Last views of Lisbon – Waving Tchau to a splendid city

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The last day we were about to spend in Lisbon was bound to be the onset of a rough couple of days in our itinerary. For starters we should find a place to leave our baggage for the day, as we were leaving Lisbon in an evening train to Madrid. Once there, on the following morning, we should also try to find somewhere to place our belongings as we were boarding on the evening flight to Marrakesh. That meant that we would not be sleeping on a bed for these couple of days and we should really save on our stamina and good mood.

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The day started a bit disappointingly, as our favorite bakery, Popolo cafe was closed since it was Sunday. We moved to the nearby Time out market, which was stuffed with choices for snacks and coffee and after a small stroll inside the building, where to our surprise we discovered a rather vibrant stamp collectors’ market (as vibrant as stamp collection can be that is), we started our day with a refreshing cold coffee.

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Our goal for the day was to simply visit the Belem district and we got positioned on the back of a big line of people that waited to get a ticket from the vending machines. I kept cursing myself for not responding positive to Catherine’s suggestion to buy those damned tickets last evening, when we returned to the very same spot from Cascais. The train station seemed crowded with people that were about to take advantage of the proximity of Lisbon to some fine beaches that were easily approachable by public transport.

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Our sort journey came to an end near the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, the monument of discoveries, a construction that commemorates the golden age of Portuguese explorations around the globe. It was built in the middle of the previous century and it stands on the river bank in front of the massive Jeronimo’s monastery. It resembles a ship and its sides are ornamented by several figures depicting warriors, priests, cartographers and so forth, while on its front side the figure of Prince Henry the Navigator, patron of Portuguese exploration, gazes at the endless horizon.

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The place was much more crowded than we had expected, but we lingered around for a while, taking advantage of a food stand that served some delicious sandwiches, which we savored sited by the river bank, keeping an eye for the ever begging seagulls that roam these place.

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We carried on with our walk towards Belem tower, a military structure built in the 16th century to guard the city. It was once situated in the middle of Rio Tejo, but it is said the great earthquake of Lisbon changed the river course and the tower found itself near the shore (not true though, the shoreline extended gradually towards the small island where the tower was built). A beautiful park adds much to the site’s charm and as every place we visited this one was also crowded. We bought some refreshments once more and sat on a bench watching some guys playing football. One of the things I always regret on these journeys is that it’s never a good time to join other people playing football whenever I find them, so I decided to try and take some pictures of the game that was taking place in front of a 16th century monument instead.

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The tower itself is quite alluring and it was a joy to visit this site. The white limestone blends harmonically with the colors of the river contributing to a lovely sight. This was probably the last image of home for many sailors and settlers of Portuguese origin, as they were leaving Europe to make a fortune in lands unknown to them. We left this place not being very decisive on what to do during our last hours in the city. Our belongings would be carefully stored in our hostel for the next couple of hours and it was already lunch time. We walked back to the train station, after taking some time for souvenirs and we were back at Cais do sodre.

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Since we had already experienced the place and found it to our liking, we made a stop there for a snack and something to drink. I was a bit reluctant to order any alcohol, but the vibe was so cheerful and we were having such a great time, I decided to get a beer. Later, some girls showed up, setting up some sort of hen party and that put more wood on the cheerful vibe fire. Therefor we stayed for a while longer, but it was about time to go and pick our stuff.

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Our train would be leaving Lisbon in a couple of hours after we got to Oriente train station, so there was lots of time and a few things to do. We had something to eat at a subway, lingered around the place for a while, spend some time at a bookstore, shop some snacks and water from a supermarket to get by through the journey. The place is designed by Calatrava though and we could easily discern the resemblance to the Olympic stadium in Athens, a design by the same architect.

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The wannabe gangsta crew

After enduring several blows of boredom, we walked up to our platform where we waited patiently, only to be informed a few minutes before departure, that our train was awaiting for us on another platform. I have never seen so many people running to catch a train, but eventually we boarded minutes before the train left the station and we tried to find our seats. That’s when the fun started.

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Our seats were occupied by some guys that seemed like a caricature of a Ghetto gang. There were three of them. I’ll call them Leader, Pugnacious D and Fan boy slim. All three of them were listening to hip-hop and they were speaking a mixture of Portuguese and English. Leader seemed to be in a better mental state than the others, he asked us if we wanted them to leave our seats and they all politely got up and sat somewhere else. Leader sat in the front, trying to establish connection with a girl they were all talking about in a rather lewd manner but after a few flattering remarks towards her he got asleep! Fan boy slim was a simple follower, he didn’t do or say much, but Pugnacious D was a loud mouth. He kept making obscene remarks towards the other passengers in general (addressing girls mostly) and he occasionally enjoyed a sip from a whiskey bottle all three of them shared. An old lady tried to protest to all this annoyance but Pugnie D shushed her and she was quick to look the other way terrified.

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After a while as he tried to say something to the Leader he accidentally annoyed the passenger seated in front of him, who protested furiously and Pugnacious D reacted by continuously annoying him, but avoiding touching the guy. Eventually the train conductor came to check everyone’s tickets and he found out that the “gang” was lacking both tickets and bravery. However, Leader woke up and pleaded with the conductor not to throw them out, as most of the passengers turned against the poor gangsta crew. The old lady in particular was furiously arguing with the conductor that he should get rid of them.

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That put the crew in a defensive position for a while, but some time after the conductor left they started getting annoying again, shouting profanities and trying to dance to some sort of hip hop rhythm that could be barely heard through a small transistor’s speaker. All this dancing became more intense after a few moments. Soon we all understood the reason for this vivid display of their dancing moves. They had reached their destination, so no harm could be inflicted upon them. They hastily left the train and once outside they started shouting. We were amused but we were left inside a train that had its A/C set to North Pole mode and we were about 8 hours away from our destination.

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Standing on the end of the world – Day trip to Sintra and the Atlantic coast

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…in my heart I was still carrying my grievance for not visiting that beach, while in my hands I was holding a lame conversion tool to a Christian heresy. The latter, I got rid of at a litter bin in Cascais. The former remains to this day.

Although we hadn’t yet accomplished our goal of experiencing Lisbon to the fullest way possible, we had decided that the next day we would visit Sintra and Cabo da Roca and maybe swim in the Ocean. Needless to point out that this was a very demanding task and sacrifices had to be made, let alone we couldn’t make these choices lightheartedly, so everything had to be decided on the spot. I have to say that we started our day too in too laid-back a manner , considering the efforts we had to make to correspond to such a heavy itinerary. Therefor we visited a small bakery that we noticed that had lots of local folks as clients and ordered our usual cup of frozen espresso, some sandwiches and pasteis de nata.

Curious to check out what sights we initially intended to visit around Sintra and the Atlantic coast? Well, be puzzled no more! Check our primary plans here.

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I must also point out that the Portuguese expression for breakfast (cafe da manha) pictures in the most perfect way my idea of breakfast. Morning coffee. Plain. Simple. Nothing else. Consequently, after enjoying this tasty breakfast, we walked to the nearby metro once more to reach Rossio train station, where we would board a train for the 45 minute ride to Sintra. Some tough decisions had to be made aboard that train but we limited our choice of sights to a couple. While in Sintra we would either visit Pena palace or Quinta da Regaleira.

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There are many sites to visit near this lovely town but when time is short harsh decisions have to be made. Pena palace is probably the most renown place in the area, yet we opted to visit Quinta da Regaleira, as we were drawn to it by the strange nature of the place, as the man who conceived the idea for this architectural delight, Carvalho Monteiro tried to create a place that would reflect his interest in alchemy and the occult. The man who would undertake the task to fulfill that goal at the beginning of the 2oth century, was the Italian architect Luigi Manini, who designed many buildings in Portugal at the time. In order to get there we walked through the town encountering many pieces of street art along the way and even more vendors that were spreading their merchandise on the pavement. We took advantage of the chance for some shopping before reaching our destination.

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The place is quite extended as it is actually a vast park on a hillside. The three floor high palace is the main building and it is built in Gothic style. There’s also a chapel, but the most bizarre sight is the park itself. Walking around the place you’ll encounter symbolic statues, fountains, initiation wells, tunnels, grottoes and a couple of lakes. The place had emanated a strange beauty, which took grotesque shapes at times and it would most certainly be quite an eerie place to walk after dark. It kind of reminded me of the setting of a Dario Argento’s films.

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I guess that the initiation well is the site’s most prestigious highlight. A fountain is situated in front of the entrance as if clumsily trying to hide it, while a small lowly lit tunnel guides the visitor to the well, which is better lit as the light of day bursts in through the opening on the top. The rest of the park hides various symbolisms related to the occult (we actually threw some water from the fountain of abundance on our bodies to cast away the ghost of summer heat and the specter of poverty – one was gone, still waiting for the other) and it could really be a much more exciting place to visit for someone who delves into this stuff. It made me think that the whole park is some sort of a map of Carvalho Monteiro’s mind: A place of charm, yet one of puzzlement and anxiety to lay hands on the mysteries of being.

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We were impressed by these benches which stood opposite each other depicting an analogy. A man and a couple of dogs on the one side, a woman and another couple of dogs on the other one. Don’t know if there’s some hidden meaning behind this though…

We had spent quite some time in Sintra and it was time to move to the coast. We were informed that we would have to return near the train station to catch the bus to Cabo da Roca, which meant that we would have to walk a bit more. After a long walk and a short break while awaiting to board the bus, we followed the lovely yet quite tiresome route to our destination. The place where the world comes to its end. At least that was the general belief until the 14th century and the scenery had played its own part on that issue.

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I personally expected the place to be more otherworldly but the vast crowds of visitors instantaneously crossed that secret hope of my mind. I guess we also contributed to some other poor visitor’s broken hope of a similar experience with our presence alone though. Nevertheless the crowd was gradually swept of our minds as the wind and the waves captured our souls reclaiming nature’s dominion over human beings. We were standing on the westernmost part of Europe facing the Atlantic ocean over a high cliff. Nothing but huge waves laid between us and the lands west of that place where the sky seemed to prolong the sea to infinity. This was truthfully the place where the land ends and the sea begins, as the inscription on the sites monument declared. The place emanated its unique atmosphere as there were not many shops nearby, only a lighthouse, a coffee shop and a small gift shop. Enchanted by the dramatic landscape I even suggested to Catherine that we should visit the nearby Praia da Ursa, but she objected noticing that there was a great risk of losing the last bus to Cascais and remain stranded on the world’s end all night. I was willing to take our chances but she wisely wasn’t.

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My frustration turned to a feeling of sparing joy, as I noticed a stand of books with four large letters placed on it. F – R – E – E. Free! Books are to me what cheese is to mice (come to think about it mice also eat books) so I got near grabbed one, realized it was about religion, left it, eager to get my hands on another one and then I dishearteningly noticed that every single book was the same edition of a Jehova’s witnesses’ booklet published in different languages. It was then that I noticed the kind stranger sitting nearby, gazing happily at me, maybe the only person on earth who willingly laid his hands on a proselytizing manual to read. It was too late for me to run and I was quite embarrassed to admit that I accidentally showed any interest on these books. It wouldn’t sound too good:

“Sorry mate! I thought you were displaying something interesting”

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We left the place after a while, as the bus to Cascais arrived and in my heart I was still carrying my grievance for not visiting that beach, while in my hands I was holding a lame conversion tool to a Christian heresy. The latter, I got rid of at a litter bin in Cascais. The former remains to this day.

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We reached Cascais where we decided to walk around town for a while. There’s a lovely trail leading to Boca do inferno, but we wouldn’t walk that far as Catherine was tired, so we casually strolled around the city for a while. Cascais is a beautiful city and there’s a large beach right in front of it, which seemed kind of fun but not near my idea of a great beach as it was too crowded. Seemed like a good place for socializing though. The path leading outside of the city was very appealing as it follows the shore enables view to the vastness of the Atlantic. We even spotted another beach, a better one that seemed like a river as the sea appeared to be entering a narrow inland passage, but the time for strolling had to come to an end. It had been a very tiresome day and it was about time we had something to eat and a drink or two.

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As the train to Lisbon took us all the way back to Cais do Sodre, we didn’t bother to look for any other options. The kiosks sold food. We were hungry. It looked great. We are never hasty when it comes to food though, so after spotting a canteen that sold some sort of codfish croquettes, we bought some as an appetizer and it was a very tasty choice. The main course was provided by a nearby kiosk that specialized on sandwiches and that also went well. We skipped desert though and proceeded straight to drinking, as we revisited the place we enjoyed our drinks the night before, to enjoy some cocktails, music and a lovely Portuguese evening.

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First glimpse of splendid Lisbon

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The Lisbon Oceanarium proved to be a perfect kickoff on our exploration of the Portuguese capital, but we were also eager to view the more characteristic sites of the city. Therefor, after a small break for snacks and refreshments, we reached the metro station once more and found ourselves at Rossio, one of the city’s central squares and one with a very elegant pavement, distinctive of Portuguese public art, that resembled ocean waves, typical of a seafaring nation.

Would you like to compare our experience in Lisbon with what we had originally planned for our stay? Then check our initial itinerary here.

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Walking around the place for a while, we stumbled upon Mundo fantastico da sardinha Portuguesa, a shop strictly committed to the declaration of the glorious Portuguese canned sardine, as the name suggests. The shop was super fun, as it emulated the vibe of a circus, while its sole product is – you guessed it – canned sardines. They are placed in cans marked in dates ranging from the early 20th century to the present and each year has its own tonality, which creates a phantasmagoria of color, contributing to the final result along with the shop’s own soundtrack. The sardine can price is a bit salty though…

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Later we run into Santa Justa lift, the only elevator still remaining on the city streets. As Lisbon is built on rather high hills, getting from the lower streets of the city to the higher ones was a somewhat bothersome task. So, in the beginning of the 20th century this elevator was constructed as part of a plan that would moderate the problem, which also included some funicular railways like elevador da Gloria and elevador da Bica. The top of the elevator allows some great views of the lower city and will get you behind the Carmo convent.

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We opted to walk around the city for a bit more though and our stroll continued until we reached Bertrand bookstore, the world’s oldest one still active. Since I have made some small progress in Portuguese over the past months, I was able to comprehend book titles and reviews, so we spend some time there looking for books. Finally, I acquired a copy of the Lusiads, but our homage to Portuguese literature wasn’t over yet. A few steps away from Bertrand lies a very special Café.  It is called A Brasileira, it stands there from the 19th century and it has been a meeting place of many esteemed Portuguese intellectuals, including Fernando Pessoa, whose bronze statue sits patiently on the writer’s usual table, inviting tourists to sit down and take a picture with him. We joined the table next to the man (Oh, my God! Don’t look! Fernando Pessoa is enjoying his coffee right beside you!) and also had a shot taken before advancing higher on the city hills.

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After admiring the view of Rio Tejo, as it could be seen through the narrow streets that would go all the way downhill to its shore, we finally reached the entrance of the majestic ruins of Carmo convent. The place was built in late 14th century and simply judging from its dimensions one can easily figure out what an important religious building it was. However during the 1755 earthquake it was heavily damaged and is now housing a museum. The disaster spawned a wave of controversy throughout the continent, as people would wander how God would allow nation, so devoted to Christianity suffer such a tragedy.

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Walking around the ruined temple it becomes evident that the thought would have crossed any believer’s mind. There’s a very interesting museum on the site, housing artifacts from different periods of Portuguese history, among them some artifacts of Visigoth origin and some Royal burials, but the most astonishing relic in display were the couple of Incan mummies. I was surprised to see them in Lisbon, since Peru was colonized by Spain, but here they sat, a boy and a girl peacefully enduring as eons went by and tourists were astonished to come across them in a ruined convent so far from their home.

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Leaving the convent we hanged around on the small square that laid in front of it and enjoyed a beer and a couple of pasteis de nata from a canteen. It was about time have a meal though and we left the convent to return near Rossio square, where we found a used books store, which I naturally had to visit. Five minutes and a couple of books later, we were back on the streets looking for a place to eat. Since we couldn’t decide what to eat we wasted some time walking from one street to another, but eventually, we found a place, where we enjoyed a decent meal, putting an end to this days sightseeing and getting ready for some fun.

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Instead of staying near Rossio, we chose to return to Cais do Sodre, as Catherine had spotted some kiosks upon our arrival the night before. It turned out to be an exceptional choice, albeit a bit touristy, as this part of town has become a trendy neighborhood, where you can find many restaurants and night clubs. We marched to the kiosks by the riverside, where we took some shots of the statue of Christ the King, that stood on the opposite shore of Tejo and the magnificent 25th of April bridge that laid under its feet. After weighing our options for a while, we spotted a small place where cocktails were served, while some street musicians acted as the spot’s entertainers. It was a great way to have some fun after a rather tiresome day, that started with a long visit at the Oceanarium and an equally lengthy walk among the city’s historical sites. During the following day, we would take a break from Lisbon in order to visit Sintra and the Ocean, but although that would be a challenging affair to cope with, we didn’t feel in need of a rest.

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A first taste of Portugal – There’s something fishy about Lisbon

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Portugal was the country I was more anxious to visit during this trip and Lisbon proved to be a great travel destination, although it was similar to Greece in some ways, that at times we felt as if we had never left home. The climate was comparable to my hometown (extremely humid and hot during the summer days we spent there), people partying  or simply hanging around with friends late at night, even the fondness of sardines (well,  Lisbon takes it one step further, as we don’t have any shops devoted strictly to canned sardines, although we do have a two day fiesta about this yummy fish).

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As we arrived late at night, we simply got to the metro and reached Cais do Sodre, our home for the weekend, which actually proved to be a great choice. We had some trouble locating our hostel, but in the end we settled in and tried to rest in order to make a fresh start during this leg of our itinerary as our first stop tomorrow would be the Oceanário de Lisboa.

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Taking advantage of the metro, we reached the great park where our destination is located and were shocked to find a huge crowd lining up for tickets. Thankfully, we had booked ours online, therefor we skipped the extensive line of people gathered patiently by the entrance and we rushed in eagerly awaiting for this experience to begin.

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We crossed an elevated aisle, listening to recorded sounds of the sea, whales, seagulls among the ones we could discern, but some of unknown origin to us as well, before advancing to the main tank, just to be temporarily frustrated by the crowd surrounding it. It made sense though, as the large crowd awaiting to get a hold of a ticket, was a precursor of what would go on inside. Of course, after a while we managed to figure out how to move inside the crowded place (hint: it takes some gentle nudging, no I wouldn’t know anything about the bodies floating in the shark tank) and truly had a great time, while learning about the oceans and the marine life.

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The main tank offered the chance to view the oceanarium’s collection from various angles and we enjoyed the serene movements of sharks, rays and other exhibits, before turning our attention towards the smaller habitats. We were mesmerized by the penguins, which seemed to stand perfectly still, as if they were freeze-dried or something, yet their elegance once they would dive in the cold water tank left us speechless. They would move like rockets and our eyes could hardly follow their motion.

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Those little guys had their names tagged on this board, which we found super cute, why would anyone call a penguin Oliver Twist though, eludes me.

We carried on strolling through the place admiring the rays, which seemed to be floating as part of a bizarre dream, I mean, they would simply hovering peacefully around their tank, yet they’d emit a sense as if something was about to happen, giving the impression that they are the keepers of a secret that would soon be revealed and something strange would occur as they would go on with their magnificent yet creepy dance.

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The sea otters were of a more playful character and quickly cheered up everyone that placed their eyes upon them, while the tropical habitat offered us a chance to experience a small scale model of the rain-forest. I must say, I expected the place to be like some sort of aquatic zoo, but we were pleasantly surprised, as it was a lot more than that, as it became evident that this place aims to inform its visitors about the planet’s marine ecosystems and it takes this mission seriously, while at the same time provides entertainment to all ages (They even offer the chance to spend the night by the main tank, or as they call it sleep with the sharks).

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Around the main tank, smaller ones present the biodiversity of the North Atlantic, the Antarctic coast, the Pacific and the Indian ocean. We enjoyed viewing the huge Antarctic cramps, as well as the immense sunfish and urchins and starfish, before returning to the sharks and rays once more. A huge octopus was practicing its own dance moves just a while before we left, satisfied that we had the chance to gain such valuable knowledge during this visit. We also spent some time around the kids area, which was simply awesome, providing the youngsters with the opportunity to get acquainted with the ocean and the food chain through play. We could have visited the temporary exhibition as well, which seemed rather interesting, but we were feeling pretty tired (your ticket entitles you to visit the place as many times as you wish during the day though), while we had to see more of downtown Lisbon before running out of time, let alone we were also a bit hungry. Therefor, we made a small stopover at the gift shop and waived the Oceanarium goodbye, before a brief stop for snacks and refreshments, prior to our peregrination through the main attractions of the Portuguese capital…

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The Oceanario is part of a beautiful park, which seemed that it would make a great addition to our itinerary

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Science lives on the street

 

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Back to Warsaw – The final day of our Baltic trip

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The ten hour bus night ride from Vilnius was a cozy ride, yet we arrived in Warsaw rather tired as we had been sleepless during most of the trip. Once in Warsaw, we grabbed an early cup of coffee and visited the bathroom at the bus station, where we discovered a conveniently located storage area to leave our baggage (heavy with souvenirs, as our hearts were loaded with experiences and images).

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As our flight was scheduled to leave early in the evening, we decided to spent most of our time near the old town center, thus we took the familiar route to the castle. That enabled us to enjoy the place to ourselves as it was almost deserted that early in the morning and we managed to get some clear shots of the buildings that ornament the place. As the streets were empty, we even got a chance to notice some buildings that escaped our attention as the noisy crowd distracted us during our last visit.

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This house played an important part during the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, at least that is what I could figure out with my limited knowledge of Polish

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We also desired to have some breakfast, but it was too early and most shops were closed. I wanted to visit the nearby milk bar, but Catherine wanted to have a healthier option, so we opted to consent to both our wishes. Catherine, amazed as I pigged out, ordering a been soup, cutlet with mashed potatoes and nalesniki and became dissatisfied when the lady that worked at the milk bar, asked her to put off her cigarette, although we were sited alone, outside the place. Her disappointment quickly and reasonably turned to anger as she show the same lady smoking inside the kitchen.

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What!? It’s just a three course meal, at 9.00… Hasn’t anyone heard of the food pyramid?

Her frustration was appeased quickly though, as we rushed to the nearby To lubie cafe, where she finally had the chance to enjoy her tasty breakfast. It was probably a healthier and better choice than the one I made, but we were both satisfied with what we had tasted.

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I admit it, that was a healthier choice

After we had both finished breakfast, we visited the castle, where an exhibition about the common struggle of Poles and Hungarians was held and we were extremely moved by the solidarity that was expressed between these nations. Leaving the castle, we walked the short route back to the main square, where we felt we were in need for some more coffee. We ordered our favorite coffee and we shared a laugh along with the waiter when we were served, as the coffee before us differed greatly from the one we had in mind.

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We continued wandering around the old town, taking photos and visiting souvenir shops, until we decided to return to the main bus station and spend some time there before catching a mini bus to Modlin airport. We wandered around aimlessly for quite a while, sad that our trip was coming to an end and feeling very tired. Our boredom was broken by someone who claimed he was some sort of guru, that had traveled to India and that tried to sell me a book he wrote, as I was waiting for Catherine. It was fun at first, talking to the guy and claiming I had no need of his book, because I had already acquired inner peace and stuff, but the guy became a bit pushy, so, sadly, I had to get rid of him. After a while, we took our bus to the airport and spend some time there as well. We couldn’t really enjoy anything over the last hours as we knew we were leaving and that put off our travel mood. Yet, It was such a fun trip and we were already anxiously waiting for the next one.

 

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Those two angels, just sitting, seemingly aimlessly as we did, appeared as if they came out of a scene from Wenders’ Der Himmel über Berlin

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Trakai – The castle on the lake (followed by a visit to Uzupis republic

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Would you believe that this tiny, picturesque town used to be the center of Lithuanian politics for a brief period in the 15th century? At first thought it doesn’t make any sense why the Medieval rulers of the country would spend most of their time in a small village instead of nearby Vilnius, but when you get off the local bus and step on this wondrous place, their motives begin to get visible. It takes a stroll from the bus station to the castle for the history and beauty of the place to unfold before your eyes.

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The first thing to notice is the lake. It shapes the place and constitutes its nucleus. It gives the area a tone of relaxation, it actually shouts loudly that this is a place for recreation and that is actually emphasized on the town’s founding myth, according to which after a hunting excursion, Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania discovered a wonderful lake and decided to have a castle built on the spot. Since then, the area’s beauty attracted lots of people and Gediminas’ grandson spent a great amount of his time there, once he became the Grand Duke.

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The next thing you notice, is the town’s multicultural identity. We spotted a small Russian church, which although didn’t look much on the outside, was brilliantly and colorfully decorated in its interior. We also spotted a wooden synagogue and a restaurant that was run by Karaites, that specialized in a fish dish, while we also heard that many Poles live in the area. We wanted to have a taste of the Karaite cuisine, but it was too early to have lunch and we approached the town’s main attraction.

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The island castle of Trakai, connected to the mainland by a narrow wooden bridge, which was under renovation at the time. The pink-colored, stone structure bonds in harmony with the lake and seems as if something one would see in a dream. The interior doesn’t seem as impressive though, regrettably, it seemed to us as a sloppy tourist trap, since the courtyard was planted with replicas of medieval torture equipment. Still, that could not diminish our adoration of this place.

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Charmed of this wonderful corner of the country, we left Trakai to return to Vilnius and spent the rest of the day there until our nightly bus ride to Warsaw. We had already seen most of the places on our list over the past day, so this exploration was going to be a rather casual approach to this city. That laid-back approach started with a rather large pizza accompanied by a bottle of beer. We had visited this great place last evening and it so happened that we got hungry the minute we got past outside its door.

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Great choice once more and as we felt regenerated with that tasty break, we advanced for a walk to Bernadinai garden, which seemed pleasantly crowded at the time – we even spotted several people canoeing in the adjacent river. The trees provided a cool shadow from the – incredibly burning considering how north we were – sun rays and we even spotted a mini free library, a box where you could freely take a book and leave one for someone else to enjoy.

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Having rested on the park, we advanced once more into my favorite St Anne’s church, but this time we didn’t pay a visit to the site, we decided to have a coffee at a Café situated by the river next to the orthodox cathedral, at the edge of the Republic of Uzupis. The Café was situated on a great spot, as it allowed access to the river, where a swing was set, hanging from a small bridge over the river. It was a huge attraction with girls walking into the shallow water eager to swing and have a cheerful shot taken while sat on it. It made us feel buoyant ourselves. We enjoyed some laughs as the waiter – quite joyful herself happily – tried to serve us our coffee as per our instructions.

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I have to say, sometimes I think that we may appear weirdly eccentric to waiters who take our order on these demands of ours to prepare a coffee as per our instructions. It originally began as a need to enjoy this coffee after spending many days without its taste, but it has now become a favorite oddity, as we anxiously await for the way it will be presented to us, or the taste. This time they got close as we were offered espresso, ice cubes and warm milk. Had they shaken cold milk with ice cubes, everything would be great, but we never complain. Besides, we got to have a view at the Uzupis mermaid.

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The Uzupis republic is a self-proclaimed republic within Vilnius. This small but lovely neighborhood is the artistic heart of the city and currently celebrates its 20 years of independence.  The neighborhood has its own constitution, which was sooooo awesome! I mean come on! Article 13 proclaims that a cat is not obliged to love its owner, but must help in time of need! If you think about including cats in a constitution you must be a genius! The constitution is attached on a wall in various languages for everyone to read and although downtown Vilnius is great and laid back, this side of the river is an even more easy going place.

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We even spotted a small bookstore, where I bought an English book about Lithuanian pottery and a cute cat sleeping in a box of books outside the store. We walked around the neighborhood for a while and as we were about to leave, we stumbled upon an open kitchen, which featured tastes from all over the world, but sadly, we were too full of pizza to even have a bite. That cheered us even more, before returning back to the old town, where we made a brief stop to rest on the park by the cathedral.

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As we began to slowly drag our steps towards the bus station, we also came across a place where Adam Mickiewicz resided for a while, but as our appetite returned, we sat on a place we had spotted during the previous day’s walk and ordered some pancakes. Once more, food in Vilnius proved to be simply great and even though pancakes seem more of a breakfast thing rather than a dinner choice, it was just what we needed at the time. Eventually, we returned to our hostel, where we had left our luggage for the day – we can’t thank the people there enough for that service and reached the bus station.

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While on the premises, we chatted with a Lithuanian guy, who described the effects of the introduction of euro in the country’s economy. It was exactly like listening to a Greek describing what happened at the currency’s first steps when introduced. “Bread used to cost 2 (?) litas/ 100 drachmas and then it went to 1 euro (thrice up the price)”. Don’t get me wrong, I am strongly pro euro, but these small things contributed up to a point to the bad economy. While boarding the bus, we had some laughs as the driver faced our old-fashioned Greek I.D. cards with a justified puzzled look (It actually took Catherine a few minutes to board the bus, as our documents are an oddity). Once aboard, we made ourselves comfortable for the overnight trip back to Warsaw, watching movies, sleeping and having coffee. After all it was a ten hour ride…

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Vilnius is one of the liveliest cities you ever did see

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The ride to Vilnius proved to be rather cozy and we enjoyed the spectacle of the sunny Baltic countryside. The bus station was also conveniently located near our hostel, which in turn was comfortably positioned next to the Gate of Dawn, the last remaining city gate of Vilnius. As it was almost noon, we dropped our luggage in our room and approached the illustrious gate to enter the old city of Vilnius.

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The Gate itself doesn’t look much from the outside, but its inner view is truly a memorable sight. According to the 16th century practice, a religious icon depicting the Virgin Mary is placed in a chapel inside the gate, acting as the city’s guardian against enemies. We could discern the influences of orthodox art on the finely crafted painting and it was pleasing to see such a familiar pattern in such a distant place.

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After this gratifying first taste of Vilnius, we realized that we should pursuit some Lithuanian flavors as we hadn’t eaten anything since morning and it was lunch time. Subsequently, we found a place by pure chance. And what a great chance that was! We don’t even recall how on earth did we spot the place as it didn’t seem to have an entrance on the main road. Kitchen is a restaurant nested on the first floor of a building that provides a great view of the town hall and the streets. The interior was elegantly modern, the food and the service were excellent and they were also photo-shooting a beer commercial when we got there. The time we spent there eradicated the last shreds of fatigue and enabled us to keep enjoying Vilnius and to further explore this fun city.

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The next building we encountered on our way down town was the St Nicholas orthodox church, which we entered to find out that a ceremony was taking place and Catherine half-mistakenly, as she wanted to light a candle, participated in this Russian styled rite, as she found herself among a group of women that were lining up for a priest to place some oil on their foreheads. Ah! The priests must have been the rock stars of the Middle ages.

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After Catherine was blessed by the priest, we continued our walk towards the principal attraction on our Lithuanian bucketlist. St’ Anne’s Church, the greatest church building we have viewed so far, a gothic styled monument of 15th century flamboyance, an architecture I couldn’t stop taking shots of and I wished to spend there as much time as it would be possible. I had heard that Napoleon had marveled at the buildings beauty and that he actually expressed a wish to carry it back to Paris with him and I could sense why.

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The inside seemed rather empty, but still all that space actually made the church look enormous and yet there were many interesting corners, where you could discover elements of the country’s past. I was mostly impressed by a sizable head made of stone that bore a cross right on its top, with its sides coming out of the statue’s ears. I am probably mistaken, but it seemed as if the head once belonged to an ancient Lithuanian god and the overcoming new faith modified it to enlist it in its own religious service.

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Having crossed that exquisite place of our list, we made one more stop to loosen up over a cup of coffee. We had done so much sightseeing over the past days and we wouldn’t mind if we just quit it and laze out for the rest of the remaining time on that trip over coffee, beer and snacks. Yet, this voice inside our heads kept pushing us to get up and experience more of Vilnius and we concluded that we should come to some sort of agreement between this sightseeing pixie inside our souls and our lethargic bodies. Therefore, we spotted an ice cream and desserts shop near the small cafe we were nested and vowed to every dessert there that we would return.

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Driven by that dessert pledge, we marched to the Vilnius Cathedral, another massive religious building, that is built where a temple to the Lithuanian god Perkunas used to stand. The place is in close proximity to the palace of the grand dukes and next to a pretty park and allows a great view of the imposing Gediminas tower that tirelessly guards over the city. At the time of our visit some events regarding the Olympic games were taking place on the Cathedral’s square and many children were having fun participating in this affair. I was a bit envious of some youngsters that were playing basketball and I even considered asking them to join in, but at the thought alone I swear I could hear my knee snap.

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Besides that, the sky was filled with colored hot air balloons that lifted everyone’s spirits as they rose up in the sky. We took some shots and walked a little further away from the Cathedral, right in front of the national museum where we fell upon some polynesian looking statues, that might have been some more images of the country’s old gods.

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We felt we had exceeded the limit set for sightseeing and true to our word, we returned to the pastry shop we had spotted earlier, to get a sweet taste of Lithuania. It was truly a great choice and we savored it happily, before moving on to explore more of the city. I also added a copy of Kristijonas Donelaitis’ Metai on our library and we also visited a rather small bookstore, that was also a cafe, where I looked around for some more books while Catherine was enjoying a refreshment.

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During our walk around town we spotted many kids playing music – which puzzled us a bit, but they didn’t seem to be begging, let alone many of them played admirably, while we also spotted an event where many people were dancing to Latin music in an open space. The city was constantly crowded with all sorts of people, parents enjoying a walk with their kids, young couples, tourists and lots and lots of young people. We made another stop a cocktail near the Cathedral and as we felt it was too early to call it a night, we also hanged out for some pizza and a couple of beers. Thankfully, so far our choices on food and drink proved to be excellent and even though we were feeling a bit tired, the city was so vibrant and vigorous that kept tempting us into more fun. Finally, as the streets begun to drain of crowds, we returned to our hostel to rest. According to our itinerary, on the following day we would make a brief visit to Trakai and spend the entire day on the roads of Vilnius, before catching a night bus back to Warsaw, to complete our trip.

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