Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Lisbon: Football, Fado, Fish, and Fatima

We are so glad that Lisbon earned a map pin on our journey. It was a gem of a city - and one of our favorite destinations so far. And unlike Copenhagen where I didn't see anyone who looked at all like Michael - the Portuguese were definitely Michael's people. He's half Danish and half Portuguese.

Mr. Campbell - traditional Portugal goods for sure!
We left Athens behind mid-day November 7th and landed in Lisbon much later. Our first flight was delayed on the ground for over an hour due to a medical emergency. Michael was sitting next to an Iraqi Kurd who spoke English so he was happily engaged in political discourse so he didn't mind. Luckily I loved my book, and we have become patient travelers. However - we missed our connection in Barcelona and had to run to catch a flight to Madrid. Then we had a three hour layover before traveling on to Lisbon. We finally arrived just before midnight. Our bags were not as fortunate since they didn't get the Madrid vs Barcelona memo.

A view of the city from the top of our hill in Alfama
Always listen to that little voice that tells you to pack essentials in your carry on. You know, meds, clean undies, your toothbrush...that way you don't spend extortionate amounts ($15. for a toothbrush and toothpaste kit) at the only store open in a desolate airport. The bags were delivered around 10:00 pm the next night. All things considered, since this was the first travel hiccup we have experienced the whole time, so we took it in stride. Our host was great and picked us up at the airport at 12:30 in the morning and we sped off through Lisbon to our next 'home away from home'.

The apartment was ideal. Tall bay windows faced east to the river offering a great view of cruise ships coming and going along a bustling waterfront. The sunrises were spectacular and we had crisp, clear days with temperatures in the 50's everyday. Perfect walking weather.

Our view with my one and only handmade Christmas decoration!
Can't say we were dazzled by the food. Although I love anything from the sea and I did have a really nice, simple grilled Durado (local sea bass) that made my top ten chart. Michael is not a big seafood fan, and that is the main diet here. However, there were lots of great salads, sausages, and some of the best pastries we've had outside of Paris. Good thing we are still walking like crazy! Oh. And don't show up for dinner until at least 8:00 or you might interrupt staff meal and be the only ones in the place until after 9:30.

As always with fish, the simpler the better. This was so perfect.
But you can't go wrong with a picnic in the sun, either.

Our nearest grocery store was located in the train station nearby. It wasn't huge but we hunted and gathered enough to get along. I made some nice local dishes and interesting picnics.

 One of Europe's largest and oldest Saturday flea markets was just around the corner from our flat. I've never seen so much junk, er, I mean treasures in one place! All you needed was a small blanket and a willingness to sit on the ground all day and you were a merchant! You could literally buy anything you never knew you needed.

I don't think the old woman is for sale, but you couldn't really tell.
Mary Christmas from our lady Fatima.
Per Standard Senior Nomad Practices we took the free city walking tour. Each city offers a selection of vendors and we've tried a few different ones, but we have found Sanderman's to be the best. So if you do take advantage of one someday, use them if you can. Our young guide was enthusiastic and very knowledgeable about Portuguese history. So knowledgeable in fact, our tour went for nearly four hours, but hey, we learned a lot! This country has a fascinating, colorful tale to tell.

And colorful she is. And bold and proud and very comfortable in her tile covered skin. Like a Dowager Queen. The city just seems to live life at a good pace. Stores open when they open - no rush.  Everything still closes in the afternoons and then comes back to life after the day cools down. This is the time for a late dinner and then a wander for a coffee, browsing or a drink at a Fado bar in the back alleys of Alfama (where we stayed).

A street lined with laundry line from the neighborhood restaurant.

I could have taken pictures of tiles all day long
We had a wide variety of experiences from a hair raising Tram 28 ride from one end of the city to the other. Not dissimilar to a roller coaster ride when the car is ratcheting upwards on a hill and then teeters before the downward run through narrow streets. The tram cars are movie quality vintage and they are emblazoned on hundreds of souvenirs. Along with sardines and the ever present (omnipresent!) red rooster, aka "Galo de Barcelos," - the feisty symbol of Portugal.

How I managed to leave Lisbon without a Rooster is a mystery!
Hang on the the ride on Tram 28!
We enjoyed two wonderful concerts. Both were small gatherings featuring unique music. The first was a free concert in San Roque church musuem. The program was Quarteto Vintage - all wind instruments. The second was in Belem at the Cultural Center, a modern complex with several venues a short train ride out of town. This program featured two cellos, a harpsichord and a Fado style guitar. Very nice. Michael attended a third choral concert in a convent that was very hard to find but worth the effort. The choir performed in the chapel - one of several gilded and gaudy places of worship we found.

Lovely statue that reminds us of our own Mary
Of course Portugal is know for it's beaches so we took easy day trips by train and spent time in Belam and Estoril. Both lovely cities with seaside promenades. The weather was too cold for more than bundled-up walks and hot tea at sunset, but I can envision the summer crowds frolicking in the sea.

Beautiful sunset on the beach in Estoril
It became obvious we were not going to find a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and our oven wasn't big enough to attempt one, so we decided to go "American" in a different way. Chinese food! Perfect in concept, mediocre in execution. But we had a good time. We played cribbage before and after and had a nice time reflecting on all of the people and experiences we are so very thankful for.

Good Fortune: You will be very thankful today.
Michael gets a much needed 'hip kids' haircut
Michael was able to attend not one, but two soccer matches in Lisbon - a city divided by Benfica fans and Sporting fans. He was able to share the love and the experience the culture of both teams.
At the Benfica match a huge Bald Eagle named Vitoria drifts down from the sky and then swoops round and round inside the stadium until she lands in the center of the field. A perfect landing means victory and the crowd goes wild. Michael was sure it was a robot until the fans near him set him strait and she settled on on her perch after one last graceful turn. Victory was indeed theirs.

Michael enjoyed soccer matches in most every city!
Other highlights included a day at the Gulbenkin art museum, the interactive Lisbon Story exhibit, complete with earthquake simulator, and a wonderful day in Sintra; the land of castles. Pena Palace was really special - a towering, multi-layered, multi-colored, fantastic wedding cake sitting way above the city.

It appears I left the best opportunity I had to make a new fashion statement in Florence. No other city had me fingering my wallet like that one. Lisbon is a shopping wasteland. I have lost a lot of weight on this adventure (28 pounds!) so I may just have to do a little further looking in Paris. I know, poor me. But literally, 'poor me', because it is also the most expensive city of them all.

 Looking foward to a last stop in Paris to see Mary and Greg and the babies and the one on the way before heading to Seattle. Happy holidays everyone!

Debbie and Michael
Senior Nomads

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Nomads get Hostel

Ah, Florence. What a fine city she is. The train ride from Milan at 300 kph was easy and our apartment was an eclectic mix of old world charm and modern convenience. And huge! Here's the link: We were also just off the beaten path near the famous Ponte Vecchio. And excellent weather continues to follow us. It was sunny and 65 almost every day.

Daily produce market in our neighborhood
Local delivery!
We were on the quiet side of the Arno on a side street just a few blocks from the Pitti Palace and Piazza Santo Spirito (favorite haunts of Michelangelo). The closest bridge into the center was the Ponte Vecchio. We walked up the hills outside the city and we took in views, visited museums large and small, lots of 'duomos', markets, monasteries and more. We ate well at tiny restaurants tucked along side streets and at home.
Mary and I enjoying our Porchetta sandwiches
Santa Croce Duomo - stunning inside and out
Famous opera duets sung to perfection in St. Marks Church
Florence is a living treasure to be explored slowly. We especially enjoyed meandering the narrow side streets that changed during the day depending on what shops and ateliers were open. We found the world's best sandwich shops, artists at work, spontaneous concerts, one-of-a-kind fashion, and delightful hidden courtyards. Highlights included an evening of Opera Love Duets performed in a church just a few doors down - a country western bar with live music across the street, day trips to nearby Bologna and Lucca, and another Italian football (soccer) match for Michael.

Michael's view at the Fiorentina vs Napoli Match
I strongly recommend coming here in the fall. It was warm and breezy instead of hot and humid, and most of the crowds had dispersed so you didn't feel you were being carried along in throngs wearing headphones following harried, flag waving tour guides.

Amazing chalk art in the Uffizi Piazza
My favorite souvenir - but I had to pass.
A great little painting that captured the city
During the second week our daughter Mary joined us for a few days. What a treat for us - and hopefully for her. It was great to see her sleep in and have a  short break from her busy work as a food stylist and mother of two. We had a grand time shopping in the markets and cooking together as always. Her Rick Steve's background was helpful, too.
Michael and Mary from Piazza Michelangelo
We could have stayed in Florence forever. But alas, the time came to move along to Greece. I know, I know, poor us. But seriously, I could have stopped this whole journey in Florence and lived happily in the land of grand art and great food for the rest of time.

Instead we got a move on back to Milan for a quick one-night-stay to make our flight to Athens the next day. This was the one night we would not spend in an airbnb apartment. One night! One night in a now-familiar city knowing where things were and not dealing with the quirks that come with staying in another persons home. Sounds like a good night for a 'Heavenly Bed' - or at least the guaranteed comfort of a nice hotel experience. Nope. Not for these Senior Nomads.

This door looks scary for a reason
Our little love nest at the Monastery
Welcome to room 307 at the Monastery Hostel. For just 45 euros (plus extra for dubious bedding, two scraps of towel, and room tax) you can relive your worst summer camp nightmares. After 127 days of living in all kinds of places, this one is definitely going in the record books as a lesson learned about how low to go. However - it rates high on the "experience" list.

First, neither Michael or I cared to admit how many years it had been since either of us slept in a bunk bed - let alone the one on the top. At our age there are a host of reasons neither of us should sleep too far above terra firma. Michael made the beds under the glaring bare light bulb and after a mediocre dinner around the corner, we settled in. Good thing Kindles glow in the dark. I laid awake worrying if Michael would roll off the bunk to his death - or stumble going down the ladder for a late night visit to the loo. Then we were tossing and turning to find any comfort amongst the lumps in the mattresses - and then, ever so stealthily, a small army of mosquitoes invaded. I sort of wondered what all the tiny little black splotches on the walls were but soon understood that many bite ravaged campers before us also cracked at 3:00 am and went on a killing spree. We got at least a dozen - but knew there were more. We seriously asked ourselves, "should we just go to the airport now?"

We stayed through the night wrapped like mummies and enjoyed the complimentary breakfast downstairs (one croissant each plus coffee from a machine) and headed to the airport to catch our Easy Jet flight to Greece.

See you in Athens!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Milano Elan

The Senior Nomads packed up and headed from Berlin to Milan on October 10th. The Berlin airport was drab and lacking anything that would capture your attention or your wallet. The flight was fine - but the 'meatloaf' sandwich served on board was ground patty of raw pork with mustard and pickle. Really? I thought it was a mistake because surely Lufthansa wouldn't intentionally try to kill off, let alone offend a plane full of passengers, but it turns out this was a delicacy. Hmmm. No thanks, I'll have the dry cheese on a hard roll and a warm coke.  

We boarded a shuttle to the city center and then grabbed a cab for a couple of miles to our new home. That went well until we discovered we were dropped a few streets short of our destination. Tricky since we didn't have Italian SIM cards yet - so no phone or GPS service.We had to rely on a stranger  to call our contact so we could lug our way to the correct address and get the keys. We are becoming masters of flexibility, especially around changing phone plans in each city and getting the right program, etc. I know this is going to sound whiny, but we would like to see an affordable EU/SIM system that works wherever you are in Europe.  You certainly couldn't do it with an American plan.

We met our host and crammed in the little elevator up to our flat. The travel days are the only ones where we really have some serious luggage to manhandle - and we definitely put this creaky beast to the test.

The flat was great. Small, clean, nicely decorated and easy to live in. I am getting to know IKEA when I see it now. This was our third IKEA kitchen and I'd know that silver 'Matisse' fruit bowl anywhere. Fess up - you have one. 

Arrived safe and sound - Sunny and 70!

First dinner out. Calzone & Risotto. 
The best part was the location. We were just on the edge of Milan's Chinatown. So in one direction you could easily find the Duomo, the glamorous shopping areas, and the old city (more on that later). But out our door and to the right was a bustle of Asian stores, bars, shops and restaurants. You could buy just about anything. Dead or alive. The streets were teaming with very stylish Chinese hipsters and traveling fashionistas looking for bargains.

Milan's overdressed cathedral. 3,500 statues!
After spending two weeks in both areas, I could see a lot of what you might spend 200 euro for in the city center you could find displayed in crates in our neighborhood for half that price. And if you ever needed a cellphone cover (or 20) you could by them in hundreds of styles in dozens of stores. I am sure they are fronts for something more dubious or there is a need out there that I just wasn't aware of!
I could have taken shot after shot of these!
Once again we found inspiring markets and I really enjoy cooking at home. Easier on the budget, too. However, the kitchens are starting to blur together and just when I think I know where something is or how an appliance works I am starting over. It's been interesting to learn what 'essentials' are in an airbnb rental. As in what a '20 something' stocks her kitchen with as opposed to a more seasoned cook. Again, IKEA to the rescue in most cases. I can usually make anything work when I have an inspiring bag of market fare, a stove, a good knife (thanks Mary) and a couple of solid pans.

Lovely Porcini. $5 for ten - and so good roasted.
Happy Hour! Buy a drink and head to the buffet at any bar.
Milan itself was fascinating. Michael and I have been lucky to visit several parts of Italy over time but we were not familiar with Milan - so that's where we stuck the pin. I am glad we did because so much of Italy is so fairytale perfect. And Milan is not. It is big, busy, bossy, bold city that deserves to be taken seriously.

As always we took the free walking tour and learned things you might not glean from a more structured tour. The entrepreneurial people that guide these tours do it because they love their city, they have some flair, they speak English and they need the tips - so they craft their own styles and mix history with personal insight.

Our guide Paulo was not apologetic about why Milan is the 'very rich' but less attractive stepchild of Italy's major cities. It's because they work hard and don't have time for frivolity. They paved over the charming canals to make way for more roads. They leveled medieval buildings so that modern workplaces could be built. They did not give in to romantic notions about keeping ancient things intact and in fact, don't spend much of the city coffers on preservation or restoration. And it has paid off by creating Italy's leading city of commerce, style and design trends. Shoes anyone?

A mere $700. per foot! The doorman just glared at me.

Of course there were lovely part of the city - and plenty of 'Damn that's old!' moments. We were duly amazed at the sights from the top of the Duomo, ate our daily Gelato, read our books, sat in cafes and enjoyed life.

From the top of the Doumo.
Several food groups represented here. So it's OK.
Easy to use short term bike rentals all over town.
Two highlights would be a day trip by train to Lake Como on a crisp, sunny fall afternoon. And Michael's trip to the holy grounds of Italian football for a night match.

In Como we had a lovely lunch on the square, read our books and enjoyed being out of the city surrounded by fall color. I even took some time to contemplated how ducks and pigeons look the same wherever I go. That's how relaxed I was.

I knew I brought those binoculars for a reason!
Michael has been committed to trying to get to a football match in each city. Attending a match between Milan and rival Italian team Udinesse did the trick. There was a Champion's League match between Milan and Barcelona in town, but somehow we couldn't scrape together the 800 euro for a scalped ticket. We enjoyed that one at a nearby sports bar. He has been to matches in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and now this one.

There was serious strategic planning needed on how to get San Siro Stadium. One of the most famous in Europe. He took several modes of transportation and got home and back in one piece. The security was high - and so was the excitement level. He had a great time.

 Great energy and an exciting night out for Mr. Campbell
The souveinier stands and food stalls felt like Mardi Gras
Found a McLaren store that brought back racing memories!
We are reading like crazy, getting a little too competitive in the game department, and still walking for miles each day. And of course, taking time to enjoy this blessing.

Bakeries are a blessing, right?
We are currently in Florence. An all time favorite destination for us and many of you. Next up Athens, then Lisbon, Paris and Seattle for the holidays and all of January. Mr. Campbell (aka Head Travel Planner) is getting geared up. If we have enough money left, and we are still married we will implement Phase II. Thanks for reading!

Milano Mama's deserve their own doors.
p.s. If you read my previous blog about The Mamas. Here's proof they rule the roost. This is a 10 foot front door with a 5 foot entrance carved into it. They are all over Milan! We saw plenty of taller people ducking to get in and out of these doors, but the Mama's did just fine.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Immovable Mamas of Milano

If you find yourself walking down a narrow sidewalk in Italy, prepare to encounter 'The Mamas'.  I am not sure if Italian women over 60 used to be taller, but on average it would appear most are just under 5 feet tall. But that doesn't mean they are diminutive. In fact, they take up quite a bit of room. Especially on the sidewalk. And as with all good Italians, there is a lot of gesticulating and deep conversation that takes place while underway. And this takes time.

They are often two (or three) abreast. You'll know them by their quilted jackets, woolen skirts, support hose, neck scarves, sensible shoes, beauty parlor coifs and world weary expressions. And always a stylish, capacious handbag clutched firmly in front.

If you come up behind one of these phalanxes prepare to slow down. Way down. If there are market shopping carts involved change course altogether. And in fact, don't go to the market if that was your plan. Wait until you are sure they are all home making the mid-day meatballs or settled comfortably on a park bench. Otherewise, be prepared to be shut out of the best stands.

If you happen to be heading toward one of these impressive matrons be prepared to be examined from head to toe and back again. This only takes a few seconds, but there is a secret calculation that goes on inside the heads of these women - it makes you stand up straight, smile (but not too much) and mutter an apology for any wrongdoings you may have committed while being in their country.

If you have a small child with you there will be extra scrutiny regarding your parenting skills and whether you have adequately bundled them up against the cold. Or the cold that might be coming. Because it is coming. But also be prepared for cooing and cheek pinching and some tut-tut-tutting.  I think they are saying something to the effect of "it's okay Bambino, your grandmother just doesn't know better..."

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

In Berlin if it doesn't move - tag it!

This is definitely the most 'painted' city I've even seen. And I though New York was colorful! Personally, I am of two minds on graffiti. I hate lazy tagging and marring of public art and directional signage. But some images can be inspirational and represent a time and place in a city's history - and sometimes train cars deserve a little love. We stayed in East Berlin where the pieces of the Berlin Wall still standing were layered with paint. And just about every other wall and doorway was embellished in some way. After a while, it all just became part of the fascinating landscape.

A doorway just down the street
A little less inspiring - but still, everywhere!
The soldier that got away at the last minute! A prominent image.
She says she is afraid of all the colors. That's not going to work.

"Life is a Cab Away". Ok - I just had to put that in writing because it was stuck in my head - and once a copywriter, always a copywriter. But in fact, we didn't take a cab anywhere other than to and from the airport. Once again, the public transport was excellent and very near where we were staying in the hip Prenhauser district. Options included trams, trains, buses, and the underground. But as usual we walked most everywhere.

This time our flat wasn't as nice as the others. Maybe that's East Berlin, or maybe this owner has an affection for dead plants, dust, totally random cooking equipment and lumpy pillows. And to top (or bottom) it all off there was a Dutch Toilet...I'll let you Google that yourselves.

Not the kitchen of my dreams
It certainly brought us down a peg, but the location was great. Bringing our own pillows from home seemed a little wimpy in the beginning - but they really have brought added comfort to every stay, and really helped in this case. 

We followed our usual procedure of getting settled, buying basics at the store and then checking out the neighborhood.And of course finding a free walking tour for the following day.

The grocery store was awesome!

The Germans take their organs seriously
However, it turned out October 3rd was a huge holiday celebrating the Unification of East and West Berlin.We were heading to the Brandenberg Gate to meet up with the tour but as we walked that mile we were joined all along the way with people heading the same direction. The closer we got the larger the throng. Turns out the gate was the location for a giant all day concert and street fare. The next three days would feature more entertainment, military parades, endless beer gardens and food stands! Good thing because every shop in Berlin was closed tight.

We were able to take the tour the next day. It was once again, very informative and got us excited about what we could see in the city on our own. The history here is so intense and can be seen physically at many levels just by walking - but there is much, much more to take in regarding Germany as a whole and its role in the world today.

The TV tower was built in East Berlin in the 60's
Our most memorable visit was to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There was an incredible sculptural representation above ground that filled a city block and a fascinating interactive exhibit below. No matter how much you think you know about the Holocaust you never now enough. It made for a thoughtful day deserving of the cold, grey sky.

A contemplative walk through the memorial by a visitor
As in Stockholm we are spending just a week here, so we saw what we could while still 'living local'. We loved the flea markets and they seemed to be everywhere. Our favorite was the huge Saturday market not too far from us - it must have stretched a mile. Rows and rows of second hand everything, cheap socks, toys,  antiques, jewelry, crafts (taxidermy?), and much more, punctuated with great street food and entertainment. One the the benefits of our travels is we really can't buy anything since we are right at the weight limit for baggage, so it makes it fun to look without obligation. However we can eat and drink! I love food you can eat out of hand and we were not disappointed. Turkish Kufta wraps, sausages, flat bread pizza, satays, fried donuts - roasted nuts. And Currywurst. Now apparently this is a Berlin go-to food - based on it being available anywhere, anytime. Basically it's thick, icky bbq-ish spiced ketchup piled a hot dog that is then sprinkled liberally with curry powder and served with fries. Yuck.

Everything but the fleas. But I am sure they were there.
Had to try a Currywurst. Yuck! Is all I can say.

Could eat spicy meatballs and peppers in a fresh wrap all day
We also went to a large Turkish market. It sets up twice a week and serves Berlin's large ethnic communities. Again - good food and lots of things to look at. No vintage or second hand wares, but lots of spices, fresh fish, odd meats, cheese, dried everything, underwear, and booth after booth of bolts of fabric. It would appear that the Muslim community makes much of their own clothing (makes sense) and it was fun to watch the haggling.

Travel Planner at work using three computers!
Michael's thoughts on Berlin:

Growing up, I never thought that apartheid would end in South Africa in my lifetime nor could I envision the collapse of the Soviet Union or the fall of the Berlin Wall. Of course we now know that all three came to pass so it was great to spend a week in Berlin to see first hand what a unified city and country look like.

The Berlin Wall went up in 1961 and came down in 1989. During that time, the Eastern part of the city sort of went into a deep freeze while the Western modernized with the rest of Europe. Our apartment was in the area that was in the former "East Berlin" and even today, that part of the city still lags behind the rest of the city. The buildings are more often tagged with graffiti and they somehow have a depressingly drab Soviet style appearance. Having said that, the neighborhood we stayed in was alive and vibrant with shops, bars, restaurants and nightlife.

Back in 1969, when I was racing in Europe I had a chance to race in what was then East Germany. I remember how scary the border crossing was as we went through the checkpoint with our vans and race cars. The good news is that all of that is in the past so it was exciting to see a united Germany again. If you ever have a chance to visit Berlin, I'd recommend it.

We're having a wonderful adventure - thanks for following along.
Happy to be moving on to warmer temperatures in Italy. Milan is our next stop. Ciao!

(celebrated our 35th Wedding Anniversary yesterday - what a blessing)