Wednesday 25 September 2013

Lagos Around, Comes Around

Wanting to explore more of Portugal, I decided to head south to the smallish town of Lagos on the south-west coast of Portugal (and Europe in general). I felt a few days lounging by the ocean on what I heard were some of Europe's best beaches in the sun might be a welcome change from the bustle of large European cities. To clinch the deal, one Englishman I met in Lisbon as 'Lagos is to England what Bali is to Australia'. Now, I've never been to Bali but even I could tell a glowing endorsement when I hear one so the next day I boarded a train for Lagos.


You could say my expectations were fairly high when I arrived at Lagos train station and honestly I was not disappointed. The town itself is a typical holiday town that exists only because of tourism but is not yet so big as to have become over-commercialised yet. The beaches were indeed the best I have seen so far in Europe (although they didn't come close to some beaches I've been to in Australia but I guess I'm just spoilt like that). The weather was fantastic and, like everything in Portugal, it was fairly cheap on account of the country being broke. I've stayed in a lot of hostels on this trip but to date, the Bura Surfhouse Hostel is far and away the best I've stayed in in practically every possible way of measuring. The building and facilities were great, the staff were amazing, the location was good and the people I met there might be reading this so they were pretty good too. Just kidding, they were great as well. In particular, my room mates Nathan (from Australia of course), Hayley, Haley and Ashley (Washington State, USA) and Ruth, Zoe and Lora (Bruges, Belgium) made my time in Lagos even more enjoyable.

Haley and Nathan

So many Haley/Hayleys!

The ol' 'pretend you're taking a photo for someone but actually take 17 selfies on their phone' trick

My time in Lagos was mostly spent at bars at night and the beach during the day and it was nice to be able to kick back and relax without feeling obliged to get up early each morning to go explore (I know, my life is tough, right?). On my final morning in Lagos, one of the hostel staff took me aside and told me completely seriously that if I wanted to stay, there was a job at the hostel for me. I'll be honest, I gave it some serious consideration and if I'd had a working visa and hadn't already paid for a large part of the rest of my trip I might have taken him up on the offer. Instead I politely and regretfully declined, although I did share some Vegemite with him as thanks (most of the staff were Aussies and Poms).


The train trip back to Lisbon was slightly longer than I expected. To get to Lisbon, I had to catch the train from Lagos and change trains at Tunes for Lisbon. Unfortunately, I fell asleep on the train to Tunes and woke up an hour later in Faro. Yu don't really need to worry about the geography of these towns because I'll just explain 1) Faro is the opposite direction of Lisbon and 2) there were no more trains to Lisbon from Faro that day. As a result, I had an unexpected layover in Faro which was definitely not the end of the world. That having been said, it would have been nice if I didn't pay my Lisbon accommodation in advance. I obviously did something to anger the train gods because my train troubles in Portugal weren't yet over (I'll get to that later).


I caught the first train from Faro to Lisbon and arrived by mid-morning. I checked into my hostel and was reminded through Facebook that Alexa had also arrived in Lisbon that morning (Michelle was arriving that night as she had been at a wedding). I had already mentioned my newfound love of Lisbon to them and they seemed skeptical so the afternoon was spent playing tour guide (I basically retraced the tour I did with Taylor 5 days earlier and regurgitated his information). I'm pretty sure Alexa was won over by the city quite early on in the tour.

Birds on a wire just reminds me if that Pixar short

The next day, which was supposed to be my last in Portugal, Alexa, Michelle and I caught the train to the small town of Sintra in the Portuguese mountains. Almost one thousand years ago, the Moors built a fortress in the mountains. Eventually the Portuguese built one next door. Years later, the king of Portugal decided to build his summer mansion in Sintra and a string of wealthy merchants and Portuguese nobility did likewise. Today, Sintra has countless old mansions, castles, forts and ruins in various conditions scattered across the town and its mountains. Despite being the oldest, the Moorish fort is still the most impressive given its high altitude and amazing viewpoints.

How's that for an amazing viewpoint?

If I'm being honest, the high point of my day

When we got back to Lisbon late that afternoon, I said goodbye to Alexa and Michelle for the final time and went back to my hostel to retrieve my bags and head into the station for my dreaded night train back to Madrid. It was only after I got to Santa Apolonia station that I learned that the night train back to Madrid had just sold out and I would have to wait for the next train to Madrid. When was the next available train to Madrid? The following night's night train. All I could do was reserve a spot on the the next nights train and spend another night and day in Lisbon (not a horrible prospect if I'm being honest).


The following day, I was once again reminded by Facebook of how popular I was because more people I knew were flying into Lisbon that morning. This time it was the American girls I met in Lagos (the confusingly named Hayley, Haley and Ashley). Once again I acted as your guide through Lagos. I had mentioned to them also how Lisbon was my favourite city in Europe and before I even met up with them, they had already been converted*.

Haley, myself, Hayley, Ashley

After another full day of exploring Lisbon with friends I collected my bags from the hostel and once again made my way to the train station to catch the train back to Madrid. This was a marginally more successful endeavor because, on the one hand I did actually manage to catch this train. One the other hand, it was quite uncomfortable and I barely slept. I have no intention of catching any more night trains unless they come with proper beds (which some do). Still, my time in Portugal more than justified the trip their and back.




*two friend who (*spoilers*) I meet up with in Madrid in the next chapter also head to Lisbon a few days later. Like everyone else, they were skeptical when I sung Lisbons praise but I received a message on Facebook afterward saying that I was pretty right about Lisbon and they love it too. I clearly have good taste in cities.


Stop, Collaborate and Lisbon

I arrived in Lisbon shortly after 8am. I honestly wouldn't recommend night trains. When I put my mind to it, I can sleep pretty much everywhere and two months backpacking has definitely only fine tuned this admittedly underwhelming superpower. That having been said, even I struggled to sleep on the uncomfortable plastic seats on that 10 hour trip. Fortunately I had the first half of the new season of Breaking Bad to catch up on (which, by the way, is awesome) on my iPad. It turned out the girl I was seated next to (her name was Lisa and she was, like most people in Europe, Australian) was also staying in the same hostel as me so we trudged up the hills of Lisbon to the hostel.

I think I've been fairly positive with my appraisals of cities I've visited so far. I'd say I've like pretty much everything but believe me when I say that, to date, Lisbon is my favourite city in Europe. Every time I say this, the other person is usually surprised and asks why. The surprise I understand. I was not expecting to like Lisbon as much as I did. In fact, I wasn't even planning to go to Portugal until I figured I might as well since I was in the neighborhood. I intended to stay two nights in Portugal but I was there a week which is more time than I've spent in France, Germany or Italy as of this point. As for what makes Lisbon so great? Firstly, it's a beautiful city. It's full of colour and still has that old-world quality that larger European cities like Paris or Rome lost long ago. There was a time when the Portuguese Empire was literally the largest and most powerful in the world and looking at Lisbon, you can still tell. I heard one tour guide describe Lisbon as an aged 1950's pinup calendar girl. She might be old and a bit rundown now, but you can still tell that she used to be beautiful and she never lost it entirely. Bit of a sappy metaphor, I know, but also weirdly accurate. The city itself reminds me a European San Francisco (the hilly streets, the trams, the fact they have their own Golden Gate Bridge). On top of all that, the people are friendly, the food is good and everything is cheap. If I had to live in one European city, It would be Lisbon (sorry Budapest).


The only two downsides are this; firstly, the streets are steep and hilly as hell. Secondly, Portuguese is a ridiculous language. It is actually nothing like Spanish and, when spoken, sounds like a mutant hybrid between Russian and Arabic. I didn't even try speaking any Portuguese.


Anyway, on my first day in Lisbon, I went exploring Belém with some people I met that morning in the hostel (Fay, Tom and Ash). For those who don't know, Belém (pronounced bee-lime) is famous for two things. The first is the Tower of Belém, which appears on approximately 87% of all postcards from Lisbon, and the second thing is Portuguese tarts (pastóes in Portuguese). The original restaurant that invented them in 1837 is still in business and still uses their original secret recipe. The queue for takeaway orders is a little bit extreme, however.

We also climbed a monument to Portuguese explorers and colonists that gave a good view out over Belém.


The hostel I was staying in was pretty great. The facilities were all satisfactory but the staff were the real highlight. There was a party seemingly happening every night in the hostel bar and the staff were usually drunker than the guests. The hostel also ran a variety of activities and tours. One was a tapas tour through the very traditional neighborhood of Bica (where the hostel was) which was delicious. I also did a walking tour through Lisbon the next day. Unlike the Sandeman's New Europe tours, this one was run by the hostel and was an awful lot less professional but much better. The guide, Taylor, was from the real San Franscico and walked around the city with a smoke in one hand and a beer in the other for most of the trip. At more than one point he would stop and insist on buying us beers or shots (this is in the middle of the day). Even so, he most definitely knew his stuff and the tour was comprehensive to say the least. The tour went for probably six hours and at the end of it I had to actually track him down in the hostel to give him some money for it because he forgot to ask for some at the end.


The nightlife in Lisbon was also pretty incredible. There was a neighborhood just to the north of my hostel called barrio alto which was a normal, suburban area during the day and a Mecca for bar-hoppers at night. When the bars start to open at around 10pm (because that's when things get started in Europe), all of a sudden countless small, hole-in-the-wall bars appear out of nowhere. The locals claim there are around three hundred bars in barrio alto. From what I saw, I'd say the number is closer to one hundred but that's still a lot. On top of that, the bars are all tiny with only enough room for a bar counter and a very small standing area. Consequently, customers buy their incredibly cheap drinks (if you pay more than €1 for a beer, you're being ripped off) and stand around drinking in the streets of the neighborhood giving the entire suburb the impression of a huge street party every night. It's a much better atmosphere than normal bars and pubs elsewhere.

Also, the street in the club district is painted pink.

Originally my plan had been to head back to Madrid and continue my trip back towards the heart of the continent but I decided I like Portugal so much I wasn't ready to leave. Instead of catching the train to Madrid the next day, I instead bought a ticket to the holiday town of Lagos in the very south or Portugal. Braving the night train to get to portugal was definitely worth it.


Wednesday 18 September 2013

You Madrid, Bro?

My next stop after Valencia was Madrid. Alexa and Michelle were also planning to head to Madrid next so, although we were traveling separately to get there, we agreed to book in the same hostel (which coincidentally was also the cheapest hostel. Funny that.). We were in Madrid for a few days although, like Valencia, this was not a time wherein I was flat out like a lizard drinking* doing sightseeing and touristy stuff for two reasons. Firstly, Madrid is a beautiful city and it is a great place to visit. The people are nice, everyone is relaxed and happy and there is genuinely a lot of history to the city. Unfortunately, this history doesn't really manifest itself in tourist attractions and I honestly felt I got enough of a view of the cities history by doing a free walking tour one morning (I'll talk more about free walking tours in a bit). The second reason is that, as I mentioned earlier, Spain is a very relaxed country and I feel the best way to appreciate something like that is to experience the culture rather than take photos of old statues.

Pictured: Old statues

Supposedly the oldest restaurant in the world (1725) and a favourite hangout of Ernest Hemingway

The free walking tours are run by a company called Sandeman's New Europe. Essentially, they operate in almost 20 major cities across Europe (and New York for some reason) and what they do is hire freelance tour guides to come and give guided tours through a city for a few hours. The guides pay the company a fee per person who comes on the tour and then expect tips at the end. The advantage of this over a traditional tour is threefold for backpackers. Firstly, the cost of a tip is usually much less than a normal tour guide (I usually tip €10-15 for a 3-5 hour tour). Secondly, the tour guides really have to actually work for their money since they aren't on a wage or salary and the tours are invariably well run and informative. Thirdly, it's a fantastic place to meet other people and make friends because most of their target market are backpackers. Indeed, the tours usually do a round of all the local hostels in the morning to pick people up and take them to the meeting point. That tour was no exception and I had lunch with some guys I met on the tour (who's names I've completely forgotten. One was called Tom) and an Ecuadorean girl named Nathy. The company also runs pub crawls and specialised local tours (tapas tours, ghost tours, wine tasting, etc.) which aren't free but are usually quite cheap. I've done these tours in Edinburgh, Berlin, Amsterdam and Madrid and I have not been able to fault one yet.

One other interesting thing that I experienced in Madrid was voting overseas. For anyone not from Australia, it is mandatory to vote in our federal and state elections and, since I was not organised enough to arrange a postal vote before I left Australia, I had to go into the Australian embassy in Madrid to vote or face a large fine. This wouldn't have been an arduous task except for two things. Firstly, the security procedures to enter the embassy were extreme. I passed through three security checks, had to surrender my phone, wallet and passport and had to be escorted by a guard at one point to a secure elevator. Secondly, it took a good 20 minutes to locate myself in the electoral role database. Eventually I got an opportunity to express my democratic rights. Don't blame me for Tony Abbott being PM by the way guys, you did that to yourselves Australia! The only person who ranked lower on my voting slip was Fred Nile (if there was a number lower than 8, he would have gotten that).

Oh, and I totally just remembered something else super Spanish I did in Madrid. I went to a bull fight. To reference Ernest Hemingway for the second time in this post, he once said "There are only three real sports; bull fighting, mountain climbing and motor car racing. All others are but mere games". I for one am not one to discount the endorsement of possibly the manliest (definitely the drunkest) author of all time, so Alexa and I went one afternoon (Michelle wasn't keen on seeing it) and I was under the distinct impression it was illegal to actually kill the bull. Turns out, that wasn't true. The stadium holds 25,000 people and it was about half full the day we went. The matadors came out in their super-flamboyantly-gay-looking clothes and marched around for a little bit and then the bulls came out one at a time. The very first matador thought he'd be a smartarse and sit on the ground waving his flag at the bull. He was carried off in literally the first 10 seconds after he found he wasn't as fast as he thought he was. The matadors would taunt the bull, moving the flag when the bull charged As youdnexpect, but it blew my mind when I learned that bullsmare colorblind. The colour of the flag is actually completely irrelevant. Anyway, then he would stick these strange spears-on-strings things into the back of the bulls neck. That was my first clue that this might be more violent than I expected. My second clue was when the matador pulled out a sword and drove it through the bulls spine. The show went for three hours but Alexa couldn't even watch and to be honest I wasn't particularly enjoying the gore so we left after 45 minutes and two dead bulls. It was definitely an experience, to say the least. Oh, and I think the bull might have killed a horse.

The killing blow

Anyway, that was Madrid for me. That night I caught a night train to Lisbon, Portugal which was not a fun experience. I may have to come back through Madrid in a few days because the mountains between Spain and Portugal mean that train travel between the two countries is surprisingly limited.




*including ridiculous Australian expressions is fun for confusing foreigners.