Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Portugal & Spain

The last week of August of 2010, Christian and I went to Sagres, Portugal & Madrid, Spain for ten days. It was my second trip to Europe and it was pretty freaking amazing! We decided to fly into Madrid, rent a car, drive to Sagres for five days and then spend our last couple of days in Madrid. Our flight wasn't bad and we slept most of the way, so it went by quickly. We got through customs pretty quickly and then found our way to the rental car which was a VW golf. Christian travels almost every week for work so he is very good at just using a map and figuring out where to go. The only problem is, he wants me to navigate and I'm not the best with directions ;) We now will always buy one of the International Travel Maps from a book store before we go to the country. These are great because they are a lot more durable. They can be folded & flipped a thousand times, rained on and still be in great shape!

It took us about 8 hours to get from Madrid to Sagres in the car with a few stops on the way. Our first stop was a restaurant just off of the side of the highway. There are rest areas & restaurants all over and are very safe. We were very tired and walked into this place and no one spoke any English. We thought we were screwed, lol. Everything that I had learned before apparently drained out of my head. We kinda winged it off of words that we knew and it ended up being one the best meals that we had there. We went our our way and eventually made it to Sagres, Portugal.

The hotel stayed at was called Mareta Beach Hotel, it was great. Right on the edge of town, with a simple & clean room and a cool view of the ocean out the window of Tonel beach. It only had 18 rooms, so it wasn't a huge resort & all touristy. Actually the whole town of Sagres was not very touristy at all. They had lots of locals that were very kind & friendly with some tourist like us. Another great thing about the hotel is they had a great little coffee shop at the bottom and then a pizzeria called D'Italia on the backside. We got coffee there every morning and could just charge it to our room. Like most European places, our room included breakfast, so we ate there every morning & it was delicious. Below are pictures of the hotel and the view looking out of our room. Unfortunately the rooms with the balcony were already booked but our room still had a pretty good view too.

We got there pretty late the night we arrived so we just looked around the hotel and got some dinner. I wish I remembered the name of this place but it was almost next to our hotel, pretty close to the beach. Since we were this close to the ocean and you can't get any fresher fish than this, we both got fish. It was excellent! The one thing I learned though, is when you order fish, they bring you the whole, entire fish. Bones and all. They were easy to pick around and you just leave the head. But I was a little surprised at first but it was delicious. Usually the fish would come with some rice and/or veggies.

The next morning, we put on our swimsuits and hit the beach. It was seriously like a minute walk to the beach. There was a little cafe there where you could hang out and grab a snack. We hung out there for bit and wondered around a little bit. We had heard of the local fisherman's market, so we went to go check that out later on. It was closed when we arrived because it was later in the day, so we wondered around and checked things out. We didn't make it back when it was opened but heard it was crazy when all of the boats are coming back. All of the restaurants are needing their fish for that nights dinner, so it's non stop until pretty much everything is gone. Talk about catch of the day and fresh fish for those restaurants.

We had heard a great spot to watch the sunset was on the cliffs near the famous lighthouse called Cape Sao Vicente. Sagres is the most south western part of Europe, so it's sticking pretty far out there in the Atlantic ocean. This was the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen. I know Jamaica has a pretty damn good one but this definitely topped it. It seemed like everyone in town came out there to watch the sunset from here, it was a mere three minute drive from our hotel. We had grabbed some cheese and some local beer called Sagres to eat/drink while watching the sunset. It was so perfect! I am afraid of heights, so it was a little crazy sitting that close to the edge and looking straight down at the ocean. It was a long way down.

That night we went to a restaurant called Tasca. Some of the locals had told us about it so we wanted to check it out. They were very busy when we got there but we only had to wait about twenty minutes. I wish I brought our camera with us this night, the food was amazing! For our dinner, we got three separate skewers that they bring out on a holder for a skewer, so they are just hanging there. We got one shrimp, scallops and fish each. It was a little pricey but it was kinda a touristy place with a great location and cool decor.

Later we went to the bar almost right next to our hotel with a view of the beach called Last Chance Saloon. I guess it was called that because it was literally the last building before you get to the beach/ocean. This was one of our favorite bars and we ended up going there almost every night. It wasn't over packed and was just more a of hangout place. The bartenders were cool and we made friends with one.

The next morning we got up and went to the beach. The main part was not very crowded at all. We wandered a little bit down the beach and came upon a kinda big rock pile. We could see there was still beach there, so we climbed over them and found ourselves our own private beach to ourselves. It was pretty cool and beautiful. He hung out there all day, it was so relaxing & beautiful. There was one other couple that wondered over there later, other than that, we had the whole beach to ourselves.

For lunch we wandered into town for the first time and found a cool little outside restaurant. I got the paella & Christian had the fish. It was such a large lunch but oh my gosh, was it good! As you can imagine, we ate seafood pretty much every meal because it was so fresh and very well priced. One thing that we were brought that we had never used before was literally a block & and mini sledge hammer for breaking up his shells. People were literally hammering on the seafood shells to break it open, we found it pretty assuming and entertaining to say the least ;)

The next morning we decided to get up and drive along the algarve coast and check some other towns out. We just drove along the coast and just stopped whenever we saw a cool spot. The views along the coast were just breathtaking. Along the way, we stopped a few times to check the scenery out. We even found an old fort that was on top of a hill.

We eventually made our way to the town of Lagos, which is one of the more popular/touristy towns in southern Portugal. It was beautiful there too but kinda built up and too many people there. We were there during their busy season but we definitely liked that we were staying in Sagres since it wasn't so packed.

The next stop was in the city of Portimao. This was one thing that Christian had been talking about in advance because there is a pretty new racetrack there that the world superbike races at and hopefully the motogp someday. We first found a little beach there and hung out. There was a long walkway out to the lighthouse where we just sat for a while and watched all of the fish swim by and boats ride by.

I wish we took a picture of the route to get to this beach. There is a little strip of land covered in sand that doesn't look wide enough to drive a car over. I wasn't brave enough but others drive over it to the beach. If you're a wuss like me, you can park right in front of the strip of land and just walk over it. On our way out, we saw some guys doing the hag glider surfing thing (forget the term). It was pretty crazy. It just whips you right out of the water if you get a good gust of wind. It was pretty neat to watch.

After the fun trip to the beach & the pier, we went on to the Portimao racetrack. This racetrack is pretty new so it was extremely nice. There was nothing going on that day except for one car doing a test run. So we paid I believe five or ten euros each to enter the racetrack and pretty much go where ever we wanted to as long as it was unlocked or not blocked off. Since there was testing, we couldn't go in the paddock but everything else was open. This place even had a freaking pool! Talk about how nice that would be after a long, hot race and just to be able to jump in the pool. We visited the race school and the gift shop and headed back towards Sagres.

We checked out some other cool places along the way and found another beach in Sagres. We arrived when the sun was close to setting and with the humidity, it almost looked like a scene from the movie Goonies with the steam/fog. This beach was especially cool because there had obviously been a volcano eruption many, many years ago here. The rock was black with paths from the lava flowing. Also, there were rocks that almost seemed thinly sliced and laid on top of each other. Some were covered in moss as well. We spent a couple hours at the beach just checking things out and looking around.

On our way out of the beach, we passed a couple that was just having sex right out in the open in the sand. They didn't really seem to care, so we just kept on walking. We thought that was pretty funny. One thing you realize in Europe, is they are a lot more open with sexuality and nudity. At most of the beaches, there will be women with out a top on just laying out or even just running around in the beach.

That night we to a restaurant called Vila Velha, it was amazing! We had heard of this place from others, so we had to check it out. Randomly, our waiter was our waiter at another place that we had lunch earlier that week. Again, another great place known for great fish and wine. That was all we pretty much there because it was so good and very reasonably priced. We ended up drinking a lot of wine at dinner, probably way too much. We met another couple there and headed to the local bar called Dromedario. It was kinda touristy but it had dancing and was a little more uppity than the other bars around there. After a long night of drinking, we ended up at our hotel with our key no where to be found in our pockets and then woke up the next morning with the screen cracked on our brand new DSLR camera. Needless to say, we had a good time ;)

Our last day in Sagres, we hung out on the beach all day and then went to the famous Sagres Fort. Henry the Navigator, along with many other famous explorers left from here on many journeys and there have been many battles there. It was the most southwestern part of Europe, so it was the best place to leave from and since it stuck out, kinda became a place where settlers would first see. There were many historical things still at the fort; the fort obviously, the church: Nossa Senhora de Graca and the wind rose compass.

Since it was out last night in Sagres, we went back to the cliffs to watch one more sunset. This one was even more beautiful than the first one. Everyone even clapped after the sunset. I don't know if we'll ever see one as beautiful again. We went to another amazing restaurant that night that had a great view of the ocean. It was a little chilly but we sat out on the balcony and had a great, romantic dinner. If you haven't gotten it by now, pretty much any where you go to eat in this town is fantastic!

The next morning we knew we had a long drive ahead of us so we actually got up while the sun was rising. We wanted to be to Madrid before sunset since we pretty much had no clue where we were going. We spent out last three full days in Madrid. After a pretty long and hot drive, we made it to Madrid. They have such great transportation there, it was not necessary to keep the car, so we dropped it off and got a cab to our hotel. We used Christian's points and got a room at Madrid's InterContinental. This place was even a little too nice for us, lol. It had beautiful decor and everyone was extremely nice and helpful. When we arrived, a bellman (dressed in full gear) took our bags, brought them to our room, offered us a drink, etc. We had a cool balcony that overlooked the city. The hotel wasn't super close to downtown but close enough to jump in a cab or on the train and be there in a couple of minutes. That night we were pretty tired, so we went more into the city for just a short time. Grabbed a bite to eat, a couple beers and went to bed.

The next morning we got up and were ready to go. We took the train into downtown and walked around all day. We more just wandered every where instead of going to any historical places or anything like that yet. Christian and I are always about trying the food. Before I met him, I ate like crap and would never try anything. After meeting him, I can say I'll pretty much try anything and only don't like just a few foods. The first place we went to was the local market. If you are in Madrid, you have to check this place out! It is so cool because they offer so many different things. Plus, after you purchase your items, you can eat at eh counter, find a table and eat inside or just eat just outside the market. The meat they had there was amazing. Everywhere you looked, there was a ham store; a lot called the museum of ham, lol. Most places will have pretty much the whole leg in some kind of a stand, where they can just slice the meat off there. It was kinda gross but it made sense and was convenient and oh my gosh, so good ;)

We eventually made our way to the famous Plaza Mayor. This is definitely a big tourist attraction, so there was a lot going on there. We even saw a fat spiderman along with lots of animal characters walking around like mini mouse. It was great people watching ;)

We hung out in town all day until night time. We of course decided to eat some tapas. We loved this about Spain. You pretty much go to one place, eat a couple little plates, have a few beers and move onto the next place. The food was incredible here; pretty much like Portugal, anywhere you go, you will not be disappointed. You can kinda tell where the best places to go are; where the locals are and not so much the tourists. You can tell where the honky/tourist places are for people that just wanta eat American food and not try anything and then where the real food is. One thing with Madrid, is everyone kinda starts later. A lot of the discos do not even open until 11PM or so. After having plenty to eat and drink, we headed back to our hotel for the night.

The next day we did some of the touristy stuff and went to some really cool places. We walked around a little more in the center of the city and made our way to La Almudena Cathedral. The architecture and images are just beautiful.

Then walked next door to the Royal Palace, which unfortunately you can not take pictures in. You have to take a guided tour with a guide through the palace; which we did not wait more than five minutes for it to start. This place was so extravagant! You only go through a tiny part of it but wow, did they know how to decorate. After the tour, we went out into the royal garden. It was such a nice day, so we just hung out there for about an hour or so.

We had heard of lots of places that were must go to for dining. One of them was called La Bola, which had been featured on Bizarre Foods on the travel channel. We did not have tapas first so we had dinner kinda early compared to when others eat there so it was not very busy, which was kinda nice. La Bola is known for their fantastic stew they make. I ordered that and Christian got the lamb roast; both were freaking excellent! This stew was like the never ending bowl of food, so be ready to eat. It first starts out with just a few ingredients but they bring out three more pots of food to add the the stew! We had some yummy sangria with it and were in a food coma by the time we left. This was one of the best meals I've ever had.

The next morning, we were struggling a little bit from all of the sangria the night before but we were ready for some breakfast. I'd say the breakfast that we ended up with was more like a large lunch! But of course, it was great. We decided to go walk off all of the food in the botanical garden. I have never seen so many plants, trees & just things growing in general in my whole life. It had been kinda dry, so most of the flowers weren't bloomed unfortunately. But they had every kind of plant that you could think of there. Anything from every palm tree, fern, pepper, bonsai tree, etc that exists. It was nice because everything was labeled with where the plant originated from and what it was called. Otherwise, we probably wouldn't have known was a bunch of the stuff was. We were in there for almost two hours and then walked over to the Retiro Park.

It was kind of a hot and sunny day, so the park had lots of people in it. But it was such a large park, people were just spread out. As we were walking up on the main part of the park, we saw these two men roller skating around the fountain just having a grand old time. I'm not sure if they were drunk, loony or just high on life but they looked to be having a blast. They were just singing and skating around. We wandered around for a bit and then found a nice spot in the shade. We did what most of the other people were doing in the grass; just hanging out, lounging the park. There are little paddle boats that you can rent and row around in the lake but we stayed in the shade since it was just so hot.

After hanging out in the park for a while, we started to walk back towards our hotel. We passed the Puerta de Alcala and then another beautiful church along the way. We were going to check out the church but then realized there was a wedding going on, opps.

On our last night in Madrid, we decided to save the best for last and go the famous Botin restaurant. This place is the oldest restaurant in the world and I must say, it was pretty freakin cool. If you are going, make sure that you make a reservation, we had our concierge make one for us. We arrived and were escorted to our table on the 3rd floor, think they had at least four. Check out this link from the travel channel when Bizarre Foods goes here. Also, read Andrew Zimmern's blog about Madrid that talks about La Bola & Botin.

We went on a Saturday night and it was packed. We sat down, looked over the menu a bit and ordered a bottle of wine. As appetizers, we got the black sausage from burgos, eggplants cordobesa style and a salad (their salads over there seem like they have more ingredients in there than lettuce, lol). Then for the meal, Christian got the baby suckling pig (this is what they are known for) and I got the seafood casserole. All were beyond delicious! Since we had seen this place on TV before, Christian was all about the suckling pig. So when he ordered it, he was kinda expecting the whole, entire pig. Well they only give you the whole thing if four or more people order it (which is understandable because it was still pretty big). He was pretty much served a quarter of one and it was more than enough. I was a little reluctant to try it but oh my, was it good!

We enjoyed our wonderful dinner and headed towards downstairs. We kinda wanted to see the suckling pig so he said something to the head matradee that we had seen their place on TV back in America. Immediately he got a huge smile on his face and pulled us into the kitchen. Behind us, was the stove where they cook the pigs. He took a picture of us with one and the cook and then took us to their wine cellar as well. This was definitely the cellar from when it first opened and was below ground. We were pretty tipsy by this point and it was really cool to see both.

After dinner, we took one last walk through the Plaza Mayor. It was pretty neat to see at night with all of the lights and people. It was great people watching a saw some interesting things. Check out the orange crush motorcycle, lol. Since it was such a great night, we ended up walking back to our hotel instead of grabbing a cab. The next morning we got up and headed to the airport to head back home.

Sagres and Madrid were definitely two of the coolest places that I have ever been to. It was interesting trying to remember/figure out the language and the culture. Sagres was just so relaxing and amazing beautiful. Then Madrid was exciting and had some great eats. We were never disappointed in a meal or any place that we visited. It was all beyond our expectations. Those are only two cities that we touched while visiting the countries but we can't wait to go back and hopefully explore some other cities along with them.

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