To Portugal with love

2016-09-23-19-18-18A local station attendant, who was helping us buy train tickets from S.Pedro to Cascais today, asked us what we liked about Portugal the most.

“A gastronomia? O vinho? A  música?”

All of that but mostly the people, we said.

He was pretty-much blown away and was high-fiving us all over the place (we nearly missed the train!).

But that’s the Portuguese.

Take the beach culture. There is nothing uptight about the Portuguese. And I’m not talking about flashing bits here.

2016-09-24-11-11-04In this region, the locals are just comfortable in their own skin. Well, if there are any body image issues, I’m not seeing it.

Yes, there’s Zumba on the boardwalk (and it’s a hoot!). Yes, there are women running (but not an ‘I believe’ tee-shirt or flashy tights among them). Yes there are fit blokes hanging about (but not a muscle-man to be seen).

2016-09-23-12-39-57And down on beach, women of all shapes, ages and sizes (and I mean ALL) are rocking their bikinis. Eat your heart out Botticelli.

Away from beaches and bikinis… more than one local Portuguese creative on our journey from Porto to Lisbon has told us they are good at what they do – but they suck at marketing themselves.

I agree. These people are warm and wonderful and creative and talented (and, of course, they make exceptional port and wine).

No, I’m not talking about more tourist buses arriving at monuments (even though there are a lot and they are remarkable).

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I’m talking about who they are and what they create. Time the world sat up and paid attention! Cheers to that!

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Attitude is everything

old-lady-street-artYou’ve got to have a least one of those (travelling) days, don’t you? Well, today was ours. 

After a few days in Porto (a story for another time), we picked up our hire car from Europcar … and that’s where it all began to unravel.

The portable GPS they gave us (at €8 a day) was clearly set up at around the time of the Ark.*

Seriously, it didn’t even register the oldest streets (or the casino) at our destination three hours away in Estoril, near Cascais in Portugal.

Oh, but we did have a dodgy map to show us the way (also an archeological find I’m sure).

Eventually, we muddle our way to our destination.

Our travel agent has booked us into ‘apartment’ for eight days… inside someone’s house. It’s kind-of cutesy, but does a toaster oven count as self-contained? Hmmm

mp900438569Eternally optimistic, we head off to find the Tourist Information Centre to get a map of the area. Except it closed 12 months ago.

At least we located a nice red.

Ah, First World problems. When it comes to travelling, attitude is everything.

And tomorrow’s another day.


* Here’s a tip for travellers: if you’re using a GPS, go to settings and select the country you’re travelling in (in our case, Portugal). Thanks to a tech-savvy Europcar lad in Cascais, our GPS was re-set and now gives us Portuguese streets instead of streets like Barcelona and Seville (go figure), and still gives directions in English. And we’re off! 


On the streets of Lisbon

 

 

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Pigeon roosts…

Monuments and other tourist tick-off points are impressive, but our favourite thing to do is to take to the streets on foot. Apart from the odd slippery cobblestone, we inevitably stumble upon the unexpected and delightful.

A meeting place

The sign on the street says ‘gin lovers’. Yep that’s me. Besides, we’ve been walking for hours (and it’s hot) so this is the perfect place to stop.

Inside we know we’ve found somewhere special. This is Embaixada,  a unique Portuguese shopping gallery created in a XIX century Arabian Palace.

An ornate staircase draws our eyes upwards to the sensational murals and figurines, and beyond.

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Meet Gina, with tonic, rosemary & lemon…mmm

In the palace rooms, national brands and recreated vintage clothing mix with the work of local artists and artisans.

Even a non-shopper like me can get blissed-out here (and I have the credit card hit to prove it).

Eventually, we stop at Gin Lovers Principe Real in the centre of this jaw-dropping building for a delicious gin & tonic (or three) from their extensive list – and some amazing food.

Like so many Portuguese people we’ve met here, everyone is friendly and enthusiastic. No wonder they call it ‘the meeting place’…

Urban edgy

2016-09-15-20-45-34When the street is your canvas, the possibilities are endless in Lisbon.

From commissioned to clandestine, and gaudy to subtle – street art is everywhere here.

I notice so many people don’t really ‘see’ it as they hurry past, but to me it says so much about the creative energy of a city…

Street art isn’t everyone’s thing, but it’s one of my passions. No doubt I’ll be banging on more about it some other 60 seconds. Meanwhile…

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Gourmet moments

Portuguese people love their food and it shows (in a good way!).

There’s something to satisfy the foodies, the fuellers and everyone in between in the many small cafés and impressive restaurants and wine bars sprinkled liberally across the city.

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Hugo concocting something fabulous at Cervejaria d0 Barrio

And the vino, port and spirits. Phew.

We soon redefine our perception of a ‘glass’ of wine. It ‘s more like a small carafe in a glass.

A ‘tasting’ can also be the entire glass filled to the brim. Per taste. Which makes pacing yourself pretty much impossible.

Then there’s the traditional sherry, Ginja. We’re told it’s taken as both an aperitif and an after-dinner drink.

I’m sure there are plenty of happy home chefs using Ginja too – and some of it might even make it into the cooking.

Perhaps it’s all that fabulous wine. Perhaps it’s just this place. The Portuguese may be struggling economically but they don’t let it affect their open and generous spirit.

So come to Lisbon, take to the streets and come alive here.

It’s impossible not to.

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Lisbon wanderings…

As soon as we arrive in Lisbon, the city of the seven hills and capital of Portugal, we dump our bags in our hotel room and head out to explore the city’s ancient Arab district…

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lisbon-tiles-1In Alfama, Lisbon’s oldest quarter, we lose ourselves in tangle of cobblestone alleys and narrow streets, where a vibrant energy gives you light feet while the breath of the past brushes your neck.

At every turn, there is something to surprise and delight.

In picture-postcard alleys, colourful tiled and sometimes crumbling buildings huddle together – and steep stairs beckon you up and around another corner.

There is street art and tile art and sculptures and galleries, and small shops selling kitsch and classy souvenirs, fashion, homewares and groceries.

lisbon-night-walk-in-old-townNearby there are 17th-century churches and an impressive cathedral – and up on the hill there are views to take your breath away.

At dusk, the old quarter comes alive.

Cafés and restaurants serve delicious traditional and international food and fabulous Portuguese wine and beer, while the sound of Fado music drifts out into the street.

There is so much more to this beautiful city, but for now here’s a glimpse of the old quarter…

 

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I wandered lonely as a cow…

2016-09-11-21-34-03I’m sure that would have been the original version of Wordsworth’s poem – especially if he’d written it in Switzerland.

On our way back down from the stunning Mt Titlis, we jumped off the cablecar at the mountain lake of Trübsee to walk the rest of the way back down to Engelbert (and yes, downhill walking is weirdly harder on the legs and knees than going uphill).

Along the way, the cow-studded hills were literally alive with the sound of … cowbells.

Whether they’re walking or grazing, chewing their cuds or flicking off flies, those bells are full-on ding-dang-dong.

It probably sends them a tiny bit mad, but it’s certainly music to our ears as we make our way down the mountain. Just a brilliant way to spend a few hours in Switzerland…

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View from Mt Titlis

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The path begins winding around the lake at Trübsee

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A perfect place to walk…


Switzerland: we are here

 

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Street view at Interlaken…

From urban edgy to outdoor rec heaven, from the steamy heat and energy of a city jammed with people to the crisp alpine air of a town nestled between two lakes – flying from Tokyo to Zurich and jumping on a train to Interlaken in Switzerland’s Bernese Oberland feels like intergalactic travel…

Yet both Japan and Switzerland have much in common, including their love of sticking to the rules, their stunning scenery, their strong connection to culture – and how they seem to come alive at night.

Copyright: Louise Creely

Switzerland is definitely a walking culture!

In the evening in the village of Interlaken, everyone is out promenading, eating, drinking, chatting and lapping up the long days before winter sets in.

And when the sun comes up, out they come in their walking gear, with their hiking poles and backpacks…

On our first day here, we join them on Europe’s highest train ride. Along the way, some jump off to walk between alpine villages.

But we’re going all the way – through tunnels chiselled in the mountains, on a railway that is an impressive feat of engineering, up to Jungfraujoch… 3454 metres above sea level.

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While I’m busy taking photos, EB is powering up the slope…

Here the scenery is epic – but there’s no time to get comfortable. EB has spotted a snowy trail disappearing off in the distance.

So off we go, slipping and sliding in the snow. Apparently there’s a café up there somewhere, but it’s way out of sight right now.

This reminds me of our trek in Nepal where the sherpas would smile and say ‘bistaarai, bistaarai’ (slowly, slowly).

With the altitude affecting us a little, we’re taking that advice here… and we definitely lap up the beer and soup in the café that really is there (that’s what I love about Switzerland – you can get food just about anywhere).

As we head back down the slippery slope towards the impressive station at the top of Europe, it’s hard to believe that just a couple of days ago we were bathed in sweat as we walked the streets of Tokyo – and that two countries we never had on our bucket list have managed to capture our hearts.

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Ancient pathways, crater lakes and Shinto shrines

Copyright: Louise Creely

Copyright: Louise Creely

EB in the mist at Station 5, with Mt Fuji up there somewhere!

Some travellers come to Japan just to catch a glimpse of the iconic Mt Fuji – but many leave disappointed.

A local tells us she only reveals herself one or two days of every week so, to the Japanese, Mt Fuji is a beautiful and shy Shinto goddess.

With a typhoon sitting off the coast this week, she’s staying comfortably shrouded in clouds and misty rain. But there is plenty to see in Hakone…

...on the old Tokaido road

…on the old Tokaido road

Down in the valley, Lake Ashinoko is clear and sunny.

We walk around this volcanic crater lake, following part of the old Tokaido road from the Hakone Checkpoint to the Hakone Shrine.

While the Tokaido is now mostly modern highways, this stone-paved section is much like it was back in the Edo-era (1603 – 1867).

Before this heavily-policed road opened up the route between Tokyo and Kyoto, travel was extremely dangerous and roads like this were only used by samurai and bandits.

Copyright: Louise Creely

It’s traditional to wash your hands and rinse your mouth before approaching the shrine…

Today we’re alone on the road, until we reach one of Japan’s four great gates (torii) that marks the entrance to the Shinto Hakone Shrine.

There are three main religions in Japan – Shinto (神道), Buddhism and Christianity.

Most Japanese follow both Shinto and Buddhism traditions – getting married and consecrating their children in the Shinto way but holding traditional Buddhist funerals. 

With Shinto gods protecting them during their life, and the path of enlightenment leading them into the next one, I think they’ve got a pretty workable approach to religion…

Copyright: Louise Creely

Enough about religion. One of the things we love most about Japan is the food. They do it so well, with such ceremony, it makes eating an experience in itself.

Add a sensational view and there’s that religious moment again…

Copyright: Louise Creely


Perfect pause in Hakone…

Hakone (箱根) is in the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, not far from Tokyo. It’s famous for hot springs, the stunning landscape and views of Mt Fuji (when she chooses to show herself).

We’re staying in a traditional hotel with a spa, called an onsen. Onsens are a big favourite in Japan. They’re super healthy and revitalising, but negotiating the bathing etiquette and searing water temperatures can be quite daunting.

Onsen rules

washing before onsenAnd there’s the sticking point. Tattoos are associated with the underworld here in Japan, and flashing them in bathhouses is a definite no-no.

So we took our tatts back for a traditional onsen experience in the privacy of our room. And we (mostly) stuck to the rules:

  1. Leave your shoes at the door
  2. Sit on the small stool and get all in a lather, then shower off so you’re clean and fresh for the soaking
  3. Frank with towel on headForget the selfie stick – taking photos in an onsen is a faux pas (except when it’s in your room of course)
  4. When you’re bathing, pop your small towel on your head where it’s easily accessible to mop up the sweat. But NEVER dip it in the water and wring it out
  5. After your bath, take time to relax.

Wait, I’m with the Energiser Bunny (EB).

Translation: get dressed, put on your walking shoes and head off…

Can’t you just feel the serenity?

 


On the go in Tokyo

Copyright: Louise Creely 2016

From the old-fashioned manners to modern madness, from the understated to the wild and whacky, Tokyo is a pulsing city with a calm energy that will take you by surprise.

Arriving in Tokyo, we are immediately thrust out of our comfort zone. For a start, getting our bearings is almost impossible – and then there’s the language barrier.

Losing yourself in a strange city is all part of the adventure – and quite complicated in a city like this. But we soon discover the locals are always willing to show you the way – even if you don’t ask (looking confused is a dead giveaway, apparently).

Japanese people are helpful, respectful and always up for a laugh, so overcoming the language barrier wasn’t as hard as we thought either.

It just takes some ‘interpretive dance’ and Pictionary-style illustration skills (like explaining you’d like a fish fillet if possible, rather than a whole fish!). Being able to laugh at yourself is also quite useful!

Copyright: Louise Creely 2016

Copyright: Louise Creely 2016The most astonishing thing for me is how everyone negotiates the city streets with absolute calm. It’s like a school of fish out of sync, but still not banging into each other.

We’ve been walking the city streets for two days now (yes constantly, thanks EB!) and we haven’t even been lightly bumped by anyone yet.

In the wide brown land we call home, you can’t walk down a 2m-wide footpath without being shoulder-charged (and I have the path rage to prove it!).

Copyright: Louise Creely 2016

Meanwhile in Omoide Yokocho, also known as piss alley (now they tell me), the alleyways are lined with steamy eateries full of locals. We join them on stools at the bar, drawn in by the delicious sizzling aromas…

After taste-testing local favourites like yakisoba (Japanese fried noodles), raw fish and something on skewers, we pass a steak bar where all the patrons are standing at benches, wearing bibs and hoeing into succulent cuts.

What’s not to love about Tokyo?

Vending machine heavenYou can get just about anything out of a vending machine here – even beer and spirits. Back home, the whole machine would be tossed in the back of a ute and disappear in a blink.

By 8 o’clock (which feels like midnight) we’re back in our 3.5m x 1.5m room drinking a nice Bordeaux red bought from the local 7-eleven.

Those comfort zones we stay in? Definitely over-rated, I reckon.

Copyright: Louise Creely 2016

 


Taking flight… soon

In a few days we’ll be literally on the flight path as we take off on our 10 week trip to Portugal and Spain, with stops along the way in Japan, Switzerland, Morocco and Singapore.

And, of course, the pre-travel madness has set in.

What is it about travel that makes you get everything done before you go? Talk about emptying the in-tray. Sheesh.

I mean, all we’ve been doing these past few weeks is renovating our house (at least it’s lockable now!), closing EB’s business (after 30 years, because he’s over it… wait, that happened 29 years ago), getting my own work projects wrapped up before I go, and all the usual family dramas (mostly the mother/granny-lou-thing about leaving them for over 2 months).

I’m exhausted already.

And did I mention the packing dilemma? Our trip will involve lots of train hopping, so travelling light is the only way to go. Between us we have two cabin-size bags and a couple of small backpacks… and even that feels like too much!

So the countdown is on. Just a little bit excited now. See you on the flight path…