Goodbye Lisbon

Wednesday, 8th September

Well yesterday was a tight schedule and today we didn't have much to do except catch our train for Paris, late afternoon so we decided to goof around a bit.

We leisurely packed our bags and I took care with the shower, curtain rod, sink and the bath tub so as not to break anything today. We checked out of our room, and kept our rucksacks at with the lady at the counter and stepped out. We had a very relaxed breakfast of coffee, omelet and toasts. We finally went to pay at the counter, where I playfully punched at the vending machine kept there and out came a box of lucky strikes cigarettes. My hands moved quickly and stuffed the loot in my pocket. We then moved towards the Alfama, the soul of old Lisbon. The narrow streets had its own smell and charm of an era gone by. The place had distinct roots of Arabs and Romans, who once were part of the city. We picked up apples and cheese and bread for our onward journey.

The shopping plazas were neat and we found a public library were we could use internet for free. Heaven. To spend time checking and replying to so many emails. G wanted a hair cut and went towards the direction of a saloon and came back after a while, with a new face.

We moved back to the hostel, took our stuff, waved our goodbyes and moved towards the bus stop. There was no Mercedes to drop us back to the station, so we took the bus. The bus moved through narrow alleys and broad streets, passing by familiar churches, market places and houses. Colorful clothes hung from balconies and flags hoisted on roof tops. Kids played ball and the elderly sat outside on stairs and played cards. The tiles were all too lovely.

The train was waiting at the station and we got our couchette easily. Somewhere along the way we were joined in by an old couple, who kept chatting loudly throughout the journey. They had no clue of English and we couldn't understand what they were saying. and finally  when I requested them to keep their voices low, in Hindi they went quiet.

For dinner, we had fries, bread, mustard and mayonnaise. The train chugged along and somewhere it broke down. We looked in the darkness and all we could see was tiny flickering yellow lights, far away. We exchanged some conversation and cigarettes with a fellow passenger, who was on his way to Germany. We retired to our couchette and kept chatting and planning for our journey. After an hour or so the train resumed its journey but by then I was asleep.

Bees, Castle and the westernmost point of Europe

Tuesday, 7th September

Finally around 4 am, the noise from the city traffic subsided, or maybe I fell asleep tired.

After getting ready for the day, we had a nice breakfast of coffee, ham sandwiches and a salami omelet at the cafe below our hostel. G, our planning in charge put together a few places for the day, starting with the Hieronymites Monastery, located in Belem. Throughout our travel, while G put together the schedule, I was in charge of finding the roads leading there and back to our respective hostels.

We took the bus to Belem to reach the UNESCO world heritage site and can you imagine, we used the last days bus ticket to travel. How the automated system accepted the tickets, we are still to figure out. Something tells that, a ticket is valid for a period of 24 hrs from the time of purchase or something like that. Anyways Euros saved is Euros earned and we hopped out of bus in from of the monastery with  foolish grins.

This hermitage was built in 1450 and this is also where Vasco da Gama prayed for a night in 1497 before leaving for India. Consequently this place became the house of prayer for all sailors, either travelling out or returning.

There is also the Church of Santa Maria, with its ornate entrance, where lies the tomb of Vasco Da Gama.

After spending playing in the courtyard and experimenting with anchors etc we walked to the sea front. The water was the bluest blue and the sky was clear. A new structure was coming up commemorating the sailors journey from Portugal. Munching on some chips and cheese we decided to move towards Sintra, supposedly a very romantic area, near Lisbon.

A few people misguided us to all directions except that of Sintra. Finally we managed to board a tram which promised us to take halfway to Sintra. As we made ourselves comfortable on the seats in the tram, there seemed to be some commotion in the seats right in front of us. An elderly man who was standing was fighting with a woman who was seated in loud tones. We thought that he wanted to sit while the lady refused to give her seat and suddenly the old man slapped hard the woman and the woman shrieked so loud that the tram stopped. G and I had half a mind of giving up our seats rather than being hit like that. Anyways the lady driver entered the bogey and pacified the man and the woman and made seats for them, after giving some stern warnings.

We got of soon enough and had to take a train to Cascais a small fishing port, which now has become a major tourist attraction. On route we bought some sweet caramelized popcorn. The landscapes changed along the tracks. The high rises and graffiti gave way to elegant bungalows and green shady neighborhood. We got of the train and walked the beach front. The place had the trappings of a total touristy destination with stalls selling trinkets and food by the beach. Kids playing volley ball and generally a happy atmosphere. We wanted to spend some more time but we had to take our bus to Sintra.

Sintra was everything that was promised. We took a sight seeing bus, which took us around the colorful Moorish castle. This castle was from the 8th Century. A castle with the turrets and oak trees, ferns covering the walls and dried leaves strewn across the pathways. A little lake shimmered like a jewel from the reflection of the sunshine. It was so mystical and right out of a dream. We were so excited by being just there, we wished only if we could spend more time there.

We again boarded our bus and moved towards Cabo da Roca. Otherwise known as Cape Roca is about 18 kms away from Sintra and is the westernmost point of Europe.

The cliff approximately 140 mts above sea level, rises out of the Atlantic Ocean. There is a crucifix there with inscriptions in Portuguese, roughly translated as "here where the land ends and the sea begins, westernmost point of the European continent"

The view from there was very ethereal. True to the inscription, it was really hard to make out where the sea merged with the sky. We spied a lonely boat on the water as if sailing towards the melting sun. A mass of red splattered across the horizon. The seagulls were tripping over the sun set it seemed. The moment we made ourselves comfortable on the edge of the cliff a swarm of local insects arrived from nowhere and clinged on to us, the face, hair, clothes all over. We ran towards the fence towards the light house. Miraculously the moment we went on the other side of the fence the insects disappeared. It sure seemed like we threatened their territory.

We spent some quiet moments there seeing the sun go down (but not really the sun set, that would be around 9pm) and then walked to the cafe, where we had a croissant and a chilled beer. Some thoughtful pondering done, we proceeded towards the bus stop, for the last bus to Cascais. The bus journeyed along the curvy roads, playing hide n seek with the beauty across the cliff.

It was dark when we reached Cascais and casually strolled to the beach again, hoping to catch some festivities. But this place was dark with not a soul around. I was adventurous and stepped into the icy cold water. Immediately two icicles formed on my toes and I walked back on the sand with my shoes in hand, making a mess of my feet.

Finally we took the train for our hostel, remembering our day and not remembering our path to hostel. After going round in circles we finally managed to find our hostel and crashed on the bed happy without bothering about the traffic noise.

Sizzling bathtub and the Earth from above

Monday, 6th September

Sun shine filtered through the sky hugging trees. Our train was going through a very picturesque route. We crossed through little villages draped in sunshine and colorful flowers adorned the windows of the cottages. The villages gave way to high rises and apartment complexes with graffiti on their walls. These were sure signs that we were approaching our destination Lisbon.

We munched through our breads and mayonnaise and ham and apples and kept staring outside the dirty train compartment. Wondering about our journey till now, the exotic places we have visited and what more places we have to go and discover. It was a dream. and about how we got swindled of our money. Lisbon was not on our travel map, when we were planning this trip. It was more Spain and Ibiza. Lisbon happened by chance and it was G's discovery and planning. G was browsing through the fat Lonely Planet (Europe in a shoestring), figuring out the places to stay in Lisbon. G shortlisted about 3 of them but wasn't prepared for what was in store for us.

It was about 1 pm, when the train finally entered the station. The station was not crowded. It was simple, clean but not spotless and much similar like India, a rushed atmosphere. Spotting us as out of country bumpkins, we were suddenly surrounded by locals, each wanting us to accompany them to their beautiful hotel/hostel. With our forced head movements making a vehement no, we pushed our way from the crowd. As we came out of the station, the crowd of tourist hunters had thinned down considerably as most of them had found their loot.

The first thing that struck us was the resemblance to our Goa. Off course Goa being a Portuguese colony long ago. We were still wondering where to go and how to go, options being the bus/tram/taxi to a desired hostel from the Lonely Planet or a one next to the station and overlooking the bay. A kind looking old lady in a skirt approached us with a pamphlet. She offered her place to stay in the center of the town at a very low cost. We got a picture of a nice house in a shady area of the town overlooking the cobalt blue waters and see the sun go down. She even offered her car to drive us to the house, free. Well the adventurous souls that we were we hopped on to the waiting Mercedes. It was only when the car moved and started climbing narrow cobbled streets and the residences only becoming poorer, did we realize that what we were getting into. Fingers crossed, toes crossed, we started chatting of the consequences in our local dialect. What if we are mugged. No one would know. Even my brother in Germany was not aware of our plans to Lisbon. He knew we are Paris. We quickly messaged my brother with the address from the pamphlet that the lady had given us. That this is where we would be and sounding as casual as possible.

The tension in the car was building up and that is when we started looking out at the city. And it was beautiful. Most houses were a deep cream/ yellow in color with white borders on their windows. The walls were decorated with colorful patterned tiles. Blue, green, red, maroon colored tiles with geometric patterns, paisleys, and symbols were on the walls. Children were playing carefree on the streets and youths zipped in fancy bikes with bandannas and wannabe mean looks. Ladies were carrying shopping bags and buying stuff of the street and old men in vests were sitting idly on the armchairs, chatting with neighbors. Well it seemed like a very nice place. After about 20 minutes, our car stopped in front of a building with a colorful canopy and a cafe with seating outside on the cobbled pavement. A young lady came running down a flight of stairs and helped us with our luggage and took us to the second floor of the building. We were pretty sure that this was it and in times like these you want to laugh so hard at your own concocted story that we had silly giggles echoing on the staircase.

The lady explained that it was her mother who met us at the station and this place is not advertised commercially. It is because they are not well to do that they are renting out their rooms like this. She opened the door to our room. The room was washed in white with two simple beds. The room was bare except for a chair and a wooden cupboard. A small balcony with with wrought iron railings, was attached to the room. the room gave a feeling of space and freedom from the crowded London that we had left behind. The only thing being that the washroom was situated in the corridor and shared with other mates occupying the other rooms.

While G freshened up, I marked my bed and had a smoke in the balcony. Post that it was my turn in the shower. The washroom was as big as our room only and the idea of a proper hot shower after a long journey sounded so inviting. In all my eagerness I jumped into the bath tub and was probably dancing, not realizing how delicate bath tubs maybe.  Anyways as I was getting ready, there was severe knocks on our door and the lady from the station (not gentle anymore) was speaking in an angry tone. I had no clue, but followed her to the floor below, following her sign language. That is when realization stuck, that all my dancing in the bath tub apparently caused a leak in the floor below and water was trickling down in quite a funny manner. I tried hard not to giggle and made a sorry face and shrugged my shoulders in an apologetic look and rushed back to tell G what excitement happened.

After packing our city guide, local maps, we moved out of the place to see the city. Our first stop was the 12th century cathedral,Santa Maria Maior de Lisboa.The structure has both Romanesque and Gothic style of architecture. Over the centuries the cathedral has gone through lot of renovations because of earthquakes, fires and the reigning kings choices. During the 17th century, Baroque and Rocco styles were introduced.

The city of Lisbon is peppered with history, ancient monuments, churches and cathedrals and we moved on to see the Castle of Saint George. The castle was located on the highest hill. The fortifications of this castle goes back to 2nd century BC. This castle helped in preventing Moorish incursions towards the end of the 12th century. The castle had a pale gold color to itself and quite a charming place. The castle overlooked the blue waters and the red tiled roofs of the city could be seen for miles. The canons merged well with the nature. There were dancing peacocks and peahens and flowers in bloom. We could hear church bells and along the path there were musicians playing different musical instruments in a melody.

We walked back the winding roads through trinket shops and houses with colorful tiles on the walls. Along way there was this 11th century dark imposing cathedral. The bricks were now exposed to nature and the place looked crumbling. The interiors were also dark with dark paintings covering the walls.

We walked back towards the city center, where in the open grounds a startling exhibition titled "Earth from Above" was on display. It was a series of large images clicked across the globe. So you had the Arctic circle, the abattoir in Delhi, color dying in Rajasthan, and interiors of Africa and so on. What was also interesting was the entire series was reproduced in braille and the map of the world was also featured on the ground. We could walk across the globe and see places and read little notes about them. As a ark of respect no footwear was allowed on that map.

Next to the exhibition was a market on two parallel row of buildings. From high end fashion stores to bargain shops all jostled for space there. The corridor between the two buildings was lined with eateries. G and I sat down for a hot pizza and washed it down with a cool beer.

After some window shopping we took the metro back towards our hostel, as we were in no mood to walk back. We got of at the wrong station and circled our hostel twice but could not locate it. Thankfully a couple passing by guided us to our hostel.

I gingerly stepped into the washroom, when the curtain rod fell on me and the sink overflowed. Thankfully no one came charging at me this time.

As we prepared to sleep, we realized the catch of the place. The city traffic went below our room for twenty four hours non stop.

Chunnel, TGV and swindled in Paris

Sunday, 5th September

After the panic of last night, because of no train connectivity between Catsford and Waterloo station early morning, sleep was uneasy.

We woke up with a start in the morning, the alarm has somehow failed us and it 445 am. We had 15 minutes to get ready and rush to bus stop with our 15 kilo each backpacks. How were we ever going to make it? and one more day in London would surely kill us.

We managed our clothes, thankfully we had packed our rucksacks last night. Hurriedly saying goodbye to Dominic we ran down the flight of stairs and continued running till be reached the bus stop. We had skipped brushing my teeth too.

It was still gray and a nice wind blew. We stopped at the bus stop to catch our breath. An early morning goer was already there and he mentioned our bus had already left but not to worry another one should follow soon. And thankfully in a few minutes the bus did arrive and with happy faces we proceeded towards Waterloo.

The streets were deserted, the sky was now breaking into hues of color and the houses looked so pretty. Even the odd graffiti on walls had a surreal charm about it.

There was madness at the station. From no where did it look that it was so early in the day. There were people everywhere, rushing, even on a Sunday.

Anyways we boarded the Chunnel for our destination Paris.

We crossed the city, farmlands at quite a pace. And all hopes of  being underwater and to see sharks and whales below the ocean floor from our train window was destroyed. Because dreams are just dreams and hope against hope the train entered a dark long concrete tunnel in the belly of the ocean with a rumbling noise. I think the ferry ride across would have been more exciting.

Anyways we ate our mayonnaise, and ham sandwiches and slept on our chairs. When we woke up we were on the other side of the ocean passing through picturesque villages on the Paris countryside.  It was a 2hr 15 minute journey (precise!) and we had gained an hour when we reached Paris.

On our way we were in two minds about our onward journey. Either we stayed in Paris and then went further down to Lisbon and then went towards Switzerland or finish Lisbon first and then move to Paris and Switzerland. G was super cool with the planning and finally the later plan sounded perfect.

We were at Gare Montparnasse and were absorbing the flavor of Paris. We walked the floor and went towards the larger than life windows which overlooked the streets. The first impression of Paris was delicate, colorful, lively, cheerful and all other synonyms. It was hard not to love Paris.

With our luggage we went to the ticket counter for tickets to Lisbon. The strange fellow at the counter with samrt glasses with a series of hand and face movements in the most helpful manner told us that we had to take the TGV to Hendaye. for which there is no charge (becuase of our Eurail pass) and from there we had to take the overnite train to Lisbon and it is only better if we took the Coupe to sleep, because the journey was long and seats would be uncomfortable.

TGV the fastest train and G had scared me enough by telling me stories about how the train splits in two and one goes in one direction and the other in another. So we clung on to our seats, gingerly walked to the wash room and scared to go to the pantry car, lest we split in two directions.

We finally reached Hendaye, at 10 pm, without the TGV being split in two at took our waiting train to Lisbon.

The fools that we were we were swindled of our 40 euros on that looser coupe. I wish I could lay my hands on that fellow at the ticket counter. And what hurt more was that seats looked more comfortable and were quite cheaper too.

There is something about London

Saturday, 4th September, some year

After planning to run away from London on day 1 itself, it was a miracle that today was the 4th day of our stay in London. There was something about London, you don't like it, but yet a certain familiarity of the place, people draws you. The shared history, architecture, so many Asians, the food, the crowded places, the ease, the tension, and so on makes you wonder. Maybe that is why most Indians like London than any other place.

We wanted to leave UK and move on with our trip and today seemed to be our last day here. The options were either to take a ferry or the Eurostar (chunnel) to Belgium or to France. Since we had already done Holland previously, we zeroed in on France.

For today we had plans to go to Tower of London, Tate Modern and an evening at South hall. Pretty packed it seemed, but as luck would have it, we would eventually cram a bit more

Dominic wanted his room to be painted and wanted our help. We emptied his room of chairs, desk and the bed. Then Dominic and I cleaned and painted his room in a nice brown color. G darted between the kitchen making tea and the room helping us with colors, holding the ladder and a coat of paint too. It sure was a new experience and definitely fun. While the paint dried, G and I got ready to leave and Dominic promised us to meet later at the Paddington station, from where he would also take a trip to South hall.

We walked towards the train station and crossed the same set of shops. One shop which was always closed, was today open. It was an equivalent of a One dollar store. G bought a pair of trousers with chinese/japanese/korean inscriptions and I picked up a hardcover book of short stories. After which our first stop was at Waterloo Station. We finally made our reservations on the Eurostar. The one way fare was really expensive and we were contemplating taking the ferry. It would save us money but loose out on time. We were wondering when the lady at the counter mentioned that since we had bought our Eurail pass, we are eligible for a discount and what a sizeable discount it was. We were happy and we booked ourselves out of London on the 1st train next day.

We then proceeded to Tower of London. We took the train from Waterloo, and after about 10 minutes or so reached the London Bridge. The day was really nice, windy, pleasant and sunshine smiled on our shoulders!. We hung around the Tower were history was written, prisoners tortured, the crown jewels kept the ravens and the beefeaters who guarded the place.

We gazed idly at the Thames and the London Bridge. As we walked towards the station, we crossed an interesting eatery right next to the Tower, called Hung, Drawn and Quartered (well that's how the prisoners were treated during their time).

We reached Paddington and combed through the huge station for the platform from which the train to South hall would leave. We passed through sushi stalls, book stalls, trinket sellers to reach the platform. We could not find Dominic anywhere, it seemed he would join us directly there. The platform was lined with North Indians mostly and a few locals. The train came in a few moments and we boarded. On route G went partially blind because the contacts fell. We looked carefully in the eye and in the clothes and I finally discovered the lens, resting peacefully in the fold of clothes.

As we reached the station, we knew that we had reached the biggest Asiatic settlement outside India. There was beetle nut stains on the walls. The staircase leading up to the street was dirty and strewn with junk. There was a Gurdwara near the station and few meters away were rows of shops with goods displayed like in Indian markets. Even the mannequins hanging from hangars were like back home. The fruits were being sold openly on pavements. Everyone spoke in Hindi, and the elder gentry spoke about good times years ago in loud tones. The sounds were all so familiar and that we were in London, surprised us. We met Dominic and walked past shops selling pirated Hindi movies, and the smells from the kitchens wafted around us. We finally chose a nice restaurant and ordered Dosa, Keema mutton, Naan, and Chole Bhature.

We finished of the meal with hot jalebis from a road side vendor and a paan, which was also being old from a roadside shop, just like home. Post our happy lunch we went to Trafalgar Square and parted ways with Dominic. He had some other work to attend.

We loitered around The Globe (the shows of Lion King and all were all sold), walked past Royal Albert Hall and kept loitering till we found ourselves in the famous Soho district. This once upon a time sex street has now become an upmarket place with restaurants and fashion shops, but still the remnants of earlier days remain. We had read in Lonely Planet guide (Europe in a shoestring) how you would find Pounds on the roads of Soho and if you picked it up you will be mugged and all your belongings will go. Well true to those horrible stories we did find a few pounds lying idly on the cobbled streets. We didn't dare pick up any.

Of the last pounds remaining we shopped for cheese, mayonnaise, mustard, bread, ham and other essentials that we would require for our onward journey. With our loot we proceeded back home to pack our rucksacks and prepare for the next day.

When we told Dominic that we would leave early tomorrow for our Eurostar, he surprised us by saying that the local trains did not leave that early and we would have to catch the only bus at 5 am to reach Waterloo on time.

Now that was a super task to do!!! Off to sleep .

There is certainly something about London.

Cambridge and the circus at Piccadilly

Friday, 3th September, some year

We woke up early.. err if 8 am is early that is. The past few days have been lazy. Not doing much yet the days went by a blur. Today was a bright day. No signs of the famous gray weather and yet we packed our plastic pants.

We had decided to go to Cambridge today and meet a friend of G later in the evening. While we sipped tea and stared at the neighborhood outside the window, we also got to check our emails. Dominic was kind to create an access for us on his computer. After about a fortnight of us travelling, today was when we got to check our emails properly and communicate with the world of our well being. There was an apology note from my sister in London. She wanted us to go to her place right away and stay for as long as we wished. But then we were beyond that and I wrote her a polite email refusing her offer.

We had another round of tea and then I switched on the oven to heat up some precooked snacks that we were carrying. Mindlessly I opened the oven door, and put my hand in to pick up the stuff only to leave behind a large piece of my skin in the oven grill. Yelping I put my hand under the cold water tap and I saw the place becoming a deep red and then a boil starting to form , size of my hand itself. Gawd.

With all this and more, we finally left the apartment for Victoria Bus terminus, from where we would change buses to go to Cambridge.  Which was about an hour away.

We reached late at Cambridge around two only because we started late and quickly had another round of fried chicken and potato wedges that we had bought from the same shop as yesterdays.

It was a different world. The air smelt different too.. of youth, of knowledge of fun, of love and another time, if you know what I mean. We passed through years old book shops, greens, market places, open areas. There was a map of Cambridge in braille. Cyclists went by whistling. The river Cam flowed quietly and the boats swayed idly on the river, waiting for tourists and love birds. It was after all a Friday evening. Pubs and restaurants hung together with ancient chapels.

We went past the Trinity college, marveling at the well manicured lawns, Christ college (G's mother was a pass out from a college of same name from India, and how G marveled at that), Darwin college, more churches and some more colleges.

We then walked towards the banks of the river Cam and parked ourselves near to a cake of cow dung (ok it exists outside India too), and a boisterous group of volleyball players. We spied on Spencer nearby and after loitering for a while and eating cheese, that we were carrying, we went to Spencer and bought a loot of sandwiches, cheese, ham, cakes, chewing sums and chocolates.

It was nearing dusk and we started our way back to London to catch up with the friend of G. We went past the winding roads, churches, shops and colleges to reach the bus stop at Cambridge. We took our bus to London and got of at the Trafalgar Square. The sea of people were still intact as we had left them on previous evenings. being a Friday, the crowd only swelled. After a volley of sms exchange we met up with the friend at Starbucks coffee and can you believe there was a tramp who walked in to the coffee house asking for spare coffee, just like back home. The friend was a banker by profession and recently shifted to London.

After a long conversation about our trip and more, we moved out of Trafalgar Square and walked towards Piccadilly Circus and circus it was. I think the entire city of London had descended here. Loud music, strobe lights, revelers, colorful hoardings, flashes of light seemed like an open air night club. We finally decided to make way for home. We took the train but had to get of a few stations earlier as the train would not stop at ours. We took a bus to our neighborhood from there. The morning buzz had died and strangers lurked behind shadows. It was midnight and this colorful part of town had changed beyond recognition. It was dark (the street lights did not function), eerie and a few shady characters moved around. We quickly made our way to the house and only stopped for breath when we reached the door mat. we tip toed our way up only to find Dominic awake and on the computer. We exchanged our days notes and it seemed he was just back home from a terrible evening himself!

We said our goodnight and while G took the couch, the floor was my bed.