To finish up our trip, on Monday, after exploring Porto, Braga, and Coimbra, we traveled by train to Lisbon, Portugal’s largest city.
Lisbon simultaneously holds the title of Europe’s second oldest capital and the newest city of any we’ve explored thus far in Portugal, although it’s still ancient by US standards. This is because it was almost completely redesigned and rebuilt after a 1755 earthquake measuring 8 to 9 on the Richter scale destroyed nearly 85% of the city.
Sebastiao de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal, is credited with spearheading the new design: replacing medieval alleyways with wide streets and plazas on a central grid, and also engineering buildings to collapse in on themselves in the event of another catastrophic event.
I think our favorite day for the most unexpected adventure in Portugal was our our visit to Sintra.
When I thought about a day trip to this UNESCO World Heritage area from Lisbon, I expected to take a train ride and then spend the day hoofing it from castle to castle. I hoped for good weather, but at this point in our trip, that was kind of iffy.
We had a couple of credits on Airbnb due to pandemic trip cancellations, as well as a gift certificate (which, by the way, is a FANTASTIC gift idea for the person who has everything and likes to travel), so we splurged on a Jeep safari.
The day started with a near disaster as our driver stopped to pick us up in front of our building in the middle of the busy Rua da Prata in rush hour, then gestured at us to jump in the car as the approaching traffic collectively slammed on their brakes.
At this point half of my freaking family (in particular, the two I would have expected to know better) darted across the road while all I could manage was to squeak out “bus!” by way of warning.
Our original plan was to rent a car in Porto, drive inland to Coimbra for a night, then drive further inland to stay at a mountain town called Monsanto for another night. After reading a few blogs, and then a few more blogs about the driving and parking experience in Portugal for the inexperienced, we decided to stick to places we could access by train and save our Portuguese countryside tour for another trip.
After seeing drivers thread the needle through the narrow streets of Porto, we were certain driving here might not be our thing, like, ever.
If Porto is any indication, humans have been working on the proper stair height for more than 2,000 years, and only just recently agreed upon a standard.
I never appreciated that standard until now. In this ancient town, you’ll find differences in height between flights located in the same building, and even stairs in the same flight. Aaand, fun thing about bifocals, they make me a lot more clumsy with stairs. Introduce a mask into the equation (which can make said bifocals easy to slip off), I’m a walking disaster waiting to happen.
Most days we’re averaging 40 to 50 flights a day, and while I’m glad to have the stamina, I feel like I’m missing a lot because I’m concentrating so hard on not falling to my death. Good thing I’m traveling with some patient people….
One of my favorite things about travel is stepping off an airplane and into a place where all the sights, sounds, and smells are unfamiliar. It’s kind of like ascending the first hump of a roller coaster. I’m excited and scared about what’s going to happen next.
Of course, it’s not until right at this moment I remember how this analogy breaks down when it comes to family travel. The arrival point is the funhouse-that’s-not-actually-fun part of the carnival, and for us it typically includes one kid who’s mad at me for “doing it wrong” (this trip: the way I rode an escalator), another who’s sulking and hangry, and an argument about which train stop will take us closest to our hotel, followed by a kilometer of dragging too-heavy suitcases over wonky cobblestones to lodging we won’t have access to for an indeterminate period of time.
Louis I Bridge, Porto, Portugal
Throw in a very near miss by about seven pounds of sea gull poop, and you’ve got the gist of the first half of our first day in Portugal.
After a couple days of getting Jack situated in his new digs in Wiener Neustadt, we had some time for sightseeing. We’d contacted Hanna, a former exchange student who lives with her family in nearby Baden bei Wien, a spa town famous for its hot springs. Baden is a short train ride from Wr. Neustadt, and Hanna met us at the station to take us to her home for lunch with her mother, Monika.
Afterwards we took a walking tour through town, and Monika pointed out the sights. It had been really warm in Austria since we arrived. It was a relief to have some cloud cover and cooler temperatures.
Baden is the premier resort town of Austria, surrounded by forested hills. It’s historically known for being the favored retreat of Austrian emperors and famous composers. During the summer it hosts Europe’s largest outdoor photography exhibit. The theme this year is “I love Africa,” and we strolled through photos displays of wildlife and people from a different continent.
The town has a very upscale but relaxed vibe. It felt a lot to me like our own Sun Valley, only less cowboy and more Mozart.
I don’t ever remember being that little girl who envisions her wedding. I don’t remember setting any particular expectations of parenthood, or thinking about what my first house might look like.
There is one little daydream I have long entertained, though, without really ever thinking about it: that of our kids going to the same university their dad and I were attending when we started dating.
Since the boys were little, we’ve been taking the six-hour drive North to Moscow, Idaho, for a football game every fall as often as possible. There were years we couldn’t make the time, or waited too long to get a hotel room, but there was a while when we made it a regular habit.
We joked about indoctrinating our kids as future Vandals. We bought all the swag, we took tours through living groups, we showed them where we’d lived and hung out. They dug it. And who wouldn’t? The Palouse is ridiculously gorgeous in the fall when we would visit, and the 130 year-old campus is the picture of time-honored tradition, with cobblestone lanes weaving through stately brick buildings. I’m sure most of it doesn’t look much different from when my grandparents attended in the 1920s.
Mike wasn’t super excited about renting a car for part of our trip to Denmark, and for a quick jaunt into Germany, but there were places we wanted to go where buying train tickets for the whole family was going to be super expensive, or our destination was out of the way enough, the train wouldn’t quite get us where we wanted to be.
By this point in our journey to visit the place our son had been living for a year and attend the wedding of a former exchange student, we’d experienced no real problems. None. No missed connections or lost luggage or screw ups with our Airbnb hosts.
Which made it the PERFECT time to put all marital and familial relationships to the test by having one us navigate while another drove (possibly illegally, we never really looked that up), and the rest rode in nervous silence in the back.
Or if not total silence, at least everyone tried to keep their startled screams and audible gasps to a minimum.
Saara gave Mike a quick and helpful tutorial about driving in her part of the world. It was basically pretty much the same as driving in the United States, she said, except with regard to stop signs.
“We actually stop at them,” she said. Which made us wonder what she thought we were actually doing at stop signs in our home country.
A couple of weeks into our trip, we had another opportunity to explore Copenhagen, when we returned from Finland with the honeymooners, en route to Sønderborg. The flat we rented this time was more centrally located than the one in Nørrebro, and if the weather cooperated, we’d easily be able to walk to a few attractions.
The weather did cooperate (which in Denmark means temps in the low to mid 60s, intermittent rain and some sun. As with our last trip to northern Europe, I made the mistake of packing sundresses. Sigh.), so we came up with a plan to do way more than would be physically possible for mere mortals in one day (if you know us, you know that’s kind of our MO).
We returned from Germany on Sunday and dropped Jack off at his host family home in Sønderborg (he’ll finish out the last week of his exchange and then travel home from Billund. Our tickets are outbound from Copenhagen), and continued on to see a couple of other points of interest in Denmark.
One of those was the town of Haderslev, not too far north of Sønderborg. Mike picked this place out because he thought it would be a quiet stopover on our way north, and also because at least one of my ancestors is from here: my grandmother Betty’s great grandfather Nis Jensen Krough, to be exact. Nis was born in 1849 in Haderslev, and died in 1908 in Des Moines, Iowa. He married Gertrude Marie Christiansen, also of Denmark (although her birth city is unknown to us).