San Isidro Corrida

Two disclaimers.  First, I don’t pull any punches here.  What happened is what I write, even the killing of the bulls.  Second, since this is a controversial sport as far as animal rights go, I wrote as impartially as I could to not influence you one way or the other.  I just wrote what I observed.

Plaza de Toros, Madrid
Plaza de Toros, Madrid

And they dragged the sixth bull off to a loud roar from the mainly local, Spanish crowd.  But that’s the end of the story.  For me it all started in Portugal…

While in Portugal I was unsuccessful in attending a corrida (bullfight) because there weren’t any scheduled in the places I visited so I knew when in Madrid, going to a bullfight was something high on my list of things to do.  Before I went to Spain I knew there was a corrida in Madrid every Sunday so I thought this might be my last chance.  After taking the night train from Coimbra, Portugal I arrived at my city center Madrid hostel around 9:30.  Being there so early meant I couldn’t check in so I hung around for an hour, stowed my bags, and joined the free walking tour.  The tour was great, lasted 3 hours, and I learned a lot about Madrid and its history.  I also learned it was the beginning of the week-long San Isidro celebrations in Madrid.  Among other things the celebration includes corridas every night!  Suddenly I had my choice of nights to go.  I met a brother and sister from Toronto and the three of us all went together one night.

Upon arriving via metro (subway in Madrid) at the Plaza de Toros stop we emerged from the underground right next to the arena.  It looked just like I thought it would.  Old, round, tall.  Impressive and imposing I thought.  We went in and found our seats, about halfway up for 13 Euro….which I thought not bad considering only the best matadors and bull breeders are involved during San Isidro week.

The sun was slowly setting with a third of the arena floor already shaded when the formal introductions began.  The matadors, then picadors (men on horses with lances), and I think the bulls or the bull breeders (no hablo español).  Then it began.  Suddenly.  It almost caught me off guard.  I guess I’m used to watching American sporting events that include several minutes of commercial breaks every several minutes.

Like me before going to the arena on this perfect May evening, I’m sure many of you reading this have never seen a Spanish bullfight.  Here’s a not so quick overview of what happens:

San Isidro Corrida, 2013
San Isidro Corrida, 2013
  • Several matadors enter the ring with their pink muletas (capes) but stay hidden behind the entry walls.
  • The bull enters and gets baited a specific direction by a few matadors and their muletas (this allows the main matador to get into place behind the bull).
  • After running (tiring out) the bull for a minute, then turning the bull toward the main matador, he ‘fights’ the bull for several minutes. Olé, olé, etc., etc.
  • The horns blow (yes, there’s a band) and the picadors come out, one across from the other in the ring.

    Picador at San Isidro Corrida, 2013
    Picador at San Isidro Corrida, 2013
  • All the while the matadors have continued to run the bull back and forth (wearing him out).  When set, they turn the bull toward one picador (the horse is heavily clad with protective gear).  He charges and attacks the horse’s side.  At the same time the picador strikes the back of the bull, putting all his weight on the lance until the bull retreats (anywhere from 5 to 25 seconds).  This all happens twice.  (Picador, it seemed like a less dangerous job then a matador, until I heard that the night before one of the horses got knocked over and trapped a leg of the rider for a moment. That must have been a scary few heartbeats.)
  • The matadors distract the bull again as the picadors leave the ring.

    Banderillero at San Isidro, 2013
    Banderillero at San Isidro, 2013
  • Two matadors become banderilleros and trade in their pink muletas for a pair each of barbed wooden sticks.  They look like 24” long batons with little spears in one end.
  • After the bull gets ran some more and turned toward a banderillero he charges and gets stabbed in the back with two barbed spears at the same time.  The barbs keep them stuck in the bull and they dangle from his back.  This happens three times so there are 6 dangling sticks.
  • The bull, now noticeably weaker, continues to get directed and run around until the main matador comes out with a red muleta and sword.  Now the two are alone in the ring and they
    Faena at San Isidro Corrida, 2013
    Faena at San Isidro Corrida, 2013

    begin to dance.  Olé, olé, olé…for a few minutes.  This is called the faena (the matadors capework) and it’s very impressive, even with the bull tired, weak and bloody.

  • The matador trades up to his sharp, stabbing sword.  A couple more olés occur before the matador aims and strikes as the bull makes one last lunge.  The 30” long sword goes completely in the back of the bull.
  • Immediately all the matadors come out and confuse the bull until he collapses.  One matador takes a knife and stabs the spinal cord until its severed and the bull is dead.
  • Several workers come out and start raking the arena floor (they’re like the grounds crew between innings at a MLB game, except they have to clean up blood too) as a few others along with two horses drag the dead bull out of the arena.
  • It’s over.
  • It is all choreographed, seemingly down to the second, and very theatrical.  There is a lot of posturing and posing from the matadors and bulls alike.  Everyone knows their role and plays it, including the bull.
  • While I was there, this happened 6 times.  20 minutes each, almost exactly.

Like I said, everyone plays their role.  So after the initial 20 minute corrida, which was very interesting because it was my first, the others can seem monotonous…unless a matador messes up.  Or unless the bull goes off script.  Both of which happened the night I was in attendance.

In the second corrida I don’t know exactly which happened.  Maybe a combination of the two.  Whatever occurred the result was the main matador ended up riding the head of the bull for a few steps, doing his best John Heisman impression with a hand between the horns along the way.  He escaped without any harm or even falling to the ground.  It was a very athletic move.

Matador with Sword Takes Aim at Charging Bull
Matador with Sword Takes Aim at Charging Bull

The last corrida had all kinds of unexpected action.  Throughout the fight the bull was doing his own thing.  When the band signaled for the horses to come in, he turned and charged the wall in the direction of the horns.  At times he seemed disinterested in continuing, but the matadors kept him in line.  Then, after the matador came out with his red muleta, he fell down in the middle of the faena.  Yeah.  FELL DOWN…four feet in front of the bull.  This situation must be on their ‘worst case scenario’ practice schedule because everyone knew what to do and didn’t hesitate.  The matador immediately started rolling away as all the other matadors rushed in to distract the bull.  It worked.  The bull didn’t move and the main matador was able to get back to his feet with only a dirty uniform.

At the end of the night, these were my main takeaways:

  • I heard you could go buy the meat of the 6 bulls afterward.  Any cut you wanted: steak, criadillas (mountain oysters), whatever!
  • I had gained respect for the bravery of the matadors and picadors.  Most of the time the bull does what he’s supposed to, but sometimes he goes off script. It takes major cojones to stand 3 feet from a bull and turn your back.  Especially when the bull randomly has a mind of its own.
  • As someone who enjoys watching just about anything performed by people who are really great at it (professional sports, live concerts, an artist sketching The Sagrada Familia, etc.)  I enjoyed seeing the regions best matadors and the best bulls battle to the end….even if the end was never in question.
  • I decided I’d like to see a Portuguese bullfight where the bull doesn’t die, and see if there are any other differences (I hear there’s a test of courage that has to do with the bull charging and seeing who is the last man to move).
  • I also noticed the picadors horses are blindfolded.  I suppose they wouldn’t stand there and get attacked by a bull if they could…ya know, SEE.  Perhaps the horses are the smartest mammals in the ring.

    Matador and Bull at San Isidro Corrida, 2013
    Matador and Bull at San Isidro Corrida, 2013

5 Things I Learned in Portugal

  1. It’s not illegal to have drugs.   I had about 8 different people try to sell me ‘Weed, hashish, cocaine?’ during the first 9 hours I was in Lisbon.  It’s still illegal to buy and sell drugs, or to use drugs I think, just not illegal to have them on your person.  There is a progressive drug policy in Portugal, they treat it as a health problem instead of a criminal problem.  The results have been good as fewer people are dependent now than before the law changed.  One bad side effect: drug dealers walk up to anyone they think might want some pot.  Since it’s not illegal to have drugs on you, they only have to worry about being caught selling them. FYI…this only happened to me in the main tourist section of downtown Lisbon.  There were no more drug dealer encounters the other 12 days I was in Portugal.
  2. The Portuguese people are really friendly (see Adega Winery for one example), especially if you attempt to speak in Portuguese.  Nobody knows Portuguese….Spanish speakers don’t.  The Italians?…No.  French?…Huh-uh.  So they loved me when I tried to use the 10 or so words I learned before arriving.
  3. Coimbra is an amazing city to walk through.  And the university on top of the hill is the icing on top of the cake.  And the local music is a treat to see in person!
  4. Real Port Wine (and Portuguese fortified wine in general) is really good!
  5. Two days in Sintra is not enough!  There are so many interesting and beautiful things to see in and around this hill town, to do it properly (without rushing) you need to set aside three days.
  6. Bonus thing I learned…Obidos is a destination gem many tourist’s go to but few spend more than several hours in. My advice…..go there.  Spend the night.  Enjoy!
    Flower in Path, Pena Park, Sintra
    Flower in Path, Pena Park, Sintra

5 Things I Learned in Puerto Rico

  1. No Pictures! in La Perla.  Click the link…and read why!
  2. El Yunque National Park is worth spending the day hiking in.  It’s absolutely beautiful!!
  3. I can spend days walking in Viejo San Juan and not do a thing.  I love it!  The vibe it gives off is kind of electric, at least to me.  Maybe that’s because it’s the first city I spent time in after leaving the states, or maybe it’s really that special.  I’ll go back sometime and see if I get the same feeling.
  4. The people who live in the mountains of Puerto Rico are professional drivers!  The roads are crazy.  Twisting, curving, tight cornered.  They all drive fast and without fear but in 5 days I didn’t see any wrecks.
  5. The little sweet bananas grown by my gracious hosts in the mountains are my favorite bananas of all time!
    Hammock in Front of Banana Trees, Puerto Rico
    Hammock in Front of Banana Trees, Puerto Rico

Sintra – Four Sites, Two Days, One great weekend!

Sintra….oh Sintra  

How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.  I love thee for the depth and breadth and height…of your fabulous palaces and castles.  Etc., etc., etc.  You get the idea.

I arrived in Sintra, Portugal via a short 40 minute train ride from Lisbon.  It was a beautiful, sunny late afternoon, April, 25th.  This is an important date in Portuguese history marking the Carnation Revolution.  It’s similar to Independence Day in the U.S.  There was a grand sense of Portuguese pride in the air as I set out to find my hostel.  In hindsight though I imagine the Portuguese people feel pride for Sintra everyday.  I would.

National Palace of Sintra
National Palace of Sintra

After checking into my hostel and relaxing a while I went in search of an open market or grocery store to no avail.  It was a holiday, only the businesses catering to tourists were open!  Oh well.  I took the opportunity to walk around awhile and get a sense of the layout of this small city.  I was able to see most of the main sites, albeit from a distance.  In the city center there is the National Palace of Sintra and up on the hills the Moorish Castle Ruins and Pena Palace.  I bought a combo ticket to three of the four local sites I wanted to see and made my first visit.

Walking up to the National Palace you definitely notice the two huge conical chimney-looking things.  They actually are chimneys and located directly above the kitchen.  It was a very organized tour (and very crowded) with employees in every room ushering you along. Honestly, between the crowds and the feeling of needing to follow the pace of movement, I was a little disappointed with not being able to linger and go at a more leisurely pace.  It was beautiful nonetheless.

After leaving the palace I had time to walk the 10 minutes from the city center to get a quick view of the fourth site, Quinta da Regaleira, which I think should be on every travelers must-do list in Sintra.  Since I’m going in chronological order in this post, we’ll get back to it later on.

Moorish Castle Ruins above Sintra
Moorish Castle Ruins above Sintra

The next morning I started out early so I had time to visit the Moorish Ruins, Pena Palace and Park, as well as Quinta da Regaleira.  It was a bit foggy and quite cool as I started out but I was certain that after the 40 minute hike up the hill to my first stop at the castle ruins the rising temperature would burn off the morning fog.  So I set off.  I was wrong.  As you can see in the pictures it remained foggy, in fact it kept getting foggier all day!  That was fine with me though.  Being on a hilltop at an ancient castle ruin on a foggy day seemed right for some reason.  I continued on, taking pictures and enjoying being the only person touring the site early on a foggy Friday.

Pena Palace
Pena Palace

From there I continued on the centuries old trail about 20 minutes to another, even higher, hilltop and arrived at Pena Palace and Park.  This site is excellent.  Not only does it have a fantastic palace, the park is an ecological masterpiece. The designers and builders of this park (over the previous several hundred years) created an awe-inspiring space that’s hard to put into words.  There are trees and plants from all over the world, several lakes, statues, and buildings that all fit perfectly together (even though it was a blank canvas before being transformed).  The crowning achievement for many is Pena Palace and for good reason.  It’s magnificent and exotic looking with all its Moorish influences.  For me the best part was hiking through the entire park and ending up at the highest point in the Sintra Hills, Cruz Alta.  At the summit is a beautiful cross and (normally) great views.  Unfortunately for me though, it was still getting foggier so the panorama I was hoping for was nonexistent.  I hiked down the hill and back to the hostel to grab some late lunch and relax for a couple of hours.  Continuing on, after giving my feet a good rest, I made my way back to Quinta da Regaleira to finish out my day of Sintra sightseeing.  This palace and park was a private residence for most of its life.  Now it’s a great afternoon destination for anyone with a telephoto lens and keen eye (of which I have neither, but I still had fun).

Initiatic Well, Quinta da Regaleira
Initiatic Well, Quinta da Regaleira

Where I grew up if someone had land with a house and other structures, they would be called out buildings.  At Quinta da Regaleira they’re called the Chapel, the Greenhouse, Regaleira Tower, and Promenade of the Gods.  Not to mention the many statues, several grotto’s and even a few tunnels connecting several buildings, grotto’s and wells.  And that’s just the REST of the property.  For the main house there was no extravagance left out.  The inside is impressive but the outside is the real pièce de résistance of Quinta da Regaleira.  See below for visual proof!

Quinta da Regaleira
Quinta da Regaleira 

Since I’ll be traveling for such a long time I know I won’t remember everything from every day but I have no doubt I’ll remember these two days and the four amazing sites I was able to tour around Sintra.

Quinta da Regaleira Chapel, Main House in Background
Quinta da Regaleira Chapel, Main House in Background


7 Great Budget Travel Tips Anyone Can Use!

Conventional wisdom says traveling is expensive.  I guess that’s why most people I know (until recently, myself included) save for months, or longer, to afford their week-long vacation every year.  Personally, I’d save for a 10 day hiking/camping trip to the canyons in Utah or a week-long trip to see relatives and visit beaches in Florida and the rest of my yearly vacation days would be used on short trips closer to home or just on long weekends when I wouldn’t leave home at all.  I thought it too expensive to travel for all three or four weeks of my yearly vacation (I guess that’s the fiscal conservative in me!).  I’ve since changed my thinking on travel expenses and travel budgets.  Now I think it costs more in experiences missed out on than it does in money spent, especially if you travel smartly and budget friendly.

There are many ways to trim travel expenses.  It all starts with a mindset.  Think about what’s really important while visiting a place and ways to cut costs are easy to imagine.  Here are 7 ways I’ve saved money while on the road for nearly 2 months.  Some I already knew and others I learned the hard way!

Do you really want to spend a large part of your travel budget on a hotel, where you won’t spend much ‘awake’ time?

  • Instead of staying in tourist area hotels (translation; expensive), stay in cheaper options down  the road a few blocks or off the beaten path.  Stay in hostels where available or rent an apartment for the week.

Is it more important to eat out three times a day or spend time learning more about the food culture in a region?

Fruit Stand at Rio Piedra Market, San Juan
Fruit Stand at Rio Piedra Market, San Juan
  • Instead of eating at the tourist, and usually chain style, restaurants you go to at home (translation; expensive), eat like a local: go to the market, the grocery store, the street vendor.  This is a great way to gain some insight in the local food culture, and overall culture for that matter.  Eat healthy snacks picnic style in a park or in your hotel room and then reward yourself with dinner out (so just eat out once a day).  If you have kitchen access (in a hostel or apartment) buy local ingredients from the market and COOK!  If you‘re staying in a place with free breakfast, don’t skip it.  Load up!  It will fuel you’re morning sightseeing and keep you on budget at the same time.

Will having a car really be worth the cost and hassle of rental fees, fuel fees and finding/paying for parking?

Metro Sign - Barcelona
Metro Sign – Barcelona
  • Instead of renting a car for the week use public transportation (like the locals).  Most cities, even in North America, have at least a decent system of buses, trolleys, trams, subways, and/or taxis.  If you’re traveling in Europe most public transportation systems are super efficient and very cost-effective.  And another, even healthier option: while sightseeing walk from site to site when possible.


The old saying ‘Time is Money’ can apply when traveling.  Especially if you plan on seeing a lot of the popular sites.

  • Look into buying a city pass card.  A city pass usually lumps together a grouping of tourist stops into one fee and you can choose a certain number of those destinations to visit. The long lines at museums and other trendy tourist stops are not to get in…they’re to buy tickets.  With the city pass you already have your ticket and normally have a special ‘city pass’ line for entry.  Do the math on what the pass costs vs. what you’ll pay for the individual sites you want to visit.  It could be worth buying just for the time savings even if you don’t save a lot of money.  I’ve used this method in the past and walked right past the long lines and entered with no wait!  You can find specific information about these cards on the local tourism website or in the local tourism shops scattered throughout major cities.

Take advantage of FREE (or near free) stuff.  It’s everywhere!

  • To keep in touch back home there is free WiFi all over the place, you just have to find it.  Use Skype or another free online tool to make video/phone calls.   Many museums have free hours in the evenings and on weekends.  In one week, two different cities, I visited five great museums including a Salvador Dali exhibit and a Picasso museum without paying anything.  In Europe and other parts of the world many churches and cathedrals are free or near free to visit.  If staying in a hostel, walking tours are regularly organized and normally free (save a tip at the end).  It’s a great way to get an overview, and some great historic information, of the main tourist sites in the area.

Do you need soft drinks 5 times a day? 

Official Unmapped Travels Water Bottle
Official Unmapped Travels Water Bottle
  • Luckily I don’t have a caffeine addiction and need coffee every morning or a soda with each meal.  It’s expensive to buy drinks every day, so I carry a water bottle with me everywhere.  I fill it up for free when I get the opportunity and in restaurants where they charge for water I’ll just drink from it instead.  Just be sure the water in the area is drinkable.  If you do NEED caffeine, cutting it in half could save you several dollars a day.  That adds up to real savings over the course of a whole trip.

Lastly, you’re on vacation…..relax!

  • It’s an easy trap to fall into….filling every possible moment with ‘stuff’.  I’ve been a victim of the vicious cycle as well.  You’re in a new city, you want to see it all and only have 4 days.  Been there, done that.  The problem is this: while you rush around from place to place you’ll miss out on the ‘real’ culture of where you’ve traveled and when you get home you’ll probably need a vacation to get over your vacation!  Take time to relax.  Chill out for an afternoon in a city park.  If you try to fill every moment with a museum, or famous restaurant, or bus tour, or local show or…… You’ll miss out.  On the atmosphere.  The ambiance.  Take time to soak it in and see the lives people live in the places they live them.   Not only will you learn a little something and be recharged for more sightseeing……it’s free!

Whether you’re traveling for months at a time like me, for Spring Break with your friends, or taking two weeks for your first trip abroad these tips can cut your travel costs and increase your travel experiences!

I’m sure I’ll learn more tips as I continue to travel and look for ways to cut my personal costs.  I’ll try and share them along the way!  What are some tips you’ve used to ease the strain on your travel budget?

See the Spanish language version at HERE!


Adega Wine(ry)

During dinner at my work-in-trade hosts house in Portugal she mentioned a place local people go to get food/drink.  The specific one she was talking about is a bar like any other except the owner also has an unregulated, untaxed restaurant and ‘winery’ on site.  A place called an adega.  If you read my post about fortified wine you know I love to try homemade spirits so I kept asking questions about this adega until Janet offered to take me there the next day!

We arrived and walked up to the bar, no one was around.  Janet walked to another door (there were several), knocked and called out.  No answer.  She walked into the restaurant and rattled the door.  No answer.  After nearly 5 minutes a nice woman came from the back (I think she was in the adega working!).  She and Janet spoke in Portuguese for a few seconds.  I don’t know exactly what they said but I got the gist: ‘I brought this American to try your wine’.

So we walked through the backdoor into a small triangle-shaped yard full of dogs then into the barn (winery).  It was good-sized with piles of stuff all over that looked untouched for years.  It seemed to mainly be used as storage except one end where several stainless steel tanks and a few very old oak barrels lined the wall.  There were also at least 100 plastic jugs they use to sell the wine in, all the same size (about 4 gallons)….the only size sold.  Cost: Four Euros.  Yes, you read correctly….one Euro per gallon!

Adega Wine(ry)
Adega Wine(ry)

The worker cleaned out a jug for us and when nearly done filling it asked if we wanted a complimentary glass.  Who could resist that offer?  Not us, so we sat down at one of two tables and began drinking our wine as a few other friends came in.  I say ‘friends’ and not customers because to buy food from the restaurant or wine from the adega you must be known (or invited by someone who is) to the house.  Since the restaurant and adega aren’t strictly…legal, you won’t get served if you aren’t known.  Strangers could be the policia!  So we sat drinking our wine and before we finished the other friends bought us another round.  There was no offer to buy us a drink, it just happened.  I certainly didn’t know them and Janet had never met them either but she said this happens sometimes.  This particular gentleman knew no stranger and talked with Janet for a few minutes, then after finding out I am from the United States tried to talk with me as well.  His English was quite limited and my Portuguese even worse so I don’t know what the conversation was about but I could tell he was a nice, funny guy.

After downing the 2nd glass of this wine we said obrigado (thank you in Portuguese) and escaped before another round came.

If you’re wondering….the wine was drinkable but not great (hey, it was only 4 Euros) and we didn’t eat at the restaurant… have to call ahead and make a reservation!  True story.

Fortified Wine Tasting

Listen up class….here’s a quick booze lesson for you novices:

Fortified wine is simply wine that has a spirit added to it, normally brandy. Some common types of fortified wine are sherry, vermouth and port. True port wine is exclusively produced in the northern part of Portugal in an area around the city Porto called the Douro Valley. Porto is the historic home of the port wine trade.

At my new friend Janet’s house in central Portugal we had just finished dinner and she pulled out a bottle of port wine (port is a great dessert wine). I’d previously tried what someone called port several years earlier at a party in Kansas City and it was awful. I chalked the awfulness up to it just being a bad bottle (and probably not a bottle from Portugal) and was eager to taste some REAL port wine. After all….I was less than 150 miles from Porto and the Douro Valley!

Janet poured two glasses of red Tawny which is a style of port aged in wooden barrels. This causes gradual oxidation which imparts slight nutty flavors into the sweet wine. She may have been surprised at how eager I was to try port (later she told me I was one of the few work-in-trade travelers she had hosted that drank alcohol at all) and how much I liked it. I really enjoyed this Tawny port with its sweet taste. I’ve had sweet wines before but this was different.  The sweetness was not as overpowering. And is was MUCH better than that impostor port from years earlier!

She quickly reached to her liquor shelf and picked out another bottle to try. I was thrilled!! The 2nd bottle was not a port as it wasn’t produced in the Douro valley, but it was a fortified wine made in another part of Portugal. This wine had a faint golden color with a slightly mellower sweetness than the red Tawny. And it was even tastier!

After Janet saw how much I enjoyed this 2nd drink, she pulled from deep on the liquor shelf and came out with a bottle that was very dusty that had one lonely homemade label. She said she received this bottle as a gift a couple of years earlier. It was one of those “I have a friend who has an uncle that makes his own fortified wine” kinds of scenarios. The label only read “1999 Late Bottled Vintage”. Though I haven’t had the occasion to try that many homemade, home-brewed, home distilled beers, liquors, wines in my life, I LOVE trying them..…even the lighter-fluid like moonshine called slivovice from the Czech Republic I was lucky enough to try a few times after making friends with exchange students years ago. I was tremendously excited to try this homemade fortified wine! Not surprisingly it was the best of the three. The homemade wine was extremely smooth with a long, subtle, semi-sweet aftertaste. It was fantastic!!

The whole experience was fantastic. These moments are exactly the kind of thing I was searching out when I packed up and began traveling. An impromptu, informal fortified wine tasting in the home of someone I had known for 5 days. A perfect memory and a good blog post. Thanks Janet!

Obidos, Portugal – The Best Tourist Trap I’ve Ever Been To!

After several days hiking the sites in Lisbon and Sintra I decided to spend a couple of days in a more subdued atmosphere.  I was looking for a less hectic, slower pace.  Hello Obidos!

Obidos - Castle Town
Obidos – Castle Town

Obidos, in east central Portugal, is a small but charming hilltop town that happens to have a castle (now a hotel) and town wall still intact.  Part of Obidos is actually within the 14 meter tall wall.  It’s a big destination for tourist day trips from the surrounding cities, mainly Lisbon, but since I was staying two nights and not coming and going like the normal tourist I was able to calmly walk around the town (more than once) as well as see the sights outside the wall without feeling rushed ‘to get everything in’.

Here are my Top 5 Highlights in no particular order:

Spending more than 90 minutes walking around on top of the entire wall, admiring views from every angle along the way.

Walking the Wall in Obidos
Walking the Wall in Obidos

Walking out-of-town to find the enormous Santuario do Senhor Jesus da Pedra.

Santuario do Senhor Jesus da Pedra
Santuario do Senhor Jesus da Pedra

The ancient Roman aqueduct.

Roman Aqueduct, Obidos
Roman Aqueduct, Obidos

Sitting in front of Saint Maria Church in the middle of town and staying long enough to see an outdoor orchestra performance (I’m not exactly sure what the performance was for but there were three different orchestras all playing together and it was an idyllic setting for such an event).

Santa Maria Church, Obidos
Santa Maria Church, Obidos

Drinking Portuguese wine while talking politics and ‘what’s wrong with the world’ with a traveler from Poland and the Spanish owner of the hostel we both were staying in (sorry, no picture).

In the title wrote this is a tourist trap town, and it is only in the fact that tourism IS a large part of the economy here.  There are silly souvenir shops on every street, a bunch of restaurants all selling the same Portuguese foods and guided tours through every back alley.  But what’s missing was just as noticeable to me.  There were no über pushy salesmen trying to get you to spend Euro’s in his store or any gimmicky buildings that seemed out-of-place (in fact, the buildings within the wall all seem built around the same time period, I’m guessing 200 to 250 years ago).  There wasn’t an arcade or a shopping mall.  Everything was as it should be….as it’s always been.

So, yes it’s a tourist trap, but different from the normal trap.  It’s subtle, calming, classic….perfect.

Hostel Hunting in Coimbra (co-EEM-bra)

Getting off the bus just before one in the afternoon I kind of knew where I was and I kind of knew where I was going.

While booking my hostel a few days earlier I made certain to closely check the city map.  Coimbra, like every other city/town I had been in Portugal, is a labyrinth of curved cobblestone streets and alleys.  Mix in the hills of this city and you have a maze of switchbacks for cars and pedestrians alike that are never-ending, never wide enough, and seemingly always busy.

Everything is narrow (especially on the hillsides) and there are staircase shortcuts all over the place.  Confused is often the word of the day in a new city.  Sometimes you’ll find street signs near the corners of buildings but not always.  For someone like me that (with a map and a landmark) can find anything, this is very frustrating.

University of Coimbra atop the hill.
University of Coimbra atop the hill.

I knew the train stations were along the River Mondego and had hoped the bus would drop me off near there as well so I had an idea of where I was.  Luckily it did!  The University of Coimbra  (founded in 1290 and one of the longest continuously run universities in the world) is on a steep hill next to the river.  Knowing my hostel was near the top of the hill on the way to the university AND near an old church all I had to do was go up and find the church.  Easy right?  Once I started walking I didn’t think so anymore!

The bus dropped me off a couple of kilometers from where I needed to go but in an area with 6 story tall building lined streets.  Effect: I couldn’t see the hill I was walking toward.  After going the direction I ‘thought’ I needed to for about 15 minutes, and passing a few old churches along the way (they’re everywhere in these old Portuguese cities), I eventually  found a sign pointing the way to the university.   Following this alleyway and a few more signs I emerged in front of a very BIG old church.  Noticing a street name on a building across the plaza I walked down the hill 30 yards and looked around the corner of the church…..  Yahtzee!!  With my 30 plus pounds of gear I felt like I’d been walking uphill for an hour!!

So after all the streets, alleyways, stairs, churches and a few street signs I found my hostel in less than 30 minutes and only had to backtrack 30 yards.  ……EASY!!  Just like I thought.

Coimbra Fado – Justin Bieber Couldn’t Carry Their Cape’s

By chance I was in Coimbra at the time of the 2013 Queima das Fitas (Burning of the Ribbons) celebration.  This is an 8 day event each May that celebrates the end of school for graduating students.  The festivities include a parade with each degrees graduates having their own float (and a lot of beer), several nights of concerts/parties that last until 7 am, sports activities and many other events and traditions.

One tradition is the Serenata Monumental Coimbra, which happened a couple of days before I arrived in Coimbra.  I would have had a great seat for the show too; my hostel windows overlooked the square that hosts the concert each year.  It’s a performance of Coimbra fado music which is distinct from other forms of fado because it has historically been performed only by male students and former students of the University of Coimbra.   Traditionally Coimbra fado was a serenade performed by the male student outside the window of a female student he was sweet on.  If she felt the same way toward him, she turned the light on and off three times.  The roots of this music are so deep in the city it’s widely considered the music of Coimbra itself.

Coimbra Fado Instruments
Coimbra Fado Instruments

The singers and musicians all wear the traditional academic outfit (or at least part of it; the cape).  The concert I saw had all three men wearing an all black suit, black shirt and black cape.  The instruments played along the singer in Coimbra Fado are the 12 string Guitarra de Coimbra (Coimbra fado guitar designed by the father of Coimbra fado, Artur Paredes) and a classical 6 string acoustic guitar.

You can generally find Coimbra fado being played each evening in bars, city squares or at the Fado ao Centro where I saw a performance.  Fado ao Centro is a cultural center designed to promote Coimbra fado.  Check out the Unmapped Travels Facebook page to view a short video I took at the concert.

A performance can either be just three men or up to a couple dozen as seen in this video of the Serenata Monumental Coimbra 2013 that happened a few days before I arrived.

Though at the concert I saw I didn’t know what the words meant they were singing I did know, thanks to an English explanation before each song, what the songs were about.  It was a very entertaining event and well worth the surprisingly cheap ticket price.

go where you want!