Arriving at Gozo (First impressions of the Maltese Archipelago)

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Malta and Italy were great, yet there was still a lot of work to be done back home, hence, it took so long for me to post. Besides enjoying a great time on these countries, I’ve also enjoyed a little bit more of Italy and San Marino by myself. I may not have had lots of time over the past year, yet the good news is I’m probably being published! I got a deal for my thesis to be published, but I have to translate it into English first and I’ve been working strenuously on that project for quite a few months now. Hopefully the first draft will be finishe by the end of February. There are some more things that limit my time and it seems that I can’t hold true to my promise of posting more often, yet I ‘ll keep trying. The plan for now is to post more on our last trip to Malta and Italy, and in between describing our travels to Spain and Southeast Asia.

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As far as last year’s journey was concerned, we enjoyed Malta and Gozo, where we visited lots of places (yet, as is often the case, not all the places that were in our list) and we had a couple of days running around Italy, as Catherine only stayed for a while there. During our common stay, we visited Cinqueterre and caught a glimpse of Bologna, while after Catherine’s return home, I visited San Marino, spent a Weekend in Florence, walked Via Francigena (one of the best experiences I’ve ever had) and made a stopover at Pisa.

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After landing on Malta, we purchaced a couple of Tallinja cards, which are cards that can be used to ride the local buses for a week and we headed towards Cirkewwa, where we would catch the ferry to Gozo. The ride took a bit longer than expected and we had to wait a while for the ferry to depart for the short trip to Gozo. Once there, we got on another local bus to reach our accomodation after a couple of stops. It was a small distance by bus, but Gozo is a place that is filled with tall hills and our fatigue made us look at the hill that stood in front of us as if we were gazing at a huge mountain.

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Nevertheless, we settled in our room, had some water and rested for a while before heading for the beach. Sunbathing and swimming weren’t our top priorities in the Maltese archipelago, but still, we wouldn’t pass on that opportunity. So, our first stop once on the islands was Ramla beach, a nice place covered by an orange sand and lots of people. The sea wasn’t much to our liking, as the seabed seemed to be covered with stones and pebbles and there were these barriers that draw out the limit swimmers are advised to go and that always make me feel confined. Yet, it was still a great way to get acquainted with the island before leaving to visit another location. We got to wait for the bus in the company of many others, facing the prickly pears that are scattered all around the island.

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Our next stop for the day was Victoria, at the center of the island, were we walked for a while around the village, before deciding to find someplace to have lunch. After that we simply returned to our room and rested for a while as it was already getting a bit dark and we were too tired to try and stroll around the island any longer. So, we spent a rather cozy, relaxed evening since thenext day we were planning to do as much sightseeing as possible.

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It’s a funny feeling when you ride buses for about six hours to get to the airport and the plane flies at a distance of 50km from your home (This, however, would get even weirder on my return from Italy)

Flash escape to the city of waters

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A few days back, we were offered a chance for a short trip to Edessa with some friends. We don’t usually bite for organized excursions since we prefer to make our own plans, but this one was a great deal and one wonderfully planned (couldn’t have done it better ourselves). Before reaching the city we could taste the cherry-scented atmosphere, since cherries are a favorite local product. Edessa is a small town in central Macedonia, near the border with the Republic of North Macedonia (a destination we keep telling ourselves we should visit soon) and is called the city of waters since its center is crossed by numerous streams and the local river Edesseos. The city’s gem is the magnificent 70 m long waterfall, Caranos, named after an ancient king, that leaves the city descending forcefully the valley below, where the ruins of the ancient city can be found.

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The waterfall area was the place where the industrial area of the city was established at the start of the twentieth century, as many mills where constructed in order to exploit the force of water. These mills have now been turned to various museums that present an image of the pre-industrial Balcan peninsula, but can also please the eye of anyone interested in curiosities.

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Our first stop was a very interesting one, as we visited an old mill, which had now been turned to an acquarium –  terrarium. Several snakes – most of them constrictors to my understanding – were on display and we all had the chance to come face to face (through thick glass of course) with pythons, boas and even a couple of anacondas and tortoises. I believe that the people running the terrarium offer a great service to the community, as it seems that they collect the animals that many people get bored with and consequently wish to get rid of. Sadly it seems that lots of people think that it’s a cool idea to acquire a reptile as a pet, but as their pet gets older and increases in size they try to find ways to get rid of it. A few years back a small crocodile was located at a lake in Crete. Thankfully this terrarium offers an alternative as most of these animals would find it hard to survive if they were abandoned by their owners.

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Our next stop was at a sesame mill – yes, it turns out that sesame is processed in mills – and we found ourselves at a very well preserved building. The lady in charge of the mill demonstrated the whole process of sesame grinding as the mill is operational and she explained everything. After she was done with that she explained the benefits of a Mediterranean diet (which I found boring, but it was a great thing to do for the large group of small kids that comprised the main part of our group). A great end to the tour was that we were served a local juice made of cherry and a Greek traditional power bar, called pasteli, made from sesame and honey.

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Afterwards we visited another mill, the mill of flavors, where we were told about the water cycle. I have to say I didn’t pay much attention to that one, as I missed half of the tour since I was busy wandering on the small cobble-stoned paths outside this museum, taking a few photos. At the end of the tour we were offered water – which I desperately needed, yet didn’t get any, as it seems there were not enough bottles for everyone. Still it seems to me that this museum was a great experience for the young ones.

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A few minutes after we left the mill area and walking through the old main street, we visited the old church of the city, a 14th century post-Byzantine basilica, which was originally dedicated to the Lord’s wisdom (Sofia) hence the temple’s original name Hagia-Sofia, like its famous counterpart in Constantinople. However now the temple is dedicated to the assumption, as according to the local legend the Ottoman sultan issued a law according to which all churches dedicated to the Lord’s wisdom had to be turned to mosques. So, the local bishop bribed the officials and convinced them that the church was dedicated to the assumption. I have limited knowledge on this historic period, but I’ve read once that many church name changes, signify a change in demographics, as newer inhabitants take over the old buildings and restore them.

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What was most striking about this church though, was the capital of one of the columns. It depicts rams and eagles catching their prey and it was originally placed on a building much older than the temple, possibly a temple of the old gods. The column itself is also very beautiful as it is made of a red marble and all these different elements that consist this old metropolitan church, create a harmonious composition.

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Last stop, before lunchtime was the city’s main attraction, the waterfall park. I had visited the place twice, but that was so many years ago, I think last time I was there I was about twelve years old or something. I remembered a few things like the small path behind the waterfall and the very small cave near it, but not much else. The place offers great views of the valley below, where the ruins of the ancient city can be visited (one more place on my bucket-list) and it’s a good place to hang around.

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That was to be the last stop of our tour before lunch time, which was great (as is food mostly in Northern Greece). I also had a chance to visit another monument along with a friend, as Catherine was enjoying some ice cream. The “Byzantine” bridge called kioupri (from Turkish köprü=bridge), which can easily be reached if you follow the river upstream for about a kilometer. It’s situated in a shady park and it seems that there was a bridge since pre-Roman times on the spot and continued so till today. So, if you wish to cross a bridge that is supposed to have consisted part of the Via Egnatia, the road connecting Rome and Byzantium here’s your chance. We also had a chance to catch a glimpse of a water snake hiding in weed, stalking for some fish while there, before returning to our group for the way back home.

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p.s. I know I haven’t been writing as often as I’d like for the past months, but I continue being very busy with other issues. We are still renovating, while I have to participate at a conference next week and furthermore we are not yet done with this year’s trip. So far we’ve booked our tickets and hotels, but we still have to take care of minor details. I’ll try and keep updating on that one over the next weeks.

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Day trip to Albania – Visiting the neighbors

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The story goes as follows… During the period when the communist regime ruled supreme over the country, the dictator commanded that after dark all lights should go off, so that the country would save on electricity supply. The people living opposite the tourist loaded island of Corfu, would stare at the bright lights of the nearby shore and wonder why on earth would their capitalist-plagued neighbors have electricity, while themselves, a proud socialist nation would live in darkness. After many letters to the ruling party committee – all without any response, the big guy himself, the Albanian dictator, decided to visit the area and make a public speech. The people had no choice but to listen to a couple of hours of propaganda about the benefits the regime bestowed its beloved subjects (The guy was Kim-Yong-Illing before it was cool) and all they could do was cheering the dictator, as their other option was imminent imprisonment. They were exhausted, as after long hours of hard work the last thing they would like to do would be listening to a madman raving about the happiness and prosperity he had brought to these sad and poor people, but their patience would be rewarded as the great ruler rewarded them with the answer to the issue that had troubled them for months:

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“My children, check out the opposite shore, do you see these lights? Oh, my people you are indeed so lucky. For you my people, live in our blessed communist state. When it gets dark, you get to return home. Those poor souls that dwell under the iron foot of capitalism are forced to work all day and all night!”

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Although the story may not be true, it depicts the state of affairs in pre-90’s Albania, which was one of the most politically isolated countries in Europe for a great part of the last century. That state is also reflected on the empty concrete carcasses of the tens of thousands of bunkers that are dispersed across the country, since the dictator was constantly afraid of an attack. As we were told the state has issued a company with the task of demolishing the bunkers and retrieve the iron within their shell (it’s estimated that each one contains 1000 to 1500 euros worth of iron).

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On our way into the country we passed through Ksamil, the place where the country’s best beaches are to be found as we were told, but we wouldn’t pay a visit. I was impressed by the leaning carcass of a building I saw on top of a hill though and as I read many people are trying to build houses (or even hotels in that case) in order to take advantage of the rapid growth of tourism, but as they lack the necessary permit (or proper connections) receive a visit from the authorities that demolish a couple of pillars thus leaving the owner with the problem of funding the removal of the debris. I couldn’t be fast enough to get a shot, so here’s one I got from this guy. 

Our first stop was the ancient city of Butrint, where we strolled through the Greek, Roman and Venetian ruins and the national park. For those of us that like ancient sites it’s definitely a great place to explore and the trees offer their shade generously sheltering of the sun. We had plenty of time to explore the site and the adjacent small museum, although we couldn’t admire the mosaics as they were covered by a protective layer of sand (They become accessible to your eyes only in August). The place was very quiet as Albania is not heavily ransacked by tourists (although the city of Saranda seemed to be a bit damaged by high hopes of future tourist income).

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What impressed me was the cable ferry, as I hadn’t seen anything like it. It seemed like a rather popular method for crossing the Vivari channel and is situated just outside the entrance of the archaeological site. I even saw some cars and passengers taking the few minute ride across.

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This Church reminded me of Lisbon’s Carmo Convent in a smaller scale

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I also met an actor at Butrint theatre, I guess the play that was on, was The Frogs

Our next stop was the city of Saranda (the name stands for forty, derived from the monastery of the forty saints that can be found on a nearby hill). I had a coffee by the promenade enjoying the view of the Ionian sea (to tell you the truth I never get bored of that particular sea, although I get to see a lot of it as I live a hundred meters from it) and I was trying to figure out what to do with my time before we leave the place. There were many sites to see, but there was not much time and I was in a dire need for a coffee. Eventually, I decided to skip lunch for a while and decided to head to the ruins of the synagogue that can be found by the street that is parallel to the promenade.

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The synagogue ruins and a mosque’s minaret in the background

I also bought a book and a couple of souvenirs before rushing to a small grill house for a quick bite as time was running out. I wasn’t really as impressed by the city as I was by Butrint, but I would definitely pay a visit to Ksamil beaches in the future. The promenade was the coolest part of the few places I could check out in that sort amount of time. After a while we left Saranda heading for Gjirokaster, crossing the mountainous road to Albanian inland.

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The scenery was similar to northwestern Greece, so having taken such routes so many times in the past I wasn’t particularly impressed (I guess it’s more of a fuss than a joyride if you are forced to drive on such roads often, but it would be a beautiful scenery to eyes unaccustomed to snaky mountainous roadways and deep green forests). Eventually we reached the valley where a number of villages and the city of Gjirokaster are to be found (all situated on hilltops overlooking the valley).

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According to the program issued by the tour office we were supposed to visit the castle and then spend 15-20 minutes visiting the city. As I wished to check out more of the city and feeling stuffed of large scale site-seeing for the day I decided to leave the group and explore the city on my own. The center’s architecture is familiar to Zagoria villages in nearby Greece and it was a great place to visit. Cobble-stoned streets that went up the castle didn’t prove much of a challenge but I guess it might be a problem to some travellers.

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Visitors aren’t allowed to take photos of this room, which is supposed to remain intact since the 17th century, so I bought this photo on my way out

After walking uphill through the old city’s main road, I rushed my steps to the other side of the hill descending into a forest of cobbled paths, crossing boulder built houses with roof tiles made of stone. Having made some research prior to my visit I decided to visit Skenduli house. It’s a typical Ottoman period mansion from the 17th century and it shares similar architecture to some Christian mansions of the period. I walked around the stone made house on my own for a while, dragging my steps on the wooden floor,  until a guide showed up and graciously agreed to brief me on the house and its owners.

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I didn’t have much time so I urged her to be concise, so I was told that the building was taken from the owners after the Communists prevailed and a few years later it housed the city’s ethnographic museum. The house had two floors and many fireplaces (a sign of wealth towards envy neighbors I guess) and lots of them had a Turkish bath built behind them. I had never seen anything like it and I was amazed. Most of the rooms seemed to repeat each other, but the last one I checked on the last floor was amazing as it was fully decorated in 17th century style.

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That was the main hall, where every important family occasion was held. A wooden wall separated a small area of the room serving as the place where women could watch whatever happened sheltered from men’s eyes. It was truly the best room in the house. While I was taking the tour a Japanese guy showed up, so we took the brief tour together but I have to say, I liked the guy, I’m extremely fond of Japan (I hope I will learn Japanese some day) but he did act like such a stereotypical figure. I was walking around the house and I would constantly hear the sound of the camera taking pics and exclaiming his amazement. It was hilarious! I tried to greet the guy on our way out but instead of saying goodbye I said thanks. Still I got another exclamation of amazement.

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Having some more minutes at my disposal I walked around the center for a while, buying some more souvenirs and having small chat with the vendors. I met quite a few people speaking Greek since many Albanians migrated here in the past decades, while there are many people of Greek origin in the city. After a while I joined the rest of the group at our meeting point and prepared for the trip back home. I’d definitely pay another visit to Gjirokaster though.

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Relishing a slight piece of Madrid

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Arriving in Madrid after an overnight train ride from Lisbon turned out to be quite exhaustive and we were totally disorientated as we were making our first awkward steps on the Spanish capital’s metro. According to our original plans we were supposed to start our tour visiting Debod temple but we ended up visiting the nearby Royal palace instead. We opted to limit our expectations to outside views as we were physically and mentally in no condition to visit the place, while we were also in dire need of coffee. We found a nice cafe near the palace that enabled us to pull ourselves together and finally regain some much needed stamina.

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The palace was Royally huge and we were impressed by some guys (seemed like paparazzi to me) that were larking outside the huge building, all of them hanged over an iron railing waiting for a chance to get a shot. It seemed as if we were watching a bizarre National Geographic documentary. It was as if you could hear Sir Richard Attenborough describing:

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The hunters await patiently. A flock of paparazzi is setting an ambush, calmly awaiting for its pray, challenging the Royal servants, the paparazzi natural enemy, which can be seen in the distance, taking care of the Royal possessions. They are in a symbiotic relationship with the Royals and their relation to the hunters’ is a complicated one as they rush to protect their benefactors whenever the paparazzo attacks. A herd of tourists is hooting loudly nearby, while some solitary vendors are hissing trying to cut of the weakest of the herd. Suddenly tension rises as the Royal family, the paparazzi main prey leaves its nest! The flock squawks loudly sensing the impending battle and turns its attention towards its natural prey which will defend itself with its natural camouflage. Tons of money that will secure its best chance of survival and keep this ancient drama rolling for as long as time will exist. But life in the Spanish Savanna can be tough… “.

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We left the palace and made a brief stop to a souvenir shop, before continuing to Plaza de la Villa, a historical square which used to be one of the Medieval centers of the city. Some nice architecture there, but as we were too tired to appreciate what we saw, as we were also carrying our luggage for the duration of our stroll through the city, we continued onward to Plaza Mayor.

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The 17th century plaza wasn’t too crowded at the time we got there and we lingered around for a while, admiring the buildings that surround it. The inquisition used the place for its own show during the 16th century, but nothing reminds of these times nowadays. Some beautiful murals decorate the facade of the edifices around the square and I guess it would be livelier later in the day. Still, we could only experience a small taste of Madrid as our flight would take off in the evening.

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So, we made a small stop for a snack and we were lucky enough to find a shop that sold simple sandwiches with jamon or calamari. We tried them both and they were great. The popularity of calamari in a place so far from the sea surprised me, but it was a taste I’ll most certainly reproduce at home, since it was quite simple. Fried calamari rings inside bread. Who could say no to that?

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Our next stop was at Plaza del Sol, which was certainly more lively as time was passing by. Since we were visiting the country just a couple of days after the Barcelona attacks, there was a prominent presence of the police in most public places and the main plazas were no exception. There were also some signs that expressed solidarity towards the victims but life kept moving on carefree as it seemed. We stayed on the spot for a refreshment as it was a mildly hot summer day and greeted the bear that was desperately trying to taste some strawberries before we began our descent down the city’s metro, advancing to our final stop on our Madrid itinerary.

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Buon retiro park belonged to the Spanish monarchs until it became public in the 19th century. It’s quite huge and it is situated in close proximity to the Prado museum, which we opted to write off our list, since we were already too tired to appreciate its value fully. The park is truly a pleasant retreat as the name suggests. We sat on a bench to quench our thirst with some water before proceeding further into the park. After a brief exploration our steps led us to the monument of King Alfonso, where we spent some time viewing the fish and turtles that swam inside the pond. Many people were enjoying a ride on some small rowing boats and the place was full of cheerful people. We decided to join in on the cheer, so we sat on a canteen facing the monument, ordering food and refreshments. A couple of beers latter and we regained some of our lost strength. We devoted ourselves to relaxation on that spot for most of the time remaining before our flight left. We only payed a brief visit to Palacio de Cristal before hitting the metro once more to catch our evening flight to Marrakesh. We were very tired, but we could not rest yet as we still had to make our way around Marrakesh, before finding our riad and spoil ourselves with a brief four hour nap, before joining a tour to the desert…

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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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