Monthly Archives: August 2014

Europe 2014: Day 9

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Day 9

The Museu Nacional Machado de Castro here in Coimbra has an interesting location in two ways: It is situated on a hill overlooking the river‎ and it sits over top the ruins of a Roman forum. The old compound has a semicircular structure on one end and horse stables on the other, and can be accessed through basement of the museum. The view of the city scape of Coimbra is built like an edge pool, with a central courtyard with arches opens to the town below, the dome of the cathedral rising in the distance.

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After walking through the city yesterday, today we visited the museum, and looked at many of its sculptural exhibits. The staff were exceedingly helpful, perhaps because of the nature of the building straddling the ruins splitting up the display space.

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Many of the buildings here are built up onto the hill.  The local cathedral for example, is half way up from one a major walking artery and the museum.

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Just further up the hill is the University of Coimbra, which is one of the longest continuously open universities. Of particular note is the chapel, which was built in the 1500’s, and covered in beautiful painted tiles.  They give the room a cool aura as the heat outside from direct sun beat down on the university square.  Another was the old library, the Biblioteca Joanina. You always hear urban legends about university libraries, but this one is of legend:  It was built in the 1700’s, constructed specifically to hold books, with special wooden shelves that discourage insects and thick walls to support the shelves from earthquakes.  The basement of the library has an Academic Prison, used to discipline students who disrupted class or disrespected professors or books.  I’m sure some professors would love that for current millennial generation students.

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The Alfa Pendular service 127 from Coimbra to Porto was few minutes late coming into the station tonight. The station here is a little unusual for one serving high speed rail: You have to be walk over tracks to get to your platform.  Not only your own train passes through the crossing but also through traffic freight. The Alfa is a derivative of the FIAT ETR480 Pendolino from Italy and it tilts, carving it’s way through the Portuguese landscape.

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Tonight we have made it to Porto, our last stop in Portugal for a few days before heading to Frankfurt.  As we walked through this quiet Sunday evening, I looked down a street and saw the sun descending back down into horizon and the outline of church towers set against the warm sky.

Europe 2014: Day 8

Day 8

The subway in Lisbon is peculiar:  The trains are variable length and in the mornings or late at night, sometimes they only have three cars.  Despite the LED messageboard warning passengers, everyone rushes to the shortened train, which seems to stop at different distances.

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We leave Lisbon today on the train from Lisbon’s St. Apolonia station.  This small station only has a few tracks, so it isn’t hard to find our short train pulled by a German designed electric locomotive.  Next to our track is a Talgo sleeper consist, it’s low slung frame sitting on single axle bogies.

The trip to Coimbra, a university town in the middle of Portugal, is about two hours.  While on board, we watch the Portuguese countryside whisk by, a blur of green trees and foliage and dried yellow fields.  Soon no trace of the ocean is to be found.

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We have discovered, rather disappointingly, that most of Portugal shuts down from about 2PM onwards to 6PM, similar to Spain.  So our trip to find some lunch after arriving at Coimbra has been a failure:  Walking about to two separate locations has yielded the frustrating Fechado sign.  Our attempt to find a lavandaria has been similarly difficult.  Google Maps is good at showing you streets but hard to discern elevation and pitches, which in hilly Portugal has made for tough ascents.  Today we walked up and down the side of a hill, trying to find a laundromat.  The good part of this is that we’ve seen some of what the average person’s daily life is like here, amongst the houses and apartment complexes stepped on those hills.

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Fado de Coimbra is a variant of the Portuguese musical artform which includes emotive singing and guitar.  The Portuguese guitar is metal stringed and sounds a bit like pedal steel.  In this performance a nylon string guitar was used as an accompaniment.  Tonight we saw a short performance of fado by a group which performs it in a purpose built location in the center of Coimbra, giving a historical background to this type of music and it’s roots specifically within the university community.  It is unusual to have such a world known musical style associated specifically to an academic institution.

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We had dinner tonight at the Portuguese petiscos, or small plates.  Similar to the Spanish tapas, they are served with wine or other beverages.  We had a tasty selection of cheeses, mackerel, sardines in oil, bread, grilled mushrooms and potatoes.

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Walking along the shopping streets at night, it’s interesting to see the jagged shapes of the buildings and stairways without people.  It seems while the restaurants and cafes come alive shortly after sundown, the shops all close on this Saturday fairly early, leaving tourists and the occasional local to walk along these spaces unobstructed, the marble tiled walking streets bare and empty.

Europe 2014: Day 7

Day 7
Despite thirty degree sun with nary a cloud again in the sky, there is cool breeze which blows through Evora, a quaint small inland town about an hour and a half away from Lisbon.  We’ve been making it up as we go this trip, so we spent much of today taking it easy, which is nice when you’re not part of a tour.
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Departing from Lisbon’s Oriente station, a skeleton of concrete and steel topped by a treetop glass canopy‎, we boarded the small three car train. The station was designed by Santiago Calatrava, who also designed among other things the atrium of BCE Place.
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The walk from the small train station to Evora is fairly short.  Surrounded by a medieval wall, the inner city is filled with narrow pathways from a time before cars.  The walls of the buildings are coloured with white and yellow paint and the reflect brightly from the sun overhead.  The combination of yellow, white and blue from the sky suggests a seaside resort, even if Evora isn’t on the ocean.
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Two sights inside Evora’s borders are the cathedral and a Roman temple.  As we visited today, crew were setting up for a concert, with a stage being assembled in front of the temple ruins and a dance floor lit in front of the church.  What were they for, I wonder?
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Just beyond the Roman ruins is a small park with a balcony ledge, which reveals a panorama of Evora, it’s white walled buildings and terracotta roofs leading towards the green and mustard hills of the country side.
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Evora’s municipal offices include the ruins of a Roman baths. Amongst offices to lodge official complaints or get help and a corresponding ticket number dispenser are the excavated site of the heating chamber and ‎circular room.  It was interesting to browse the small city hall here:  On the wall are edicts and minutes from council meetings, as well as a list of names, stapled to a bulletin board.  Loosely translated, it seems a list of teenagers born in 1995, to attend at the direction of the Portuguese minister of defence, some sort of recruitment for the army.  The hall also includes a small Internet cafe, some accessibility equipment, and a coffee shop, which seems well attended.
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As we made our way across Evora, having lunch and enjoying the town squares, we found part of the Roman aqueduct, the Água de Prata.  Trucks and cars nonchalantly pass through the remaining parts of it, a tribute to Roman civil engineering technique.  It also divides a mall parking lot.
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Evora seems to be a very nice place to live: Little shops, restaurants, and continuous bus service.  Not that we needed it as tourists, we made it across the town in a very short time.  Tomorrow we will leave Lisbon to go to Coimbra, further north by train.

Europe 2014: Day 6

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Day 6

If one had to describe Canadian cuisine, what would it be?  Would it be peameal bacon or a quarter chicken dinner?  Tim Horton’s?  Today we went to a small restaurant in Sintra, a small town just outside of Lisbon.  For lunch, we had some traditional Portuguese food: Grilled sea bass with boiled potatoes, carrots and peas.  Nothing exotic, but a light repast compared to the past few days of meats and cheeses.  We’ve been skipping dinner so far, being so full from lunch.

It is perhaps fitting that on Portuguese television tonight is MasterChef Canada, where the final two contestants were cooking Chinese and Caribbean food.  Perhaps that, for the average viewer in Portugal, will be a telling hint as to what Canadian food really is.

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The road to Sintra takes into the hills outside the city, up a winding and circuitous path to the Palácio Nacional da Pena.  This castle was built in mid-1800’s, and has a strange melange of different building styles.  Gothic arches line the rooms, while Islamic and Medieval design elements are prominent.  The bright yellow, pink and grey colour scheme suggest as if a builder dug into the tub of Lego pieces and started adding them together.

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Sintra itself is a small town situated at the cleave of several hills.  From the valley below, your eyes trace up to Moorish castle ruins atop another mountain, and some narrow shopping streets that run up the side of the hill with ice cream, crafts and souvenirs.  Siobhan bought some pastries and we ate them in front of the white walls of the national palace.

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In fact the hills around Sintra are dotted with palaces, some nationalized and others private.  All of them, like the Casa Pena, make use of these mountains to provide serene views of the valleys and ocean in the distance, which is likely what their owners and builders intended.

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Cabo da Roca is the westernmost point in Europe, and it’s windswept landscape and simple dirt paths belies the sharp cliff until you get close.  Some adventurous tourists hop over the fence to get an unobstructed photo, but in this age of extreme selfies apparently a couple recently fell over in the previous week after they’d lost their step.  Visiting this location was one of my highlights of Portugal and the wind and sea made for a majestic view.

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For me, the most exciting part of the short tour we took today, was the coastline.  We made our way from Cabo Da Roca back towards Lisbon and stopped in various locations.  The surf crashed violently against the jagged rocks of the coast, as locals set up their fishing rods and cast lines somewhat haphazardly into the water.  The spray and wind kicked up at times, and the sheer intensity of nature made for a great time as I tried to get some photos off the outcroppings.

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In comparison, the streets and beaches of Cascais are much tamer–a resort town only an hour away from Lisbon by train, the streets here are lined with gelado shops and buskers.  We walked around these shopping areas and took in the scene.  Life in Cascais seems lively and a world away from the bustle of Lisbon.

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Someone asked me why one should carry all sorts of camera equipment, especially in the age of smartphones and mirrorless compact cameras.  Tonight, as we walked around Lisbon looking for dinner, I came across a good reason.  We sat down in a large square, trying to find a restaurant.  When I looked up a few minutes later, we realized we had sat in the cheering section of an impromptu cricket game, played by street kids in the middle of this downtown Lisbon plaza.  When you come across a unique situation like this, all the weight you’ve been carrying around all day doesn’t matter.  You don’t walk up into these kinds of situations to get your shot with your iPhone.  It’s worth it to pull that shot in.

Europe 2014: Day 5

Day 5

Lisbon doesn’t seem like a place which gets up early.  Staring out at the square this morning while eating some breakfast, we noticed there was nary a person out there and it was already 10AM.  We took one of the trams out towards Belem, a district on the shore.  Going out at noon, we took an easy morning and found ourselves under the hot midday sun in front of the Jerónimos Monastery, a long ornate Gothic church complex.

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With nary a cloud in the sky, the sun was direct and baking as we quickly ran under cover to get a ticket.  Inside the monastery, we first visited the church, with it’s classic Gothic architecture, but with a very detailed and organic texture called Manueline style.  The walls and arches are covered in sculptured carvings in stone and presents its arches almost like as if we were inside a whale.

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The cloisters, a central courtyard surrounded by two stories walkway, present a natural circuit to walk around, to which I repeatedly circled aiming to find a shot without tourists.  Siobhan and I were reminded of the Target “racetrack”, the path around the department store which the employees always refer to.  The arches let in the sunlight, illuminating tourists as they sat and posed for photos, but kept the building cool.

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We continued onwards to the Torre de Belem, or Tower, a defensive point for the city.  Built in the early sixteenth century, it was used to guard the Tagus river, which Lisbon surrounds.  We walked up inside the batteries, with cannons pointing out in all directions through gun ports made of stone.  I continued up a few floors through narrow circular stairs, finally finding myself at the top looking out at the main bridge of Lisbon a few kilometers down the river.

At lunch, I had the chance to try Bacalhau, or salted cod.  The Portuguese, I’m told, are supposed to have hundreds of ways of cooking this salted fish, used originally as sustenance to support the exploration and expansion of the Portuguese empire.  I liked it–it wasn’t very salty, but had a dense texture, complemented nicely in the dish I had by sweet onions.

Fábrica de Pastéis de Belém is one of those places, which does one thing extremely well.  Since 1837, the recipe of the monastery for custard tarts has been made at this bakery.  I was recommended by a colleague to check out these delightful confections, which of course we have in Portuguese bakeries all over Toronto.   With a line up of hundreds around the corner, we walked in and sat down, where a nice waiter, who’s probably seen hundreds of thousands of tourists, took our order for three egg custard tarts.

We walked off our custard tarts in the Jardim Botanico Tropical.  Built as an experimental garden for the tropical colonies, it featured unusual plants centered around ponds and walkways.  While it seemed many of the plants were out of bloom, it was nice to escape some of the heat of the afternoon.

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I’m never a fan of additional exertion, but it was too good an opportunity to pass up to walk along the river tonight as the sun set.  Runners lapped us as we walked along a lake shore pathway, cool wind blowing along.  The embankment was dotted with couples enjoying a beverage and the relative solace of a public space, kids fooling around near the water, and one or two fishermen, attempting to catch a fish on the river.  The occassional cyclist blew through as well as we made our way towards the 25th of April bridge, which spans across the river.  Named in honour of the 1974 revolution, it was originally built in 1966 and called the Salazar Bridge.  It is a suspension bridge with two decks, one for cars on top and trains below.

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Again the sunset was a great way to end the day.  We stopped to get one last photo of the bridge next to a father and son setting up a tripod.  The two of them snapped away as well as trying to catch incoming TAP Portugal Airbuses on approach to Lisbon’s airport.  They seemed to come in every ten minutes right over the bridge.

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As we walked back to the hotel after a long diversion to get some train tickets, I noticed the textures on the old buildings.  Downtown Lisbon is really quite like Barcelona in it’s old buildings, continually repainted, rebuilt and modified.

Europe 2014: Day 4

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Day 4

The view at the top of the hill, the Miradouro da Nossa Senhora do Monte, is beautiful, affording a picturesque perspective of the city of Lisbon below. It’s the city’s highest peak.  Reddish terracotta roofs dot the hill side, with white walls glowing from the midday sun. The hillside made for a steep climb, forcing us up at angles past cars’ tires squealing as they carefully negotiated the way down.

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Today we went on a walk around some of the parts of Lisbon, starting below this hill waiting for a tram.  Unfortunately the line for these unique and vintage trams was a couple hundred deep, so I thought we might as well walk uphill on our own.  While a tram would have been easier, the climb was also a chance to see some of the twisting roads and narrow corridors between old buildings.

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We also stopped at the Miradouro da Graca, before heading to the market of the Feira da Ladra, where random objects came out in a flea market.  Some of the items you’d never really think of buying, such as an old PS/2 mouse, while others brought back many memories, such as a JVC SuperVHS VideoMovie camcorder case. I was in the process of making a Storage Wars: Lisbon joke and mentioning the Wow Factor, when I happened upon a table of Lego and Playmobil minifigures, little bodies laid out like sunbathers on a tablecloth.

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Many of the roads and walking paths are inlaid with stones instead of pavement.  They’re like cobblestones in texture, except they’re always cut into diamond and square shapes.  Many small vehicles ply through the streets, including many a smart car.

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It seems buildings here, even when redeveloped, retain the stonework and window openings of original structures, likely with new steelwork and levels inside.  Presumably this is to keep the original style of the neighbourhoods–almost none of the buildings here have modern materials on the outside or completely new design.

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The Alfama is a twisty and dense urban area.  As we walked through, kids played in the narrow streets, women had their hair braided, and families gathered in the square.  An old woman in all black clothes sat quietly on a bench in one praca under a tree, working a white needlepoint creation.  Siobhan tells me this image of the traditionalism was shattered when she pulled out a smartphone and answered a call.

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The trams use narrow gauge track and go up significant inclines.  Their tracks are laid in the twisty roads and their catenary wires are suspended by a spider’s web of tension wires attached to the buildings or posts on either side of the roads.

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Sitting out in the porch of a small cafe, I watched a parking spot in front between an old Opel hatchback and a Renault Four. Between a plate of roasted pork sausages and regional cheeses, several cars attempted to park in the spot. The first was a Saab 93 convertible.   The driver backed in quickly but gave up. The final winner was a Opel five door who hit the older Opel, and pushed it back, curbing itself three times. The old car I noticed had its bumper held on by wire so I guess it’s par for the course. Immediately after the family in the five door hatch parked, a delivery truck dropped off several cases of pop and water for the cafe, boxing in the cars.  Shortly after, a truck also doubled parked behind the delivery van, it’s driver a maintenance worker for the local utility, who fruitlessly rang the bell for the neighbours next to the cafe. Meanwhile, small Piaggio Apes scurried around them carrying tourists.

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One of the options for buzzing around town, literally, was the many Piaggio Ape three wheel motorbikes.  After the war, Piaggio, an Italian aircraft manufacturer was pressed to make new vehicles.  One was the very well known Wasp, or Vespa scooter.  The other was the Bee, or Ape, in Italian.  Their aerospace engineering expertise was used to build these classic light and useful machines, which are now pressed into service shuttling tourists on sightseeing tours, two per driver.

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We finished the day as the sun began to set into the horizon at the Praca do Comercio, apparently Europe’s largest square.  Flanked by two large buildings with museum and cafes, the far end is at the shore, where we gathered with hundreds watching the boats and majestic bridge.  Hopefully we’ll see more of the bridge tomorrow, which is similar to San Francisco’s Golden Gate, but the view was wonderful as a guitarist played and couples took selfies of themselves and the ocean.

Europe 2014: Day 3

Day 3

Today is a transit day for us, as we make our way from Manchester to Lisbon.  The streets of Manchester are a slicked with rain, as we make our way across the city center to the train station under an overcast sky.  Throngs of people are leaving the city today this bank holiday Monday, after Pride Week and the more unusual My Little Pony convention.  What’s strange about this is that it’s not women with a fond memory of the aforementioned toy horses, but men.

The Manchester Airport has a fantastic viewing park intended for planespotters or all ages, and it’s situated at the end of a runway.  You have to take a short ride on a bus to get to it, but parked at the end are static displays of a Nimrod surveillance airplane, the nose of a DC10, and a Trident trijet.  Indoors under a huge structure is one of the last Concordes.

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I suppose the aviation melancholy began when seeing the 747-8i on our flight from Toronto to Frankfurt, but when I read about this exhibit, I really wanted to see it.  G-BOAC was one of seven supersonic Concordes operated by British Airways, and fourteen production aircraft overall.  The only one I’ve seen before is a French example in the Udvar Hazy museum in Washington, DC.  At the runway park, you can go inside and see the cockpit and cabin, which are very very small.  The cockpit is a miracle of 1950’s era steam gauge engineering, the panels festooned with mechanical switches, indicators, and dials, compared to a modern “glass” cockpit with more automation.

Walking underneath the pristine white ogival wings, it’s interesting to see the almost sculptural quality of it’s skin–panels designed and likely made by men, and not robots in those early years of NC machining.  The engine structures are muscular and boxy, compared to the bulbous nacelles of modern high bypass turbofans.  It is with a certain sadness, that as children and aviation fans flocked up the three hills to the viewing platforms, they ran to watch the Emirates A380 land, a testament to the triumph of economy and democratization of jet flight the 747 began, instead of the pursuit of speed and elite clientele the Concorde attracted.

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We landed into Lisbon later this evening and took the subway to our hotel. Walking around after checking in, we are rewarded with vibrant nightlight, people in the streets strolling and having something to eat in the cafes along the pedestrian walkways.  Bright displays of baked goods are flanked by waiters coming out to deliver late night meals.