Thursday, 26 February 2015

Innovative climbing week

Mid-semester, huge work load, and suddenly it's innovative learning week. Climbing in Portugal is an innovative learning approach, right? My climbing partner and I took advantage of cheap Ryanair flights, flying from Edinburgh to Faro and from Lisbon to London Stansted for some warmer weather and a change of scenery.

Upon arriving in Faro we were greeted by a ghost town. The only sad few restaurants in the quaint centre flaunted their English language touristic menus as if that would really draw us inside. We eventually sat down in a snack bar and ordered the pao com batatas fritas, which essentially turned out to be a garlic sandwich with crisps covered with garlic powder and served with molho de alho (yes you guessed it, garlic sauce). After laughing a bit about the amount of garlic we were consuming I realised the seriousness of the occasion and ordered a coffee (for fifty cents) to try and mask the odour. We followed up this anti-vampire ritual by checking out the local night life. Entering one of the only open bars in town, we hesitantly sat at a table upstairs. I got a two euro glass of red wine, my friend opted for beer which cost about the same. The music choice was pretty tragic, sad tunes sung by various members of the sparse Portuguese public (single's night karaoke?) We spoke to one person, he was an English expat (or immigrant, pick and choose) who had been living in Faro for the last five years. He admitted to relying on Google translate still for language matters. It was going to be a long night... Our 1.30am bus departed promptly, and 4 hours later we were in Lisbon.

slumber party in the bus

The public transport system in Lisbon is (probably deliberately) terribly confusing. We bought what sounded and looked like a day ticket for the metro (6.50 euros, same price as the day ticket for the metro), but turned out to be a day ticket for the trains. We were unable to change this and had to save it for a couple of days later, so be warned... After knocking back a quick coffee and something sweet we took the metro to Rato, walked to Campo de Ourique, where we joined our couchsurfing host. After half an hour to recover, he drove us into town and took us to his work (he works for a tour company) and we had coffee with his work colleague, who was originally meant to be our host, before walking down through Praça do Comercio and along the river all the way to Belem tower. From there we visited the Monastery (Mosteiro dos Jeronimos) and the famous pasteleria. Though the Fabrica de Pasteis is the most famous in town, thanks to its original recipe for the pastel de nata (Portuguese egg tart), there are pasteleria shops everywhere in the streets of Lisbon. It's highly likely that the Portuguese spend more time eating pastries and drinking good coffee than they do consuming savoury foods. The weather was fantastic, soaring up to the high teens and the summer-effect was intensified by the cloudless blue sky. The back streets on route to the centre were extremely colourful and photogenic. We stopped for an inexpensive salad in a local bar and again destroyed our kissability by eating raw onions and garlic infused olives. We stopped in an organic shop, Celeiro, where we stocked up on vegan cookies and some tofu. The cookies quickly became our incentive for walking up each and every big hill. We took it easy that night, catching up on missed sleep and preparing for the climbing trip the next day...

Old world tram in Lisbon city centre

Praça do Comercio

Lisbon's own Christ the redeemer

Mosaic floors, reminiscent of the beach boulevards in Rio de Janeiro in my memory alone (these are probably the originals)

Monument to the Discoveries beside the Tagus river

Mosteiro dos Jerónimos, Belem

Pastry consumption, a national pastime

Pastel de Nata

the Royal palace gate

local hero-the man who feeds cats

So a local climbing guide, Dario, took us for a day of climbing near Lisbon in Sesimbra and Arrabida. We were extremely lucky with the weather and enjoyed sea cliff climbing and then after a picnic a bit of climbing in a gorge near a beautiful long beach. We also got to see a shrine in a secluded cave and watch the sunset from the rocks.

Sunkissed cliffs at Sesimbra

The adventurous descent to Arrabida

déjà vu

The following day we used our train tickets to go to Sintra. It took about half an hour to reach the small town in the hills. It's a pretty town but to see anything you need to walk up and down quite a few steep hills and be prepared to spend a lot on mediocre food in one of the many eateries aimed at tourists in the old town. We walked through the gardens to the Castelo dos Mouros and the Palacio da Pena, though we skipped the hefty admission fees (11 euros for the latter) and instead caught a view of the palace from the adjacent hill.

In the evening we checked out the Bairro Alto part of time after a typically late Meditterranean dinner at 11pm, cooked by our host... It was incredibly lively and the streets were full of people. We were advised that this large party district is divided by different groups, we ended up spending a long time in the Erasmus area but there are districts for gay people, hip hop fans, goths etc.

Having returned home at 5.30am, we spent the next morning lazing around, eating pastries and drinking good coffee. Finally at 3pm when we figured that our host would not emerge from his room, he appeared "so girls, ready climbing?" We packed our bags and changed into climbing gear with less than 10 minutes to spare, and our host drove us to sunny Sesimbra where we managed a couple of routes with Dario and some friends before announcing that we absolutely had to go to the airport. We arrived at the airport in full climbing attire. My dad picked us up from Stansted airport, we drove back to Cambridge where we stayed with my grandma on Sunday before driving back to Edinburgh the following day...

Mercado de Campo de Ourique

Botica do café

Portugal is a pretty country which offers good value to the budget traveller. There are still many authentic places to visit even in the capital, and the country boasts some beautiful countryside. I will be back to check out Porto and Azores at some point.

Travelling whilst at university in your final semester is not easy, though it does panic me into actually getting work done and setting myself my own internal deadlines. I have a final thesis topic now and I am researching it in between journeys. I am looking at Italian colonialism in Africa orientale, focusing in on the work Il Tempo di Uccidere by Ennio Flaiano, most famous perhaps for his contribution to the script of La Dolce Vita. It is one of the few works exploring the misdeeds of Italians during the colonial period and serves as a reminder about the atrocities committed all over the world by European colonialists.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

Weekend in Happy Land

No, I didn't just spend my weekend in a field in Somerset passed out after having consumed too much green stuff...  In recent years I have many read newspaper articles which try, as humanity always does, to categorise things. One that caught my eye was 10 of the world's Happiest cities, which to my own surprise suggested that Copenhagen was the happiest place on earth. My immediate thought was why?! Copenhagen is in the chilly north, enjoys mild summers but dark and miserable winters which bear much resemblance to those found in Scotland. Just as I felt the impulse to go seek out the so-called happiest place on earth in Japan (an island infested with friendly bunny did sound promising), I thought I would check this place out.

With less than 72 hours in the city I hardly felt as though I would come to understand why Copenhagen does so well in such polls, but there are a few clear indications both observable by the visitor and armchair traveller. The city is very pretty, small, walkable, and the not too far from great beaches and nature. The historical centre and parliament are within easy walking distance of Free State Christiania, testiment of Danish tolerance. The bike lanes are comparable with those in the Netherlands and thus a vast number of people use these for their daily commute, a way of keeping active and reducing one's carbon footprint. University is free in Denmark, a country which values its welfare system like its Scandinavian neighbours. Add to that the high prices of getting a coffee and one might presume that Danish people have a pretty good starting salary.

My friend and I spent a nice few days in Copenhagen, couchsurfing with a lovely host, taking a boat trip around the canals, hanging out with locals, eating good food, exploring Christiania and the Danish capital's art scene. It is a good place to go for a weekend city break as it is easy to get around and most of the interesting sites are close to each other.

Boat trip for 40 Kroner, Nyhavn, that place you always see in the postcards...

The wee mermaid tribute to Hans Christian Anderson

Christiania is a weird but interesting place. Upon arrival you are reminded that you are leaving the EU. Most things are tolerated in this semi-free state but hard drugs are not recommended, and you can't take photos on pusher's street (what kind of anarchist would I be without breaking this rule though?)

Once out of the so-called pusher street where marijuana is sold in little camouflage tents, Christiana becomes a pretty little hippy comune characterised by architecture without architects, colour and a Camdenesque vibe. Indiidual frames of the city range from picturesque to seemingly post-apocalyptic. The nicest part of Christiana is by the side of a canal. Most food in Christiana seems to be vegetarian and from sustainable sources, it is much cheaper than the rest of Copenhagen.

Just swinging

Christiania is one of those interesting places to visit when you want to see something different. It shows that people can defy the system if they have enough determination and is apparently a quite desirable place to live, but it does have its downsides... Increased crime rate in recent years and difficulty in decision making. We spoke to a local inhabitant who expressed his frustration at how slow it was to build a new public toilet in this free state, as full agreement across the community is required and just one "no" can halt any sort of progress.

Copenhagen is definitely way up there alongside London, Amsterdam and Berlin as one of the coolest cities in Europe. I would like to come back sometime, but perhaps when I have more money (£5 for a coffee is a little steep). Travelling this semester is a little difficult what with it being the final and perhaps most intense semester of my MA. That said, my next trip is to Portugal in February, and I have just booked a post-exams pre-graduation trip to Thailand and Indonesia for May and June, which will primarily be a diving, climbing and hiking trip.

In other news I have some exciting ideas for the near future, for which I just need to get some investors and funding, but here's a hint: it involves my favourite country of all time, India. 2015 is the year it all comes together, apparently...