Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Night train to Madrid

Four person sleeper cabin
Yesterday evening, I checked out of my rented room and took the subway to Santa Appolonia train station, in Lisbon, where I caught the night train to Madrid. We left Lisbon at 930pm and arrived in Madrid at about 830 this morning.

In anticipation of the long nocturnal journey, I'd reserved a bunk in a four-person sleeper cabin so I might catch some zees while I traveled. Well, I don't doubt that the four person sleeper cabin in which I spent the night was better than sleeping in an upright seat. Nonetheless, I've had more comfortable accommodations.

All four bunks were reserved. One for myself, and the other three for strangers: two Spaniards and a Russian. The Russian was a friendly fellow who spoke neither English nor Spanish, but still, in his amiable way, felt it best to make an effort at getting to know his roommates. It turns out he is from Rostov, on the Sea of Azov. He'd been in Lisbon visiting his brother and was now making the long journey back home: from Lisbon to Madrid by train, thence to Moscow by airliner, thence to Rostov. He showed me photos of his 4 sons, his wife, and his grandson. I showed him a photo of Maty and I in New York. In a short time, we were friends.

Myself, Anatoly, and his sister-in-law
The bunks in the sleeper cabin were narrow and cramped. There was not much room for moving around. I was most thankful to find an AC outlet that I used to plug in my CPAP machine, which worked for me throughout the night.

Once the train left the station and in spite of the close quarters I slept well.

I dreamed that Maty and I were back home in Portland, going about our daily tasks. In the dream, I became aware of a shaking and rolling, a trembling, as if the earth were alive. "This is it," I thought. "Portland is finally having the big earthquake that we've known would come." I sought to reassure Maty: "Don't worry, honey, it'll be alright." But as my dream continued, the earthquake gave no indication of abating and doubt gripped my heart.

I awoke with a start to the rocking and rolling of the train car as we rumbled along toward Spain, and smiled to myself as I faded back to sleep. That's what dreams are made of, after all.

Luxuriously spacious accommodations
Once I had detrained, I caught a taxi to my accommodations in the heart of Madrid. I was delighted to find that the place I'd rented (through Airbnb which I highly recommend to my fellow travelers) was a full suite, with bedroom, bathroom and living room, as well as a shared kitchen. Luxurious! And only $176 for 5 nights!
Ejercito Del Aire = Army of the Air
Air Force HQ?
I got unpacked and settled in, took a short rest, and then set out on foot to explore the neighborhood.

This is actually my third visit to Madrid, but I don't doubt that it will prove to be the most rewarding of the three. The first time I came here, with sister Mia in 1999, I was so jet-lagged that I could scarcely absorb my surroundings, let alone appreciate them. The second visit was brief and limited to a quick trip out to El Escorial. This time I've got 5 full days and my body clock is well-adjusted.

Arc in the center of a traffic circle
It's a rainy, windy day here in Madrid, but I was prepared with my umbrella and hoodie. As I walked through the streets, a warmth grew in my heart. I remembered how much I love Spain.

In Ernest Hemingway's masterpiece, For Whom the Bell Tolls, there is a scene wherein Pablo and Pilar, two guerillas fighting for the Spanish Republic, have a conversation about a horror they had seen earlier that day. Pablo and his men had captured all the Fascists in a small village and held them prisoner in the church. A crowd of Republicans formed a cordon outside and the Fascists were compelled to walk out through the crowd, one by one, where they were beaten to death by the Republicans, who were armed with clubs and farm tools. Within the church, a Fascist priest led his doomed comrades in prayer while they awaited their fate.

As the day wore on, the crowd outside became drunk and their bloodthirstiness increased. Pablo recognized that events would soon accelerate beyond his control and so opened the doors to the church allowing the drunken mob to rush in and hack all the Fascists to pieces. The priest at first attempted to be brave, but when the mob ran at him, he lost heart and tried to flee before being cut down.

That evening, Pablo says to his woman, Pilar: "I was disappointed with the priest. The way he died."

"What did you expect?" Pilar asks. "You gave him a dog's death."

"He was a Spanish priest," Pablo replies simply.

"Ay! The arrogance of these men!" cries Pilar.

The reason I mention this anecdote is because I think it reveals something about the Spanish character.
Ain't no cool like Spanish cool
Spaniards have a high opinion of themselves and their countrymen. And for good reason. No one does cool like a Spaniard. Their lifestyle, their culture, their language are highly-evolved, very sophisticated. Spain is an acme of human civilization. If you doubt it, come see for yourself.

Rainy day plaza
I'm finding that my Spanish language skills are better than I'd imagined. I haven't yet had to resort to English, whether to give instructions to the cab driver, order food from a restaurateur, find items in a grocery store, or get directions from a person on the street. Very encouraging and a vastly different experience than when I traveled to Chile in 2004. (Chilenos are notorious for their eclectic accents and idioms.)
More Madrid
Tomorrow, I will visit El Prado, which I have eagerly anticipated for years. I never managed a visit in my two previous trips to Madrid, but this time for sure.

Tomorrow, I'll view the masterworks of El Greco and Hieronymous Bosch! What a treat!

Beautiful architecture
Thanks to everyone who is enjoying my posts. More later!

Monday, October 12, 2015

Last day in Portugal

Fountain in Rossio, Lisbon
Yesterday, I made a trip to the west of Lisbon, to Sintra and vicinity. Sintra is a resort town that was once a get-away place for royalty (Moorish, Portuguese, and others), but that is now a popular destination for the unwashed masses. Some half-dozen palaces sit in and atop the steep, woody hills around the village, connected by narrow, winding roads clogged with tour buses, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians.

Upon arrival at Sintra, by the morning train from Lisbon, I signed on to a bus tour with a company whose name I can't remember. It was a hop-on/hop-off gig. That is, you can ride the bus around to the various sights, get off at any place that appeals, see what you will, then hop back on the bus when it comes around again. 

To visit all the sites in Sintra would require a Herculean effort, even had I more than the one day I'd allotted for it. I've found that, even if you're a meticulous planner (which I am not), travel often requires snap decisions. You make a choice and you go with it, for better or worse. So, realizing that there was more to see than time to spend, I took the advice of a tour guide and selected the Palacio da Regaleira as my first destination.

The mansion of Palacio da Regaleira
Palacio da Regaleira is an estate built by the wealthy eccentric Carvalho Monteiro in the first decade of the 20th century. Monteiro wanted an estate that reflected his many interests, including alchemy, architecture, and other fields of study.

Ornate lintel in the mansion
The resulting grounds are a a paradise for Dungeons and Dragons players. A maze of grottoes, towers, tunnels, and ponds, with an impressive if diminutive chapel in the midst. I spent a good hour and a half exploring the many narrow, spiraling staircases and meandering paths and found the experience to be rewarding, although at times my patience wore thin. At every turn the path was choked with umbrella-bearing tourists, cliques of people standing about, fiddling with their smart phones, fiddling with their cameras, getting in the way.

Moss-clad turret
It rained, off and on, as I made my way around the grounds and I was footsore by the time I made my way back to the bus stop to await my tour bus.

Along the path

Spiral staircase descends to caves

Grotto/duck pond

Intricate architecture
The bus took me further west, passing several castles along the way. I intended to ride up to the last stop on the route, where the Pena National Palace awaited. It is Sintra's premier tourist destination and said to be quite beautiful.

Sights along the way
But before the bus came there, we emerged from the densely wooded hills, onto a windswept open highland that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean: Cabo da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe.

Lovers at the beach

Lighthouse in the fog

Rocky Portuguese coast

Windswept highland

Rugged and rocky


Cabo da Roca

The open vistas and the mild temperature were so inviting after close-in Lisbon, with her narrow streets and endless row houses, that I made a snap decision to get off the bus and enjoy the view of the Atlantic in lieu of visiting Pena Palace. I learned long ago that, as a traveler, you should always assume that you will return one day. It relieves you of the pressure to see everything you want to see and allows you to enjoy the things that you have time to see.

And so, I spent another hour or two hiking around the heights above the vast Atlantic, enjoying the sea air and the relative solitude. I had a lunch of bread and fish soup at the restaurant and then caught the bus for a ride to the train station, thence back to Lisbon. Pena Palace will have to wait for my next visit.

Today is my last day in Portugal. This time around anyway. Tonight I catch the night train to Madrid, there to visit El Prado and El Escorial and see what I might see of that grand city.

In a matter of hours, I'll say farewell to Lisbon with her pastel-colored houses and brick streets. It's been good.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

A day of rest in Lisbon

Rainy day in Lisbon
This morning, I awoke to rain that seemed to come from nowhere. Last night, when I'd retired, skies were clear, without a hint of a change. When I blearily stumbled out of my rented room this morning, drizzle made puddles on the patio outside the apartment and a gray pall cast itself over the city. It's something of a rarity, by Portland standards. Lisbon averages 260 days of sunshine per year, and for the first 3 days of my visit only wispy, feather-like cirrus have populated the sky.

But the rain is just as well, since I had already decided to spend today resting, doing laundry, and making reservations for the next leg of my trip. I had to change residences this morning due to a snafu with my Airbnb accommodations. My previous room was meager, with a mattress on the floor, next to a shared kitchen filled with the residual odors of fried food, and a somewhat nasty shared bathroom. There were four rented rooms in the apartment, which were all occupied. The clientele were mostly young people who didn't mind roughing it. It was the kind of place where I stayed the last time I trekked through Europe: cheap, barely adequate, and highly social. But I'm older now. I like my privacy. My new accommodations, still in the heart of Lisbon, are cleaner and much more comfortable.

Praça do Comércio
Yesterday, I walked down to the Praça do Comércio, a plaza on the banks of the Tagus River and took a trolley tour through the city. The trolley car was equipped with headphone jacks at each seat, where you could plug in your ear buds and tune to any of 10 channels, each reciting interesting facts about Lisbon in a different language. 

Given its strategic location near the mouth of Iberia's longest river, the Tagus, it was inevitable that a city would arise here. It's a natural crossroads at the nexus of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Greeks and Phoenicians established trading posts here, some 9 centuries BCE, meaning that Lisbon was already an ancient city when Julius Caesar was stabbed to death on the floor of the Roman Senate. 

But more recently, the Moors conquered Lisbon and most of Iberia in the 700s, where they remained in control for about 300 years, before Christian crusaders won it back to Christendom. During the 16th and 17th centuries, Lisbon was the seat of a vast trading empire that stretched all the way around the globe: the Americas, Japan, Africa, India.

In short, this city has a long, complicated history that somewhat belies its modern-day modesty.

Laundry day
As I toured around the city, from time to time, I was visited by a déjà vu sensation as I came to places that I had seen before, when I was here with sister Mia in 1999, but that I had subsequently forgotten. It's a rather eerie, but not unpleasant experience.

Ancient aqueduct, still in use today
So, as I said, today, I am resting up and doing some chores. Tomorrow, I plan to take a day trip to nearby Sintra, which I hear is most rewarding. Then, on Monday night, I catch the night train to Madrid. I've reserved a bed in a sleeper car which sleeps four people. I sincerely hope that there will be an available electrical outlet for my CPAP machine. Otherwise, I pity my bunk mates! I can put up an infernal roar when I'm sleeping (so I've been told), which only the snore machine can quell.

Enough for now. I'll leave you with some more photos from this beautiful city.

Dried fish at the supermercado

Tagus river

Pretty police officer

Lisboa, from the top of the Parque Eduardo VII

Ponte 25 de Abril and Cristo Rei in the background

Parliamentary building

Soldiers guarding the entrance to the Parliament building

Beautiful tiled facades
Taking it all in

Thursday, October 08, 2015

Arrived in Lisbon

Lisbon in the late afternoon
It was morning in Lisbon, when I arrived. Not morning by my clock. I'm still on North American time. But morning nonetheless.

I'd bid farewell to my beloved wife at the Newark airport some 8 hours previous and made the trans-Atlantic flight feeling bereft and lonely. But also determined, also eager.

I no sooner landed and passed through customs than the adventure began.

Some miscommunication between myself and my English-as-a-second-language host resulted in some confusion as to the address of the place where I'd be staying. The taxi driver, eager to be on to his next fare, dropped me off at the corner of Rua da Lapa and Rua da Lapa Santa Ana, which was the general neighborhood of my accommodations, but as I watched the taxi disappear into the labyrinth of narrow Lisbon streets, I really didn't know where to go.

Narrow streets, colorful buildings
So I wandered, backpack cinched up tight to my shoulder blades, wheeling my suitcase on the uneven stone sidewalks. I started up one street then decided to backtrack and go another way. I turned many corners and walked down many narrow streets until I could not find my way back, even, to the place where the taxi had unceremoniously dumped me.

I intended to use my Smartphone to contact my host for assistance, but I lacked a wifi signal and my phone battery was in the red zone.

I was dog tired. And I was hungry and thirsty. And I really didn't need this hassle.

And why in the hell did I want to do this anyway? Why did I want to go trekking all over Europe without any arrangements or plans? What the hell was I doing?

Field trip
I could feel the frustration and despair welling up, but then another voice arose inside my head. For the life of me, it sounded like my dad, 14 years gone. "Think this through, Dade," it said. "Get yourself something to eat. Get a wifi connection. And work this thing out."

Narrow streets, colorful buildings
Which I did. I found a small panderia that advertised "American breakfasts." I entered a small, quiet dining area to be greeted by a kindly middle-aged woman who served me a plate of scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast, plus orange juice and coffee, and a cup of ripe melons squares. She also provided me with the password for the wifi network. The breakfast was delicious and I praised her to the heavens, which made her smile. She spoke no English.

Duas senhoras idosas
My phone battery was practically dead, but it had enough juice for me to locate the address online and plot a walking route with Google maps. Howsoever I had managed it, I had wandered to about 2 kilometers away from the place. But now I knew.

I paid for my meal and thanked my hostess, then hailed a taxi which took me straight to 14 Rua da Lapa. At long last, I made it.
On the road again
My accommodations are a single room on a 6th floor apartment, with a shared bathroom and kitchen. Meager, but adequate. The other people staying here are all considerably younger than me, but friendly enough. Germans, mostly.

I took a nap to try to catch up on my jet lag and then set out with a freshly charged phone battery and a confidence that had been absent in the morning.

I wandered through the Bairro Alto neighborhood and wound my way to the Castel San Jorge where I was treated to spectacular views of Lisbon laid out all about me. Vague memories of my previous visit to Lisbon, in 1999 with sister Mia, rose up out of the murky past.

On the way back to the hostel, I stopped for paella. A Dutchman named Timon was at the table next and asked if he might join me. It turns out he had just moved to Lisbon and was looking for a little company. We chatted while I ate and he told me of his hair-raising adventures on a recent trip to Tijuana, Mexico.

"It's a rough place, from what I hear," I said.

"Believe it," he said.
After dinner, I walked back to the hostel.

I snapped a lot of photos on my outing, some of which you see here. And now, I'm lying in my bed, typing away, and, were it not for missing my wife, my heart would be content.

Traveling solo again. The last time I did this was in 2004, when I went to Chile and Argentina. Before that, in 1999, I made my Grand European tour.

The questions that had plagued me during my morning crisis were so easily answered, now that I had it all sorted. It's really quite obvious.

When I'm on the road, traveling anonymously in a foreign country --that's when I'm most sure that I'm doing something worthwhile, something that I will remember with pride at the final curtain. That's when I most believe in myself.


Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Farewell to New York and to Maty

Easy as pie
New Amsterdam, it's become much too much
'Til I have the possession of everything she touches
'Til I step on the brake to get out of her clutches
'Til I speak Double Dutch to a real double duchess; --Elvis Costello

As I write, Maty and I are in Newark International Airport, seated at the gate where she will board her flight for Houston, Texas in a scant hour. We will soon part ways, she to visit family in the Lone Star state, I to ride the rails from Lisbon to Amsterdam over the course of the next month. We'll be reunited in mid-November, back home in Portland.

Maty in Times Square
What to say about New York? Any words I might tap out will, of course, be inadequate. New York is the center of the world. You can see it in the array of races and ethnicities of its inhabitants; you can hear it in the multitude of tongues that resound on its streets.

Outside ABC Studios
The exhilaration I felt wandering through the streets, the sheer adrenaline, was as powerful as any drug. While I wandered through Central Park, I looked up at the high-rise apartments and imagined what it might be like to live there, at the center of the universe. "If I had 10 million dollars, I'd buy a place, right here," I thought. "I'd move us into it, and we'd never leave. We wouldn't have to. The world would come to us."

But I'm never going to have 10 million dollars. Not in this lifetime. It's just a wistful dream. And, anyway, I think I love my little Rose City too much to leave her.

Maty and New Yorks' Finest
We spent our last day in Gotham wandering around Times Square, people watching, spell-bound by the dazzling displays. We ate lunch at a French bistro. We cast aside any pretenses of being above it, and gawked like the tourists we were.
Manikin retinue in H&M Times Square
And, for tourists, of course, New York is enthralling. But I spoke with a couple locals, and for them, the reality is a little different. "There is a lot of stress, working here," said a young black man I met in the bistro. He works for a bank in Times Square. "I'm here every day, and there is a lot of stress. I commute in from New Jersey every day. I can't afford to live here in Manhattan." 
Tatted New Yorker
On the subway, when we were returning to Staten Island, I met a man about my age --a tall Russian fellow --with two young children in tow. "When I came to work here, my employer warned me, almost as a point of contract, that I must be sure to leave the city regularly. The adrenaline will burn you out in short order, if you don't."

I suppose it must be that way.

Lovely day in Lincoln Square Park
Nonetheless, I love New York City. Maty loves it, too. We'll be back someday, God willing. But now I must sign off. My wife is getting ready to board. I've got a lump in my throat as I prepare to say goodbye to her. I hope I don't make a fool out of myself by blubbering in front of God and everyone.

More from Europe, dear reader. But for now, farewell.