Day 4 in Madrid – Dinner & Drinks!

Included in Zoya’s guide to Madrid was this line:

Sala Despiece – this place is a MUST. get there early (like 20 mins before it opens) cause the place gets packed. Easily the most interesting take on Spanish tapas. The carpaccio will take you to heaven and back

After hours and hours in museums, we were ready for a long and indulgent dinner. As per Zoya’s instructions, we arrived a full 30 minutes early, and were fortunately the first in line. Waiting in line before a place opens is really not our style, and we were feeling pretty uncool, but it was worth getting there early. Within 10 minutes, there were 20 people in line behind us. When the doors finally opened, we scored a prime seat at the bar, and were able to watch the chefs in action all evening.

The thing about tapas is that you’re supposed to eat many dishes of small amounts of food. Apparently ‘tapas crawls’ are the hip thing, where you go from restaurant to restaurant eating small amounts. Again, not our style. Instead, we settled in at Sala de Despiece and ordered almost every item on the menu.

As promised, the food was excellent. The view we had was also great, though it gave perhaps a bit too much insight into the restaurant operations. At open, the entire staff and flow of the team were on fire, but by hour one, things started to slow down and taper off, and you could tell operations would become sloppier throughout the evening. So perhaps there’s some logic to tapas crawls.

Everything we ordered is showcased in the photos below. The food definitely lived up to the hype, especially the beef carpaccio. We were surprised when again we were served a dish that required us to squeeze out the head of a shrimp. This time we caught it on video:

After dinner, we attempted to explore the neighbourhood for a ‘tapas crawl’, but were truly too stuffed. We hopped into a cab and went to Macera Workshop Bar, a gin bar that Zoya had recommended. These guys infuse their own homemade gins, and when they first opened you could only order gin & tonics

As regular gin drinkers, we’re fairly attached to our classic options. It was interesting to try to these artisanal gin options, but we quickly switched to cocktails. After several ‘pink panthers’, we were having a raging good time. We had a great spot at the bar, and watched place fill up with a typically European mix of people from all ages. If we’d realized how low the bill would be, we may have stayed even longer.

As it was, we left the bar and headed to another Zoya recommendation, Bar Cock. This place looks like a stereotypical old timey bankers hangout. All wood decor, and basically in a back alley. We ordered a bottle of sparkling and ended our night right.

And when we got home, I found out I’d been accepted to the MBA program at York University’s Schulich School of Business. It was the perfect way to end a long day and a great night.

 

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Roadtrip Day 2: Piodao

When I say that Kevin researched and planned our road trip with Tyler, I don’t mean that lightly. As soon as Tyler booked his tickets to visit, the research began. And not just some simple google searches of ‘best sights in Portugal’. If Kevin has ever helped you with anything, you know that his research-style is all-in and he stops at nothing to get the best possible outcome. Nothing exemplifies this more than our stop off in Piodao.

A few weeks before the trip, Kevin showed me a photo of a place that looked amazing, and told me that it was a must-do stop. When I convinced him to shorten the road trip from 6 days to 3, Piodao was one of those places that was a must-see, not to be compromised. And he was so, so right.

After our morning at the Knights Templar’s Convent of Christ in Tomar, we got back into the truck and embarked on what I can honestly say is the wildest, most breathtaking and most nerve-racking road trip of my life. Before I get into too many road trip details, let’s talk about why Piodao is special and worth seeing.

Piodao, known as the “nativity village” is a small collection of stone buildings, tucked into a mountain side. Unlike most of the places we’ve visited on this trip, Piodao, due to its remote geographic location, was almost entirely disconnected from Portuguese history. How disconnected? This village didn’t have electricity until the 1970s. This geographic isolation is what makes Piodao so unique – because they were limited to local resources, which is reflected in the architecture of the town itself, their traditions were well-preserved over the years, due to a lack of outside influences. Entering Piodao, picturesquely placed in between 2 hills in a mountain range, feels like entering a fairy tale. As you stand on the hillside, you can even hear the echo of jingling bells from the goat herds. My only regret of this entire trip is that we didn’t stay longer.

Now, about that road trip. It was long and a bit harrowing. And as the trip went on, we felt increasingly alone. There were long stretches (on this 2.5 hour drive) without seeing other people and cars, though we did see a herd of goats crossing the road. We climbed up into the mountaintops, driving along winding roads, on the edge of cliffs, surrounded by clouds. I was both in awe of the view and in awe of Kevin’s patience & composure while navigating these roads. There’s absolutely no way that a bus could have made this journey.

Visiting Piodao was a truly surreal and magical experience. I recommend it very much. And beyond being beautiful, the town itself offers great food and friendly people. Check out our many photos below!

Roadtrip Day 1: Exploring the Convent of the Capuchos

After stopping at the Cabo da Roca, we drove back into the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park. The drive alone was incredible: beautiful trees, winding roads that twisted up a hillside. Our next stop was at ruins of the centuries old Convent of the Capuchos.

Literally translating to the “Cork Convent”, its name comes from the insulation used in the construction of the buildings here. It was first formed in the mid-1500s, and according to the lovely brochure that I’ve been saving for this exact occasion,

The Cork Convent was built in accordance with a philosophy that stressed harmony between human and divine works, for which reason the building merges inseparably with nature and the surrounding vegetation, incorporation enormous granite boulders. Through the exercise of contemplation, fulfilling the teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi, the friars worshipped the Creator through what they considered to be His greatest work; the natural world”

Though the convent has ceased to be operated as such, and is now simply a series of ruins to be toured by visitors, you can easily see the convent’s philosophy at work. It’s impossible to wander through the small buildings, built into the side of a hill, without reflecting on the beauty and calming effects of nature. The smell and feel in the air of so much nature all in one place was truly magical. And this magical place really was the perfect start to a magical day in magical Sintra.

We spent about an hour exploring all the nooks and crannies of these small, simple buildings. We snapped some great photos, and also some “band photos”. There were lots of laughs at this early point in our roadtrip, and that continued on throughout the day.

Check out the photos below!

Back to the beginning: a few days in Lisbon

Back in December, when Kevin and I were in Canada for Christmas, we planned out a trip that would involve a couple of weeks in Lisbon followed by travels through Spain, all the way to Paris, where we’d then fly back to Cambodia.

We booked plane tickets to Lisbon, Portugal for January 4th.

Back in November, I’d been planning a January trip to Vietnam with two of my lady friends, Julie & Komal. Due to the complications of life and travel visas, that hadn’t worked out. However, Julie planned to be in Lisbon for 2 days along with Kevin and I.

When Kevin was hit in the mouth with a hockey stick on January 2nd, I was admittedly freaking out. Not only had we booked tickets to Lisbon, but my friend had booked a trip to meet us there. Needless to say, we didn’t miss our flight. I hopped Kevin up on pain killers and got him on the plane to Lisbon. His godfather met us there, and showed us to an incredibly wonderful few days in one of my favourite cities that I’ve been to yet.

Many photos are attached, because we were able to cram lots of fun into a few short days. One of the most important things to note is how much we were able to do while also being completed relaxed. Julie was coming off a serious bout of food poisoning, and Kevin was obviously also in quite a bit of pain. However, Lisbon is such a welcoming and easy-to-access, non-touristy, relaxed place that were able to really make the most of our time there.

Rather than crash at a hotel, we rented an AirBnB through a group called Travel & Tales. The fine gentlemen who run Travel & Tales, Pedro & Duarte, rent out a series of apartments in the chic Lisbon neighbourhood of Principe Real.

One of the most bizarre things about Lisbon is how similar (also better than) it is to San Francisco. Hills are one such similarity, and when Kevin’s godfather drove us up into Principe Real, and then parked on one of the steepest hills imaginable, I knew we were in for an authentically Lisbon experience. Pedro helped us check in and hooked us up with some free SIM cards for our phones, and we were off on an adventure. Oh, and the apartment we were renting? Absolutely beautiful. Historical. Interesting. Clean. Well-located. I cannot say enough good things. It really represented the best of what Lisbon has to offer.

Relative to other European capital cities, Lisbon is geographically small and rather inexpensive. And yet, as the capital city of the once-massive Portuguese empire, it’s jam-packed with history, old-world beauty, and remnants of the colonial wealth that created it.

The city has many interesting neighbourhoods, and an hour or two of walking can really take you through a great cross-section of the best of Lisbon. We walked everywhere and saw a lot. It also helps that the hills of Lisbon mean you’re never far from an incredible, heightened view of the city. From old plazas with fountains and monuments galore, to the city’s oceanfront, where colonial ships once presented their wealth to kingdom, to ruins, and one of the first elevators in Europe, we walked and saw it all.

Kevin took a couple of much-needed naps, as well as an afternoon trip to a private hospital to see if his lip was actually recovering, so Julie and I also had a couple of long exploratory jaunts. On one occasion we hopped in a cab to the Belem neighbourhood. There, we sat by waterfront along the Tagus river and enjoyed some lovely January sunshine. We also saw the Jeronimos Monastery, and the “Monument to the Discoveries”. We also caught a glimpse of the Ponte de 25 April (April 25th Bridge), which is essentially Lisbon’s version of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. It’s 27th largest suspension bridge in the world. I highly suggest you click on all those links and read what Wikipedia has to say about all these sights. So many interesting things to learn! On another jaunt, we decided to start walking and just see where we ended up. Turns out that we ended up at a lookout point behind a neighbourhood that had enticed us with a long yet lovely staircase. It was the perfect spot to watch the sunset, though regrettably I didn’t have my camera. That type of magical experience is exactly what makes Lisbon so enchanting.

With all that walking, we obviously needed to eat, and Lisbon had us covered there as well. Because Lisbon is so old, almost every building is special in some way, which makes dining that much more interesting. We opted for a couple of low-key local places for lunch, and tried some fancier dining at night. Portuguese food is simple yet delicious, and I think that would describe our Lisbon culinary experience as well.

If you can’t already tell, I’m a big fan of Lisbon. More than that, I’m a big fan of spending time with the people who I care about. I’ll let you see more of what we did by perusing the photos below. What really made this trip special was getting to explore a beautiful city with Kevin and my dear friend Julie. If you’ve never considered visiting Lisbon, I suggest that you add it to your to-do list, but more than that, I hope that you make the time to have interesting experiences with the people who you love.