Porto: Valentine's Day at McDonald's

More restaurants need to stay open on Sundays in Europe. There, I said it. It's one of the biggest frustrations that Americans seem to encounter when traveling in Europe, and it's the only reason I'm thankful that there is a McDonald's everywhere. There, I admitted that too.

We left Lisbon on a late Sunday afternoon, which also happened to be Valentine's Day. We boarded a bus that was similar to Bolt Bus in both price and comfort, sans the free Wi-Fi. You can't have it all. But Rede-Expressos is more like the equivalent of Greyhound, being a nationwide bus company...although that nation is a tad smaller. By the time we arrived in Porto, it was already nightfall and dinnertime. This time we had a map and found the hostel much easier this time, with the exception of taking a few dark back alleys that I would never enter again - especially not by myself.

Our second hostel was the Porto Poets Hostel, another hipster, boutique hostel. If it weren't for the fact that we had arrived from the greatest hostel in the history of hostels, the Porto Poets would have been just lovely. This time, the room was much more cramped, there were more little fees here and there (i.e. towels) and there wasn't a key for my locker, but Rachel was nice enough to let me share with her. Luckily, we both only had the teeny-tiny bags that we could carry on to Ryanair anyway.

And naturally by this point, we were very hungry. When we asked the front desk employee where we could find dinner. He looked at us blankly, saying that it's Sunday so there wasn't really anything open. But noticing the developing faces of frustration on the three of us, he said we had two options: a small restaurant nearby (that he sort of pointed to and couldn't give us a name) or McDonald's.

After dropping our bags off in the room, we ventured out into the very windy night to find an ATM and this small restaurant. We think we found it, but it didn't look all that appealing at all. And that's how we ended up at McDonald's on Valentine's Day. But it was definitely the nicest McDonald's I've ever seen, with modern decor and the ambiance of an actual restaurant. Not to mention the value meal prices were much cheaper in Portugal than in France, where a value meal starts around 6€ ($8-9). The McD's was also packed, mostly with what appeared to be locals considering it was the only thing open on Sundays.

Although that turned out to be untrue, as we found a lively café open right around the corner where we ordered a couple glasses of Port and called it an evening.

Given that there was still blustery weather outside when we woke up, it was time for more indoor activities, starting with the Lello bookstore (pictured, right). Filled with tourists speaking every sort of language and richly designed interior, it felt like a real-life Flourish and Blotts. (If you're not a Harry Potter fan, look it up.) And we would never have happened upon it if it weren't for the recommendation of our new German friend and roommate, Johan. Lello features a neo-Gothic facade and sells books in multiple languages, making it the most beautiful and cosmopolitan bookstore I've ever seen.

As noted before, Portugal is very affordable for the traveler on a budget. And apparently that doesn't stop at taxi fares either, as Johan advised us. There was a special photography exhibit at a modern art museum just outside of town, and since it was rainy and windy and a bit of a journey, we hopped into a cab. And it only cost us 7€ total, each way. I could really get used to Portugal.

After the exhibit, some lunch (where I had something very similar to Poutine, which was delightful), and a trip to the riverfront (which was incredibly windy, not helping my bout of vertigo), it was time to look for Carnaval costumes. The hostel was hosting a Carnaval/Mardi Gras party, complete with a buffet of several courses, wine, caipirinhas and a costume contest. We stumbled into what must have been the only costume store for miles as it was lined from wall to wall with teenagers trying on sequined masks and tossing around tiaras and trinkets on the shelves.

Within 20 minutes, we had our costumes. Rachel was going to a bird with a very fine winged mask and blue feathered boa, Amy was going as a flapper with a silver and pink-feathered headband, and I chose to go as a princess with a tiara and Marie Antoinette-style mask, naturally.

There was one mishap that we ran into when we got back to the hostel. That morning, I had turned in my laundry with the girl at the front desk, and she said it would be on my bed by the time we returned that evening. That was at 11 AM. We got back after 6 PM. She hadn't even started it yet. She mumbled something about being busy most of the afternoon, and she would start it then and it would be ready within two hours. But really, how long does it take to throw a small bag of clothes into a laundry machine? A few minutes. But as the laundry room was right outside of our bedroom, I noticed that she didn't even put it into the laundry machine until an hour after I spoke to her. So when it rolled around to the middle of the party, I asked her about it, and she made a face realizing she forgot about it and still had to put it into the dryer. Given that I really wanted to pack before I went to bed, I was getting antsy and annoyed. But I said ok, and figured it would be ready by the end of the party.

The Carnaval party was a lot of fun, although not that many people dressed up. We met a bunch of other young people vacationing in Portugal...all of whom lived in France! Vacances d'Hiver really spreads us all out around Europe, I suppose. And because our costumes were just so lovely, we won a free bottle of Port wine! We considered bringing it home, but instead we just opened it then and drank it with other guests at the hostel, quite a number of whom were tuned to the TV, watching the long-track speed skating at the Olympics. Naturally, I joined them.

Some time after midnight, I went back to the room, hoping to see my laundry. It was not there. I went back down to the front desk, but the girl who was responsible for finishing my laundry had already gone home, and now there was a new girl on the night shift, stuck with fixing what the first girl didn't do. Apparently all of my clothes were still wet. I was pretty angry on the inside, but I realized yelling wouldn't do anything about it, especially considering it wasn't this new girl's fault. I told her I didn't know what to do since I had to pack and we had to leave at 7 AM to catch our flight back to Lille. First, she gave me a refund (which I didn't ask for, but I think I was due for one and definitely appeased me), and then she even offered to pack for me. Although I appreciated the offer, I turned it down as I really like to pack my things myself and know where everything is.

Thus, I had to get up much earlier than I planned or wanted to in order to collect my clothes and then figure out how to stuff them back into my Mary Poppins-esque bag all over again.

Our taxi ride to the airport was swift and cheap, plus the driver had picked a great station on radio. Noticing that we liked the songs and started singing along (we were way too chipper for that early in the morning), he turned the volume up and we all cheered. Porto's airport was much more elegant and modern than we expected, and we were even there too early. (Again, I was picturing something from the movie Airplane!) And since our costumes were recently purchased and a bit delicate, we couldn't really pack them. It was Carnaval anyway, so we just wore them at the airport, attracting a lot of looks and even a chuckle from the security agents at Rachel's gold-sequined beak mask.

It was time to board our last Ryanair flight of the journey, and we even got first-class! (The front row.) Two short hours later, even spotting Paris outside the window on the journey north...shortly followed by a giant blanket of snow covering the North, we were back in Lille.

Lisbon: Europe's San Francisco

When I first saw Lisbon, I wondered if the plane had gone too far as we were sailing over the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, at least it looked like the Golden Gate. Actually, the orange and white easyJet plane was sailing directly over and not too high above a red suspension bridge, which was the April 25 bridge, right next to a mini version of the Christ Redeemer statue.

Given that the flight plan takes aircrafts right over the bridge and then over the entire city, which was much larger than I imagined, we got a pretty good overview right from the start. It didn't hurt that it was all in the middle of a beautiful sunset. Getting from the airport to the city center was extremely simple. It was finding the hostel after we got off the bus in Rossio Square that proved to be the challenge. We didn't have a map and only street directions - but we didn't know where any of the streets were. Rachel stopped and asked several different people, all of whom were very nice but (naturally) only responded in Portuguese. So we were a bit lost, to say the least. But finally, we came across someone who spoke English, and after about 30 minutes of searching, we found the Living Lounge Hostel.

And we discovered that we were staying in the best hostel in the whole world. Really.

The Living Lounge Hostel is nicer than most hotels that I've stayed in. The staff were warm and welcoming, and all of the rooms (bedrooms, bathrooms, lounges, kitchen) were very modern, clean and had a theme. Plus there were several free amenities that other hostels normally charge for, including linens, towels, Internet and a hair dryer. Oh, and free Port wine for all! Given that we were staying in the "lomography" themed room and there was a lot of kitschy furniture abound, after a few minutes, I finally put my finger on it: We were staying in an Urban Outfitters. It was the most hipster place I'd ever seen.

Turns out that's fairly reflective of Lisbon as a whole, given that most young people were dressed like hipsters. That, plus the bridge lookalike, old cable cars on the streets and the city being famous for seven hills convinced me and Amy that Lisbon is truly Europe's San Francisco. I used to think it was Amsterdam, given the liberalness, laid-back attitudes on just about everything, tepid weather during the summer and relatively friendly people. But with the exception that San Francisco is far cleaner than Lisbon, the two cities could be cousins at the least.

After an entire day of traveling from Palma to Portugal, you can only imagine that both Rachel and I were very tired. Since Amy had arrived at the hostel before we did, she naturally went out and check out the sites, so we decided we'd wait for her to get back. And when she did, not only did she have two new Brazilian friends in tow, but also bags full of food! Oh, best day ever. So we all made dinner together (well, frozen pizzas and salad, but it was delicious), and just chilled at the hostel afterwards. Unfortunately, our new friends were leaving to go home to Brazil the next day, after a 45-day tour around Europe. It's too bad when you meet really cool people, and only get to know them for such a short time. Geography can suck sometimes.

The next day, it rained. As usual. So we decided this would be the best time to check out indoor attractions: museums. We checked out two museums, one on fashion and the other fine arts - both of which we got into for free with student IDs. (Well, I'm going to be a student again in May...sort of.) While both were good, I definitely loved the fashion museum more. The whole museum was dedicated to an exhibit on fashions from the 1960s and 1970s, enhanced by a soundtrack of  songs from those decades, a timeline involving world events and fashion plus screens with films made at that time (A Clockwork Orange seemed to stick out the most). Plus all of the hippie furniture reinforced my stance that Lisbon is a hipsterville. After checking out the fine arts museum on the other side of town, we realized it was time for another indoor activity: shopping.

We had a bit of a scare on the way back into town though. After walking out of the fine arts museum, we saw a bunch of preteen boys holding water balloons. The three of us said nothing, avoided eye-contact and tried to calmly walk away from the situation. Yet out of the corner of my eye, I could see them eyeing us. Amy and I were nervously looking at each other, constantly asking all the way down the block, "OMG, are they still looking?" fearing that all of a sudden they would charge down the street and attack. But luckily, no such thing happened. Then we waited for the cable car/trolley to arrive for about 15 minutes, while we watched three arrive at once in the other direction. Just like...MUNI. The similarities are endless.

After perusing some stores in Barrio Alto, a neighborhood filled with shops near our hostel, we decided to make a trip to Starbucks. Being the only one in Portugal and that we hadn't had Starbucks in a good long while, we thought it would be fun and a nice treat. But then when we walked into the shopping center where it was located, we noticed something strange. It was very dark inside. That was because the power was out - and not just in every store. We walked the few blocks back to our hostel, where there was also no power. A block on the grid must have been wiped out because there was no power anywhere nearby, meaning that all the shops and restaurants were closing early - and we were HUNGRY. But after an hour or two, it came back and we were all happy again.

We had dinner at the hostel, which has an 8€ prix-fixe menu each night. All of their dinners include three courses, then free bread and wine. And given that it was all delicious, it was a bargain. Actually, most of Portugal is a bargain in comparison to most countries in Western Europe. That night the main course was "vegetarian Shepherd's Pie," which I didn't quite understand given that ground beef is the heart of Shepherd's Pie, but I was curious nonetheless. While it was still tasty, it should have been called a potato and vegetable casserole.

Coincidentally, the girls seated across from us were American. When we asked what they were doing in Europe, they said they were studying in France. This led us down a procession of questions, narrowing their location down to Northern France, and down to Lille! What a small world. We actually ran into a lot of people living in France on this trip, either French people or others (Americans, Canadians and Brazilians) studying in France and all on vacation given that it was Vacances d'Hiver. I guess this is what Europe is like every six weeks. You can just expect a load of new tourists arriving from France now and again given how much vacation they give out in this country, and that a lot of it is doled out during the same time periods.

On Saturday morning, we woke up to the most lovely sight: sunshine. This was our one chance to do some serious outdoor activities, so we headed for the train station to go to Sintra, a touristy town about 40 minutes away with several castles and palaces along a mountainside.

Normally, getting train tickets is a very straightforward process. But given that there were several long lines at the ticket machines and windows, it wasn't quick. Luckily there are trains to this town every 10 minutes. As we couldn't figure out the automatic ticket machine, even with the help of a few nice locals, Rachel went and lined up to buy them in the ticket window. As she had been in line for a few minutes, we went and joined her. Everything was going fine until we got up to the window. It was pretty obvious that the three of us were together given we had been talking together in line for the past 10 minutes.

But then, as we approached the window, some nasty old man behind us in line started yelling at us in Portuguese and literally shoved me and Amy aside. And when I say shoved, I mean seriously pushed. I actually stumbled a bit. He didn't tap on our shoulders or try to get our attention before. He shoved us right at the counter window. Some woman next to him decided to join in at yelling at us. We had no idea why they reacted this way, given that Rachel had been in line before they were and we certainly didn't cut anyone. Even the ticket agent asked them what their problem was. Even if we had cut, to exhibit that kind of behavior where you actually put your hands on a stranger is rude, uncalled for and he should be ashamed of himself. To conduct yourself that way at any age is disgraceful. Rachel bought the tickets for all three of us, and as we walked away, Amy said to him in a voice that was firm yet somehow still sweet, "I hope you have a very bad day," which prompted the giggles for someone who understood English behind them.

Amy and I agreed that's where the similarities between Lisbon and San Francisco ended.

When we got to Sintra, the sun was shining, but it was still a bit chilly, especially at the top of the mountain. We took the shuttle to the top, around some very narrow woodland roads similar to Highway 17 on the way to Santa Cruz, only tighter. We decided to start at the top and make our way down, starting with the royal Pena Palace at the top. It was so colorful that it almost didn't look real. More like a casino in Vegas. The views from the top were spectacular given the clear day. I could see the Atlantic from one view, and all the way back to Lisbon from another.

The more photo-friendly palace was the outdoor, ruinous Moorish Castle just down the road. Dating back to at least the 10th century, stone staircases spiral around the mountain forming the perimeter for this old outpost. It also made a super location for a photo shoot. Given the lovely weather, some time in fresh air and visiting some really old stuff, I'd say it was a great day. Getting back down the mountain was a little more exciting, as the roads got narrower, making it more difficult for the bus driver to navigate. Then add 30 screaming school children on the bus and you get the picture.

When we finally got back to the hostel, we stopped into Vitaminas, a cute healthy food chain with a salad bar and tons of other healthy treats (banana yogurt purée, spinach strudel, etc.). We all got some pasta salads and brought them back to the hostel, where we mingled with some other new friends. This hostel was definitely the best I've been to for meeting new people. It attracted a more outgoing demographic of tourists, just creating a more lively atmosphere in general.

After dinner, a bunch of us went out to a few bars with traditional Fado music. Both were crowded, as both were about the size of a hole in the wall, but the music in the first bar was enchanting. The second wasn't so bad, except we had to sit on the floor and they were telling stories in Portuguese, making it hard to stay interested. I love music in foreign languages, but its hard to pay attention to narratives when you don't have any idea what they're about.

The sun hung on for a little bit longer on our last day, which also happened to be Valentine's Day. Not much was open in Lisbon, but one attraction that did have its gates open was the Castelo de São Jorge on top of one of Lisbon's seven hills. And it has the perfect view of the city, as seen in the photo below. After wandering around the castle, we headed back to the hostel, made some lunch, and wistfully bid adieu to the best hostel any of us had ever stayed in.

It was also a little bittersweet because I never knew how much Lisbon had to offer. We could have easily spent a week in Lisbon, exploring its quirky neighborhoods and venturing out for day trips to small towns nearby. It was also the first place in Europe where we could really stretch our money. But our time in Portugal wasn't quite over yet, as we got on a bus that afternoon for a four-hour ride north to Porto.