Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Wrapping up our trip in the Alentejo

The last part of our trip was spent in the region of Portugal called the Alentejo. You can see this region covers a large portion of the country. It is very picturesque; after all, it produces a lot of the country's citrus, olives and wine. This region is also the world's most important area for growing cork. That's right, the cork that came out of the last bottle of wine you opened most likely originated in Portugal. Pretty convenient that an area known for great wine also has tons of cork trees.... The cork is stripped from the trees' trunks every nine years, with an average tree living about 200 years. It's also the only tree that isn't harmed by stripping its bark.

The place we stayed there was absolutely beautiful. It was out in the countryside, hidden from the roads, and again surrounded by vineyards and olive groves. It has to be the most peaceful place I've ever stayed. The only sound you heard besides the birds was the distant mooing of a cow. (Really.) Here are some pictures of the place.

The pool was so nice, and again we had it to ourselves!

We toured a winery and got some pictures with all the barrels and huge vats of wine. And of course, did some tasting.

We bought some wine at the tasting to go with our picnic dinner that night.

We had a fabulous dinner the second night at a restaurant that was inside an old prison next to the castle at the top of a pretty town called Estremoz. It may sound a bit strange, and you might think that it would be gloomy to eat inside what used to be a prison. But it was a very cute restaurant with a great atmosphere and amazing food.

See, it's not scary at all! I like how they echoed the prison bars in the backs of the chairs.

We were told that it was the best restaurant to eat at in the vicinity, but were warned that the food takes awhile to come out. Little did they know that we like to enjoy a long meal! Our meal included black pork, which is a specialty of the Alentejo region. The Portuguese really know how to do pork right. Since we've been living here, we have definitely experienced the best-tasting pork we've ever had. I don't have any pictures of our food, although it was worthy of photos.

How cool is it that to leave the city, we had to drive over a working drawbridge?

On our way back to Lisbon, we stopped in Evora, which has a beautiful Roman temple, built in the 1st century AD

My mom and sister had a chance to buy some cork souvenirs before we headed for Lisbon. They make some pretty cool stuff out of cork!

They had one more day to enjoy Lisbon before they headed back to the States. It was such a great trip, I'm thinking they need to come back next summer, and we'll do a similar trip through the northern half of Portugal. There's still so much left to see!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

We had a wonderful drive continuing on to the area of Portugal where we would be staying. If you ever drive through Portugal, one thing you'll notice is that most of the (really) old towns you see have a couple things in common. They are built up on a high hill and there is usually a castle at the very top. While it might only take us a half hour to drive between two towns, back then they would be too far apart to see one from the other. You can understand the need for a lookout and protection for each town.

Here is just one pretty example

We were advised to visit one of these towns in particular, called Monsaraz. It is a white-washed town perched on the very top of the highest hill in the area, and the town dates to pre-historic times. We used our trusty "Boa Cama, Boa Mesa" guide to find a restaurant, and the one it suggested was wonderful. It had views of the countryside all the way to Spain, complete with an old Portuguese woman cooking up our delicious lunch.

Our table

Our view from the restaurant

One of the neat parts about the restaurant is how hidden it was. We never would have known it was there. See the tiny brick entrance on the left side of the photo?

Here you can see the town. Quite a bit in Portugal reminds me of Greece.

I just love that you can stop in a random town and it feels like a destination in and of itself. Monsaraz is known for their pottery, so my mom was able to buy quite a few souvenirs for friends. Here are a few more pictures.

On our drive we also stopped at a family vineyard. The woman showed us all of the machines and explained the processes the wine goes through. Because they do everything on site, they have their own bottling and labeling machines as well. It's neat to see on such a small scale. We bought a couple bottles to take with us.

I'll be back soon to wrap up our trip in Portugal's wine country.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The churro incident

So on our way from Seville back to Portugal, we were driving through the Spanish countryside(which is gorgeous). We were driving through a tiny town when I saw a sign for churros. I immediately pulled a U-turn. I was so excited that we had a chance to eat churros for breakfast, especially because we never had them while we were in Seville. I wanted to make sure my mom and sister had the chance to get fresh ones and dip them in melted chocolate in the traditional Spanish way.

There wasn't any place to park by this tiny stand so, in true European fashion, I pulled up onto the sidewalk to park there. About 10 seconds (literally) after I turned off the car and we were getting out of the vehicle, out of nowhere the local cops pull up! They told me I couldn't park on the sidewalk and... that I was facing the wrong way on a one-way street. In my churro excitement it seems I blatantly ignored the rules of the road!

But it was just hilarious, because we were in this teeny town in the middle of nowhere, on the outskirts of the town, near a small churro stand.....and they show up in 10 seconds! Needless to say, once I found a better spot to park and we walked back to the churros, we got quite a few stares. Well, the story gets better....

We decided to get 2 orders of churros, seeing as there were four of us. John waited in line and I joined my mom and sister at one of the plastic tables around the side of the stand. A few minutes later, John emerges with an ARMFUL of churros. It was absolutely ridiculous how many he was carrying; I think we counted around 20. We could not stop laughing, and we got even more stares after that. Here are some pictures of our score.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Part 3 - Seville

I've always heard that Seville (southwestern corner of Spain) is a very cool city. That it's the heart and soul, the artsy center of Spain. Hold on, let me wiki it. Okay, it's the "artistic, cultural, and financial capital of Spain". It was an easy drive from the Algarve to Seville, although once we got into the heart of the city, it was tough to navigate. Our Honda Fit is pretty small, but it was still a very tight squeeze for a lot of the streets. As our GPS navigated us closer to our hotel, we realized the streets were getting narrower and narrower. All of a sudden, they turned into pedestrian alleyways only about 5 feet wide! It seemed we shouldn't have been driving on them anymore at that point.... So we dropped off our luggage at the hotel and then found a parking garage.

Our first order of business? Tapas and sangria, of course.

After lunch, we wandered through the Barrio Santa Cruz, which is where we were staying. The buildings are so close to one another that the lanes are called "kissing lanes", because the balconies are so close that you could easily lean out and kiss your neighbor!

We stumbled upon very unique entryways and courtyards of homes, like the one below.

Seville's huge, gothic cathedral is gorgeous. We also got to go up in the bell tower, which was quite a hike. At first we wondered why it was ramps you had to walk up inside the bell tower, as opposed to stairs. Our guidebook let us know that it was because the Muslims originally built it that way, so that someone could easily ride a horse all the way up to the top five times a day to do the call to prayer. I'd say that was a good idea, because I would have preferred a horse do the work of getting me to the top! Here we are checking out the pretty views of the city.

One of the must-see sights is the Alcazar, which is the royal palace, converted from a moorish fort. The upper levels of the palace are still used to house the royal family. It's beautiful, with tiled walls everywhere you look.

The gardens of the Alcazar are almost as impressive as the building itself, with fountains, all sorts of flowers and trees, even garden mazes! Here is Brooke trying not to get lost in the maze, and a group shot of us.

For dinner that night we did the usual tapas crawl. It's so fun to go from place to place and get a few tapas and a drink; especially when it only works out to few bucks per person at each place. One thing I really enjoyed was cold gazpacho soup served in a glass with an ice cube. Very efficient to eat! (Or drink?)

We had to see a flamenco show, which has its roots in the same region (Andalucia) as Seville. We had a great time and saw some fantastic dancers. I was also very impressed with the flamenco guitarists, as their fingers just fly over the strings. Here is the stage from up above before they started. I love how the wood is worn away where they dance.

They allowed us to take pictures at the end, when they all came out and danced together. Their outfits are so colorful! Here are some pictures and a video I took.

Adios, Seville!