Friday, September 9, 2016

Spain & Portugal - Day 16

We planned to visit the Lisbon Aqueduct (Aqueduto das Aguas Livres) today before our journey back to Spain. According to the hotelier, there is no direct bus or tram from our hotel. We have to walk. According to the map, it was supposedly a 20 minutes walk. However, after walking for 20 minutes under a scorching sun, and still no where near it, we decided to drop it. After all, we had a tight schedule to adhere to today.

We travelled south of Portugal for our journey back to Spain. That means, we got to drive the Ponte 25 de Abril Bridge! It was said that this bridge is longer than the Golden Gate Bridge in San Franciso. Not sure about that. But, definitely looks identical except that this bridge is part is for cars and below is for trains!

After crossing the bridge, a short drive brought us to the Monument to Christ (Christo Rei).

This monument with a 28 meter tall Christ on the top was built in 1959 to thank God for sparing Portugal during WWII. On the first floor is a small art gallery. This picture caught our eyes...

An artistic impression of the Holy Family

From the first floor, we took an elevator to the top of the monument (82 meter high) to have a sweeping view of Lisboa city before continuing our journey to Evora to visit the Igreja de Sao Francisco.

City centre of Evora

Evora's city centre is very small but full of live. We reached Evora near 12 noon...bad timing. The church is closed for siesta for 2 hours! Despite our tight timeline, we didn't want to miss out on this church. So, we went for a light lunch (though we weren't hungry) to kill time and had a chestnut snack to kill more time!

Finally, it's time and here we were in the Igreja de Sao Francisco.

Main altar

An interesting expression of the suffering of Christ on His Passion

After seeing these pictures, you may be wondering why had we waited for 2 hours just to visit this church when seriously there isn't anything exceptionally special about it. Well, it was the Capela dos Ossos or Chapel of Bone that drew us there.

The above inscription at the entrance of the chapel reads "We bones that are here, we are waiting for yours".

If the inscription at the entrance sounds rather eerie and the idea of covering the interior of a chapel completely with the bones of 5000 people sounds gross and inhumane, it really wasn't once we understood the intention.

Built in XVI, the bones were taken from the graves of the town. It was built as a prayer and meditation on the human condition place of the Franciscans.

At the end of the chapel where the altar is lie the grave of Bishop Jacinto Carlos da Silveira, killed in 1808 by the French soldiers of Napoleon.

And at another far end of the chapel, the corpses of a father and son was hung there as it was believed to have been cursed by the dying wife/mother for ill-treating her to death (myth or fact?).

Due to the two hours delay (which we had no regrets), initial plan to visit another two interesting churches enroute to our destination in Spain had to be scrapped. So, the rest of the day was spent driving monotonously through freeways and country roads.

The excitement came when we were near our destination, Guadaloupe. We entered the El Escorial region at last light. It is a mountainous area, which means everywhere was pitch dark. Coupled with Spain's lack of good road signs, were still wondering till now how had we managed to find our place! Upon exit of the main road, we had to drive through a deserted village (those kind that appears in horror movies) and another populated village with no one in sight. At the end of this village is a road with either a left or right turn with NO SIGN BOARD to show where each direction heads to. With half a tank of fuel left (hadn't seen any petrol station for the past 3 hours!), at 7pm and no map or GPS, we were definitely panicky. But, our faith saved our night. At this critical moment, a group of children (not more than 10 years old) with two adults appeared. We grasped that opportunity to ask for direction. And guess what, the children were the ones who saved our night (the adults don't understand English and weren't able to help). We were hesitant at first....direction from children....they are so young, are they sure? Eventually, we took the leap of faith and viola, not only were we able to make it in time to top up our fuel before the one and only petrol station closes for the night, we even made it in time to top up some food at the only supermarket in Guadaloupe 10 minutes before they closed. It was indeed a blessed trip!

As recommended by many, we stayed at the monastery-converted hotel, Santa MarĂ­a de Guadalupe and stayed as suggested in forum, room 218. Guadalupe is a very small village in the El Escorial region. The hotel was easy to find from the street but getting to the parking is a little challenging.

Room 218 of Santa Maria de Guadalupe Hotel

It was said that this room used to be a chapel for the monastery, thus the humongous space and superbly high ceiling. It was a lovely room with lovely view except that it was very chilly given that it only has one heater to serve the whole room. We were shivering throughout the night.

The hotel was the most expensive among our lodging in Spain. We decided to go for it still partly because of its history and partly because a portion of the profit made goes to supporting the Franciscan Monastery next to it. So, it's money well spent.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Spain & Portugal - Day 15

Our original plan for today was to visit Cabo Da Roca, the westernmost point of continental Europe before spending the rest of the day in Lisboa city. However, after much consideration, we decided to spend our precious one day to experience this exciting city to the fullest.

Driving from our hotel to Baixa, the main district of Lisboa is out of question. Traffic is bad, parking is hard to come by and expensive. Since we had a direct tram to Baixa, that was the obvious choice.

Lisboa is notorious for pickpockets, and having been warned by friends and families who had visited, we were on high alert. The number 1 rule of self travelling is not to look like a tourist. But, there's no way we could camouflage that fact. We don't speak Portugese and our skin colour is way too obvious. On our way to the tram station, at a busy traffic junction while waiting for the "green man", we had our first encounter of Lisboa "pickpocket". Lucky for us, we met an amateur. He was caught in action by us while fumbling with the zipper of our sling bag. After a brief moment of stunted eye contact, the man just treated as if nothing happened and waited next to us to cross the road. No running away at all. That's quite peculiar. And the crowd around us who had seen what happened, just shrugged off as if its a "normal" day-to-day business and moved on. That's really an eye-opener!

Anyway, that brief encounter was a "good" start for the day preparing us on what to expect while on the street in order to keep our valuables safe. Our first stop was to Jeronimos Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jeronimos) in Belem.

Jeronimos Monastery, built in 1502, is a monastery of the Order of Saint Jerome; and is a UNESCO World Monument. Though we hadn't seen many churches or monasteries in Portugal, but it is by far the grandest that we had seen. The cravings at the main entrance of the monastery was extended to every pillar in the church hall.

And the intricate stained glasses were exceptionally captivating.....

Dedication to the Holy Family

Across Jeronimos Monastery, crossing a garden with a big water fountain, we walked towards the Discoveries Monument (Padrao dos Descobrimentos).

View of Jeronimos Monastery from the nearby garden

The Discoveries Monument (Padrao dos Descobrimentos) features world's explorers in stone and is to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator. Visitors can take the elevator to the top of the monument for an unblock view of the Tagus River and the Ponte 25 de Abril Bridge. Given our itinerary, there will be opportunities for that, so we chose to pass.

Marina next to the Discoveries Monument

Weather was excellent. Nice cool breeze on a mild sunny day. We took a stroll along the river bank before heading for the long-expected lunch.....the famous Portugese egg tarts at the world reknown Pasteis de Belem!

We were warned by friends, families and the internet of queues snaking round the street and hours of waiting in line just to get a bite on these popular snack at this bakery. Having prepared ourselves mentally, we braced for the queue. To our surprise, it was low tourist season and bus load of tourists had yet to arrive (that's the beauty of working against the norm). So, here's the queue that awaits us..

Yes, that was our queue! There was only 5 person before us. We were so surprised that we doubled, tripled checked against our sources to confirm that this was the bakery. Finally, we could sank our teeth on this must-eat snack of Portugal, egg-tart.

Our senses were swirling in that heavenly aroma the moment we stepped into the store. And that tempting slightly-burnt crust is making us salivate. Me, the wife who hates egg-tarts because I hate custard, was totally won over by these. After the first bite, nothing could hold us back. Three egg-tarts per person was definitely not enough!! The sweetness was perfect, crust was crisp with the right amount of butter (not oily or overwhelming at all) and the silky custard just melt in our mouth. Go with a nice cup of hot coffee, it was heavenly. Having ate Macau's famous Portugese egg-tarts, though delicious, we can only gave it a 60% score compared to the ones from Pasteis de Belem.

Satisfied, we continued exploring the Baixa district of Lisboa which lies behind this magnificent entrance.

Our first stop was to visit Saint Anthony's Church, the birth place of St Anthony of Padua, saint of lost and found..."Something lost and cannot be found, St Anthony please search around!". He had indeed answered our prayer on Day 10 of our travel.


Beautiful mosaic wall of chapel

In the basement of the church was the birth place of St Anthony.

From the church, we continued our journey towards Castelo de Sao Jorge.

The road started at around 30 degree up slope and the intensity increases as we moved closer to the castle. Though physically trying, it was worth the effort. There are shops in every corner of the main and side roads! It was this shop on the main road that we found some very delicious Portugese snacks. One of those that we bought was this...

The shop lady explained what it was but as hard as we tried, we couldn't really made out what it was called. It has a slightly firm chewy texture, not overly sweet but flavourful and the smell inviting. We ate it while it was still warm and before we knew it, it was time to fight over the last piece! The other snack that we bought from the same shop was Filhozes D'Abobora. It's a ball shaped sugary donut made of pumpkin. Sweetness level was good and crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside. Since we only bought 2 pieces, the snacks didn't got pass the photography stage but went straight to the mouth! Equally yummy!!

Exploring the little streets was really fun that it took us longer than required to finally reach Castelo de Sao Jorge. Well, there was nothing much at the castle except for the bird's eye view of the city of Lisboa. Didn't manage to take any good shots but the cool wind and tranquility was relaxing.

Back at the city centre, we took the Santa Justa Elevator, an old 45m high elevator...really slow, to the highest point of the city for a view of the shopping belt....

Thereafter, was to the ruins of Convento do Carmo.

Nothing much in the convent but walking among the ruins temporarily shut us off the hustle and bustle of the outside world and transported us back to the past! With this, we concluded our must-see sights in the centre of Baixa.

Back track to and out of that magnificent arch (above), we head to the square opposite (since the huge crowd is finally gone as evening approaches) to admire its beauty before heading off to search for two interesting facades.

Square opposite the magnificent arch leading into Baixa.

Just 10 minutes walk from here brought us to our first destination, the Camara Municipal de Lisboa.

The front facade of the municipal of Lisboa, known as the Portal de Nossa Senhora da Conceicao Velha

The above facade is known as the Portal de Nossa Senhora da Conceicao Velha. It may not be as grand as the facade of the Jeronimos Monastery but was richly decorated with Manueline details. It was the only thing that remains of the Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Misericordia which was destroyed during the 1755 earthquake.

Another 10 minutes walk from the minicipal office brought us to the Casa dos Bicos or House of Spikes!

Very artistic and creative, and definitely most eye-catching!

Finally, we completed all of our must-see and still had some time for some shopping at the Amoreiras Shopping Centre that has over 300 shops! Well, we didn't buy anything there but it was a nice place to window-shop and the free toilet was most needed.

This afternoon when we were exploring the little streets that leads to Castelo de Sao Jorge, we were attracted by the many family-run cafes/restaurants there serving authentic Portugese food. Needless to say, we went back there (yep, going up the hill again!) to have our dinner. We went into this really small shop (maybe 4-6 tables only) and had the most fantastic dinner that we couldn't forget till now!

We started with a shrimp chowder (not in picture because it was so delicious that we forgot to take picture and it was gone). The soup was very smooth and creamy yet light on the palate. The shrimp was big and generous. The sweet and fresh taste of shrimp just explored in our mouth with each spoon. The moment we started, we couldn't stop till everything was cleaned off the bowl!

Next up, main dish.....Portugese seafood rice. A totally different rendition from Spanish Paella.    

Having tried both Spanish paella and Portugese seafood rice, while both has its own distinct feature and taste and equally delicious, I would say the Portugese version really blew our mind off because of the soup. With so much seafood cooked in it, the flavour is extremely rich in taste and natural sweetness. It is beyond words. You have to try to fully experience this amazing dish. Unforgettable.

Satisfied, time to call it a day. There's a long day ahead as we journeyed back to Spain the next day!

The Authors