Saturday, April 23, 2011

Portugal by bus

It's true, instead of renting a car, we traveled around northern Portugal by bus. I previously vacationed in Portugal in October 2006 and rented a car to tour the southern part of the country. That worked out great, but for this trip Greg & I opted to use Rede Nacional de Expressos bus company as they have conveniently translated their website into English and you can purchase tickets online as well as print them in advance. For an average 23EUR/$32 for two people per sector, we were able to travel from Lisbon to Nazare to Coimbra to Porto.
scenery on the bus ride from Lisbon to Nazare
One of the advantages of traveling by bus is that both passengers can enjoy the scenery without having to worry about directions, tolls, traffic, etc. We were even able to reserve our seats online, using a seat map similar to what the airlines use. As the buses were practically empty on all of our routes, we reserved the front row for every trip to maximize the view and decrease the odds of me getting motion sick.

With the high cost of fuel in Europe, it makes sense to avail yourself of public transportation options whenever possible. However note that in my upcoming Spain & Paris blogs I will go into detail about why we decided to rent a car in both of those countries.
the bus station in Porto - not as bad as it looks!
All of the bus stations were walking distance to the city center so we didn't have to pay extra for a taxi or other method of transport to our hotels. While the buses were very modern, clean & comfortable, they did not have toilets although on longer routes the driver would announce when there is an opportunity to get off for a few minutes at a particular station (where there are free toilets).

A few general observations on Portugal:

*I had forgotten how different the Portuguese language is from other Romance languages. For example, as a French speaker and experienced world traveler, I can also converse in basic Italian & Spanish. However, there are very few words in Portuguese that I can easily comprehend.
the off season in Nazare means it's too cold to swim but the tradeoff is an empty beach
*We encountered significantly fewer tourists in Portugal than we encountered all over Italy (and afterward, in Spain & France). As of 2009, tourism represented only 6.5% of Portugal's GDP versus approximately 10% in Italy, 11% in Spain and 11% in France. Interestingly by comparison, tourism accounted for only 2.7% of the USA's GDP in 2009.

*Technically we were traveling in the "off season" which meant better availability and lower accommodation prices. Our average housing cost per night was only $55 for a private double room and in all but one place that included breakfast. 
a filling meal for under 5 euros per person; Portuguese food features a lot of potatoes & rice
*We discovered that the cost of dining out in Portugal is much less than in other EU countries. By eating in "locals only" restaurants/cafes, we could enjoy a 2-course meal with bread & choice of beverage for only 5 euros per person. The comparable cost in Spain was a minimum of 10 euros per person, and it's even more in France (where we are now).

*As there were so few tourists, we also enjoyed the undivided attention and familiarity of restaurant owners, particularly in Nazare & Coimbra. At O Varino in Nazare, where we were the only guests besides one local guy, we were treated to a complimentary glass of port along with a tray of olives to start our meal. We accepted our host's recommendation and ordered the house specialty "shrimp salad" (Greg) and monkfish stew (me). When I expressed my disappointment that mine didn't come with fries, the owner brought me a huge platter and didn't charge us for them.
thumbs up for the yummy food at Ze Manel in Coimbra
In Coimbra, we dined at Ze Manel dos Ossos, where not a word of the menu was in English so I simply asked the owner to bring us a couple of house specialties (which ended up being a roasted lamb followed by pan-seared pork with pickled garlic). As we arrived just before their afternoon closing time, we had the pleasure of being the only guests in the restaurant while the staff enjoyed their own lunch/dinner at a table adjacent to ours. The food was plentiful & delicious and we were shocked when the bill was only 22 euros, including a huge carafe of wine! 
ready for a group port tasting at Sandemans
*One of the most enjoyable things we did in Porto was to sample some of the local port wine. We paid 9 euros each at the city's visitor center for a tour & tasting at three wine lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia. We did not get to choose the wine lodges as only three currently participate in this offer which represents a savings of approximately three euros versus booking the tours independently. First, we had a very informative tour followed by a video and tasting of two ports at Sandemans, then a similar tour & tasting at Offley and finally, Ferriera. Interestingly, as our tours were scheduled in the late afternoon progressively nearer to closing time, we found the second & third tour guides to be less & less enthusiastic/informative. Luckily our best experience was our first and we focused on enjoying the tastings at the last two places. As port averages 20% alcohol, that wasn't too difficult!
a few too many port tastings???
I will let my photo albums speak for themselves regarding everything else we did or saw in northern Portugal. My overall suggestion is that if you want a taste of Europe minus the hordes of tourists and for overall better value for your $$$, try Portugal!


Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Italy on a budget

You know you’re in Italy when there are discarded cigarette butts & dog poop everywhere you step and graffiti on every wall,  and you have to pay the equivalent of $1-2 to use a public toilet. Everyone is eating gelato, even though it’s only 12C/54F outside. There’s a church around every corner and a bar/coffee shop on every block where the locals pause for a quick caffè (espresso). Your first course at a restaurant is pasta and your last is another espresso, even if it's 10PM!
ready to board a graffiti-covered train
Despite what you may think based on the first two sentences of this post, I love Italy! The food, wine, art, churches, history, and overall scenic beauty adds up to a great travel destination. Yes, there is plenty of room for improvement in a lot of areas, as with anywhere in the world. At least they have banned smoking in most enclosed spaces and have designated smoking areas at public venues like train station platforms (although the locals completely ignore the signs)!
view from the top of Florence's Duomo
I have traveled to Italy multiple times in the past 13 years, crossing into the Italian Alps during my first trip to Europe in 1991, then covering a variety of cities & countryside (Venice, Florence, Siena, Rome, Cinque Terre) during my solo backpacking trip in 1998. I also got to re-visit Rome and Venice several times as a flight attendant between 1999-2005. For the past five years I have chosen to travel to other parts of the world so it was great to spend three weeks in Italy as part of our round-the-world trip.
me at the top of Siena's Torre del Mangia - Oct'98
Having already seen the better part of northern Italy, I would have liked to venture south, to Naples & Sicily in particular. But everything is expensive in Europe compared to where we’ve just been; for example, an average budget hotel in Italy is $75 per night at this time of year (March, still off-peak) versus less than $30 per night in Southeast Asia. Since our funds are quite limited at this point in the trip, we really have to prioritize where we want to go in Europe. And since I have been virtually everywhere (compared to Greg) and we are mostly traveling on his dime now, our itinerary is ultimately his choice.
riding the Milan airport train to the city center - we made it to Italy!!!
We ended up spending most of our time in the big cities: Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome, with a couple of nights in Siena wedged in the middle. We traveled by either train or bus between cities and then walked as much as possible between sights. We saved money by buying groceries and cooking whenever possible. We ate yogurt & granola for breakfast, made sandwiches for lunch, and ate simple pasta and vegetables for dinner with cheap 2-3EUR bottles of wine. Our average food cost per day was $25 (for two people) versus $40 to eat one dinner at a restaurant (with no drinks). As is common in the U.S., cheaper meals can be had at ethnic restaurants; for example, Turkish kebap places sell delicious & filling 3-4EUR doner durums (a wrap with shaved chicken or lamb & lots of veggies). We even ate a good Chinese meal in Siena with two appetizers, two entrees, a side of rice and a half liter of wine all for only $30.
this is Greg walking down the street in Florence with a can of soup in his hand - we had been to the supermarket for lunch provisions
Another way we were able to save some money was by couch surfing. We were extremely lucky to be invited to stay at Devang Naik’s apartment in the Oltrarno section of Florence, walking distance to all the sights. Devang is the younger brother of one of my best friends from high school. He is currently doing post-doc work in the field of physics and was busy with a conference while we were in town. He treated us like family, giving us keys to his apartment and even sleeping on the couch so we could have the bed. It was a great place to chill out, do further trip planning, cook a few light meals, do laundry, etc. and I really can’t thank Devang enough for his hospitality!
Devang's cozy apartment with our laundry hanging to dry on the loft railing
The comfort & convenience of Devang’s apartment inspired me to look into apartment rentals for our time in Rome. I knew that in order to see the top sights on our list without feeling rushed, we would need at least three to four full days. As even a dorm bed in Rome costs over $30 per night, with private rooms at least twice that and hotels even more, an apartment can be a great value. I found several suitable places on VRBO and we ended up settling on a large one-bedroom in Trastevere for $655 for one week. While the price per night equates to $94, the huge advantage was having a full kitchen to cook proper meals (not just pasta & sauce!), a washing machine, and free wifi.
view from the balcony of our apartment in Trastevere, Rome
Expensive admission fees at most museums (average 6.50EUR or more per person) meant that we had to be choosy about which sights we visited. Where it made sense financially for what we were most interested in seeing, we purchased passes (Chorus Pass in Venice, OPA Pass in Siena, Roma Pass). We downloaded FREE Rick Steves audio tours and played them on our mobile phones which was a great way to better understand what we were seeing and to not miss the highlights at big museums like the Uffizi in Florence. Speaking of the Uffizi, we had to wait in line two hours to get in, plus it cost 11EUR per person! But it was still worth it to see the best collection of Italian art anywhere in the world (although I would consider paying the extra 4EUR to make a reservation and thus avoid the line next time).
Greg listening to a Rick Steves' audio tour at the Roman Forum
We also knew the potential consequences when we decided to save 15EUR per person by visiting the Vatican Museum on free Sunday (the last Sunday of every month). On that day, the museum opens at 9AM and last entry is at noon so you have to get there early to ensure you get in. We got up at 6AM and, after two bus rides, were in line by 7:30. I brought a picnic breakfast which we ate standing up but paid an exorbitant 6EUR for two cups of cappucino from a nearby cafĂ©. Still, we were in the museum shortly after it opened and quickly made a beeline, enjoying all the empty rooms along the way, for the Sistine Chapel where we were rewarded with a practically empty room with plenty of seating & space to gaze at the master work of Michelangelo. The museum started filling up quickly after that, but we didn’t mind since we had just saved almost $43!!!
the Round Room by Simonetti - completely empty shortly after 9AM
the same room at 11:45AM - yikes!
By the way, our total expenses in Italy, not including international airfare from India, were $2480 for two people for 20 nights. Considering the average cost of a 20 night package tour is $3650 per person not including airfare, some meals and other expenses, then you can see the advantage of traveling independently in Europe!
the beautiful dome of St Peter's by Michelangelo and baldacchin by Bernini
I could write a whole post about our time in each city but I think I will sum this up by listing all the sights we visited along with the links to my photos:

Milan - Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Castello Sforzesco, Pinacoteca di Brera, Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, Duomo
Milan photos
Venice - Piazza San Marco & St Mark‘s Basilica, San Zaccaria, Rialto Bridge, Campo Della Pescaria, San Stae, San Giacomo dall'Orio, San Polo, Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari, San Sebastiano, Ponte Accademia, Santo Stefano, Santa Maria del Giglio, Jewish Ghetto, Santa Maria dei Miracoli, Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Santa Maria Formosa
Venice photos
Florence - Ponte Vecchio, Duomo & cupola climb, Orsanmichele, Piazza della Signoria, Santa Croce, Uffizi, Brancacci Chapel at Santa Maria del Carmine, Porta San Frediano, Porta Romana, Santo Spirito, Oltrarno walk
Florence photos
Siena - Piazza del Campo, San Francesco & Oratory of San Bernardino, San Domenico, House & Sanctuary of Santa Caterina, Duomo, Museo Dell’Opera, Crypt, Baptistry; wandering around trying to find different contradas
Siena photos
Rome - Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, Popolo, Ostia Antica, Vatican Museums, Forum, Colosseum, St Peter’s Basilica, Papal Archbasilica of St. John Lateran
Rome photos

Friday, April 1, 2011

Today marks 8 months on the road!

I'm a little behind in my blog posts. While travel is much easier now that we're in Europe, we're constantly on the go whether sightseeing or moving from city to city which still requires time for planning. Also, the early spring weather has been mostly beautiful and we visited a lot of photogenic places in Italy, so I've had to spend a lot of time editing my photos!
Tuscan sunset
A few topics I intended to write about when we crossed the seven month mark in March were all fatigue-related. I will take a minute to expound on them now as well as to mention a couple of other personal challenges I'm currently facing.

Travel Fatigue
Every long-term traveler reaches a point where they start to lose interest. After you've seen so many great places, it's easy to get bored. Or, maybe bored isn't the right word, but you are less willing to make the effort (or spend the money, see below) to see ANOTHER museum, church, monument, ancient ruins, etc. You get tired of the hassles & constant planning. You get PHYSICALLY tired (also see below). And, while I personally don't get homesick -- you have to HAVE a home to feel that! ;) -- of course I miss my family & friends (also see below).
guess which ruins these are...
One way to combat travel fatigue is to stop somewhere to volunteer, work, etc. Whether for a week, a month, or even longer, there are usually plenty of opportunities if you know where to look. I think this is easier to do when you're traveling solo; for two people, unless both are in agreement about the timing & location, it probably means you're going to split up for awhile. Which leads me to the next topic...

Relationship Fatigue
With the constant focus on getting from A-to-B, making the most of each destination, staying safe & healthy, etc., it is all too easy to “forget” to nurture your relationship. Whether you’re traveling with a friend, partner or spouse, the same effort at frequent, honest communication about the status of your personal well-being AND your relationship must be made as if you were at home. After months of being with Greg practically 24/7, we've definitely started to get on each others' nerves. The same minor irritants that existed back home become major issues after months of nonstop togetherness. Yes, one solution is to travel apart for a little while, or even less drastic, to simply do different things during the day and get back together in the evening to share our experiences over a nice glass of wine or a beer. Greg & I have talked about this but have not been compelled to mandate it - YET!!!
at the end of the day, a glass of wine always helps!
Wallet Fatigue
This is a sensitive subject for anyone, whether traveling around the world or not. Over the past eight months I have personally burned through just shy of $30,000. True, a solid 30% (almost $10,000) of that was spent on plane & train tickets, travel insurance, vaccinations and visas BEFORE we ever left the U.S. We also coughed up $3600 per person for our 2-week East African safari and $2200 total for our Egypt tour. Plus we chose to visit several expensive places early on in our trip (Australia and Japan in particular) and spent "extra" money on special experiences in Turkey, Israel & Jordan. I have absolutely no regrets at this point, but my special travel bank account is almost wiped out and Greg is, by choice, footing the bill for the bulk of our travels in Europe.
picnic dinner in our hotel room in Venice - saving money by eating sandwiches & drinking cheap wine
Physical Fatigue
I have chosen not to reveal this publicly until now, but I have had severe pain in my right shoulder for well over one month. Of course, we've had a couple of minor illnesses and various body parts have been achy at different times on the trip as we're certainly putting some wear & tear on our not-so-young bodies. But Greg & I were in good shape before we started traveling and I think that has made a huge difference, along with good personal hygiene and my almost fanatic attempts not to pick up stray germs!
Greg is pregnant with backpacks!
Since we were in Rome for a full week, I decided I should see a doctor about my shoulder, as it has been hurting constantly and is starting to impact my overall enjoyment of the trip. I got referred to an English-speaking (actually American ex-pat) general practitioner by our travel insurance company. Dr. Spelar was great to talk to, but after a brief consultation he said I would need an MRI to get an accurate diagnosis. Luckily he works with a private medical facility called Villa Mafalda and I was able to get the MRI done within a couple of hours. Even luckier, the orthopedic specialist was performing surgeries that evening and took a quick look at my x-rays and immediately diagnosed bursitis. He even found time in between his other patients to give me a shot of Depo-Medrol directly into my shoulder.
a nice photo of us at Rome's Spanish Steps - but notice how I'm holding my right arm
I was in almost debilitating pain for the next 24 hours, but finally the medicine kicked in and I got a little relief (it didn't hurt that I also took some narcotic pain relievers!). I went back to see Dr Palombi (the orthodpedist) one more time before we left Rome and he gave me another injection. Unfortunately, the anti-inflammatory function of the medicine doesn't have much chance to help when I strap on my 13kg backpack and 7kg daypack the following morning! The bottom line is that the only way my shoulder is going to get better is if I let it rest. Not much chance of that while we're still traveling!

Family Update
Last but certainly not least, I want to mention that my maternal grandmother's health has severely declined in the past week, to the point where I've had to consider whether or not to go home to see her before she passes. I have kept in touch with her throughout our trip by sending pictures & messages to her Ceiva (a digital picture frame) as well as good, old-fashioned post cards. I knew that there was a possibility that anyone in my immediate family could fall ill or worse while we were traveling and that was one of many reasons I bought travel insurance. Unfortunately, the way the policy works is if you file a claim for expenses incurred to come home (whether for serious illness or for a funeral), then your policy ends the day you get home. You do have the option NOT to file a claim and thus pay for any cancellation fees and round-trip travel expenses out of your own pocket and thus still be covered until the actual end of your trip, but at this point in our travels, it wouldn't make much sense for us to come home and then immediately return to Europe.
my grandmother, Barbara Patterson, late last July, the last time I saw her before we left on our trip
After much emailing back & forth with my mom and heart-heavy discussions with Greg, we have decided to continue traveling for now, with the knowledge that I will ultimately have to make a decision WHEN to come home.