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:: Portugal Planning

Back in October, I spotted a call for papers for this new conference in Portugal. The CFP sounded relevant to some of the work that I did last summer with Chris, so I pushed a bit and we squeezed out a paper just in time for the deadline. A few months later they got back to us with the news that the paper was accepted (as a "distinguished paper", for what its worth). While this meant that my winter holidays were eaten up by endless revisions, the upside is that I get to go to Portugal to give the talk. Note- I did try to pass this job on to Chris, but (1) work wouldn't pay for him since his internship was over, and (2) he'd been to Portugal the previous year for another conference. And with that, my paperwork nightmares began.

Paperwork, you ask? Ahh yes, believe it or not, the DOE requires a good bit of paperwork for any work-related travel outside the US. While the main point of the paperwork is to assure people like my dad that his tax dollars aren't being wasted, there's also a good bit of checking up to make sure that scientists aren't scoping out job opportunities in places like North Korea. Anyways, the paperwork required many signatures on its journey up the chain of command to the DOE and took some 30 days to find its way back to me. In the end, it wasn't so much of an approval that they sent me as it was a non-disapproval (ie, "you can go if you have to").

Following the non-disapproval, I received all sorts of fun literature in the mail from various places. Our counter-intelligence people sent me an interesting read on what to do do in terrorist situations. Did you know that if someone lobs a grenade at you and there's no cover, the best thing to do is to fall to the ground and point your feet at the grenade? Or that you're more likely to get whacked in a hijacking if you sit in an aisle seat? The other fun info that appeared in my email box was something from our medical group. They told me that there weren't any major diseases to worry about in Portugal. They also said that I should however look out for Hepatitis B, which is often passed along through "fecal to oral" contamination. Thanks everyone. As if I didn't have enough to worry about with the talk, now I'm going to be wondering whether my kidnapers have washed their hands before feeding me my last meal. Great.

There were other issues that complicated the planning process. For example, DOE has strict rules on the ratio of personal to business days that you're allowed for foreign travel (basically, it must be less than 1 to 1). The annoying thing about this ratio is that weekends count as personal days (unless you're traveling. Of course, if you travel on the weekend, you're doing so "off the clock"). It took a lot of work to get our days worked out right. The other big thing was renting a car. Naturally, the only automatic transmission car that was available was almost twice as expensive as the manual (call this the "American surcharge"). Maybe I won't get reimbursed for all of it, but I don't have much choice since the conference is located an hour's drive from the airport. Argh..

Anyways, the trip is finally planned. We're flying into the city of Faro in South-East Portugal and spending about a week in South-Central Portugal (where the conference is). From there, the only other plan is to leave for home from Lisbon five days later (the open-jaw trip was actually a couple hundred bucks cheaper). While Amy's picked up some Portuguese phrases, I know nothing. Yep. I'm looking forward to having people yell at me in a new language.

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:: The Long Trip Over

The actual trip out to Portugal was a nightmare. What were we thinking, flying to Germany (middle of Europe) to get to Portugal (western-most part of Europe)? As usual, I'm not sure of how long the actual flight was supposed to take, but the number that sticks out in my head is 17 hours. That doesn't include the hour of driving to get to SFO, the 45 minutes we had to stand at the ticketing window, or the 40 minutes it took to board the plane. Anyways, while the flight was terrible, it could have been worse. We lucked out and got "Economy Plus" upgrades for free. The guy next to me had a little baby, so I also got moved from my center seat to the aisle. Still, I barely got any sleep during the flight. As usual, some bizzo in front of me kept his reading light on the whole trip. Apparently that Tom Clancy book is just too freakin' amazing to put down.

De-planing an international flight is always kind of bizarre, isn't it? It was 2am in my head, but all around there was sun, snow, and leather-coat-wearing Germans awking at each other. We followed the crowd around to the passport control place and timidly waited for our turn to talk with a security lady, who was busy speaking angry German to her co-worker. We nervously slid our passports on the counter, worried that there was going to be some problem because of the whole language thing. Before I could sputter out the "spekenzie english" phrase I'd been rehearsing while in line, she stamped the passports and told us in English to come on through. Just like that.

The ease at which we got through customs turned over in my sleepy head, and I started playing with the idea that I should have tried navigating customs using the other German phrases I know. This seemed pretty funny to me, because the only German words I know are from Rammstein songs. DU. DU HASTE. DU HASTE MEICH (uh.. passport). Heh.. It'd be like a little travel game. Thinking of Rammstein made me remember the T-Shirt I was going to have made for the Kellegous that would say "Everything I know about love, I learned from Rammstein" in a big pink heart. Rammstein Rammstein Rammstein. Boy was I tired.

We had a lot of time to kill at the Frankfurt airport. Unfortunately there's not much shaking there at 9am on a Sunday morning. We walked all over the place, admiring the airport's warm industrial look. Sadly there were no postcards of David Hasselhoff to be found anywhere. They did have the German version of Life of Pi, which was titled Schiffbruch mit Tiger (Shipwreck with Tiger). More words to use in my little speaking German game.

Our flight out finally came due. We hopped on board and took our seats among a large mass of chatty Germans that were excited to be going on holiday. It was here that I realized that the flight was not one hour like I expected, but really three hours. Ouch. If ever I needed an excuse to go to sleep on a plane, this was it. Shortly after a bizarre little in-flight meal (which was better than what we'd had on the previous flight), I started to roll off into sleep. It would have been a great nap, too, if those unattended German kids behind me hadn't tried to rip the tray table off the back of my seat.

Faro- Finally, we were at least in the right country. The airport was completely empty, except for the Germans on our flight and their endless stream of golf club bags. Our bags made it out ok (a huge relief), and we staggered over to the Avis counter to see about the car I'd reserved. In very good English, the Avis lady told us that our car (the only automatic in the fleet) was ready to go, and that all I had to do was initial the paperwork that said I was denying insurance and would be liable for 30,000 Euros worth of damage. Gawk. That's the last thing you want to hear when you've been on a plane for a long long time, and you have an hour of driving in the country that has the worst car accident rate in all of Europe. But, I stuck with the corporate policy and hoped work would somehow come to my defense if I wrecked the car.

The drive away from the airport was the most terrifying part of the whole trip. We were groggy, lacking good directions, and unsure of our understanding of European driving rules. We missed the exit for the road that was supposed to take us straight out of Faro, and couldn't find a way to get turned around. Street numbers didn't seem to match the names we were seeing on the signs, but we worked out a little plan to head in the direction of certain towns that we could find on the map. At the worst point of my nervousness, I may have cut off a guy on a dirt bike that was trying to merge on to my road. Maybe he took offense to this, because he followed me for about a mile doing a wheelie the whole time. I would have had Amy dig for the camera, but I didn't think he'd hold it for so long.

Well-dressed Pedestrian Crossing

Our plan to head to certain towns on the map more or less worked out. Portugal isn't that big of a country, so bouncing around in the south end of it doesn't get you too far off track. The whole side trip was worthwhile though, because it took us through a tiny little town in the hills. The town wasn't so noteworthy, as it was your standard European place. However, as we were passing through the town center, an older guy started to cross in front of us in a crosswalk. Unexpectedly, the guy rose both arms above his head and started flailing them in the air as he crossed. It was like he was saying "I know I am crossing the street in the country with the most pedestrian-car accidents. Please don't hit me!". He waved thanks to us when we stopped for him, and smiled when he saw us giggling and waving back. And I thought that Bob the Travel Guru was kidding when he told us the only safe way to cross streets in Europe was to do so waving your arms and screaming.

But back to the drive. How long had it been? An hour? Two? Eventually we connected back with the interstate and made our way to our destination: Carvoeiro (pictures). Ten minutes of back tracking after missing the interstate exit and about a dozen rotaries later, we stumbled into our town. We drove up the hill, found our resort, checked in, took a quick swim, had an odd dinner, and thoroughly conked out. There will be plenty of time to figure out just where we are tomorrow.

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:: Waking Up

Monday was our first non-zombie day in Portugal. We blew the morning by trying to get adjusted to our new surroundings. Things started terribly at 9:30am Portugal time (1:30am Cali time), which is when we decided we could no longer ignore the shouting German kids next door or the bright light that was streaming in through the blinds. Eleven and a half hours of sleep, and we still felt like crap. We forced ourselves to get up, if only to see what the free breakfast buffet was like. Three cups of Café com Leite ("white coffee") and an odd assortment of European breakfast snacks, and I was ready to start worrying about the upcoming conference. I went back to the room and spent the morning working on the things I needed to get done to prepare me for the conference.

Around noon, Amy and I decided that it would do our jetlag some good if we got out of the hotel room and into the daylight. We drove over to this little park that's just a couple of blocks away from the hotel. The sky and water were these amazing shades of bright blue, and we noticed that there were all these little paths that you could take to scurry around the tall cliffs that held the water back ("at bay" ha ha). We had the trip's first travel euphoria at the cliffs- that moment where you start giggling to yourself and say "holy crap, I'm on the coast of Portugal". With new found energy, we followed the path down to the water front. As it turns out, there are all sorts of paths and things to climb on along the coast in Portugal. We zipped around from spot to spot, marveling at how amazing the cliffs looked from each vantage point. The pictures just don't do it justice.

A little later we left the cliffs to search for food in town. Unsure of the distance, we drove in and parked the car. We got out and wandered around a bit, taking in the town and it's little shops. Carvoeiro is a tiny little village that's been taken over by tourism. Fortunately it's the winter right now, so the crowds aren't so bad. The good thing about it being a tourist town is that everything is multilingual, and the locals begrudgingly tolerate stupid foreigners. As if to confirm this, I paid for a 2.30 Euro bag of cough drops with a 60 Euro bill, and then told the lady in English that I was sorry that I did not have anything smaller. Amy and I had lunch at a pastry place where we had to go to the counter and point at what we wanted (the pastries were incredible, by the way). Oye. Bob, the patron saint of foreigners who are trying not to look so foreign, is shaking his head right now and saying "I don't know you guys". It's only a matter of time before I start yelling, "Hey! Don't y'all got a Mac Donalds 'round here somewhere?"

We piddled around town for a little longer after lunch, and then went back to the hotel. I worked a little more on my talk while Amy read. When it was getting relatively close to dinner time, we decided to walk back into town and look for somewhere to eat. We settled on an Indian place, which of course promised vegetarian food and a menu we knew we'd understand. Amy was a happy little mouse, more so after ordering a large beer at the end of the meal. I'd be happy too, if I weren't filled with the presentation worries.

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:: Lagos

Tuesday and Wednesday were my main work days for the trip, with my talk being on Tuesday. For the most part, the talk went well. While the Café com Leite probably made me talk twice as fast as I'd planned, I'd practiced the talk enough times to feel comfortable with the material. At the end I received a good number of questions from the audience, which is a good sign that some people at least were listening. During lunch, I had a good chat with a grad student from a school in Germany who had heard of some of the work we'd done at Georgia Tech and talked about network-related FPGA details. While it feels odd to think of my work as a niche research area, it was good to jabber with someone that knows how tricky some of the stuff I do really is.

The rest of the conference was kind of ho-hum. There were a couple of interesting talks that went into using the hardware in different ways (ie, instantiating multiple soft processors and building algorithms in software), but the people that did this were basing their work on existing tools (ie, someone had already done the hard work). Sensing that the other workshops in the conference were not going to be of any use to me (web collaborative tools?), I decided not to pay for the other sessions, and instead took some extra vacation time.

The FPGA workshop ended a couple hours ahead of schedule on Wednesday, so Amy and I decided to take the rental car out for a drive. We wound up in a beach city called Lagos (see my Lagos pictures), which is about a half hour west of our town. We stumbled upon a park on the water with some giant cliffs and amazing views. There were all sorts of paths along the hills, and a handful of people wandering about. Most of the paths looked kind of dicey, so we decided to heed the danger signs and just look at the scenery from the safe spots.

We then drove from the cliffs over to the historic part of the city. The roads looked tiny, so we parked the car just outside the city, thought about how we were liable for 30,000 Euros, and then started out on foot. The historic part of town is still surrounded by a large castle wall, so the first problem was finding a hole for us to get through. We wandered around pretending to be frustrated Moors for a little while, until we came across an entryway that led us into the city. Once inside we wandered around for some time, marveling at the dense European buildings and the tiles sidewalks that took windy paths through the city. We looked for and unknowingly found an old church, and then left the city from through a different gap in the wall. We followed the streets down to the water, where there was a tiny little fortress that was closing up for the evening. I guess most invaders arrive by tour bus these days.

One of the maps we saw in town seemed to imply that there was a lighthouse just down the road from the cliffs we had originally stopped at. We went back to the 30,000 liability and decided to try to fin our way there to see what it was all about. When we ran out of road, we found a small lighthouse that the guards were closing up for the night. This wasn't a big deal for us because we could still wander around the cliffs and take in the coastline with the setting sun.

The cliffs by the lighthouse were pretty crazy, because there were all these old stone pathways that were starting to fall apart. We noticed that there was a long, stone stairway down to the water that looked like it was in good condition, so we followed it and the voices that were coming from people by the water. At the bottom we found this cool, sheltered inlet where boats could come and pick you up. We thought about how cool it would be to be here in the summer, but at the same time, we were happy not to be with the crowds. On our way back up the stairs, we actually ran into the crowds- a tour bus of elderly Portuguese had just been let off and a whole bunch of manly retirees were zipping down the stairs before it got dark. We stopped and let them go by us at one of the turns. A few of the wives on this trip decided that that's as far as they needed to go. They were all excited to be here, and chatty about their husbands. I don't know what they were saying, but I'm sure it was something along the lines of "Forget that! You go walk down and up those 700 steps! I didn't get to be my age by risking a heart attack!". heh..

We made our way back to the car, just as the sun was really starting to disappear. We stumbled our way back onto the interstate and made our way home. Back in Carvoeiro, the novelty of a restaurant called "California Pizza" overcame us, and we had a trusty meal of Italian food and beer (not to mention cigarette smoke). Again, I can see Bob shaking his head, but you know, sometimes you just got to go with what you know.

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:: Expat Beach Dive

Thursday and Friday we mostly putzed around in the Algarve some more. As usual the conference renewed me with a sense of urgency for writing papers. It's the "holy crap, someone wrote a paper about that? I can do something better" feeling you get when you listen to what other people are up to. I spent a chunk of time Thursday and Friday working on my next paper, which I've had in the works for over a year now. I also have to admit that there is a kick to writing while in Europe. It makes you feel like an expatriate working on your next novel. Er, of course, Amy reminds me that novels are fiction, which I hope doesn't describe my research.

The little inlet by the hotel

Thursday afternoon we took a break from the writing to look at the hotel's dive shop. The guys in the shop were super friendly (like most divers seem to be) and fluent in English. The head dive guy (a Norwegian) told us about the beach dive you could do from the hotel, and said it was a pretty good dive (as far as beach entries go). He warned us that the water was very cold (15 degrees?) and that there was a long walk down to the water. We were a little nervous about the whole thing, but we decided to give it a try. After all, who knows when we'll be out here again. Our dive master was a friendly German guy who understood our nervousness and patiently worked with us to get everything right for the dive. He also had a good sense of humor, and only politely chuckled when both he and I realized that I had put my wetsuit on backwards in the shop (hmm.. why are the kneepads on the back of my legs?). We got all our gear squared away and put on properly before we started the long trip down stairs to the beach.

Long stairwell to the beach

The trip down (and back up) the stairs to the beach was an adventure in itself. As I've pointed out before, dive equipment is not light weight. Things were particularly rough on this trip because we had to bring along wetsuits that were very thick, and extra weight to counter the added buoyancy of these suits. My weight belt along was 40 pounds. Throw in the air tank, fins, tubes, and gloves, and you're talking a lot of weight to lug down to the beach. And look at that picture- it's a long freaking way down. Ooof. The worst part was the last 10 feet. We had to climb down an aluminum ladder to get from the rocks to the water. By the time I was on the beach I was so sweaty in my wetsuit that all that cold water didn't look so bad.

Finally, a ladder to the beach

It took a lot of work to get our gear on at the beach. We were tired and there wasn't much room to stand on because it was high tide. Amy and I both fell down into the surf as we were trying to get into the water, so we had to waddle out and leave our dignity at the beach. Once in deeper water, the three of us regrouped and did a final check on all our gear before going under. Well, before I tried to go under. My initial 30 pounds of weight wasn't enough to keep me under so the divemaster gave me an extra 10. I also found that I had somehow burned up 50 bars of air out of 200 just getting ready to go (note to self: try not to flounder so much when you first get in the water). My wetsuit worked well though- the water was cold, but it was nowhere near the face-smashing cold that Monterey was last year. Our poor divemaster- in all the hustle of getting down to the beach, he managed to forget his wetsuit hood. He was a trooper through, saying he'd rather be cold than go up those stairs any more than he had to. Throughout all of this, Amy seemed to be as happy as a clam. She's a pro compared to me.

We set off on a simple course that took us around the rock you see in the picture, and then out of the harbor to a nearby reef. We saw a lot of little fish along the path, but nothing all that special. Maybe we've just been spoiled by our dives in the Caribbean . The reef was kind of interesting- there were some natural formations that geologists say had to have been created from rainfall on unsubmerged rocks. Our divemaster had us swim through a wide, underwater tunnel that I think was one of these formations. From there we headed back to the coast, and which guided us way back in. Just as I was thinking that we weren't going to see any wildlife that was all that memorable, our instructor pointed out an octopus that was hanging out in some of the sea grass. I'd never seen an octopus in the wild before, so I was very happy to see him scooting around. The divemaster went to see if it was in a playful mood (they say some are), but this one wasn't. We later found out that a fisherman had caught three other that morning, so I can see why it'd be somber.

Getting out of the water was awful. Our plan was to take the flippers off as soon as we could touch bottom, and try walking out. The problem was that neither of us could get our fingers under the flipper straps because of our thick gloves. Then the strong tide started pushing us into shallower water. It was a terrible struggle. We tried helping each other, but the weight of our gear kept getting in the way. In my head I remembered Jeff, the divemaster that trained me, telling me that there was an important trick to getting out on a beach, or else you'd wind up with "diver bowling". This bowling is where a diver starts rolling around in the surf on the beach and wipes out other divers that have managed to stand up. Unfortunately, I couldn't remember what the trick was, and the next thing I knew, I was rolling in the surf, tumbling towards Amy. Fortunately, I was a gutterball. Eventually I got my fins off and managed to crawl to the beach. Augh.. Just for the record, the trick for not doing this is to take your fins off before it gets shallow. Doah. I guess we couldn't win here.

But.. the fun wasn't over yet- we still needed to climb out of this hole and get all our gear back to the dive shop. This meant that we first had to climb up the ladder with all our gear, which was much harder than going down the ladder. Amy and I both did it though, and then slowly made our way back up the steps to the dive shop. It was a long hike, especially after having gone through a cold water dive. It all turned out well in the end though. Any dive that you don't lose equipment or people is a good dive to me.

It's an ex-pat life, for us.

We lounged about in the heated indoor pool, and then celebrated our survival by going to town to have dinner at an Italian place. Ok, by celebrated I really mean that we went to the first place that looked open and had food that didn't look too exotic. We knew it wouldn't be hard to go to sleep that night, but we took the precaution of ordering a bottle of red wine at dinner to help speed things along. It's an expat's life for us.

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:: The Edge of the World

Friday was the last day we'd have a car in Portugal, so we decided to make the most of it and do some exploring in the Algarve. We got off to a late start since we were still recovering from Thursday's adventure, but we were excited to be going to places that would be difficult to get to without our 30,000 Euro liability on wheels. Our first stop was the nearby town of Silves (see our pictures).

Silves is an old town that has an old Moorish castle on the top of a hill. From what we've read, that's a big deal because the Crusaders basically bulldozed everything that looked Moorish when they re-took Portugal. After a siege that went on for months, the Moors negotiated a surrender with the crusaders after their water supply started to give out. Unfortunately, word of this peaceful surrender didn't filter down the ranks, and the crusader army went in and slaughtered the Moors. What a surprise.

Upon arrival, Amy and I parked the 30k liability and made our way into town. During our trek uphill towards the castle, we stumbled into this nice little courtyard that had a cute little cafe. We stopped in to get some pastries and coffee, and were met by a shopkeeper lady that had a sour look on her face for us. Somehow we pieced together an order that she pieced together for us. Before leaving the shop, I put our tray down on a table so I could get a better grip on things. It must have looked like we were going to eat inside, because the lady began to scold us in Portuguese (good naturedly). We figured she had to be saying something along the lines of "eh, what are you, a bunch of idiots? Can't you see what a nice freakin' day is outside? Go outside and eat, it's a lovely freakin' day out, don't waste it in here." Heh, it was the kind of voice a cranky, grandmother would use and it made us smirk to ourselves.

Energized by the sugar and caffeine, we renewed our assault on the town's hill and took the castle. We had it a lot easier than the crusaders- we bribed our way in through the front gate, passing a couple of Euros to a guy who gave us a small ticket stub. Inside the walls there wasn't much to report on- it was basically just a small field with a lot of healthy weeds. We walked along the castle walls and looked at the grounds, which were being dug through in a new archaeology effort. Still, the place was kind of interesting to walk around. Plus, there was a nice little snack-a-teria next door (Cafe di Inglish, ho ho), that had nice little sandwiches for the both of us (mmm.. thinly sliced Portuguese salami).

Having seen a decent amount of Silves, we hopped back into the car and started driving west again. This time instead of stopping at Lagos, we pushed on to the edge of the world, which happens to reside in a small town called Sagres our pictures). Sagres is basically the South-Western most point of Portugal. Back in the exploring and conquest days, this is the last part of Europe you'd probably see before you fell off the pancake. In a way, Sagres really did feel like it was the end of the world- it reminded me of those desolate outposts you see in Antarctica that feel like they're a million miles away from civilization. It was something else.

There wasn't much to the town itself. In fact we drove right through it and found ourselves staring right at a big white fort at the end of the road. We got out and had a look, egged on by Rick Steves's ramblings about how there was some ancient structure there that people suspected was a wind compass. As we stepped out of the car, we realized why people would assume that anything on the peninsula would have something to do with the wind- the wind was so strong that it was difficult to walk straight. We paid the admission and went in to the fort to see what was up. Hurrumph. The wind compass turned out to be a bunch of small rocks arranged in a circle with radial lines. Yahoo. Besides the fort walls and the compass, the only other thing out there was a lighthouse at the end of a very long walk. Sure, the view from the cliffs was pretty, but it was freakin' cold and there wasn't much payoff for all the walking we had to do. I guess being able to say that you've been to the edge of the known world makes up for the harsh walk.

We fought the wind and made our way back to the car. Along the way we noticed that there were several people fishing off the cliffs, which is just crazy if you ask me. We figure that once you catch a fish, the trick is hauling it up to the top of the cliff before the numerous sea gulls pick it off your line. Anyways, there was another lighthouse the next cliff over, so we got back in the car and drove over that way. We got there just as people were starting to close up shop and head home. Sadly, this meant we could not enjoy a hot dog from the place that advertises "Last sausage stand before America".

Amy was feeling cold from the wind and yesterday's diving, so we decided to call it a day and head home for the warmth of our hotel room. On the way back, we saw modern windmills along the coast that were giant (and that's saying something, since Livermore is just a couple of miles away from the world's largest wind farm). The drive back from the edge of the world was otherwise uneventful (thankfully), and we settled in for the night after an overpriced meal at our hotel.

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:: Heading to Lisbon

At long last it was time to move out of our resort hotel and head out for some unchartered travel. We threw everything into our 30,000 Euro liability, and made the drive back to Faro. While I can't say that I was ever fully comfortable with driving in Europe, I did get the hang of it after a couple of days. Things make sense, you just have to read the signs and expect the important things to be in small writing. They throw round-abouts all over the place, which get freaking annoying when you're trying to take a major road somewhere. At the same time, I can appreciate how these can help with traffic, assuming everyone plays fair and does what they're supposed to do. Of course, there were a lot of road signs showing a stick figure being hit by a car, so maybe not everyone knows what they're doing.

We got gas near the airport (half a tank of petro cost.. 40 Euros, or $52), and returned the 30,000 Euro liability to Avis. While it was good to finally be free of the liability, we knew different travel times were ahead, where we would have to start lugging our bags from place to place and haggle with taxi drivers. This started in Faro, where a 10 minute trip from the Airport to the railroad station cost us about $12. It seemed kind of steep, but we didn't have many options and we figured we could use the experience handling a cab driver.

We booked tickets from Faro to Lisbon using an automated ticket machine. The ticket machine is something that is a dream in the sense that it is multi-lingual and easy to use. Still, it makes me kind of sad to go to the box, because for me, traveling in Europe is all about having some train official yelling at you because you're trying to do something wrong, or something that doesn't make any sense (You want to go to Paris? But you're already IN Paris..?). We bought the tickets for the next train, which was two hours in the future. To kill time, we took turns wandering around by the train station, while one of us watched the bags.

The ride to Lisbon was rather refreshing. It felt good to be back on a train in Europe. The only thing that would have felt righter would have been if I could have gotten the conductor to shake his head in disapproval over something I'd done, but alas, that wasn't in the cards this trip.I whipped out the laptop and got a good chunk of writing done on that paper I'm working on. What a difference a few years make. I wonder what I could have gotten done if I'd had a laptop with me in '98. Eh.. I probably would have just written more travel notes and gotten a lot better at solitaire.

It was a bit oppressing to roll into Lisbon. There seem to be about five different train stations scattered across the city, and not all of them have subway stops. We overshot the city and stopped at the Oriente station, which connects with the subway. We followed the guidebook's advice and made our way to Rossio, which is a big tourist area that has a bunch of hotels and pensions. We popped out of the subway in the middle of a packed European city, and then rounded a corner and climbed a hill to Pensao Geres. It was getting late so we were worried about finding a place, but PG's had a small, prison-cell like room available for cheap (35 Euros). We checked in and set off to explore the surrounding area before it got dark.

Pensao Geres

Lisbon was quite the contrast to the Algarve. It's a big city, filled with all the good and bad stuff you'd expect. Big, scenic streets with tons of shops and people, but also the occasional shady looking folks trying to sell a watch, or muttering "hash" under their breath. We bought both and had ourselves a grand time. Ho ho! Just kidding (do security background checkers ever grep weblogs?), we tried not to make eye contact with anyone. We wandered around for a long time- impressed by the wide long streets and the bustle of the city. Eventually we consulted the guidebook to find "restaurant row for travelers", which happened to be just around the corner from our hotel.

Embarrassed by our inability to interact with non-English speaking folks, we looked at many (or, according to Amy, "all of the") shops before deciding on this place that fit what we were looking for. The inside was a bit different than what the outside hinted at. They sat us down at a six person table and then put a pair of French women at the other end. We gave up on manners and pointed at the things on the menu that had appealing English translations. This worked just fine, and led to a pretty happy meal with a couple big mugs of beer. Our French counterparts on the other hand tried to remain French, and as a result got frustrated with the service. We finished dinner and left, noticing that they were trying to attract a waiter, menus open, calling "garcon! garcon!". We chuckled to ourselves, and thought about telling them in our beersh voices "pssht- you gotta close the menu in Europe or they won't pay attention to you". It felt good to see other Europeans getting frustrated in a restaurant. Especially since they were French and had given us the cold shoulder when they sat down.

We started the stroll home when we noticed a little bar nook that had people shuffling in off the street for drinks of Ginjinha. Ginjinha is a cherry liquor that we had read about that is the drink of choice in Lisbon. We had read that there are two things you need to say when you go into one of these bar nooks- how many, and with or without cherries in the drink. Still a little buzzed from the beer and confident that alcohol only improved my sloshing of Portugal phonetics, I confidently ordered Doish (two), Com (with). We took our shots to the street and watched a couple of guys on the street sing sad Fado songs about jilted love (or missed bus transfers, for all we know). Ah.. a nice night. And being a little tipsy didn't hurt when it came to sleeping in our tiny room.

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:: Lisbon

Ouch. It was a rough night at the pension- I'd forgotten just how stiff a cheap bed can be. As a result, we were a bit sluggy all day Sunday and didn't push to do all that much. The main plan was to just go out and take a look at Lisbon in the daylight. To help get things rolling, we started the morning off by visiting a pasteria near our pension that looked straightforward enough for us to order at.

Gloomy skies, but warm coffee

It should be said that one of the great things about Portugal is that they are very serious about their pastries. Every town that we visited in Portugal had multiple pastry shops, which are called Pasterias. As I said a few days earlier, they really do an impressive job with the pastries. My favorite was the pastél de nata, which looks like a little quiche pie, but is filled with custard. Oh they're so good. Of course, the downside of going to the pasterias is trying to figure out the right way to order at them. In one of the trendier places it looked like you had to tell a guy at a lone cash register what you wanted, pay, and then take your receipt to the counter to have it picked out for you. Since we had no language confidence, we opted to move on to a smaller place where we could just point to what we wanted in the cabinet. Our surveillance led us to believe that the right thing to do was just order and eat standing up at the counter. We were kind of confused, but the pastries were worth it.

The big plaza by the water

Having received the morning's injections of sugar and caffeine, we set out to conquer the city. Our first course of action was to retrace the steps we took the night before to see what the main pedestrian strip looked liked in the daylight. The place was much more lively- there were a lot more buildings awake today, looking for our attention. We continued on down to the water, where we caught a glimpse of the Ponte 25 de Abril (the 25th of April bridge). Renamed for Carnation Revolution, this bridge is the longest suspension bridge in Europe and was made by some of the same people that built the Golden Gate bridge. The weather wasn't looking so good, so we set out to find a metro stop so we could go to a museum (museums are also free on Sundays). Our quest for a metro stop zig zagged us all over the place, and made us realize that tourist maps should also include altitude information (we wound up climbing a hill to get to what we thought was the closest metro stop).

We seem to be going up..

The museum was a good way to spend a chunk of Sunday afternoon- there were some cool collections and by the time we got out, the clouds were starting to clear up. We made our way back to the Pension to freshen up, and then headed out to find a way to get to the top of the neighboring hill, where there was a large castle-like building. We followed the guidebook's advice and hopped onto an old electric trolley, which clanked around the streets and slowly started making its way up the hill. Unfortunately, we didn't know when to get off, and by the time we noticed that we were leaving the interesting stuff behind, the trolley started going downhill fast and we were back where we started. Doah.

Rather than admit that we'd missed the stop and change trolleys, we stayed on to see where the ride would take us. There were about seven other dumb tourists that did the same thing, so we didn't feel too bad about the whole thing. Well.. The trolley just kept going and going, until we were a long way away from where we wanted to be. And then.. we hit the end of the line and the conductor booted everyone off. Amy and I wandered around the area a bit, trying to look like we'd meant to do this. We tried to find a good place to get a picture of the 25 de Abril, but there were too many buildings in the way. We admitted defeat and headed back to the trolley stand- just in time to see our trolley (and our former trolley mates) clanging down the road. But.. the joke was on them because some guy had illegally parked his car on the trolley tracks just down the street. The trolley had to stop and call in some police to figure out what to do. Meanwhile, Amy and I spied a bus stop that just happened to have a bus route that went back downtown. It was hard not to smirk as we rode by our former trolley mates. So we did just that, mouthing the word "ssssuckkkerrrsss".

The Great Car-Trolley Standoff. Ha ha!

Ahh.. Back in tourist land we opted for an Italian dinner (next to Indian, Italian is a vegetarian traveler's best friend). Pretty good stuff, plus we ordered a bottle of the "green wine". Unlike green beer, green wine is a legitimate drink in Portugal. Sort of bubbly, a bit like champagne, and slightly green. Having had so much success with the port, I think Portugal's trying to branch out and try pushing new beverages. Based on our experiences (port, Ginjinha, and now green wine), they're making good with the drinks.

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:: Coimbra

Honestly, the big city aspect of Lisbon caught us off guard this weekend. We found ourselves wanting to be somewhere a little smaller and less hectic, so we charted out a side trip to an inland town called Coimbra. Coimbra is about 2 hours north of Lisbon, and known for having the oldest university in Portugal. Secretly, Amy hoped the college town feeling would yield the Portuguese equivalents of the Taco Stand and the 40 Watt. I was just happy to take a short train trip and see more of the country. (see our Coimbra pics)

A waterside park.. Must be nice in the summer.

We had guidebook coverage of Coimbra, so we winged it and brought all our bags with the intention of staying the night. Sure enough, finding a hotel was easy, and we even got one with a balcony for cheap (40 Euros). We ditched the bags, got a quick lesson in Portuguese numbers from the super-nice hotel owner, and set out to explore the streets. We wandered all over the place before realizing that we were starving. It was beyond the lunching hours (3pm), but a local pizzeria along the river took us in. We would have felt worse about eating so late, but there were several European couples there as well, downing their lunch wine.

Let's see.. as for what we got out of Coimbra.. Well, we walked all around it, and then took a funicular up the hill to the University at the top (see their cool 360 pics). It was kind of interesting to walk around campus- especially since there was a bit more anti-USA graffiti around there than we'd been seeing in Portugal. And for those of you who couldn't guess, yes, there is a fair amount of anti-USA graffiti in Portugal, and it did feel like we got the cold shoulder more than a few times because we're obviously Americans. This could all just be in our heads, or simply an artifact of Portuguese culture which has traditionally been somber to strangers.

Up at the University. Reminds me of the Hall of Justice

The wind was pretty fierce on top of the hill, and the walk down was pretty cold. A nice view though, and it's always fascinating to wander down crazy crooked European streets. We went back to the room to warm up and rest after the long walk. When we went back out for dinner (8pm), the streets were deserted in all directions. It took a lot of searching to locate a restaurant. We wound up at a place that the guidebook said had traditional Portuguese Fado, but we decided against it when we heard a juke box playing 80's love songs. We opted for a Chinese restaurant nearby for something more familiar. A long walk home in the cold and empty streets and we called it a night.

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:: A Proper Lisbon Tour

Ahem.. Where was I? Oh right, Coimbra, windy, odd Chinese food. Tuesday we got up and caught the train back into Lisbon, the city that had intimidated us just days earlier. We still had a bit of the fear when we rolled into the train station, but this time we were equipped with a hotel reservation that guaranteed us shelter and a reason for being, provided we could find the hotel. Our public transit knowledge brought us within 10 blocks of the hotel, to a park where lots of older Portuguese men were playing unseen games (chess? dominos?) on stone tables. A cab driver stalked us and we were on our way. After a brief scare where the cab driver announced that he couldn't see any hotels near the address we'd given, we located the place, checked in, and happily collapsed on big beds meant for business travelers.

We could have just stayed at the hotel for the rest of the night, but oddly enough a phone book caught my eye. On the cover of it was a silhouette of that famous Portuguese castle that comes up when people mention Lisbon. "Hey, let's go there. What is that thing?" Amy consulted the guidebooks, found the place on the map, and warned me that they might be closing for the evening soon. We hurried down and grabbed a taxi, which was driven by a guy that seemed to take the rush hour traffic rather personally. He zipped us around to the waterfront, to a park with big monuments. Ah. There it was, the Torre de Belém (the Belém Tower).

In addition to being on the phone book, the Torre de Belém is famous because it was built in the river as a lookout tower in 1521. Since then, they've extended the river banks so you can just walk up to the thing, but it's still a cute place that looks like a miniature castle. We bought tickets and wandered about it until closing time.

From there we walked along the river bank until we came to the Monument of Discoveries. The MoD is a gigantic stone thing with a bunch of statues of Portuguese explorers (Vasco da Gama, Magellan, Henry the Navigator, etc) that are all lined up single file, looking towards the water. To us, it kind of looked like they were all taking a walk down the plank. The nice thing is that the queen and church figures are at the back of the line, giving everyone a good shove. We thought about getting behind the queen and giving her a push, but one thing we've learned is not to screw with another country's monuments.

Next we crossed the street to check out the Jerónimos Monastery. The books say it was a large monastery built near the river during the 16th century, and that it was financed through Portugal's spice tax. I assume the inside is all fancy-pants purty and what not. We got there after the doors were closed, so the best I can give you is this shot I took through the keyhole. Yep. It's a church.

It was starting to get a little dark, so we started looking for a place to eat in the area. As luck would have it, Amy spotted this cool kebob kind of place that looked like a college kind of hang out. They were super friendly in there, one of the cook guys was impressed that we had come all the way from California (aha.. there's our next travel tip. Don't tell people you're from the US, tell them you're from California. Ca is somehow much cooler, and not associated with US politics). Amy and I were overjoyed to be eating at a college hangout kind of place, especially since they had vegetarian options for her.

After dinner, we wandered down the street to Pastéis de Belém, which is probably the most famous Pasterias in Portugal. They've been around since 1837 and still have a secret recipe for their amazing pastries. The cafe was a labyrinth of oddly shaped rooms (try taking the tour on their website). I downed a lot of café com leite and several pastéls de nata. It was so good it made you think about quitting your job, learning Portuguese, and moving there. Ahh well. We strolled back to the bus stop, charted a route through the bus map, and caught a cross town bus that dropped us right by our hotel. Not a bad day at all..

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:: Sintra

Wednesday was our last full day in Portugal. While we were a bit worn out from all the traveling, we made a valiant effort to visit Sintra for the day (pictures here). Sintra is a small town just outside of Lisbon that Portuguese royalty used to call home. It was a short ride on a commuter rail out to Sintra. Along the way you'd periodically see parts of this incredible aqueduct system that moved water between the two cities. While some of it was overrun by weeds, the whole thing still looked pretty solid. Let's hear it for engineering.

Once in Sintra we made the wise decision to purchase an all-day tourist bus pass. As our bus zig-zagged up the mountain to the castle, we caught glimpses of worn out tourists whose faces were covered in regret. We rode all the way to the top to see Pena Palace (many of the other famous buildings along the route were closed for the day).

Pena Palace is basically Portugal's version of Neuschwanstein (Pena Palace supposedly influenced Ludwig's castle, which is the one in Germany that looks like something from a Disney fairy tale). PP was kind of fun- it had all sorts of ridiculous towers, pathways, and castle walls for you to explore. I'm not sure the place would be all that practical if you had to live there, but I guess you have to find something to spend your money on when you're king. Amy and I wandered around the castle for a while before deciding to call it quits. We planned on walking down the hill, but we took some wrong turns, got severely lost in the garden, climbed back up the hill, and then waited for the next bus to do the job right. There's a lesson for you- if you're going to walk down a mountain, make sure you wind up on the right side of it.

We were cold so we took a quick ride around town in our tourist bus and caught the next train back into Lisbon. At the rail stop in Lisbon, you could see part of the giant aqueduct system, crossing a deep valley. Unfortunately, it was too far away to walk to or get a good picture of (try google). It was starting to get late so we made our way home to our Americanized hotel. Along the way we picked up some food from a corner grocery store, as well as a kitschy alarm clock (that has an lcd sequence of panda bears playing, and saying "Hello!" for no apparent reason). Ahh yes.. Nothing is more European to me than eating blocks of cheese on ripped-up bread slices in a quiet hotel room. If only the Kellegous had been there to trade us some of his Captain Jacques snack cakes.

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:: Zig-Zagging Home

So.. That about does it for our Portugal adventure. The trip back home was terrible. The day started at 4:30am when we were woken by the dancing pandas on our alarm clock ("Hello!"). A cab driver rushed us through the empty streets to the airport, where we somberly waited for our flight home. Or rather, for our flight to Frankfurt, which is nearly 1,200 miles to the East. We milled about the Frankfurt for something like three hours before our plane to SFO was ready to go. Heh, that flight was kind of interesting because there was this rowdy block of French people in the middle of the plane. They only spoke French and were bewildered that the German flight attendants couldn't understand what they were saying. It was like they (the French) were Americans. As we were leaving, I heard one slowly recite some phrases from a guidebook. "Halllo." "thank...you...very...much". Heh.. good luck, buddy.

Anyways, Amy and I had a pretty good time in Portugal. It's good to get away, especially to a place where the people have such a strong devotion to pastries.

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