Portland Miscellany

The refrigerator is getting full!

  • Brett and I are slowly getting stocked up for the girls’ arrivals next week. The day before yesterday we shopped at Trader Joe’s, and yesterday we did our Costco shopping. So far we’re still under budget – I had forgotten how much less food costs here. We were almost overwhelmed when we stepped into our Portland Costco after shopping at our little one back on Kaua’i, and the amazing amount of selection as well (with a few exceptions though, prices on Kaua’i are the same as they are here). We still need to go to Winco, mainly to restock some travel supplies but also to pick up some bagels for our traditional Christmas morning breakfast. After that we will make a stop at New Seasons market for a couple of things and take YaYu to the big Fubonn Asian market after she arrives to get her supply of noodles. I am doing all cooking here at the house while we’re in Portland except for us going out once for pizza and once for dim sum while we’re together.

    At least there’s no snow (for now)

  • Winter is coming. Actually, from what I can tell I think winter is already here. It was clear but only 34 degrees when we landed in Boston the other day. Portland has had rain and overcast skies and temperatures in the mid-40s since we arrived, all the things that drove us to move to Hawai’i a little over four years ago. Brett and I had toyed with idea of possibly settling in Seattle after we finished the Big Adventure, but after a few days in Portland we both know there is no way. I don’t know what we were thinking.
  • We are not big TV watchers, but our Airbnb here in Portland has full cable, including all the premium channels, like HBO, Showtime, etc. so Brett and I are going to watch Season 4 of Better Call Saul, and I’m thinking when we’re done I may settle in and try to binge watch Game of Thrones. Meiling is bringing her stick with her so we can access Netflix. I think a month of TV watching while we’re here and Brett and I will be good to go for another year.

    This big poinsettia will be just the right amount of Christmas decoration for us this year.

  • Before we got to Portland, we thought we’d get a small Christmas tree, but now that we’ve seen what’s out there and the prices, we’ve decided not to. Instead, we bought a big, beautiful poinsettia at Trader Joe’s and with the girls’ blessings that will be the extent of our decoration this year. We’re currently working on getting all the girls’ presents wrapped but are also trying to keep that as low cost and simple as possible. We bought some inexpensive red and green twine when we were in Florence, and will wrap many of the gifts with kraft paper and newsprint and then add some string to make things a bit more festive. We also saved shopping bags along the way and those will get used as gift bags. The most important thing is we will be together with the girls and we want to stay focused on that.
  • I’m seeing the dentist this afternoon and have my fingers crossed that my broken tooth won’t be as bad as I think it is, and that it will be salvageable. I was able to get my red glasses fixed at Costco while we were there – they were slightly damaged when I fell in Florence in November but are as right as rain now. Brett and I also continue to get better each day, but our colds this time have really dug in their heels. One of the problems for us is that the air is so dry (as it was back in Portugal and on all the planes) and that seems to keep things aggravated. But, we are no longer coughing nor having to blow our noses as much so hopefully we will be back to our healthy selves by next week. YaYu arrives in Portland next Monday night, WenYu on Tuesday, and Meiling will be here on Thursday. All three will be staying here until we leave in January.

From Lisbon to Portland: A Long Travel Tale

The first thing to take care of in Portland was the obligatory airport carpet shot!

Yeah – we are in Portland! Getting here took three days of travel filled with ups, downs, twists, turns and some nice surprises too. We still have massive head colds although they thankfully did not make us uncomfortable on any of our flights other than having to constantly blow our noses. The coughs are mostly gone.

The journey back to the U.S. began when we went to check in for our flight from Lisbon to Madrid and discovered Iberia had changed us to a completely different flight, one that departed four hours earlier than our reservation. Also, we no longer had nice seats up front, but had been moved to seats in the far, far back. Hmmm. Neither Expedia nor Iberia had ever contacted us about any sort of change, so this caught us completely off guard and we had to scramble to get our transportation to the airport changed, and finish our packing. We also had to pay extra to check our suitcases; they had been included in our earlier ticket. Thankfully the additional fee was quite small.

The Iberia flight to Madrid was extremely uncomfortable though, with no leg room whatsoever. Neither Brett nor I are big or tall people, but we were squeezed into our seats and couldn’t move our legs – I can only imagine how uncomfortable it was for people taller than us. Thank goodness the flight was just a little over an hour long. We also never saw a flight attendant the entire time except to greet us as we boarded and say goodbye at the door as we got off. We vowed never to book with Iberia again no matter how enticing their low prices appeared (the flight was ridiculously cheap, just over $100 for the two of us and our suitcases – a similar flight in the U.S. could cost around $150 – $200 dollars per person).

We had an overnight hotel reservation in Madrid, at a place located less than two miles from the airport, and supposedly just a 10-minute drive away. We got a taxi at the airport, and twenty minutes later our driver had us at the hotel! We’re still not sure whether he  didn’t know where he was going, or if he was just trying to rip us off or maybe a little of both, but we were not happy when we arrived. We normally tip but this guy got nothing. Check-in at the hotel was easy and our room was comfortable, although the walls were quite thin – Brett joked he could hear the woman next door scratching her leg. We showered, got our clothes out for the next day, and went to bed as we had to get back up at 4:30 a.m. to be at the airport by 6:00 for our morning flight from Madrid to London. The hotel had arranged an early morning taxi for us, and this driver was on time, and made it to the airport in . . . eight minutes!

We entered the Schengen Zone in Madrid back in September, and exited through Madrid as well, with a beautiful sunrise both times.

Madrid’s Barrajas airport is its own particular hell. I’m not sure who designed the place, but it really is not customer friendly at all. The taxi driver took us to Terminal Two to check in with Norwegian Air (there are four terminals), but after that was done we had to walk over a mile and a half to get to our gate in Terminal One! There are no shuttles or trams between terminals – everybody walks and there are signs up overhead reminding you of how many minutes away you are from your destination. We found our gate, had a cup of coffee and a pastry, but when it was time to board the plane passengers were put on shuttle buses and driven out to the plane, which was parked out on the tarmac outside of Terminal Two!

Look what we found when we were at the Gatwick airport!

Our flight itinerary gave us a l-o-n-g layover in Gatwick airport (seven and a half hours), but the time there actually went fairly quickly. There were shops galore to check out, but we only hit up Boots for more tissues, some maximum strength Sudafed, antibacterial wipes for our hands, and a few bars of Cadbury chocolate to enjoy on our flight over to Boston. There were also loads of restaurants to choose from, and after looking at all the menus we settled on Wagamama for some good Asian food. I got two yummy filled buns and a plate of pad thai, and Brett ordered a big steaming bowl of chicken ramen.

As I was chewing on a pad thai noodle I bit on something hard and when I looked to see what it was discovered it was a big piece of my back tooth! Surprise! That little chip I had when I left Kaua’i and that had been bothering me a bit had developed into a crack and the soft pad thai noodle was apparently the last straw. I was initially very upset, but then realized that if it was going to break it had actually happened at a good time because we were heading to Portland where we would be staying long enough that I could get a dentist to take care of things before we left for India. Also, the broken tooth does not hurt at all, so I am not having to deal with any pain whatsoever. But still, this was not something we wanted or needed to happen.

Boston was beautiful but COLD. This was the gorgeous view from our hotel room!

Our flight from Gatwick to Boston was wonderful from start to finish, and I wouldn’t hesitate to book with Norwegian Air again for a long-haul flight. We didn’t win premier seats in the upgrade auction, but that turned out to be OK because our exit row seats were very comfortable with loads of legroom (and the extra we would have paid for premium seats is now available to cover my tooth repair). The dinner we were served was the best food I’ve ever had on an airline – perfectly cooked chicken breast and wild rice in a delicious sauce, with a lovely salad and wonderful chocolate mint mousse. We could find no fault with it at all. We loved it too when the adorable flight attendant from Spain described the menu to us and ended with “and doesn’t that sound delightful?” So cute! – when was the last time you heard that from a flight attendant? Norwegian’s fares are ridiculously low, but the seats were comfortable and the service superb, even in economy.

We had a happy reunion with WenYu, our favorite middle daughter – she’ll be joining us in Portland in a little over a week.

WenYu was there to meet us in Boston with a bag of hamburgers and fries! We were so happy to see her again, and we spent the evening chatting and catching up. Her boyfriend joined us for breakfast in the morning. They have been together for over two years, but this was our first chance to meet him and we liked him too – they’re a good match in both personality and temperament. He may look unassuming, but underneath his quiet demeanor is a guy who started his own company when he was ten years old which has now become a multi-million dollar enterprise. He’s known worldwide as one of the premier practioners in his field.

With WenYu and her boyfriend after breakfast – so glad we got to meet him!

After breakfast we headed over to the airport to catch our last fight, a non-stop to Portland on Alaska Air. It was an easy trip as we had premium seats with plenty of legroom, and both Brett and I enjoyed one of their famous cheese and fruit platters for dinner (one of my favorite reasons for flying with Alaska!). The flight arrived in Portland on time, we picked up our car and then went to Trader Joe’s for a few things to get us through breakfast before heading to our Airbnb rental. Portland is cold and overcast, with rain predicted for later today, so we have been quickly reminded of why we left for Hawai’i four years ago! The Airbnb is very nice though, a great size for all of us to gather later in the month and celebrate the holidays together.

We’re going back to Trader Joe’s today to do a bigger shop, and then will go to Costco tomorrow for a few things. I will be calling the dentist first thing tomorrow (Monday) morning, and both Brett and I have appointments to get our hair cut on Wednesday. Mainly though it’s now time for us to rest for a while, to get well again and gather our strength for Part II of the Big Adventure. We’ve had a wonderful time so far, but we’re happy to be “home” for a while.

The Big Adventure, Part I: Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down

Ready to go: All of our and YaYu’s bags at the Lihue airport.

The colds we picked up have kept us pretty much stuck inside here in Lisbon, although on the positive side of things we’ve spent more time exploring and enjoying our neighborhood than we would have otherwise. To pass the time while we recover (and we are nearly there – yeah!), Brett and I have been talking about all we’ve seen and done, the places we’ve stayed, and how we felt about them. We knew from the beginning that not every part of our trip was going to go perfectly, and that we’d be both pleasantly surprised and disappointed along the way so it has been fun to talk about it all in hindsight. Our rankings are rather informal, and it was interesting to discover and discuss what we agreed on, and what we differed on, and why.

An outdoor antique market in one of Strasbourg’s city squares.

  • Favorite city: Strasbourg, France tops the list for both of us. We both thoroughly enjoyed our time in the city from start to finish, loved the local Alsatian cuisine and the city’s proximity to other countries and cities. Strasbourg was also a very walkable city, had an easy-to-use public transportation system, a wonderful mix of old and new, and also was set up to encourage bike riding. Locals were very friendly and helpful. Florence ranks right up behind Strasbourg, for many of the same reasons, especially how walkable the city was. Our third favorite city was Buenos Aires – we’d definitely love to go back.
  • Least favorite city: Although we don’t regret including these cities in our itinerary, Rome was unfortunately our least favorite place. Although we liked all the historical sites, piazzas, and museums we visited, after we left we realized how on edge we had been the whole time we were there because of the constant reminders and warnings about pickpockets, etc. We also felt it was a big place where we just rattled around. Montevideo comes in as our second least favorite city – we were glad we went, but were also on edge the whole time we were there.

    The Swiss farmhouse where we stayed was originally built in 1735.

  • Best Airbnb experience: Our stay at the Swiss farmhouse was hands down the favorite Airbnb experience for both of us. Besides getting to visit Lucerne, we got to enjoy authentic experiences with the family. Their hosting was exceptional, including having us join them for a traditional Swiss meal one evening.

    The view from our Florence apartment – unforgettable!

  • Favorite Airbnb apartment: Our Florence apartment was my favorite, even though we had to climb four flights of stone steps to get up to it! However, the ambience inside was comfortable and welcoming, the apartment was well-equipped, and the host friendly, communicative, and very helpful. There was also that beautiful view from the kitchen window! Brett’s favorite apartment was our tiny studio in Strasbourg – it was comfortable, had everything we needed and was in a wonderful location in the city (it’s my second favorite). We learned during our time there we could live in very close quarters and not get on each other’s nerves!  We also had a wonderful host, and were privileged to dine with her family one evening. We also both liked our apartments in Buenos Aires and Montmartre, Paris, and our place here in Lisbon is also very nice. By the way, every single one of our Airbnb apartments has had a very comfortable bed – that was one of our big worries ahead of time.
  • Least favorite Airbnb apartment: After some discussion we decided we least liked the apartment in Rome. The location was OK, but the apartment itself was huge and cold (marble everywhere) and we never seemed to be able to settle in or relax there as we did in other places. There was also construction going on above us from time to time (sometimes very early in the morning) which could be very noisy and annoying. Second on the list was our apartment in Montevideo. The apartment itself was comfortable, and was in a great location for getting out to visit the old town and La Rambla during the day, but the neighborhood was somewhat sketchy at night and we were warned against going out.
  • Favorite travel day: Our three train trips through France from city to city, and our train trip from Florence to Rome are at the top of both of our lists for travel days – all were  comfortable, affordable, and easy to manage.
  • Least favorite travel day: The extremely uncomfortable 12-hour flight from Montevideo to Paris was pretty awful, but so was the river crossing and bus trip from Buenos Aires to Montevideo, and that trip from Bordeaux to Florence was one for the books.

    David did not disappoint!

  • Favorite work of art: Brett’s favorite work was the Bayeaux Tapestry, an amazing historical work of art that has survived all these years. My favorite was Michelangelo’s David – it was breathtaking and more than I expected. I also found the unfinished carvings by Michelangelo in L’Accademia to be an emotional experience, seeing the figures emerging from the stone and his chisel work, and I could not take my eyes off of The Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel. I have always been a big Michelangelo fan, and I more than got my fill.
  • Work of art that we should have liked but didn’t:  None.

    The 16th century spiral staircase at the end of the Strasbourg Cathedral Museum tour, like octopus tentacles.

  • Favorite museum: Both of us put the cathedral museum in Strasbourg (Musée Œuvre Notre Dame) at the top of our list. The Alsace museum in Strasbourg was also very interesting and engaging.
  • Least favorite museum: We were totally overwhelmed and exhausted by the Uffizi Museum in Florence. We felt we were drowning in the amount of art and as a result couldn’t appreciate it as we should have. L’Accademia, Palazzo Pitti, and the Bargello museums all offered a better experience in our opinion.
  • Favorite cathedral: The beautiful Duomo in Siena tops my list, followed by the Strasbourg Cathedral and St. Peter’s (including the Sistine Chapel). Brett especially like the Duomo in Florence, especially the experience of climbing up to the dome.
  • Least favorite cathedral: There is no such thing. They were all different and fascinating to see.

    The Arc de Triomphe . . . before our hair got shaggy!

  • Favorite historical site: Both of us were surprisingly awe-inspired by the Arc de Triomphe in Paris – we gasped when we saw it and then stayed and looked at it for a long time before moving on. Also, the Normandy beaches and the American cemetery were very special experiences for me, and we were both deeply affected by the Pont du Hoc site. Brett’s favorite historical site was the Lion Memorial in Lucerne, an emotional experience for him.
  • Least favorite historical site: Nothing we visited was disappointing – we enjoyed every site we visited, from the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires to the Colosseum in Rome. It was thrilling to visit these places.

    Vineyards in the Bordeaux region

  • Favorite tour: My favorite was the wine tour south of Bordeaux, while Brett liked the one to St. Emilion more. We had the same guide for each tour – she was a delight! The tour through the Colosseum, Palatine Hill and the Forum was also good, but exhausting.
  • Least favorite tour: The street art tour in Buenos Aires started out well, but strayed from its premise so we bugged out.

    Ligurian pasta with pesto, and traditional spaghetti with assorted seafood.

  • Favorite meal: The best meal for both of us was the traditional Tuscan meal we enjoyed in Siena – so delicious! And, while I loved the pizza, pasta and risotto we enjoyed in Florence and Rome, and baguettes, pate, cheese, pastries and quiche in Paris, the one thing I really want to have again is a tarte flambée like the ones I enjoyed in Strasbourg. The pasta with fresh pesto in Riomaggiore was also something pretty special as was the cheese fondue in Switzerland.
  • Least favorite meal: I don’t think we had a disappointing meal.

    Gelato every day!

  • Best overall travel experience: Flying first class from Kaua’i to Portland at the beginning of our travels was pretty special. So was getting to eat gelato every day in Florence. We’ve also been pleasantly surprised that so many things have cost a lot less than we thought they would, and we’ve been given senior discounts in several places where they weren’t advertised. And, with a couple of exceptions, everyone we have come into contact with has been very, very kind and helpful!
  • Worst overall travel experience: Getting sick in Lisbon has been the worst – we have only gotten to do a tiny of fraction of what we hoped for besides feeling miserable for days. I guess we’re going to have to come back some day.

One thing that struck both of us while we were talking about all of this is that if we had to do it over again, we would stay a longer time in one place and then branch out from there. Strasbourg and Florence top our lists for a variety of reasons, but most of all because of the time we spent in each of those cities. We never felt rushed, or guilty of missing out on something if we stayed in our apartment for the day to rest. We also enjoyed having the opportunity to get to know our neighborhoods in more depth, of having shopkeepers and neighbors recognize and greet us when we went out.

It’s time to go home for a while though. And, Part II of The Big Adventure begins in just another month!

Tile. Medicine. Pastry.

Tile murals of old Lisbon surround the outside of the Sant’Anna showroom.

Brett and I both still feel quite miserable (although better than yesterday), but today was gorgeous – warm and sunny – so we decided to go out for a short while and visit the showroom of Fábrica Sant’Anna, located a short distance away from our apartment. Fábrica Sant’Anna is Lisbon’s oldest azulejos (tile) maker, in business since 1741. Portugal is known for its decorative tiles, which can be seen everywhere and can cover entire buildings (serving as sort of temperature control) or be used to create historic or cultural murals, tile panels or other decorations. Although we had hoped to visit the national tile museum, the Sant’Anna showroom was an easy outing for us and a delightful way to check out traditional Portuguese tiles and ceramics.

Just a few of the many hand-painted tile designs produced by Sant’Anna.

This lovely blue and yellow tile panel could be installed either inside or outside for decoration.

Fabrica Sant’Anna is the last of its kind in Lisbon, a store where every piece of ceramic is made and painted by hand – many of the tile products seen around town in souvenir and other shops are actually machine-made these days. Prices at Sant’Anna are not low, but they are lower than many other tile shops in Lisbon. The Sant’Anna ceramic factory is in Belem, west of Lisbon, and tours are available by appointment. However, their shop in the Chiado neighborhood display all their products, from individual tiles to dishes to decor to fountains to bathroom sinks, in designs from traditional to modern. Blue seems to be the predominant color used, but all the colors of the rainbow can be found throughout the shop.

Every type of dish imaginable it seemed could be found in the showroom, and of course more beautiful tiles. The shop also does custom designs and colors.

Beautiful traditional farm scene panel

After spending awhile looking at and gushing over the many different tile patterns and other products on display (and being thankful we don’t have room in our suitcases for any of it because we would have otherwise purchased several pieces), we headed back to the apartment. On the way we stopped in a pharmacy to ask about cold medicine and came away with cough syrup for Brett, cold tablets for me, Tylenol, and throat lozenges . . . all for a very affordable price. And they are working! We are still far from being well, but we are coughing less and feeling a bit better.

Another delicious bakery stop!

We also wanted to make another stop at the neighborhood bakery we visited the other day. The waiter recognized us from our previous time there and in a matter of moments had us seated and our treats in front of us: a peach cinnamon bun and café Americano for Brett, and sponge cake and fresh-squeezed orange juice for me, loaded with vitamin C in every sip! We also ordered two Pastel de Nata to enjoy later this evening.

After we finished our treats we were feeling too exhausted to do anything more so it was time to head back to the apartment, happily downhill all the way. It was a short but lovely outing in our neighborhood, and we’re glad we made the time. As for tomorrow, who knows? We will see how we feel in the morning before deciding if we are up to going out again, and if so, we’ll decide where then.

Getting To Know Lisbon

The red tile roofs of Lisbon

Brett and I used to talk about possibly moving to Lisbon for a while once we got all the girls launched out of the nest. After a few days here though we realize that as much as we like Lisbon we would have never been able to make it because:

  1. There are way too many cobblestones! They are everywhere, and there is no getting around them. Add in all the hills and steps and my bursitis and my knee are not happy.
  2. I don’t think we could ever understand or speak Portuguese even if we studied it every day for the rest of our lives. All we can say or understand right now is obigado/obrigada (thank you).

Still, we are having a wonderful time so far in this friendly, beautiful city in spite of us still suffering from colds, which have now settled into our chests (along with sore throats).

No cars are allowed on the narrow street we’re staying on other than pre-arranged taxis.

We awoke on Thursday morning to pouring rain and heavy winds which made it impossible to get out of the apartment other than for the most basic needs. We did manage to walk to a nearby supermarket although not without our umbrellas being blown inside out more than a few times, and both of us getting soaked. We spent the rest of the day doing laundry and getting some planning done inside our cozy apartment while the storm raged outside.

Praça de Comércio – the plaza was created on the site of a former palace which was destroyed in 1755 by a massive earthquake, followed by a tsunami and fire.

Ponte 25 de Abril crosses the Tagus River at its narrowest point. The Tagus is wide and deep enough that an aircraft carrier can sail up to Lisbon.

One of many beautiful tile-clad buildings seen throughout the city.

A huge piece of sponge cake for Brett, two florentines for me, and two Americanos set us back a whopping $4.75.

On Friday morning though there were blue skies and warmer temperatures, so we got up and out to explore around our neighborhood (Bairro Alto). We ended up walking all the way down to the Praça de Comércio to get a closer look at the mighty Tagus River, and on the way home we stopped in a local bakery for some delicious coffee and pastries. I have to say that Portuguese pastries are amazing! And, affordable, too.

Squares, streets, buildings, and shops are all decorated for Christmas.

Lisbon is decked out for Christmas from head to toe. Decorations are up everywhere, Christmas music can often be heard, and shop windows are filled with seasonal displays. They really get into it here!

I spotted the worst of both worlds for me on our way to the castle: steep cobblestone steps. Thank goodness there were elevators to bring us up the hill!

This tram is an ‘elevador’ – rather than take people around the city it only brings riders up to the top of the hill from the bottom or takes them back down.

Yesterday morning’s weather looked like a repeat of Friday’s, with blue skies, so we walked over to visit Castelo de Sao Jorge and then take a ride around Lisbon on the #28 tram. We took two seven-story elevators up to get to the base of the castle. We learned there are all sorts of ‘secret’ elevators around Lisbon as well as trams that do nothing but bring people up from the bottoms to the tops of hills or back down, but many people still do it the old-fashioned way, walking up and down the hills.

The bridge crossing the moat that surrounds Castelo de Sao Jorge.

One of the many beautiful views of Lisbon from the top of the castle.

A former well inside the castle.

The castle was extremely beautiful as well as interesting, and provided many, many beautiful views of the city. The castle itself reminded us of the ones seen in picture books, with its moat and a bridge crossing it, many battlements, and easily discernible living spaces inside the castle walls.

The #28 Tram arrives to pick us up. Parts of the ride, as the tram travels through narrow, winding streets, seem almost Disneyesque.

One of many spectacular tile-clad buildings spotted out the window of the tram.

Afterwards we finished at the castle we hiked down to catch the #28 tram at the Martim Moniz stop which is one end of its route. Brett almost didn’t make it on the tram with me thanks to some incredibly pushy young tourists who came from the back of the line to the front and shoved him out of the way. We rode the tram for quite a while, admiring the views and the many gorgeous tiled buildings and murals. Our original plan was to ride all the way to the other end of the line and then back, but we ended up getting off in our neighborhood and walking home after deciding we did not want to deal with another hoard of tourists getting back on at the other end. We were also feeling a bit worn out, and the temperature was dropping more than expected making us feel chilled (and we had also both started coughing again).

Pastel de Nata, Portugal’s signature pastry. I sadly took the smaller one on the left.

In Florence we ate gelato every day; here in Lisbon we plan to eat a Pastel de Nata (egg custard tart) every day. Our host was right, there are both good ones and better ones, but even the merely good are delicious!

We’re taking today and tomorrow off from any major sightseeing – neither of us feel very well and we are afraid of getting sicker before our big travel back to the U.S. begins on Thursday. There are things we can see and do close by in the neighborhood, there’s always laundry to take care of, but mostly we’re going to rest, relax and hydrate and see if we can get ourselves feeling better than we do now (which is pretty miserable).

Closing Out the Books For November

The daily journal and spending diary is almost full – we’ll be picking up a new one for Round Two when we’re in Portland.

As of tomorrow we will have been on the road for 102 days, mostly living out of our suitcases, but also taking time to unpack and rest, relax and recharge when possible. In another six days we will begin our journey back to the United States for a month’s visit in Portland, and time with our daughters and friends over the Christmas holiday.

We woke up yesterday morning to a rainy, blustery day, the kind where the wind turns umbrellas inside out every few feet. We had planned to go out and explore around the neighborhood, but instead only made it to a nearby supermarket for a few supplies, and got soaked in the process. We spent the rest of the day, warm and dry, in our cozy apartment doing laundry or with books and computers, and Brett got our travel and spending diary up to date for the month.

Our biggest savings come from fixing our own meals “at home” versus eating out. We found the waffles in the grocery store’s bakery –  just 70¢ each and very delicious!

November turned out to be quite an expensive month because we did so much. We constantly worried that we’d end up over budget, even with being as careful as possible. Besides eating gelato every day in Florence we paid for several admission tickets and a couple of tours; we took side trips to the Cinque Terre and Siena which included train tickets, national park admission, and an overnight hotel stay in Manarola; we ate out six times (lunches in Monterosso as Mare and  Riomaggiore, an expensive (but amazing) Tuscan meal in Siena, dinner in Florence and dinner and lunch in Rome); stopped for coffee or snacks now and again, and we also bought train tickets down to Rome from Florence as well as a taxi ride when we arrived and a driver when we left to come to Lisbon. All of it added up – without regret – so it was a pleasant surprise to discover that we managed to keep our daily spending average for the month to $49.02/day, just under our $50/day limit. Yeah us!

The total for our first grocery run in Lisbon has us thinking we’ll probably spend less here than we did in Italy, and once we’re in Portland we know where to shop and save. Some of our Christmas shopping has already been taken care of (using funds from our Christmas savings), but we have a few more things to get once we’re in Portland. We plan to go out to eat a couple of times with the girls (dim sum!), but budget- and spending-wise next month is looking good, and we’re actually a little ahead of where we want to be!

Travel Days

It doesn’t look like much, but it feels like a lot when we have to move it around.

We have traveled between different locations thirteen times since we left Kaua’i back in August. We have of course picked up a few things along the way about how to best get through travel days, but two of the most important are:

  1. Travel days are like fingerprints – no two are alike. They can go well or not, and attitude is everything.
  2. Travel days are not a good time to be cheap. It’s OK to spend a little more to make the experience easier and less stressful.

We found that traveling by train was our favorite way to get between places in Europe, if possible. There were no long security lines, and we didn’t need to be as careful about the weight of our luggage. Watching the  scenery out the window was delightful. The high-speed trains through France were smooth enough that I could fall asleep, something I’m mostly unable to do on an airplane. Train travel was also usually more economic than flying, but not always – sometimes between destinations train schedules took longer and used up valuable time, or cost more than flying. During our time in Europe we took the train whenever possible, but flew when that made more sense both in time and money.

Although we flew from Rome to Lisbon, we had a good travel day yesterday. A driver picked us up at our apartment in Rome and took us out to the airport. We had a nearly six-hour wait before our flight departed, but the airport was organized and clean, we read our books or played games on our phones, had a nice meal in the airport restaurant, and the time felt like it went by quickly. Our Ryanair flight left on time and chased the most incredible sunset I have ever seen for well over an hour, and a taxi driver in Lisbon got us to our apartment on time so our hosts didn’t have to wait. The total travel time yesterday was 10 1/2 hours, and while we arrived feeling tired we were not exhausted (even though we are both suffering from colds).

The beginnings of an amazing sunset as our plane headed out over the Mediterranean Sea. It went from orange to the deepest red I have ever seen in nature, and everything in between. It also lasted for over an hour.

Compare yesterday’s experience though with our day traveling from Bordeaux to Florence back in October, another 10 1/2 hour day. We started with a 20-minute walk to the tram station from our apartment, carrying 20+-pound backpacks and pulling 44-pound suitcases through torn-up streets and over gravel paths and cobblestones. We then took a crowded tram to the Bordeaux train station where we boarded a bus for an approximately 40-minute ride to the airport. The Bordeaux airport was, to be generous, a nightmare, and we were already pretty worn out when we arrived. There were no signs for where Ryanair was located, and once we finally found them, after walking back and forth through the airport a couple of times, their desk agents had no idea what was going on, where to send people or when to have them board the plane (one woman actually passed out in the line while we waited like cattle in an overheated room). The flight ended up leaving late, but we eventually arrived in Bologna, picked up our luggage (which we had feared wouldn’t make it) and then boarded another bus for the Bologna central train station. That station was another crowded nightmare and we had no idea what to do. We eventually got in line at the ticket window but thankfully an employee came up to us and sold us tickets on the spot; signs told us to go to Track 19 to catch our train. We ended up descending three long escalators along with our suitcases and backpacks into what felt like the bowels of the earth to find Track 19. Our train arrived a bit late, but we boarded, found our seats and around 35 minutes or so later we were in Florence. We hired a taxi and were soon at our apartment. However, the word exhausted is inadequate to describe how we felt at that point. We’ve since joked that the only forms of transportation we missed that day were a boat and a donkey – neither would have surprised us.

Spending a little more to make things easier can make a big difference in whether we arrive tired or arrive exhausted, or whether we have a good travel day or a miserable one. This does not mean purchasing expensive seats in first or business class (although they were often well within our budget on the trains we took), but using more personalized local transportation whenever possible. Our driver yesterday morning took us by and through areas filled with wonderful ruins that we hadn’t been able to see, and he drove down the old Appian road for a while which was quite amazing. That trip to the airport was worth every extra euro we paid. Our taxi driver in Lisbon was a champion – our apartment is on a very narrow street that only taxis are allowed to enter, but it took him, a seasoned local, several tries to figure it out. He worked hard to speak English with us the whole time and let us know what was going on. We could have taken the Metro and a bus in Rome to get to the airport and saved quite a few euros, and the same upon arrival in Lisbon, although we would have had to walk four blocks up a steep hill wearing our backpacks and pulling our suitcases. Every time we’ve tried to scrimp on travel and tell ourselves we can walk or use public transportation though we’ve ended up paying for it with sore muscles, bad tempers or upset stomachs, and losing a full day to get our strength back. As long as the extra cost for taxis or drivers doesn’t take us over our daily average we’re willing to pay for it.

We have been very fortunate and had wonderful taxi drivers (well, except for that weird old guy in Bordeaux) who have shared great tips about what to see, where to shop, where to eat, and so forth. They have been worth every extra penny we paid to use them.

Everything we’ve learned about travel days will be pulled together for our big return trip to the U.S. from Lisbon – a journey that will actually take place over three days versus one. We fly to Madrid in the late afternoon on Day #1 (meaning a long wait in the Lisbon airport prior to our flight since we have to be out of our apartment in the morning), and will spend the night at a hotel near the Madrid airport. We have an early flight up to London Gatwick where we have a 7 1/2 hour layover before a 7 1/2 hour flight to Boston on Day #2 (Note: we have placed a bid to upgrade our seats to premium on the Gatwick to Boston trip, but chances for that are slim. Seats in economy are exit row though with lots of legroom, so we will be OK if our bid isn’t accepted). WenYu will meet us when we arrive in Boston and will spend the night with us at a hotel there, and then we’ll (finally) meet her boyfriend for breakfast the morning of Day #3 before departing in the afternoon on a six-hour flight to Portland (those seats have already been upgraded).

We’re going to use all we’ve learned to make our upcoming return to the U.S. as good of an experience as possible, keeping the most important thing of all in mind: travel days aren’t permanent, and we always eventually get to our destination. Attitude is everything.

A Lovely Walk in Rome

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This gorgeous sunset view was the perfect end to yesterday’s outing.

Yesterday’s weather was beautiful. After three miserable days of clouds and rain the sun was out and the temperature had warmed up. It was time for Brett and I to climb back out of hibernation and see some more of Rome, and we had planned a great itinerary for the day.

We got up, showered and got dressed and then realized neither of us felt very well. Brett’s head cold was still going strong, and he had spiked a fever again. My head was also stuffy, and my throat hurt. We didn’t feel like going anywhere.

Angels watched over us as we crossed the Ponte Sant’Angelo.

However, by early afternoon we felt like the sun was mocking us. We knew we didn’t have the strength or time at this point for our planned itinerary, but we dragged out the map and looked at where we thought would be near enough to walk to, and saw that Piazza Navona and the Pantheon were both just across the river from the Castel San’t Angelo, and we knew that was an easy walk from the apartment. So, off we set.

Giant sycamores lined the Tiber river. On the way back in the evening they were filled with parakeets!

Heading into the Borgo neighborhood where Piazza Navona and the Pantheon are located.

This ancient Roman wall and arch, part of a stadium older than the Colosseum, were discovered when the building was being excavated. It was preserved and a bar was installed underneath.

We are so glad we did! We had a lovely stroll along the Tiber, on a paved sidewalk (versus cobblestones), and then turned into town for the short walk to the Piazza, built over what had been a former games arena in Roman times. We strolled through the piazza and studied the Bernini sculptures of the Four Rivers in the central fountain with its Egyptian obelisk. The piazza wasn’t particularly crowded, and there was a lively band playing at one end while we were there which lifted our spirits (Romany, I think – the guitarists were playing in the style of Django Rhinehardt). We found a great bakery nearby and picked up some pastries for our breakfast this morning and tomorrow.

Piazza Navona

This Egyptian obelisk is actually a recreation – it was made in the 17th century to decorate the Piazza.

One of Bernini’s Four River sculptures in the central fountain – it was magnificent!

The Pantheon was just a short walk away. Once there we were glad again we had made the effort. We marveled at the huge Roman columns and the concrete dome that had survived from the second century, and remembered that the reason the Pantheon had remained in such good condition was that it had been turned into a church and kept up.

The Pantheon, originally a Roman temple dedicated to all the gods.

Looking up to the dome as we entered the Pantheon. The dome was built by the Romans; the central hole is called an occulus. It is still the largest freestanding concrete dome in the world.

Much of the original Roman structure can still be seen inside the Pantheon, including walls and columns.

We walked back along the Tiber just in time to catch the sun setting behind St. Peter’s – those views alone made our afternoon outing worthwhile, no matter how we felt. When we arrived at the Vatican the lights were on, including the Christmas tree.

St. Peter’s at dusk.

Instead of heading back to the apartment we walked over to a small, recommended osteria for dinner. I had wanted to eat fried artichokes and caccio et pepe ever since we arrived in Rome, and my meal did not disappoint. Brett wasn’t particularly hungry, but ordered fish and chips, Italian-style, and was happy with those.

The fried artichokes were divine.

This afternoon we will visit the Vatican Museums, and tomorrow morning we will go to Ciampino airport to fly to Lisbon, our last stop in Europe before heading back to the U.S. Neither of us still feels very well, but we’re very glad we got out yesterday, and will leave Rome with good feelings and yes, a wish to come back some day.

P.S. We woke up to a message that our former landlord had mailed a check for almost all of our deposit (he kept 10%). It was frankly more than we thought he would return, and we’re glad to be finally done with that awful man!

Rome Is Alright

The Tiber River, from about two-thirds of the way up the Castel Sant’Angelo. The Ponte Sant’Angelo is on the left, Ponte Victor Emmanuel is on the right.

Today is Day Five of our six-day stay in Rome. We have tried to feel excited about being here, but both Brett and I currently have mixed feelings about our stay so far.

Overcast, rainy weather has stalked us the past few days making everything feel a bit more gloomy.

Rome was an add-on when we created our itinerary for the Big Adventure – we figured since we were in Italy we really should go and visit for a few days. So, we tacked on a week’s visit at the end of our month in Florence. Also, we knew that it would be easier to get to Lisbon from Rome than it would be from Florence, and cost considerably less, so that factored in as well.

Some of what we don’t like so far is not Rome’s fault. Brett has been miserable with a bad head cold since we arrived. My hip finally decided it had enough of cobblestones. Other than our first day it’s been overcast and rainy. There are crowds everywhere. I have torn two pairs of my pants on hidden sharp objects. Our apartment is almost too big, more than twice the size of our house back on Kaua’i, with a foyer as big as our living room there, and with marble everywhere it feels a bit cold, even with the heat on. There’s been annoying construction going on at times too. The bed is comfortable though, and the apartment is in a good location, especially for visiting the Vatican and getting to the Metro. There’s a nice grocery store and affordable pizza restaurant nearby. Our host has been helpful and responsive.

The architecture of the Colosseum was astounding.

We’ve been thrilled by what we’ve seen so far. Walking through the Colosseum, Palantine Hill and Roman Forum was a dream come true for me. St. Peter’s Basilica was breathtaking; and we thought the nearby Castel Sant’Angelo was fascinating with its interesting history and incredible views of the city from the top of the castle. Still, it mostly feels like all we’re doing is checking things off a list. We’ve been unable to get any sort of feel for the city unlike we did in Florence.

St. Peter’s Square and the Basilica

Two putti hold a basin of holy water.

Interior of the domes over the Bapistry Chapel.

Hopefully things will go better today. We took the day off yesterday to give both of us time to rest and recover, and because the weather was flat-out miserable. It also gave us time to talk about what we really wanted to see and do before we leave on Wednesday. Today we are heading out to check out the Pyramid of Cestius, the non-Catholic/foreigner’s cemetery where the poets Keats and Shelley are buried, the Aventine Keyhole (fingers crossed for this) and the Mouth of Truth. We’ll take it slow and stop when we need to. After that we’ll walk across the Tiber and stroll around Trastavere for a little bit if we feel up to it. We’d like to enjoy dinner there before taking a taxi back to our apartment.

The stairs and paths through Castel Sant’Angelo were almost like a maze, but offered wonderful views along the way. The wall on the right is part of the Emperor Hadrian’s tomb, from the second century C.E.

The original angel to top Castel Sant’Angelo, with his prosthetic wings, now stands watch over one of the interior courtyards in the castle.

On Tuesday morning we’ll once again pack up our suitcases, and then head over in the afternoon to tour the Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel. We’ll enjoy pizza one last time for lunch and then finish up our leftovers for dinner. I think we’re going to make it out of Rome without eating any gelato – we’ve stopped and looked at it several times, but the flavors don’t excite us like they did in Florence, and the cold, rainy weather has been a deterrent as well.

Overall we’re glad we came to Rome but the city hasn’t won us over yet. It’s still just alright. Both Brett and I have remarked that we’re seeing things here we only dreamed of seeing in our lifetimes, but we’re missing a connection that we’ve experienced in other places. Hopefully the next couple of days will change that.