Portugal

We arrived in Lisbon after a long travel day where we drove from Nafplio to Athens then flew to Rome before continuing on to Lisbon. Remarkably, it took two ~2 hour flights to make the journey, but then again we did pretty much traverse the length of Europe from East to West. This concludes our intra-Europe air travel, coming out at 6 journeys in total, most with a connection. Through those 11 individual flights I don't think we had a single delayed flight, or at least not more than 30 minutes. I don't know whether European airports are just less busy than US airports and thus less likely to have congestion delays or what, but it with all the sources of self-inflicted stress on the trip it was nice not to ever deal with a missed connection. And we kept everything on Star Alliance, which means that by the time we make it to Brazil all three of us will have Gold status on United!

While we may not have been delayed, that didn't stop us from having some arrival drama in Lisbon. Jie and my bags came out immediately at baggage claim, but her parents bag was nowhere to be found. We went to the baggage office and they told us to check again, as sometimes bags come out late. So I went back and checked again...the carousel was still moving but no bag. Then the carousel stopped. I turned to go back to the baggage office when all of a sudden it started up again and out popped their bag! Whew, crisis avoided! Then when we arrived downtown they had the city center closed for some sort of nighttime 5k. We had to hoof it the last quarter mile to our Airbnb, where we were greeted by no one, because they were delayed as well by the race. Nothing like arriving in a new city to stand outside in the street for 10 minutes at 11pm...

On the surface, Lisbon was a great city to visit. We spent a day walking around the neighborhoods and taking in the various churches and narrow, winding lanes of the Alfama. We also made it over to Belem, which was the home of the monarchy after the great 1755 earthquake that devastated the city. It was also the sending off point of the great exploratory voyages of Vasco de Gama and others, and today there is a beautiful monument to Prince Henry the Navigator and the explorers. Brought back memories of my 8th grade history teacher, Mrs Healy, and all her alliterative pneumonics for remembering which explorer did what.

On our second day we had a driver takes us out to Sintra, home of additional palaces in a forested area about 30 minutes from the city. We toured the Pena Palace, which was built in the 1800's and occupied by the Portuguese monarchy until the fall of the monarchy in 1910. What was remarkable, though, is that the castle was designed in a very whimsical style mixing Art Nouveau, Moorish, and other architectural styles into this Disney-like mishmash. Further, it incorporated a monastery that had been in operation since the 1500's. Hard to believe it was actually used, but it was fun to tour. Afterwards we walked down through the palace gardens to a bus stop. Unfortunately, this bus stop was on the way up from the town to the palace at the top of the hill, so every bus coming up was packed. We managed to get Jie's parents on a bus but there was no room for the three of us. So as the bus went slowly up the hill (lots of traffic, thankfully), we ran along behind. At the next stop (the Moorish Castle) some people got off but there was already such a long line that once again we couldn't get on. So off we ran again, uphill, back to the palace where we started. When we got there the bus was still loading people and the driver was amazed we had caught up again. So Jie's parents got a much needed rest and we got our workout!

Back to Lisbon. So I said "on the surface" for a reason; Lisbon was nice and clean and pretty, but if you looked below the surface you realized that almost all buildings were empty except for the ground floor. The city center felt like it wasn't properly kept up and only really exists as a tourist district. This is doubly true for the Alfama, where many apartments don't even have ensuite bathrooms and residents have to use communal bathrooms. So people have apparently taken flight to the suburbs. We've seen other cities like this, where the tourist center is depopulated of locals (eg, Tallinn), but the Lisbon center is so big that not even the tourists can make it feel full. Regardless, we had a good time in Lisbon and I do think Portugal is worth the time, it's just not as vibrant as many European city centers.

After our 3 nights in Lisbon we picked up a rental car, this time an Audi A4 wagon! What a welcome change from Opels and Fiats! We drove south to the Algarve, the southern coast. We had lunch at a beachside restaurant in Lagos then checked into our hotel near Faro. Our hotel was a converted former palace of a member of the local nobility. The palace itself was beautiful, though the surrounding area was something of a barren wasteland. We drove into Faro for dinner, but on the way I noticed my phone battery was dangerously low so I had to shut my phone down in case we needed to use Google Maps on the way back (we did). We just drove until we found a square near the city center, then parked and walked around until we found a restaurant packed with locals and a few other tourists. Dinner was good and inexpensive, and it was neat sitting out on a random square in a small Portuguese town on a cool summer evening.

Given the lack of things to do close to our hotel we changed our bus tickets from Faro to Sevilla from the afternoon bus to the morning bus. I had to change all 5 tickets individually, and after I got through the first 4 tickets Paypal started rejecting the last transaction. So I couldn't change Jie's ticket. And the site wouldn't take US credit cards. And there isn't a ticket office in Faro, you have to buy in advance online. And I couldn't buy her a brand new ticket without using Paypal. In a minor panic, I started reaching out to anyone who might be online and have a Paypal account`. Finally I got ahold of my buddy Dave in Chicago on Google Chat. He was a bit skeptical when I told him I needed him to go to a Spanish website and use Paypal with a linked bank account, not a credit card. Despite my assurances this was not a Nigerian scam he insisted on asking obscure personal identity questions, though he did take my profane responses as proof that it really was me. He made the change and we're presently on the road to our last country, Spain, at the start of our 11th and final week in Europe. Thanks Dave!