Tag Archives: train

A Rainy Porto and Guimarães….Northern Portugal

Portugal was supposed to be our sunny and warm winter retreat from cold and gloomy Zurich.  Unfortunately, Mother Nature had a different idea and we were treated to 9 days of rain, punctuated by a few minutes of sun here and there.  And no warmth.  But we donned our rain coats and warm shoes, covered our backpacks and used umbrellas to block the wind.  And Riki still managed to take a couple thousand pictures.  I spent a lot of time holding two umbrellas up so he could snap the perfect pic.

Being a pretty well-seasoned budget traveller, this trip was no exception.  I snagged $50 round trip flights a few weeks before and booked the cheapest shared accommodation I could find in the neighborhoods I wanted.  This kind of budget travel has its downsides, as one of our flights left from Basel (an $8 hour train trip from Zurich) and didn’t include a checked bag.  But we travel light anyway so this only affected us in that we couldn’t bring home the bottle of port we would have liked.  And the shared accommodation, well that could have been better, and warmer.  But the price was right and we don’t travel to see the inside of someone else’s apartment anyway.

We arrived in Porto to a leaky airport roof, an omen for the remainder of our trip.  Determined to explore despite the heavy downpour, we dropped off our bags and bee-lined for some food.  Our first meal exposed us to the hearty potato or bean and kale soup that we would be served at almost every meal to come.  We found the food to be cheap ($5 three course meal) and plentiful, especially at the places the Portuguese were eating.  And very good.

Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and is situated on the Douro River.  Its historic area is a UNESCO site with parts dating back to the Celtics, Romans and Moors.  One side of the river is populated with narrow streets and tall skinny buildings.  Across an amazing two story bridge, though technically in a different town, are much lower buildings, and the wine cellars where you can try all types of port wine.  And since it was raining, we did a lot of tastings.

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Porto @ night
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Two story bridge with pedestrians and cars on the bottom and trams on the top
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Favorite balcony in town

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Porto streets
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Train station disappears into a tunnel

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Amazing Azulejos tiles in the São Bento train station

Day 2 had a little better weather forecast in Guimarães than in Porto so we hopped on a suburban train for the one hour trip.  And this is where we discovered the madness that is Portugal’s public transportation.  The metro, bus and trains are all operated by different organizations.  So despite buying the reusable paper card for 50 cents, loading it up for 8 zones of use, paying the amount we had seen quoted online and validating the ticket at the TRAIN station, we still had the wrong ticket.  Which we discovered halfway through when the conductor came around.  We had a metro card and had to buy a whole new ticket.

Guimarães is a UNESCO site for its medieval settlement and it is believed Portugal’s first king was born here.  We wandered the old town until a miraculous break in the clouds occurred and we high-tailed it up a hill to see the remains of a medieval castle and any views it may offer, which were mostly of the incoming rain storm.

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Medieval castle and a break in the clouds
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Palace of the Dukes of Braganza and its many chimneys
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Palace and pigeon

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We wandered the streets some more in the gloom, but soon realized we had over an hour until the next train left, which resulted in the discovery of some old waterways that go under buildings, and some cats.

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Back in Porto, we caught a brief moment of the sunset from across the bridge.

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Porto beyond the cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia

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That evening we walked into a near empty restaurant and were told they were probably full.  But somehow they managed to squeeze us into our own 6 person table and serve us amazing pork cheek and Bacalhao (cod) cheesy omelet-like concoction.

The next day we walked to the Crystal Palace, a giant dome we had seen from afar.  Expecting more from the walk than the destination, we were pleasantly surprised to discover a free book fair inside the dome and a nice garden.  And since we have a history of wandering into random gardens and seeing peacocks, Riki said, “I wonder if they have peacocks.”  Not 10 seconds later, we saw the most beautiful peacocks, with their feathers up and everything.  And roosters.

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Crystal Palace
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Inside the Crystal Palace

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Videos @ Peacock fight and Peacock Dance

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The males shake their feathers which makes an incredible noise, like a metallic hum – see video above

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Walking back, we stumbled upon the interesting Mercado do Bolhão, which was a mix of tourist crap and plentiful produce.

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Mercado do Bolhão

The gloom continued and we were forced to cross the river to Vila Nova de Gaia to do some port tastings.  First, we did a tour/tasting at Cálem where we were told the history of port and given a look at the caves.  Many people coming to Porto opt for a Douro River cruise.  As it was January and the weather was rough, we decided to stay in town.

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Cormorants on traditional port delivery boats

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Huge barrels for tawny port making

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Getting artsy with our tastings, who knew they had white port?

On our last full day, it was raining harder than ever.  After the unnecessarily difficult task of finding the right bus (lack of maps and information), which never showed up anyway, we made it to the Foz do Douro, right on the Atlantic Ocean.

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Me with the double umbrellas

We took the historic tourist tram back rather than figure out the bus.

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Back in Porto and completely drenched, we continued back to our favorite spot, Ramos Pinto cellars to taste some more port.  They had the most casual set up and reasonable prices – 2 Euro and up per tasting.  We even splurged and tried a 6 Euro port.  Since they closed at 6 and we were still wet, we continued to another spot, Quevedo, where we tried a few more ports.  Disaster ensued as we were leaving though, as we discovered someone had traded umbrellas with Riki at the door, and left him with a rather floppy replacement.  And it continued to pour.

I’m not proud of our last meal in Porto, as we came across a Steak & Shake on our way home.  But considering that its been years since we ate a meal of burgers, fries and chocolate milkshakes – its ok.

Next up: First class train trip to Lisbon

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A new country….Yangon, Myanmar

I’ve had a tough time writing this one. I’ve started over a few times and it still isn’t right. So bear with me – it may be a little slow, as is the internet here.

Myanmar is not like the rest of southeast Asia. It hasn’t been open to tourists as long and it is way behind in catering to them. It makes for more difficult prep work, which so far has involved more word-of-mouth than anything else, as the internet is slow to non-existent. This also makes it more expensive compared to the other countries we have visited. Apparently, this is because hotels have/had to be licensed by the government, which is/was difficult. I haven’t figured out the current situation, hence the slash (/) marks.

The country has a troubled history. It’s lengthy, confusing and is still yet to be determined. I won’t go into too many details, as I’m still trying to understand it myself. One thing I do know, there are places we are restricted from going because there is still unrest and fighting. I had wanted to try to go as far north as we could. We have been discouraged from doing this as it will take an incredible amount of time due to inadequate infrastructure, and because of rebel groups that are fighting the government and killing each other. So we won’t go there. That’s enough to persuade me. Like Cambodia, I highly recommend reading a bit about Myanmar. It had many kings, with many ethnicities “united” and then became part of colonial British India. The British set up many towns to facilitate trade of local products, such as teak. Since being free of Britain, Myanmar has been struggling to find peace amongst themselves.

We booked two nights ahead of time in Yangon at a popular place that has free airport pick-up. We wanted to be sure to run into other travelers to get a feel for where we should go. We didn’t buy a guidebook ahead of time because we had heard that everything that is written about Myanmar is obsolete almost as soon as its published because the country is changing so rapidly. Also, as I said, because of fighting in certain areas, a few places are closed to foreigners, but this changes rapidly and can only be ascertained from the locals.

Although Yangon/Rangoon may be the most well-known city in Myanmar, and the largest, it is not the capital anymore. In 2005, the military moved the capital to the center of the country. For a cost of upwards of $4 billion, Nyi Pti Taw was constructed. But we are not going there. Supposedly, it’s just 8-lane highways and crappy construction. It gets 2 pages in the guide book we ended up getting. Yangon and Mandalay each have their own sections.

Anyway, back to Yangon. We arrived by plane at 8:30 am, went through immigration at a snail’s pace and were at the hotel before 10 am. In time for breakfast. And then we took a much needed nap as we had woken up at 4 am in Bangkok, which is half an hour ahead of Myanmar.

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Painted buildings
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Playing rattan ball in skirts hiked up around their waists – did I mention all the men wear skirts (longyi)?
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Street scene

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That afternoon, we walked to Sule Pagoda and then up to Shwedagon Pagoda. It took quite awhile, but walking a city is really the best way to get a feel for it. That, and its easier for Riki to take a million pictures. We arrived at the pagoda in time for sunset, which is the most popular time to go. We encountered more tourists than we had seen all day. The incredible complex costs $8 to enter but is definitely the highlight of Yangon. We wandered around as the light slowly faded and the electric lights came on. I discovered the pagoda has free wifi (something we had not been able to access at the hotel very well), so I did some research while Riki continued with the picture-taking.

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Lots of people, lots of gold
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Cleaning the floor – though my feet were still black when we left
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Sunset
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Monk at sunset
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All lit up
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Making friends

The next day we walked to the train station and got on the local loop. It costs $1 for foreigners and you can hop off anywhere you like. We opted to do the whole three hour loop in one go. Almost as soon as we took off, we stopped again. And it continued like this. Stop, go. Slowly. At one of the first stops, a Burmese woman living in New York sat down across from us. She was delighted to find out we were Americans. So delighted, that she gave us three of her oranges. And then some packets of chocolate goo that she insisted we eat right away (but that we could also put in water). And then, when a man selling a different kind of oranges got on the train, she bought us three of those too. Because they were better, she said. The next lady who took her place, spoke no English. But we smiled and she smiled, like most people do here. And then, she took a hot ear of corn out of her bag, split it in two and gave it to us. Without saying a word. So within an hour, we had acquired 6 oranges, 6 packets of chocolate goo and an ear of corn. Without even leaving our seats. Lovely. The scenery was lovely too. Riki stood with his head out the door most of the second half. We travelled at a snail’s pace, but we passed some market towns, where the people heaved baskets into and out of trains, as well as some farmland.

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Railyard
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Jumping on and off we were going so slow
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Canal
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Trash along the rail line
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Farming
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Kids playing in the water

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On our last day, we had decided to take the night bus to Inle Lake. We checked out of our hotel, stored our bags and walked into the city. We went to the market, which had tons of handicrafts, but also some local goods. It obviously is catering to mostly tourists already. We also went to Chinatown, where there were tons of decorations, as it was their New Year’s festival.

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Neighborhood monkeys
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Yup.
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Betel Nut wrapped in leaf slathered with lime (not the fruit) to be rolled and sucked on and then spit as a bright red-color into the street
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Lady with typical Thanaka on her cheeks
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Pigeons are in every country
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Streetscape

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We returned to our hotel, shared a cab for the hour ride to the bus station and boarded our “sleeper” bus (just a little extra reclining) to Inle Lake.