Sunday, March 29, 2009

A Week in Portugal

It all started back in 2006 when I was studying abroad in Granada for 4 months, which at the time, seemed like plenty of time to do everything I wanted to do, and to see everything I wanted to see. But before I knew it, I was hopping on a plane back to the US, and while I had taken 10 days to galavant around Germany, France, Italy, Austria, and Switzerland...I hadn´t found the time to make it to neighboring Portugal. So I must admit, ever since then, I have been a little obsessed with Portugal and I promised myself I would not return back to the states until I stepped foot in Portugal. I write with good news, today: I am now free to return to the US, because I just spent the last 6 days traveling throughout Portugal. And what an adventure it was.

Two weeks ago, while I was chilling in my friend Ines´s travel agency talking and passing the time, I noticed a sheet of paper announcing a week long adventure in Portugal for 155 euros (meals, transportation, and hotel included in the price). I immediately thought it was too good to be true. It a certain extent. Because I went as a single, and not in a pair, the price jumped to 250 euros. However, for all that was included, it was still a darn good price. So I signed up, asked for the week off from work, and last Sunday caught the 7:30 am bus from Ubrique to Ronda, and at 9:00 am hopped on the tour bus from Ronda to Fatima (Portugal). And yes, if you are wondering, it was a extremely tight connection. But I like to live on the edge...

Sunday (Day 1): The journey to Portugal. I completely panicked at first, because I was the only single on the bus...and the only person under the age of 60. For the first several hours, not a single person said a word to me (except for the bus driver who came back to check on me a couple times because I think he felt a little sorry for me haha). But 8 hours later when we arrived in Portugal and were eating dinner, someone finally turned to me and asked me if I spoke Spanish. I said "Sí!" And for the next 5 days, we were all one big happy family (a family of a 22 year old, and 40 some 60 year olds and above). :) But before I go further, I must clarify right now that this was probably the most amazing and the best tour/trip of my life. So don´t worry, I have nothing against what one might call "senior citizens."

Monday (Day 2): We took off from the hotel bright and early, and headed to Nazaré, a small historic fishing town in central Portugal. After spending a couple hours exploring the historic district, walking along the beach, and shopping, we headed to Alcobaca, and visted the Alcobaca Monestery (built in 1153) which was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1989 (ça_Monastery). Then we headed back to the hotel in Fatima, ate lunch, and embarked on the next journey. We spent the afternoon in Batalha, visiting the Santa María de la Victoria Monastery, which was also declared a world heritage site by UNESCO ( And rightfully so; the church is absolutely amazing, and the monastery even more incredible. On our way back from Batalha, we stopped off at a Wine Museum and enjoyed a wine tasting of some of the sweet dessert wines of the Porto region of Portugal. This was my frist wine tasting...and while I must admit I am still not a fan of wine, there was one that I at least found bearable. :)

Tuesday (Day 3): We spent the morning exploring the beautiful historic town of Sintra (located near Lisboa). The entire town is considered a UNESCO world heritage site due to its 19th century Romanesque architecture. Sintra is home to an incredible castle (Castillo Moro) and 2 ornate palaces (Palacio de Pena and the Palacio de la Villa) ( It is also one of the most expensive (and wealthiest) districts of Portugal, along with neighboring Cascais, situated on the beach. After visiting the castles and palaces of Sintra, we took a bus tour of Cascais, took a few moments to wander along the beach, and stopped off in Estoril for a picnic in front of the Casino Estoril, Europe´s largest casino and property of one of Europe´s wealthiest. In the afternoon, we stopped off in Öbidos, a tiny village famous for its white houses adorned with flowers, and for the Medieval wall that surrounds the entire village. Here we enjoyed a traditional cherry liquour, served with a small chocolate tart. As you might guess, the chocolate tart was my favorite part.

Wednesday (Day 4): Day trip to Lisboa!!!! We spent the entire day exploring Portugal´s capital, from the industrial/river side, to the historic district, to the monuments, and to the city center. In the morning, we visted the Jerónimos Monastery ( and the nearby torre of Belem; both of which are UNESCO world heritage sites. After lunch, we had the afternoon free to explore as much or as little of Lisboa as we wanted. As you might guess, I took off running in order to see everything I possibly could. I wandered along the winding streets aimlessly, attempting to find St. Jorge´s Castle. A half hour later, I eventually did. After exploring the castle, I headed back down to the center of town, visited the Cathedral, passed by the Basillica, ran across the main squares, visited the main shopping district, and much, much more. When it was all said and done, I was exhausted. Oh, and did I mention I “met” my first drug dealer?! As I was sprinting across one of the main squares, a man began to approach me asking me if I wanted to buy some marijuana or hashish…I kept walking, and said “no thank you.” Then I got a little feistier when he didn’t accept my “no thank you” and told him to back off. Which he did. Never underestimate the power of voice tonation. But go figure, in broad day light, in a busy populated square…?!

Thursday (Day 5): Day trip to Coimbra, which for many years served as the Capital of Portugal and is home to one of Portugal´s (and Europe´s) oldest and most impressive Universities. We had the opportunity to visit and explore the grounds of the University of Coimbra, the Old and New Cathedrals, the river front, and the historic town center. We returned to the hotel in Fatima for lunch, and spent the afternoon in Cova da Iria (part of Fatima) where the three young shepherds first claimed to have seen the aparition of the Virgin Mary on May 13th in 1917 (átima,_Portugal).

Friday (Day 6): We had a "free day" to relax and do whatever we wanted in Fatima. Since there really is not much to do in Fatima, other than visit religious museums and the famous Sanctuary of Fatima, that is exactly what I did. I spent the afternoon wandering around the town, and ran into the two bus drivers, and passed an hour or so chatting with them. After dinner, we had a toast and headed over to the other group´s hotel to celebrate the birthday of one of the travelers on Bus #1 (two buses went to Portugal, but we were all the same group). After some good Spanish jokes, some singing and some flamenco, I headed back to the hotel to get a good nights rest since I had to be up at 6:30 am the next morning to begin the long journey back to Spain.

Saturday (Day 7): This might just be my favorite and least favorite day all at once. Clearly I didn´t like the fact that my Portugal adventure was ending, but I was quite thrilled that the bus driver invited me to ride in the very front of the bus (in the guide´s seat next to him) the entire way back! It was, shall we say, absolutely amazing and so much fun! Once back in Ronda, I had to catch another bus to take me back to Ubrique...and officially, my travels ended.

All in all, I had the trip of a lifetime. I have never travelled with such nice, warm, and welcoming people in my life. Nor have I ever met such professional but friendly and fun tour staff (the bus driver and our tour guide). While Portugal is a beautiful country, and I am quite happy to finally say I have visited Portugal (and a large portion of the country at that!), it was the people that made my trip so memorable.

Continuation of the Quirks, Ins-and-Outs, and Best Parts of Spain:
31. Only in Ubrique can you participate in a River Run on a Friday night at 9:30 pm. Yes, I ran with a group of 15 others for 2 kilometers up the freezing cold river that runs through the middle of town. Why? No idea. I suppose just to say we did it.
32. Spanish olive oil truly is the best in the world.
33. Spanish is much easier to understand than Portuguese. Haha.
34. The beaches of Spain are incredible. Cádiz comes to mind. But so does Barcelona, Nerja, Marbella, etc.
35. Bus is the only way to travel in Spain. You miss out on everything if you fly. That is my official opinion. You can quote me.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Quirks, Ins-and-Outs, and Best Parts of Spain

The take-away on Spain (and Ubrique):

1. Andalucians are the nicest, most wonderful people you will ever meet.
2. On a sunny day, you won´t find a cloud in the sky for miles.
3. You´ve never seen such a bright blue sky in your life.
4. You cannot leave your house without seeing at least 5 people you know.
5. You can walk out your door and be in the mountains in under 10 minutes.
6. Everyone speaks to everyone.
7. Not a minute goes by where you don´t hear someone honking their horn (this is their way of saying hi to a fellow driver or someone walking on the street).
8. You don´t need a car to get around Spain. Walking gets you almost everywhere. And where you can´t go walking, public transportation is cheap and does the trick.
9. There are millions of goats, sheep, pigs, and cows (and bulls) roaming the countryside.
10. Sometimes you have to wait on the road while the sheep or goats take their leisurely time getting accross.
11. Horseback riding into the sunset is amazing.
12. Cadiz has a month long party...every year. What could be better?!
13. Paella. Its amazing.
14. Local bars and local parties...every weekend.
15. Free (or at least affordable) health care. For the first time in my life I didn´t have to pay to visit a doctor when I was sick. It is an amazing feeling.
16. Humility. The people here are humble.
17. You´ve never seen so many recycle bins in your life. Paper. Glass. Plastic. etc.
18. Flamenco and other cultural dances and traditions.
19. Town processions and holiday festivities truly incorporate everyone.
20. No racism (or at least no visible racism).
21. Cost of life is reasonable.
22. People help each other out. Neighbors help neighbors. People don´t just look the other way.
23. Spaniards know how to party, and how to rest. All stores are closed on Sundays. As such, I recommend getting groceries on Saturday. ;)
24. Spanish is a "super guay" (super cool) language.
25. You learn to appreciate hot water and hot showers...because at least once a month, you have to take a freezing cold one.
26. Drying your clothes outside on a clothesline...its just...natural.
27. There are almost no places with central heating. Wear layers.
28. The siesta. Even if you don´t sleep the siesta, you still have a 2 hour break in the work day.
29. Almost everyone has brown hair. So yes, blondes do have more fun!
30. I will most certainly be adding stay tuned.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dos Patitos (My Birthday in Spain!!!)

I now have "Los Dos Patitos!" Well, I will start with a quick explanation. In Spain, one´s 22nd birthday is commonly referred to as the "dos patitos" (or two ducks). I will give you a minute or two to think about that. Well, you are probably mind boggled and trying to figure it out ...Give up? It is called the "two ducks" because the number 2, according to my friends, looks like a duck. And two 2s, look like two ducks. Therefore, los dos patitos. ¿Me comprendes?! But if you are more comfortable, you can just say my 22nd birthday. I´m okay with that, too.

I must admit that my 22nd Birthday ranks as one of the best of my life (not counting my 21st for which my amazing dad sent me to Mexico for a week!). The weekend started off with a big surprise. I received a birthday package...and the lovely delivery man informed me that I had to pay a small customs fee of 56 euros. I thought he was joking. He was not. So after paying my 56 euro fee, I dug in to the beautiful gifts inside. My parents sure do know how to shop for their daughter. Thanks to them, I had a lovely outfit to wear out on the town on my special night!!!

Besides receiving a fairly expensive birthday package (haha), I had a few other surprises pop up thanks to my new group of (Spanish) friends who are absolutely fantastic. In fact, I couldn´t ask for better. We all went out, as we do every Friday, for some relaxed chit chat and beers (I drink Shandy..since I hate beer) at Gabana. Afterwards, we grabbed a bite to eat, and then hit the bars, mentioned a couple times that it was my birthday (...and got a few freebies) and danced the night away...until 3:30 am. On Saturday, a group of 6 of us took off to go to Ana Esther´s country house in Arcos de la Frontera. There, her parents made us an amazing lunch of Paella, chicken, oysters, chorizá, fresh bread, and two birthday cakes (one chocolate and one strawberry cheesecake!). While eating lunch outside and enjoying the sunshine (after a week of rain!), the girls ran out to their car and brought back a large package. I opened it...and must admit let out a small shriek of excitment! It was a leather jacket that I first saw in January and had had my eye on for the past three months. Long story short, I REALLY wanted it, and was completely SURPRISED to open it! :)

After several hours in the country, we headed back to Ubrique, went our separate ways, got dressed up to head to the clubs, and met up at midnight. What followed was nothing more than a wonderful evening with some wonderful friends, good music, lots of dancing, and a few drinks here and there. :) Couldn´t have asked for a better, more fun birthday or better company (if only the parentals and fam had been here).

* * * *
To all of you who sent me cards and remembered my birthday, THANK YOU VERY MUCH!

Aunt Kathy and Uncle Mike
Aunt Shelley
Aunt Lyndi
Aunt Sue
Cuz Julie
Mom and Dad!!!!!

And all my friends, thanks!