Archive for February, 2012

Upon our arrival in Lisboa (a.k.a. Lisbon), we were excited to find that our “hostel” was more along the lines of a downtown loft. For the first time in nearly a month, we actually felt like we had a home of our own. While there were other rooms, the place was basically empty, and we were given a room with a balcony and an amazing view overlooking Lisboa’s main pedestrian street, Rua Augusta.

Rua Augusta Arch as seen from our room

As difficult as it is to admit, we were feeling our first spell of travel burnout after leaving Porto, and our luck in accommodations couldn’t have come at a better time. We made it to Lisboa exactly one month after beginning the international portion of our RTW trip, and had already stayed in nine different hotels and visited twelve different cities. All that moving around takes a toll, so we spent a good portion of our time being “normal” (making home-cooked meals, reading, playing cards, riding the trams, and just hanging out).

After a few days of recharging our internal batteries, it was time for Carnaval! Parades, parties, concerts, costumes, fun in the sun. What a fantastic event!

Carnaval Lisboa 2012

Carnaval parade in Lisboa

Expensive Soul playing at Rossio Square during Carnaval Lisboa

Another must mention of our visit to Lisboa, was our day trip to Sintra. Just a short train ride from Rossio station, this town sits between tall green mountains and the sea. It is also home to two amazing monuments, the Castelo dos Mouros and Pena National Palace and Gardens.

Castelo dos Mouros, overlooking the town of Sintra, was constructed by the Moors in the 8th century

Mike atop a tower at Castelo dos Mouros

Pena National Palace

View of gardens from the Queen’s Balcony at Pena National Palace

While we are certain that Lisboa could be a great city for a single-destination vacation, our travel burnout and ironic timing with Carnaval turned our visit into something a bit different. It felt more like a “stay-cation” in a not so familiar place.


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A Taste of Porto

We spent three days in Porto, and while we did explore some of the city’s churches and attractions, a good portion of our time there was spent touring port houses and tasting port wine. It is the home of port, after all; the similarity in the nomenclature is no coincidence. Porto is a truly amazing city, but we will be dedicating this post entirely to the wine that bears its name. We hope that the information we share will shed some light on this lesser known wine and help others plan their own Porto adventure.

View of Porto from Vila Nova de Gaia

Although it’s called “port” wine, the majority of the port cellars are actually located in Vila Nova de Gaia, the town across the Douro River from Porto. The list of port houses below is by no means exhaustive; however, we feel that it represents the majority of the cellars in Vila Nova de Gaia. There are also maps and signs posted throughout the town to help guide you along the way (especially helpful after a few tastings).

Cálem: Closest port house to the bridge that connects Porto to Vila Nova de Gaia. Paid tour and tastings available.

Croft: Although a bit of a hike up the hill from the river, it is well worth the visit. Free tour and tastings available.

Tasting at Croft port cellar – 10 year tawny (left) & ruby (right)

Ferreira: Known as the Portuguese port wine because it is the only major port company has been continually operated by the same Portuguese family since its founding. Free museum that provides information about the company’s history. Paid tour and tastings available.

Tasting at Ferreira port cellar – branco, 3 year lágrima, 3 year ruby, 4 year tawny (from left to right)

Kopke: Tasting room only, no tour. Paid tastings available.

Quinta Do Noval: Tasting room only, no tour. Paid tastings available.

Sandeman: One of the world’s largest and most well-known port makers. Free museum that provides information about the history of port wine, the company, and marketing and brand development. Paid tour and tastings available.

Sandeman port cellar

Sogevinus: Tasting room only, no tour. Paid tastings available.

Taylor Fladgate: Free tastings. No tour, although there is an informational video playing in the tasting room. There is a restaurant on the property as well, with an outdoor patio where you can enjoy great views of Porto and the river.

Tasting at Taylor Fladgate port cellar – 2005 LBV

Vasconcellos: Paid tour and tastings available (free if you purchase a bottle).

Wiese & Krohn: Founded by Norwegian cousins, now owned by a Portuguese family. Free tastings. No tour, but there is a small museum that displays traditional port wine making equipment.

The port wine cellar at Wiese & Krohn

We took tours at Croft and Ferreira, where we learned the basics of port wine. One important lesson that we learned is that to be a true port wine, the grapes must be grown in the Douro Valley, which became a demarcated region (D.O.C) in 1756.

Port wines are fortified and filtered, so unlike table wine, they will not mature in the bottle. When you buy a bottle of port, drink it. Once opened a bottle of port is good for up to four months. The exception to this rule is when the Institute of Port Wine declares a “vintage” year based on the remarkably high quality of grapes from a particular harvest. These wines will age in the bottle and, once opened, need to be consumed within a couple of days.

At this point you may be wondering, why is port wine fortified with brandy? The answer, to get you drunk faster. No, not really. Port wine producers began to add brandy to their wine in order to preserve it better for transport by sea to England, their largest consumer.

The two most recognized port wines are ruby and tawny. Did you know there are more? During our visit to Vila Nova de Gaia, we learned that there are actually several different kinds of port. Below we explain them, in very simple terms may we add, so to learn more, you’ll just have to visit Porto yourself!

Ruby: Made from red grapes and aged for a relatively short period of time in very large French oak casks. The large size of the casks limits oxidation and flavor absorption, allowing these wines to keep a more natural “ruby” color and ripe fruit flavor.

Tawny: Made from red grapes and aged for a longer period of time in small French oak casks. The smaller barrels allow for greater levels of oxidation and contact with the wood. These two elements cause tawny to become amber in color over time and develop deeper sweetness similar to dried fruit or honey.

Colheita: A small category of tawny ports, which bear a harvest date. However, unlike vintage ports, colheita is not bottled right away, but allowed to age in the barrel, sometimes for decades.

Branco (white): Made from white grapes and aged in a similar style to the ruby. These ports range quite a bit in terms of sweetness and some producers even make a style known as “chip dry,” which referrers to a taste that is as dry as a piece of wood.

Lágrima: Made from white grapes and aged in small French oak casks for a longer period of time than white ports. Interestingly, this style of port wine is not commonly exported from Portugal due to the belief that it would not be agreeable to non-Latin palettes. So be sure to get your fix while you’re in Portugal!

Rose: The newest innovation in port wine, roses are technically ruby ports, however, are limited in their exposure to the grape skins during the fermentation process, giving them a lighter color.

Vintage: When the Institute of Port Wine determines that a particular year produced exceptionally great grapes throughout the entire Douro Valley, they declare a vintage year. This occurs approximately twice per decade, with the most recent vintage being 2007. Due to the rarity of these ports, they are quite pricey. Unlike other styles of port wine, which are made using grapes blended from various years, vintages are made only with red grapes from that year. Vintage port wines are bottled after just two years of aging in the barrel and are not filtered, which allows them to be stored and aged further in the bottle. The oldest vintage port available for sale is from 1863!

Late Bottle Vintage (LBV): Very similar to vintage ports, but much more affordable, LBVs are made when a particular winery feels that their grapes are exceptional during a given year. LBVs are not declared by the Institute of Port Wine, however are dated with the harvest year. A great tip is to purchase a LBV with the same year as a vintage port.

Enjoying a day of port tasting in Vila Nova de Gaia

If you enjoy wine, you should definitely add Porto to your list of travel destinations. Or, for a more affordable alternative, head to the nearest wine shop, pick up a few bottles of port and invite some friends over. We will be adding a glass of ruby, our favorite port, to the end of many meals to come.

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Lagos was a pleasant surprise. There is no train service between Sevilla and Portugal and a direct bus ride to Lisboa or Porto is quite long, so we decided to enter the country via its southern region, known as the Algarve. Our first stop in Portugal was the small town of Lagos. Initially, we intended on staying only one night as a way to break up the long trip. Just minutes after arriving in Lagos and walking through its peaceful cobbled streets, we knew that we needed to stay longer, so we did.

One of Lagos’ many squares

Octopus made of black, white and red cobbles in Lagos. We have found this style of cobble art to be typical of Portuguese sidewalks and pedestrian streets.

Being situated at the most southwestern corner of Portugal, Lagos is home to some of the most beautiful beaches and stunning seaside cliffs we’ve ever seen.

Cliffs and rocks jutting out of the ocean in Lagos

We spent our entire first day walking the trail from the city center to the Ponta da Piedade, a panoramic viewpoint at the west end of town. We strolled up and down the many staircases, which lead from the cliff tops to the sandy beaches below.

Stairs leading down to a beach in Lagos

Crystal clear (and cold!) water off of a beach in Lagos

Enjoying our hike around Lagos

After arriving, we learned that Lagos was recently featured in the #1 spot on TripAdvisor’s list of “15 destinations on the rise” and we could not agree more. From walking around the town, we could tell that the vibe in the high season is likely much different as there are a number of highly visible clubs and bars throughout the town. We, however, really enjoy the peace and quiet that comes with traveling during the off season. Each local we spoke with was welcoming, friendly and eager to talk.

The truth is that we wish we had more time to spend in Lagos, but the road was calling and we had to keep on moving north to check out the more well know cities of Porto and Lisboa.

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We chose to take an early morning train from Granada to Sevilla so that we could check out some of the Andalusian landscape along the way. Much to our surprise, seemingly all we saw from the train windows were endless rolling hills covered with olives trees. We had been offered olives with pretty much every meal since arriving in Spain, but hadn’t really connected the dots. Did you know that Spain is the world’s largest producer of olives?!

After arriving in Sevilla, we met up with some friends who are living there as English teachers. It was fun to connect with people we know after nearly a month of solo traveling. No, we’re not sick of each other, but a familiar face always has a way of making you feel at home.

Our main mode of transport while in Sevilla was bikes, via a bike share program called Sevici (for all you Denver people, it’s similar to B-Cycle). Thanks to Blake and Danielle, we were able to use the bikes for free!

Mike checking out a bike at the Alameda Sevici station

Riding around allowed us to cover much of the city in just a couple of days. A few of our favorite sites were the Plaza de España & Catedral de Sevilla, and we also enjoyed exploring the neighborhoods of Alameda, Santa Cruz and Triana.

La Plaza de España was built in 1928 for a world’s fair. It is surrounded by the beautiful Parque de María Luisa.

Fountain in the center of La Plaza de España

The Giralda Tower, as seen from the orange tree courtyard at La Catedral de Sevilla

View of Sevilla from the top of the Giralda Tower at La Catedral de Sevilla

Our nights in Sevilla were filled with tapas and flamenco. El Ambigú, which was recommended by Amy’s sister, Jennifer, was a casual place filled with locals and serving delicious tapas (you can read our TripAdvisor review here). Another great tapas place we found for a late night snack was El Rinconcillo, founded in 1670, and in operation ever since.

Tapas at El Rinconcillo – we love how chalk is used to keep track of tabs on the bar top!

Flamenco is part of the soul of Sevilla and can be seen everywhere; whether it be a flamenco school, a store selling traditional dresses, posters promoting  upcoming shows, or an actual Tabalo.

Our first flamenco experience was a performance held at La Carboneria, a flamenco venue in the Santa Cruz neighborhood that offers complimentary shows each night. This venue features ample seating, a fun bar and a casual setting. The show had no dancing, but highlighted the classic cante (singing), toque (guitar) and palmas (handclaps). It was very different but equally as impressive as the second, full blown performance that we attended the following night.

Palmas y Toque at La Carboneria

The second flamenco show, held at La Peña Flamenca Torres Macarena, was a much more intimate setting, with a raised stage and a few rows of seating on three sides. We were impressed by the dancer’s intense focus and incredible tranquil speed. Additionally, this show featured two singers which gave the performance a much more robust sound. In hopes of capturing the complex auditory component of flamenco, in addition to photos, we also took a short video which you can watch by clicking on the picture below.

After just under a week in Sevilla, we both agreed to add it to our shortlist of places we would consider living in the future. If you plan on visiting Spain, do not miss this city!

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From Valencia, we caught the midnight train to Granada, a first for both of us. Despite opting out of a sleeping car, we were still able to get a solid night’s sleep. When the train pulled into the station in Granada, we were shocked at the sight of snow-capped mountains. Our amazement was not because of their beauty, but due to our breath being taken away by the sting of cold air. Our general assumption had been that moving further south would mean slightly warmer temperatures. Wrong. Apparently Granada is situated at just over 2,000 feet and in a valley between Spain’s two tallest mountains.

View of the Sierra Nevada from Granada

After putting on all of our clothes (yes, that meant multiple pairs of pants, socks, shirts, jackets, hats and gloves), we managed to get warm enough for the walk to our hostel. The weather was the first of many situations to come where we had to just go with the flow. Here are some other examples of our forced flexibility while in Granada.

Example #2: We arrived at our guest house and were told that we had been upgraded to a better room! We not only got a private room and bathroom, but the room also had a balcony with a view of Plaza Nueva. Score.

View from our guest house of Plaza Nueva

After basking in the glory of these awesome accommodations, we went to plug in our computer only to find that there were no power outlets. Have you ever stayed in a hotel with no plugs in your room? This could have been expected in SE Asia, but Spain? Last time we checked, Spain was a well developed country. But, we just went with the flow, and used the outlet in the public area.

Example #3: Our main motivation for visiting Granada was to explore the famous ancient city and palaces of the Alhambra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

View of the Alhambra from Mirador de San Nicolás

View of the Alhambra from the Generalife gardens

In a perfect world, we would have explored the Alhambra all day, but when we arrived to purchase tickets, we were only able to gain access for four hours. There is a rigid structure of viewing sessions in place to limit the number of visitors so as to preserve this historical site. To visit the main attraction, the Nazarene Palaces, each visitor is provided with a 30 minute time slot. We weren’t given a choice, it was simply assigned. So again, we just went with the flow. If you visit the Alhambra during peak season, we recommend purchasing tickets in advance and visiting during the early morning session.

Patio of the Lions in the Nazarene Palaces

Intricately carved stone and inlaid wood door at the Nazarene Palaces

Daraxa’s Garden at the Nazarene Palaces

Arch decorated in traditional Moorish style

The Alhambra sits on top of a large hill overlooking the heart of Granada. It was constructed in the late 1300s, which makes it even more awe inspiring. The name Alhambra comes from its Moorish roots, literally meaning “the red one” in Arabic, due to the massive red stone walls that surround the city. Aside from the ornately decorated palaces, we were continually impressed by the extensively planned and still functioning irrigation system, which carries water from the mountains down through the city, to fill fountains, provide plumbing and nourish gardens.

Aqueduct at the Alhambra, gated to divert water towards specific plant beds

The Water Stairway at the Alhambra

Example #4: One fun surprise we encountered in Granada was “tapas gratis.” In most of Spain, you pay for tapas, but in Granada tapas are provided free of charge with the order of a drink! This led us to the invention of a fun dinner activity which we call “Tapa-Hopping.” This is a twist on conventional bar hopping, where you go from place to place, having a drink (and in Granada, a tapa too) at each stop. The only tricky part about Tapa-Hopping is that you have to go with the flow, because the bar chooses your tapas for you.

We enjoyed our time in Granada, despite the cold, and the Alhambra was all we had hoped for and more (unlike our failed quest for paella in Valencia).

Enjoying the views at the Alhambra

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If you’ve read the About Us page of our blog, you know that we love food and that one of the main goals of our trip is to sample local flavors.  As the home of paella, we knew that we had to make Valencia one of our stops in Spain.

Pan of traditional Valencian paella

As expected, there was paella coming out of the woodwork in Valencia.  Every restaurant, take-out window and market sells paella.  It has become such a tourist spectacle, however, that it seemed somewhat forced.  We learned that “Paella Valenciana” is not the typical seafood paella that you commonly find in the States, but rather has chicken, rabbit, peas and beans intermingled with the saffron rice, as well as a strong rosemary flavor.  Here is a link to a traditional Valencian paella recipe.

While the paella wasn’t all that we had hoped for, the city had many pleasant surprises.  The old part of town has an abundance of quaint marbled plazas that seem to appear out of nowhere in the maze of small winding streets.

La Plaza del Ayuntamiento

Another part of Valencia that we loved was El Parque Natural del Turia, which stretches 9km across much of the city and is located in the bed of the river Turia which was diverted in following a massive flood in 1957.  The park is host to a wide diversity of trees, gardens, sports courts, paths and playgrounds and culminates at La Ciudad de Las Artes y Ciencias.  If you read our last post, Setting Sail, this architecture may look familiar.  It is the work of Valencian architect Santiago Calatrava, who was also the brains behind El Auditorio de Tenerife which we visited on our cruise.  His work is modern, yet reminiscent of Gaudi at times, and also marked by the use of chipped, white tiles.

The Hemispheric & Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia at La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias

Us in front of Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia at La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias

El Museo de las Ciencias Principe Felipe at La Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias

While our visit to Valencia began as a quest for paella, we found that this city has so many other culinary delights to offer.  We first encountered cured morcilla (blood sausage) in a restaurant in Valencia and have since been addicted, eating it every chance we get.  While blood sausage was not a new concept to us, we had never seen it in this form, dried and sliced, similar to salami.

Picnic of pan fresco, manchego fuerte and morcilla

Valencia’s main market, Mercado Central, is the largest and most impressive we’ve seen in Spain thus far. Pictures do not do it justice, as the smells, sounds and flavors make up so much of the experience.  We were impressed by how specialized some vendors are, for example, one stall sold only lemons and garlic.  Somehow the 20+ produce stands, all of which sell more or less the same product, manage to not only stay in business, but thrive!  It appears that locals have their favorite vendors and ignore the rest.  Everyone gets their share.

Jamón vendor at Mercado Central

Fishmongers at Mercado Central

Not your typical seafood

This little piggy went to market…

We are beginning to appreciate that one of the best parts of traveling is encountering the unexpected. While our visit to Valencia did not lead us to the world’s greatest paella, it did provide us with some other great adventures and delicious food.

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The past nine days of our RTW trip were spent cruising on the Norwegian Jade. We know that cruising isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you think of budget backpacking, but while researching destinations in Spain during the planning phase of our adventure, we came across an incredible deal on this cruise.

Our ship, the Norwegian Jade

The Canary Islands were of particular interest, not only for their relative obscurity and year round temperate weather, but also because much of Mike’s family lineage prior to arrival in the Americas comes from this small group of islands.

We set sail from Barcelona just after sunset on Sunday, January 22 and headed out to sea for two days before making our first port.  It was a real treat to sail through the Straight of Gibraltar and catch our first glimpse of Africa, lit up on the midnight horizon.

Funchal, Madeira – Madeira Islands (Portugal)

Our first stop was in Funchal, the capital city of Portugal’s Madeira Islands.  Despite being located in the North Atlantic, the island felt very tropical with an amazing variety of flowers and birds.  We caught city bus #21 first thing in the morning which took us up a narrow and curvy (to say the least) road leading to the mountain top village of Monte.  From here, the famous Funchal toboggan drivers set up shop.  The toboggan rides, which originated as a way to rapidly transport ice to the shore from the mountain top ice houses, have turned into a major tourist skeptical. While we did not indulge in a ride, we had a blast watching shrieking passengers skid down the mountainside.

Toboggan Ride

While most tourists take the toboggans down, we took the scenic walking route, which allowed for some incredible views of the Atlantic with Funchal in the foreground. If you’re interested in the particular route that we took, Google search “walking monte to funchal” and you’ll find step by step directions.

View of Funchal

The steep scenic route did a number on our legs but also allowed us to check out the local architecture.  We were inspired by the walled courtyards with beautiful tile work, all perfectly framed by pink and orange tropical flowers.

Tiled courtyard with colorful flowers

By the time we reached the city center, we were ready to relax. The islands of Madeira are known for producing their own variety of Port wine, so naturally, we had to try some. We picked up a bottle and headed for a nearby park to enjoy our last few hours in this island paradise.

Blandy’s Madeira Wine

Santa Cruz, Tenerife – Canary Islands (Spain)

On our second day at port we were blessed with particularly great weather, so headed for one of Tenerife’s few sandy beaches, La Playa de Las Teresitas. We heard that the beach was only a 20 minute bus ride from town and ambitiously attempted to walk instead. While walking, we discovered the Canary’s ubiquitous outdoor public gyms, but after over an hour, the sidewalk became an onramp to the interstate, and we were forced to take the bus.

Outdoor gym in the Canary Islands

When we finally made it to la playa, we were stoked to say the least! We think the picture says it all.

La Playa de Las Teresitas

After Amy’s pale skin couldn’t handle the sun any longer, we hoped the bus back to the city center to check out the city’s music hall, El Auditorio de Tenerife.

The beautifully tiled Auditorio de Tenerife

Arrecife, Lanzarote – Canary Islands (Spain)

The island of Lanzarote is best known for its picturesque and rugged volcanic landscapes, but we were drained of energy from our previous day in the sun and chose to stay in the small town of Arrecife.  While this city is noticeably smaller and less energetic than our first two ports of call, we did enjoy its captivating blue waters and small fishing town feel.

Fishing harbor in Arrecife

Málaga, Spain

Our final stop on the way back to Barcelona was the port city of Málaga, situated on Spain’s southern coast near Granada. Prior to our arrival, we knew very little about Málaga, but were pleasantly surprised. The city is very modern and well kept, but is still host to some amazing ancient structures.  To get a better view, we headed to an old roman theater known as el Alcazaba and hiked up a fantastic nearby trail. From the top we were able to view many of the city’s main attractions including the Plaza de Toros and Catedral del Obispo.

View of Málaga

On the Ship

Most of our days at sea were spent relaxing by the pool, reading, playing cards, and enjoying the Jade’s fantastic live music and entertainment. Because of Mike’s background in the hospitality industry, we were both interested in the operational aspects of running a floating hotel. After speaking with the Hotel Director, we had the opportunity to take a behind the scenes tour of the ship, including the kitchen, galley and provisions areas, bridge control room, laundry facilities, waste disposal center, and theater. We were amazed at what goes into making a cruise happen smoothly and seamlessly.

Tour of the Jade’s laundry facilities

Tour of the Jade’s massive walk-in produce cooler

The Jade’s Staff Captain explains the radar system during the tour of the Bridge

We had a fantastic time at sea and it was a great opportunity to rest up, eat three (or more) good meals per day, and prepare ourselves for the upcoming month of hostel living and a relatively unknown itinerary. We are now in Valencia and looking forward to exploring the home of paella!

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