Wednesday, August 02, 2006

A Sh**ty Situation

After an, ah, interesting night in a charming yet "rustic" farmhouse hostel (read: add a gallon of water to the toilet tank by hand, flush toilet, repeat...) our second night in Ireland brought us to Dunmore East, an archetypical Irish beach village complete with thatched huts and fishing boats. Here's the tourism website for more great pics:

It goes without saying that travel from the Iberian peninsula to Ireland brings with it a bit of culture shock. While the sun stays up until all hours, the Irish do not, nor have they adopted the joys of the siesta lifestyle. Of course, the first order of business was to enjoy a pint of Real Irish Guinness at a Real Irish Pub. With the sun still above the horizon at 10:00 p.m., we set off on foot to find the local watering hole, hoping it would still be open.

The sidewalks and streets relatively empty in the evening glow, we walked through the town, window shopping along the way. During the journey, we noted another marked difference between the cultures: the pleasant lack of small dogs in Ireland. Both the Spanish and Portuguese seem endlessly enamored with yappy, pocket-sized dogs that are welcome seemingly everywhere humans are. These dogs are also welcome to do their "business" in the most inopportune locations, attached by bejeweled leashes to owners apparently unwilling to stoop to retrieve their pooches' presents. This societal oversight led us to develop the "dookie call," a system by which each travel partner is responsible for maintaining a constant, vigilant lookout for dog dookie. Upon spotting said dookie, the partner must then call out, "Dookie!" while gesturing toward the offending pile, thereby alerting everyone to the dookie's presence and averting a dookie disaster.

Here in Dunmore East we saw actual Irish setters, German shepherds, labs, etc., respectable manly dogs, all, with respectable, manly owners trailing behind them with plastic bags in hand for one last walk before bedtime. In the darkening village, amongst thatched huts and impeccable gardens, a small shop showed an impressive window display of jewelry and crystals. Not unlike a magpie, Megan is powerless against the draw of a shiny window display. Turning abruptly, she stopped to admire the various glistening wares. Suddenly aware he was talking to himself, Brandon turned to see his wife captivated by the display and walked to her side to wait for the spell to break. For a brief moment, the Dookie Call defense system was inoperative, and at that precise moment of weakness disaster struck.

Trying to put a positive spin on it, Megan observed it was good he had not worn flip flops to the pub, but this provided little solace for the affronted dookie victim. The Guinness was only briefly postponed until a patch of grass was located and the offending dookie removed. As it turns out, big dogs can make big messes.

Far and Away

Arriving in Ireland from Portugal, it's the simple pleasures that strike you, like being able to order lunch in your native language without much difficulty. And the Irish make it easy; everything you've ever heard about their hospitality, good humor and common decency is, amazingly, understated. After lunch, during which we recognized each item of food consumed, we headed south out of Dublin and through Counties Wickford, Wexford and Waterford. Each seemingly from a movie set, words cannot do these sights justice. Thanks to the miracle of modern communications, they don't have to:

Roadtrip Through the Old Country

After the manic festivities of Porto, we sought the quiet solace of Megan's ancestral home land, Ireland. Yet another in a long line of oneway plane trips brought us to Dublin, where we picked up a car, if you can call it that.

After numerous unsuccessful rebellions staged by its people over hundreds of years, Ireland finally won its independence from the Brits in 1921. Too busy fighting the ugly civil wars that followed, they never got around to learning to drive on the right, and correct, side of the road.

On most normal vacations, fighting your way on and off the plane, retrieving your luggage, locating the rental shuttle, standing in line, signing a rental contract and getting the keys to your rental car ends the most frustrating part of the journey. When you sit down in the car and the steering wheel is missing, this is not the case.
Armed with a road atlas that subsequently proved to be inadequate, we set off into the countryside, Brandon cursing madly and succeeding in not killing us, though barely. The sensation of everything you know about driving being not only wrong, but dangerous, is an unsettling one. The driver did the best he could, with the copilot occassionally chiming in with a well-timed, "Other side of the road, honey." Tempers were short, but no one threatened divorce, and after a few hairraising days, things improved dramatically.

Hammer Time Photos

We couldn't get these photos to upload when we did this entry, so here they are belatedly.

Thursday, June 29, 2006


I've been around the world, from London to The Bay, and never seen anything so odd...

Porto, like all Portuguese cities, has an annual festival honoring the city's "popular" saint. Most of these events involve parading the saint's statute to and from a few churches, a parade, late-night celebrating in the streets, etc. Mind you, the southern Europeans like to stay up late, and these things can begin as late as midnight and go until dawn.

Porto's celebration, while in many ways traditional, has a very strange twist.

Porto's most popular saint is John the Baptist, who, for the un-Sunday-schooled, was ordered beheaded by King Herod. His festival happened to fall during the few days we had scheduled to be in town. Unsure what to expect, we got a hotel room facing away from the street and hoped for the best. Stopping by the tourist information office for a map, we picked up an event schedule for the festival. The schedule noted that we could stop by the office the next day for our free "play hammer" so we would be ready when the festival got started.

Turns out, the most popular part of the festival involves hitting total strangers over the head with plastic squeaking hammers as they walk by. We were very skeptical, to say the least. This is clearly a country with a lawyer shortage! How could this be a good idea? We decided to go hammer-less, afraid that carrying a hammer would mark us as combatants and increase the chance of hammer-related violence towards our persons.

Heading down the hill to the river, we saw many folks carrying said hammers, but didn't see any hammer-related action. Brandon, absorbed with the technical side of videotaping something that caught his eye, was taken completely aback when he found himself the victim of a sharp rap on the head. While his 'fro deflected the worst of the assault, the shock and surprise may have subtracted a few days from his lifespan.

It seemed no one was safe from the hammer's fury. Finding a local hammer vender, we accelerated the arms race with our own weapon. Now armed with plastic hammer, we headed to the city waterfront at the appointed hour, where we indeed observed the locals bopping each other over the head with glee.

It took only a few moments for us to join in the fray. Brandon exploited his clear height and reach advantage over the Portuguese, bobbing with abandon and often with impunity. Megan, ever the jurist, took to dishing out retribution bonks to those in the crowd who sought to sneakily bop the defenseless and unaware. She adopted the moniker "Spiderman," for her even-handed distribution of justice for the downtrodden.

Much to our surprise, no fights ensued and we heard few complaints, even as the hour grew late and the alcohol flowed. In the end, the Portuguese endurance won out, and we headed back uphill to our room around 3 a.m. as still hundreds poured downhill. The sounds of reveling continued until dawn.

How does this all tie into John the Baptist? Our best theory: your head is still attached, so celebrate!

Who put the Port in the Port-U-Portugal?

Our last Portuguese stop, Porto, is the country's second-largest city, but its undisputed cultural capital. Great, cheap food, friendly (mostly English-speaking) citizens and clean lodging would have been enough to make us happy, but the city's biggest draw is its port wine. Port, Portugal's best-known export, is warehoused and distributed around the world from Porto's 20-or-so warehouses, most of whom welcome visitors. We felt welcome, so we visited (no, not ALL 20. Geez.)

Port, like all wine, ranges from the cheapest cheapies to several hundred dollars a bottle. This tasting is a range of 10-year-old tawny ports from different producers. The customs laws prevented us from spending our house down payment, and after two days Megan had tasted quite enough port. Were Brandon a single guy, he could be there still.

One Last Beachside Fling

On the way to Porto from Lisbon, we found time to stop by a beautiful white-sand beach called Costa Nova, outside of a small town called Aveiro (VERY highly recommended, btw.) No great stories, just a few great pics.

Brandon the Navigator

Had he been born 400 years ago, Brandon would likely be aboard a Portuguese ship right now, rounding Cape Horn, a case of the scurvy and his peg leg notwithstanding. Having already conquered the end of the world, we HAD to make a stop at the monument to the heroes of Portuguese navigation while in Lisbon. An impressive structure, the monument shows 20 or so men who helped open trade routes with India and brought small pox to the natives. A stop-off to visit the tomb of Vasco da Gama, enshrined in a nearby monastery, completed the trip.

Megan, on the other hand, has been missing California for the past three and a half years. This picture may suggest that although she is in the midst of a great European walkabout, her heart lies a little closer to home...

Lisbon at Sunset

Portugal constantly surprises you. On the one hand, it proves to be everything you would expect. Old men sit in the park, wasting away the day chewing the fat. The villages are filled with dilapidated little homes covered with brightly painted tiles. The smell of fish is pervasive, everything you order still has its head when it makes its way to your plate, and wine is cheap and easy to come by.

On the other hand, the country can prove as cosmopolitan as anywhere in Europe. Lisbon is surprisingly fresh (by European standards.) An earthquake leveled most of the country in the 18th century and wiped clean the proverbial slate. The resulting capital is more like Vienna than Madrid, and the Spanish influence we expected to find is nonexistent. The influx of EU money has revitalized the city, and we were sad to leave so soon.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The List

Days on the road: 52

Countries visited thus far: eight

Meals eaten at McDonalds: five (and they were damn good.)

Postcards sent: three

Hours of televised soccer watched prior to this trip: zero

Hours of televised soccer watched during trip: eight

One-way airline flights taken: three

Number of street dealers offering us hashish for sale during a three-day trip to Lisbon: twelve

Digital photos taken: 525

Number of intimate encounters clearly overheard in hotels: three

Ice cubes enjoyed: four

A thousand words, saved

A few classic pics from Portugal...

The pace is pretty rough here in Sintra.

We usually don't know where we're going, but the language barrier isn't always the problem.

After we took this picture, Brandon put the car back in his pocket.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

It's not you, it's me

Sorry if you tried to post and couldn't - think we got the problem fixed. Post away!

To the End of the World!

Waking up one day and realizing we were halfway through our trip (!), we decided to cut things a little short in Spain and hopped the next bus out of town to the southern Portugese coast. It seemed a good idea to take advantage of the last few days of the pre-tourist season. The Algarve region has become widely known for its excess of sunburned Brits, Germans and backpacking Americans, and we didn't take long to follow suit.

Our first stop was Tavira, Portugal, a perfectly sleepy little fishing village on the edge of the Algarve. No American college kids to be seen anywhere, but plenty of Brits. Two days there led us to Salema, a true Algarve town. Lulled into complacency by wonderful accommodations, beautiful beaches with rental cabanas and cheap food, we were still there five days later, complete with requisite sunburns.

We did find a few hours to take a daytrip to Sagres, the southwestern most tip of Europe, a spot formerly thought to be the end of the world (along with, like, four other places in Europe...) where Prince Henry the Navigator founded his School of Navigation. As you can imagine, one of us was very interested, one a little less so.

Dragging ourselves back on the road, we've moved on to Sintra, outside of Lisbon. We're off to Lisbon tomorrow, 15 June. Sintra's been amazing - full of castles, forests and Moorish ruins, but where in Europe isn't?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Monkey Love

After several weeks in foreign-speaking countries, a daytrip to English-speaking Gibraltar sounded irresistable. The Rock, a tiny 2.5 square kilometer British protectorate on the southern tip of Spain, is famous for its "apes," tail-less monkeys that have grown entirely too familiar with the town´s many human visitors. Just like bears in the Sierras, they recognize things that likely contain food, e.g., backpacks, plastic bags, etc., and will climb right on you to get to it.

Danielle was the chosen backpack wearer that day and was accosted no less than five times by curious primate friends. Those opposable thumbs are useful, and one managed to make off with her sunscreen.
After impressive acrobatics by Brandon, the sunscreen was retrieved and the monkey properly chastised. Both the sunscreen and Danielle were given a thorough bath afterwards.

Toro, toro, toro!

When in Spain, do as the Spaniards do. Taking this to heart, the guys decided a bullfight was mandatory, while the ladies decided that zapatos shopping and cervezas by the river sounded much more appealing. This being their first bullfight, neither were sure what to expect but were quite certain bloodshed was inevitable. And indeed, this was the case. The ticket included six bullfights, each fought by novice matadors. The first bullfight was a bit difficult to watch; the fate of the bull was certain, but the steps of the ritual were not, creating palpable tension for the uninitiated.

As the fights progressed, the skill, daring and ritual of the event became more evident, and the guys left with a certain appreciation of its cultural signifigance. But now that they can say they've been to the bullfights, next time it´ll likely be cervezas by the river all around.


We spent a facinating few hours taking in a flamenco show in Ronda, Spain, one of flamenco dancing's origination points. Everyone says you have to go, and it more than lived up to the hype. It was incredibly enjoyable!

A Jamón Love Affair

We in the States prefer our meat as far, far away from its animal origins as possible. Not the Spaniards. Observe Exhibit A, jamon. In southern Spain, the enjoyment of jamon is a regional obsession, and no one seems to have any qualms about carving a nice, thin slice right off the poor piggy's leg. Every restaurant and bar has a ham leg on display, in various states of undress. Here, the proprietor had just prepared a new leg for consumption right before our eyes. Note the hanging ham legs have small triangular cups attached to the bottoms - this catches the seeping fat drips.

Once you've resolved any misconceptions about your meat's origins, you'll find the jamon is quite tasty. Spaniards find a multitude of uses for it, including sandwiches, tapas, or just straight up. By the end of the trip, Chris had developed an addiction for which he may have to seek treatment.




Andalucian Fiesta

All´s been quiet on the western front, as we´ve been enjoying time in the Andalucia region of southern Spain with Chris and Danielle. After tearing ourselves away from the Cinque Terre, we flew to Sevilla to meet up with them and take in more than a few tapas and "tinto de verano," an addictive combination of red wine and lemon soda. After several days of sun, bull fights, fried fish and jamón (ham), we moved on to beautiful, calmer Ronda, to the southeast of Sevilla, then finally to Granada to enjoy La Alhambra.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Note to self: read the signs near the train station

To this point in the trip, we'd been calling ahead to make reservations at hostels and pensions based on the guidebook's recommendations. After twice finding ourselves with reservations at less than desireable places, we decided the thing to do was arrive early, look at several places, then stay at the best one. This plan works great, unless you find yourself in the Cinque Terre on the Italian Rivera at 5:30 on a Saturday night...

After searching two of the five towns in the dwindling twilight without success, we arrived on the train platform in Riomaggiore, deciding we would try one last town before moving on to unromantic, but booming, La Spezia, the city up the road. It was now 8:30 or so, and nearly dark. Actual homelessness was fast becoming a reality when out of the darkness stepped an oddly dressed, shrunken Italian woman bearing a piece of paper reading "15€," certainly a bargain for a room in the Cinque Terra.

The price caught our eye, and we followed her up the street to her hostel. What we didn't notice was the large sign on the wall suggesting it was unwise to trust anyone who may approach you with accommodations at the train station, " they are almost absolutely inadequate." This proved to be the case. However, we had few options at this point.

The woman, a well-known local figure named Mamma Rosa, led us to a room that hadn't been cleaned since fascism was overthrown and a shower down the hall that was actually basically outside. The beds had more in common with hammocks than anything we'd seen thus far. We took one look at the situation and determined a large quantity of wine was in order. Turns out, wine can be had for pretty cheap, and a liter and a half will help you overlook a few health code violations.

The album cover

At the Nachmarket in Vienna...

A Viennese Conversation

Standing in front of one of many wurst stands in Vienna, the four of us are discussing the genius of the Viennese "hot dog," which consists of a baguette from which a core sample is removed lengthwise from the center and a sausage inserted along with mustard and ketchup. Matt, currently stationed in Texas, makes the following observation:

Matt: Dude, in Texas you can wrap anything in a tortilla and people will eat it. Anything, it doesn't matter what it is. (Looks around, says in a very PC voice) ...well, at least the non-whites would eat it.

Jeff: Hey, you can say racists things, we're in Germany.

Megan: Dude, we're in Austria.

Jeff: Whatever.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Path of travel

Hello, all! Just a quick update on our whereabouts, more hilarity to follow. After Budapest, we moved on to three short days in Vienna, Austria, which turns out to be the European launchpad for Starbucks. Very surreal. We took the brief train trip from Vienna to Bratislava, Slovak Republic, which felt a world apart. A quick plane flight brought us to Italy, where we've been enjoying the Lakes District and the Cinque Terre. Tomorrow morning we're on another flight, this one to Seville, Spain, where we'll put down some relative roots for a month or so. When we get settled, we'll fill you in on the missing bits with pics and stories.