Portugal

Lisbon

The interesting bits of Lisbon are super small, walkable. Don’t miss the old streetcars/trams and the funiculars.
  • The Baixa is sort of the old downtown (17th c. I think after an earthquake)
  • To the west up the hill is the BAIRRO ALTO. You can take several elevators up to the Bairro Alto. from Baixa.  There are a lot of bars for young people in all the little streets. A few “tascas” (bars) have fado like Tasca do Chico. There are larger fado places, expensive, for older tourists.
  • Further north from Bairro Alto is Jardin Principe Real (lookout and park) with the Embaixada concept store with the best of Portuguese-made clothing and some trendy but more expensive restaurants. Decadente, Cevicheria and 100 Maneiras are very good. You can take the elevador da Glória down to the Baixa or just walk along the stairway – there is a lot of street art along it.
  • At the south side of Bairro alto is a viewpoint Santa Catarina where young people bring their own wine and chill.
  • You can take the cute old ascensor (funicular) da Bica down to the seafront and the Cais do Sodre train station, where you can
    • take a ferry across the water — when you get to the other side walk along the water to the right. It is a walking path with amazing views of Lisbon, along a bunch of abandoned buildings and at the end a stairway up to Boca do Ventro where you can stop for a cheap coffee or drink.
    • from Cais do Sodre you can take a commuter train to Belem to visit the Coach Museum and Moisteiro dos Jeronimos. Or you can take tram 15.
    • LX Factory is a converted industrial space with a lot of galleries, shops, cafes and restaurants. It’s halfway to Belem on the tram.
  • The TimeOut Market is here, unmissable, food halls all handpicked from the best restaurants and shops in Portugal that built branches here. Great and affordable food.
  • Alfama is the other historic area east of the Baixa, it’s super touristy. You can ride old tram 28 up through here around all the bends. Go at off times as it’s very crowded. But perhaps best to walk as there is a lot of architecture here that we missed.

We stayed in the LX boutique hotel, near the waterfront, Cais do Sodre station and the TimeOut market. There are also some more expensive designer options near the Jardin Principe Real.

From Lisbon to Porto

  • Pena Palace
  • Obidos is a very small walled city with a unique hotel called The Literary Man, with books everywhere
  • Coimbra is highly recommended, a medium sized city with Portugal’s oldest university – beautiful and exotic medieval architecture
  • Aveiro is an old fishing town with colorful almost Dutch and Chinese architecture from the golden days of Portuguese trading

Photo albums

2016 album Lisbon and central Portugal

2012 photo gallery from Porto and Northern Portugal

Porto

The other major city of Portugal. Famous for port wine, red tile roofs, a bridge by Mr. Eiffel, tiled buildings, and its beautiful river.

North of Porto

Of interest are these towns

  • Guimarãres
  • Viana do Castelo
  • Braga
Advertisements

Poland (South) + Slovakia (Tatras)

It’s long been on my list to really explore Poland. Of course it’s a huge European country and culture. But also, it has such a multinational history.

There was a Polish medieval state (quite powerful and big) but it was carved up over the 1700s-1800s. So there are parts which were heavily influenced by Germany, Austria and Russia.

Besides those parts, the northwest and southwest of today’s Poland were straight up German till 1945. Around 10 million Germans fled or were expelled. Poles were installed. These territories include places like Wroclaw/Breslau, Gdansk/Danzig, Szczecin/Stettin, and in the case of Kaliningrad/Konigsberg the land went to Russia. It is fascinating to see how these cities are now when the architectural shell is German but the occupants are Polish.

In sum, we visited:

 

Krakow – the medieval capital of Poland – much like Prague or Lviv. Daytrip to the Wieliczka salt mine – interesting, huge, underground “cathedral”…

High Tatra Mountains  in Slovakia – south of Krakow by buses. Cable car ride up to 2500m “Lomnicky Stit” – outstanding. And I can check the Slovakia box.

Katowice – was an industrial city just inside Germany till WWI. Some art nouveau gems but primarily went to see the Silesian Museum, huge, built into a mineshaft. Huge exposition about its history which is totally bicultural.

Wroclaw (VROTS-wuff) – was  Breslau, Germany’s #8 city – has a very Hanseatic historic center. The liveliest of all the cities and my favorite. Def. a hidden gem. Lots of students.

Lodz – industrial city which was in the Russian part but settled by Germans and Jews. It was with 300K people one of the largest cities around 1900. One huge mill complex has been turned into Manufaktura – worth the trip in itself, if converted industrial buildings interest you. It’s a mall, 3 museums, cinema, restaurants, etc. There is one downtown street with restored art nouveau gems, and then miles and miles of deteriorated tenements from the turn of the 20th c.

Warsaw – I have been many times before. Really not my favorite place but it’s always possible to have fun and eat well. The Old Town was completely reconstructed from ruins, so it’s bascially fake. The real reason to go is the new Museum of Polish Jews. We spent four hours there. The 1000 year history of them, unfortunately usually we only study the Holocaust.

 

Hotels
I can highly recommend the hotels by Vienna House in Krakow, Katowice and Lodz – 4* luxury, including some of the most amazing breakfast spreads I’ve ever seen.

#polishbreakfast #breakfast #yum #lodz #poland #instacool #picoftheday #photooftheday #photography #travel

A post shared by See Mexico City (@seemexicocity) on

I was really pleased with all the places we visited.

The food is good and natural – Polish and a lot of quality Italian too. So quite some scenery. We used rail and buses and all were easy to book online – occasionally with the help of Google Translate.

High Tatra Mountains in Slovakia

This place is AMAZING and you can easily do it as a daytrip from Kraków and also spend some time at Štrbské Pleso lake.

Take the 6:25am Majer bus from Kraków bus station to Zakopane arriving 8:25. Note, no real places to eat at the Zakopane station. From here take the 9:05 Strama bus to Poprad getting off at Tatranská Lomnica station at 10:20.

From here it’s a 15 min. walk to the ski center where you need to exchange your home-printed tickets for a plastic card at the “Info center”.

A cable car operates from the lower station to mid-station Štart, and from there a cable car continues to Skalnaté Pleso. From here the unique red suspension cable car goes 900m further up to Lomnicky peak.

Get your tickets for the mountain gondola/cable cars on the official High Tatras website (GOPASS Slovakia) exactly six days in advance which is the first day they go on sale. Note the time for the final gondola to the Peak is the time you must be at Skalnaté Pleso, the terminus of the SECOND of the three cars that you will take. So,all in all buy Lominsky Stit tickets for 12.10pm or later…)

Atop the peak, you will have amazing views and you spend 50 mins… there is coffee and other drinks, and only strudel to eat.

Make your way down the three cable cars and walk back to Tatranská Lomnica station. You can take the Tatras Electric Railway (Google the Slovak Railways site) changing at Stary Smokovec to Štrbské Pleso lake. Allow an hour or more to walk around it, maybe eat here, there is a Kempinsky hotel and many other local places. Then the cog railway to Štrba. Don’t count on eating at Štrba as it’s a dump. Plenty of cozy nice restaurants in the mountain towns along the railway.

Book the 18.30 LEO minibus from Štrba to Krakow on their website.

ALL tickets are available online and your can print them out.

Remember Slovakia uses the euro.

Barcelona

Barcelona, despite being the most touristed city in Europe, is still my favorite place to travel in Europe (other than Amsterdam, which was my home for 11 years). Why? It has good weather (for Europe), very low prices (for Europe), good food, sea, mountains, wonderful neighborhoods and architecture, including plenty of my favorite kind – late 19th century and early 20th century in the very large neighborhood called Eixample (pronounced Uh-SHAHM-pluh in Catalan). In the height of summer however, the amount of tourists is so overwhelming that I would want to avoid the medieval core of the city altogether, so for a first time in Barcelona I think May or September is a better bet.

The main street through the medieval core is called La Rambla and although you may find yourself walking it once, you’ll want to avoid it. Definitely do not eat there as restaurants and cafés are tourist traps. However, one side of La Rambla is the Born neighborhood, which is the upscale part of the medieval core, and well worth exploring at quieter times. Also the Boqueria market is on La Rambla which is a must-see, but again, go at a quiet time. On the other side of La Rambla is the El Raval neighborhood, also medieval, and full of more recent immigrants, particularly from Arab countries, Africa, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

I tend to stay in Eixample within walking distance of the grand Passeig de Gràcia, which is full of the major Spanish and European upscale chain shops for clothing and household items.

I love just walking around the central neighborhoods that are quieter like Sant Antoni and Poble Sec and just enjoying the atmosphere, the trees, the cafés.

In summary, for a short stay, choose from the following short list:

  • A stroll along the Passeig de Gràcia (upscale chain stores for shopping, cafés, admire Gaudi’s building “Casa Batlló”
  • Wander through the Born neighborhood from the Plaça de Catalunya down to the Plaça Reial  and visit the Boqueria market – you will see La Rambla along the way – you must do this at as early in the morning as possible as the crowds are awful in the afternoons
  • Visit the individual Gaudi works La Sagrada Familia church (2.5 km from Plaça de Catalunya) and my personal favorite, Parc Güell (a park, 4 km from Plaça de Catalunya) – you will probably want to take the subway, bus or a taxi
  • Walk the busy but wide boardwalk along Barceloneta beach which is immediately adjacent to the central area. Stop for a drink at one of the many beachfront cafés or have a meal at Aqua restaurant (be sure to reserve during peak times)
  • Enjoy an aimless stroll in a neighborhood such as the Eixample, Sant Antoni, Poble Sec
  • Visit the Miró museum (the “other” great surreal artist besides Dalí) on top of Montjuic mountain – you can also admire a castle or two and some of the Olympic venues. There is a fun and slightly scary old teleférico (aerial tramway) that will take you to the old city and Barceloneta beach from here, but the wait can be very long during tourist season.

My restaurant list is not very extensive (just what I know):

  • Cerveceria Catalana for good tapas; however you really cannot go at lunchtime (say 1-4) or dinnertime (say 7-11) because the waits are very long. Carrer Mallorca 236 at Rambla de Catalunya
  • for Basque tapas, Sagardi’s tapas bar (not its restaurant), Carrer Muntaner 70
  • for a casual restaurant meal, Bosque Palermo, Carrer Valencia 163
  • Me, for upscale but casual world fusion cuisine, Carrer Paris 162 at Muntaner, catarsiscuisine.com
  • Agua, on Barceloneta beach, elegant but casual: Passeig Maritim 30, tel. 932251272

The language you see on most signs is Catalan, which is close to Spanish but many words are more like French or Italian; it is not as some people believe a “mix” of Spanish and French but rather an old language with its own history and culture.

However, in the city, a slight majority actually has Spanish as a native language and is the more common language of communication. I have never had any issue whatsoever speaking Spanish in Barcelona, although I have heard this is completely different outside the city. Of course many or most people in the more touristed areas know English to some extent.

Favorite hotels is the Cram as it’s well priced, in Eixample and near the Passeig de Gracia.

 

Why Australia beats the US with dynamic downtowns

Visting Australia I was struck by the similarities with the United States — only a few hundred years old, a shared language and much shared (British) heritage, prosperous, lands of immigrants – both historically and currently. Plus, the different Australian landscapes remind me so much of the different parts of the Western United States. Of course, there are many differences – my impression is that Australia is more “English” in some ways, and more liberal – they are extremely fortunate to not have to deal with a *large* radical minority of extreme religious fundamentalists trying to turn back the clock to the Middle Ages. It also doesn’t have to deal with the painful after-effects (poverty, broken families, and embedded anger) that we Americans still can feel as the wake of the most inhuman system of all, slavery.

Another notable difference is the downtowns, or as Australians would say their “CBDs” (Central Business Districts). In Australia these are pulsating, dynamic places where people come to work, shop, study, sightsee, visit service providers and government offices, and eat, drink, and go out.

By contrast most American large cities have downtowns that have died, though many are resurrecting to different degrees. With the exception of Manhattan, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston, the story of America’s downtowns mostly goes like this:

The average income for the middle classes allowed many families to afford a car – some already in the 1920s, and many more in the postwar boom of the 1950s. This level of income was much, much higher than Western Europe at the time. If we look at Atlanta, which had 1 million people in the metro area in 1950, we see that by the 1950s most of the middle to upper middle class was living in commuter suburbs about 5 to 8 miles from the city center.

Shopping and services were still in downtown Atlanta – a congested, tiny grid of streets built to serve a town one tenth its size. It didn’t take long before developers figured out that shoppers would gladly come to a suburban shopping mall to do all their shopping. Cinemas followed. Places of employment followed.

This happened in most US cities. In Atlanta it was exacerbated by racial integration. As black Atlantans found ways to move into neighborhoods with better housing; and as parks and restaurants removed barriers to black patrons, some whites reacted by abandoning the city altogether – “white flight”.

On top of this, city streetcar networks were systematically ripped up in a conspiracy by vehicle manufacturers and tire companies, and these were replaced by buses. (In Atlanta, exceptionally, they were first replaced by trolleybuses – electric buses with overhead wires. Only later were these replaced by buses).  Over the long term this represented a serious degradation of public transportation. Serious attempts at more efficient public transit made little headway in most cities – for example Atlanta did get a subway in the 1970s; actually the truncated remains of what was supposed to be a fast regional railway system like Paris’s RER.

Only now are American cities starting to revive mostly due to changes in lifestyle. Some Americans are tired of long commutes, driving miles in a car to get to a grocery store, and the lack of diversity and cultural opportunities in the suburbs and exurbs. Some fall in love with the charm of the older houses. And as more middle class people move back into the city, the better the neighborhoods become, and the safer they become.

Melbourne public transportation – Metro Melbourne is about the same size as Metro Phoenix, a bit larger than the Twin Cities MN

So why does Australia have – and why did it never lose its dynamic city centers? I am curious.

My theory goes as follows. *I have no idea if these ideas are valid* In any case, the situation in Australia would be due to a combination of factors:

1. Incomes in Australia were not high enough for the majority of the population to own cars until much later than the United States – therefore most people remained dependent on public transit

2. Planning occurs at the level of the entire metropolitan area – unlike the US where zoning and planning power rests at the city level – and the city only controls a small percentage of the total metro area. This allows for regional power for planning in Australia – and if this means an emphasis on public transport, the Australian region can effectively implement it. In the US regional planning is dependent on multiple power centers (counties, etc.)

3. The Australian city governments – by the time most people could afford cars – had learned from the lessons of the US – and emphasized centralization of the city and public transport.

3a. What I am not sure about is if cities zone against large-scale malls and/or big box stores in suburbs. I do know these exist, and perhaps the CBD shopping “holds its own” against suburban shopping due to all the other factors mentioned here, i.e. that people are in the city center anyway for work, services, study, and leisure.

3b. I am also not sure if Australian governments zone against large employers establishing themselves in the suburbs. For example in Atlanta, downtown is for conventions, tourism, lawyers, government, utilities and a couple corporate HQs – Coke, the old BellSouth, and Georgia Pacific. But the large corporate HQs like UPS, NCR, Delta, and Home Depot are all in the ‘burbs. I wonder to what extent this is zones against in Australia.

4. In the case of Melbourne, there was a strong leader of the tram company who saved the tram system, one of the world’s largest. Sydney did however (sadly) go over to buses. But both Sydney and Melbourne have extensive commuter rail networks.

Food for thought. Lucky Melbourne and Sydney that they do not have to rebuild their city centers, and what dynamic, energetic, wonderful places they are. But also, I do enjoy watching the American city centers get better and better with time – intown Atlanta included.

6 reasons my next phone will be an Android

 

  1. SWYPE – invented by the same man who invented T9 (predictive text on old Nokia phones), this allows you to “type” but swiping your finger across the letters. To type “ask”, you move your finger across the a, s, and k keys. No need to lift your finger up until the end. It is *so* much faster than typing on the iPhone.
  2. Android is available on devices with a choice of screen size (I want a large screen like Samsung Note III – this will relieve any need I might have for an iPad)
  3. Android allows you to save files from emails so that you can open them later. On iPhone you cannot save files except photos and PDFs. For other file types, you have to open the files from your email, which can mean downloading those files over and over again.
  4. Android lets you attach those saved files, or photos, or PDFs, to emails. (Update: It turns out you need a helper app for file types other than photo and video) On iPhone you cannot write an email and then decide to attach a photo, you *must* first go the photo and forward it as an email. (Correction! Apparently you can switch to Photos, copy a photo, switch back to mail, and paste the photo)
  5. Android has convenient shortcuts, for example from the top pulldown bar, to turn off WiFi with one swipe and a press, instead of three presses. You can also make your own shortcuts on the home screens, and these are not limited, as on iPhone,  just to apps and browser bookmarks.
  6. Android has Google Maps as part of the OS – while iPhone *forces* apps to use the infamous, inaccurate Apple Maps (Correction! Apparently apps *can* now use Google Maps; just the reality on the ground is that the most used apps like Yelp and Zillow do not do so)

Australia

Australia was never high on my list because it’s one of the least different places from the US culturally but wow! Sydney is truly awesome, what a quality of life. Seems to combine the best of San Diego (weather, beaches), Portland (coffee, coffee, and more coffee) and San Francisco (vibrant downtown and cozy late-Victorian neighborhoods) in one, with friendliness, health, social welfare and a great attitude to life. It seems very prosperous here right now. Plus they are getting all the good immigrants due to sensible immigration policies. Only downside so far: strong currency, so very expensive for us.