Puzzled in Poland: Tales of Coping with a Language Barrier

Ask someone why they would not like to travel alone in a foreign-speaking country. The answer will most likely be because they are scared, or because they do not want to feel lonely. Ask them what they’re scared of and they’ll probably say being kidnapped or getting lost. They will probably not mention the more immediate, everyday emotions and situations that people tend to be afraid of: the confusion when you’re on a bus and aren’t completely sure when you should get off; the daunting feeling of entering a room with an awareness that you are not proficient in the local language; the alarm when a stranger starts speaking to you and you have no comprehension of what they’re saying; the potential loneliness when everyone around you is laughing or debating about something in another language and you can’t participate.

Before visiting a foreign-speaking country, I always ensure I know a few key words and phrases, such as “Yes”, “No”, “Please”, “Thank you”, “Excuse me/Sorry”, “‘I don’t understand”, “I don’t speak…do you speak English?” Even if the recipient speaks your language, this gesture of making an effort in their language can help foster good relations. But of course, these are not conversational terms and you will still be left clueless as to what people are talking about most of the time. However during a visit to Poland in autumn 2016, I began to see the funny and advantageous side of having a language barrier in a foreign country.

Sightseeing

On the Sunday morning of a weekend in Kraków with my co-sister-in-law, we visited Wawel Cathedral. The queue was extremely long and snatches of conversation apparently suggested ticket sales were about to end for the Royal State Rooms. My sister went to inquire inside and came back grinning. In a moment of jamminess, two South American ladies with spare tickets had overheard her asking about the probability of getting tickets within the next hour and offered her their spares. One of the ladies was an architect working in Warsaw and proficiently explained in Polish the origins behind the royal tapestries and regal pieces of furniture. It’s quite rare for someone from Latin America to speak Polish, and it was refreshing that this was the language of choice over English. I would stand with little idea of what they were saying, smiling and nodding at what seemed like the right times.

The funniest point is when people suddenly start laughing. Laughter is contagious and it’s an instinct to join in…except when the laughter is about something you can’t understand, people will look at you with a puzzled expression and you’ll feel like a Ben Stiller character.

At the same time, and, rude as it may sound, having a language barrier can bring a sense of liberty. There is no obligation to pay attention and contribute, but instead the freedom to wander around in your own world.

Yoga Classes

A few days after my Kraków trip, my sister-in-law invited me along to a yoga class. It would be my first experience of yoga but with traffic congested, we were running late. I suddenly felt a slight build-up of butterflies, flashbacks to when I was a child  turning up late to my first session with a swimming club not knowing anyone, or feeling self-conscious as a teenager walking into a party already in full swing.  But I was older now and more used to new situations.

We entered the studio with four other participants already making shapes (so much for going to the back!) and were thrown straight in to abnormal stretches. Oblivious to what was going on, I would glance around the room and attempt to mimic the poses, with my sister-in-law whispering occasional instructions. Sometimes I would close my eyes to help me maintain a pose while the instructor kept talking, only to look up and notice that everyone now had their legs over their head and so forth.

The instructor had trained in California and could speak English. She would approach me with calm whispers of “Focus on your breathing – in and out through the nose.” ‘But I might collapse!’ I thought as I attempted to stick one leg straight out behind me while putting my hands in the praying position to my chest and twisting my head up towards the ceiling.

I then found myself in what I can only describe as the ‘Giving Birth’ position. Lying on my back with my legs spread far open, the instructor slowly attempted to ease them further apart. With eyes wide like a baby rabbit staring into the open mouth of a fox, I smiled up at her pathetically, hoping she wouldn’t snap my legs off…and be too disgusted by the condition of my feet. (Manicures and pedicures appear to be a big thing in Poland.)

By the end of the class, my brain and body was destroyed. However I went again a week later and saw a definite improvement in my ability to hold some stretches. I even started recognising the Polish words the instructor was using to count and say “hold” etc.

Dog Shows

I also had my first experience of a dog show in Poland, when my brother and his wife took their two dogs to two competitions in one weekend. Over two days, I got a glimpse into the snobby, two-faced world that is dog shows. Imagine a row of poodles, Old English Sheepdogs, and Chihuahuas on tables having their fur blow-dried, curled or straightened. Imagine big men in tracksuits blowing whistles and shouting commands at their Alsatian as it gallops recklessly around a ring with the handler hanging on for dear life. Imagine smarmy judges reducing owners to tears with their arrogant, disapproving comments about a dog’s features. Imagine owners casting you filthy looks if your dog so much as glances at theirs. (Any slight scuff of contact can stimulate verbal wars.)

I was put on dog-and-baby-holding-duty, the latter inviting some curious looks which I was relieved didn’t lead to anything more. (My brother later joked that, based on typical Polish culture, most people were probably thinking I was too old, rather than too young, to have a baby.) When holding the dogs however, people would sometimes approach wanting to stroke them, occasionally asking questions. I could only smile and nod. On the second day I noticed one of the dogs trying to smell the bag of another owner sat near us. The owner later turned and said something to me with a facial expression that I found hard to interpret. I later found out he had been complaining about the dog’s alleged salivation on his bag. Being oblivious, I wasn’t able to feel bothered by anything he said.

This is where a language barrier can be beneficial, because of the desensitisation it brings to verbal interactions that might otherwise upset you. Another example of when I’ve appreciated language ignorance for this reason comes from Portugal, when I would walk down the street and males would make what seemed like, based on their body language and facial expressions, sexual comments towards me.

There are of course disadvantages to this specific scenario of a language barrier though, in that you can’t apologise for any bad actions you’ve committed unaware. This dog owner probably didn’t appreciate me smiling as he grumbled about my dog…but hey, I didn’t see any saliva anywhere.

Great Grandparents

My sister-in-law’s grandma speaks very little English. We stayed at hers over the weekend we went to the dog show, and as she showed me my room, she would mutter away in Polish as if not realising the extent of  just how unproficient I am at the language. I would make enthusiastic “mmm” noises and say “piękny” (pretty) whenever she pointed at something and looked at me. Then there was the time when I was holding my nephew after he’d started crying. I finally managed to soothe him with some cheerful singing (Motown genre, to be precise) and looked out into the garden as his head flopped onto my shoulder. Then I sensed a new presence in the room, heard the approaching steps of the grandma sneaking up behind. I glanced around and saw her with her arms reached out expectantly, looking at her great-grandson with calculating glee, like a sugar-addict entering an empty candy shop. I had no choice but to relinquish him, watching her walk away with the despondent feeling of someone on a TV show who just had the prize they won stolen off them by another contestant.

Birthday Parties

One evening, my brother’s neighbour invited us over for a birthday dinner, which involved eating roasted pumpkin with honey for dessert (very tasty). While guests would talk to me in English now and then, naturally the conversation would soon revert back to Polish. Again I faced the challenge of smiling at the right time, but there was also the added challenge of refusing food offerings resolutely. Polish people are extremely hospitable and enjoy feeding others…a lot. I felt my stomach ballooning to the point of discomfort but felt rude saying no when someone mentioned in English that they’d made the cake themselves. Even if I said no, minutes later they would only hold the plate under my nose with encouraging nods.  “Pyszne,” (delicious) I would say with a thumbs up as I forced the food down my throat.

Then there came the biggest challenge: the singing of “Happy Birthday”. My solution to this seemed to be standing with my mouth half open, nodding my head from side to side in time with the tune, trying to guess when the person’s name was about to be mentioned so I could jump in and contribute at least one word.

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There will always be times when not knowing the local language leads to stressful situations. But having a language barrier can also be highly entertaining and create fond memories. It also reinforces the value of patience, good manners, initiative, and observation – attributes useful in any environment, no matter what languages you speak.

 

Please share your hilarious language barrier stories below!

Popular Tourist Spots Which Will Leave You Disappointed

*Guest Post by Jordan Greene*

No one likes to be disappointed, especially when they’re travelling to see something supposedly amazing. But not all tourist spots are worth the hype they get. To save yourself the journey, we’ve picked seven of the most disappointing tourist attractions from around the world. Check them out:

1. The Little Mermaid, Copenhagen
Look up any list of reasons to visit Denmark, and Copenhagen will be near the top – and rightly so. The capital city is beautiful, chilled and full of enough tourist attractions to keep you busy for a weekend break. But for some reason, a very small statue of a reclining mermaid has become hugely popular for no apparent reason – although the Secret Traveller suggests it might be due to the lack of other attractions in the rest of the country. Stick to Copenhagen’s real attractions, like Tivoli Gardens or the National Gallery of Denmark.


2. Mona Lisa, Louvre Museum, Paris
The Mona Lisa painting itself isn’t what’s disappointing. After all, it is the world’s most famous painting. It’s the fact that you’ll never get close enough to see whether it’s any good or not, as there are so many people stuffed into the one room of the Louvre. Add to that the disappointing view from the Eiffel Tower, and you’ve got a very disappointing visit to Paris if you don’t plan it well.


3. Hollywood Walk Of Fame, Los Angeles
Surrounded by tacky shops trying to get tourists to buy some rubbish souvenir, the Walk Of Fame has nothing good to offer visitors. A TripAdvisor review from someone local to the attraction says it’s a waste of time, and suggests going to Griffith Park and doing the Hollywood sign hike instead. “You’ll get exercise and have a better time,” they say.


4. Times Square, New York
New York is busy, everyone knows that. But every day, tourists still turn up to Times Square hoping to get a great photo to show everyone at home. But there are virtually no pedestrian areas, making it not only disappointing but potentially dangerous. Spend your time elsewhere in the city – Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Top of The Rock are just some suggestions to start you off.


5. Loch Ness, Scotland
Loch Ness in Scotland is famous because of the legend that a monster apparently lurks in the waters – aptly named Nessie. There are numerous “photos” of the beast, and some people have devoted their lives to proving its existence. But at least with all the other disappointing tourist spots on this list, you’ll see something. Here, you won’t.


6. The Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy
All you need to know about Italy’s most famous tower is revealed in its name. It’s a tower than leans. Going to visit it is just a bit underwhelming and you’ll find yourself getting annoyed at everyone trying to get the perfect photo of them “holding” or “pushing” the tower. Adding to the frustration is a load of salesmen trying to get you to buy some trashy souvenir. Looking for a relaxing break? Avoid the Leaning Tower of Pisa at all costs.


7. Stonehenge, England
We’re back to the UK for our last disappointment. Stonehenge might be on many people’s must-visit list, but don’t devote an entire trip to it. As this post says, only visit Stonehenge if you happen to be near the local area. And don’t expect too much – you can only view the boulders from a distance and it’s quite expensive.

Do you agree with these choices of disappointing tourist spots? Have you visited somewhere else and been disappointed? Let us know!

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Please note that all views expressed in this post are those of the guest author and not of SoleSeeking.

Books & Bridges: Budapest for the Quiet Solo Traveller

There seem to be two types of solo traveller. There are the ones who, as extroverts or simply because they don’t enjoy being alone, enjoy putting themselves in social situations and meeting new people. They will join free walking tours and bar crawls and essentially go to any place or do any activity that allows them to interact with others. Then there are the solo travellers who, perhaps being slightly more introverted, are happy to explore alone and avoid the big social scene, looking for picturesque serenity more than pubs and parties.

I definitely fall into the latter group. If I’m travelling solo, particularly if it’s just for a short break, I don’t tend to look for social contact and companionship. Brief encounters with a random character are enough to satisfy my social sanity whilst ensuring my personal itinerary isn’t interrupted. The truth is, I like having time alone and having the chance to fulfil my own plans at my own pace. However, if I do happen to meet someone who becomes a great travel companion, I will cherish this new friendship and do my best to preserve it.

Budapest is a top choice for a boozy holiday with a friend or romantic getaway with a partner, but it’s also a great place to wander around solo. Below is an account of my time in Hungary’s capital city.

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A few bad experiences of sharing hostel dorms with snorers has made me more inclined to choose Airbnb for accommodation. This is definitely a wise option for Budapest because of the exchange rate. I spent £19 a night staying in a spacious room with a double bed, hosted by a lovely lady called Maria. Her cool apartment is decorated with various travel souvenirs and is conveniently located next to Nyugati station. She’s also very helpful when it comes to recommending things for you to do and see that cater to your particular tastes. If you sign up to Airbnb using my code, you’ll get a discount!

It was in Budapest where my love for vintage shops was reignited. Falk Miksa utca is home to many antique stores varying in value and appearance – some are elegant stores featuring opulent collectables, others have more of a flea-market feel.

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I love nosing through vinyl collections for Motown records, and the one above has many to browse (although Motown music isn’t so popular in countries of the former Soviet bloc). Inside, the store was packed with CDs from Britney to Deep Purple, Jennifer Rush to Santana. Opposite this was an antique shop called Kacabajka, where an old lady sat contentedly on a wooden chair chatting with the male owner. Some people would call the items in the shop junk, but I loved looking at the typewriters, delicate crockery and other interesting knickknacks. It was here where the question “Beszél angolul?” caught my attention (it means “do you speak English?”) and I looked up to see a Middle Eastern couple asking me what metal I thought an ornament was. After helping them, I hoped the shop owner wouldn’t proceed to start chatting away to me in Hungarian…

To others it was obvious I wasn’t Hungarian. As I browsed some fancier antiques in a store down the road, a man on a stool said: “This man [the owner] would like to know where you are from.” The questioner wore a top hat and waistcoat and rested the point of a long black umbrella on the floor. When I said I lived in London, he told me he had visited Portobello Market a few months ago and had some good finds. He spoke with a well-to-do accent and I suddenly felt like I was in the scene of a 1920s F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.

I was keen to browse some second-hand book shops, but discovered that sadly those recommended in my (slightly dated) guide book had shut down. However my Airbnb host recommended I try Massolit on  Nagy Diófa utca. This is a quiet little street (I walked past it about three times) which makes the cosy cafe and book store even more appealing. University students and academics appear to be the main customers, with a range of genres being offered from romantic fiction to political economy. I spent a good 30 minutes deciding on which book I would buy, only to end up buying two – ‘Roughing It’ by Mark Twain and Pascal Mercier’s ‘Night Train to Lisbon’ –  for between 1000 and 1500 Forints each (£2 – 4). In some cafes you feel very aware of being alone, but here you can sit with a hot drink, some cake and a book and feel completely comfortable. Once again I was transported to a New York setting, this time when I was aged 15 on a trip to visit my sister, sitting in a cafe in Greenwich Village and seeing a girl in a black hat, blue vintage dress and boots eating soup alone whilst reading a book, thinking to myself that she was really brave and cool.

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Budapest is a beautiful and safe place to walk around at night. Visit in early spring and the river banks are not bustling with people, as they seem to be all year round in London. If you’re into photography, you’ll love capturing the glittering bridges and various Churches, palaces and parliamentary buildings that beam brightly at the Danube below. I happily spent a couple of hours each evening taking photos from both sides.

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Another thing I love when travelling alone is to have picnics. You can choose where you eat and there’s no waiting involved. Thankfully there was an Aldi near where I stayed so I could stock up the night before, paying around 775Fts for some baps, cereal bars, fruit and chocolate. Naturally I also had to include Hungarian cakes in my itinerary. A good takeaway bakery is Lipóti on Kiraly utca, which makes a delicious chocolate and blackberry brownie cake as well as classics such as poppy seed cake.

For picnic locations, head to the Buda side of the city where you’ll discover more historical architecture and see its greener side. I made my way there over Margaret Bridge, taking a detour to visit Margaret Island. In summer this large park holds performances in its Open Air theatre and there’s also an outdoor swimming pool. You won’t see the park at it’s prettiest in the spring, but I did love how there was a separate 5 km track set up for runners!

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Castle Hill in Buda is a UNESCO World Heritage Site home to regal museums and the Royal Palace. You enter a quaint quarter where you’ll find many tourists but all within a tranquil haven of cobbled streets, splendid statues and quiet restaurants. The picturesque views of Pest continue for over a kilometre. It’s the perfect location for a wedding parade!

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If you want to get even bigger and better views of the city with fewer tourists on your tail, head further south and stride up Gellert Hill. There are various paths that zigzag to the top, with little signage to direct. The logic seems to be that the quicker paths will hurt the most! It was just below the famous Liberty Monument that I noticed a man stood with a briefcase with a fidgety manner looking around at fellow tourists. As I passed him he asked me to take a photo of him so I naturally obliged. He was Dutch and explained with shifty eye contact and an odd smile that he was on a stag do and had been told to have a crazy picture taken, otherwise he’d be paying for all the drinks that evening. I shrugged and nodded along. “The crazy picture involves me wearing no trousers,” he said with nervous excitement. I politely declined and walked away while he looked on helplessly. Seeing random men expose themselves in woodland areas was definitely not on my itinerary today!

Panoramic views of the Danube and Buda’s rolling suburbs await you at the top of Gellert Hill. It seemed like the appropriate place for my picnic. Unfortunately I also seemed like an appropriate person for people to ask for photos from. One of the requests came from a Scottish man around my age. A brief conversation revealed that he was having a week off from teaching English in Prague. He asked what my plans were for the rest of the day, and I sensed he was interested in hanging out some more. However when I mentioned my plan to browse more markets and second-hand shops his mouth straightened with indifference. He was planning to go to an open table-tennis meet in a bar.  The two types of solo traveller had clashed. Maybe it would have been a fun event but I had no intention of changing my plans; I was enjoying my independence too much! Shortly after we said our goodbyes and followed our preferred routes down the hill and into the remainder of our individual trips.

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Take a right after crossing the Elisabeth Bridge and join Vaci utca – one of the longest shopping streets in Pest. Near the end you’ll find more craft shops. If you carry on south you’ll reach the Central Market Hall near Liberty Bridge. Inside this huge building is where locals will buy their meat and fruit, as well as spices, spirits and pastries. Upstairs tourists can find various gifts and souvenirs including paintings and shot glasses. There are also plenty of food stalls around if you fancy saving your Pick salami for later…

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For your third day in Budapest, City Park is a pleasant place to come and read a book in the spring sunshine. It was here that I enjoyed seeing a mother leave her toddler to crawl on the ground and examine a stone plaque. I wish more parents would be less pedantic about safety and allow their children to explore their inquisitive nature!

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Heroes’ Square

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If the weather isn’t so nice, and even if it is, definitely devote a couple of hours to the House of Terror which is on Andrássy utca in the direction of the park. Interested as I am in history, I’ve never been a huge fan of visiting museums. I find them quite draining and if the weather is decent, I’d rather stay outdoors being active. However this former headquarters of the Nazi and successive Soviet regime is definitely one of the most interesting and enlightening museums I’ve been to. In each room visitors could pick up a sheet which summarised the country’s history relevant to the context or theme of that particular room. Excellent footage was shown, whether it was interviews with former camp labourers during the Nazi occupation or propaganda films created by the Soviets. Harrowing as some of the films and photos were, the museum didn’t try excessively to influence visitor’s emotional reactions; it simply gave the facts and left them to decide how they felt. Even better, I only had to pay 1000 Fts for entry because I had ID to prove I was under 26. This discount scheme is a brilliant way to encourage youths to learn about the history of their or another nation. For just £2.50 I became so much more knowledgeable about a period in Hungary’s fascinating history.

Because I ended up being gripped for almost three hours in the Terror House, I could only grab a milkshake from Kino Cafe before heading for the airport. This 80s-style art house cafe situated off Kiraly utca makes fruit shakes for 570Fts that actually taste like real fruit, with no added sugar. I wish I’d had more time to spend inside (…and try their cheesecakes).

Whilst the city didn’t have so many events nor so much pretty greenery at this time of year, March was still a great month to visit the very walkable Budapest. I’d highly recommend it to someone embarking on their first solo trip, especially if they are a quieter traveller. Even if wandering alone, there are still plenty of opportunities for momentary but memorable social encounters that won’t require you to sacrifice individual plans. Flowers were beginning to bloom but their arrival hadn’t yet attracted swarms of tourists – ideal for someone who likes to avoid the crowds and adventure alone!

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If you have additional suggestions for quiet solo travellers visiting Budapest, please comment below.

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Have an iPhone or iPad and planning a trip to Budapest? You can download this article for reference on your visit as a GPS-coordinated app! Just click here and you’ll get to the GPSmyCity download page.

Escape to Portugal: Lazy Sundays in Lisbon

Sometimes people have an outfit that they really like but don’t dare wear too often. It might seem too extravagant or inappropriate for the occasion. You want to wear it but feel too self-conscious whilst doing so. Then there will be a day when something about the place you are in makes you feel care-free and confident. Something in the environment gives you a new perspective that makes wearing this outfit seem more acceptable. I experienced this feeling on my last day in Lisbon when I put on a multi-coloured sundress that I hadn’t worn for four years since I had been on Vancouver Island.

My Sunday started by enjoying the sound of drums playing in Rossio square. People of all ages wearing t-shirts with ‘Project Lisbon’ on played to the beat, inviting spectators to come join. Here I met up with my new Hungarian friend Virág before spending a lazy day together sightseeing.

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Sundays are an excellent day to go exploring in Lisbon because many attractions are free between 10am and 2pm. If you like museums and architecture, the place you need to visit is Belém which is the historical district of Lisbon. Located 6km from the city centre, it’s accessible by the tram which can be caught at Praça da Figueira.

The downside of Sundays is their popularity with tourists, which inevitably leads to crammed trams. As Virág and I boarded the carriage, I found myself trapped between a man with a huge sweat mark down his back and an old lady’s armpit which every now and then would radiate a whiff of something stale and make me want to wretch. Finally we reached our stop at Torre de Belém and I could escape the toxins.

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Queues for the Torre de Belém are insanely long, so unless you are desperate to get a closer look at the interior of this tower, just enjoy views from the outside whilst you paddle in the river.

Belém is famed for its custard tarts (natas) which are even named after the municipality. If you are not concerned about top quality and have no patience for queues and high prices, head to Pingo Doce on Avenida de Torre de Belém where you can buy a pack of 9 for 1.50Euro (as opposed to 4 for 6Euros like in most bakeries). With some fruit and the shade of an olive tree nearby, they tasted good to me!

The Mosteiros dos Jeronimos stands on the edge of the Rio Tejas with its striking Gothic design. Built in 1496, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site that commands respect from its younger surrounding peers. Ladies would pester those tourists waiting in the queue by trying to sell fake Pandora jewellery. The queue soon got moving and I found myself getting inside without having to pay a penny, with 15 minutes of free entry remaining! Inside you’ll walk on marbled floors underneath meticulously decorated ceilings and alongside conscientiously carved pillars. There is a huge Church on the right side and even if like me you are not religious, you can’t help but find yourself becoming immersed in the spiritual state that surrounds worship.

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Near the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument of Discoveries), built to commemorate Portugal’s imperial expansion, was placed a structure with the word ‘LOVE’ displayed in hearts with love-locks attached. Ducking under and out of the underpass in which homeless people played the accordion, we wandered through a long market that sold a variety of things – tiles, wood carvings, tea towels, vintage car toys, ceramic plates, fancy cutlery, photoframes, hanging decorations and jewellery. The tiles are without a doubt my favourite feature of Lisbon – I could happily decorate an entire bedroom wall with them!

In the hazy afternoon shade I watched the columns of water in the large fountain continually rise and fall as life calmly slowed down around me. Even when not doing anything in particular, Lisbon is a great place for lounging around. Being lazy feels acceptable. It feels like you are relaxing in your hometown, rather than wasting time in a foreign holiday destination. I walked around in my vibrant dress but wasn’t self-conscious, instead too relaxed and absorbed in my surroundings to think about it. This didn’t feel like a city where appearance mattered, nor did it any longer feel like a city where I stood out. Instead I felt like I blended in with everyone else here enjoying the Lisbon vibe. In a place where the sun is shining, there may be less room to hide but there is also less reason to judge.

Along Rua da Prata there is a wonderful gelateria selling a variety of ice cream flavours like banana and pistachio. Burn it off by taking a fairly steep climb along the backroads between Martim Moniz and Castelo de São Jorge to Miradouro da Senhora do Monte where you find a quiet viewpoint of the city. Here local elders sat on benches looking pensive and content as they admired a skyline of orange-roofed white houses and church steeples nestled near the river Tagus. From here they could look down fondly at the city that they recall as home without having to go into the busier, more international side of it.

Lisbon feels extremely safe. A young fair-skinned girl can walk around on her own in shorts and a strappy top at 11pm in the evening without having to worry about being pestered. I loved walking around with no money, no phone and no map – it felt liberating and reinforced the sense of feeling like a local.

On a magical last evening in Lisbon, we sat on the walls of the St. Lucia Church and admired the lights on the tanker as it slept on the river. Fado music flowed out of candlelit restaurants as we wandered down lantern-lit lanes towards the river in front of Praça do Comércio, where a man played guitar complemented by a girl on the saxophone. Tourists sat on the steps with their drinks and snacks to chat or just gaze across the river. At 10pm the Ponte de 25 Abril lit up with red speckles while the moon cast its golden glow over the still water of the Tagus river. There was a light breeze but it only flickered faintly over my skin. Everything here was so warm – the tempeature, the ambience, the friendliness.

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The past 72 hours in Lisbon had unraveled like a romance of the platonic kind. I had slowly developed an affection for both a place and a person. I had entered an unexpected state of comfortability with both the city and my new travel companion, and sat on the steps looking out over in the river in a state of peaceful content. Lisbon provided a perfectly therapeutic holiday and I look forward to coming back again one day.

Escape to Portugal: Opening Eyes and Ears in Sintra

Few times have I experienced walking around a city in the early hours of the morning with a relaxed sense of security. No need to look over my shoulder with suspicion, to shiver into a jacket with a sudden cold rush, or feel like I was trespassing the silent empty streets at an unsaintly hour. The sun rises sleepily into the soft sky as one ambles down St. Lucia in the Alfama district of Lisbon towards the Rua de Augusta. Here waiters set up tables on the street to get ready to serve breakfast to the many tourists that will swarm this street later on. I walked into Patisserie Brasileira to buy a cinnamon pastry and ate it on the steps of King João I in the Praça de Comércio. It suddenly hit me that it was the 1st of August and I pinch-punched myself to commemorate a new month.

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Today I would be heading west towards the town of Sintra with Virág, the Hungarian girl I met on the bus down from Porto. This plan of travelling with someone else had arisen only the late evening before and I wasn’t sure what to expect. What advantages and disadvantages would having company bring?

The statues in the water fountains in Rossio were still dozing in the dawn as I walked towards the train station, which I had heard could be pretty sketchy. A return ticket cost 4.80Euros and as I headed towards the barriers, a man suddenly called for us to hurry – the train was about to depart. Assuming he was correct, I hurried through the barriers with him straight behind, only to realise soon after that he had been using us to get on the train without a ticket…

A 40 minute journey away by train, Sintra is famed for its fairy-tale castles and palaces, many of which are classed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. First however we planned to visit Cabo da Roca which is the westernmost point of continental Europe. Bus 403 will take you the 18km from Sintra station to the cape, with a hop-on-hop-off ticket costing 12Euros.  Prepare for an entertaining journey. The bus driver would navigate up steep roads and around countless hairpin bends whilst occasionally holding his phone to his ear. Every time we ascended a narrow street and an approaching car suddenly came into view, I would suck in my tummy tightly. We wound our way past lush green rainforests and through towns with large fruit markets and elderly residents chatting on café corners before arriving at the windy coast. Here the ‘land ends and the sea begins’,* the vast ocean of blue sending rippling waves crashing against the rocks. (*Luís de Camões – one of Portugal’s most highly-regarded poets)

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I quickly noticed differences between myself and Virág. I descended the sandy, rocky terrain downwards at a quick pace without giving too much thought to where I was putting my feet; she walked with more caution. She was keen to see as many palaces as possible; I was wary of spending too much money on admission fees. I was happy to walk to most places for exercise, but Virág preferred to take the bus. Virág seemed to want us to agree on the tiniest things, such as whether to go left or right, whereas this constant confirmation made things a little too rigid for my liking. She wanted to have a hot meal for lunch; I said I normally snack on cold eats when travelling.

Back in Sintra, we walked towards the town centre, passing a display of crafts laid out on top of the pavement wall with the pillars of the National Palace poking up in the background. There are various bus stops in the centre from where the 12Euro ticket can be used for most routes.

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The Castelo dos Mouros (Castle of the Moors) was built by Muslims in the 8th Century as a base from which to check the Atlantic ocean for incoming invaders, before coming under Christian control in the 12th Century. Hold on tight (especially to your stomach) as the 434 bus zig-zags around more hairpin bends for 3km to reach it. Costing 8Euros to get in, the castle has been reconstructed in the 20th Century, but as you squeeze up narrow stairways before dropping down into little dens, you can easily imagine soldiers crouching down to protect themselves from armed attack. Over its rigid stone walls you’ll see great views of the surrounding countryside (but more so on the right-side.)

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The National Palace of Pena is classed as a 1.5km walk from the castle, but feels like less. Don’t let the uphill gradient put you off, as you’ll likely find that by the time the bus arrives, you would have reached it by foot. Being the most popular of the palaces, this one cost 14Euros to go all the way inside. I found myself in an unfamiliar position where I had to explain my budget to someone else, and with me feeling restricted, we agreed to pay the lower fee of 10.50 for access to the grounds and onto the terrace only, although I soon learned that this was perfectly adequate. Built in 1840 as the holiday destination for the Portuguese monarchy, the palace strikes as quite gaudy with its vibrant mix of bright colours and patterned tiles. But even if it’s too kitschy for your liking, it’s still worth a look and you can’t help but be impressed by the effort that has gone into building and maintaining it.

It was while walking through the park with its various nooks and crannies that I began to realise that actually, Virág and I were more similar than I thought. Just like first impressions of the palace’s exterior might be that it is over-the-top in its appearance, I learned that Virág had more appeal to me than at first believed. We had interesting conversations and seemed to have similar outlooks towards certain issues. It made me smile when, after a moment of silence during which I began to feel grateful for her company, Virág said “I’m glad we met on that bus from Porto.”

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I found during the day that I was rubbing off on Virág, and likewise she was rubbing off on me. At one point she agreed to walk instead of take the bus, and I was persuaded to choose a hot option for lunch. A great place to eat in Sintra is at Xentra. ‘Free buffet – 8.50’ may look deceiving, but you’d be amazed at how great the value is. Drinks are priced separately but for the main, you can choose to have as much as you want of salad, chorizo sausage, chicken, pork in white wine, fried squid and bacalhau (a cake of cod, potato and white sauce), while for dessert there is the traditional treat of Serradura – whipped cream mixed with a ‘sawdust’ of crushed biscuit. You won’t need to eat for the rest of the day.

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Virág was keen to see another palace and feeling content with my stuffed stomach, I was no longer feeling frugal. We took the smaller bus 435 to Monserrate Palace which is situated a twisty 3.5km from the town centre. After paying the 8Euro entry fee and walking along the dusty path towards the entrance, I became mesmerised by the view ahead. The palace evokes an ‘Arabian Nights’ feel alongside hints of a mansion in British India, and when I saw a wedding reception take place outside, I longed to wear a pretty dress instead of my scruffy denim shorts and trainers. Pastel pink marble pillars lined a corridor underneath an intricately decorated ceiling. In the circular music room with a grand piano I could imagine the happy couple waltzing to their first song. The stone terrace looked out over a sprawling lawn that led to a majestic oasis of botanical gardens. We explored this exotic maze hearing only the sounds of trickling water and bird song. I felt even more like I’d entered the Garden of Eden when we encountered a hippy trio singing and banging a soft drum. It almost seemed inappropriate that we were all wearing clothes…

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I envied the little girls in their white bridesmaid dresses because they must have felt like princesses here. This palace was everything a palace should be – authentic, classy, elegant, pure and sophisticated, but small and subtle at the same time. Everything looked so pretty, catching the late afternoon light so perfectly, that I found myself constantly getting my camera out, no longer caring that the battery was getting very low. We had definitely saved the best till last. But was it not for having company, I might not have seen it.

The day had definitely reminded me to be more open-minded when it comes to sight-seeing with other solo travellers abroad. Listening and taking into consideration the interests of a new companion had been a valuable experience. It had highlighted that two minds can be better than one. With some people, one day of their company travelling around would be sufficient, but I found myself wanting to also spend the next day with Virág too. It was not that I had suddenly lost all desire to travel alone, but I was more inclined towards the idea of giving spontaneous companionship a chance.

I walked back to my hostel from Rossio station with map-less ease, feeling more comforted and confident in the knowledge that I had the option of sharing my experience of Lisbon with a new friend.

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Would you like to take this article with you on the road? You can download a GPS version to your iPad or iPhone by following this link. Thank you for reading and happy travels!

Read the final chapter from Lisbon in Lazy Sundays in Lisbon

 

Escape to Portugal: Arrival in Porto

On July 28th 2015 I set off on my first solo trip in two years, and my first with hand-luggage only. The destination of choice was Portugal, on the basis that I wanted to visit somewhere with a warmer temperature and relaxed Latino ambience as opposed to the colder climate and outdoor pursuits-driven landscape of more northern areas of Europe which I’m better used to. I was excited to rekindle my sense of lone adventure, but felt out of practice too, and this became noticeable on arrival.

My plane touched down in Porto just before midday. My lack of preparation and the arrangement of the airport made for a muddled and delayed time there. After changing into shorts and a vest top in the washroom (and subsequently re-stuffing my small rucksack), I had to find an ATM that would accept my debit card, having been so busy that I hadn’t had time to change my currency beforehand. Then it was time to find the metro to take me into the city centre. After I wrongly approached the car parking machine on the lower level, a fellow tourist directed me back upstairs to the main level to buy metro tickets, only for me to be told by a member of staff up there that these had to be bought downstairs from the machine. (Life lesson: never take advice from an American man with long hair!) There were large queues for the three machines but there were no staff around to advise and the queues weren’t moving as confused tourists looked around helplessly. I finally reached the front and selected a ticket for zone 4, having read that the machine accepted 50Euro notes. Mine however was rejected meaning I had to walk all the way back upstairs yet again to buy some water for change. By now I was getting frustrated – I just wanted to be in the city out in the sun exploring.

20 minutes later I finally had my ticket for the violet line to Trindade at the price of 2.35Euros. Up on the platform my hands were full with change from the machine, tickets, receipts, water, a map and guidebook. I kneeled down and precariously shoved bits and bobs in various pockets, only to glance up and wonder why a man was staring at me with interest. A glance back down revealed that I was flashing a large amount of cleavage…The journey to Trindade only took about 25 minutes but because of my headless chicken-style running around in the airport, two hours had passed by the time I reached the centre. But I was finally here, it was time to think forward and that began with applying large amounts of sunscreen, ideally without involving extra exposure..!

I set off down the street noting the style of the pavements with their uneven, shiny-stoned surfaces. Câmara Municipal do Porto provides a great view down the Avenue dos Aliados towards the river Douro. People sit at tables under small trees reading the newspaper and drinking coffee. I noticed a lot of beeping going on by impatient taxi drivers which seemed to contrast with the ancient tram that would laze along the streets with an occasional clang. Unlike in other cities, it seemed you could be pretty relaxed about walking in the road without fear of being squished by one. Walking up a road to the right, I had my first sighting of a Portuguese bakery…and it was love. But I forced myself to wait a little longer before making a move. 003 004 008 010 Inside the Torre dos Clérigos (Tower of Clerics), a sign stated that the top would only be open to visitors from 7pm for 5Euros. With my first and only plan of the day out of the window, I instead headed down a little cobbled side road with quiet pastry shops where stray cats dashed underneath cars, leading me to the miradouro (viewpoint) which showed a sea of orange roofs with the iconic metal bridge of Luis I in the background. It wasn’t the most outstanding view I’d seen but I remained open-minded. Some steps took me down a narrow alley between scruffy stone houses and as I passed neighbours gossiping across to each other I felt almost invasive. Soon after this hushed local area of modesty came the Cais de Ribeira which was heaving with packed restaurants, but rather than the menus, I was attracted by the beautiful detail on the tall buildings, with their vintage look of tiled decoration and the balconies painted with corresponding colours. It’s this ancient beauty, combined with the collection of traditional wooden boats on the water, that probably influenced UNESCO to declare the Praça da Ribeira (riverside square) a World Heritage Site. My stomach was starting to rumble but I didn’t fancy dining alone in this touristy section. I dropped 50 cents into the case of two young boys playing guitar before wandering on towards the bridge. A long set of steps led me up past another poorer area where washing hung off lines attached to houses with paint peeling off the walls as young girls sat in a doorway playing games. 016 018 032 035 036 039 040 041 042 052 Crossing the top half of the Ponte de Luis I to the south side of the Douro, things get quieter. I felt more confident of finding a supermarket here and sure enough, quickly found a local fruit and veg shop, my mouth watering at the sight of fresh produce. Moments after walking in it became obvious that this was very much a place where a local few went, namely old women. “Desculpe!” I would say as I accidentally knocked one with my bag, but they never seemed to notice. The younger lady at the till would chat away with them as she weighed their bags stuffed with pears, nectarines, cherries and plums. As she weighed mine, I saw her glance quickly at my Oyster card holder which I was using to store notes (to save the space a purse would take up in my bag). Recognising the English words, she cleared her throat, looked me nervously in the eyes and slowly but profoundly said: “1.80.” Seeing her pride put a smile on my face and I walked out of the shop in a happy day dream, before almost flattening a girl stood right outside holding her hands out for money. 054 056 058 060 Settling down in the green space of Jardim do Morro, the view of the town was much prettier, the river now more visible and glittering in the sun. I bit into a succulent peach and watched a young teenage couple on a bench in front of me look at each other with tentative excitement before locking their hands together. A few minutes later they walked off hand-in-hand giggling shyly and a busty girl in tight jeans who looked about six years older sauntered past them to sit on the wall. Then a motorbike revved past and her boyfriend pulled up beside her and rested his arms on her lap. It was a five-minute scenario that highlighted the phases of growing up and growing in love. At first there are the sweet, fragile romantic moments of making eye contact and feeling butterflies when you hold hands, then there’s the sexual excitement and physical comfortability as you spend more time together and grow more familiar with each other. I spent most of the afternoon resting here, enjoying the lack of visible tourists around, until around 5.30 p.m. I decided I should find my hostel. A steep cobbled street led down to the lower half of the bridge, where a group of young boys attracted applause as they jumped into the water. I was tempted to join; it was hot and I was still getting accustomed, the parts of my back that I hadn’t been able to reach starting to redden (one downside of travelling alone!)    061 062 066 Walking up past São Bento station, the looks and comments from local men began to increase. Of course I had no idea what was being said, but could tell the comments were pretty indecent. With my blonde hair I had expected to stand out, but was still surprised by just how ‘odd’ I appeared to be. The attention wasn’t perturbing and I didn’t feel unsafe; I just ignored the men and walked on. One thing I’ve learned from travelling alone is the art of bluffing. Even if you are completely lost or scared or uncertain about something, you have to put on a brave face, otherwise you make yourself more vulnerable to unwanted attention. I find that when in a foreign country, it feels easier to stand up for myself against harassment, perhaps because when one doesn’t understand the language it’s harder to get upset by the verbal reply, and also because since I know nobody else I’m less concerned about what people might think of me. This meant therefore that when the old homeless man came over with his hand held out and started poking me, I could look at him square in the eyes, firmly say “Não” and walk away with no further attempts being made by him.

After a few wrong turns I finally found Avenue Rodrigues de Freitas where Magnolia Porto Hostel is located, to the east of the city centre. I knocked on the big red door of number 387 and a lady signed me in and showed me to my dorm, which I would have to myself that night. The room had a homely ambience unlike that I’ve experienced in most hostels. It’s as if the owners have put more thought into the rooms than ‘You need a bed for the night – here it is.’ I washed my smelly feet and let them dry near the window, as I’d declined to bring a towel for the sake of luggage space.

At 8 p.m. I set off out again, glad to have only my camera bag on me. I wanted to watch the sun go down at the nice spot across the river from earlier. A grey cat sat looking vain on the walls of the Muralha Fernandina. Runners passed me down a flight of dusty steps from which I could peep into people’s kitchens through the open windows. The runners turned left to run alongside the river and for a moment I regretted not bringing my trainers.

Serra do Pillar is a nice viewpoint, and probably best enjoyed with a glass of local port (which, despite its fame and heritage here, I definitely was not fussed about sampling). With the setting sun in the background I wanted to finally feature in one of my photos but it was difficult to find people to ask (another downside of travelling alone!) The green space adjacent was busier now, but with locals rather than tourists. I was glad to have come across the place – popular tourists areas rarely do it for me. By 9 p.m. it was getting chilly and I headed back across the bridge, pausing to admire the softening glow of the sun on the river and buildings, before wandering through random areas of the town map-less. Porto hadn’t overwhelmed me yet, but it definitely seemed to be a good city for just rambling around, finding interesting little things here and there such as the Sé Cathedral. 069 076 079 083 093 095 Again, I got confused on the way back to my hostel. In the park nearby a sign read ‘Festival das Francesinhas’ and I translated the words ‘free entry’, but there didn’t seem to be much going on. I later discovered that ‘francesinha’ is a popular dish here – a thick sandwich filled with cheese, egg, sausage and other meats in a rich sauce. However in this heat the only food I felt like eating was the juicy fresh local fruit. This time a man welcomed me inside the hostel and I felt like I was returning home as I entered my quiet dorm. The lights didn’t seem to be working but I didn’t mind – it made things more cosy and I could crawl into bed tired from the heat and just wait for the impending darkness to come and send me to sleep.

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Would you like to take this article with you on the road? You can download a GPS version to your iPhone or iPad by following this link. Thank you for reading and happy travels!

Read about day two in A Train Trip to Pinhão

The Guilty Pleasures of ‘Jammy’ Travel

There’s something immensely satisfying about the tasty sensation of sweet strawberry jam on toasty-warm buttered bread melting in your mouth. Sugar and carbs are a crime to some people, but even if you look back later with regret,  deep down they make you feel great at the time. This leads me onto the term ‘jammy’. For those who aren’t familiar with this word, ‘jammy’ is another way of saying lucky…in a sneaky way. Things jam together favourably when they perhaps shouldn’t have. It’s something that many people experience, and normally relates to the issue of expense, or rather: a lack of it! Whether it’s being under-charged for the grocery shopping, or missing a fine from the parking attendant by seconds, a little part of us might feel bad about it, but a big part of us is also likely to feel chuffed about it.

Something about the travelling context makes jamminess even more of a guilty pleasure, probably because this is often an experience dictated by a strict financial budget. My best day of jamminess came in August 2014 when I was in Yellowstone National Park during a road trip.

The first incident involved the showers at Roosevelt Lodge. Eight days into the trip, washing had consisted of swimming in lakes. A sign at Tower Fall campground said that showers would be available at the lodge. Since there was no mention of price, it was naturally assumed (out of poor-student hopes) that usage would be free. Wash bags at the ready, my chum and I parked up and asked a guy in his early twenties where the showers were. “Are you two staying here?” he asked, looking us up and down uncertainly. Perhaps it was obvious it had been eight days. “We were told we could use the showers here,” I found myself saying confidently. It wasn’t a lie; this is what the sign had said. After his unconvinced nod and subsequent directions led us to a plush washroom, I realised that I had got here from unknowingly giving slightly false information. He was thinking I’d meant a member of staff at the lodge had granted permission, not a vague sign. As I enjoyed a long warm shower complete with free soap, shampoo and conditioner, I felt a little guilty knowing that I shouldn’t really be here. Then I spotted a large stack of sanitary towel disposal bags in the toilet cubicle, and all guilty thoughts evaporated into the surrounding mist from the shower as I stuffed a few of them into my bag before walking out fresh, clean and content with my free find (because when you’re on the road living in a car with a boyfriend, maintaining hygiene during that time can be quite difficult…)

Later that day after exploring the Norris Geysers, we drove down to see Old Faithful. This famous geyser erupts on a random time scale that is on average once every 60-90 minutes, and is so popular with tourists that a highway is in operation to facilitate the large flow of traffic. Managing to quickly find a space in the huge car park, we casually strolled over to the viewing area, unsure what to expect having not researched the estimated eruption time. The walk was interrupted by a bathroom stop. Then we finally made it to the viewing area where we were greeted by the sight of a huge crowd of at least 500 people pinned against the fence. Many had perhaps been sat waiting for 50 minutes. Five minutes after our laid-back arrival, the geyser’s big moment arrived as it shot steaming hot water high into the air, reaching an elevation between 30 and 60 metres. You can get an idea of how long the water keeps spurting out for and how big the crowds were here. As we walked away 10 minutes later and passed people with looks of frustrated disappointment on their face upon realising they had just missed the eruption, I again felt a flash of guilt. Considering we had not checked the predictions and took a risky pit-stop on the way, we were extremely lucky to have made perfect timing.

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Next we had to find a place to sleep for the night. All the campgrounds south of Old Faithful were full, so we drove on into the Grand Teton National Park. While we searched hopelessly for campgrounds with space, dusk started creeping in. We procrastinated from our challenge by admiring the sunset over Jackson Lake.

I said I would drive on to Jackson in Wyoming if necessary, but it was still about 4o miles away and both of us were tired from a hot, busy day. Just as our destination-less driving began to turn increasingly stressful, a sign advertising a lodge came into view, tempting our desperate selves to flick the indicator right. But would we paying to sleep in a room at the lodge? Of course not! We were thinking about the prospect of available parking space. We’d slept in a hotel parking lot before, however it had been situated outside a national park. Sleeping here seemed a little too risky. What if our car’s licence plate was checked against guest records? Maybe we would simply be asked to leave, but maybe we would be fined too. We weren’t sure of the rules, and asking would only arouse suspicion.

Alas, after much debating, we agreed to stay and parked up near other cars so that we didn’t stand out more than we already did (being in a dirty 1986 Land Cruiser in the parking lot of a rather fancy lodge),  before closing the curtains and quietly settling down for the night. I didn’t sleep too well, worried about being caught. Butterflies would creep up my stomach when I heard approaching voices or a car door slam next to us. At one point I heard youths laughing outside our car, clearly recognising what we were doing. I silently pleaded that they would leave us in peace.

Our alarm woke us at 6 a.m for a quick getaway. But having survived the night, we were feeling a little more complacent, so we stepped outside to have a look around. The lodge was right on the edge of Jackson Lake. We followed the path down to the water’s edge, boats sitting silently on the serene surface. Moon still beaming brightly, the warm sky cast a soft pink glow over the Tetons painted with streams of snow. Candyfloss and ice cream. The only sound to hear was the faint bobbing of the boats and gentle lap of the water against the shore. There was a cold snap in the air, but something about this sight made me feel cosy inside. After waking up to this view, I was glad that we had taken the risk of sleeping here. Most people would have to pay a minimum of $269/£179 per night for the view at this time of the morning, but we had got it for free. Soon after, we remembered not to risk our chances too much and left the car park with frost on the windows still clearing, feeling both extremely lucky and extremely sneaky.

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Whilst this was the most jam-packed day of jamminess on the trip, there would be further jammy moments to come, including sleeping in a viewing area inside a national park. Campgrounds were full, and nowhere did we explicitly read or hear that sleeping in cars outside a designated camp area was prohibited. Camping in a tent would of course have been much too extreme, and if the park had contained bears, we wouldn’t have made the decision to sleep there, in case they were able to break into our car for food. We were very careful and respectful towards the environment, leaving no rubbish behind and causing no damage. Our decision was partly influenced by the stormy evening weather and concern about how good our brakes would be descending the wet roads leaving the park. But really there was also the question: “how often am I be able to wake up to a view like this?” It was a once-in-a-lifetime free opportunity. If we hadn’t done it, we’d have definitely lived to regret it. As we left another national park the next day and noticed a ranger taking notes and talking to a sheepish-looking man with a trailer parked in a viewing area (who we had also happened to see settle down in another national park previously), we realised how fortunate we had been to dodge a fine. But the risk had been worth it.

Young and carefree – that’s what the elderly fondly recall being when they were younger. Reading my dad’s memoirs, I’ve been amazed by some of the things he and my mother got away with as young travellers, such as sleeping in a graveyard somewhere in New Zealand, or on someone’s porch steps in the States. Today, such activities would be condemned and they would probably be classed as poor, dangerous vagrants, when in fact they went on to lead successful lives in the medical profession.

Is it wrong to be a jammy traveller?

When you’re young, money is tight. This restriction doesn’t combine too greatly with youthful curiosity, especially since this is realistically the time when you’re in the best shape to explore and take physical risks. Humans have been able to survive and evolve over time by choosing options that enhance their chances of survival without involving significant  physical harm and exertion. Hunters and food-gatherers would happily take berries from a tree in a rival tribe’s territory if their access was not threatened and the food would help prolong their lives. It makes sense that in today’s age of consumerism, the importance of minimising physical harm has adapted into an importance of minimising financial expense. It’s ingrained into our human instinct that we should do anything that makes our life easier and more enjoyable with as little cost involved as possible.

There are certain things I would never do, like not pay the entrance fee to a national park. My moral conscience would be unable to allow that. These parks protect outstanding areas of natural beauty and they should be supported in doing so. Regarding smaller issues though, it is easy to say “I will always abide by the rules”, but when it comes to the moment, you might be surprised by how tempting it is to take an opportunity and run with it. I am of course not encouraging illegal acts, so please don’t rob a bank after reading. But sometimes being a little jammy leads to the most memorable travel moments. In the corny words of Luther Vandross and Janet Jackson, the best things in life are free!