Portugal travelogue!

The End of the ‘World’

Getting out of Lisbon was a piece of cake. We slightly overdid our lead time due to mild concern about how often the metro would be running on a sunday but after a wait we were plunked down on the train and headed south towards the Algarve. One of the best views of the journey came not long after departure as we crossed the river over the massive bridge that’s basically a shorter twin of the Golden Gate. The sunny and breezy morning had the sailboats out en masse and it again brought to mind a shadow of what this harbour would have looked like at the height of Portugal’s golden age of exploration.

Further south after we’d emerged from Lisbon’s suburbs we passed into the more arid sunny region. Most of the journey we spent passing olive groves then later just endless orchards full of oranges. Even in the towns you’d see people with massively prolific orange and lemon trees bursting with fruit. To a Canadian that’s just such a foreign site. Given we were crossing pretty much the entire bottom third of the country the journey was over surprisingly fast and I had to prod Mom awake as we pulled in to the tiny station at Albufeira.

The Algarve area of Portugal is the entire south coast and is incredibly built up with small communities. It relies almost entirely on tourism but is also an increasingly popular retirement destination for people from colder climates. Albufeira itself is one of the more populous small cities but to be honest most of them run into one another so it’s hard to tell where the borders even are. Despite the sprawl there’s still a lot of wild looking coastline here and it’s a very pretty region.

Sunset from our room

A short cab ride later we were back at the oceanside at one of the weirder large resort hotels I’ve ever been to. Mom set about checking us in with the documents while I inspected the lobby. I was more or less instantly laughing at the barrage of rules posted everywhere and (correctly) assumed they were aimed at drunken Brits as everything was in English. There were more usual signs like ‘don’t wear swimwear into the lobby’ and ‘no smoking in the lobby’ but also ‘no feeding the cats,’ ‘do not buy fruit’ and, most ominously ‘We are a family resort and any behaviour like a hen party is not tolerated.’ It was an absolutely sprawling resort and clearly had absorbed several nearby hotels as well.

The place was in off-season mode and clearly understaffed, after finding out they’d ignored our request for two beds we had to have a room change and were told we were getting a ‘free upgrade’ of which we really couldn’t see any sign once we were in the room. It turned out to be a simple room about the size of a large Grand Forks hotel room but with a small kitchenette built into the back wall. It had obviously recently been remodelled, was quite confortable and nice, but was definitely on the small side for one of Dad’s places.

Albufeira looking back towards hotel

Heck, even finding the room took some work as (defying pretty much any resort convention ever in my experience) you accessed the room on the balcony side and the arrows really didn’t make that clear (the rooms near the elevator had normal room doors.) There was also only an elevator on one end of the entire massive block which meant that most of the older elevator crowd for your entire floor was walking past your balcony door… and only window… which you wanted to have open for the view and breeze… so they could pretty much always see in to your whole place. Since it was one of the small rooms there was no couch either so people walking by just looked in to see you lounging on your bed late in the evening. Honest to god just a terrible design. Yet, we could see the waves crashing in to the point, the beach at the foot of the hotel was a lovely sandy cove nestled in between limestone cliffs and the sunset that night was spectacular.

View from the room

Portions of the hotel were clearly run as an all inclusive and the bars and restaurants were quite expensive for an a la carte guest ($25ish Canadian for a very so-so looking buffet) so we never ended up eating at the restaurant. The main pool was supposedly ‘closed for maintenance’ but no one touched it while we were there and it just sat there looking gorgeous and empty. They clearly just didn’t have the staff to watch it, the one open pool was far too small for even the limited number of guests but also wasn’t heated. The ‘don’t feed the cats’ sign was explained when we a sudden swarm of (well fed) ferals on our way to dinner.

Look at all that maintenance underway…

Walking (surprise surprise) up the hill we ran into a group of Albertans who clued us in to the closest good supermarket. We’d actually run into some Nova Scotians on the train as well when I noticed the Blue Bombers shirt he was wearing (a gift from a Winnipegger daughter.) The top of the hill had us arrive at the section of Albufeira known as ‘The Strip’ a multi-block section of restaurants, bars and souvenir shops that seems to be trying to channel old school Niagara Falls or Atlantic City. We quickly discovered (as I feared from some research) that the place was somewhat of a Brit Stag/Hen trip destination and was a bit… trashy. On a sunday afternoon at an off time of year it was fairly tame and large sections of the strip were even totally shut down (in some cases permanently looking, in others renovations were underway) but pretty much all the restaurants open had touts outside trying to get you in.

Reaching the top of the strip we headed down one of the main boulevards and serendipitously found a very nice little bakery (something we seem to have a knack for) and got some bread and morning muffins before walking further down to find the Pingo Doce supermarket. Despite the heavy load of drinks and things we’d bought to stock the hotel room for the week we started walking back and in fact made it most of the way back down the strip before deciding to grab some lunch (after all this time my first Piri Piri of the trip.) We spent the rest of the night settling in, exploring the weirdness of the hotel a bit more, playing cards and enjoying our first english tv in a while as they had our first non-news English channels of the trip.


The next morning we walked the 3km along the coastal road into Albufeira’s old town proper. Along the way we admired a number of vacation homes large and small, many with elaborate flower gardens blooming all about. The coast is a strange mix of ultra developed more modern sections and more run down micro-condos. Overall it’s really quite pleasant and the views from many would be spectacular, especially the couple right at the top of the sea cliff before we walked down the long hill to the main beach.

Fisherman’s Beach

Albufeira’s old town is nestled on and above a wide sandy beach known as Fisherman’s beach though the town’s boat traffic is now in a modern harbour/marina a few clicks east. With Mom’s coffee addiction having her near collapse we settled down into a seaside cafe and enjoyed the breakers rolling in. Weather wise the wind was up and it was probably one of the colder days of the trip. Nothing by our standards of course but the cafes all had wind shelters up and the locals were bundled up like it was -30, we zipped up our hoodies.

This guy kept looking down to keep an eye on everyone

Further back in the maze of streets of the old town you could see what had once been a small fishing village but was now more or less entirely tourist. A spacious and quite pretty main square is surrounded by restaurants and bars. I noticed that one of the gelato places had my favourite (Amerena sour cherry, see Rome post years ago) and instantly bought us each one which we quickly dispatched while roaming the cobbled streets. One end of the town has a tunnel bored through the rock leading to the next small inlet and beach. Wikipedia tells me that this was once the main visitor beach (as fisherman’s was covered in boats) and it would make sense, though on this day it was particularly windswept.

Overall the town proper had a lot more charm than our end of things, though that’s not really surprising. It definitely had a bit of the same bar vibe though.


I’m worried that I’m sounding a bit snooty when I call places trashy but it’s sort of hard to describe if you haven’t travelled to places like this. You have to remember that to Brits going here for a boys or girls weekend is way cheaper than it is for us to go to Vegas and for a certain type of Brit (and to lesser extent French/German/other) they treat it much the same way. The point for them is to maybe get a bit of sun but mostly to pub crawl and get absolutely blasted. As a result many of the bars are just trying to look like British football bars, one site actually told me ‘Albufeira is known for its irish pubs.’ Riot police have even been called in to deal with mobs of them at times.

Honestly the closest analogue I can probably give for most of the people who are reading this and don’t get it is imagine a Daytona Beach gearing up for Spring Break vibe, except it probably hits that every weekend during high season/christmas season. Thankfully at this time of year that wasn’t going to be a problem, but the vibe was still there. Also thankfully, like Daytona the scenery still manages to be beautiful despite the commercial surroundings.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my time here, but if I returned to the Algarve I’d try to stay in a different town with a more laid back vibe (and probably have a car the whole time.)


Upon arriving we’d noticed that there were a number of tours further afield and with the sea temperature not really conducive to much swimming (though I was going to dive on Friday) we thought maybe we’d do one of them. Gibraltar sounded appealing as I’d always been kind of fascinated by the place and Mom had been there eons ago with Granny and had found it worth the trip. Unfortunately a bit of research into the tour revealed that you started stupidly early, spent your first 2 hours gathering other people from other hotels, then when you arrived the tour didn’t include going into Gibraltar at all, you had to pay extra or do your own thing. Since we kind of wanted to see a bit more of the coast anyway we decided to rent our own car.

Cape Sagres

So at lunchtime the next day we loaded up our new Citroen estate and headed west to explore the rest of the western Algarve. It was a cloudy day that seemed to be threatening to break into storms at any moment but in the end we never actually saw any rain. Navigating was mostly painless, everything was super well marked and we bopped our way along the coast to Sagres, Portugal’s (and Europe’s) most southwesterly town. Once the final staging base for many voyages around the horn and to the new world it’s now mostly known as a surfing destination.

Surfers

As with the rest of the Algarve it’s small beaches nestled between outcrops of cliff. Yet here the cliffs are even more impressive and the waves crash in much more aggressively as it faces the open Atlantic more directly. The surfing is particularly good as a result I’m guessing, though I think that’s also a factor of the availability of multiple beaches facing different ways off the point so there’s probably a solid beach for almost any wind direction. That said we also saw a couple of looney bins taking some crazy curls right next to a sheer rock wall so it’s not like some surfing types need anything.

One of several Feral Siamese we met

We explored the fortress on the point. It turned out to be more of a fortress wall protecting the entrance to a towering point. It’s the former site of Henry the Navigator’s nautical school though to what extent it existed is the subject of some debate. Henry himself was definitely a driving force in starting Portugal’s age of exploration and helped develop the newly designed caravel that would drive those travels. What exists of the fort at this point is mostly remnants, battery platforms and stupendous views. The caves and holes in the rocks lead to some excellent blowholes as well, one of which they’ve surrounded with a concrete echo chamber to really augment the sound of the surf.

Cape Sagres

We walked the entire perimeter of the fort/point before moving on as we wanted to see the literal end of europe before sunset. Cape St. Vincent is just a couple minutes down the road and is the southwesternmost point in Europe. These days there’s a small lighthouse and gift shop. If anything the cliffs here are even more impressive as they tower over the crashing green waves. It’s a wild place and you can really imagine just how scary it must have been to stand here and look out into the void you were about to cross, particularly as the sun set and the waves grew darker and darker.

Cape St. Vincent

With night fallen we set out home to our hotel and made ourselves a pasta dinner/had a slightly early night before the big trip the next day.

Sunset at the end of Europe
Lighthouse at Cape St. Vincent

Having fun storming the castle…

Editors Note: WordPress has yet again decided to completely revamp the editor so this may not look consistent with the other posts.

Our second morning in Lisbon started with a concrete plan to hop the picturesque old tram and take it up to the Alfama/Castle district to explore.

View from our guest house

Breakfast was a nice get together again with our host and this time with our fellow guests as well. They were a married couple and two coworkers from the Seattle area who’d just been to the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona via Paris/Amsterdam. There was a brief window where I once thought I might get to go to that conference back in my coding days so I admit a bit of jealousy. Luis gave us all various bits of advice before we scattered, telling us the most interesting way to walk up to the flea market before heading onward to the castle.

We started on our way back down to the Baixa taking one of the shortcuts we’d discovered on our previous night’s wandering and decided to take a slightly different route down to the water. In doing so we checked out a nearby church we hadn’t had time to see the night before. It had burned down in the 50s and been rebuilt but keeping much of the fire damage to the original stone, interesting but also quite odd looking. Outside, one of the many Ginja joints that are essentially a tiny closet in a large building and decided that breakfast indulgence would be alright (since it was pushing brunch time anyway.) Gijinha is a liqueur made from a sour cherryish fruit (the ginja) that many Lisboetas seem to drink almost religiously. More or less anywhere you walk in the city you’ll see one of these teeny bars that sell literally only this one thing and locals stopping it for a quick shot with or without fruit. We’d sampled it on Madeira as it’s popular all over Portugal but the omnipresence of it in Lisbon was kind of amazing. The liqueur itself is essentially the same brandy that’s in Poncha with the cherry sugar and some cinnamon infused in it. It’s both strong and smooth and often served in a little edible chocolate cup (one person told me this started in one place in Portugal and has spread.) On this occasion we were given our glass shotglasses and stepped outside, had cheers and sampled, spitting out the pits like the locals.

Reinforced for the day ahead we began walking down to the tram line only to discover (again) that they were just too crammed with people to make getting on (if it was even possible) appealing at all. As previously discussed we were in Portugal over the fairly extended Carnaval period so tourism numbers were probably way up (I definitely got the feeling at times that there were more Portuguese travellers in Lisbon visiting the capital than you might normally expect but forgot to ask Luis if that was the case.) In the end we decided just to walk since Luis had given us what he said was the most interesting route.

Tram Car (very full)

Interesting was code for “Hilly oh my god more steps” in some ways but it was definitely intriguing. The Alfama neighbourhood is pretty much the oldest extant neighbourhood of the city and was at one point (in moorish times) more or less the extent of it. Since it’s more or less all built on the steep hill up to the castle it was spared from most of the tsunami destruction (perhaps firmer bedrock helped with the earthquake too, I’m not sure.) and as such the streets here maintain the old narrow twisted patterns that were originally meant to confuse invaders and work equally well on tourists. Even I was glad for google maps that day. (I love you Luis but your claim there would be signs pointing at the castle everywhere was BS unless you were on the tramcar path.)

Typical “street” in the section of Alfama we walked

As you make your way through these narrow staircase/alleys you can run across almost everything. On one landing there will be a tiny postage stamp sized square with two microscopic bars and a couple of tables set out… on another you’ll see a magnificently tiled old home towering up 3 stories but only about six feet wide. In the Moorish/Medieval days of the City the nobility lived at the top of the hill nearest the castle and you can see this in the expanding size of the homes as you climb higher. Later the the district became home to the poorer citizens (fishermen etc) and there are signs of this in some of the decorative motifs. These days it’s known more as the immigrant area of the city with swaths of construction labourers from Portugal’s former colonies, India etc coming and staying in the neighbourhood during the pre-recession construction boom but with the cooled economy and austerity measures it’s changing once again. Apparently there are numerous public baths and laundries because many of the very old buildings lack any remotely modern conveniences.

You run into these beautifully tiled buildings out of nowhere in the oddest places

Eventually we reached the top and found the aforementioned flea market which was incredibly lively. It’s definitely a proper flea market and not just a tourist thing as vendors are selling everything from vintage clothes, furniture and broken toys to artisan goods and food. I saw a very near old map of Madeira that I was sorely tempted to buy but as it was still early and I knew I’d be carrying it around for six plus more hours at least I didn’t see how it wouldn’t get wrecked. If I’d just been visiting Lisbon the rest of the trip there were definitely some neat furniture things I would have at least examined too but the rest of the trip was so mobile/seat of our pants that I just didn’t want to even look and fall in love with something that would take too long to arrange shipping on. (Plus I’m fairly sure this was around the time that Dad told me my hot water heater had broken so I was feeling extra poor with every euro spent.)

Heading uphill (some more!) from the Flea Market we came to the Church of St. Vincent de Fora which was vast and impressive and is the burial place for a number of Portuguese monarchs. We also discovered that the area near the castle appears to be where some well established ceramic workshops were located. Again I wish in some ways we’d been finishing our stay in Lisbon as I saw a few things I might have picked up had we not been looking at then hauling them around another week+.

The ridiculous altarpiece of the Cathedral of St. Vincent

A fairly long line greeted us as we waited to get in to the Castle grounds proper but it was absolutely worth the wait as the Castle’s ridiculously defensible vantage point gives it and its grounds one hell of a view across the entire city and the River Tagus out to the ocean. As the site has been host to basically every fortification the city has ever built it’s archaelogically/historically kind of a mess as a site to visit, but also interesting for that. The exhibit of artifacts recovered at the site has a ton of things from the Roman era through to the early portuguese state. The inner portion of the castle itself is mostly the fortress built in the moorish era but there are also later walls from era where it became the protected seat of the Governor or King of Portugal depending on the era. Eventually as it became less necessary to always be behind thick walls the royals moved to swankier digs (as in most European countries) I believe originally in the Baixa (the valley below the castle) then as previously discussed out to Belem after the earthquake. From then on the castle was apparently just a military stronghold/storage depot and as such isn’t a particularly well preserved example of castle-tude, but it’s impressively stout and you can see why the legends of a Knight sacrificing himself to hold open a gate during the siege to force out the moors might be true. Not much was getting through or over those walls. Definitely neat to explore given the views it commands and the less safety paranoid approach the Portuguese monument folks take.


Mom with Gnarled Tree
Castle of St George/Sao Jorge
Looking down from one of the turrets

The terrace of the castle gardens is every bit as nice a visit as the castle itself. Gnarled old trees, some so split they’re essentially two trees growing in a helix, dot the grounds everywhere and even on a scorching day I imagine it’s easy to find some shade and look out at the city. The grid pattern of the rebuilt Baixa is very evident from up here and one can imagine the Marques de Pombal standing on that very spot planning his grand scheme. One can also sadly imagine the horror the soldiers standing guard must have felt watching their city tremble, burn and drown below them. We got an interesting dose of Carnaval as we were winding up our visit as well with a giant team of young folks streaming into the castle holding banners and wearing odd costumes. Out in the garden we got performance dancers standing near the walls and on pillars near the exit were crow people squawking at passerby.

In addition to fake crows the castle had Peacocks
Looking back at our guest house from the Castle Mount
Castle Harlequiny carnaval folk

By the time we started making our way back down the hill we were starving (and mom was getting hangry.) Given the time it didn’t make a lot of sense to have a big meal but most of the restaurants nearby had only pricey large dishes at a heavy tourist hotspot markup. Again I don’t mind paying a bit but some of those places definitely had a vibe of mediocre food you’re paying for the view.

Lisbon Cathedral

Luckily Lisbon has transformed many old news kiosks (the round european style ones) into mini cafe ‘qiosques’ that sell sandwiches and cake and ice cream and the like. We ran into one on a cute little square that according to Steves is ‘the best place to get the pulse of the neighbourhood’ and grabbed a cured ham and cheese panini, a couple of ciders and did some peoplewatching. Honestly these are some of my favourite moments when travelling in Europe, you can sit there ages if you like, you can take your beer across the street and sit on a park bench if you want and watch the world go by.

After a bit of a recharge we visited the nearby Lisbon Cathedral. While it’s the oldest in the city it’s also been rebuilt many times due to earthquakes and lies on the site of a former mosque and a roman street with shops and sewer. they are trying to currently redesign the site to make everything visible.

Meandering back towards our guest house through the streets we ran into a few more sardine stores. The Portuguese are super into canned fish (all canned fish not just sardines) and also export large amounts of it. Somewhat hilariously to someone from mostly sardine hating north america this has led to lots of touristy sardine shops. That old tourist spot standby of “have an X from the year you were born” actually gets applied to sardines in Lisbon!

Ferris Wheel o’ Sardines!

We also sampled an afternoon sweet at the Confeteria Nacional which, while it desperately needs a take a number system, served us delicious cakey things picked at random from the display case. It’s been serving sweet treats at this location since 1829 and the interior decor doesn’t look like it’s been updated much in the past century. We may or may not have also grabbed another Ginjinha to fortify us for the climb back up to the guest house.

Dinner that night was an absolutely phenomenal burger and great fries at a little place in Bairro Alto. Everything made from scratch and super tasty. Wandering around after trying to work off dinner we ended up in a weird little ‘half irish pub/half dance club’ called Cheers (with the logo) that had a very talented fiddler/guitarist playing and a small table free. While we were originally just planning to have a quick drink they were so good we ended up lingering til after midnight despite having originally planned an early night to pack for the train the next morning.

Musical duo at ‘Cheers’ playing everything from Erasure to Andrea Bocelli

All in all I felt like we’d crammed in a fair bit for our first visit to Lisbon and we knew we’d be back before the flight out so there was more still to do… for now it was on to the Algarve by train.

Of Trams, Tarts and Towers…

Here there be monsters

Lisbon is NOT a flat city. It’s the kind of place where if it was SimCity I’d edit the map because there are too damned many hills.

Our host Luis joined us at the B&B breakfast table (a buffet of various things and freshly made eggs and bacon if requested) and while chowing down he helped us make a plan of attack for the day. Luis is a vibrant little man who seems to be building up a small empire of mid priced guesthouses here in the trendier old neighbourhoods of the city. Even so he seems genuinely delighted to greet every guest personally and help them learn about the city that he clearly loves. If you’re ever heading to Lisbon his places are heartily recommended.

First up was pre-buying our tickets for the train to our next destination and then dropping off our laundry. I managed to convince mom that we should just use the service as that was easiest both in terms of location and not waiting around all day during some of our lisbon time. Getting our tickets came first though but that was thankfully easy due to the train station nearby having a long distance office despite being mostly for local trains. That didn’t stop the lady in the office from being grumpy about us making her work, though she lightened up at least a notch once she realized we didn’t want tickets for Sintra (having passed at least 3 posters that said Sintra upstairs not here.) The laundry wasn’t much farther away then we were able to explore the Baixa for real.

In 1755 Lisbon suffered a devastating earthquake (somewhere offshore, estimated at about a 9.5) and subsequent tsunami that destroyed large sections of the city. The tsunamis even reached Cornwall, Barbados and possibly Brazil. The quake also had the misfortune of hitting on All Saint’s Day when thousands of candles were lit for masses everywhere in a very catholic city igniting a massive firestorm. The resulting devastation left the center of Lisbon essentially non-existent and a now earthquake paranoid king fled the city and set up the world’s swankiest campsite a few miles outside town leaving a minor noble in charge. He (The Marquis de Pombal) eventually became a pseudo dictator under the King but in his early days he set about rebuilding the Baixa district (a flat valley between two large hills) to exacting specifications. Portugal was reeling financially from the aftereffects of the quake but the rebuilding needed to be done. The resulting construction was an early example of a planned city and has a very strict grid pattern, uniform heights and facades that are mostly uniform. Pombal didn’t rebuild many of the churches that were destroyed, but those he did rebuild also use the similar facades in most cases. It’s really quite the effect and apparently most of the buildings also contain innovative anti earthquake/fire methods for the time as well.

Some of the tile facades

It’s really quite impressive, though a closer look reveals a lot of abandoned upper floors. Apparently rent controls have been in place for 50+ years and many landlords no longer maintain anything and some of the buildings are just rotting out other than the stores/cafes on the main floor. Hopefully that can be turned around before it gets out of hand. The other effect of the earthquake of course is that though Lisbon is one of the oldest cities in Europe (it predates Rome apparently) there is little evidence of that in the tradition city center. While these buildings are old from the perspective of someone from our part of the world by Euro standards they’re barely teenaged.

The large plaza where we first emerged from the subway is known as Rossio by the locals and may once have been a roman racetrack, now though it’s our starting point as we head slowly down to the waterfront and the giant Praca do Commercio (originally designed to be the commercial entrance to the city.) On the way there we travel through the Arch of Triumph, one of the few really extravagant bits of arty architecture Pombal allowed as part of the original reconstruction, ever so shockingly there is a representation of him on it. The plaza itself is vast but so full of sunglasses sellers and other nonsense that I put on my shades just to deflect them.

Pombal’s Arch of Victory/Triumph

At Luis’s suggestion (warning us that the Castle hill would be more interesting the next day when we could also see the flea market) we decided to do the sights of Belem that day. We had originally planned on taking one of the city’s historic trams from the plaza to what is essentially a suburb of Lisbon (it’s where the King’s tent city was set up as mentioned earlier) but they were so incredibly packed that I called an audible and we took a regular city bus instead. As much as I loved the look of the trams I would have been standing packed like a sardine and unable to see out the window anyway at my height. From the bus we got an interesting view of public art projects and a seafront (well riverfront but the mouth to the Atlantic is very nearby) with hundreds of old warehouses/shelters re-purposed for more varied uses such as sports complexes, restaurants or art galleries. The river itself is still teeming with boat traffic large and small and if you squint a little bit you can imagine what it must have looked like during Lisbon’s maritime explorer heyday.

Monument to the Discoverers

We started out by walking to the riverfront to see the Monument to the Explorers which is a large sail like tower with a Caravel prow mounted by the leaders of Portugals. Lead by Prince Henry the Navigator (since his obsession with exploration and missionary work kickstarted the whole thing) and covered by others such as Vasco de Gama it’s a pretty monument commanding a view of the entire harbour.

Henry, Vasco and the Gang

Also on the waterfront is the Belem Tower, an elaborate and gorgeous harbour defense fortress built on a small island just offshore. It was apparently once farther out in the water before changes made it now only separate by a small tidepool. We didn’t feel the need to go inside but it was quite impressive.

Torre de Belem

The Jeronimos Monastery (Order of St. Jerome, sadly not Geronimo 😉 ) is a ridiculously elaborate church and monastery built on the site of one of the small chapels visited by fishermen and explorers to bless their coming voyages. It got steadily more elaborate during the age of exploration as the Kings taxed the spices coming back from the new discoveries and kept building (Most of Portugal’s wealth from its heyday went to churches and elaborate homes for the wealthy patrons.) It now incorporates several museums in the old monastery spaces and the church is truly massive and impressively ornate.

Monastery

Jeronimos Monastery Church

Church interior

In addition to the ones in the monastery Belem has a cluster of other museums. Slightly misled by our guidebook as to the cost we checked out the modern art collection at a museum within a sprawling arts complex on the shoreline created by a Portuguese billionaire/art patron. As with all modern art not everything was to my taste but the collection is diverse and truly impressive. I thought of my cousin Stephanie checking out a Calder and some Rothko works.

Last but not least Belem is home to the ‘original’ custard tart of Portugal where it’s known as a Pastel de Belem. A place that churns out tens of thousands of them a day and gives them to you hot after you make it through the line. They were worth the wait though we later had one in Lisbon that was at the same level. It’s certainly not worth the trip to Belem just for this specific version but if you’re there anyway….

Since we had somewhat of a firm deadline on getting back to the Baixa in time to get our laundry we had to say goodbye at this point (though most of the museums were shutting anyway.) Hopping back on the bus we ended up at a Plaza near Rossio (Praca Figuera) that had a large and hopping night market underway. Deciding that the laundry could wait a few minutes we sampled various goodies, bought some cheese and nuts and regretfully decided to wait for proper food a bit later.

All the ham

Once the laundry was stowed we set out to find some dinner. Though we thought about eating where Luis had recommended but to be honest both of us were a bit tired of ‘typical Portuguese’ as most of the restaurants insist on calling it and we went back exploring the Bairro Alto. This pretty quickly paid off though as we found another night market on an upper hill lookout that had an amazing view of the city lights. Oddly we ended up ordering some sort of tasty pork sandwich from a stand that offered a large amount of Madeiran food but ours was apparently a Porto specialty. Two Ciders, some hot Sangria and a local band later we were pretty ready for bed after a long day, especially since we had another heavy day planned.

Night Market

End of Madeira, on to Lisbon

Our flight out of Madeira was unfortunately not until later in the day (I would have enjoyed getting the full day in Lisbon) but thankfully we were able to make the most of it and not just sit around with our luggage. After bopping into town we had quick breakfast at our fave bakery then walked down the seafront to where we could catch a bus up into the hills to the Botanical Gardens. Once we found the right departure stop the ride was easy and we were deposited right outside the gates of the sprawling park.

Birds of Paradise

Created in the 60s out of the plant collection/studies of one of the religious orders which was expanded into a full scale municipal garden at this location. It’s a really diverse collection and designed to be flowering pretty much constantly (though the whole island does that.) There are sections for endemic Madeiran plants, wide variety of palm samples, topiary, orchids, other flowers from around the world as well as a sample of agricultural plants and herbs from the collection.

Cacti

Some of the sections are really sculpted, others are left a bit more freeform and wild. It was worth the trip for the views alone as it’s up at the same height as Monte (which we visited previously) but hangs over a much sharper cliff looking down into Funchal. There’s also a water feature that is perhaps more vibrant in summer but at this time of year was basically just the home for a symphony of croaking frogs with one of the resident cats occasionally looking down and trying to decide if he wanted frog legs for lunch.

After a quick drink and a visit with a local dog who roams around looking for friends (we saw him hopping in a fountain in the gardens to cool off) we hopped the bus back down, said our goodbyes to Funchal and headed back to the hotel. Thankfully the wind wasn’t too crazy and flights were landing as normal, being somewhat of a plane nerd (not to mention curious about this weird airport) I was happy to see an old school observation deck after security. Nominally it was the smoking balcony but it overlooked all the runway operations. Eventually we headed off on our short hop to Lisbon (direct thankfully and not back to the azores first.) It was somewhat of a wrench saying goodbye to our bags so soon after actually recovering them but we crossed our fingers, walked out to the plane and boarded by the rear door.

Madeira turned out to be pretty great for somewhere I’d never actually given much thought to visiting. It’s gorgeous, very different and everyone is incredibly friendly and welcoming. I think we did a pretty good job at exploring but I think if I returned I’d probably rent a car and spend a bit more leisurely time exploring some of the outer towns.

It was a quick flight to Lisbon followed by a trip via subway to the old part of Lisbon. We eventually surfaced in a darkened square and began making our way towards our b&b dragging our (thankfully present) bags across Lisbon’s slippery cobbles. At first glance things seemed a bit seedy as I was offered hash twice in the first couple minutes of walking. Lisbon is also a fairly hilly city and our newly trained calves got put to work hauling our luggage upward and onward. Looking at some reviews online as well as a note in the Rick Steves book for Portugal had directed us to a series of rooms run by a fellow called Luis. We were in the Zuzabed B&B which we later learned was the owner’s former house. It was the top two floors of a narrow building, another 3 narrow staircases up to our small but cute and clean room with a view of the castle hill.

Lisbon

After getting us settled in Luis recommended a restaurant for a late dinner but unfortunately they were already closed for the night before we got there. We ended up following his alternative advice and heading up into the neighbourhood called Bairro Alto which was more or less just up a couple more flights of stairs. This bohemian maze of twisty cobbled streets was still quite busy with people at the dozens of bars and restaurants. We eventually ended up at a dinner and fado show restaurant again which seems to be turning into a first night tradition for us. Dinner was good but we were pretty ready for sleep not long after in hopes of coming out strong the next morning.

Spelunking

Somewhat frustratingly despite my best efforts I was unable to secure a dive while in Madeira. Many of the dive shops on the island weren’t starting operations until March or April because it’s “winter.” I thought I’d found one eventually but communicating with them was a constant pain and when I told them I was in for tuesday and asked for final details I didn’t hear from them again… hell of a way to run a business. In the end it seemed likely they were only shore diving in a pretty but not particularly exciting little cove… To be honest I’m guessing they didn’t have much interest and decided if they ignored me they wouldn’t have to work that day.

Punta Oliviera just west of our resort, path seems to be a relic of an earlier era

In the end I slept in a bit and we had a good walk around the shoreline and around the point. For whatever reason Madeira in general and this area (Canico de Baixa) in particular is very popular with Germans. While the area right by our hotel has a number of other hotels/small apartments even a 3 minute walk up the road in either direction takes you past a number of small rental homes ranging from a teeny walkup to larger multi bedroom homes with gorgeous gardens and balconies overlooking the sea cliffs. Unfortunately my german wasn’t really up to checking all the details but I may look them up once home out of curiousity.

After a couple hours of going up and down hills/steps/cobblestones we realized we hadn’t had lunch and decided to try the Taverna we’d seen on the way into the hotel zone. It was pleasant but kind of hilarious in that multiple times we were left alone for ages on the patio. It was pretty much the only place on the trip so far where we had much of a language barrier (the amount of English spoken by people in the service industry is astounding.) We ended up finishing the evening with a drink on the patio.

Wanting to explore a bit of the north side we booked a tour out to the volcanic caves with a couple of side stops. The tour itself had a bit more content from the tour guide this time and we were in a small Renault minivan. Honestly one of the more interesting things he let us know was just how many of the tunnels we passed through were relatively recent. He kept pointing out crazy zigzaggy roads going up volcanic ridges and telling us that was the old road to go where we were going. I can only imagine how long the roughly 30 minute drive would have taken before the tunnels. There was a burst of construction that finished roughly 15 years ago where they built an absolute whackload of tunnels and the highway that follows the south coast up in the hills. It’s a seriously impressive round of engineering.

We took the main road over the mountains through one of the few passes and eventually reached the entrance to the caves. A series of lava tubes large and small (some enlarged to allow easier access) they made a loop a fair way into the mountain. There were a number of different lava formations left behind that were neat to see. Somewhat hilariously in some of the larger water pools local winemakers had set up an experiment to see how their wine aged in the more or less uniform temperature water. It was a neat tour but the 3d video afterwards in the educational center was hilariously bad.

Wine Testing

Moving on with our driver Antonio we visited the village of Sao Vincente. We were somewhat baffled when he drove up to the upper village then slightly back down the road and directed us to walk down the steep road then staircase. We followed the path down slowly and had a peek at the simple but pretty church and tiny graveyard, the newness of some of the stones made me think it was a graveyard of the “you get 20 years in the ground then we throw you in the mausoleum” variety.

Sao Vincente

Moving onwards Antonio pointed us on the walkway down to the sea along a gently flowing river that clearly gushes hard when the rain is falling. It was actually the first time we’d seen strong breakers coming onto shore and I was honestly surprised not to see anyone surfing. It was a pretty spot and we both would have really enjoyed sitting down at a cafe and enjoying it for a while… unfortunately with this whirlwind tour that wasn’t really an option.

Sao Vincente shoreline

The last stop on our tour was actually another spot from the Travel Man episode, a cable car down to an isolated beach on the west coast. We didn’t have the chance to go down, but the view from above was breathtaking. I believe it’s one of the highest sea cliffs in the world. Apparently somewhere nearby there’s a glass floor observation deck that must be truly terrifying.

On our way back into town our fellow passengers decided to get dropped in Funchal and we decided on the spur of the moment to do the same and got out on the waterfront for a quick lunch. Somewhat happily we then discovered that the carnaval stuff we’d seen being set up earlier was actually now active even if they parade obviously wasn’t going to be for a day or two. We ended up grabbing some chorizo buns to take back for dinner and tried a few treats. Ginja (a portuguese cherry/berry liqueur, more on that later) in a chocolate cup. Crispy crusted chestnut tarts. A new tangerine poncha we hadn’t tried before. All delicious!

Carnaval

Winding our way back into the old town I decided we should go up to an area we hadn’t been to since the first day of exploration and there was a fantastic guitarist playing in the church square. We’ve been kind of shocked at how many buskers here have pretty elaborate sound systems. This guy had one heck of a pedal board set up and was doing a variety of styles over the hour or so we listened to him play. The Poncha was delicious, the sun was shining and the music was good.

Old Town Cat

Together with the carnaval sneak peek was an excellent treat and a nice way to (almost) end our time in Madeira. We decided to take the public bus back to the resort for the first time. It turned out to be pretty painless. Not a ride for someone with vertigo though as all the twists and turns on a high cliffside road that were slightly wild in a minivan were even more in a tall bus with a driver gunning it around the turns. It stays off the highway and snakes along the cliffside towns and stopped within a 5 minute walk of the resort. Honestly if I ever visited again the Madeiran bus system seems pretty fantastic, I guess that’s required in a town with so much up and down.

Carnaval, Nuns and the Russian Madeiran

The stress letdown of finally having our bags, our clothes, our toiletries meant we finally slept soundly that night. Saturday morning we even had a solid sleep in and fairly quickly decided to just have a relaxing day (the courtesy bus wasn’t running but we later discovered that the city buses worked pretty well for the area.) After some toast we headed down to sit by our pool (and overlooking the cliffs) and relaxed with our books for a couple hours. It was gorgeous and sunny (around 23c I believe) and we ended up trying the (outdoor) pool but it was completely unheated and was sitting a a temperature closer to the normal ‘winter’ temps for Madeira so it was pretty much West Hawk on May Long/Lake Superior type cold. Had a quick swim to stretch out my hip that’s been giving me problems again since my tailbone accident but didn’t linger in there super long.

We’d noticed on google and on our bus ride down that there was a german restaurant up the hill and we thought some schnitzel might be a good ‘different’ dinner. Unfortunately after huffing it up a few levels we found the place was closed (we saw activity later so it seems like they likely open March 1st like some other things here.) In the end we ended up at another Madeiran/Portuguese place close to the hotel. It was in the Garden of an older small hotel and seemed in fact to partially built into the oldest part of the hotel. The kitchen seemed to be in two converted rooms and the bar could easily have been a former lobby. Though we didn’t have anything that required it, many of the meat came on giant skewers where the waiter would come to your table and set up a stand then hang your meat from it. It was sort of halfway to the Brazillian steakhouse method. Our choices ended up being tasty and after a lovely meal (and mother indulging in her 2352nd fancy coffee of the trip) we retired for some cards. It was a nice recharge day after going hard since arriving.

Parade A-Frame

This period (it seems to vary by the individual town) is the start of Carnaval here on the island. We’d booked what was called a tour but ended up mostly being a mildly guided shuttle to one of the more traditional towns on the Northeast part of Madeira to see one of their events. Apparently their festival is sort of a local thing adapted into a carnaval thing once that became a ‘thing’ so it goes by a few names. The highlight was what we were told was a ‘children’s parade’ that was actually just an incredibly slow moving parade of bands, children’s dance groups, floats with local pastoral scenes (an active building of a teeny a-frame traditional house for one) and agricultural things.

Parade Weirdness

Parade Bands

We enjoyed the wackyness for a bit then as the parade finished explored the town square which had some sort of entertainment going on (it seemed very talky but people were enjoying it.) Everywhere around the square there were booths with food and drink, almost exclusively Poncha, Bolo de Caco (portuguese flatbread wrapped around various meats/cheeses/garlic butter) and skewers of beef pork or chicken cooked over embers. As is the norm in europe you could carry your hooch around so we sampled a few things then made our way back up to the bus and town.

Traditional Madeiran A-Frame House

Town Square

Going to and coming back from Santana we got our first good look at the far end of the airport from the ground and it’s absolutely incredible. Tons of concrete pillars holding up the entire runway extension most around 70m high according to wikipedia. Between the limited space and the winds here it’s easy to see why it’s in the top 10 most dangerous airports in the world.

Not my image but you get the idea…

Settling back in at happy hour we ran into the same couple that had commiserated with us on friday night and got a recommendation for a different tour company/made a booking. I also scouted out what looked like an interesting russian run cafe nearby while snagging some drinks/chips for the room.

Monday was another day of gorgeous weather and we were thankful as we had booked a tour to go up to what’s called Curral das Freiras or the Nun’s valley. Though we actually started the day popping into Funchal and having breakfast back at our favourite bakery and stocking up on bread for back at the suite. We also explored the absolutely gorgeous Se Cathedral in Funchal which is simulaneously grand and impressive while still maintaining aspects of being a fisherman’s/working man’s place of worship.

Se Cathedral

I’ve been to plenty of hilly or mountainous places in my time but Madeira is definitely the most ridiculously and suddenly up and down. The relatively recent volcanic origin seems to be to blame for the incredibly sharp ridgelines that appear in certain areas. Nowhere we travelled was this more evident that the way up to Nun’s valley. Overlooking the town itself is a hotel and overlook high high up on a ridgeline and accessible by what used to be the main road into town before one of the major tunnel projects of recent years created a giant ramp tunnel. It’s absolutely amazing how sudden and severe the dropoff is and it was odd to climb up to the lookout then look down on birds soaring high above the town but still hundreds of feet below us.

Curral das Freiras from the overlook

The town itself is best known as a cultivator of chestnuts on the island and they produce chestnut cakes, chestnut liqueurs, roasted chestnuts etc. There is even a chestnut museum and a festival at the end of summer. It’s not a particularly exciting town other than it’s picturesque location so after a quick look around we grabbed a drink and a slice of cake (without checking the prices) and I had a bit of a heart attack after as I realized it had cost us the equivalent of $27.50cdn. Ah captive tourist pricing at it’s finest (though desert in general is quite pricey at restaurants here, part of the reason we’ve mostly stuck to bakery treats like our fave custard tarts.)

The valley road downward from the overlook

Arriving back in Funchal we managed to just make our transfer and got back to the hotel to realize that we’d never had lunch other than the cake… but also weren’t actually that hungry. I suggested we try one of the restaurants down the hill towards the water and we ended up wanting something light. We ended up at the place I’d bought drinks at the other night. Though presented as a “snack bar” and having aspects of a minimart/liquor store too, the cafe portion was fantastic. I spotted something called “russian ravioli” on the menu and asked the owner if they were Pelmeni. He seemed instantly enthusiastic that I knew what they were and told me they were handmade in house as was his sour cream (something I imagine would be difficult to find in madeira otherwise.) They were in a word… heavenly. Ultrathin dough, mix of beef and pork and spices, juicy and flavourful and served in a little clay pot. The place is owned by ex-pat Russians (mother and son) and it showed as they were the best pelmeni I’ve ever had in Portugal of all places. Alex (the son) insisted on giving me a free (very large) shot of vodka that I ‘HAD TO’ drink before eating the Pelmeni.

After our meal he also insisted we take some free dessert treats home and invited us to his friday violin concert which sadly we couldn’t make as we leave thursday. One of the local soccer teams was playing against Sporting Lisbon while we were there and a number of locals were enjoying the game which somehow lead to Alex and I talking about hockey. Turns out he’d seen Calgary touring in Russia as a younger lad and had loved my all time favourite player Theo Fleury, small world.

The Wicker Man and the Vengeful Winds

I can tell I was writing that last post very late at night as I left a few things out as I raced to finish and go to bed. We actually fit in a trip to the Museum of Sacred Art as well before heading out to our suite.

Words to live by…

It was an interesting place, the building itself has apparently been variously church administration/housing, a school, a training center and now a museum. The collection is quite impressive for a small museum though not particularly well lit/designed in my amateur opinion. The focus is quite narrow but Madeira’s status for many years as the home base of what was the largest catholic diocese in the world (basically all of Portugals overseas territories back when they had a serious empire ranging from Brazil to Angola to Macau) means that some of the Church art it contains is of a larger scale/higher quality than one might expect on this tiny island. There is more or less an even split of silver church implements from the pasts of the island’s many churches (processional crosses, candlesticks etc,) wooden carvings (some from no longer extant churches, some which have seen better days) and a large collection of large scale paintings, many of which are triptych panels. The paintings are predominantly flemish and reflect the fact that at the height of Madeira’s importance in the lucrative sugar trade there were strong trading links with the low countries.

Friday morning dawned reasonably early as we’d booked the hotel’s courtesy bus for 9:45 (actually we’d tried for 10:30 but a german couple had hemmed and hawwed for 10 minutes the night before then taken the last two slots.) We ended up going down early and asking the front desk person to call the baggage company again, to hear that the bags would supposedly arrive later that day. Fingers crossed we hopped into town.

This hotel’s courtesy bus is kind of ludicrous. It doesn’t run on weekends, doesn’t run into town after I think 2pm? and only does 4 runs back for the 6 runs in it makes. There is definitely an odd current of “we couldn’t possible have a backup person for that job” at times in Portugal as we also ran into that at a restaurant the other night with ‘oh no, we can’t make you pizza tonight, the pizza making guy is off” even though that was like 1/3 of their menu. The most frustrating thing is that the last run back to the hotel is quite early so there’s no way to stay in town for dinner without paying a roughly $30cdn cab fare or taking the very slow city to city bus (though that barely runs saturday/sunday.)

Regardless, as it was a gorgeous day (we’d thought about running this itinerary an earlier day but the clouds were very low) we hopped the cable car up to the neighbourhood/suburb/town (it’s hard to tell) of Monte. The cabe car runs about 4 km up the hill to an altitude of about 1000ft. It’s far enough fast enough that the weather is noticeably cooler even without clouds hanging about but since we were having unseasonably warm weather it worked out well for us.

The view from the cable car itself was extraordinary, it follows one of the volcanic ridges for most of the path and is often right over people’s homes. It was an interesting new perspective on the areas we’d been around most at first but we quickly passed being able to peek at more domestic neighbourhoods. Somewhat odd was the frequency in certain areas for absolute ruins of houses, to the point where the tile roofs were gone, were right next to spotless homes that were either new or renovated so as to be indistinguishable, some with solar panels (solar water heaters appear to be making strong inroads here, understandably.)

Cable Car about to arrive in Monte

Must be nice having people staring down at you constantly…

Arriving at the top we found narrow cobbled streets, steep hills in all directions and the apparently famous gardens of the local hotel. The cost was a bit pricey for a visit and we’re planning on a later visit to the supposedly much better municipal gardens so we settled for a view from the overlooks and made our way up to the ‘Our Lady of Monte’ church, home of the burial in exile of the last Austro-Hungarian emperor. His tomb is a pilgrimage site for Austrian/Hungarian royalists and we saw many flags pinned to the archway. It’s a fairly small church but quite pretty and commands a fantastic view. That combined with the slightly cooler weather in summer is apparently what originally drew the wealthy types from the city below.

Our Lady of Monte

Near the church is the town square. ‘Town’ is a bit much as the neighbourhood is quite spread out. While originally in the 1800s I’m sure it was mostly a cluster of houses there are now small streets and houses tucked in more or less anywhere the geography allows it. Many of the houses are quite impressive and even in the smaller spaces there are beautiful gardens. There was also previously a rack and pinion railway leading up (and slightly past) the square, but it closed in 1943 and now there is just a very staight street leading part of the way down, most of it on large arches through the gardens. Actually there’s also a boarded up train station on the square that is apparently planned to be a tea room when the upper section of the track is eventually reopened but that plan appears to be on hold based on the age of the sign, my guess would be a pre-recession plan cancelled by Portugal’s austerity measures.

Monte Square

We found a small cafe in the square and Mom indulged in some early boozy coffee action since it was a bargain (and looked delicious if you’re into that sort of thing) and perhaps to calm her nerves for the excitement that was to come. As we were by now already quite missing our dogs the couple of pups wandering around the square were nice to see, though there are certainly a large number of strays on the island these seemed to be actual pets. The old man running the cafe was quite an oddball and it was somewhat of a production to get the drinks and eventually pay but the square itself was lovely and relaxing there with a drink felt like a very ‘european’ experience.

Monte Pup

The sleds themselves getting set to go

Next up was one of the things I’d been most looking foward to, the wicker sled ride! Something we’d seen on the Travel Man episode, sliding 2+ kilometers down the hill in greased wicker baskets has apparently been going on for more than a hundred years. They’re genuinely just more or less a wicker setee on a wicker sled greased up somehow and gliding on normal pavement. Part of me had memories of Chevy Chase in Christmas Vacation. The origin of the baskets is apparently some of the original goods transport in the earlier days. Two pilots in uniform and straw boater turn and tease you but genuinely keep you under control however much they might want to tease you otherwise. Of particular note is the fact that this is a) a public road and b) has intersections with actual traffic which is disconcerting even if they clearly have someone watching. I did record some video, not yet sure how it turned out but here is the clip of Richard and Robert doing it on youtube ( https://youtu.be/ju-FpD6r57Y?t=127  ). The walled gardens/homes form pretty much the entire path and either side of the road is a narrow drainage channel that is often gushing with water as well and feels like something you don’t want to clip with the basket edge. You reach speeds of up to 40kph apparently and though it feels fast it’s also somehow very placid feeling. I was impressed with Mom not outright screaming but she did leave some claw marks in my leg on one turn. All in all it was a blast and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Mid-run on the wicker

Another basket arriving

We decided to walk down the rest of the way to Funchal. Regular readers will know I have a loathing of hopping a cab at any touristy place knowing they’ll try and soak you but I also actually wanted to see more of the real neighbourhood. It was incredibly steep by anyone’s standards, not just prairie folks, but was entertaining to see the odd mix of places that people live on this oddball island. In some places larger modern houses sit behind old walls and vibrant gardens or small ancient looking houses have spanking new wrought iron fences, in others you’ll find an older mansion turned into a guest house or hotel. The occasional small cafe appears on a tiny one way road and one wonders if they survive mostly on tourists walking downhill wanting a drink. That being said it has been rare here so far to see a business that is patronized by tourists only.

Average Street Width

The walk took a fair while altogether. Not only is it steep (my calves were complaining for a while) but the upper 3/4 are very narrow, most places only just wide enough for a car and a pedestrian. While some of the locals (mainly schoolchildren) who passed us may have nonchalantly walked by, in most places we pressed ourselves to the wall as a car came by (usually about 15kph too fast for what is probably safe.) Eventually we found ourselves reaching Funchal central and found the burger joint that we’d seen recommended previously (Lived up to its reputation, if you’re ever in Madeira seek it out.)

Lunch definitely continued the bizarro disconnect in prices here to me. Dinner (or full lunch) is not cheap. Some places have a dedicated lunch menu which seems to be smaller portions of the dinner menu) at a cheaper price but not universally. Most of the restaurants serve traditional Madeiran food primarily, this is usually seafood and some meats, usually 12-20 euro at most of the but it comes with full sides. These prices are pretty universal most of the places we’ve been with prices skewing somewhat higher out here in resortland and slightly lower in the oldtown. Yet ‘snack’ food (what I’d consider a more traditional lunch) seems ridiculously cheaper. Some places have burgers and sandwiches for sub 3euro, rarely ever more than 5. Grabbing an amazing gourmet burger (mozza di buffalo/pesto/tomato on a beef/lamb mix,) a delicious plate of panko chicken fingers, fries and two pricier but delicious scratch made lemonades clocked in at less than the price of a dinner entree. It seems to consistently be so too, there’s a lack of ‘in between’ options pretty much unless you want pasta. It just seems odd.

After burgertime we checked out the (surprisingly deep/large) mall below the fancypants hotel where Richard and Robert stayed but had zero luck finding anything we wanted clothes wise. The stress of the missing bags at this point was reaching a high point. We ambled slowly back through town and eventually each found ourselves some extra underwear at varying small shops, explored some nicer souvenir stores and did some peoplewatching (even at a well above normal 24C there were some people wearing ludicrously warm looking coats.) We both kept nervously making jokes about walking in to see our suitcases arrived and breaking down crying but there was an increasing worry our luck was never going to turn…

…and sure enough, the front desk man awkwardly met our hopeful gaze with an instant shoot down. Turns out the afternoon flight from Lisbon had been forced to turn back by high winds. He had no confirmation as to whether it had successfully landed the followup attempt or if our bags were even on board. Were we going to have ANY luck with flights this trip. Even the flights we WEREN’T on were having snags for us. I forget which one of us suggested it but the fact that happy hour had just started in the lounge for the central hotel was certainly serendipitous.

Sitting on the balcony of the bar overlooking the sea we couldn’t help but laugh. We ended up chatting with a couple from Ireland who thankfully put up with our bitching for a bit and shared some tours they’d taken that we might like. We tried but our thoughts obviously kept coming back around to the latest setback so after they went to dinner we stayed for our second drink (free for happy hour) moved inside the bar proper and watched the ‘Late Night Duo’ band play for a while. Hilariously there was a young (german I think?) girl who obviously did dance classes who ran into the bar not long after they started and began her own interpretive dance pretty much non-stop for 45 minutes while her parents finished up in the buffet next door. At first it was adorable but eventually she had moved right up next to the band and was pretty much amazing us with her inexhaustible stamina. Occasionally she’d run back to her parents but when the next song started she’d be back in the bar (liquor laws not so strict here.)

Our burgers had been so late (and augmented by a gelato) that hunger took a while to hit but eventually we went back and ate our leftover pizza as we listened to the waves crash in…

…until suddenly…

…the phone rang…

“Hello? Your baggage is seeming to be here”

I don’t think we’ll ever again navigate the maze of corridors and stairs to the main reception that fast again. I nearly fell on my knees and hugged my suitcase. Back at the room we quickly checked and found them untouched and both instantly changed into our actual bed clothes. I think we eventually watched another episode of something but the stress letdown was pretty instant and we dropped into a deep and finally peaceful sleep not long after.

Total distance travelled by us so far: ~7000km

Total distance travelled by our bags so far: ~10000km

Poncha to the gut: Madeira Continued

edit note: While it was a bit overcast the days in question it wasn’t quite as grey as it seems. I can’t really white balance the photos easily while on the go so imagine some more warmth in them.

 

We actually managed to stay up reasonably late that night but I’m fairly sure as we hit our overly tiny pillows that night we were both out within seconds. Even the next morning we managed to sleep through a fair bit of noise before we were roused but honestly we really didn’t feel any jetlag. My only real complaint is that putting back on the socks I’d already worn for more or less two days was an experience I really didn’t need.

I will try not to turn this into the unending story of how not having your luggage sucks but it was definitely odd trying to find a few replacement items to tide us over. Finding socks was surprisingly difficult. Most of the small men’s stores in town didn’t sell socks and underwear at all, when we finally found some those that did either sold terrible thin touristy ones or teeny ankle socks. Shirts were almost as bad for a guy of my size as most portuguese shops don’t stock much for people over 5’8″. Still other than the quest for socks our first full day was pretty great.

There are a number with nautical themes

 

We started out more or less retracing our steps from the night before. We’d slept late enough that the fish market was more or less done for the day but many of the food vendors and flower vendors were in full swing, as was the small bakery nearby that we’d read about in our lonely planet pocket guide. Man was LP spot on with that recommendation. We got two giant ‘croissants’ (more of a croissant shaped semi sweet bun) toasted up with butter, cheese and ham and drinks for the equivalent of under $5. My mother only finished have of hers it was so large. We also decided to grab a couple of Pateis de Nata (Custard Tarts) to have later on.

Pau de Canela

Exploring the old town a bit more in daylight gave us a chance to see a bit more including some more of the painted doors previously hidden in the darker alleys and one of the older churches on a small square. The buildings are definitely still a mix of maintenance levels but you can definitely see the district throbbing with the life it must have been lacking before. It’s a hopefully sustainable mix of art and commerce that keeps things busy but isn’t a tourist only hangout. Private homes and apartments lie between and above the new businesses and you still see a mix of young and old locals hanging out at one of the microbars sipping a poncha or a local Corral beer.

Barking at the door

Poncha! Oh yes… Poncha. A traditional Madeiran drink that’s more or less a high octane rum punch (and also the more basic background of the Caprinha.) It’s made with a distilled sugarcane alcohol that packs a punch muddled with local honey and citrus juice. The traditional way would be with lemon, but many of the local ones have some fresh squeezed orange juice and Passionfruit versions are also tasty and delicious. We had one that first night and pretty much at least one a day since as they’re delicious and often quite cheap at the street cafes.

Heading towards the end of the old town the cliffs begin to climb again leading to another old church and some spectacular views along the coastline. For us prairie folk not so used to hills of any kind it was also the beginning of our calf muscle workouts that will continue into the later stages of the trip. At this end of the Funchal coastline there’s also a small fort that once help fend off pirates and the like during the era when Madeira was an important sugar (and later wine) producer.

Looking back across Funchal from just past the Fort

As we’d more or less reached the end of the old town we turned around and walked the length of the Funchal waterfront. For an island that relies on tourism so heavily it was really nice to see that the city’s waterfront isn’t just a mass of large hotels as it is in so many places. Some form of public walkway makes up most of the shoreline (sand beaches are not really a thing here since the island is so geologically young) with a strip of park or garden between it and the main oceanfront avenue. Most of the big modern hotels are in fact west of the city center in a ‘hotel zone.’ Many of the buildings closest to the water in the downtown area are still administration buildings, a historic fort and of course that necessity of necessities, a McDonalds :p

Funchal

A large portion of the locals are seriously well dressed. I suspected (and later confirmed on wikipedia) that the number of banks meant that Madeira was some form of tax haven, but even outside of downtown you often see large groups of people very elegantly attired for a random thursday afternoon. Most are also wearing quite snazzy footwear and we are both considering picking up some shoes at some point on this trip. Somewhat hilarious for people of our origin, many of these folks are also acting as if their winter was actually cold and wear wool jackets and scarves. Though the island has a number of climates and up on the peaks it can definitely be a bit colder… the Funchal ‘winter’ is in February an average temp of 18c. Part of the tourism draw of winter here is actually all the flowers that come out at this time of year. Birds of Paradise and other things exotic to us bloom freely here and liven up the landscape with colour, many of the gardens appear to be planted in such a way as to be a sequence of different blooming periods across the year.

We walked more or less the length of the center of Funchal, admiring the flowers, checking out the chestnut and gelato vendors and laughing at the newly arrived cruise ship with “Fahrtwind” stencilled on the side (which I believe means tradewind but I still laughed.) At this point there were two large ships and a smaller more vintage cruiser berthed with many shore parties roaming around. Nestled beneath them is the museum dedicated to (the ego of) Madeira’s most famous son: Christiano Ronaldo. The CR7 museum apparently houses a bunch of his personal trophies, jerseys etc. Outside is a pretty terrible bronze statue of him which was apparently controversial among some for being noticeably well endowed… presented without comment is a photo of said statue.

CR7 in front of his eponymous museum/hotel

Having vaguely decided that perhaps we needed socks that didn’t feel and smell as if they’d perhaps gain sentience we headed up from the shoreline into the more commercial part of downtown. We passed what appears to be a gorgeous old theatre sadly shut tight, but discovered the municipal gardens in the heart of downtown. It’s an elaborate garden (every time we’ve walked by since there have been at least 5 different groundspeople working) and also contains a small amphitheatre and cafe. Large old growth trees provide a canopy over varied flowers, fountains and waterfalls. It really has a feel of an oasis in the city.

We spent the rest of the day exploring the commercial district, eventually found some socks and then meandered back to our hotel before we grabbed another (more basic) dinner in the old town to wrap up day 2.

We knew that our airline didn’t run a flight out of Toronto the day after we left so day 3 was potentially the earliest we’d get our luggage. Anticipation was high, but we also had to transfer to our ‘permanent’ digs in Madeira which are actually well outside of the city proper on the coast. We reloaded our carryons, bid farewell to our residencial and continued our exploration of the city for a few hours until check in time.

I’m a fan of a show called Travel Man that Richard Ayoade of IT Crowd fame does on uk tv. Basically he takes a celebrity guest and does a weekend away in various places one can reach from the uk for a quickie holiday. His episode on Madeira had mentioned some of the things he’d already done and we had a bit of an aha moment as we stumbled across the shopping mall that was the ground floor portion of the fancy 5 star hotel that he and Robert Webb (also a personal fave) had stayed at.

After a quickie bakery lunch once again we found ourselves near the Santa Catalina gardens up on a cliff overlooking the harbour. Another gorgeous greenspace in a very pretty city, it also contains the first chapel built in Funchal as well as a small monument of thanks from the government of Gibraltar in recognition of the sanctuary and care offered to the many Gibraltar civilians evacuated here during World War II.

Once it was time, we hopped a cab up and out the same winding road and back towards the airport but turning off at the town of Canico (which is more or less just an outer suburb of Funchal at this point.) Here the very rugged coastline does have a line of hotels and condos. Our cabbie was not the most conversant in english but we managed to converse in a broken mix of languages where we wanted to go. Unfortunately he also wouldn’t listen to me as I told him that yes we were on the right street and stopped twice to ask for directions or to read a sign over and over when we could see where we wanted to be. Thankfully the second time he asked for directions we knew we had arrived and were already on our way out of the car when the man confirmed it.

Any hopes of luggage were dashed when we arrived inside to find blank looks from the front desk staff. Morale wasn’t improved when I received an email not long after informing us that “Hooray, your bags are on flight XXXX to Punta Delgada (the azores) and will arrive in Porto (on the mainland) later tonight. We are (obviously) not in Porto, have no plans to go to Porto. Later on after we were settled we asked the front desk manager to call the luggage folks on our behalf as I hadn’t been able to get through and we thought someone batting for us in Portugues might be helpful. Sure enough the baggage company claimed that the email had been a mistake and our bags would be on their way to Funchal soon (hah! It was definitely not.)

Our new home

Thankfully the condo itself was gorgeous. Small kitchenette, large bathroom and two very comfortable beds flanking a living room with balcony that overlooked the pool, cliffs and ocean beyond. It was a very welcome bit of luxury to two canadians starting to feel extremely grubby. The complex is made up of a fairly old but well maintained central hotel that was probably a very chic place in the 60s when the airport here first opened but is now a bit basic. Another newer hotel is on the east side and our condo complex (the newest buildings) are on the west.

I’m genuinely curious how different this area is in summer. Only in August does it ever get what I’d call truly hot here (an average of 25 degrees with little rain) but the outdoor pool is unheated. The lido area here on the oceanfront looks very neat in design but is all roped off at the moment. It’s also rather battered looking and I genuinely can’t tell if the missing guardrails/ladders etc are pulled out because it’s winter and no one swims, if they’ve perhaps been battered by particularly bad winter storm months back or if they’ve just not been maintained in a couple years. The hotel website has recent (or at least recent-ish) looking photos of the area well painted with lifeguard chairs and equipment.) It’s disappointing as I had hoped to get in the ocean, but it wasn’t as if I had a swimsuit at the moment anyway.

Looking pretty abandoned (doesn’t look much better in a shot someone took on google maps a year and a half ago either)

After the gut punch of still being without clothes, toiletries, my scuba gear etc for at least another day we went for a long stroll along the top of the cliffs. Further down from our hotel we passed a Riu Palace resort (one variant of wish we’ve stayed in in Puerto Vallarta) another older but very large hotel overlooking a small bay with a large oceanfront lido area, also looking very abandoned. (Though a photo on google does seem to perhaps show some people using the tidal pool there.) If not for the relatively new Riu (and another new-ish resort in the other direction) I would just think this area was perhaps a bit of a relic but perhaps I’m missing something?

The rugged coastline, somewhere down there is the complex’s currently off season dive center.

We did run across a few obviously feral cats. We’ve actually met more than a few stray dogs on the island but these were the first cats. They all seem really well looked after. More than once we’ve stumbled across little feeding stations where people have put out food and water for these animals and of course weather wise there isn’t much for them to worry about. While walking along the coast that evening we even found a little house someone had made for some of the ferals that lived near the ‘beach.’

Feral Cat Shack

After we’d explored (and really worked up an appetite on the hills) we went to a small pizzeria I noticed on the google map for some comfort food and some Poncha. Thanks to now having a kitchenette we could even keep leftovers for a quickie lunch or dinner later. Still as we strolled back downhill to the condo it was hard not to think about what we’d do if our luggage didn’t arrive the next day.

Chasing the Azorean Dawn – Portugal Day 1-?

So colour me shocked but again I’ve had a number of questions about whether I’m posting a travel blog for this trip. I honestly wasn’t sure as this is a bit more of a conventional holiday (I’ll be spending roughly half of it in resorts.) But as I always like to make notes about my travels and there seems to be demand I guess here we go again!


 

Our route (sort of?)

 

The morning we were leaving for Madeira my mother called me and asked, what time do you think we should leave for the airport? I couldn’t help but reply “it doesn’t matter what I think, Dad is going to get us there when he thinks it’s necessary regardless…” Sure enough, I was told 12:45 and in fact he was there closer to 12:30 as we set off on the 20m max trip to the airport for a 3:45 departure.

That was unfortunately the last bit of smooth sailing for the day. Does anyone remember when WestJet was about good service at a good price? At this point I can’t remember the last time I had a flawless experience with them and this time was definitely far at the other end. Unfortunately for us our flight had a fairly tight Toronto connection time of 1h30, but since we would be in the same terminal and the airport person confirmed our luggage would flow directly to our final destination we were feeling ok…

Toronto apparently had a minor amount of snow overnight so the plane taking us there was late arriving from TO. We were supposed to board at 3:45, ended up supposedly boarding at 4:10, only actually got away around 4:25. Our pilot tells us we should easily make up time in the air and sure enough he’s right, we arrive in Toronto only about 15-20 minutes behind our original time. In the meantime, our friends at WestJet have routed another plane into our gate. God forbid we just take the next one that’s open so we sit on the tarmac for another 45 minutes, by the time we sprint off the plane there’s 25m at most left til takeoff and they are usually closing the gates for good around 15 minutes beforehand. The supposed “gate agents to assist with connections” are nowhere to be found either.

I quickly scanned the board, found our gate (thankfully not the furthest end) and began powerwalking that way with mom trailing behind until I heard the robocall for final call, all passengers should be on board and basically began sprinting. I’m fairly sure I reached the gate just as they were about to offer our tickets to some standby folks and waited for mom to catch up as they told me our luggage was unlikely to make the flight (thanks WestJet!!!)

So hooray, we made it by the skin of our teeth but obviously had no time to buy a drink or any more food or, more importantly, use the restroom after ~30m of landing time and ~45m on the ground stuck in our seats. We were now on Azores Airlines which seems to have the lowest tolerance for turbulence of any airline I’ve ever taken so they seemed to take forever to turn the seatbelt signs off and unlock the restrooms. We both more or less sprinted the moment it dinged off. The flight was relatively uneventful otherwise despite some long “turbulence” times and more or less no service from the cabin crew after the meal (definitely wish I’d had a chance to buy some water.) Uneventful that is… until we arrived.

Madeira Island: A semi-autonomous region of Portugal (though actually closer to Morocco)

This second leg was Toronto to Puerto La Planchada in the Azores. We caught a healthy tailwind into/through the jetstream and arrived at the Azores around 5:30am local… at which point the airport was wait for it… NOT OPEN! So yes, we got to wait for around ~45 again, this time in the air, before we got landing clearance and landed at the teeny but modern airport. Deplaning directly onto the tarmac we got hit by a gale force wind coming off the open Atlantic and scurried inside for a brief passport check and a shortish wait for our flight to Madeira proper.

This time it was a Dash 8 (a smallish turboprop plane) and the two of us were surrounded by members of a soccer team. I don’t know about you but I have unwanted associations with travelling on a prop driven plane surrounded by a soccer team but we thankfully landed un-eaten at Christiano Ronaldo airport on Madeira just before noon. Shockingly enough, it was even a fairly gentle landing. (Do yourself a favour, don’t be like me and accidentally watch a youtube of “crazy landings at Madeira Airport” before you go.) It’s known to be windy and part of the landing path is out on pylons over the sea.

Not surprisingly at all there was no luggage waiting for us at the carousel so we registered our hotels for eventual (as I write this hopefully today*) delivery. Our luck finally turned as we emerged into a bright sunny day with a nice sea breeze, as views from an airport go I think it’s pretty hard to beat. Some preliminary research had made it clear the aerobus into town was the best way to go so we hopped on board and proceeded to marvel at the driver maneuvering the giant bus through the narrow cliffside roads heading off the highway into the capital of Funchal.

*not so much

For those who may never have heard of it Madeira is a volcanic island off the coast of Morocco that is a semi-automonous region of Portugal. It’s known as the ‘Island of Eternal Spring’ and has pleasant if not particularly hot climate overall with heavy variation depending on where you are on the island. The south end of the island where Funchal is located has most of the population nestled in the varied valleys that form a sort of ampitheatre leading down to the coast.

Funchal from near the harbour. The city core is quite small but the residential neighbourhoods sprawl upwards where ever a flat enough space for a house can fit.

Our first impressions were quite pleasant. I had a vague idea of where our hotel was and we started heading in the general direction when we found what seemed to be downtown’s central boulevard. Doing so we stumbled across a band of musicians playing various jazzy numbers with a bunch of folks flanking a bizarre creation of tubes. It looked and sounded like something the blue man group would play but their percussionists took turns getting some pretty amazing driving baselines out of the thing with their wide flat mallets. We ended up watching them for quite a while as we heartily enjoyed a bench and some peoplewatching at the same time.

Impressive sounds out of that collection of tubes, all mounted to wheels too.

Eventually we stumbled wearily towards our guesthouse, eventually finding it up a side road that was seemingly taking 50% of the traffic exiting downtown despite being at first glance only wide enough for a vw bug. Our plan for Madeira is to spend a week at a resort we got an exchange for via my parents’ time share, but that wasn’t until thursday so we thought we’d get some simple digs in the city in the meantime. It was tiny, very basic but utterly spotless and as we had no plans to really spend any time in the room at this point more than good enough. Only complaint was facing that same busy road but thankfully it quieted down almost completely after about 8pm.

The drainage channels out of the mountains collect various water channels and often have lovely flowers

Awake time at this point was roughly 23 hours so after squeezing in turn into the postage stamp sized shower we succumbed to the urge for a short nap. Unsurprisingly this turned into a longer nap but eventually we rousted ourselves, put on our only fresh clothing and managed to walk down towards the waterfront (with a quick stop for toothbrushes.) A second medium sized cruise ship had nestled in during our nap and the streets were fairly lively. I’m pretty good at quickly getting the hang of navigation in a new town (something about being able to mentally translate a map well) and figured out we were heading toward the large market. It was about to close but we had a quick look around at some of the flower stalls (the sellers required by law to wear traditional dress) and made a note to come back later. Thankfully the market also serves as a gateway to the old town.

Church plaza in Old Town with one of the many flowering trees here

Funchal’s old town has apparently undergone somewhat of a transformation of late with an area that was formerly somewhat rundown with many abandoned buildings. Not long ago all commercial shipping left Funchal proper and with it many of the residents. Thankfully unlike you might expect it wasn’t all torn down for a few giant hotels but is now filled with small restaurants and bars, art galleries, hostels and guesthouses (I would stay here next time.) Also notably, an art project was started to convince people to make and preserve art in the area that involved people painting the derelict (and non-derelict) doors with vibrant colours and murals. Some are great, some are just hilarious but they all combine to give the district a distinct vibe.

How could I not take a photo of this one (Doors of the Old Town, Funchal)

We eventually chose a Madeiran restaurant that was also hosting a Fado performance for a show while we ate. Fado is Portuguese folk blues, traditional music with a history of being about longing and melancholy. In practice it’s usually very dramatic sounding songs sung with much seriousness and accompanied by Portuguese guitar and an acoustic base guitar looking thing. Our group was 4 singers trading off and they were really quite talented despite my Portugues being essentially limited to yes sir, no sir, thank you, hot dog. By the time we finished our meal and show however we were absolutely done and headed back to our guest house ready to crash.

Fado!

Edit note: More to come soon, it took me a few days to finish this post as morale lowered a bit/other concerns overtook writing over the next bit.

30,000 kilometers later…

Victoria Harbour at night

Hong Kong, talk about a culture shock after rural Thailand 24 hours before. Between the plane running a bit late, customs taking a while and having to take the train to Hong Kong island (thankfully a painless airport express) it was just after eleven before I found my hotel. I’d had some sort of brainfart while booking and spent a lot more than I’d planned but the hotel was certainly nice if VERY compact due to real estate prices. It was a 32 storey (minus the “4” floors Chinese folks find so terrifying so more like 27ish with some other mysterious missing floors) building with a footprint not much bigger than my parents’ back yard. In that small space there were 5 hotel rooms and 2 tiny elevator shafts per floor. Despite the compactness my room was really well laid out and didn’t feel suffocating and somewhat gloriously I’d ended up on the top floor facing the harbour.

Since I hadn’t eaten anything in forever I grabbed a quick shower and went in search of food but sadly the neighbourhood I’d ended up in didn’t have much to offer at almost midnight on a Wednesday night. The desk clerk admitted I might have to resort to McDonalds. In the end I got a coke from a 7-11 and found a Dim Sum place about to close up but with a couple steamed pork buns still hot.

The next morning I got up reasonably early wanting to make the most of my day but still spen a few minutes enjoying my the view out my window (after opening my power blind from bedside control!) seeing the ferries scurry about and watching a small group do tai chi on the public park 30 stories below. Somewhat hilariously my shower sprayed with such a powerful fine mist that there was a warning posted to only use it with the air fan on full and both the bathroom and shower door closed lest it set off the sensitive smoke alarm and force evacuation of the hotel. As I had no desire to walk down all those stairs in my undies I obeyed.

One of my cousins and his family live in Hong Kong so I’d asked them for advice on how to spend a quick stay sightseeing (though they’d fled before I arrived in terror so we didn’t get to meet for a meal.) I started off exploring the neighbourhood round my hotel as I slowly made my way to ‘Central’ but as it was apparently a holiday more than a few things were closed. Central however was a lot more lively and I really enjoyed finding the bits of colonial architecture still standing in the midst of the more modern towers.

Their suggestion (and pretty much everyone else’s too) was to check out Victoria peak so I braved the holiday crowds and hopped on the Victoria Peak tram which has been running since the 1880s. It’s an occasionally wildly steep ride and the views are fantastic. I have to admit that the crazy long queue was exceptionally well managed for most of its length. I started on the other side of the street in a long (b/c holiday I’m guessing) queue for tickets. After making my way through that lineup (probably 30m) there was a gap to the other side of the street where the expensive tour people got to mostly skip it. At that point some of the marshals handed out plastic cards with which you could rejoin the queue on the other side. Sure enough some tiny old woman pretending? to be yakking on her cell phone (and her adult daughter) tried to squeeze in with my group in the rush but as they didn’t have the card (and a bunch of us pointed her out) she got the boot.

On the other side things were much more poorly managed but I eventually got on a tram through an area lined with historical displays which would have been quite interesting had I been able to browse them and not just get to read whichever one I was penned in next to each time the crowd crush for each tram moved forward. It was like waiting to get into an exam in University Center in an exam with lots of international students, the same elbows first mentality. Once at the top I did a 3km-ish circuit of one of the walking paths and enjoyed the sights. Not only do you get a fantastic view of the harbour and nearby islands in all directions, you’re looking down on the skyscrapers of Hong Kong island as well and it gives you quite the perspective on just how much city is crammed into such a tiny area.

Looking across to Kowloon from the peak

Once I’d gotten down from the peak I took a walk through nearby Hong Kong park which was quite pretty and which features and free to tour aviary filled with various birds. There are also a number of busy public areas and a large pond filled with fish and turtles.

Aviary

Turtle Friend

By this point my legs were aching a bit as Hong Kong is quite the hilly/stair-filled place and even all my thailand power walking hadn’t prepped me for much up and down. Frustratingly my timing wasn’t great and my planned lunch stop fell through as they had closed for the afternoon, walking away from that place I randomly stumbled into another shop from an article on the “best xiao long bao in Hong Kong” and gave in to my craving for dumplings.

Xiao Long Bao are soup dumplings. Thin shelled steamed pork dumplings that when cooked properly have a mouthful of soupyness ready to squirt out all over the unwary eater’s shirt. They are phenomenal when done well and these were definitely good along with a bowl of spicy noodles. Happy and recharged I walked the rest of the way to the dock for the famous Star Ferry to hop across the harbour and experience a bit of Kowloon (the peninsula across from HK island.) Along the way I ran into a bunch of groups of young women clustered on the walkways, at one point there was a giant swarm of them practicing what can only be describe as catwalk model/strip club prancing or music video dancing in tottering heels to loud stereos blasting Bruno Mars and Beyonce. It was rather bizarre as one a) tried to avoid them and b) tried to avoid laughing as the occasional young woman trying very hard to be sexy instead fell over and was ridiculed by the others as they all giggled. 

Soup dumpings, amazing

If nothing else the trip was worth it for the view. Though you can take the subway across the water these days the ferry gives a pretty great panorama of all the tall buildings crowding Victoria Harbour, the mountains in the distance and the seemingly unending parade of boat traffic all around.

Wandering around Kowloon itself was definitely another side of the Hong Kong seen in movies and tv. Kowloon’s population density is something around 40,000 people per square kilometer and it really shows. Lots of narrow alleys packed with with shops and restaurants and people. In various places street markets fill almost every inch of available space and shopping appears to be where it’s at almost everywhere. Honestly if I wasn’t already running a pretty damned full bag I’d have been taking part more myself, maybe next trip. In the end I only bought a couple teeny things including a new luggage tag for my bag as mine had disappeared in a bus cargo hold somewhere in Thailand.

Kowloon Streets

Night was starting to fall when I finally gave in to my aching feet and hopped the subway back to the harbour, though I sadly found out the subway station was not particularly close to said harbour. Still, the ferry ride was worth it again, this time with the view being a closeup of the sparkling light displays on the various buildings that I’d seen from a distance (and up high) the night before in my room.

I grabbed a leisurely and delicious dinner once back on the Hong Kong side, planning my cheque to leave me with more or less just enough to hop on the airport train/buy a bottle of water for my flight. I don’t know if it’s a Hong Kong thing but as I waited (a while) for my food to come the hostess stopped by my table with a small bowl full of seasoned peanuts and seaweed bits. I had a few but they honestly were a bit too salty and bitter for me to enjoy too much so I put them aside after a couple pinches. Imagine my surprise when the bill comes and they’re the equivalent of like $5CAD, there went my grand financial plan. I asked the hostess wtf and she said “but you ate them.” What’s worse is they were taken away while I was asking what was up with the extra charge on the bill so I couldn’t even finish them out of spite. The meal was otherwise fantastic, I was just really hoping to not have to take out any extra money before heading back as I knew I’d probably get double dinged on the exchange charges.

When I got back to the hotel it wasn’t super late but to be safe I wanted to leave for the airport around 6am (wise choice) and my (notoriously terrible) feet were aching. I wasn’t surprised when via some quick online calcs I figured out I’d walked about 15 hilly km that day. Sadly the trip was definitely at a close now, the only thing left was the annoying part and as I fell asleep watching the Champions League replays in Cantonese I tried not to worry about the long flight to come.

I definitely didn’t get to see as much of Hong Kong as I would have liked but I saw enough to whet my appetite to return and I suppose that’s all you can ask for with a one and a bit day visit.

Getting back to the airport was just as painless as my arrival with a quick subway ride leading to the airport train. Unfortunately for me I’d booked to go through Toronto as any vancouver flight around this date had had a premium on it of at least $400 iirc.) The result being of course that the flight time I’d saved from the BKK->HK flight was now just being spent crossing a section of Canada I’d just to have to cover again in reverse. This time however I’d booked a window seat, something I’d never do on a domestic flight due to space issues but knowing it would be relatively painless on the wide body airbus and at least give me a wall to lean against and sleep if I got another captain elbows.

Thankfully that didn’t happen but instead ended up with a flight full of people connecting from India, seemingly half of whom had either checked in last minute or perhaps missed/been bumped from another flight and were thus desperately trying to swap seats with people once on board to sit together. I had to very apologetically tell a girl that no I wasn’t going to swap so she could sit with her sister as it would have led to me sitting in the middle of a three seat cluster and there was no way I was doing a 15.5 hour flight in that position. Perhaps as karmic balance (though I think I made the right choice for everyone’s comfort involved) my entertainment system audio broke 3 hours into the flight… but at least I managed to snatch a few hours of sleep.

The map was working eventually though, so I got to unhappily watch the plane pass over Flin Flon then down midway across lake Winnipeg as it dodged some weather and couldn’t help but wish for some minor issue that would require stopping at Winnipeg and unloading for the night. Instead we went on to the nightmare that is Pearson international and what I supposed would be a fairly leisurely 2 hour layover turned into a near sprint for the gate.

Now, let me start off by saying I understand that Toronto is my port of entry into Canada and I need to clear customs, but Pearson is absolutely the worst place I’ve found to do that in all of Canada if you’re then shipping onward to somewhere else. First up was immigration which has a long lineup in one of the cattle tunnels down to the main section and absolutely no one telling you that that’s only one smaller area for pre checks to relieve the main area. Another passenger actually told me we could bypass it. Once at the main area we got in a line that though it moved fairly smoothly had every other passenger in it (Canada being literally the only country I’ve been to on my wider international journeys that doesn’t always have a “Local Citizens Only” speed line.) They had odd new robo passport checkers that moved up and down to shoot the camera at your face. All in all that part wasn’t great but could have been worse, still ate up about 30m of my layover in speed walking/line up time.

Next up was baggage claim where I had to claim my big bag, theoretically have customs look at it but in reality walk right by, then give it back to Air Canada. The baggage claim hall appears to have been unrenovated since the 80s, is dank and smelly and full of often unintelligible baggage claim announcements. It is not an exaggeration to say that the english baggage announcements were better in Bangkok and HK. Literally every flight that arrived in the thirty minutes I waited there had its carousel changed, often multiple times. Our flight had one carousel announced, the notice showed up on the tv screen on another carousel, then the announcements said a third one, followed by swapping back to the first. The tv screen had not changed by the time I got my bag. The bags themselves came in one batch of five, then a full fifteen minute wait before we saw another bag during which everyone on a connection was progressively getting closer and closer to climbing in the back.

Bag finally retrieved I walked by my customs “inspection” and brought my bag into a tiny room where a helpful West Jet person asked me if I was on their airline. I said no (sadly) and she directed me to the conveyor belt on my left where I walked right past two people playing on their phones and chatting, briefly making eye contact. Said woman made no comment at all as I placed my bag on the conveyor until it reached the end when she hit a loud “STOP THE LINE” alarm and started yelling at me “ARE YOU ON AIR CANADA” to which I replied yes and proceeded to get a lecture about having to show my baggage claim tag blah blah blah. I bit my tongue as I needed to change terminals and get the hell out of there but man… you knew damned well I was. Once my bag disappeared she with zero grace agreed with me that the particular unmarked door I needed was the one behind me and went back to her candy crush. It’s also worth noting that on West Jet you often don’t even need to do this process, though they have other problems at Pearson usually being stuck at extreme far gates with no functional slipways.

The worst part of the pearson experience in this is that unlike many other airports they don’t have a way for you to stay behind security as you change terminals, nor a particularly expedited way for you to get back through when you’re on a connection. So it was on the train, over to the departures area, through to back area, arrive at a tiny security desk with only two lanes open (despite at least 5 large international flights arriving in the previous hour) and a huge lineup of people and ~25m until my flight began boarding for Winnipeg. In the end I made it thanks to a group of Regina HS students returning from Europe knowing their flight had been delayed and letting me jump ahead of the fifteen of them (thanks fellow prairie folks, I promise not to bash Regina for a whole month.)

The scary part of the this was? I got the good experience! The young woman named Jenna I was sitting next to on the flight (middle seat, thanks for respecting my “seat preference” when you wouldn’t let me check in from China Air Canada) had been on the same HK flight returning from Indonesia. Roughly 10 different airline employees had told her different things about whether her bag was checked through or not and then a “rude employee just after customs” (boy I wonder who that was) had refused to help her get back or even contact anyone for help when she informed her that she needed her bag. All she said was you’ll have to go talk to your airline for an escort (good luck finding someone from Cathay an hour after their last flight for the day has arrived.) In the end she was left with no idea where her bag was or if she’d ever see it again but absolutely needed to be on the flight back to Winnipeg and was sobbing as she got seated. That sort of crap isn’t fun at the best of times but she was on an even longer day than me having had a 5 hour flight from somewhere in indonesia followed by a 5 hour layover in HKIA. We chatted for a while until she finally accepted that there was nothing she could do now and tried to sleep while I caught the end of the movie I’d been watching on the first flight when my tv broke.

A few hours later the snowy familiar sights of home were outside the window and I came down the arrivals escalator to see my mother blankly staring past me and not recognizing me as I went over to the baggage claim (hoping my own bag had made it.) Eventually my Dad showed up as well and he at least recognized his son ;p just before my slightly filthy backpack emerged. Some hugs and a warm coat later we headed out to the car to meet up with a dog that seemed to have missed me given she climed out the back into my arms, went and grabbed a delicious pizza then came home for a chat followed by one heck of a long sleep.

Distance:
All together I travelled countless kilometers by foot and bicycle, ~2000km by bus/minibus, ~1500km by various forms of train and another 250km by ferry on this trip. Add on 12,722km between YWG and Bangkok each wayplus a detour to Toronto (and the noticeable and appreciated detour the intercontinental flights took around North Korean airspace) and that’s the better part of 30,000km. Something tells me the big red backpack still has a few more trips in her though… but will it be back to Thailand next?

 

Some trip details for those who asked.

Finances:
I know there’s been a bit of a running theme in this blog about me cheaping out on things. Honestly there are a few parts of solo travel that are amazing and there are a few parts that suck. The cost of things is one of the latter. This was an exceptionally cheap trip overall but there are still instances where you really wish you had someone to share the cost.

Accommodations:
If you discard Hong Kong as an outlier my most expensive hotel of the whole trip was I believe $55ish Canadian the average was probably 30-35 and that was with me always having a private room and almost always springing for the extra baht for air con. Even my time share apartment generously obtained from my dad was I think only around 80 or 90 a night if booking privately, though you were then charged utilities. I generally stayed at guest houses or bungalows with good ratings on trip advisor or booking.com or that were recommended by people I met and other than the one place in Lanta was never really disappointed. Overall they ranged from fine but spartan to amazingly luxurious and with one exception had ensuite bathrooms.

I’d say were I travelling with a partner or a friend sharing twin beds I probably would have bumped this up by $10 a night in certain places but it definitely wasn’t necessary and I certainly never felt and urge or need to seek out one of the big us or euro chains for a luxury night (especially as in Thailand these hotels are often very remote from the fun stuff.) That said if you’re willing to do dorm stays (even if you want to stay to smaller four bed dorms) many places in Thailand have some very fun looking hostels. After having felt a bit old on the last trip five years ago and valuing sleep a bit more this time around (and given Thailand’s ridiculously low prices) I decided to stick to private rooms.

Eating/Drinking:
My most expensive splurgy meal including a beer was around $18, my average meal was definitely under $5. I often spent as much in a day on bottled water as I did on food. The downside of travelling solo here is that there are times you really want to try more things on a menu and you’d love to just do some family style dining. Occasionally I’d splurge on a bigger meal but as I only had a kitchenette the only place leftovers usually weren’t useful. If there was someplace I knew I wanted to try and eat a bunch I’d often skip lunch or just have something tiny and just chow down for dinner.

Booze wise local beer is cheap, terrible Thai whiskey/rotgut is cheapish, most other things are expensive by comparison. A lot of places you’d pay near the low end of Canada prices for a mixed drink/cocktail, again not terrible in the grand scheme of things but probably 2-3x what you spent on dinner. Given the heat I often just had a cold Thai beer or have a mango smoothie or the like.

Transport:
Here is often where I skimped even though relatively speaking it wasn’t expensive. Had I had a bit less time I likely would have flown around a bit more as you can hop domestic air for often under $100 between some destinations. Were I doing the same itinerary again I likely would have flown to Phuket from BKK and perhaps back from Samui after Koh Tao. As it was I definitely wanted the experience of the train journeys though I’d only really recommend the night train to Chiang Mai of the ones I took, the other is probably better done at least partially by day.

Buses:

Whenever possible I’d say do your research and always spend the extra money on the higher end buses and particularly on the good brands/government ones where applicable. Always buy your ticket at the bus station as the touts are generally more money.

Taxis,Tuk Tuks and Red Trucks:
These vary so incredibly widely by city that one can’t really give blanket advice. Tuktuks are cute but terrible in Bangkok as they charge you massive amounts that aren’t worth it unless you’re a group of 4 and the roofs are so short that anyone tall-ish can’t see out anyway. Add on the smog/scooter exhaust and it’s not super pleasant anyway, even before you factor in the fact that they’re usually trying to take you to some business from which they’ll get a commission. Taxis are cheap in Bangkok and should always be on meter, just use them, you’ll get a chance to tuk tuk elsewhere in Thailand for the experience. Taxis etc are also the one “tourism” industry in Thailand that often doesn’t have a lot of english spoken so if possible have the address of your hotel in Thai or at least know how to clearly pronounce it properly in Thai.

Taxi wise in general in thailand they’ll often try to bilk you for big money if you’re just getting off a bus/train, carrying a backpack and if you’re solo (also no doubt worse if you’re female.) It’s usually better to take a short walk away from the hotel/station/tourist attraction and flag down a cab on the move rather than take one of those just sitting there waiting for someone to scam as honest cabbies in Thailand make their living through volume and will be on the move.

Where possible in smaller towns it’s often worth trying to use the Rot-dam/Sorng-Taa-Ew local system (the pickup truck pseudo buses/charterable buses) as they’re often under a buck to go really long distances or get to less touristy areas (say if you want to go to a mall to stock up on sunscreen and other sundries at non tourist prices.) As chronicled in the blog there are a few places where you’re just at the mercy of what they feel like charging you.

Excursions:

Lots of excursions offer deals if you book more than one person, sadly not helpful when you’re solo. Shop around though, some places offer better deals online, some hotels have discounts (though some of the in hotel places also gouge you for a commission or in some northern towns even require you to book at least one tour through them to be able to stay the night) it’s definitely worth comparing yourself and knowing at least the ballpark of what the cost should be.

 

What to bring:
Don’t bring backups of anything really, it’s pretty rare to go too long without seeing some kind of shop that will sell backups of anything really critical. Clothing wise I’d definitely skew towards more shirts/less other things. The heat will often have you returning from a day’s activities and wanting to throw on a fresh shirt before going out to dinner. I had a couple items in my bag that never got worn though at least I learned my lesson from last time and didn’t have jeans weighing down my bag. Pretty much everywhere in Thailand has laundry services done by the Kilo so try to bring stuff that is friendly to wash together and you’ll be set. Touristy shirts are available pretty much everywhere if you get stuck for around $5-10 if you get really stuck.

Unless you’re really planning to go to a super high end place in Bangkok it’s probably not worth bringing anything super fancy clothes wise, I went with one collared shirt and my khakis for that. Really the only thing worth worrying about clothes wise is the occasional restriction at temples, particularly for women about covering skin. Usually they will have things you can rent but wearing pants at some temples may be required and midriff baring tops aren’t acceptable. I saw many women at the temples in bangkok just using one of the gorgeous silk scarves you can buy many places in town as a shoulder covering and that seemed to be acceptable though a lightweight rain jacket stowed in the purse/backpack was a frequent choice as well.

It’s worth having one sweater (ideally a light weight zip up imo) with you either for temples or for your time on the frequently meat locker set AC temps on public transport.

I travelled with my stupidly expensive sandles because of my frequently mentioned terrible feet but for those who can function in flip flops you can buy them pretty much everywhere there cheaply and can be ignored if space is tight. Absolutely bring a well broken in but still supportive pair of shoes, consider throwing in some gel insoles as you’ll be walking a bunch. According to people I talked to replacing a pair of sneakers if you have big western feet can be a difficult prospect outside Bangkok.

Other things to buy and bring with you:
-Sunscreen/bug spray are both necessities (I avoided Dengue hurray!) and are significantly more expensive in Thailand for western brands. I forgot my sunscreen and had to drop $20 on some coppertone then had to buy a further slightly cheaper bottle in week 3 thanks to the volume I was going through.

-first aid/advil other small things. Sometimes you’re at the mercy of small tourist pharmacies or 7-11 for these things, definitely worth having a small first aid kit with you. Mine’s about the size of a deck of cards and served me well having bandages/gauze, some antibiotic ointment and immodium/advil/decongestent. I also brought a tensor bandage given my explosion prone ankles but thankfully never needed it.

-If you’re going to snorkel or dive a lot and don’t have your own mask either resign yourself to renting or buy one at home. Masks of any quality had a significant mark up most places I looked. Was definitely worth the bag space to me, ymmv.

Cell Phone:

Bring an unlocked smartphone with you (all Canadian carriers are now required to unlock your phone) if your brand new smartphone is too pricey for you to want to risk it go pick up a cheap last gen pay as you go phone somewhere, you can usually find something on sale for under $150. Once you’re in thailand cheap tourist SIMs are everywhere and there are counters in the airport where you literally just give them the phone and they’ll set it up right in front of you and hand it back (keep your original sim safe if it’s your prime phone and you want to be able to slot it back in after.) LTE coverage is astonishingly good most places in Thailand (even mid ferry ride shockingly) and I got coverage for my full month for about $25cad. Being able to use GPS or look up a hotel booking while on a ferry was a lifesaver at times though I wish I’d brought a phone with a better battery.

I think that’s about it for off the top of my head, mostly just putting things in here I’ve talked to people thinking of travelling to Thailand about since returning.

Thanks everyone who read along for the trip, I wasn’t originally going to do a travel blog this time but there was definitely enough people asking that I guess more people read it than I imagined last time. I know things were a bit more matter of fact this time but that was down to fewer hours on a greyhound and my laptop battery only lasting about 40m without power so not often being able to write in a bus or train station and instead just taking longhand notes. As for the trip itself feel free to reach out if you have questions either in general or because you’re planning to visit this gorgeous and delicious country.

Cheers, and see you next time?