often and say something like “You good?  You stay as long as you like” brought us two limoncinos — he said we had to try this as well because it was not so fancy and expensive as sciacchetra.  I like the sweet lemon too.    What a great dinner, and a great dining experience.  As we were winding down, we were lucky enough to catch a performance on the square — looked like all of the little girls in the town doing songs and dances for their families, including a song from the Little Mermaid in Italian.  It was great!  After dinner, we dragged ourselves up the many steps to our room and crashed, full and happy.

The next day started out exactly the same as the first day…after cappuccinos and pastries we took the boat to Monterosso, lounged in the sun, swam in the cold water, and ate pizza for lunch.  This time, however, we took the boat back to Vernazza.  After gelatos and a nap, we headed to Gambero Rosso for dinner, eager to see if our streak of amazing meals will continue.  Gambero Rossowas not quite as good as the other two dinners we’d had here, but in many ways I wonder how it could be.  The bar had been set really high.  We started out with a mixed seafood appetizer — five separate plates (anchovies with lemon, stuffed mussels, fried anchovies, and two others I forgot to write down).  For my entree I had five different fried fish.  As I write that down now I wonder how that could have been true — but, it’s what I wrote down!  I also wrote down that it was really only so-so.  Chris had a short pasta with pesto.  Also so-so.  We enjoyed sciacchetras after dinner and Chris had a cake soaked in sciacchetra and lemon ice cream with chocolate sauce.  I got a gelato from one of the many gelaterias off the square for my dessert and enjoyed it while strolling about.  Tonight is our last night in Vernazza.  I must figure out how to spend about three months a year here.  I feel as if I have arrived at a level of relaxation I have never before known.

One last thing I love about Vernazza– the cats.  Of course I took photos of them!  If you look closely in this first one, you’ll notice a sly cat who thinks we can’t see him sitting on the other side of the door.

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I just noticed…is this the same one?

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Even the cats are relaxed here.

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The Cinque Terre — you relax, swim, sun, eat, drink, stroll, nap, there are no cars, no loud noises…can life get any better?





On to Barcelona…

14 01 2009

We arrived in Barcelona around 10pm on September 3, 2006.  I had used an online service to find an apartment here instead of a hotel — and it was great.  It was on Consell de Cent in the Eixample district.  We actually felt like we had our own little flat here…the apartment had a bedroom, living room, laundry, and a little kitchen.  Too bad we can’t stay here for a week!

The next morning we woke up early and made our way to the Parc Güell, stopping along the way for two cafés con leche and croissants con queso y jamón.  We made it to the park right as it was opening for the day and started wandering around.  We found trails all around, viaducts, random little things…almost hallucinogenic. 

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Chris on Tres Cruces

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We found great views of the city in the highest parts of the park.  From one point you could the Sagrada Familia.

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From another point, this.

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The details on the plaza were beautiful.

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After the park we walked over to the Sagrada Familia.  There’s something to shoot everywhere you look.  Here are just a few shots.

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We were both disappointed you could no longer walk up to the top but had to take the elevator — that trek was part of the fun!   You could still walk down though.

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Chris and I had both been here before, but never together.  Even without the stair experience, the view was still amazing.

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 After the Sagrada Familia we headed out to Camp Nou and the Museu of FC Barcelona.  We got to go inside the stadium and see the field…

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(or pitch, as Chris tells me)

…and then to the museum full of photographs showing just how huge fútbol is all over the world.  We also had a little fun in the store — FC Botiga.

Around 3pm, we decide to find lunch…plus, we’ve walked so much today I’m a little worn out and could use the rest.  I had picked a place off La Rambla but we could never find it, so we wandered around a bit and happened upon a place behind the Boquería called Ra.  We sat outside on the full patio and the food was pretty tasty.  I had gazpacho and then a chicken and rice dish and Chris had a squid soup and some kind of pureed melon drink.  Afterwards, Chris got in a siesta while I tried unsuccessfully to make a hotel reservation in Nice.  We wandered to a nearby diner-style restaurant for a simple dinner and prepared for an early morning train the next day.





Second Stop Madrid

8 01 2009

The overnight train from Lisbon to Madrid was nice, though a little warm.  We went all out for this leg of the journey and had a private cabin for two.  We even had a nice sit-down breakfast on the train.  We got to Madrid around 8:45 in the morning and started calling hotels from the train station.  After the 7th or 8th call, I finally found a room, and we headed straight there.  It was the Hotel Macarena — near the Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol.  The hotel was in a great location on the second floor of a building — the only downside was that it was really hot and there was no a/c, no fan.  After checking in, we decided to walk straight to the Prado. 

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It was truly amazing.  We spent hours there.  I saw so many of Goya’s masterpieces and tried to shoot them but the low light made it difficult.  As you can see.  I prefer his Black Paintings of the early 1820s.

Saturno devorando a un hijo (1821-1823)

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Duelo a garrotazos (1821-1823)

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Perro Semihundido (1821-1823) is my favorite.

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I also really loved the ancient sculpture.  A few of my favorites…

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The highlight for me was the special Picasso exhibition.  We are in Spain at a time when I think the entire country is celebrating several Picasso anniversaries, most notably perhaps the 25th anniversary of his death.  Picasso spent a great deal of time as a youth at the Prado, and the exhibition placed his work in the context of the paintings he viewed and was inspired by — in many cases right alongside.  Most striking to me was standing between Velazquez’s Las Meninas…

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…(which was not in the exhibition, but the exhibition opened giving you a view straight ahead into a gallery and the painting was centered on a wall through a corridor – breathtaking) and Picasso’s take on it (we were not allowed to take photos inside the Picasso exhibit).  What an experience.  Rubens, Goya, Velazquez…Picasso’s works from the early 1900s on…the whole thing was really incredible.  Then we walked over to the Reina Sofia and saw Guernica — really capped the whole thing off for me. 

On our way back we stopped off at a cafe for a drink, then headed back to the hotel for a nap.  Later that night we had tapas near the Puerta del Sol (Cañas y Tapas, I think) — jamón ibérico, queso manchego, garlic mushrooms, other hams and cheeses whose names escape me, and potatoes with a “hot” sauce and a nice Spanish white wine.  Afterwards, we enjoyed cafés y churros con chocolate in the Plaza Mayor.

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The next day, we accidentally slept until 11:30!  Oops!!  So, we had to go straight to the train station.  The first two trains to Barcelona were already booked, and now we won’t arrive until there until 10pm.  Oh well…am very much looking forward to it.  Wish we could stay in Madrid longer, though.  This is an even smaller glimpse of an amazing city than we had in Lisbon!  More mental notes that this is somewhere I must return to for an extended period of time…





First Stop Lisbon…

7 01 2009

On August 29, 2006, Chris and I set out for our three and half week trek across Europe.  We started in Lisbon and ended up in Istanbul.  Each stop along the way deserves its own entry (and one entry detailing everything would be way too long).  So, I will start at the beginning — Lisbon.

We left Austin on August 29th at 7am, had a long layover in Minneapolis, another layover in Amsterdam, and by 2:30 local time (whatever that may have meant to our bodies) on August 30th we checked into the Hotel Residencial Florescente in Lisbon, right off Rossio Square.  The room is small, but perfect.  Like we often do to start our travels, we went outside and started walking.  First, we headed towards the Praço do Comercio.

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Then we walked through the hills of the Alfama and surrounding neighborhoods.  

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The cobblestone streets and tiled buildings are gorgeous.  I immediately love it here.

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And, a common theme reveals itself for the first time…olá! gato!

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That night for dinner we decided to walk around and see what we could find…we were too tired and hungry to do much research.  We ended up at a place called Solmar, not too far from the hotel (Rua das Portas de Santo Ant-o 106, Baixa).  I had bread soup with prawns and an egg cracked on top.  It was delicious and hearty.  Chris had salty barbecued codfish.  Yum.  The wine tasted great — a dry Portuguese white called Planalto.  Afterwards, we stopped in to Cafe Nicola right on Rossio Square where I discover how much I love porto branco (white port).  Chris ordered an espresso and a custard tart.  Tired and full, we head back to the hotel and completely crash.

August 31, 2006 – Day two in Lisbon

This morning we had breakfast at the hotel — rolls, jam, yogurt, and coffee.  After breakfast we walked up to the Parque Eduardo VII and went into the Estufa Fria (Cold House) and the hot house — big greenhouses of different climates full of plants and narrow pathways for exploring.  This is part of Parque Eduardo VII…

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And this is a really tall cactus inside the hot house.

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It was really beautiful.

After wandering around the rest of the park, we headed back to the hotel to checkout.  We needed to catch a train that night, so we left our luggage at the hotel and headed back out.  Our first stop was to the train station to make a reservation on an overnight car to Madrid.  After successfully securing our reservation (I think — I never really know if things are going to work until we actually arrive!) we had lunch in the Baixa — ham and cheese on a roll with an orange Fanta…so tasty on hot days! 

After lunch we set out for the Torre de Belem.  We managed to find our way out there on the tram, which seemed like a bit of a feat due to the fact that I found Portuguese quite difficult!  The Torre de Belem is a fortified tower built in the early 16th century to commemorate Vasco de Gama’s expedition.

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This is the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) that celebrates the Portuguese who took part in the Age of Discovery of the 15th and 16th centuries.

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We walked from the Tower to the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos and Church of Santa Maria – a magnificent monastery that was built in the 1500s to commemorate Vasco de Gama’s successful voyage.  His tomb is just inside the entrance.  It is beautiful.

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Next, we walked around the Cultural Center of Belem and then hopped back on the tram.  On our way back, however, the tram suddenly stopped and a voice came over the loud speaker…saying something in Portuguese, of course.  Once the statement was finished, Chris and I looked around and noticed everyone started sighing, picking up their stuff, and getting off.  This is a bit disconcerting when you have no idea what the voice just said!  But, we follow suit and get off…then see that there has been a car accident right on the tram tracks and the driver of one of the cars does not look to be in good shape.  We will not be getting back by tram.  We see people heading to a bus, so we again follow and happen to find someone who speaks English and tells us which bus to get on to get back to where we need to be.  Phew!  Once back in the vicinity of our hotel, we head to Cafe Nicola and sit at a table out front.  I order another porto branco, write in my journal, and people-watch.  This has been a whirlwind glimpse at Lisbon — enough for me to know I must come back and spend more time.  But, alas, we have a lot of ground to cover in the 3 1/2 weeks we have for the trip.  We leave for Madrid tonight.





Buenos Aires Empanada Quest

4 01 2009

After reading several articles on empanadas in Buenos Aires, and looking at the city map trying to figure out the easiest and cheapest way to make our way around town, we selected seven spots to try.  The rainy weather and Chris’s fever made our quest a bit of a challenge, though, and we had to cut out a few stops.  Here are the results or our abbreviated (but still so tasty) empanada quest.  Overall, we both agreed that we liked fried better than baked, though one spot we tried had a deliciously light and flaky baked empanada.  As far as fillings go, we liked almost anything…as it turns out, savory filled pastries are delicious.  Some were a bit more delicious than the others, though…

1.  La Americana — 3 1/2 stars.  We had one criolla frita (meat, eggs, unpitted olives) and one verdura frita (creamy spinach, though Chris thought it could have been creamier).  Great texture, good flavor.  This is the self-proclaimed “reina de las empanadas” located at Bartolome Mitre and Congreso.

2.  Minga (from the other night) — 4 stars (beef and olives, fried).  Located on Costa Rica in the Palermo.

3.  La Querencia — 4 stars.  We had one carne (meat is chopped, not ground, with onions — great flavor) and one “del tambo” (7 different cheeses, including blue cheese…gooey goodness).  These were on the small side though…  This place is on Junin at Juncal in the Recoleta neighborhood.

4.  El Sanjuanino — 3 1/2 stars.  We had the carne picante (spciy meat, green olives, peppers, oninols — we loved that spicy really was spicy) and one neopolitano (mozzarella, tomato, basil).  These were baked instead of fried — best baked crust yet.  Very flaky.  On Posadas in Recoleta.