Friday, May 23, 2008

This 10-week Europe trip has been the first time I´ve ever traveled without a guidebook. Six years ago, on my first backpacking experience in Japan, I thought traveling sans guidebook would be impossible -- how would you know where to catch the bus, or find hostels? -- and maybe, in Japan, where no one speaks English outside Tokyo and all the signs are written in incomprehensible script, that´s true. But here in Europe, it´s easy.

The tricks:

  1. Grab a map of the town, often available at help desks, and a map of the bus or train system. These are immensely helpful.
  2. Look at postcards to figure out what the `touristy` places you´re `supposed` to see are. Refer to maps to find out how to get there.
  3. I haven´t stayed at a hostel yet, thanks to friends-of-friends, camping and couchsurfing, but if I needed to, its simple to go to the touristy parts of town and just look for signs that say ``hostel.``
  4. Talk to locals.

For the last two days, I´ve visited all of Lisbon´s `must-see` sights: the fortress towers, the manueline monasteries, the gardens with perfectly manicured palm trees, trimmed hedges, and trees blossoming with purple and red flowers from its branches. It seems Portugal, like the U.S., appears either very rich or very poor depending on what neighborhood you´re in.

The architecture style I´m seeing in Portugal is, by far, my favorite among all the European countries I´ve visited in the last few years. I don´t know whether that´s because I intrinsically like it the best, or because its the style Walt Disney based his fairy-tale designs from. The designs of the towers harken back to childhood illustrations. Imagine Gothic blended with Renaissance, with a hint of Moorish.

The Portugese also have a lot of pride in their maritime history; they build lots of monuments to that time 500 years ago when they dominated the free world. Like the U.S., they love exhibiting all the native peoples they conquered. They proudly display maps of their sailors´voyages, and have oversized novelty ship anchors placed in parks and open fields; they erect statues not just of sailors, but also the poets who best commemorated those sailors.

Its fitting, then, that I´ll be spending the next several days by the sea, traveling this afternoon with my newfound clan of age-thirtysomething friends to a beach house in Santa Cruz, Portugal, where about 20 people will spend the weekend.