Traveling the world, learning languages, and immersing myself in new cultures.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Lisbon, Portugal and Madrid, Spain: New Years 2015

Synopsis: Fresh off eating lots of Spanish food for the Christmas holidays, we hit the road again, this time headed to Lisbon, Portugal, before we celebrate New year's in Madrid, Spain.

Just a short drive

Trip Overview:
Day 1: Head out around midday after my parents say goodbye to Virginia and the boys. We said goodbye to Leo the night before since he had to wake up to go to work today. We make good time to Salamanca, listening to the Pentatonix. I didn't realize driving west meant having the sun blind you the whole time - thank God for sunglasses. There is absolutely no one else on the road, on either side of the highway, which makes it easier to disregard the speed limit. As soon as we cross into Portugal, we are suddenly overcome by intense fog.

When entering Portugal on the via verde, you have to use your Visa/Mastercard to register at the first toll, which simply takes a picture of your license plate and then bills your credit card directly, instead of you stopping to pay tolls.

Once we get to downtown, we drive around the block a few times and perform several illegal maneuvers before we find our hotel. As soon as we check-in, we leave the hotel to go to the pharmacy, and now my GPS is officially fired. She (because it's a female voice) has us all over the city and lost. And this isn't the first time on this trip. After we find the pharmacy on our own, like the settlers used to do, we want to stop for food on the way back to the hotel, but nothing is open. We end up ordering the least delicious pizza I've ever had. But I am hungry...

Thoughts: That was a looong drive, but between Portuguese coffee and talking with my parents, the 8 hours flew by quickly.

Almost there

I should email them a copy of this photo

Almost no visibility

Day 2: Wake up to a cloudy, but not too cold day, and have breakfast at the hotel. Head out into the city and our hotel is right next to a large stone arch, so we go take pics there before walking down through Eduardo VII park and jumping on the Gray Line bus tour. Traffic is awful, as the city is blocking off the main streets for a marathon. We get off the bus at the Tower of Belem and walk around to see the World War I memorial and the Monument to the Discoveries. While at the World War I memorial, we get to see the changing of the guard.

Hop back on the bus and take the rest of the tour. Again, the downtown area is shut down due to the race, so the bus tour is deviated and we can't use it as public transportation. We finish the bus tour and then head back to the hotel. Mom isn't feeling well, so we just hang out for the night and order room service. The salmon is pretty good.

Thoughts: As I'm touring with my parents, I'm seeing all the stuff I missed when I did this alone a few years ago, and realized it's easier and faster to travel with someone who knows the area (me this time).

The arch near our hotel. I couldn't find a name on Google. Anyone know what its called?

Handstand in Lisbon: check

We are the reverse of the statue, I'm big and she is small

Parque Eduardo VII

Professional touristic bus riders

Torre de Belem

My dad in front, watching the changing of the guard at the WWI memorial

Talk about being all over the place!

My parents belong on the statue with people who are discoverers

The Great Cover-Up: Lisbon's Graffiti Art Is Everywhere (caption credit: my mom)

Thanks Lisbon!

Day 3: We head down for breakfast and then back up to the room to pack. We check out (tripadvisor review), and since mom is slowly getting better but still doesn't feel great, we decide to leave Lisbon and head to Segovia, Spain. We do so by crossing the Vasco De Gama bridge, the longest bridge in Europe.

After crossing the bridge, no one is on highway eastbound. We have clear skies and it's a whole lot easier driving north east without the sun in my eyes. Both of my parents comment on how green the landscapes are in this part of Portugal/Spain. After crossing the border from Portugal to Spain, we see a woman in her vehicle coming towards us on the highway. Not only is she on our side of the highway, she is in the fast lane. Plus, there is a huge median, so I have no idea how she got turned around and in the fast lane on our side. My dad said "The vehicle in front of us swerved like there was no tomorrow". 
We arrive at historic Segovia only to be misled by the GPS (again) and drive down pedestrian streets and narrow alleyways. Finally I have my parents jump out to look for the hotel before we find it. After checking in around 10:30pm, we head to Jose Maria Restaurant (review), as several people have told me it is the best place in Segovia to get cochinillo (roast suckling pig). We all order it, though my mom gets the fried version, for variety and so we can all try it. I also order the house wine, which is pretty good paired with the pig. We get a free zucchini soup as a starter, and it also delicious. The pig is so succulent and the crunchy exterior with the soft interior, sitting in a pool of delectable juice, make it a tasty meal. We are stuffed, so we order one Ponche De Segovia dessert and share it - the perfect follow up to a satisfying meal. And then the check came... 

Thoughts: There were considerably more people on the road in Spain than in Portugal. Wow, it is cold at night in Segovia! I never understood wine pairing before, but it all made sense with the suckling pig and the house wine, a match made in piggy heaven. Wi-Fi in the hotel is so slow it's not even worth using.

I hear this is the best restaurant in Segovia

Gotta try the classics

Aw it's such a little piggy with its tail and hoof. Is it too cute too eat?

Nope, it's about to go down!

The results are in

Cap it off with a delicious dessert

Day 4: Wake up late, so we miss breakfast at the hotel (review). It's an ultra cold day in Segovia. We head down to the famous  aqueduct and it is really impressive. It runs through the city and blends in with surroundings as though it still functions. We stop to eat at La Tropical (review), where we have a very friendly waiter from Honduras. Walk back up to Plaza Mayor and see the cathedral and square decorated for the holidays. Head on to the Alcazar. Once we arrive there, but before we go in, my mom notices that her phone is missing. We retrace our steps to where she took her last photo, in the Plaza Mayor, and we do not find it.

We think the gypsy that was trying to sell my mom a scarf stole it so I confront her (in Spanish) and she claims she didn't take it. We call my mom's phone to hear the ring, but don't hear anything, so we have to take the gypsy's word for it. 

We walk back to the hotel and use the landline phone to shut her phone service off and then I head to the police station to file the claim. As I'm walking there I ask a few people where it is, including a police officer, who points to a building literally right in front if me, as he begins to laugh. Then once in the station I realize I don't know any of the vocabulary for filing a claim. But I figure it out and the police officer says if I don't hear anything by tomorrow, I probably won't ever hear anything. 

We head back to Madrid and right into traffic. If you really want to experience a culture the way the locals do, go sit in traffic. After about 45 minutes of intense driving, we park in a garage, and then go to the apartment that we rented, Apartamento Blume. The apartment is amazing and cheaper than a hotel. 

The apartment is 100m from Puerta del Sol and right in the middle of all the action. I thought Seville was packed with people, but Madrid is like a mad house! Mom is still not feeling well so we go to a pharmacy and then to a hospital. The hospital turns us away because we don't have the European health card and its not a life or death emergency. We head back to the pharmacy to get more drugs, then back to the apartment (tripadvisor review).

Thoughts: I'm not sure if the old guy at the hotel walks super fast or if he was just bad at time calculations, but a supposedly five minute walk to the police station in Segovia was like a half hour! Aside from the obvious reasons, it sucks that my mom lost her phone because she had one really good picture of me that I couldn't replicate later. One thing Madrid does not have a shortage of, is restaurants!

Some people are just naturally good photographers

This belongs on a postcard

The aqueduct is behind me, you just can't see it all

View from the top of the aqueduct

Plaza Mayor with the Cathedral in the background

If you look close, it looks like the gypsy behind my parents is robbing my mom

You can see the entire Alcazar behind me on this one

Dad and I at kilometer zero in Madrid

The apartment building had really cool art in the halls

Day 5:

Mom isn't feeling better, so we find a hospital that will take her insurance and go there. The receptionists don't speak English but one of the managers near the counter speaks a little and directs us to the emergency room. There, the nurse doesn't speak English at all but I am able to explain our issue in Spanish, and she gives us paperwork and calls one of the English speaking liaisons to help us. Sara, our liaison, is a very friendly girl and assists us in the process. After a bunch of paperwork and talking to an insurance agent, the doctor finally sees my mom. She is diagnosed with a throat infection and is prescribed antibiotics. We leave the hospital after 2 hours and 45 minutes.
We head back to the center, then stop and eat at Lizarran, which I learned about and enjoyed on my last visit to Madrid. Then we go by Puerta del Sol and the square is lively and full of people. If it's this crowded now, New Year's Eve is gonna be crazy! Then, we head home and I cook some spaghetti and we relax.
Thoughts: I was wrong before, if you really want to immerse yourself in a culture for real, get sick and go through their medical system. I've written before about the excessive smoking in Europe, but I was still shocked at how much the outside of the hospital smelled like an ashtray. And you can smell it on half of the people in the hospital. Also, we've seen the people selling lottery tickets all over Spain, and I guess doctors and nurses want to play too, because there is a lottery man at the front door of the hospital. As I look around the waiting room, 75% off the people waiting, are playing with a cellphone or tablet. After dinner, we could tell that my mom was feeling better and though it's contrary to our normal travel style, sometimes it's just good to relax and stay at the hotel when you're on vacation.

People just walk in the middle of the street like cars aren't coming

Lizarran makes really good tapas

My parents with the iconic bear statue at Puerta del Sol

The day before New Year's and its already jam packed

The grapes are prepackaged for the celebration. You have to eat 12 grapes in 12 seconds for good luck

Master chef working his magic

Day 6:
Wake up and make breakfast for the family. Mom is feeling better but still decides to stay in and rest so she can go out for the NYE celebration tonight. So, my dad and I go out and catch the hop on/off bus. The buses are packed with people, and the tours end early today because of a marathon later, so we get on just in time to see both tours. We hop off at Alcalá Gate and walk around Retiro Park, before getting back on the bus, then hopping off at the Royal Palace. Four older ladies stop me and ask me to take a photo and then we get to talking Spanish. Surprisingly, I talk to all four with no problem.

We then walk to the San Miguel Market and walk inside to see all the people and tapas options. Then we head to Plaza Mayor, where we eat our sack lunch mom made us before we left. There is a market setup in the middle of the plaza, selling New Year's and Christmas gimmicky stuff, like hats, wigs, and toys. Before heading back to the apartment, we stop at San Ginés Chocolateria and get some churros with chocolate, a local delicacy, and take them back so mom can try them.
At about 9pm the police start closing off streets that lead into Puerta del Sol. My dad goes to the square to do some recon and then comes back to the apartment to let us know we need to go now. We leave around 10:40pm going down Calle de Espoz y Mina and due to police blockades, we have to walk around the city to enter the Plaza from Calle de Alcalá, just to get into the square (more like a half moon shape). People are still selling hats and wigs, but now also grapes and alcohol. Once we get to the police checkpoint, we are ordered to throw out all bottles and cans. The city has guys who are passing out plastic cups so you an transfer your bottled drinks to them. Once inside the police control, there is a sea of orange  wigs and people with crazy getups. The gimmicky salesmen are inside the controlled area too, trying to make a final buck. 
After the celebration, most of us leave the square, half of us home and the other half to the after parties. We head back to the apartment, contact loved ones around the world, eat, and look at photos, before calling it a night.
Thoughts: I have never see so many Africans and South Americans (Latinos) selling stuff on the streets, in all the cities I've been too, like there are in Madrid. Plus, there are Christmas markets everywhere. Many tourists are wearing costumes, wigs, and glitter hats, touring the city during the day.
At the Puerta del Sol NYE celebration, it was amazing how many smokers there were. I do not have words to describe their complete and utter selfishness in public places. I can't think of any other socially accepted habit, that so negatively affects everyone around you.

In front of the stadium of the Real Madrid futbol team

In Retiro Park in front of the Alfonso XII monument

The line for the Cristal Palace was ridiculous, so we just peeked in through the glass

Admiring the Cathedral (pictured) and the Royal Palace behind us

How do you say Feliz Navidad in Spanish? Oh...

Inside the Mercado San Miguel

Enjoying our lunch at the very busy Plaza Mayor

Mickey Mouse is Latino???

My dad kept missing pictures of the bulls on the highway, so we got one here

There were hundreds of Africans and Latinos selling festive paraphernalia (aka, crap)

Chocolate and churros, yummy

On the way into Puerta del Sol, selling grapes and alcohol

City worker passing out cups to people with bottled/canned drinks

Really crowded and exciting square

When we first arrive

Ready for the countdown to start

Its almost like an ocean of people

Mom counting and divvying up the grapes

Happy New Year!

Day 7: Take my parents to the airport and then head back to Pamplona. I say "Feliz año" to every toll person that I pay, and they all respond in kind, and cheerfully, I might add.

Thoughts: I wish my parents could have stayed longer. On the way back to Pamplona, there are almost no cars in the road. My GPS is so fired for real, as she had me on the back roads and in national forests on the way home. I was on a two lane (one way each direction) highway for over 60km! Luckily, the weather was nice and I got to see a bit of snow. She is still fired...

I almost crashed, but I was able to get a picture of the bull my dad wanted

Back in good 'ol Navarra

Final Thoughts: What a great time with my parents! It sucks my mom got sick AND her phone got stolen, but it won't prevent her from traveling or coming back to Spain. On this trip we logged over 19 hours of driving and about 2,100 km (1,304 miles).

Three road trips in one month, for me. That makes over 55 hours and 5,861km (3,642 miles) on the road. According to Wikipedia the longest distance in the continental United States is only 4,509km (2,802 miles) wide.



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