Thursday, 31 October 2013

Porto, Portugal: A Short Visit to Portugal

After an amazing weekend with Olalla and a 2 hour bus ride I was in Porto, the 2nd largest city in Portugal. Porto is probably most famous for Port wine, although Nandos and Oporto chicken restaurants would be up there. I decided to head straight to a cafe/bar to enjoy a coffee and use WiFi to find a hostel for the night. I walked up to the counter and that's when I realised I didn't know how to speak Portuguese. Do I speak Spanish, feeling like a douche bag using a language that belongs to neither of us, knowing it is similar, order in English, or point? I didn't even know please or thank you in this language. That is poor form for someone that claims to be a traveller. As it turns out, to my surprise, the Portuguese speak really good English.

I found the address of a hostel and booked in person before meeting up with Taylor, an American girl temporarily living in Porto to improve her Portuguese. She took me on a quick tour of the city, a restaurant for dinner then a Moroccan bar for a couple of drinks. I was buggered so I called it an early night.

The next day I joined my first ever official tour. In many large cities you can find "free" tours, at the end you tip what you want (5 Euro is the norm). The group composed of a Korean girl, 8 Frenchies and I. It lasted about 2 hours and was very informative. The most intriguing thing learnt was Pedro, the first king of Brazil returned to Portugal to defeat his brother with the support of the Portuguese. After winning he said his heart will always remain in Portugal. When he died in Brazil years later that is exactly what happened. His heart was cut out and sent to Porto, where it still remains in a church, with his body still in Brazil... Overall it was a good and very informative tour but probably my first and last official tour. A personal tour from a local is not as informative but much more fun.

After the tour I enjoy a Francesinha (Little Frenchie), an enormous toasted sandwich that Porto is famous for. It contains thick slices steak, ham and chorizo on two pieces of toast with the entire thing coated in a layer of cheese and topped with an awesome sauce... a must have for a visit to Porto!

That night I ended up drinking with a couple from Lisbon before joining a pub crawl that passed through one of the bars. So many French in Porto. The night involved drinking, speaking Frenglish and a lot of dancing with French girls.

The next day I woke up feeling bit dusty. Over breakfast I had to make the decision of booking one more night, heading south to Lisbon or east to Salamanca to make better use of my Spanish. After few texts it was north back to Vigo to visit Olalla... I was expecting to see her again when I left but I thought I would last longer then 2 days!

Lessons Learnt:
Meeting locals that you want to meet is surprisingly harder in larger cities.
Study a few basic words and sentences before visiting any country.
Be willing to completely change your plans to visit someone or do something you want.
Portuguese people speak much better English than French and Spanish people.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Vigo, Spain: Part I, Licor Café & Pulpo

After leaving the incredibly old and beautiful Santiago de Compostela I was now in Vigo, another Galician town. Galicia is the far north west province in Spain. Like Basque people, Galicians are very proud and have their own language.

I had a couch lined up for just 1 night with Olalla (Ol-la-ya), double "L" in Spanish is very similar to the sound of "y" in English... you've been pronouncing Paella wrong haven't you? After meeting Olalla, a social educator, we walked to her place where she handed me a beer and began cooking dinner. Soon 2 of her friends arrived, Iria and her boyfriend. The 4 of us had dinner together, with Olalla making sure I was more than full.

After dinner we hit the bars starting with a Licor Café. This is not your Baileys, the coffee liqueurs in Galicia are very traditional and would have around 50% alcohol volume. After about the 4th bar Iria and her boyfriend called it a night. Olalla and I kept bar going; dancing, drinking and visiting a bar with a hidden entrance. We eventually made it home and talked until 10am.

The entrance to the last bar
We both woke up very dusty and had breakfast (aka afternoon tea). After breakfast Olalla asked me if I wanted a tour around town or to go into the mountains and pick mushrooms with Iria and her boyfriend... pick mushrooms? I thought a bit random and mushrooms are not really my thing... she meant cooking mushrooms not the magical variety. After a good laugh at the misunderstanding off to the mountains we went.

With a mushroom book in hand, listing what makes you healthier and what makes you die, we picked a few varieties of mushroom. Olalla and I returned to her place for a mini feast of tortilla, a giant mushroom oven roasted with garlic and cheese, and cauliflower looking mushrooms cut up and fried with bacon and onion.

We got up very late again the next day, which means we read the edible mushroom book correctly. I finally received my part tour of Vigo. One thing I've learnt about Spain is they love building towns on hills/mountains. Vigo is no exception, it is a massive fishing town very famous for the octopus and mussels. It has a giant river, La Ria de Vigo (the river of Vigo), running through the town with mountains on both sides.

After the tour we went to a restaurant and ordered a giant serve of Pulpo (Octopus). Galician food tends to be simple but delicious. It is generally massive plates of meat/seafood with little to no vegetables to be shared between multiple people.

The next day Olalla was off to work and I was off to Portugal. I dragged myself out of bed for breakfast and a goodbye, causing her to be 30 mins late for work. Then I returned to bed to catch more sleep before letting myself out... so 1 night turned into 3. Maybe I see this little Galiga (Galician girl) with a giant smile again.

Next stop Porto, Portugal.

Lessons Learnt:
It's good to travel with no next stop locked in
No one in Spain thinks they are Spanish
Spanglish really is a language if two people aren't fluent in each others' language.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Santiago de Compostela, Spain: The Cathedral of St James

Following a long bus ride I was in Santiago de Compostela. Santiago is very famous around the Christian world. It is the end of the Camino and the 3rd most visited pilgrim destination after Rome and Jerusalem (the 4th is la Mont Saint Michel from a previous blog post). Why? A Cathedral, still why? This part I actually didn't know until I arrived. So I also wondered why people walk hundreds of kilometres for weeks on the famous Camino trails to visit this particular cathedral. It is the cathedral (and resting place) of St James. James who? Jesus had 12 disciples/apostles, 3 of which (Peter, John and James) are held in much higher regard than the rest. So this is apparently the same James that was a very close friend and witnessed the resurrection of Jesus... I'm agnostic and very open minded so enough preaching. This city is impressive regardless of religious beliefs.

I arrived late at night with no accommodation and it was pouring rain. The bus station was warm and had WiFi so I made myself comfortable planning to stroll and book at a hostel down the road. The rain wasn't letting up and I was getting sleepy so I decided to sleep in the bus station... then the bus station closed so the street it was. For some reason I know dark corners are a preferred spot for us guys to relieve ourselves when public toilets are lacking so I chose a spot with a little distance. Playing sleep roulette didn't work for the first time but I was actually excited to try sleeping in the street in a foreign country. I put my valuables in my inside pockets and fell asleep holding my pocket knife.

When I awoke I ate a much needed breakfast before strolling around the streets and visiting the square in front of the Cathedral. Although it was now late October the city was full of people that had just walked the Camino. The most common is a 800km walk from St Jean Pied de Port in France. I felt like an imposter walking around with my backpacks and sleeping bag. It was a little embarrassing saying I arrived by bus.

I soon found a very central hostel and booked for 2 nights. I slept before meeting up with a girl from CS at 100 Montaditos, a chain of bars that will make many more appearances in my blog.

The next day I met another CS girl, Isa, for a coffee and a tour. She was very cool and interesting. When we ordered coffee 3 complimentary plates of food were dumped in front of us. This is the real Spain! After an afternoon siesta back at the hostel it was time to meet up with 2 Swiss girls and a Chinese guy all studying Spanish... I took them to 100 Montaditos where 500ml glasses of beer and plates of food are 1 Euro on Wednesdays... today just happened to be Wednesday.

An 8 Euro table of beer and food
The next day I booked one more night in the hostel due to terrible weather then I met back up with Isa for an amazing lunch at her place. She is a Spanish teacher of English (difficult to not make this ambiguous, Spanish English teacher), an artist and a traveller. She offered for me to come to her class in  the evening for her adult  students to meet a native English speaker... it would have been fun but I declined due to time constraints.

That night I decided to mingle with the hostel crowd instead of locals. After 4 months of travelling this was my first card game drinking session in a hostel on this trip. There were 2 Israeli guys, an American girl, a German girl and a Kiwi guy. The Kiwi and I taught them many of the best (aka worst) sayings from downunder. The Israelis arrived in my dorm the same day as me so we were already good mates. One was nicknamed "Cuts", after a few drinks I kept accidentally adding an "n" somewhere in the middle of his name. He liked it and it caught on amongst the group. "Cu#ts" was a pretty cool and very ripped guy. He was getting very friendly with the American girl and showing her the veins on his forearms. I told him I had more veins on a part of my body, that coincidentally happened to be the singular opposite to his new nickname, and offered to show... he wasn't too sure what to say but eventually declined. Everyone else had a good laugh.

The next morning I wasn't sure whether to go west, east or south. I lined up a couch for one night in Vigo so south it was!

Next stop Vigo.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Gijón, Spain: Sidra and Skateboarding

After more goodbyes and a few glasses of wine I was ridesharing to Gijón via Bla Bla Car. My driver, Alejandra, provided good music and conversation during our 3 hour trip. Gijón was a roman city and is the largest city in the Spanish province of Asturias with a population of approximately 300k. The locals are very proud that Asturias was never conquered during the centuries of Muslim Spain.

The King of Asturias that helped re-conquer Spain from the Muslims

Octavian Augustus, founder of the Roman Empire

I soon met my hosts Minoru, a Mexican with some Japanese heritage, and  Octavian, a Romanian, both are engineering students. There was a French Chilean girl also couchsurfing at their place. As soon as I arrived we all went to a bar to meet their friends, 30 Erasmus students. After a few drinks the bar was closing but everyone was still thirsty.... the solution? Move the party to Minoru's place.

During the journey home we splintered off into smaller groups. My group, 2 guys and a French girl, decided it would be a good idea to go skinny dipping in the ocean along the way. I've got no problem being naked but being naked in the Atlantic ocean in the middle of a cold night is another story. Since my team already had extra numbers I decided to sit this one out... at the apartment there was alcohol, guitar, singing and good times... until 7 am.

The next night Octavian and I were off to drink with his friends. Our mode of transport was skateboarding, of course. Skateboarding along the beach isn't a bad way to start a night out. Soon we were a group of 10 drinking at a Cideria (cider bar). Sidra (cider) is very famous in Asturias. It is flat and sour compared to the cider in Australia and most of the world. It is tradition for everyone in a group to use the same glass. The Sidra is high poured to allow oxidization. The glass is only part filled each pour and drunk in one mouthful. Most importantly the bars sell a 700ml bottle for a ridiculous price of 2 Euro.

The rest of my days involved walking around the town, hanging out with the friends of my hosts, bicycling, eating amazing home cooked food, watching How I met your mother and going to the market.

We don't have WiFi. Why not talk amongst yourselves?

After 4 nights it was time to say goodbye and head to a cafe outside the bus station with 3 hours to kill. I got steamed milk spilt all over my shirt. It burnt but accidents happen. My breakfast and coffee were free! After a couple of hours of being productive on WiFi I decided to grab lunch... free again! They can spill milk on me as much as they want.

Next stop the very famous Santiago de Compostela.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Bilbao, Spain: The Empty Hostel and a New Friend

After an awesome month and a break from travelling in San Sebastian I arrived in Bilbao with a new skill in hand... Español Basico. I walked into a hostel and booked for 2 nights. That night I just wandered around the old town in Bilbao trying a few bars. Bilbao is a fairly large city (400k in city 1m in metro area) with a river separating the new town from the old.

The next day I walked into the breakfast room to start the day. In this 16 dorm hostel I was the only person in the breakfast room and also the only person that slept in my 8 bed dorm. It felt a bit weird. I watched the staff pack up the breakfast and thought maybe I was just late today. My plates and cutlery were the only ones in the dirty dish rack. On my way back to the dorm the 4 computers were empty... I think I was the only guest in this 100+ bed hostel. They should have just asked me what time I wanted breakfast.

After breakfast I quickly researched how to get to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe and jumped on a bus for a day trip. The 40 min bus journey ended at the tiny beach town of Bakio. From there it was a 3km walk along the mountainy coast to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe (enjoy trying to pronounce this name). I arrived at 2 small barriers blocking the path, aparently entry was closed during the months of September and October but I had to see this place. I walked passed these and down the hill. I came to another fence again with a do not enter sign, this one had a 2 metre opening and 3 construction workers working on the other side. I stopped then thought "stuff it, I will walk in and see what happens". I passed through the gate saying Hola, they said Hola back so I began my ascent. San Juan de Gaztelugatxe is a little monastery on an island. It truly is beautiful.

San Juan de Gaztelugatxe


Bilbao is the hometown of one my Brisbane Spanish friends, Laura. She put me in contact with one of her friends, Yessenia, a travel consultant that just quit to study english in London, a ballerina and a kickboxer. That night I went to bed early as a tour was to begin with Yessenia collecting me from my hostel at 9am.

After meeting Yessenia at 9am we were on the metro to where the river meets the ocean outside of the city. Yessenia took me on a tour that involved the river, the beach, the new town, the old town, cafes, pintxos, beers, the Guggenheim, meeting her friends and a mountain with a view of the entire city. She even got lost but surely I would never tease a local about getting lost in their own city (; After a 10 hour tour with many laughs Yessenia escorted me back to the hostel.

Yessenia and the best university in Spain

Our transport across the river

The Guggenheim

That evening I collected my luggage from the hostel and went to a couch I had lined up for 2 nights. My host, Roberto, is a Law Professor at a Basque university. He has an apartment in the very centre of the old town and a farm for injured animals in the countryside. I also had my own room in his apartment... Perfecto! We went out for some beers and pintxos that night.

Roberto was off to work early the next morning so I slept until noon, then met back up with Yessenia. The evening included coffee, shopping, meeting more friends, beer, speaking Spanglish and a sad goodbye.

The next day after saying goodbye to Roberto and enjoying a 2 course lunch with a bottle of wine included,  I was off to Gijon via Bla Bla Car.

Lessons Learnt:
Some of the must see places in a region are not well known
Good friends look after you even when in a different country
It doesn't take a long time to become good friends with someone
You never get used to saying goodbye to people you meet
Kind people are everywhere