Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Our Last Thougts!!

Howard and I had the most fabulous time in both Spain and Portugal!  We never tired of the beautiful architecture, the scenery, whether it was a city, countryside, ocean, was all incredible!

Hopefully some day we'll be back!

At the beginning I was wondering if I'd want to go back to Mexico (Barcelona is so beautiful) but by the end I really appreciated Mexico - the people, the food, the Joy!

We learned an important lesson - end your long trip with 3-4 days relaxing in just one place (the Algarve Coast would have been nice), next time!!!

We made some interesting observations -
Spain -
1. Very pedestrian friendly, unfortunately you feel like you're going to get hit because they stop about 1foot     before you, but they do stop!  It takes some getting used to.
2. They are more environmentally minded - huge recycling bins sit outside on corners for you to bring down your trash and sort your recyclables.
3. We didn't really see obese people even though they eat a lot of carbs.
4.They smoke a lot (maybe that explains #3 above).
5. More energy conscious then the US - they use a lot of Florescent Light bulbs, lights in public restrooms were all on timers (sometimes way too short)

6. People in Barcelona very closed, cold, dry.........whatever!  Especially noticeable in the restaurants!
7. The AVE, fast train was fabulous and so much easier then boarding a Plane!

Portugal -
1.People a lot friendlier than Spain.
2. Lisboa reminded us of Mexico, neighborhood parties, many religious processions celebrating one Saint or another.
3. Tuna spread was served with Bread and Butter before your meal, along with olives etc.
4. You were charged for everything you ate, even 1 Olive ****this was also true in Spain.
5. Gas was $8.50 a gallon -Fiche - Wow, in Portuguese!
6. The highways were extremely well designed from the toll booths, on ramps etc., very modern!
7. They smoke a lot too, I guess all Europeans do
8. Drivers here are crazy, they drive very fast right up to your tail, flash lights - they appear out of nowhere!
9. Driving up and down the country we really had a new appreciation for Fast Food, we had none and we missed them.  They do serve a purpose sometimes!

Both Countries:  Average lunch was $30 and we're not talking great food, the Wine and Beer were the cheapest.  All cars are small, Barcelona is the #1 city in Europe for Motorcycle, Scooter use!
Funny how we don't frequent Starbucks and/or Fast Food places in the US but they saved us many times in Spain and Portugal.

Europeans in general are not as courteous as Americans - we were surrounded by tourist from all over Europe and we noticed they don't say excuse me, sorry, push to get by you etc. I understand its a Cultural Difference but its hard not to notice.

A sad observation - we really have become generic in our clothing, you could not tell the difference between someone from the US, Spain, Germany, Italy, Russia etc, we all now dress alike ;(, the styles are the same everywhere!

June 20th - Monday Last day on the road!!

It's a bitter sweet day - We get to go on another adventure but its our last one!  Our goal today is to return the car by early evening and be in our hotel early to prepare for tomorrow's departure.  We'll see what we can find to explore along the way!

Five minutes from our hotel and heading south in our direction was a Miradouro (view point), so we were able to have one more look at the beautiful city of Coimbra and the Mondego River.  We said our Goodbye's, had our picture taken and started heading south towards Lisboa.

Our first stop was the town of Batalha, to see the great Monastery of Santa Maria, considered Portugal's finest architectural achievement and a symbol of its national pride.
We were very happy we stopped here, it was positively an amazing architectural wonder. (We are surprised that we don't tire of seeing  Monasteries, churches, castles etc.)  The exterior was built between 1388 and 1550, with a late Gothic style.

After admiring the Monastery with all its different rooms and chapels we did a little shopping -  right outside there were many little shops selling Touristy Souvenirs.    We bought more Tea Towels, a tablecloth and a deck of cards with pictures from all over Portugal.
Before leaving we decided to eat lunch and found a nice little place close by (but a few blocks away from the touristy area).  We both enjoyed our delicious meal (our last in Portugal), gathered up our energy and headed south again!
From here we headed to Fatima known for the miracle of 1917 when Mary, Mother of Christ appeared in front of 3 Shepherd Children.  In 1930, the Vatican recognized the Virgin of Fatima as legit.  Pilgrims come here in the tens of thousands to rejoice in this modern Miracle.
While trying to find parking we drove around the little, very nice, immaculate town and to no surprise almost every shop sold Catholic, statues of the Virgin with the 3 kids, plates, ceramics etc., unbelievable!  We even saw a hotel called "Catholic Hotel". I wonder if you had to say the rosary every night before going to bed?  Wouldn't doubt it, this country is 94% Catholic.
We were overwhelmed by the modern, huge complex that was here.  Two big churches, the Basilica built between 1928-1953 and the Church of the Holy Trinity 2005-2007.  The 2nd church was begun by Pope John Paul II with a stone from St. Peter's actual tomb in the Vatican.  Each church was at the opposite end of the huge Esplanade.  We visited both churches, wandered around the Esplanade and gardens, saw the Oak Tree where she appeared (the tree is very well protected by a fence) and took many pictures.

After grabbing a quick bite we were on our way again!  Next stop was the town of Alcobaca, famous for its church.  On the way we took a little detour, following signs to a Castle - Howard wanted to see just one more.  We drove through the beautiful countryside, narrow curvy roads but no sign of the Castle.  Finally after driving for about 10 minutes, turning a curve we saw it, way, way far away on a hill!  Since we were going in the opposite direction of where we need to drive we decided to turn around and head back towards Alcobaca.

We arrived in Alcobaca and could see the huge church from afar.  Unfortunately the parking was non-existent, one way streets, very confusing so we found ourselves driving away from the church.  As we were circling back to try again we found a Grocery store and decided to stop.  We bought wine and cheese and crackers for our dinner tonight in the hotel.  While shopping we both agreed that we could skip the Church, it was getting late in the afternoon and we still had to reach Lisboa, find the airport, return the car and get to our hotel.

Arrived in Lisboa and luckily the airport was easy to find.  Returned the car hopped in a taxi and soon we were relaxing in our hotel.  We had purposely chosen one close to the airport, no running around tonight!  We spent the evening repacking our things along with the souvenirs that we had picked up and enjoyed our wine/cheese/cracker dinner and made it an early night!

Sunday, June 19th Driving to the Beach/Afternoon and Evening in Coimbra

Today we decided to drive to the coast - Figueira da Foz - a beach town we had read and heard about.  We chose the free road versus the toll because we wanted to see all the little towns along the way.  We were truly rewarded by passing thru small villages, beautiful scenery and Voila, around a bend lo and behold, in the distance, on a small hill, was a Castle!!  Funny thing, Howard had said he'd like to see just one castle and here it was.
We found ourselves at Montemor-o-Velho, a castle dating back to 990AD.  Many battles between Arabs and Christians were fought here.  We were free to wander the grounds and even though it was Sunday we had it almost to ourselves.  In the church, originally built in 1095 but reconstructed in the 16 century, a Baptism was in process.  We peaked in quietly and moved on.  Many parts of this Castle, which also housed the Royal Residence of the 13th century, was well preserved.  The views from the Castle Walls were beautiful, rice fields, wetlands and country side.  We drove around the town outside the walls through its narrow Medieval streets, 19th century houses and flowers blooming everywhere in the fields and the window boxes.  This was a wonderful surprise on our way to the coast!.


We left here on a little country road and continued to Figueira de Foz.  After driving thru the beautiful countryside we reached the ocean, what a beautiful sight!  The huge Atlantic Ocean was all in front of us!  We drove along the coastline to see the town a little before we parked our car to walk on the beach.  From the street to the water was at least a 5 minute walk, the widest beach we've ever seen.
We enjoyed walking along the edge of the water getting our feet wet and me, of course, looking for shells and rocks.  Without realizing it we had walked quite a ways but luckily for us the walk on the sand back to the sidewalk was about half of what we had walked down to the water.  Now we were hungry (walking on sand will do that to you) and wanted to find a place to eat.  We got back to the area with restaurants and shops and started looking at menus.  Many people were sitting outside and eating their favorite "Sardines".  We decided we didn't want to work that hard for our meal.  They had a wonderful Vintage Car Show that we strolled through on our hunt for lunch.  We finally decided on a Italian restaurant, it was packed with locals, of course good sign.  The food was good and reasonable, for Portugal, but the olives turned out to the most expensive of our entire trip!
Have I mentioned that you pay for everything that is put on your table?  The bread, the butter, the olives etc.  Up until now it had been reasonable but today we were shocked - our little nibbling of Olives cost us $6.00US.  Next time we're in Europe (wishful thinking here) we'll be sure to ask at every restaurant.

After lunch we drove back to Coimbra via the Toll Road, it was only about 45 minutes away.  As I've mentioned before even the toll roads are beautiful here.
Back in Coimbra we drove our car to our side of the river but instead of going back to the hotel we parked along the river so we could strolled across the Pedro and Inez Walking Bridge.  We walked across the river admiring the beautiful views and on the other side we found the restaurants we had read about but couldn't fine.  The were down right along the river but not visible from the road on that side.  We checked out menus and decided we'd eat our last dinner in one of these.
We kept walking along the park, men were sitting outside playing dominoes, small kids were riding their miniature cars and Mom's were pushing strollers.  Just as we were arriving across from the main plaza (we  were heading to the University) the River Boat was starting to fill up with people.  We had seen this Boat on the river while we walked across the bridge and commented what a nice experience it must be.  Spontaneously we walked up the crew and asked if we could also board, they said sure!  It was mostly a Tour Group of Spaniards, it was nice to hear a language that we understood.  It was a very nice, relaxing, beautiful boat ride.  We went cruising for about an hour and we enjoyed seeing the town from the River.

Back on land we walked through the Historic area following the signs for the University.  It was all up hill, narrow, winding streets but due to our perseverance we made it to the top!  School is out for the summer so we didn't see any students. Mostly we enjoyed seeing most of the campus from the outside of the buildings, beautiful architecture everywhere.  The U was founded in 1290, originally a Royal Palace when Coimbra was the Capital.  The views from up here were wondrous.  After walking around as much as possible and seeing what was opened we proceeded to walk back down.  We wanted to explore so we chose a different route down.  Meandered through the narrow streets until we found stairs that we thought were going the right way, down!!  Fortunately for us, they were going the right way but they were the steepest stairs we'd ever walked on.  We ended up across the street from the park that we needed to walk through to cross the bridge and back to our car.  We needed a nap so we could return tonight for dinner!

It was late so we decided to drive over the to the restaurant on the other side of the river.  It was a nice evening, 10pm and still light out.  We enjoyed our dinner at the Rock Cafe, the food was good, the views beautiful and the owner very personable.  It was a lovely, last evening in Coimbra!