30 April 2009

Sintras: Like A Real-Life Fairy Tale

You know that quintessential image of a brightly colored magical castle at the top of a mountain, accessed by steep winding roads that bob and weave up the side of a cliff? It exists in Sintras. Alyson said it best: “This is the best day ever.”

Because so much of Portugal is somewhat remote (which is a plus, mind you), we decided to rent a Smart car and explore the majestic castles, seaside resorts and remote beaches in style. Alyson was in love with it. Seriously seriously in love with it. So much so that she contemplated marrying it. Seriously.

We drove into teeny tiny town via a teeny tiny access road, which almost immediately began to weave up toward the castle in traditional switchback form. After waiting in life for 20 minutes (only one ticket window was open, which seems to be a theme in both Spain and Portugal), we continued our upward trek on foot, reaching the gates out of breath but enticed by the fact that we beat a couple of seniors to the top (though not by much). It was, as you’d imagine, breathtaking. Words cannot quite capture it, so here are some pictures instead! A must-see.


Kyle Taylor

29 April 2009

Lisbon Is Langon

Well, not exactly, but it sounds so sing-song with Alyson’s last name, I just had to do it. While my first time through saw near perfect weather, our first two days were doomed to clouds, rain and darkness - none of which we had ordered. Fortunately, some recharge, cafe, long naps, movie time was in order. Combined with the soothing pace of life in Portugal’s biggest city, I’d say we did quite well.

We wandered for hours through Alfama, the old town. Cobblestone lanes, antique tram cars climbing the steep avenues, laundering hanging from the line, corner coffee shops, spectacular views of the sea, the cathedral and the old city fortress made for a divine post-overnight train morning. Lisbon is sort-of perched on two hills looking down on a central valley that now forms the heart of Old Town. No matter where you are the views are constantly changing but always incredible.

We took the oceanside tram along the water to Belem, home of Europe’s oldest monastery and burial site of Vasco de Gama, all around awesome explorer. The more I’ve learned about Portugal, the more I’ve realized it is “the little nation that could.” Now a nation of just 6 million, its empire was rivaled only by that of Great Britain (which is now home to just over 60 million).

We spent our evenings in Bairro Alto, the “hip” part of town. From dining to drinking, it is home to street after street of tiny cafes, Fado restaurants and small but happening bars. A few notes on these:

Food: We had arguably the best meal of our lives at Tona La Da Ca. I sadly have no idea what that means, but the food was out of this world. For about $17 each, we had bread, cheese and ham (obviously) a main of either fresh fish or delectable beef, a slice of the most delicious chocolate tart I have ever tasted and a bottle of wine. Beat that, western world.

Happening Bars: Drinks are super sweet. Stick with caiprihnas. They’re Brazilian and brilliant. Also, wine is naturally a safe bet.

Fado: It’s a national treasure and so it should be. While most fado joints are rather touristy, brave the crowds and kitsch, as the singers and guitarists are incredible. Alyson and I got sucked in for hours. Maria at Aldos is phenomenal. She comes right out of the kitchen mid-fish grilling to rouse you with her alto excellence.

Coffee Shops: Pois, Cafe in Alfama. Delicious food, great ambiance, all the day’s newspapers and an enormous library.

Croissants: We started every morning with one (and sometimes two) at Sao Nicolau in Rossio. Honestly and truly, it is the beest pastry I have ever had, and at $1.10 each, you’re full until 4 in the afternoon for next to nothing.

I LOVE Lisbon. Could definitely live here. The whole country reminds me of California, only with one tenth the number of people.


Kyle Taylor

28 April 2009

What’s With the Weather?

For the two months I have been following the weather in Spain and Portugal it has been nothing but sun. For the first five days I was in Portugal it was nothing but sunshine and warm temperatures. As soon as Alyson arrived, however, it was patchy clouds, occasional sun and now, pouring rain. What, might you ask, is the forecast for the day we leave? BRILLIANT sunshine and temperatures of 80 degrees.

It hasn’t been all bad. We have ended up getting quite a few sunny days, it’s just a bit colder than anticipated. Because I assumed warmth (it’s Portugal and Spain!), I packed no coat and four pairs of shorts. That’s right, I have a red sweater and a brown hoodie and THAT IS IT. I managed to lose my umbrella in Madrid just hours after Alyson and I talked about how we always seem to lose umbrellas and sunglasses (she left her sunglasses somewhere in Barcelona). Needless to say, this means that while I have been changing my under-layers, I’ve been wearing the same shoes, jeans, sweater and hoodie in nearly every picture taken on this trip. That is either marginally cool (like “wow, he visited all those places in one day?”) or totally not attractive. Let’s hope most agree with the former.

Either way, we’re hoping the forecast for sunshine Sunday and Monday (our last two days) holds true. I need some additional rays before going back to dreary London and I also really don’t want Alyson to beat me up. After all, I did promise a sunny escape in gorgeous Iberia. Oops?

NOTE: Do NOT trust weather.com. It is evil and wrong in Spain and Portugal. In fact, trust no forecasts for this part of the world.


Kyle Taylor

27 April 2009

Overnight Trains Go “Choo! Choo!”

Alyson and I decided to decrease our carbon footprint, resist the temptation to fly discount and travel old-school on the choo-choo train. BEST. DECISION. EVER. In doing the math (which I inevitably do) I added up not just the flight but the cost of checking luggage (they do that on discount airlines), the cost of getting to and from the airport, the cost of eating over-priced airport food since you have to be there days before you leave and the cost of a hotel (when traveling overnight by train). When you add all of those pieces together, the train is either cheaper or marginally more expensive. Of course, there is no way to really quantify overall happiness and enjoyment, but that easily pushes the value of train travel. I mean, it’s just great.

We took the high-speed train from Barcelona to Madrid (city center to city center), traveling at 220 miles an hour through gorgeous countryside and covering 500 miles in just under three hours. Perfect, no?

Then we engaged in a much more serious journey - Madrid to Lisbon. This was overnight and while I had done the same in China and Tibet, it was Alyson’s first full-throttle train experience. It could not have been more perfect. For just over $100 each we had our own two-person cabin complete with two beds that converted to proper chairs for day-time travel, a sink complete with privacy curtain and little stairs that led up to the top bunk. Our train commander took our tickets to “deal with the border so we could sleep” and offered a wake-up call in the morning so we could enjoy our free breakfast in the dining car before arriving in Lisbon. Yes please. And what was this journey called? The “Train Hotel.”

We enjoyed a nightcap in the bar car before bed, were whisked to sleep but the rhythmic vibrations of the train, awoke to a gentle tap on the door and dined on fresh bread, eggs, bacon, fruit, yogurt, fresh orange juice and coffee while watching the sun rise over the grape fields of northern Portugal. Can I please go again like, RIGHT NOW?


Kyle Taylor

25 April 2009

Madrid At Night

There isn’t a whole lot to say here, except that Madrid is now tops on my list for most beautiful cities on earth at night. Of course, the unbelievable beauty of the Metropolis building may have skewed my findings. Here are some photos of the Metropolis building, the Communications Palace (code for headquarters of the post office, which speaks volumes about the importance of postal workers in Spain), the Queen Fountain, the Founding Arch and of course, the Tio Pepe sign, which is - at this point - an institution.

Coincidentally, if you’d like a print of these or any of my photos, check out my flickr site at http://www.flickr.com/photos/kyletaylor. I’d be happy to order one for you.


Kyle Taylor

24 April 2009

Madrid Through My Stomach

If we’ve done anything well on this trip (to be fair, we’ve done nearly everything well), it has been eating. I’m like a bottomless pit that just can’t stop. Not only is food fairly inexpensive, it’s also absolutely delicious. The “must-eats:”

Tapas, tapas and tapas. Namely, chorizo, patatas bravas (which sounds like “bravo potatoes” to me, which is absolutely true), goat cheese and honey on toast, croquettes (cheese, ham or ham & cheese) and the egg/potato pancake thing.

HAM! It as much as possible and note that it does not taste in any way like Oscar Meyer singles. Museo de Jambon (Museum of Ham) in Madrid did it best. Honestly, consume as much as humanly possible.

Trendy salads. I don’t know how else to refer to them. Just eat the concoctions they have come up with. Blackberry balsamic vinegar, for example.

Fresh fish! While this is more of a Portuguese specialty, try it anywhere near water. Grilled over open flame served in olive oil topped with garlic and onions. Fish-fection (that’s a play on perfection).

Sangria. Is there anything more to say about it?

Port. Again, more of a Portugal thing, but it’s sweet and delicious and tastes lovely accompanied by some chocolate.

Wine in general. I mean, what else is there to say?

Coffee. Not my scene, but alas loves it “LIKE WHOA.”

Ice cream. It’s as close to Italian Gelato I’ve found outside Italy, which makes it pretty darn good.

And last but certainly not least, PASTRIES. This is a region of the world committed to carbohydrates. I mean, seriously committed. I’m beginning to think complex carb ingestion may be a regional sport. There are entire shops committed to nothing but baked bread in all different flavors and sizes. This is an every morning kind-of thing that simply CANNOT be missed, so throw out the absurd “no carbs” diet and start your day right with fresh juice, coffee and a pastry. Remember - these people are WAY THINNER than we are and they do it, so there must be something to it all. My top three:

3. Plain bread. It’s amazing. Smear it with preserves, honey or chocolate spread and enjoy.
2. Chocolate croissant. Seems easy enough, right?
1. Xuxo. Pronounce “chew-cho,” this little Spanish wonder is filled with cream and covered in granulated sugar. I actually got so addicted to these and ate so many in a short period of time that my glands swelled from sugar overdose. No, seriously. They couldn’t handle it. I had to cut sugar out of my diet for four days to recover. Needless to say, proceed with caution. Word of asvise: Don’t submit your symptoms to WebMD. They told me I was either pregnant or had a “potentially fatal gland infection.” No WebMD, I just ate too much sugar.

And now it’s your turn. Go!