Saturday, January 18, 2014

Evora, Portugal

Last October I went to Southern Spain with a side trip to Lisbon and Evora, Portugal. I took the night train from Madrid and I would advise anyone to book early. You have to go to Charmatin bus station in person and the international side was packed. I bought mine at 10 am that morning and I got one of the last tickets.

Be prepared to have a flashlight shone in your eyes at the border crossing and very rude customs officers demand to see your passport. (contrary to flying into Madrid where they just asked me where I was going and sent me on my way).

You get to the Lisbon bus station at about 7 am and taxis are right outside (FYI you have to pay to use the bathroom in the station so make sure you have some coins). The bus station is right on the water and it is only a 5-8 minute drive into the tourist section. I had a lot of time to kill before I could check into my hotel so I wandered for a few hours. You can take a huge elevator up to the New Town but I chose to walk.

While I liked Lisbon ok, my main focus was Evora which is about 1.5 hours east of Lisbon and an easy day out. I caught the bus and had to cross this bridge! It's one of the longest suspension bridges in the world and was designed by the same people who designed the Golden Gate Bridge. To get to Evora from the bus station simply turn right and walk about 1/2 mile and you will see the town gates. From there, just keep walking straight and eventually you will hit the Old Town.

There were 2 reasons I wanted to go to Evora: The Chapel of Bones and the "Diana" Temple.

The Chapel of Bones was made by a group of monks who felt the townspeople were becoming too materialistic and not concerned enough with their souls so they dug up all the buried corpses and made a Chapel of Bones.

It was really amazing but they have odd hours and everyone got kicked out about 15 minutes after I got there. English is somewhat spoken but not as much as in Spain. To anyone traveling in Spain or Portugal if you want to watch TV at night, bring a laptop so you can get Hulu or whatever. There are no English stations in either country (that I found) unlike all of South America which has the English speaking Warner station.

The Roman ruin (commonly called the Diana temple) is amazing if not a little hard to find. Evora is like a rabbit warren so everything is hard to find! The only advice I can give is to go up since it's on a hill atop the city. It was one of the most amazing things I've seen and still in such good condition. There is a little outdoor snack shop across the street from it where I had a sandwich and some beers. I can't imagine working there and having that as your view everyday!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Campinas and Hollambra, Brazil

I went to visit a good friend who lives in Campinas, Brazil. It's about 1.5 hours away from Sao Paolo and I don't think it's a big tourist attraction but to live and work, it was a really nice city.

 Typical grocery store
Capybaras...the world's largest rodent, but so freaking cute!

In Campinas, there is a huge lagoon called Parque Portugal. We walked around the lagoon, but unfortunately the swan paddle boats were closed for the day. Instead, we took the train!

We also took a day trip to a little town called Holambra, a town founded by Dutch people (Holland and Brazil = Holambra). There's not tons to do there except walk around, have a beer and lunch but it was really fun.

Carneval in Rio!

Last February I went to visit a friend in Brazil who had a friend in Rio whose couch we could crash on during Carneval. There is so much travel info out there about Rio and Carneval but I just wanted to share a few tips I didn't know before the trip.

Don't go to the Sambadrome to see Carneval.....only rich Brazilians and foreigners do this. You will sit in a packed stadium for hours each night (they give each dance troupe an hour to parade about 100 feet down the middle).

Instead, the rest of Rio goes to block parties called "blocos". You can bring your own beer from the grocery store and watch as they parade by (or I assume you could jump right in). There are also huge "themed" blocos which can attract thousands of people. We went to a "Beatles" themed one.

While I always felt safe, females should be careful. I got "grabbed" by a guy who was in a group. It was more startling that anything but the police have there hands full during Carneval so you can't count on them.

We did the normal Rio things like Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. But since our friend lived there, she took us on some not so touristy places like the Noss Sra da Penha Church (which is the highest church in Rio and you will see it from the plane) but I don't think too many tourists climb the 365 stairs to the top.

At the mid-way point there is an excellent outdoor cafe to grab a beer on the way down.

We also walked through the Villa Cruziero favela. I would not have done this on my own but both girls I was with live there and speak Portuguese. This was not one of the horrific seemed more like just a run down neighborhood than anything. We did get some looks but I think more because I think everyone there knows everyone else and it's not a tourist destination.

Our friend lives in the Lagoa area which I recommend seeing. It's dominated by..wait for it...a huge lagoon in the center with restaurants and shops all around.

I have no idea how to get there (we took a bus) but I loved the Barra neighborhood. It felt kind of like Miami Beach but without all the millions of tourists. Our friend said the only tourism there really is from surfers.

Most people who go to Rio will visit Sugar Loaf mountain. I highly recommend this but if you are traveling cheap or just want bragging rights, there is a trail you can climb up and then take the gondola down for free. (It's about $25 to go up but free to go down). You have to go down by the port/military base at the bottom and you will see off to your left a trail (follow all the young people). It is paved but shortly you will veer off it to your left to a dirt trail.

It's not an easy climb but we saw tons of people doing it (including an American lady who was bringing her newborn up in a carrier). Considering there is a possibility of falling (you are climbing up the side of a mountain) I would not recommend this for older people or those not in good shape.

If you do it, you may see monkeys like we did. Eventually you will come out to the main (middle) plateau. This is where the restaurants and shops (including a Havaianas flip flop store).

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Upper Penninsula of Michigan

The U.P. as we Michiganders call it is a pretty out of the way you really have to try to be going here. It's a big strip of land off Wisconsin that juts over the top of the Lower Penninsula of Michigan and which requires crossing a hugely scarey huge bridge called the Mackinac Bridge.

My mother is from the U.P. so we went up fairly often as a kid, although usually to Mackinac Island, which as a kid was my favorite place on Earth. As an adult, not so much. It's a cute little island where only horses and carriages are allowed, tons of fudge is made and you can cycle around the whole island in a few hours.

However, I had never seen my mom's hometown of Newberry, which is how I found myself spending my 4th of July at her 50th High School Reunion.

While the U.P. is beautiful, I have to admit it takes a far more outdoorsy person than me to really enjoy it. I like being able to get cell phone coverage and being able to get on the Internet.

There aren't many towns or cities up there, the largest is Marquette , which we did go to visit on this trip. It is amazingly beautiful and surprisingly cosmopolitan for the U.P. (where the average dress is flannel shirts and hunting gear). This is because it is home to Northern Michigan University.

Although I have to admit, the local grocery store in Newberry had more vegan.veggie, gluten-free and tofu products than any similar size grocery store I've ever seen. Maybe the U.P. is moving on up.  The U.P. relied heavily on logging and mining for years and company recruiters used to go Norway, Sweden and Finland (countries with similar climates) to recruit new workers and residents. Which apparently set up some divisions with the locals so instead of Mexican Town or China Town, Newberry had Finn Town and Swede Town.

We stayed in the lakeside town of Curtis at a place called Pine Bluff Resort. Curtis is a little village but if you are into boating, swimming, off roading, fishing, etc. you will love it.

I, however, am not so much of my week was spent sitting around sweating (we had the worst heat wave the U.P. had ever had and they don't have AC up there) and watching Law and Order marathons on TV.

Although we did do day trips to Marquette and also to the  Tahquamenon Falls, a beautiful waterfall which, due to the wood upstream turns the water copper colored. It's also a State Park and has the only brewpub allowed in a state park, Tahquamenon Falls Brewery and Pub. This brewpub is owned by cousins of my mother and is only allowed because my great-grandparents donated the land around the falls and the state (after putting up a long fight) finally allowed the restaurant to be built.

If you come from the south, after you cross the Mackinac Bridge, you will be in the town of St. Ignace which is worth a day or so, if only to climb Castle Rock, visit the Mystery Spot or eat a pasty.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Put-in-Bay, Lake Erie

So we cruised along until we hit the village of Put-in-Bay (which is actually the most southerly island) and it was worlds apart from Kelley's Island. PIB is kind of like if Key West met the Canadian side of Niagra Falls met the Jersey Shore.

Tons of people moor their boats here and party all day and night. Drinking is the main activity and tourism is the only economy.

It tends to be more older boat dudes and cougars during the days and college/frat kids at night from what I'm told. I'm sure there are lots of date rapes and regrets the next morning in PIB.

It was interesting to see but the only reason I would come back is to go to Perry's Column which is the most massive Doric Column in the world and the 3rd highest monument in the US (after the Washington Monument and St. Louis Arch). It's 352-feet high and commemorates Commodore Oliver Perry's victory over the British in the War of 1812. I didn't know much about this war but apparently it was the war that finally told the British to get the hell out of here and that we were an independent country (there were still British v American skirmishes after the War of Independence) and it was this victory at PIB that helped give the Americans the upper hand.

There is one other historical fact at PIB in that it sports the world's longest bar in the whole world! (verified by Guiness...records not beer). It's at the Beer Barrel Saloon which is basically the sad place your parents would go hang out. The reason it is the longest (which you can't see from the pic) is that it zigs and zags through a lot of area and it's a really long bar.

Although they do serve PIB specialities like cored strawberries filled with liquor and topped with whipped cream, which are not sexy to see someone eat, and jello shots straight out of a syringe that the waitress squeezes down your throat. Again, not sexy.

We hit a couple of bars (hey, my coworkers are all cops now so bars it was) and just pretty much hung around until it was time to leave. It's a cute island (we walked back through the residential section a bit) but I don't see how people live here. It would be like having 10,000 screaming, hormone raging alcoholics with anger issues as your neighbors.

I guess that's why there are only like 150 people who live there full time. Basically, PIB=not a place I would bring kids (although I read there are some caves to explore so maybe that would be a PG rated activity for them).

Kelley's Island, Lake Erie

I joined up with a couple of my coworkers a few weeks ago to take a cruise of the Lake Erie Islands (yes, an archipelago in Ohio, who would have thought?).

There are several islands (some are privately owned) but the 2 main ones that people go to are Kelley's Island and South Bass Island (with the party hard village of Put-in-Bay).

I drove to Sandusky, which is about an hour away and where Cedar Point Amusement Park (aka the Roller Coaster Capital of the World) is located to catch the Good Time Cruise Ferry. There are direct ferries which are faster but this is more of a cruise complete with narrative history of the area and it goes A LOT slower. But there's a bar (which opened at 9:30 a.m. and had customers the whole day...there were a lot of singles and a bachelorette party on board).

Kelley's Island is known as being more family friendly and laid back than Put-in-Bay. It has about 400 full-time residents but thousands of tourists in the summer. It's also the only island in the US to be designated as a National Historic District.

When we landed, we only had an hour and a half before we had to be back on board, so we had arranged to rent a golf cart (you can do this on the boat) to tour the island. I especially wanted to see the glacial grooves which were left when a glacier receded over limestone during the last Ice Age. The Smithsonian took a big chunk of them, but there are still quite a lot left to see.

This island is great for bird-watching, hiking, biking or just relaxing (not like Put-in-Bay which is what I quickly learned)

We cruised around the island for about an hour and then decided to grab a quick drink before we boarded. My boss had recommended the "world famous" Brandy Alexander's at the Village Pump which sounded disgusting but apparently are fabulous. I know what a real Brandy Alexander is but they put ice cream in theirs which sounds weird but my boss and his wife have gained 10 pounds since learning the recipe and making them at home.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

World War II POW Camp in Ohio

Leo and I decided to drive up to Port Clinton, Ohio a few weeks ago, which is about an hour or so away from Toledo. The area is most famous for Cedar Point, the huge amusement park, but we wanted to check out the small towns along the way and go for a drive in the country.

While Port Clinton was quaint and cute (and the jumping off point for Put-in-Bay, an archipelego in the Great Lakes) what most struck me was our stop along the way to Camp Perry. Nowadays, Camp Perry is most known for having the world's largest Civilian Marksmenship Competition, where people come to competition shoot but back in the day it was a functioning military installation.

It still is to some extent but not much. Leo's had to train there a few times but it's pretty dead.

However, the camp does house hundreds of little white cabins all set in rows upon rows upon rows.

I learned they were housing for German and Italian POW's during World War II.

I thought I was pretty good at history but I seriously never knew there were POW camps here in the US (besides the Japanese camps). It makes sense but somehow I never put two and two together.

Most are completely uninhabitable but it was so eerie looking at them, knowing you were staring at a real pice of history. They are also completely creepy and when I managed enough courage to look into one, I saw a burned out old mattress and bed frame, empty beer cans and a lot of trash.

Not sure if they are now a bum camp or a teenage get-away.

When I mentioned it to a guy a t work, he told me that on his grandfather's farm there used to be several POW's working. They were allowed to work there because so many American men were gone. They obviously weren't going anywhere, since the majority wouldn't have spoken English (although this area was settled by Germans so I'm sure the Germand could have gotten by somehow) and didn't have any money. Not to mention, working in a field in Ohio is better than getting your head shot off in Russia. Just barely.