seasons greetings from my dreidel-spinning students

In honor of the holiday season (and its corresponding teacher laziness and student zaniness), my classes of all ages wagered dry chickpeas and enthusiastically chanted and cheered for shins, gimels, hays and nuns during the weeks leading up to vacation.  Here’s a glimpse of the action.  Felices fiestas, friends.IMG_1971 IMG_1972 IMG_1973 IMG_2012 IMG_2013


Three days on the porch-ugal

Years ago, had you asked me to label Portugal on a map, I would’ve laughed uneasily.  Portugal, to me, was a far-off and exotic land that felt only slightly more real than Stars Hollow, where Rory and Lorelai of Gilmore Girls live. It was most familiar as the nickname (“porch-ugal”) that my dad always gave to the porch where he hung out, smoking his pipe and playing solitaire.  If I entered the house and called his name, asking where he was, he responded without fail: “the porch-ugal.”

Since then, I became aware that Portugal — the country — does, in fact, exist; in school I learned about its importance in world history, and later I visited the town of Lagos on its southern coast while studying in Sevilla.  This past weekend I returned, this time venturing further north up Spain’s neighbor on the Iberian peninsula.  I can now more than appreciate that Portugal is not simply the small room that extends off of the kitchen in my parents’ house in Northborough, MA, USA.

With three days, English teachers’ budgets, and our oh-so-precious youthful spirits of adventure, my friend and I decided we’d spend our puente seeing three different cities (Porto, Lisbon and Sintra), taking six different modes of transportation (plane, subway, bus, cable car, ferry and train), and forgoing sleep one night, never starting and ending a day in the same place.

Day One: Porto

With just under 250,000 inhabitants, Porto, Portugal’s second biggest city, is hilly but walkable.  The ever-changing altitude in addition to the six major bridges crossing the Duoro River allow for infinite breathtaking views of seas of red rooftops.  The city is known, not surprisingly, for its Port, which a tasting at the famous Taylor’s confirmed is not my cup of tea wine.  A less internationally famous gastronomical staple of the city is the francesinha, or “little French girl,” a sandwich that, according to the story, was a returned emigrant from France’s attempt at adapting the croque monsieur to Portuguese tastes.  The result is a sandwich piled with multiple types of pork and beef, covered in cheese and sometimes an egg, doused in a “special” beer- and tomato-based sauce, and served up alongside a generous helping of french fries.  We split one of these.  Finally, we stopped by Lello Bookstore, voted by Lonely Planet as the third best bookstore in the world, before being kicked out for taking photos and not buying anything by an understandably-cranky owner.

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Day Two: Lisbon

After arriving in Lisbon and getting settled at our AirBnB apartment, we sat down to the best meal of the weekend: lunch at the mom-and-pop-style, TripAdvsior-recommended Cantinha de Bem Estar, just a few minutes from where we were staying.  Upon perusing the menu for a few minutes, our waiter noticed us eyeing the spread on our Portuguese neighbors’ table, and pointed at it, telling us “we have this too.  Portuguese black pork. Traditional Portuguese, very good.” We went for it and certainly did not regret our decision, as we enjoyed tender, fall-off-the-bone pork in an amazingly flavorful sauce.  In the afternoon, we rode the historic Cable Car #28 through the hillier-than-Porto city streets to get a taste of the various neighborhoods, and then hopped on a ferry across the river to catch views of the April 25 Bridge at sunset.  (And yes, the hills, cable cars, and rusty-hued suspension bridge make the San Francisco comparisons inevitable).  In the evening, we took a ride up the Santa Justa elevator for views of the city lit up, and for dinner, we enjoyed some excellent live music, wine and small plates at Grapes and Bites.

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Day Three: Lisbon & Sintra

The morning of day three took us to Belém, the waterside district of the city where many of the Portuguese explorers departed on their adventures overseas.  There, we had breakfast at the famous Pastéis de Belém, where we enjoyed Portugal’s national pastry, a small bruléed custard in flaky pastry dough.  Fueled and caffeinated, we ventured through the fog, passing by the Jerónimos Monastery and visiting the Belém Tower, a fortified lighthouse built in the early 1500’s.  Then it was back to the city center to hop on a train to Sintra, a town located about 20 miles northwest of Lisbon, to visit Pena National Palace, home to the Portuguese monarchs in the 18th and 19th centuries, and one of three palaces dotting the steep verdant mountainside.  It was described by various websites as an “ice cream palace” and “Disney World for adults;” upon arrival, it more than lived up to the hype.

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And just like that, the weekend culminated in an almost-sleepless return to Madrid via metro-bus-sprinting-bus-airplane-metro.  We came close to biting off more “porch-ugal” than we could chew in three days, but in the end I think we took in just about the maximum that our travel appetites could handle.

Up next: my last week of work of 2013, and then home for the holidays.  When all is said and done, I will have been in seven cities in seven days (Madrid, Porto, Lisbon, Sintra, Sevilla, New York, Boston) and it will be time to indulge in the R&R of familiarty.