Saturday, September 6, 2014

O Holy Portugal

This is the third in a series of posts about our vacation to Portugal back in May/June. We spent two weeks there after leaving Malaysia.

After leaving Evora we made an unplanned stop in Fatima. That name ring a bell? It's the town where the Virgin Mary reportedly appeared to three children (on a monthly basis -- she apparently wanted to stick to a schedule) back in 1917. 

That kind of thing isn't really our cup o' tea. But our route took us right through Fatima, so we stopped. The picture below shows where Mass is performed when people flock to the town during the monthly pilgrimage. 
It's crazy big. Crowds can be in the hundreds of thousands sometimes.  

Milo was underwhelmed by the whole thing. But a chance to escape from his car seat for a bit made it worth his while.

We spent the night in a town called Nazare. Its claim to fame is that it's the site of the largest wave ever surfed -- a mere 100 feet high. (And the surfer was an American, no less!) An underwater canyon is responsible for the giant waves that occur there sometimes.

But when we were there the ocean was super-flat.
The huge waves occur just off the coast of this rock point. 
We didn't do much in Nazare but eat dinner. We found a little place owned by a young French couple, and we ordered a couple of pizzas plus a tomato-mozzarella salad. And a bottle of Portuguese wine recommended by the owners. Holy moly. It was all fantastic. And then we had black-chocolate-and-pear pizza for dessert. To say we indulged would be an understatement.

Good pizza was really hard to come by in Malaysia, so this was a treat. Plus Milo slept in the stroller and we let Finn have the Kindle (judge not, ye readers!), so it was sort of like date night. Sort of.

The next day we headed toward the town of Coimbra, but before we got there we spent a few hours at a place called Conimbriga, which is considered to be the most well-preserved Roman ruins in Portugal. It was really neat. I'm always amazed at the things people accomplished back then with the limited resources and knowledge available to them. I mean, aqueducts? Wow.

It was also the best weather we'd had so far in Portugal -- warm in the sun with a nice cool breeze. Plus it was a more rural setting than the other places we'd visited. When we're traveling, we always find that we can spend only so much time in urban areas full of people before we get cranky. The countryside recharges us.

The ruins included several well-preserved mosaics. Like this one.

Finn was curious about the ruins, but he mostly wanted to find a "bat cave." Not Batman's secret headquarters, mind you, but just a place where bats live. Though we didn't find an actual bat cave, we did find something Finn thought was a bat cave. Which is just as good.

There was also a nice little museum on site. Jake and I took turns going in while the boys played in the courtyard. Here's Finn playing hide-and-seek. He's hiding, not counting, by the way. As you can see, he's really good at it.

Yes, those are oranges on that tree. A maintenance worker gave us one. Sadly, it was terrible.
There was a restaurant on site, and we enjoyed a nice lunch on the deck. We had the set menu, which consisted of soup, a main dish (rabbit for me, pork ribs for Jake), salad, french fries, rice, a glass of wine, a slice of cake and espresso. (French fries and rice, by the way, was a common pairing in Portugal.)

It was good. Eating outside in the sunshine was even better.

Me and my fly-away hair.
Our next stop was the university town of Coimbra. Stay tuned to find out all about it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

So much to explore, so little time

This is the second in a series of posts about our vacation to Portugal back in May/June. We spent two weeks there after leaving Malaysia.

On our third day in Lisbon we day-tripped it to Sintra, a town known for its 19th-century architectural monuments. 

On the train to Sintra
We thought we might visit two or three sights, but we ended up spending the whole day at just one: Quinta da Regaleira. It was bought by a guy named Carvalho Monteiro back in 1892. And he hired an architect and got to work resculpting the grounds and buildings. 

Today the estate is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it is so cool. It's full of tunnels, towers and winding paths. Toddler heaven. 

Finn the explorer
Finn kept referring to the tunnels as "underground caves." He didn't believe us when we told him all caves are underground. Here he is emerging from an underground cave after some adventure or other.

And this is a shot from the bottom of what's known as an inverted tower. There are two of these on the property. They're called inverted towers because they're basically what you'd get if instead of building a tower into the air, you built it into the ground. They're also called initiation wells because they were used in initiation ceremonies for secret societies.They're not actually wells though because they never served as water sources.

The wall below is part of an elaborate folly that hides a tunnel leading to one of the inverted towers.

Quinta da Regaleira was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for Finn. And why wouldn't it be? He got to spend the whole day adventuring. Milo had a grand ol' time too.

The next day we left Lisbon and headed to Evora, a town that's still partly enclosed by medieval walls and has lots of well-preserved old buildings.

We stayed in an apartment right in the middle of town. It was a lovely place, but the layout wasn't ideal. The only thing on the ground floor was the kitchen. The bedrooms were up a very steep set of stairs. Finn's bedroom door opened right onto the top of these stairs. We actually locked him in his room overnight because we were were afraid that if he left the room in the middle of the night in a half-asleep state he might stumble and fall straight down them.

We also had a rooftop terrace -- reached via another set of very steep stairs. But it offered a great view of Evora, including a straight shot of these Roman ruins.

Probably the most unusual sight we saw in Evora was the Chapel of Bones inside Saint Francis Church. In case it's not obvious, that's a chapel covered in (human) bones. (Oddly, this wasn't the first chapel of bones Jake and I had visited. That honor goes to Sedlec Ossuary in the Czech Republic.)

Evora's Chapel of Bones.
Milo may or may not have slept through the bone chapel. (I should probably have a list called Sights My Baby Slept Through.)

He did not, however, sleep through the winery tour we took.

"A winery tour? I love winery tours! I'm allowed to squeal and screech and grab things, right?"
The winery was called Herdade do Esporao, and it was outside the town of Reguengos de Monsaraz. The 
grounds were lovely.

But the tour was just so-so. It cost 6 euros (about $8) per person, and I've had much better ones for free. We happened to arrive in time to catch an English-language tour, but all the other people on the tour were Portuguese. Which meant that the guide ended up saying everything in English, repeating it in Portuguese and then answering questions in Portuguese too. I ended up feeling kind of guilty that she had to speak in English for us at all.

We had lunch at the winery's restaurant. It was mouthwatering.

Jake ordered the wood-fired oven-roasted octopus in red wine sauce with coriander potatoes. He couldn't resist trying it. And oh my. It was so good. It reminded us of sausage actually (if sausage had suckers attached to it, that is). There was a nice crispness on the outside, and it was perfectly meaty on the inside.

I ordered iberico pork confit and wood-grilled, sautéed potatoes with sun-dried tomatoes and olives. It did not disappoint.

One of our next stops was a place called Monsaraz, which is an old hilltop fort settlement.

A bell tower in Monsaraz.
It offers expansive views of the surrounding plains.

And it was another fun place for a little explorer.

Two little explorers really.

Even though one of them wasn't walking yet. (Standing in the stroller, however, he had down pat.)

And there was much more exploring to come in Portugal. Details on the way!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Lovely Lisbon

This is the first in a series of posts about our vacation to Portugal back in May/June. We spent two weeks there after leaving Malaysia. 

We arrived in Lisbon -- Portugal's capital -- after a 12-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur to Amsterdam and then a 3-hour flight from Amsterdam. Fifteen hours might seem like a lot of time on a plane -- because it is -- but trust me, it's easier than the 24 hours of flight time required to get all the way from Kuala Lumpur to St. Louis.

It was early in the morning when we got to Lisbon, and we were pretty tired. There's a 7-hour time difference between Malaysia and Portugal, which didn't help. But when you've gone through a 13-hour time change a few times, 7 hours doesn't seem so bad!

Anyway, we decided to spend the first day exploring the city until we were too tired to keep going. We wanted to stay up until as close to bedtime as possible so we could start adjusting to the time change. (This is harder than it sounds, especially with small children.)

For most of the morning we explored Alfama, which is Lisbon's oldest neighborhood and also where we happened to be staying. I don't think you can fully appreciate the word "quaint" until you've walked the cobblestone back streets of Europe. (It's worth noting, however, that quaint cobblestone streets are terrible for pushing strollers. They're also pretty bad for toddlers prone to tripping.)

As this photo demonstrates, there's nothing like laundry flapping all around you to make you feel like you're getting an intimate glimpse at local life.

This is really close to the apartment we stayed in during our three days in Lisbon.
We found our Lisbon lodging (almost all our lodging for the entire trip actually) through Airbnb, which I highly recommend. With Airbnb, people rent out their homes, apartments, cabins, castles (really) or any other type of lodging to travelers. In Lisbon we rented an apartment for three nights. We were smack-dab in the middle of a residential neighborhood. Nothing touristy about it. It was really cool.

We did, however, have to walk down about 100 stairs every time we wanted to leave the neighborhood. Which meant we had to walk back up them every time we returned. We even did this with the stroller -- more than once. Jake and I are actually quite good at carrying a stroller up and down multiple flights of stairs. Southeast Asia trained us well.

We got to know these stairs well.
Oh, and those lovely but oh-so-narrow cobblestone streets in Alfama often doubled as tracks for the trams. It wasn't the roomiest neighborhood I've ever seen.

Here's a nice hilltop view of Lisbon. Very Europe, no? Quite a change from Asia.

By 3:30 that afternoon, the boys and I were exhausted. We went back to the apartment while Jake did a bit more sightseeing. I had the key, so the plan was for Jake to ring the bell when he got back. The boys had conked out by 4, and I didn't make it past 5. When Jake got back at 6:30 he rang the bell as planned. When I didn't answer he rang it again. And again. And again. And then knocked. And then yelled. And then -- well, I don't know what else he did, but he did it for 30 minutes. 30. Minutes. Because that's how long it took him to rouse me. Um, did I mention I was exhausted?

After a not-quite-full night's sleep, we were ready for another day of sightseeing. (The problem with your children going to bed at 4 p.m. is that they wake up in the middle of the night all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and such.) We took the tram to Belem, which is in the southwest part of Lisbon, and Finn fell asleep about 2 seconds after we sat down.

Looks comfortable, right?
He continued his nap in the stroller.

Definitely comfortable.
Which means he missed this view of Jeronimos Monastery, which was built around 1460 and houses the tomb of Vasco da Gama, the first European to reach India by sailing around Africa.

Nearby was this really awesome map of the world. It showed all of Portugal's former colonies (and there were lots).

Here's Milo traveling the world.
One of those colonies just so happened to be a place called Melaka (spelled below as Malaca). It was under Portuguese control for part of the 16th and 17th centuries. Even today there's a Portuguese presence in Melaka, including a neighborhood called the Portuguese Settlement (home to some of my dear friends).

Even though Portugal is a relatively small country (both in size and in population), it was a powerhouse on the exploration front in the 15th and 16th centuries. The statue below commemorates lots of its explorers, including Prince Henry the Navigator, Bartholomeu Dias and Ferdinand Magellan.

And here's Belem Tower, which is cool to look at and also offers lovely views of the surrounding area. It was once used to guard the Lisbon harbor.

We also walked around inside Jeronimos Monastery, which had a beautiful courtyard. (Side note: I want a courtyard.)

Finn thought it was incredibly fun to run around inside the hallways on the second level. By "run around," I mean "run away from us." At one point he grabbed Jake's hat. Which was fine until he started acting like he was going to launch it over the wall. We had promised him ice cream, but I assured him that if he threw Daddy's hat over the wall, he would most definitely not be getting any ice cream. He looked at me with his best devil-may-care grin and tossed that hat over anyway.

No ice cream for you, Mr. Troublemaker. No matter how cute you may be.

Cute but ornery.
So he didn't get any ice cream, but he did get to visit the National Coach Museum, which has a collection of carriages that once belonged to Portuguese royals and nobles. You might assume Finn was bored out of his mind, but he actually loved it. (I'm not kidding.) He was particularly fascinated by the livery that was on display. I have no idea why. But he kept shouting, "I want to see more liv-ee, Mommy!" Whatever floats your boat, kid. (In case your nonroyal upbringing didn't teach you what livery is, it's the fancy clothes the coach servants wore.)

We also visited the Electricity Museum, which is housed in an old coal power station. There were exhibits about all kinds of energy and also some hands-on activities. Here's a picture of us standing in front of an infrared camera. Cool, huh?

Though our first couple of days in Lisbon were fun, the trip got better and better. Stay tuned to find out why!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Finn turned 3, and we partied like pigs

On July 14, Finn turned 3. Like every parent in the history of the world, I can't believe how fast my child is growing up.

Baby Finn with Mama on the day he was born.
A few weeks before his birthday, I asked him what kind of cake he wanted me to make. "A Peppa Pig cake!" he answered. Never heard of Peppa Pig? It's an animated British show that Finn watches sometimes (and loves).

I figured I could do a Peppa Pig cake without too much trouble. Then Finn started requesting a cake that featured "Peppa Pig going to the doctor." Clearly he has more confidence in my cake-decorating abilities than I do. Anyhow, I nixed the doctor angle pretty quickly. And with the help of my always-reliable friend Google, I found instructions for a simple Peppa Pig cake.

I was pretty happy with how it turned out. Finn was thrilled.

Since the cake was going to be a pig, I decided to make the whole party a pig party. Why not, right?

For the record, it didn't immediately occur to me that although having a pig party here in the U.S. is no big deal, it would have been kind of weird in Malaysia. It's a Muslim-majority country, of course, and pigs are not halal. That means Muslims can't eat them, touch them or have anything to do with them. They're even censored out on TV shows sometimes. Just an example of a pretty major cultural difference. But I digress.

I served these little pig snacks, which may have ended up being kind of gross. (The eyes are black decorating icing, which -- believe it or not -- does not go well with ham and cheese.)

Not my best creation ever.
I also put together a craft table where the kids could make pig noses.

Nate wears a pig nose well.
We also had Pin the Tail on the Pig. Finn got to go first since he was the birthday boy.

But he totally cheated and peeked under the blindfold.

Even though he peeked, he obviously is a little unclear on where a pig's tail is actually located.
So we found a better blindfold and made him go again.

Nate was our winner. Check out that near-perfect tail placement!

My favorite part of the party was story time. I had written a story called "A Pig's Tail," and the main character was named Finny the Pig. But I wrote it Mad Libs-style. For those of you not familiar with Mad Libs, here's how it worked in this case: When I wrote the story, I left several words blank -- for example, instead of writing, "Finny the Pig loves to play," I would write, "Finny the pig loves to VERB." Before I read the story to the kids, I asked them to name certain types of words (verb, color, place, something scary, etc.).

Then I inserted the words they picked into the story. Which means that when I read the story, there were some pretty funny lines.

Sanna and Finn were really into it.
Then it was time for cake.

Milo had it pretty easy. He usually feeds himself, but Grandma Flynn spoon-fed him some cake.

And then Grandma Mongler brought him seconds. Nothing like having two grandmas available to wait on you.

Anyhow, it was a fun day. And now we have a 3-year-old in the family.

With his post-birthday haircut.