Sunday, January 30, 2011

Castelo dos Mouros

Today we carefully wound our way up the steep stairs and tight back streets of Sintra, flattening ourselves against walls as cars came screaming around corners (you may think I am exaggerating here, but I am not, my assessment of Portuguese drivers remains the same, they are insane), past the church Santa Maria to the trails that lead through the lush forest to Castelo dos Mouros. We are all ecstatic to be hiking again and it is fun to explore this climate with new plant species blanketing the ground and strawberry trees, sequoias, and other unknown varieties overhead. We have some serious Portuguese botany learning to do. As we hike through the forest, our imaginations are set loose as we catch glimpses of old walls mysteriously emerging from the thick foliage sporadically, and occasional breaks in the trees provide us with splendid views over Sintra's valley and Palacio Nacional below. Just before we get the castle gate, we came upon the ruins of an old chapel and burial site complete with skull and crossbones. Very cool. Inside the castle gate, we climb up and down the granite stairs exploring all the towers and walls, taking in the sweeping, panoramic view of the valley below dotted with its many palaces and red roofs marching out to the sparkling sea. On a neighboring hilltop, we can see Palacio de Pena, almost Castelo dos Mouros's foil with its vivid colors and extravagant lines, proudly perched like a peacock in all its splendor. As we take in the view, the steep, rugged terrain, jumbled with huge boulders and tangled with thick, overgrown forest, is really quite astonishing. The castle emerging out of the mountaintop, hugging its contours, looks so organic, like it somehow grew out of the rocky landscape, just an extension of the mountain. I really can't imagine how the Christians overtook this castle in the mid-1100's.

Click aqui for way too many photos. It's really hard for me to weed them down.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Wondrous Sintra

We have left Lisboa and arrived in Sintra, a magical mixture of nature and medieval wonders, from the mystical Moorish castle that crowns the mountaintop to the many opulant palaces sprinkled across hilltop and countryside. On the forty minute train ride to Sintra I had moments of panic as the landscape of high-rise apartment buildings didn't seem like it would come to an end. I had pictured Sintra so different, so much more rural, but then in the last few moments we came over a rise and things abruptly changed. Sintra is a smallish town, centered around the Palácio Nacional originally built by the Moors circa 900 AD with its two huge conical kitchen chimneys making it impossible to miss. Looming overhead, crowning the mountaintop, is the Castelo dos Mouros built in 700 AD, and it is nothing less than stupendously magical. It just doesn't get better than a steep tree-covered, boulder-filled mountain, topped with a craggy, stone castle wall following the steep contours of the mountain, skirted below by Mediterranean red-tile roof-topped, colorful stucco houses on winding, narrow roads. Wow. If that is not enough to make this place utterly fantastic, half a kilometer from the Moorish castle atop another hill, sits Palácio de Pena, a pleasure palace built by the royals during the 1800's, outlandishly colorful and luxurious in contrast to the Moorish castle of granite. In the valley below the Moorish castle, lies mystical Regaleira, a mysterious, white, limestone palace built by an opera-loving, disgruntled royalist with a lot of money in 1918. Our house, built by actor Jóse Ricardo in the late 1800's, is a forty minute walk/hike (Isaac is currently working on number of stairs, we'll keep you posted) to the top of the Moorish castle, and just around the corner from the local fresh food market. Plus, it also has a fully-functioning kitchen which I am putting to good Portuguese use. We may not come home.

Click aqui for photos.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011


We spent two days checking out Belém, the departing point for voyages by explorers during the golden age like Vasco de Gama and Magellan. Belém is a short trolley ride from Lisboa, about 4 km away, with lots to see: the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, the Torre de Belém, the Monument to the Discoveries, the birthplace of our new favorite pastry, Pastel de Belem, and lots of other things we didn't quite make it to. The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos which survived the 1755 earthquake, is a breathtaking monastery built on the site of an old hermitage where Vasco prayed before his 1497 departure. Finished in 1551, the Manueline architecture is truly stunning with the cavernous domed ceiling and monstrous, ornately carved columns of the cathedral. It is awe-inspiring to see how, in the 1500's, they figured how to distribute the weight of the area of such a huge ceiling down the columns. My words cannot do it justice. As we gawked at the huge area suspended over our heads, we could tell that they had come a long way from the Lisboa Sé built in 1180. The cloisters were, I am running out of adjectives here, I want to say breathtaking, but I already said that, and then stunning comes to mind but, again I used that already, and magnificent, well magnificent doesn't really sound like a word I really ever say, so I am going to go with stunning again. So the cloisters really were quite stunning, so delicate and white with ornately carved water spouts of tiger, monkey, grasshopper, and gargoyle heads, with some poky points sprinkled in here and there, simply stunning. This is the part where you are thinking that maybe this is why I am a photographer and not necessarily a writer, maybe you should just reference the photos here because I am truly not doing it justice and maybe the photos aren't either, but you will get a better idea there. BUT, I digress.

Next stop was another earthquake survivor, the Torre de Belém built between 1515-1520 as a defensive outpost to protect Lisboa, it was one of the last sights explorers saw as they sailed out on their journeys. Manueline in its architecture, it was beautiful to wander around inside exploring the dungeons below that held political prisoners, to the top of the tower where little boy eyes kept watch for enemy ships on the water below, and all of the nooks, crannies and turrets, where many imaginary cannons were launched from, in between. It's really amazing to have the opportunity to see these gorgeous things and even more brilliant to see your kids frolicking amongst them...truly mind-blowing.

Somewhere in between, we strolled through a park which, much to all of our delight, had grass and trees, something we did not see a lot of in Lisboa as it is mostly paved over with exquisitely patterned black and white cobblestones, courtesy of prisoners of days past. But being nature people, we can't help but to miss the natural green stuff. The boys delighted in climbing around in a tropical tree we found there, each of them finding a comfy spot that they could just hang out in. After all of the splendor that we saw in Belém, this was Aaron's favorite, with phrases like, "I always wanted to visit a jungle," excitedly proclaimed as he clambered through the branches. There is definitely something to be said for the simple pleasures of nature.

Click here for an overload of photos.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Daddy the Panicked Chicken

Isaac here.

On our last night in the apartment next to the Sé, I was doing what I always did at the apartment biulding... Trying to ambush Daddy. But then I had an idea, an amazing idea! I climbed up the first flight of staires and hid behind the corner. Suddenly, I started doubting my plan. What if he was checking all of the corners and discovered me before I could do something? What if I got clobbered and ended up falling down the stone stairs? I was debating whether or not to go to my normal ambush spot when I saw the reflection of Daddy coming down the stairs in the helpful (if not naughty) window. I stayed were I was, feeling resigned to my fate. Please do not worry. I'm writing this, aren't I? Daddy was now almost around the corner and I readied myself to say boo. Daddy came around the corner and I said "Boo!". And this is what Daddy said,


At the same time he started jumping up and down flapping his arms as if he were a chicken. Even his face looked like a panicked chicken's face. I didn't know that someone so big could flap his arms so fast. But I only got a glimpse of him due to the fact that I was falling headfirst down the stone stairs, jamming my thumb as I did so, for most of the time that he was panicked chickening. Don't worry, Dad didn't clobber me. I got surprised when Dad screamed and stepped right off the stair I was on ( I had totally forgotten about the stairs in all of the excitment.) Afterwards, Dad was telling me that he was looking around every corner but didn't think that I would be hiding there, so he didn't look behind the last corner and was bending down to tell Aaron his plan, which he was going to say loud enough for me to hear, yet quiet enough to make me think he hadn't meant to do so, then he was going to use a different plan entirely.


Isaac: What did you think about this post?

Daddy: I laughed so hard it made me cry.

Isaac: What did you think was happening when it happened?

Mommy: I don't want to sound unsympathetic to the people who were experiencing sheer terror.......but I was thinking the poor neighbors were despising the American renters and that perhaps the American renters should keep it down.

Isaac: What were you thinking when daddy turned into a panicked chicken?


Saturday, January 15, 2011

Tiny little old lady meets Isaac & Aaron

I'm finding that we just can't get enough of wandering aimlessly through the maze of tight streets here. On one of these outings we came across a building a block long that was completely covered in tile. Usually we only see a section of building that is covered in tile so we were oohing and aahing over it as we walked down the street. At the street's end we noticed a door open and inside was a tiny little old lady waving her arms like she wanted us to go away or did she want us to come nearer? All the while she was streaming what was unintelligible Portuguese to us. We didn't want to offend her with our American tourist ways and we kept walking. But she kept getting louder and now it definitely looked like she wanted us to come over. So we timidly crossed the street not knowing for sure if we were guessing her intentions correctly and approached the tiny little old lady dressed in a fuzzy, baby blue robe sporting cartoon poultry on its breast, standing in her gigantic doorway. She was delighted that we had come over to talk to her. We politely said "Desculpe, no Portuguese. English?" She was not discouraged. She continued to talk and talk and talk, all in Portuguese. We sat and listened and laughed and nodded, with an occasional, sim (yes) or muite bom (very good). Through her gesturing we could make out some of what she was saying. She loved the boys. She loved their hair, it was so white. They have my eyes, we are a beautiful family. She giggled as she took Aaron's hand and used it to wipe chocolate from his face. All the while she petted the boys and laughed and smiled and kissed the tops of their heads. After about ten minutes, we left, happy that we had not ignored the little old lady's guestures and filled with a fresh sense of the joy that kids can bring to people's hearts. We find when we travel, that though the places that we see are amazing and beautiful, it is the people that we meet that are the most memorable.

Click aqui for recent photos.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Pika Potty Peril

Pika is a good dog, a little quirky and bitey with special needs, but a good dog nonetheless. Today was the day that we checked into a new apartment. Upon asking the owner, Eduardo, if our very small and well-behaved chihuahua could stay here, he said no, then he called us back and said upon further thought and discussion with his partners, that yes, she could stay here. Eduardo was very kind, met us in the plaza outside the cathedral that the apartment is located across the street from and carried my suitcase up the 83 (thanks Isaac) stairs to our apartment. As he was explaining things about the apartment to us, Pika was wandering around the apartment which made me worried because what if she decided to go to the bathroom? So I called her to me to pick her up. Keep in mind that Pika is a very sensitive dog and feels extremely bad if she ever feels like she is in trouble and her actions involve much groveling accompanied by pottying. When I reached down to pick her up, she began to look worried like maybe she was in trouble, which worried me because I am very much aware of her actions when she feels she is in trouble, but I managed to lift her up without any puddles on the ground. Whew! I thought I was in the clear only to have her start spraying potty all over the floor, an action I have NEVER seen her perform, so my reaction was to squeeze her tiny chihuahua legs together. Luckily, Eduardo was in the process of showing Jason how to use the heater. So what do I do? Here you get a glimpse into my psychology, I hope that you do not judge me too harshly. Do I fess up, beg for forgiveness and beg that he still let us stay I grab a huge wad of toilet paper and clean it up as fast as I can in hopes that nobody noticed and pretend that nothing happened? I chose the latter. In my defense I was just acting in the best interest of my children so that we would not be booted out onto the street without a backup plan. Sorry Eduardo.

Cloisters and archeology

Earlier in the week we had briefly visited the Sé or cathedral, which was nice, but not overly fantastic after having visited cathedrals in France a couple of years ago. Today, while Jason was working, we decided to head to Praca de Comercio just so the boys could have a big open space to play in without having to worry about tight streets and getting hit by cars. On the way down, we got distracted by the Sé and decided to go in. (Even when we do have a plan it is pretty much meaningless because we are very distractible, we never actually made it to the praca.) Last time we were inside the Sé, the cloisters had been closed but this time they were open. We decided to pay the €2.50 and go in because as I mentioned earlier, I am a sucker for cloisters, and having read the Rick Steve's guide book I thought that these just might be the cloisters that also happened to have an archeological dig in process. I should also mention that I am a sucker for archeological digs, so this was a mind-blowing experience for me. I know that I will not be able to do this place justice, but I will share our experiences anyway. In the center of the cloisters archeologists are unearthing, you guessed it, Iron Age, Roman, and Moorish settlements, depending on what layer you are looking at. We walked on scaffolding above the sight so that we could peer down into the dig. It was amazing watching the archeologists at work, seeing the grid work so they can properly document where they found things, scraping a little and then carefully marking on their maps, carefully filling one bucket at a time. We saw ancient plumbing systems below, pottery, a Roman wheel made of stone, and open, empty tombs lying right next to the pathway where we could touch them if we dared. Portugal is much more accessible than the states, at least this site was. Outside of the cloisters were dim alcoves containing ancient stuff, some had sarcophagi or tombs out in the open where anyone could touch or deface them, there were faded religious tablets, ancient tombstones, gorgeous tablets of tile, all out where we could touch them. It was so very different than the states where everything is sterile....vacuum-sealed behind glass with the perfect lighting. And yet no one had done any harm. It was goosebump-inducing to experience all of those antiquities first hand.

Click here for photos.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Our 14th Anniversary

I have a confession. I can't say I can really remember any anniversaries of years past, but this one was definitely memorable. We spent the day wandering through Alfama, a neighborhood settled by Romans and Visigoths between the sixth and eight century AD, followed by the Moors who created its narrow, winding street network as a defensive measure that just happened to keep their homes cool at the same time. Alfama was built on dense bedrock so it is one of the only areas of Lisboa to survive the earthquake, making it a medieval wonderland. The streets are a maze of narrow pathways, some only accessible by foot, others you wish they would make only accessible by foot. The narrowness of the streets that people drive on here is, well, insane. Often times we are walking on a "sidewalk" that is only one to one and half feet wide and the street is only wide enough for one small car. We encountered the famous Tram 28 of Lisboa on a particularily narrow street where we each had to squish flat into a doorway as it passed by, insane. As we explored, we bumped into the Monastery Sau Vincent de Fora, founded in 1147 and reconstructed in 1580. Inside we saw its ancient cistern, gorgeous cloisters (I'm a sucker for cloisters), tombs of royalty from 1640-1950, delicate tile work telling traditional Portuguese fables, ornate religious rooms used for God only knows what, and gold, lots and lots of gold. Gold goblets, gold embroidered religious-wear, gold staffs, gold crosses, gold crowns, pieces of saints encased in gold, and jewels. I am understanding the church had a lot of money back then and perhaps even now. Anyway, the highlight for a young man you all know, was climbing the 237 travertine steps to the top of the monastery where we enjoyed another panoramic view of the city. As we stumbled back into the real world we came across a flea market, very different from what we had just seen and a very third-worldy experience with poor people selling junk off of their blankets on the street. Next we stumbled upon the Pantheon (a brief note here: we are not big planners, so if it sounds like we are just wandering aimlessly here, it is because we are) with its gorgeous dome, where we saw fake tombs tributing Portuguese heroes like Vasco de Gama with the highlight being, again, the climb up the 126 stairs (Isaac is the official stair counter for the trip) to the top of the dome to peer down (it made all of our tummies feel funny) at the patterned floor below.

In our wanderings in Chiado yesterday we saw a very hip-looking restaurant with low, loungy red couches and a giant, puffy, red, dandelion-in-seedesque chandelier called Sacramento and decided to give it a try for our anniversary dinner. After the adventures of the day we wound our way over to Chiado hungry for dinner, arriving at the restaurant around 18:00 only to find that it opens at 19:30. So what to do? The obvious thing was to eat dessert before dinner at Confectionaire Nacional where a new love affair began with Pastel de Nata. Back down to Rossio Square where the modern wire sculpture that encases a towering statue was lighting up in tempo with Christmas choir music that filled the square. At Confectionaire Nacional we ordered the famous Pastel de Nata, or pastry of the nation, a sweet custard in a phyllo dough-like crust, along with cake, sweet potato pastries and sweet egg yolks. With our bellies full of sweets, we headed back to the restaurant. Settled at out table under the puffy chandelier, we ordered pork leg for the boys to share, and Jason and I ordered the Arroz de Marisco, a thick saffron stew with tomatoes, rice, shrimp, mussels, clams, and lobster very much like paella. Just before our food arrived the waiter brought out a table to serve our food from. There, he carefully cut up boys' food and gave them each their own plate of fall-apart tender, melt-in-your-mouth pork. He then turned to our huge pot of arroz de marisco, spooning each of us up half a lobster tail, whole shrimps complete with eyeballs, mussels, clams and rice. Delicious.

Click here for photos of Alfama.

Castelo Sao Jorge

Today we made it to Castelo Sao Jorge which towers over the city of Lisboa with a long history. The earliest fortifications previously known in this location dated back to the 2nd century BC, but an archeological site within the castle walls is in the process of unearthing Iron Age ruins dating back to 500ish BC as well as Roman ruins. Around 700 AD, the the Moors took the site from the Visigoths and heavily fortified it. In 1147, during the second crusade, the Christians took it back after Martim Moniz threw himself into the last closing gate, giving his life so that the Christians could enter and defeat the Moors. More fortification followed and the castle defended Portuguese royalty from Spain until the 16th century. Though it was a formidable defender against Spain, the earthquake of 1755 left it in ruins until the late 1920's when Lisboa began to rebuild. Inside the castle walls was a huge vista overlooking the city lined with medieval cannons, romantic gardens with moss-covered fountains and statues, high ramparts to explore with long deep slits in the thick walls to rain arrows down on the enemies, wishing wells, cats and peacocks. Pretty much a little-boy medieval playground. Due to excessive grogginess we took it slow, in a very dazed and dream-like fashion along the high stone walls with low safety rails. Another day when we are not so tired we will go back so the boys can play like proper boys at a castle, though perhaps only in the low areas so we do not have to maneuver a hospital visit in Portuguese.

Click here to see photos.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Lisboa: Day 1

Today was a day of purpose...breakfast, groceries, buying cellphones (so Jason could still easily work on the move and so we can easily communicate with each other when we get separated), and explore the city along the way. Our errands lead us through the straight streets of Baixa rebuilt by the military after the earthquake of 1755 that leveled much of the city (a brief history to follow). Past the Elevator de Santa Justa, designed by the mastermind behind the Eiffel Tower, and up to the Chiado neighborhood where we weaved past the gothic arch remains of Convento do Carmo (also a victim of the earthquake), to the top of the elevator where we soaked in the amazing view over the city. Retracing our steps down to Baixa, we wandered over black-and-white patterned cobbled sidewalks through the eating lanes, lit by Christmas lights and clouded by the smoke of street vendors roasting chestnuts. Through Lisboa's Arch of Triumph to Praca do Comercio where a huge statue of King Jose I, who rebuilt the city after the earthquake, towers in the center of the plaza situated on the Rio Teja. Turning back towards the apartment we wandered past the 1180 AD Se, or cathedral, just barely touching on the winding streets of Alfama. Our wanderings for the day ended at Clara's en Castelo, a tiny, three table bistro boasting a French-Portuguese, husband-wife team. He was very verbose and happily translated the entire menu for us giving us multiple winks and thumbs-ups during the dinner while we enjoyed his wife's wonderful cooking.

A note on the earthquake of 1755: The earthquake is estimated to have been a 9.0 magnitude and came in three jolts. Jittery survivors hopped into boats in an attempt to sail to safety only to be capsized by the horrendous 20 foot wave that followed. If that was not enough, the city then turned into a raging inferno from the overturned cooking fires and candles that burned for five days. Of Lisboa's 270,000 residents, the highest estimate suggests that up to 90,000 may have perished in the quake.

Click here for photos from the day.

Happy New Year

After 19 hours of travel across the Atlantic and a New Year's champagne toast over Halifax, we arrived to a nearly empty airport in Lisboa. We had spent many hours worrying about if we had completed all of the proper procedures for entering Portugal with our tiny chihuahua, only to waltz through customs without anyone checking the carefully prepared paperwork. With luck, we caught a cab with an English-speaking driver who quickly (as is the way for Portuguese drivers) maneuvered the narrow streets (did I mention quickly?) to our apartment located just one block from the castle, Castelo Sao Jorge. We settled in just in time for a sunset walk to dinner at Chapitos, a restaurant/circus school with an amazing view over the city and the Rio Teja, where we got our first taste of Portuguese food. I will try not to dwell too much on food...but the olive oil, cheese and fish here are amazing. Very local, very fresh, almost everywhere....very different than traveling in the states. The remainder of the evening was spent magically wandering through the tight cobblestone streets surrounding our apartment and castle.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Landed in Lisboa

Two weeks before the new year, in the midst of holiday chaos, we were presented with an opportunity to go to Portugal. For eight weeks. After almost 48 hours of thought, we jumped on it. So here we are in Lisboa, the capital of Portugal.