To Belem and Back Again

Friends of Orange Boot Filipe and Linda both recommended a day trip to Belem, so we headed down to the train station right after my morning trip to the pasteleria. We went to a new one this morning, a block down from yesterdays’s adventure and whoo boy was it humming.  A man and woman plating pastries as fast as they could.  Another woman constantly pulling shots.  And another man running – and I mean running – to take food and drinks to tables and return with empty cups and plates.  I barely nudged him with my pack while standing at the bar and I knocked him right out of orbit!  He kept his stack of plates together, barely, but asked us to take a seat after that.The coffee was even better than yesterday and the pastries were great too, but we’ll try a new place tomorrow.  This one was so busy I was quite intimidated.  

And then further down the road to the Mercado da Ribeira, a large indoor market right by the train station, to pick up some fruit for the train ride.  According to our guidebooks, this is the main market, the Granville Island or Pike Place of Lisbon, if you will, but we must’ve got there late because there wasn’t much going on.  Fruit, vegetable, flower, fish and meat vendors, to be sure, but no shoppers.  

The other half of the market was a series of restaurant booths.  Like a big food court but with really good looking food, all cooked in open kitchens.  It looked really nice, although all the cooks looked very serious indeed.  We didn’t stop to eat as it wasn’t noon yet and we had a train to catch.

We’re still getting used to the locals here, especially with regard to the weather.  By the time we reached the train station, which was right along the river, we were down to shirt sleeves.  The sun was out, the wind was calm and it was warm – already 15C.  One  cafe had beach chairs along the water and they were full up with tourists sunning themselves with drinks at hand.  But the locals?  Winter coats and scarves still.  I wonder when spring arrives for them?


Tourists sunning themselves beside the river.  The locals are still wearing winter clothes!

We were expecting a long ride.  The guidebook said 30 minutes by tram and a friend said 40 minutes.  So we made sure to grab nice seats and hunkered down for the ride.  The train was hot and stuffy.  I had a pretty good sweat going and started looking for a window to open but then looked around and everyone else had heavy coats and scarves on.  I guess it still wasn’t warm enough.  So I did some Mark-style meditation and breathing exercises to slow my heart down and cool myself from the inside.

The train rolled and we came up to one of the two big bridges that span the river.  This one looks a lot like the Golden Gate in San Francisco.  It towered over us and over the city as the freeway passed over the houses to meet the road half way up the hill.  As we went under the bridge, Cindy pointed out the spot where we took pictures of the aqueduct yesterday (the aqueduct goes over the freeway once it meets the hill.

Then the train slowed down and we were at Belem station.  


Huh?  We were on the train less than 5 minutes!  How can this be Belem?  

We got off, found a bench and checked the map.  Belem was not much more than 5km from our flat!  We had pretty much walked there yesterday and didn’t know it!  I think what happened is that the 30-40 minute estimates were for trams.  Lots of stops and travelling though the hilly, narrow streets of Lisbon.  But the train is a straight shot on level ground.  Much, quicker.

So, Belem.  Very, very nice.  Like, gorgeous!  The touristy bits of the area are all along the water and it’s quite beautiful.  

First you have the river, with a nice walking promenade and an immense sculpture, the Tower of Belem.  The tower sticks out over the river like the prow of a Portuguese caravel, which is exactly the point.  The tower commemorates the Portuguese explorers who were among the very first to colonize much of Africa, Asia and South America (plus coming to Newfoundland too.)  These were the first fellows to bring the riches of the world “home” to the motherland. 

(That’s going to be a common theme on this trip, I’m afraid, so I’ll say it once and be done with it.  Vast riches were secured by a few people, often from colonies around the world.  These riches, and the people of the colonies too, were used to build the magnificent buildings Cindy and I will see all over the trip.  We’re taught to feel guilty about all that today, or at least I do, even though we live in a former colony too.  But still.  These buildings and squares and statues are magnificent.  So I’m going to enjoy them.  End of downers…)

After the river comes a strip of beautiful, manicured parks.  Three in all, each with a central statue or fountain, smooth paths and lots and lots of benches.  


Beyond the parks is the Main Street, full of colourful houses, then full shops and bars, and then a splendid palace and museum.  The street was crowded with tourists (including these two from Saskatchewan) so we made one pass then moved inland, to stroll through the neighbourhood a little.  We found houses, the football stadium, then lots of gates and barbed wire.  There are several embassies in Belem, and we passed Austria, South Korea, Japan and Peru before we were back downtown.


Belem is famous for a specific pastry, pastel de nata.  It is a custard tart, ideally served warm and was invented in Belem in 1837.  The shop that made the tart famous is still there and still making them. And even though you can buy pastel de nata in every pasteleria in Lisbon, there was a line out the door at this shop.  They’ve apparently done quite well in the past 175 years, since they now have a 400 seat restaurant to go with their takeout line.   We passed, then came back an hour later when the line was gone and bought two tarts plus a pair of duck and mushroom pastries for supper.  We ate them in the nearby park.  Delicious!  The custard is just slightly sweet and it is a real treat when still warm.  Well worth going to the source!


After another stroll through the parks, we went back to Lisbon and up to the top of Parque Edouardo VII, which we enjoyed so much yesterday.  But instead of a side trip to aqueducts, we walked back to our flat down the middle – the Avenue de Libertadores.  Two large pedestrian promenades lined with shops so fancy I hadn’t heard of most of them.  We stopped for my afternoon espresso and then took a quick left so Cindy could see one of the “elevators”, a tram on a track that goes up and down the steepest streets.  Wow, and I thought we’d been up some steep roads!


The elevator was at the foot of a magical series of narrow streets and alleyways known as the Restauradores district.  You guessed it.  Restaurants!  Theatres too.  The already narrow streets were full of tables.  Each group of tables had a waiter or restaurant owner with a menu to show to passers by.  “Sir, look at my fish in the window!”  “Remember, our name is Santiago!”  And some of the theatres had huge lines of kids camped out for tickets.  I couldn’t figure out who was playing though.  


It was another long day of walking, so we grabbed a quick dinner, checked on the kids then went to bed before we could look at our pictures.  So this post will be a little late.  But we have another big day tomorrow so need to sleep!

An Ode to My Thighs:  How Two Prairie Folk Spent The Day In Lisbon

I don’t know if it was jet lag, the firm mattress, or the intense cold in our flat but I slept like I haven’t slept in years.  Cindy finally gave me a kick at 9:30 and mentioned we might want to leave the apartment.  So after navigating the teeny shower I dressed in outfit #2 and we hit the cobblestones.

My day was complete in the first 20 minutes.  We stopped in at a nearby pasteleria (pastry shop / snack bar) for breakfast like the locals: standing at the bar.  I had a delicious coffee and croissant while Cindy had fresh squeezed orange juice and a sausage pastry.  We were standing between a sweet old lady having the same coffee as me (I wasn’t too shy to point and ask for what she was having) and a young businessman who was in an out while I was still figuring out what to order.

I was over the moon happy.  I’ve been wanting to have a standup pastry & espresso breakfast “European style” simply for ever.  I’m so glad Sabine used to have her coffee and croissant standing at our hutch when she came to the bakery.  Now I know why she did; what seemed sweet but different in Regina is just the way it’s done here.  And there is literally a pasteleria every block here.  Sometimes two or three!

After breakfast, we walked over to the Feira da Ladra (“the market of thieves”) in the Alfama district.  It was only 3km away but was quite the hike.  They say Lisbon is the City of Seven Hills and I think we covered two of them getting to the market.  We went through Barrio Alto, then Baixa, up and around the back of the castle (Castelo de San Jorge) to a huge cathedral.  Behind and beside the cathedral was a huge arch; we passed through the arch into one of the craziest flea markets ever.

The market was full of, well, everything.  Used books, original art, bowls of old coins, packets of stamps and postcards, posters, and handicrafts.  But also whatever junk and tchotchkes one might have picked up over the years.  Piles of old clothes.  Handmade shoes.  A blanket covered with old, used, possibly hot cell phones.  A bucket of bolts.  Records.  That sort of thing.

We walked around the market and snapped a few pictures, including a stamp and postcard seller for my buddies at the club, and then headed into Alfama.  The Alfama district is renowned for its tight, maze like streets.  I’ve never seen anything like them in all my life.  There was no alley too narrow for a pasteleria, maybe a restaurant, a shop and apartments.  If it was wider it might have a parking garage or even a service station.  We wandered around for an hour or more and pressed tight against the wall if a car (or tram!) came past.

And Filipe wanted me to rent a car! 

Being in such tight quarters let us take a good look at some of the buildings.  As can be expected in an area that tight, it’s a continuous line of 3-4 story row houses, with the walls coming to within 12-18 inches of the street.  Most of the time you couldn’t walk two abreast without one person having to walk on the street.  But the best part was the tiles!  Many of the buildings were covered in traditional ceramic tiles making a colourful pattern on the wall.  Mostly they were just patterns but we saw one building with tiles making a scene across the whole wall.  I guess this is traditional Portuguese decoration for buildings, and it’s beautiful.

After stopping for a quick lunch (sandwiches and fresh lemonade) we walked to the metro station and took the train up to Parque Eduardo VII.

View from right outside the train station

This is a very fancy area, with five star hotels all over the place, but we went to see the park.  It starts with a huge statue in the middle of a roundabout, then a massive green space with a tree lined promenade on either side.

Promenades like this just scream “Europe” to me!

Halfway up the park

The promenade has a substantial slope to it.  We walked and walked to the very top, where there are four large pillars and a big fountain.  The view from the top of the park was amazing!  You could see all the way to the river and  see the castle where we were for lunch just a couple of hours earlier.  It was stunning.

View from the top! Water in the distance, castle on the hill in the distant left

We rested at the top of the park for a while then hiked off to find another, smaller park nearby.  Cindy had read about this park in her guidebook – it was right in the shadow of an ancient aqueduct that runs through Lisbon.  What a site!  The park was well treed and shady (nice as we were getting toasted in the sun,) there was a coffee bar at one end and little playground for the kids beside it.  Now we’re talking!  We need one of these park/coffee bars in my neighbourhood!

Cindy wanted to see more of the aqueduct so we followed it as best we could till we found a park dedicated to it, about a kilometre or so up the road.  For a small fee you can walk along the top of the aqueduct and get some cool views.  We didn’t really want to get any higher but we walked along it for a few more blocks and got some great snapshots of the aqueduct crossing a freeway and curving off to another hill in the distance.

Then it was a long, twisty, mostly downhill (unless I screwed up the directions) walk back to our flat.  We decided to eat in so after we cooled off a bit we walked down to a nearby market for some vegetables and tried our best to get the oven to work.  We got it figured out and made a nice, simple meal.  And we only blew the main breaker once!

This isn’t even the steepest alley. At least there’s a railing!

Tip of the Day:  A huge thank you to our friend Deborah, who recommended we download the app for our phones.  I had a map of Portugal on the phone that I could access off-line.  And it could route walking directions!  It saved us in the Alfama.  We never would’ve found the market and for sure we wouldn’t have found the aqueducts without it.  Thanks Deborah!

Double Double Revolt:  Airport Mayhem, You Picked The Wrong Day to Fly to Cancun, and Disturbing Rumblings from the Upper Class Desert…

Our flight to Lisbon is via Edmonton and Amsterdam.  The Amsterdam leg is overnight, so I had time to watch Arsenal embarrass themselves at Old Trafford before flying to Edmonton at lunch via the lovely teal and blue WestJet.  

It was a longer flight than necessary since WestJet has invested in propellor jets to fly to and from Regina “International”, so we had lots of time to read through the in-flight magazine.  Wow!  I had no idea I was missing so much!  Most of the magazine was given over to The Snowbird Lifestyle with pages of enticements to Have It All in places like Phoenix and Greater Palm Springs. 


The best doctors in Palm Springs
I had no idea.  You can get anything there.  ANYTHING!  Case in point is this ad by the (according to the ad) two best doctors in Palm Springs.  One will transform your mouth and the other will rearrange the rest of you.  I had no idea this was available.  Heck, I had no idea what most of it was! I always thought tanning salons were over the top but there’s a whole ‘nuther level available for Canucks in the desert.

Nevertheless, we still had time to kill in Edmonton.  Enough time for a late lunch / early supper and people watching.  What a strange trip already.

There was a small scale revolt at Gate 54, where an Air Transat flight to Cancun was delayed for over 5 hours.  Farmers and farmer’s wives from all over north central Alberta were scowling, moaning and grumpily eating their chips while they waited for word from the captain.  Waiting for a part to get flown in from Toronto.  Or was it Montreal.  But now the pilots, by law, needed to sleep for 10 hours before flying again.  So the whole jean-short and ball cap menagerie was going to fly to Toronto for a crew change before continuing on to Cancun, some 17 hours late.  A great moaning and wailing was heard for five gates in every direction until the announcement of “I’m sorry” vouchers.  Then it was just a low, subdued moan.

Two hours later, I was walking down to Tim’s for my last Canadian coffee when I passed their gate in time for a loud ironic cheer – the Cancun flight was boarding.  Thank goodness.  Calmness can prevail again.  Until I got to the Tim’s line.  I think I was the only person there who had ever been to a Tim’s before.  And that includes the staff!  “I asked for no tomato!” “Are the ice capps supposed to be this runny?”  “What’s a debit card?”  (I may have misheard that one.).  But at least I rrrolled up a free donut for the return leg.  As I spent my last Toonie for a good long time, I made sympathetic eye contact with the frazzled Tim’s manager, then glanced down at the two inch thick stack of Air Transat vouchers.

But then it was time to leave Canada.  Fly further North and further East than I have ever been.  We departed on a KLM flight to Amsterdam, staffed by actual Dutch people!  Bliss!  The way they asked me to raise my seat to an upright ‘possission’ was dreamy.  I was smitten.

And my travel companions!  A veritable United Nations pushed and shoved and cajoled and refused to line up in any meaningful sense to board.  An African man in flowing blue robes.  Three generations of an Indian family including three toddlers and two grandmothers in wheelchairs.  A pretty young Russian lady wearing five layers of sweaters, removed and folded each layer meticulously before filling the over head bin with them, then rolling her eyes as her lucky row mate professed his love for perogies (she warmed up to him, and eventually ran the plane out of gin.) And several tall, slim, Netherlanders.  I kept quiet lest my prairie ‘aw shucks’ accent gave me away as the landlocked rube that I am.

One interesting note: All passengers got stopped on the loading ramp in Edmonton.  We were questioned by armed guards who were doing a currency check.  I assume they wanted to know if I was smuggling large amounts of money out of the country.  They even pulled one guy aside and went through his bags!  The crazy thing was, these fellows had “Canada Revenue Agency” badges on their uniforms.  Yup! In Canada the taxman is armed.

It’s an 8 hour flight and I don’t know when we’re supposed to sleep.  But the pleasant young fellow is coming by with drinks.  I think we’re going to splurge – it’s a holiday after all.  Ginger ale for two, please!

It turns out that we got way more than a packet of sesame snaps on this flight.  Two full meals!  Holy.  Supper was some pretty good pasta with corn and black bean salad, and breakfast was a rather hard breakfast sandwich with fruit, yogurt and a muffin.  Two sets of sturdy plastic flatware and a few resealable containers made it into our packs for picnic lunches later. 

And it also turns out that all the booze was free too!  I’ll be getting blitzed on the way home, for sure.
I will say that sleeping on the plane didn’t really work.  Cindy at least kept her eyes closed, but I only nodded off once or twice.  I was still very groggy when the lights came back on.  But at least I got to see an amazing bank of starry sky at night then a quick, lovely sunrise (quick given we were flying toward the sun at 998km/h!)

Sunrise over Glasgow, according to the in flight tracking map!

And then the plane descended and we saw land.  Holland.  Just like I’d imagined it. Green, pancake flat and full of canals.  But not like I’d imagined it either – freeways and refineries too.  It was so cool to see large tankers pulled right up beside the oil refineries, but over a mile inland.  The canal network can do that.

Compared to the deserted Edmonton airport, the Shipol(sp) KLM hub was a hive of activity.  Passport checks were no problem, and we found our gate to Lisbon with enough time to walk around a bit.  Then we loaded up for the last leg to Lisbon.  I couldn’t imagine all the people in line were for one flight but we all made it on board.  Cindy napped and I tried to trace canals as long as I could before we flew up above the clouds.

Land ho! Landing in Amsterdam

Having a bit of trouble loading pictures.  Will figure this out before my next post…

Pack Light. Pack Lighter! Lighter!!

One carry on bag plus daypack. That's it for 3 months!
One carry on bag plus daypack. That’s it for 3 months!

If there’s one thing that every single travel guidebook mentions over and over is to PACK LIGHT!  Pack the bare minimum and leave half of that behind.  And really scrutinize the half you keep to see if you can take more weight off.

There’s something to that, you know.

Our last “Big Trip” was two weeks to Vancouver, Seattle and Victoria in 2014 and that was a dry run on the whole “carry everything on your back” approach.  We borrowed travel packs that Ben and his buddies had taken to Europe.  Filled them to bursting, checked them at the airport, then swore every time we had to take the pack from the plane/train/ferry to our hostel.  It was brutal.

This trip is much longer and we’re going to visit many more places.  And that means more days lugging our packs.  I don’t want to say ‘lugging’, even once.

So, here’s the plan:

  • One carry on sized, wheeled travel pack per person.
  • One light day bag.
  • Minimal, easy to wash, quick to dry clothes
  • Very little paper (my books and journals often weigh more than my clothes!
  • 10kg (22lb) limit per person.  9kg is better.

The weight limit is really important. There will be days we’ll need to carry all our stuff and hey, I’m not 20 anymore.  10kg is half a bag of flour so I should be able to carry that without too much grumbling.

All the stuff. I still wish it was a little less
All the stuff. I still wish it was a little less

Bag: Last year I invested in a really good carry-on sized wheeled backpack, the Osprey Meridian, based on the recommendation of the very smart owner of Robertson Outdoor Store in Victoria.  She travels the world, from Poland to Peru and the Meridian is the only bag she takes.

One cool feature is the Meridian comes with a zip off daypack.  When the daypack is off, the big bag meets carry-on restrictions.  Zipped on, I can wheel or carry everything in one streamlined unit.

I’ve taken a few small trips with my Meridian and it’s a dream as a wheeled bag.  This will be the first trip where I use it as a backpack too; I’m curious to see the proportion of wheeled use vs. backpack use.

Clothes:  I’m really trying to conserve weight here.  Lightweight pants, 3 shirts, socks and underwear, 1 pair shorts and 1 pair swim trunks.  A fleece and a raincoat.  Shoes and sandals.  We’re going in spring so thankfully won’t have to carry a heavy coat and mitts, etc.

Electronics: The splurge (money and weight) is my iPad and keyboard setup.  I’ve got travel guides and maps pre-loaded, plus I can blog on the road and FaceTime home too.  It’s worth the weight.  Lots of cables and electrical adapters making the trip too, though.

Cindy’s carrying her point and shoot camera.  We’ve got an adapter to hook the camera up to the iPad so we can share pictures from the road.

Paper:  I can’t get to zero, but I am being strict here.  Two bundles of Field Notes books for journalling/lists, a watercolour sketchbook, a travelling paint set, pens, pencils and brushes.  I am extremely tempted to take a second sketchbook but will fill the first one and buy another instead!

Cindy made her own travel guide / journal from the pile of guidebooks we borrowed from the library and is still holding out hope that Patrick Rothfuss finally publishes his new novel before we get to Paris.

Other Bits:  I’m banking on Europeans shaving and brushing their teeth, so am taking minimal toiletries.  I’ll buy more when I run out.  And we always seem to collect plastic cutlery, etc. when we picnic, so I’ll get a spork for the next adventure.  A lightweight pack towel was my only splurge here.

And it wouldn’t be a Mark and Cin trip without our Gin Rummy book and a deck of cards.  We’ve had a running game going since 1990 or so.  🙂

That’s it.  It all fits in the carry-on bag with lots of room to spare.  But hows the weight?

Total Weight

Mark’s bag: 23lbs (10.4kg) Argh.  Too many Field Notes?  Too many socks? That iPad+Keyboard put me over the limit a touch.

Cindy’s bag: 21lbs (9.5kg)  Pretty darn good.  She can carry the toiletry bag.  🙂

Time will tell.  If we’re carrying the packs a lot and it’s too much, we can either chuck some stuff, mail it home, or get in better shape…


Do You Need A Strict Itinerary For A European Tour?

Part of the fun of planning a long trip is figuring out where to go and what to do.  But do you really need a strict itinerary?  I don’t think so, especially for a trip to Europe.

When our son Ben and his buddies went on a six week tour two years ago, they had the trip fully planned before they left Saskatchewan.  All rooms were booked in advance:  Two nights in London, a week in Rotterdam, a week in Lisbon, etc.   They didn’t want to be stressed out finding accommodations while on the road.

Ben’s trip worked pretty well.  One AirBnb host cancelled in the middle of the trip but they had time to rebook.  So they were never searching for rooms.

The biggest problem they faced was that they couldn’t adjust their plans on the fly.  Bordeaux was boring for four young men, but they had paid for five nights accommodations, so they stayed.  Lisbon was awesome and they’d love to stay longer, but their Barcelona apartment was paid for and waiting for them.

For my trip, I want to avoid too many commitments.  If Evora is amazing, I want to stay longer.  If we get invited to a village bakery, we’re going.  I don’t want to say Sorry I can’t go if an opportunity presents itself.

But still, it helps to have some idea.  So this is what we’re doing:

  1. I built a calendar for the 93 (!) days we’ll be away.
  2. I inked in the two fixed dates:  Arrive in Lisbon, depart via Amsterdam.
  3. We marked in key dates from the Real World.  When’s Easter? (Expect southern Spain to be packed Easter week.)  When are any cool festivals we want to see?
  4. I used pencil and sticky tabs to block out week long blocks, going forward and backwards.  At the start of the trip, we want to have time to visit more of Portugal than Lisbon, so that gets two weeks.  At the end, we want time to cycle in the Netherlands, so that gets a week.  We want to linger in Paris on route to Holland, so another week there.

The first run through is like a filled chocolate:  semi-firm on top and bottom, but soft and gooey in the middle.  For example, we really have no clue how we’ll make our way from northern Italy to Paris, although we know we’d like to be in Paris by May 10 at the latest.  And we know that if May is approaching and we’re nowhere near Veneto, we had better re-think things.

As we read through guidebooks and get ideas from our friends, things may firm up a bit.  What’s happening so far is that we’re finding more and more things we want to see. That will increase for sure once we land in a few weeks.  But there are a few people we want to visit so it’s good to at least commit to the month that we’ll be in their country!

Our approach is to go slow and deep into the places we visit, so the lack of a fixed itinerary will help with this.  We’ll need to make a lot of decisions as we go, but that’s part of the fun.

We already know we won’t have enough time to see everything we want on this trip.   Unless we sell the house.  Our kids have instructions of what to do if we call with the “sell” code.