Landing on Morocco

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We were about an hour away from reaching the African continent and we were quite tired as we hadn’t slept on a bed since we left Lisbon, a couple of nights back. Spending a night on the train to Madrid and most of the day walking around the Spanish capital, put on some extra weight on our backs and all we could think about was the bed that awaited in our riad. Riads are traditional Moroccan houses houses that feature an interior courtyard. We were eager to reach ours as we were so tired that it would probably seem like a palace to our eyes once we got there. To our disappointment there was a huge line for passport control once we landed, resulting in us missing the last bus to Jemaa el Fnaa, where our riad was situated. That meant we had to catch a cab, which implied that we had to haggle with the airport taxi drivers.

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Haggling is a thing that Catherine hates – even if it is about clothing, but it is an affair I am mostly keen on delving into whatever the object of trade. However we were tired and a cab was our only realistic option to reach our bed without much hassle, so we started the show with the man in charge for hooking up drivers and passengers. The original offer was twenty euros (200 darahim), but after a while we agreed on fifteen, which taking into account that the time was way passed 1.00 am and there were no bus, seemed like a good choice. We had to threaten that we would rather walk downtown in a rather theatrical manner and start our bargain at the ridiculously low fare of five euros. The price could possibly go a bit lower, but we weren’t interested in gaining an extra euro or two not to mention that if anyone had offered to guide us straight to a place where we could drive all of our fatigue away, we would gladly pay triple the amount.

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Needless to point out that the driver couldn’t leave us outside our riad, since no cars are allowed inside the narrow souks, so we would have to do some walking. We wouldn’t have any time to enjoy the city as we had to catch a bus and take part in an organized tour to the Sahara early in the morning, but we would return to Marrakech after a couple of days. The thing is, we were so close to our accommodation, yet we were tired and disorientated and what’s worse we had no internet access. As we were also carrying our luggage among the crowd, looking lost, we were becoming potential pray for scammers that offer to help confused people to find their way.

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Actually a small group of them followed us for a while and we ended up taking a small break for a refreshment inside a small cafe, as it had been hours since we had tasted a drop of water. In the end we struck a bargain with one of these guys that offered to guide us to our riad for the price of a mere euro. We haven’t formed a clear view on these sort of services yet, but I will disclose my opinion on the matter on a next post, as we had a couple of more similar encounters once we were back in the city a couple of days latter.

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The facilities in our riad were fairly basic, as we booked this place intending to take a short nap, so we couldn’t find any point in spending more money for something more pricey. It was an adequate choice, but we would avoid booking there if we had planned to spend more days in Marrakesh. Finally, we took a long anticipated shower and had a few hours of sleep, before enjoying the main part of our journey, a trip to the desert. Taking into account that we had been on the road for the past couple of days, joining a three day tour without proper rest didn’t really sound like the best of choices, but it proved to be less tiresome a task as we imagined and one of the best choices we made during this trip…

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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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Planning the last leg of our trip – A day in Barcelona

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Having hopefully been delighted of our first experience of Africa and possibly eager to return soon enough, we are going to leave Morocco and return back to Spain, arriving in Madrid Baraja airport where we’ll be in a rather tight schedule, as we’ll be having about two hours at our disposal to get to the Atocha train station, where we’ll catch a train to Barcelona. So, we’ll follow the metro Purple line to Nuevos Ministerios, then off to the blue line (towards Puerta de sur) and we get off at Tribunal. Another line change to the light blue one (towards Valdecaros) and we are finally off at Atocha Renfe.
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Provided everything goes according to plan, we’ll be arriving at Barcelona Sants at about 23.00 (or else its the bus for us and a tiresome nine hour ride). There we are going to check the Metro station, Sants line 3 (the green line) towards Trinidad nova and get off at Liceu station, near our hostel. That will be all for this evidently transitional day of our trip and we are probably spending the night resting (no extravagant clubbing or anything on this one, just plain old-fashioned rest) in order to make the most of our extremely limited one day shot in Barcelona.
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La Sagrada familia is first on our list (no need to describe Gaudi’s masterpiece) and from there we might move towards Picasso museum, a building that houses the painters work and is mostly concerned with his relation to the city. Then, we’ll further explore the city’s Gothic quarter, focusing on 14th century Santa Eulalia’s Cathedral, the Roman walls and temple and the four cats cafe, a place where many artists used to spend their time. Finally, we’ll move to the edge of the quarter and walk along La Rampla, the renown street of the city attempting to grasp its vibe, an effort that will be more complete later, as we’ll stroll over Passeig de gracia, one of the most expensive streets in Spain.
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Casa Batlio is one more Gaudi constructed architecture, which we are unlikely to enter (23 euro for a ticket is a high price to pay on our last day traveling, when our wallets will be on our last change and our enthusiasm for sightseeing will be running on its last fumes). It is supposed to depict St George, the patron saint of Catalonia (among other places), killing the dragon and we’ll appreciate it from a distance keeping our last savings away from the Saint’s lance.
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Casa Mila or La pedrera is another building designed by Gaudi, but we’ll probably limit our eyes to outside views since we find the 20 euro fee rather salty. It’s a structure that influenced our beloved hundertwasserhaus in Vienna and we’d definetely like to catch a glimpse of it.
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Park guell seems that will be one of Gaudi’s creations that we’ll visit though, as it is a park with a small entrance fee (7 euro) and lots of interesting attractions (Alfons X metro station, line 4 the orange one, will get us there).

Montjuic castle may probably be the last attraction we’ll visit on this trip, since it seems a relaxing place while, we are probably leaving out Miro foundation and the Palace of Catalan music. Finally, we’ll definitely try the local cuisine especially deserts like crema catalana and mel i mato, before waiving the city goodbye on the following day and return to Greece, having hopefully enjoyed this years trip.

Well, that’s it. Almost everything has been planned and all we can do for now is wait for our first flight on this itinerary. We’ll probably not post much else during August, but we’ll definitely be back on track in September, providing a review of our journey. Hope you enjoy a great summer everyone!

Dealing with our brief passing through Madrid (How do you spend time on a buffer zone?)

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The Spanish capital is bound to be nothing more than some sort of buffer zone during our trip, nevertheless, we’ll do our best to make the most out of our short stay there. As mentioned on our previous post, we are departing Lisbon on an overnight train, that arrives at Madrid in the morning, beginning our short exploration of the place, which must come to an end in the evening, as we’ll be boarding a flight to Morocco. That leaves us with a few hours (almost half a day to be exact) at our disposal, meaning that we have to be very picky regarding our whereabouts, while at the same time we must take into account the toll fatigue will demand after our overnight trip from Portugal and the tiredness that will add up, as we’ll be strolling through the Castillian streets, lingering on the city’s attractions.

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Our first view of Madrid will be Chamartin train station (Los domingos por la tarde,
caminando a Chamartín, las mocitas madrileñas, van alegres y risueñas porque hoy juega su Madrid, as the Madrid lyrics go) and we’ll use the metro (dark blue line) to get towards the direction of puerta del sur and get off  at Plaza d’ Espana (metro map). What lies near there are the ruins of Debod temple, an Egyptian temple that originally stood in Egypt, however the construction of the Aswan dam in the sixties, threatened the integrity of many archaeological treasures and the Spanish government offered great service to the Egyptians in helping rescuing the country’s legacy, so as a reward for their efforts the Spanish were given this temple, which was dismantled brick by brick and re-erected in the Spanish capital. We’ll make an attempt to visit, but it seems that the interior is off limits since the 27th of May, until further notice, while the whole place is shut on Mondays, so, if we visit, we’ll limit ourselves to outside views.

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The next thing on our list is the Royal palace, where we’ll probably enjoy some tea with Queen Sophia, as the old gall is supposed to be of Greek origin (actually her family is Danish) and the old hag will definitely be very happy to see some folks from the old country (she should be though, as the Greek people were obliged to endow her with lots and lots of money in the 60’s, in order for her to marry the Spanish king Juan Carlos. We’ll probably avoid paying the 11 euro entry fee though, limiting our view of the 18th century building to outside views, before getting on with our stroll to the nearby Plaza Mayor, where we’ll spend some more time sightseeing until we move on to another famous Spanish plaza.

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Puerta del Sol seems to be more interesting than Plaza Mayor, as you can find more  intriguing buildings around the place, such as the tower clock, where Spanish tradition seems to call for eating 12 grapes, when the year changes and the statue of the bear and the strawberry tree. Since both places are sure to be rather crowded locations, I guess we’ll have more sights to feast upon, as people can turn a place to a delightful experience or its opposite.

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Velázquez’s Las Meninas is one of the masterpieces on display at Prado source

Continuing our walk, we’ll encounter Prado museum, which is the place we’ll most likely visit while in Madrid, provided we can maintain some decent level of stamina and mental vigor. The 15 euro fee seems fair, as this building houses one of the most esteemed museums in the world and will enable us to admire works of El Greco, Goya, Velázquez. There’s also a chance for free admission at 18.00, but we can’t make it on time for our flight if we do that, let alone we’ll probably be in a bad shape after roaming the streets for so long and that will prevent us from enjoying the place properly.

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Not far from Prado lies Buon retiro park, a massive park where we are surely visiting in order to relax and spend some time appreciating this serene place. Finally, we ‘ll make use of the metro to get to Barajas airport, to get there, we’ll take the Red line towards Las Rosas, in order to reach Principe da Vergara station on the purple line (9) towards Paco de Lucia and we get off at Colombia station passing through some more stops (Pinar del Rey, Mar de Cristal, Campo de las Naciones), before reaching T1 terminal and begin our flight to Marrakech.

 

Planning our second day in Portugal – Sintra and the Atlantic shore

In order to get to Sintra, we’ll depart from Rossio train station (we’ll get there using the metro from Cais do Sodre to Rossio or Restaudores) and while there, we are definetely taking advantage of the 434 tourist bus, which will enable us to take a route from the train station, to the National Palace and then up to Pena Palace, the Moors castle and back to the train station. However, we are mostly interested in the Pena palace and Quinta do regaleira, while Monserrate palace and Queluz seem great as well. Furthermore, as we would like to spend some time on the beach and maybe also visit Cabo da Roca, visiting all these sites is truthfully an impossible task to accomplish. Let alone the tickets paid would be an important blow on our budget, while I know for sure that we cannot keep our interest constantly elevated after continuously visiting one site after the other.

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So, we’ll opt for a qualitative approach instead of a quantitative one and that means we must make difficult choices. Pena palace and Quinta da Regaleira seem to be a must see and although we might regret it, we’ll probably draw the line there. Provided everything goes according to plan, we are getting up rather early and hopefully we’ll be done with our tour by noon. Then it’s bus 403 to Cabo da Roca, where we’ll probably spent an hour till the bus returns to take us all the way to Cascais. It seems that this bus runs every half an hour between 11.00 and 18.00 and its route starting from Sintra station, passes through six stops before reaching Azoia chafariz and Campo da Roca stops. After that, the bus continues its journey through Malveira da Sera station to Cascais (detailed schedule and route here). Once there, we may visit Boca do inferno and finally catch a bus back to Lisbon.

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Or, we might as well skip Cabo da Roca, if we are too tired, and try to visit one of the beaches near the area. We’ve searched for a while and we have come to a small list to choose from and the way we see it, Rio Tejo divides the beaches near Lisbon to Southern and  Northern ones. Since we are visiting Sintra, the beaches up North seem to be the most convenient choice and that’s where we’ll enjoy the Portuguese sea and sun.
This photo of Praia da ursa is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Praia da Ursa and Praia da Aroeira seem to be some good options near Cabo da Roca. However, although Praia da Ursa seems great, it takes some effort to get there (even if you take the left path, as everyone suggests). Aroeira beach seems to be a challenge to get to as well.

This photo of Adraga Beach is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Praia da Adraga beach is another option further north, along with Praia das Maçãs – bus 441 gets you there from Sintra – which seems to be the most easily accessible of these beaches. My heart is set to Ursa though, but I can’t drag Catherine into this narrow, steep path.

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Our last choice between Sintra and Cascais is Guinco beach, situated 6km north of Cascais, but it seems it is mostly addressed to surfers and we’ll probably skip this one. Our other options North of Rio Tejo, include Tamariz beach in Estoril, São Pedro beach and Praia do Carcavelos. All of them are too close to Lisbon, so they will probably be very crowded, but they are the most convenient to get to.

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Tamariz seems to be a lovely choice,  as it includes a medieval styled building, constructed in the 19th century and I think it’s where Catherine might enjoy the sea more, as the place is easily accessible and may have warmer waters than the sea north of Cascais. There seem to be lots of places to go and enjoy a snack or a drink as well, so our stay around the place can be a boring comfortable affair.

Carcavelos beach is a 20 minute train ride away from Lisbon and what applies to Tamariz, probably applies here as well. Many options for a snack or some coffee, lots of people (probably more than Tamariz) and some guaranteed quality time on the beach, under the bright sun (pretty much what we can do around home though). I am a bit concerned over the water quality, since this beach is so close to Lisbon, but we won’t let that worry us. Another option is plan B, which we won’t follow probably, since it involves hitting the praias south of Rio Tejo, but, since some research is done, I’ll post these options here:

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Costa da Caparica seems to be a nice option across Lisbon, as it is a more than 30 km long sandy beach, easily accessible by bus or a combination of ferry and bus, while one can make use of a small mini train to reach the more distant sections of this beach.

 
This photo of Borda D’Agua is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Praia Morena is one of these distant sections and i guess you can find a useful guide to the place here, while another interesting place could be Da Cabana do Pescador (the fisherman’s hut). The thing about a 30km beach is that we do have one just in our backyard, (well, not literally, but still, it’s only a ten minute drive there), so we would rather experience something entirely different.

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Praia do Meco is another beach, further south, near Sesimbra, 40 km away from Lisbon (some info can be found here), but the longer the distance, the least becomes the possibility we’ll visit places like this one or Praia do ouro.

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Finally, Portinho da Arrabida seems to be the prettiest option south of Lisbon, at least according to our standards, but it seems as if it will be a real hassle to get to, since it seems that we’ll have to travel to Setubal first, before finding some means of transport there. I won’t even discuss the option of visiting Praia do Troia, besides, the last time Greeks visited Troia (Troy) things got out of hand and eventually both sides suffered greatly. We won’t go to Praia do Troia, but we’ll bear them a gift instead…

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Our back yard, guess in Portuguese it would be called Praia do nosso patio posterior

In conclusion, I kind of feel that we are obliged to come to terms with the fact that our time is limited, while our desire to visit many places knows no boundaries. That means that we must lessen our desires and it obviously feels like a bitter defeat since reason suggests that in order to enjoy a country, you must divide the precious time at your disposal wisely. We know for sure that our bodies will be grateful if we don’t push them too hard, yet, our minds might hold a grudge. No matter where we go in Portugal though, we cannot have any regrets, as we’ll enjoy a country that seems to be stunning and is the place I mostly long to discover during this trip (Catherine eagerly anticipates to view Morocco). Still, we will also be having another day to spend in Lisbon, before departing on a night train to Madrid and we’ll make use of that time in order to relax and visit any place we missed during the previous days of our stay.

 

 

Dealing with our forthcoming first taste of Lisbon

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This post is mostly focused on an attempt to make up for being so idle as bloggers over the past month or so. It is some sort of note regarding our trip next month and a way to put the things we plan to do in some sort of order. We are both working long hours, but since I do all of the writing, I’ve been trying desperately and – obviously – with inadequate success, to find some precious time to keep you informed.This photo of Lisbon Oceanarium is courtesy of TripAdvisor

 

Anyways, so far we have booked almost everything that was a necessity and our itinerary will start once we land on Lisbon. We do not own any of the pictures in this post, hopefully we’ll get plenty of our own pics, once we are back home, but for now these will have to suffice, don’t get me wrong, they are great, but I prefer the ones Catherine shoots. We’ll be arriving near midnight, so all we can do during our first day is get acquainted with the city’s metro and get all the way to Alameda station and then to Cais do Sodre, where we’ll catch a taxi to our hostel.

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Image via lisboando.com

After a good (hopefully) night’s rest, we’ll hold onto our freshly started relations with the metro and begin our second day at the Lisbon Oceanarium (Cabo Ruivo or Oriente stations are pretty close) and probably have a closer look at Vasco da Gama bridge while there, before getting acquainted with the man himself, as we are going to pay a visit to Jeronimo’s monastery where he is buried along other prominent Portuguese people, like the poet Luís Vaz de Camões.

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While in the area, we are going to visit Padrão dos descobrimentos and the Belem tower, the place that signified the dawn for many of the voyages undertaken by brave sailors of older times and also the place where many would set down their eyes on their homeland for a last time. We may also visit the nearby modern art exhibition of Berardo museum, since these places are all conveniently located cose to each other. That would bring our first leg of our exploration of the city to a break, before venturing forth to the next part, probably after some more rest while we’ll wait for the sun to abate its aggression.

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For our second part of our first attempts to get familiar with Lisbon, we may climb to Sao Jorge castle and visit the Cathedral and the ruins of the Convento da ordem do Carmo. This church is a remainder of the 1755 earthquake that destroyed the city and the spark that ignited the creation of some philosophical and literary works, among them Voltaire’s Candide and DeSade’s Justine, a mockery of Leibnitz’s view that this is the best of all possible worlds.

Next we will be visiting Bertrand, the oldest bookstore in Europe, where I intent to buy a couple of books in Portuguese (maybe Os Lusiadas or the anarchist banker or both, well… I certainly hope Catherine will be able to pull me out of my book infused state of trance once there). Afterwards, we’ll head to Sao Roque church and head to Miraduro Santa Catarina to enjoy the views of the city, before visiting a place to enjoy a beer or two.

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We’ll also ride one of the elevadores, probably the one most convenient for our routes.  Elevador de Santa Justa seems to be the most prominent among them, connecting rua do ouro (gold street?) to largo do carmo (Carmelite square? Large Carmelite?) and would seemingly be a good choice to reach cafe A Brasileira, where we could enjoy some coffee in the company of Fernando Pessoa’s statue. On the other hand elevador da Bica runs between largo Calhariz and Convento de Sao Pedro de Alcantara, while Ascensor da Gloria, connectsR. São Pedro de Alcântara, near S.Roque church to Praça dos Restauradores.

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Some things worth seeing are probably the two large bridges connecting both shores of Rio Tejo and the Christ the King statue, as well as the Calluste Gulbenkian museum, but we’ll have to see if time and stamina will be on our side during this effort, since we’ll leave this places on our bucket-list for our last day in Lisbon, alongside any other places we fail to visit during day 2,  since we are planning to spend day 3 near Sintra…

The latest inclusion on our summer trip

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Yesterdays, after finishing my coffee, I grabbed the camera and marched towards the nearby ruins of the ancient city of Nicopolis and the adjacent museum. I was pretty disappointed to find out that everything was closed, but that didn’t prevent me from visiting the site for a couple of photo-shots and some exploration of the seemingly abandoned place. Some insects were uttering their eerie cries as I was unknowingly approaching their spots while I was walking on the tall grass and their lament sounded as if rattlesnakes were roaming the ground beneath my feet. Although there are no rattlesnakes residing in Greek lands, vipers don’t mind defending their territory, so I didn’t press my luck.

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What’s this got to do with our summer trip you might ask? As we are compiling the last pieces of the puzzle, we have to fill the gap between our last stops. We are leaving Morocco and reaching Madrid on the tenth day of our journey, which leaves us a couple of days before departing from Barcelona to return to Greece. Therefore we need to get from Madrid and reach Barcelona. We could probably stay in Madrid and leave on the last evening of our stay on a bus, but as we wish to at least catch a glimpse of Barcelona, it is imperative that we stay there at least for a day.

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Two options seem to be available. Both include taking advantage of Alsa or Eurolines company buses. We are landing on Madrid early in the evening, so the most instantaneous way to reach Barcelona is to catch an evening bus and arrive there at about 4.00. That will enable us a good night’s refreshing sleep and will renew our strength allowing us to enjoy the city for a day and a half. On the down side, arriving that late at night is a costly option, as we’ll have to take a cab, possibly pay an extra fare to the hotel due to the late arrival, not to mention that accommodation in the city is too expensive.

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The second option seems more relaxed. We are breaking the trip down to two legs. Thus we travel for four hours, spending the evening in another city and resume our travel plans in the morning arriving in Barcelona at 11.00 the latest. The most obvious option for an overnight stay is Zaragoza, a city that seems lovely and shares a great similarity with Nicopolis as they were both founded by the same man: Emperor Octavian. The ruins I visited celebrate Octavian’s victory that established his reign, while Zaragoza was originally named Caesaraugusta to honor the Roman emperor.

So, all things considered, we’ll add another jewel to the crown of this year’s travel and have a chance to view – albeit for a swift visit, another place.