Monday, July 4, 2011

Spain Pt. 1: Valencia, Granada, Sevilla + Portugal

By the time we boarded our plane from Marrakesh to Valencia, we were ready to re-enter the Western world. I'd contracted a stomach virus and a Valencian robot pharmacist fixed me right up. We stayed at our first fancy hotel, which turned out to be a respite from what seemed like a good idea....Fallas. If you google it, you'll read lots of enthusiastic testaments which imply that this is a festival you should plan your visit around (which we did). Sounds good, right? Fireworks, effigies to vices ceremonially burned on the last day, parades! What this really means is that for a week solid, Valencia turns into a dynamite-fueled hell, with giant firecrackers incessantly booming around you. Not the pretty kind. The earth-shaking kind. The only positive thing I can say about Valencia is that......okay, robot pharmacies and I'm out. Did I mention we had some really expensive stuff stolen in Valencia? Also, passports.

Granada, though. We loved Granada. We randomly stumbled upon an amazing tapas bar called Huerta de Morgana and discovered there was a city-wide tapas festival going on. We left with a map and a mission. Winner: the very first place we stopped. Hmm. The Moorish detailing at the Alhambra gave us something to compare with what we'd seen in Morocco. Even our apartment, Aljibe Albaizin, felt like a riyadh with its sunny courtyard. We caught a flamenco show and were amazed by the clapping, of all things. Such a simple "instrument", but so impressive!

We caught a bus for Seville next and the first thing we noticed was the orange blossom scent in the air. Is it always like that? God, I hope so. Since it was Semana Santa (Saint Week), there were Nazareno figures all over the place. I'll provide a visual and you can decide if this is terrifying or if I'm imagining things:

From Seville, we bussed it to Lagos, Portugal (gambling that the Schengen agreement would mean our missing passports weren't a big deal...we won). Lagos is dramatically gorgeous, with wildflower-covered red cliffs and crashing waves. Considering how few tourists Portugal gets compared to Spain, it felt like we were discovering a secret: better food, cheaper everything, and wilder landscapes. On our third day, we decided to sign up for private surfing lessons. Our Peruvian coach, Jesus (not 'Hay-sus'-- Jesus.), picked us up and decided he wanted to take us to a place a bit farther afield, but more stunning. After a reggae-filled half hour ride, we arrived in beautiful Aljezur. Jesus was a fantastic teacher and we had a great time hurling ourselves against brutal, optimal waves. My only disappointment is that Jesus is unfamiliar with Christian marketing and my WWJD jokes fell on deaf ears.

Lagos was SO idyllic that we ended up extending our stay. We'd rented an apartment (Sol Lagos Apartments-- VERY affordable and comfortable) and were able to cook at home a lot of the time, which made us feel a lot more like ourselves. I highly recommend apartments when you're doing extensive traveling.

From Lagos, we took a bus to Lisbon, which we weren't all that excited about. We'd determined at this point that we prefer small, beachy towns to big cities. They tend to be more laid back and friendly, which leads to that traveler's dream: a local experience. Lisbon surprised us. Maybe because it's Portugal, after bustling could it get? We loved our hostel (Lisbon Dreams Guest House), which was modern and beautiful with extremely helpful staff. One food disappointment was due to Jesus' recommendation: Leao d'Ouro, which felt very Disneyland. One uh-may-zing foodie find was due to complete chance. It was raining and we ducked into this empty restaurant where the staff kindly served us up some appetizers and drinks even though they weren't open (this is Europe...what were we thinking trying to have dinner at 8 PM??). Chão de Pedra introduced us to a new favorite: white port!  We kept eating well after we were full (the migas!  dear lord, the migas) and the owner took great care of us.  Another great meal was found at....the mall.  This food court was unlike any I could ever imagine.  We saw a bunch of suits all lined up outside an Argentine Grill and decided this must be where you get good food.  A short wait later, we had the most incredible beef and pork served with beer and wine.  In. A. Mall. 

We'd heard great things about Sintra, a holiday destination for Portuguese royalty and a prime spot to view Manuelian architecture.  It's an easy daytrip from Lisbon, so we hopped a train and headed up to Palácio da Pena.  Aside from the busloads of high school kids, apparently Sintra is still a royal destination.  A minute after Alex told me Charles and Camilla were on vacation in Portugal, a long motorcade whizzed by with Union Jacks a-flyin'.

And then, with new passports in hand, we flew to Madrid.....

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