Monday, January 28, 2013


I suspect that Jon hates it when I drag him onto public transportation in foreign cities.  He doesn't say that he hates it, but he radiates tension whenever I do this to him.  I, on the other hand, can't visit a city without sampling its public transportation. The kids were determined to see Lisbon's Oceanarium, the largest aquarium in Europe, and the only way to get there is on the subway.  We used our viva viagem cards, which are Lisbon's rechargeable public transportation cards. One transfer and twelve stops later, we were in a distant, modern part of Lisbon.

The big draw at the Lisbon Oceanarium is the 2,000 pound ocean sunfish.  Due to my profound ignorance about marine life, I imagined a sunfish to be something like this, only, you know, not a little girl, but a FISH.

Turns out, an ocean sunfish is more like a platter with fins.  How it manages to weigh 2,000 pounds is beyond me, because it doesn't look that big.  They are, apparently, difficult to keep in captivity.

Here he is.

It was dark, and we couldn't use a flash, so the pictures are not great.

Sea Dragon

Sea Otters!

Brigid, Grace, Seamus


Friday, January 25, 2013

Friday Reading Assignment: Jane Austen's inspiration

We'll take a break from the Lisbon posts for another reading assignment.  But not really!  Because this is the book I was reading while we were in Lisbon.

Evelina by Fanny Burney was published in 1778.  It was, apparently, read by Jane Austen and served as inspiration for her novels, which must be why I added this book to my book list.  Eighteenth century literature can be challenging.  The novel was a relatively novel form of literature and the style is very different from what we're used to, although I'd say Evelina is probably the most approachable 18th century novel I've read.  (Not that I'm an expert, but I have read Clarissa, Tristram Shandy, Tom Jones and a few other novels of the period.)

It's written in epistolary form, a popular device of the time, and the subtitle pretty much explains the plot: The History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World.  Evelina, who is estranged from her father and whose mother died at her birth, has been raised in the country by a respectable clergyman.  She has an embarrassingly vulgar grandmother, who has obliged everyone by living in France all these years until she turns up, with a young lover in tow, to take charge of Evelina's upbringing, which is all a great set up for a comic novel.  Evelina, is, of course, angelically beautiful and innocent and polite and perfect in every way, but she does an awful lot of stupid things, supposedly because she is so innocent.  And there's a man waiting to pounce on her behind every corner.

If Burney's novel is an accurate portrayal of manners in the 18th century, then we are still living in the grip of the Victorian age, even to this day.  Manners are formal, but there is some outrageous behavior in Evelina in the form of pranks and jokes and also in the aggressive passes that men make on unprotected females.  This novel may have inspired Jane Austen, but it is an entirely different sort of work than what Austen wrote herself.  Think farce, rather than ironic portrayal of the foibles of human nature. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Lost in the Alfama

After the Sintra adventure, we needed a quiet day.   Jon and Ian went off on their own and I took the other kids for a walk into the Alfama, the oldest neighborhood in Lisbon, with a labyrinth of narrow streets.

First stop was the Cathedral Se, on which construction began in 1147 and was finished about 200 years later. Somehow this church and the Alfama were not destroyed in the earthquake of 1755, of which you'll hear later.  In Rome, I delighted in popping into every church I saw, and each one was a surprise of stunning art and decoration.  In Lisbon, the churches are more austere, but beautiful in their own way.

If this were Italy, we'd be looking at marble and frescos, but there's something compelling about the stark gray stone.  Rounded arches, class.  What does that tell you?

I was attempting to follow a route specified in my guidebook, but we had difficulty finding a street that we needed and trudged up and down the same narrow alley, past the same locals in the cafes at least four times, until someone took pity on us and helped us find the way.

I liked the line up of lemon trees on these balconies.

A "street" in the Alfama.

And a view.  The river is the Tagus and it was a helpful landmark for us.  Whenever we were lost, we would just head for the river and walk along it to a certain street we recognized that led to our apartment--which is what we had to do on this particular walk.  Grace and Brigid loved to walk to the waterfront and hang out by themselves.

This guy appears to be hanging on for dear life.

This was also a laundry day.  I love, love, love these balcony clotheslines that everybody has here.  Lisbon is very damp in the winter, so even on a day without rain, it takes hours for your clothes to dry, but when you bring them inside, they smell like the sea.

A quiet night in playing the sketchbook game.

Monday, January 21, 2013


It's prounced Seen-tra, but I didn't find that out until I'd idiotically walked into the tourist office and said it wrong.  Sintra is a small town in the hills, a forty-minute train ride from Lisbon.  We got off the train without a clear plan, but the Moorish castle, which looms on a hilltop far, far above the town was an irresistable draw.

Do you see it there--that rocky pile, high above?

The guidebooks say that Sintra is an absolute madhouse of tourists, but when you visit on the first Monday in January, you pretty much have the place to yourself.

We had been hoping to get a little hiking in, so we opted to hike to the Moorish castle, rather than take the bus.  The guidebooks warn that the hike is steep and they weren't kidding.  Thank goodness we attempted this in January, because if the weather had been hot, we probably would have died.

We climbed up and up through the streets of Sintra. There weren't many signs, probably because it's assumed that everybody takes the bus, and the adventurous types hike down from the castle.  Indeed there was a trickle of people on the way down, but we were the only ones going up.

There were no sidewalks, and the road narrowed, with a tall stone wall on one side and houses on the other.  People raced past us in their tiny European cars, which was OK, although a little disconcerting, but when a tour bus drove past, we had to flatten ourselves against the wall.  Here is some of what we saw:

The Moorish Fountain. 

I liked this house.

We refilled our water bottle here.  There was a sign stating that the water quality was controlled.  Later, on the way down, we saw another sign stating that it was not controlled.  No harm done, we didn't get sick.

The castle was still high above us, but we had reached a road where no cars were allowed.  It was a beautiful walk among old houses with stunning views into the lower part of Sintra, above which we had already climbed a long way.

Oy, the post about this hike is getting longer than the hike itself.  Finally, finally we got to a quaint revolving door in a stone arch, that served as a sort of pre-entrance to the castle grounds.

There was a map that revealed we still had an appallingly long hike ahead of us.  We were now on a trail paved with uneven, ankle-wrenching stone, and stairs--millions of them. 

We climbed and we climbed and we climbed and we climbed and we climbed.  The trail was exceptionally beautiful--very green with huge moss-covered boulders and lush vegetation, though this was winter.

The Moorish castle is possibly the most incredible thing I have ever seen in my entire life. Built in the 9th century AD, it rings the hilltop. It's like the Castelo de Sao Jorge to the 100th power.  You can see all the way to the sea, or on this hazy day, a line of nothingness where the sea begins.  The climb was totally worth it and I'm really glad we did it.

More climbing is involved--they don't have elevators to get you up into those towers!  By the end I felt like I needed to use my hands to propel my legs up the steps. 

Nearby Pena Palace, which we didn't have time to see. (The guidebooks tell you to get there by 09:00 so you have time to see everything.  This is not easily accomplished with four sleepyhead teens in the house.)

Did I mention this probably isn't the best choice for people with a heights phobia?  Jon took this picture.  I couldn't bear to look at my children on these unguarded stairs.

Thoroughly exhausted, we considered taking the bus back down to Sintra, but a ticket is 4.60 euros--multiplied by six people! No thank you.  We opted to hike down.

Down in the town.

Would you like to sit outside?

Starving, we ate an overpriced late lunch.  If you ever find yourself in Sintra, I recommend packing a picnic lunch, doing the hike, and eating on the trail, where there isn't so much as a molecule of litter, so you have to promise to be respectful. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

The 12th Day of Christmas

I've always wanted to celebrate Epiphany in a country that actually celebrates Epiphany. This is the feast of the three kings, or the official last day of Christmas, and mostly ignored in the US.  When we arrived, many people had Santas climbing the balconies, which must be how he gains access, rather than down the chimney.

This Santa was on our next-door neighbor's balcony. 

But first we went to the Castelo de Sao Jorge, where there is evidence of the original settlement, dating back to 6,000 BC. Eventually the Moors built a castle on the site, which was captured by King Afonso when he took Portugal back from the Moors in 1147.

We walked there.  Here is a theme about Lisbon that you will probably see repeated in many of my entries:  it's hilly. You'll think you've reached the top of a hill, when you encounter a staircase, and when you've climbed that staircase, you find another one, and another.  And when you finally get to your destination, it has its own stairs--lots of them. I don't mean to brag, but I came home with less thigh than I arrived with.  If you want a vacation in which you can eat all you want and not gain weight, try Lisbon.

Here is some of what we saw on our walk to the castle.

Many buildings are covered with painted tiles. I liked this blue/yellow combo with the blue door.

We found the castle entrance at last, bought tickets and were free to wander.  Fantastic views, particularly down into the yards of the people who live right against the castle.  Everybody has orange and lemon trees growing in the back yard, and these are ripe now. 

All four kids together.

Can you spot them here?

That night, we turned our attention to the epiphany.  Ian and I went out in search of a bakery.  Even though it was a Sunday, the streets were packed with people and there was a holiday atmosphere.  Christmas lights were strung over the street and some of the buskers played Christmas carols. We bought roasted chestnuts from a guy on a street corner.

We studied the king cakes, which were displayed in all the bakery windows.  Many cakes were topped with what looked like candied peppers.  A few even had grated orange (cheddar?) cheese sprinkled on them.

We selected a plain cake. They give you a gold paper crown and a tiny ceramic ring, which you insert into the cake.  Whoever gets the ring in their slice is king for the evening.  Jon got the ring. The cake was delicious--layers of flaky pastry with a creamy, custardy center.

We went out after dinner to experience the scene.

This was our first, magical day in Lisbon.

Thursday, January 17, 2013


Nothing truly terrible happened on the awful day of travel, although that doesn't mean it was a great day.  I was so anxious that the driver wouldn't be able to find our house, or wouldn't show up at all, but he got there--was even a few minutes early and we were in plenty of time to catch our flight out of Lisbon.

The real worry was catching our connecting flight from Amsterdam to Washington.  We landed about one hour before our next flight was due to take off.  After the struggle to get off the plan--we hadn't been seated together and Seamus was all by himself in the very back--we went to passport control, where, this time, there was no priority lane.  I signaled to one of the guys herding the line and explained that we had a short layover.  He examined my boarding pass and, noting me as a Nervous Nellie, scoffed, "You have plenty of time.  You could even visit our casino or do some shopping."  We ignored his advice and went straight from passport control to our gate--a long walk.  A Schipol airport, security is done at each gate, and there was a long line at ours.  We were still loading our items into the buckets for inspection as our flight was boarding.  Hey, Mr. "Visit-our-casino" HOW DO YOU LIKE ME NOW?  Not such a Nervous Nellie after all.

OK, it takes a long time to board a jet, so it's not like we were in real danger of missing our flight, but I had been hoping for a chance to use a bathroom and get a drink of water and take some ibuprofen for my pounding headache.  There wasn't even a bathroom at the gate.  We shuffled straight onto the plane, and I eventually took my Advil with the drink service.

After landing in Washington we were all herded into a rather sinister vehicle, like a double-wide on a truck bed, and taken to passport control, where, of course there was another long line.  Eventually we declared our purchases, were readmitted to the United States, got our baggage, and waited in another long line at the car rental counter.  (Our car isn't big enough for the whole family, so we had to rent for our trips to and from the airport.)

Instead of driving straight home, we had to drive to Richmond to drop Brigid off--she had already missed three days of class.  I95 south out of Washington at rush hour.  Everybody's favorite!  I think that drive was three hours, although I can't remember through the haze of pounding headache and nausea, and then another one hour drive to Charlottesville to a nice welcome from the lovely girl who stayed at our house and watched our dogs.  And the dogs, of course.

The courtyard project got underway while we were gone, so our front yard now looks like this, which we navigated through the dark, with luggage.

I've been up since 04:00, due to the time change.  I think I'm on my fourth load of laundry, but no coffee because there's no milk or half and half.  This will be a busy day, but I'm still on vacation and don't return to work until Monday, thank goodness.