Last weekend Karen and I headed out of cold, wet and windy London in search of this unknown thing called sun and it's partner in crime, warmth in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal.
Our story starts on Thursday though with the discovery of two car bombs in Hyde Park and Piccadilly Circus which was reported all over the papers. Great, I thought. An excellent time to be heading out of London for a while. I caught the bus and tube to Heathrow after a long Friday at work and made it as far as the BA check in desk where I waited in line for 50 minutes. Then off to the customs line where I waited again for 30 minutes. All the while I am thinking that this is not too bad. Lucky that I had left an extra hour early. Karen and I met in the duty free section of the departures area and we waited for our "delayed" flight. Not unusual in itself either. Then the fun started...
They hadn't allocated our plane a gate. It was already half and hour behind time coming into Heathrow anyway so when they popped up Gate 28 on the screen we excitedly headed off in that direction of the terminal eager to board and head for sunshine. Famous last thoughts actually.
Gate 28 is at the other end of the terminal. We were met with the largest queue I have ever seen in my life. I am confident in saying that it was longer than the "Aliens" line at Passport control at JFK airport in New York. This thing was about 20 people wide by at least 70 metres long. Plus it was complete with irate Americans who wanted "information". Didn't they know that they were in London? There's no information for the public here, mate. Just stand in line and wait until you get to the front. Which, when we did, was quite amusing because at the front of the line was a rope which closed off the line and provided a little walk way for arriving passengers to cross through our line. On the other side of the walk way was the other half of our line. When Karen and I finally emerged at the front of the second half of our line we were met by another customs screening area. Back to taking off our shoes and jackets and going through scanners etc. The mega line was just for additional security checks. Finally we board the plane and wait for all of our fellow passengers to embark when they realise that they can't find one lady passenger. Where is she? Did she get sucked into the mega line not to reemerge at the end? Did she take one look at the line and say "Toss that!" and walk away like any sane person would? All I know is it took them 40 additional minutes to figure out that they couldn't wait any longer and shut the doors. At this stage we are 90 minutes behind our already delayed departure time. Then...we get stuck in a plane queue to take off.
The poor woman next to me was beside herself. She was a Canadian flying into Portugal to meet friends she hadn't seen for 10 years. They were coming from 5 different countries to have dinner and she was going to miss it because of the delays. We took off after our planned arrival time in Lisbon.
But planes are planes and Heathrow is Heathrow and it is to be expected.
Lisbon is a quiet town. I want to say city but it is surprisingly small. Karen and I woke up on Saturday morning and after our hotel breakfast we went to find a tube station to take us into the city centre. We couldn't find one so we walked down one of the streets. It was beautifully lined with trees. Not just the ones that stand tall next to the road, but these trees had grown to form a canopy over the walkways and road. It was a very relaxing stroll down towards the "pointy thing" (Karen speak for monument to famous people). The early morning sun poked through the leaves and made patterns on the sidewalk. The sidewalks themselves were covered in light and dark stones to create patterns too. It reminded me of a dance, the way that the two (sunlight through trees and patterns on sidewalk) worked together.
When we came to an Information Centre we found out that we had actually walked from the top of Lisbon city to almost the bottom of it. The tube station had been behind our hotel and we had walked out of the front! But the walk was worth it. So was the discovery of the tiny Portuguese bakeries that served pastries and other delights. Can't say I would be buying their specialty - sardine croissant - anytime soon, but Karen loved their egg tarts.
The streets of Lisbon are small and cobble stoned. They stretch like long fingers up from the main piazza type street in the middle to the tips of the hills. Each area in Lisbon was a province a long time ago. The streets are like gateways into each province. You can tell where each one starts and finishes by the type of shop or building in it. There is a huge lift that was built in the 1800s that is made from steel. It's job was to ferry the people from the main piazza street into the next province which was on top of the hill. The lift box can still only take 15 people and is more of a tourist attraction than anything else but it is gorgeous. It is lines with old mahogany wood and has carved bench seats for passengers to sit. At the top of the lift is a steel walk way taking you over to the next province. Meeting you at the entrance of the province is an old, weathered and broken church which looks older than God. The roof has long gone and the windows shattered and removed. But in the spirit of recycling and reuse, the Portuguese people use it as a type of Opera House. Whilst we were there they were hosting a black tie ball inside the church complete with orchestra. I'd hate to think what would happen if it rained!
If you climbed the steel spiral staircases of the lift you get to the very top. Where, again - not to let space go to waste - there is a small cafe. It was so windy up there though that the table and chairs are bolted to the floor and the table clothes frequently whip up and kiss your cheeks. But the view is amazing. Beyond amazing actually. Spectacular. You can almost see forever up there.
We had dinner in a small cafe in one of the side streets. I'd love to tell you that we embraced the Portuguese culture and spent the evening sampling their fine wine and food but to be honest, the only thing I think makes Portuguese food Portuguese is that they always add a fried egg with it. Want pancakes? Have a fried egg too. Want soup? Have a fried egg too. Want steak? Have a fried egg too. Want ice-cream? Have a fried egg too. I like eggs, but not that much so we had Indian. And it was the best Indian I have had since I've been away. Words can't describe how great it was except that I had to walk around for an hour after the meal because I had eaten so much.
With the natural thermostat set at 26 degrees all the time we went to Costa da Capricia on Sunday which is the main beach area of Lisbon. We had to catch a very dodgy bus from an even dodgier bus depot (sand and dirt everywhere as it was outside complete with rickerty old shed as ticket booth). The 153 to Costa da Capricia took 20 minutes to get to the beach and 45 to get back and we have no idea why. The beach was lined with market stalls (read shopping for us) but we only quickly went through them before hitting the sand. And what glorious sand it was. Fine, white and soft. It's been so long since my feet have touched sand. I hate the beach at home, funnily enough. But I miss it so much over here. There were people everywhere but I wouldn't say that it was overcrowded. Lots of pot bellies on old dudes with brown weathered skin and nannas wearing one pieces with wobbly bits. But they don't care. And I love that they don't care. They are there for one thing - sun and sand. Okay, that's two things. I never claimed that I could count.
I can honestly say, that if I stuck my feet into an esky full of ice on Australia Day (c'mon we all know and have experienced beer burn from stick our hand in the ice esky to find that last bottle of your favourite beverage) they would still have been warmer than they were in that water! I fully expected to see penguins on an iceberg floating past me. It was beyond cold! But with the sun and the sand it was still a successful trip to the beach and worth every single one of those 150 pounds the trip cost us (flights + accom + breakfast).
The only thing that topped us getting to lay on the beach was our time at Lisbon airport. On Saturday a suicide bomber drove a flaming Jeep into Glasgow airport in a terrorist attack. This then put the entire UK onto critical alert. Karen and I allowed extra time to get through security at Lisbon since we had had a rough time getting out of Heathrow in the first place. Turned out that we had to wait 90 minutes before we were allowed to queue up to check in. Hopelessly we looked around the airport only to see the wonderful sign of "SPA CENTRE". So instead of sitting on uncomfortable chairs watching the minutes ticking by, we went upstairs and had manicures! Awesome. Turns out getting through customs was a breeze (Karen's record for getting frisked at every airport still holds) for the UK but the poor Americans heading to Boston were put through their paces at every turn!
Portugal marks six months in the UK for me. It has actually gone pretty fast and when I went to change my return flight date I realised that I have so much more to do. The school holidays begin here in 2 weeks so I am going to have to start deciding on my next adventure pretty soon.
Here's to the next six months!
P.S: The Cheeseburger challenge lives on. We can cross Portugal off the list now too!