Sunday, May 22, 2016

End of CIEE program, Vila Nova de Foz Côa, Coimbra

Finally, I have caught up enough that all of the pictures and events from here on out are from the current semester. As I think I said elsewhere, I ended the program around December 16th and went back home for a month and a half, returning at the end of January. I haven't traveled too terribly much this time around, but I have taken two trips that I will share now.

The first one was a weekend trip I took to the north of Portugal to the Douro River valley. I had read on another person's blog that there was an almond blossom festival going on, and also that there was a lot of paleolithic rock art and a national park. So, I hopped on a bus and took the 6 hour trip north and west to get there. Now, this area is in fact extremely beautiful. It is very mountainous, and the main area for grape cultivation in Portugal. There are river cruises all down the Douro river from Porto, and although I didn't go on one, I am sure that they are 100% worth it. However, Vila Nova de Foz Coa is DEAD. Do not go there!! And definitely have a car if you are going to try to travel around this area because it is in the middle of NOWHERE. Unfortunately, I didn't have a car. No, I got essentially trapped in this small town for 2 whole days (would have been more but I left early, eating the cost of my final night there). To add insult to injury, it was a bit too early for the almond blossoms, and the "festival" was nothing more than a street filled with the cheap carnival stands selling cotton candy and hot dogs that you would see in any small town in the US.

Nevertheless, I got to visit the local market where all the farmers sell their goods every week on Saturday mornings (I got a HUGE bag of fresh almonds for only 9 euros) and again, it was beautiful area. If you are interested in the rock art the national park in which the museum is situated is stunning and you also get to travel to some beautiful areas if you choose to go on one of the guided tours (I only did one but there are tours on multiple routes at different times of day, including ones at night that are available when the weather gets warmer)

Here are the pictures:
Saturday market

Can you see it? Carved picture of an ox

Olive trees

Playing cards
Market again

I seriously could not face another night there. When I packed up the people at the hostel I was staying at were acting a little put out, but I was determined I was going to salvage the weekend and got on the only bus of the day going towards Coimbra.


I LOVED Coimbra. I have no idea why but whereas everyone seems to prefer Porto, I preferred Coimbra by a lot. It is a much smaller city, and it is definitely a university town, but I found it to be very endearing. I stayed in a hostel that was in what had previously been an old mansion. Plus, there were more almond blossoms there since it's farther south:

Anyways, I got there in the evening on Saturday and had dinner at a place called "Quim dos Ossos", because I heard they had good "bones" and was thinking it would be something like oxtails. Nope, it was like stewed pork ribs, which were very tender but almost impossible to eat with knife and fork. As always when I go to small neighborhood places, I was shocked how cheap everything was. Not even kidding I got a main meal with water, sides, and a glass of wine for about 5 euros. 

The next day I just walked around everywhere. First thing in the morning I took a walk up the hill to the university where I unfortunately ran into this lot...

It was called "Feira dos Lázaros" and it apparently happens once a year. These people dress up all in traditional clothing, go to the square right outside the university, and sell traditional goods. They even had a food truck and a dessert stand (where I spent all my time and money):


As you can see I went a little crazy...

I seriously bought so much stuff there. I tried the rice pudding, almond/walnut cookies, fried pumpkin fritter, pumpkin break with nuts, orange cake, nut roll. and probably more that I am forgetting. I ended up eating next to these two old men who were drinking wine and eating bread and bacalhau fritters. They were extremely nice and offered me part of their food, which I tried and it was very good. I offered them some of my many cakes but they weren't interested.  By the end I felt sort of bad but, it was probably worth it.

Walking around...
Public park


Another little park

Downtown is full of these little alleyways

At the end of the day I decided to visit the University of Coimbra. It's a beautiful campus, and although there is an entrance fee of around 8 euros, I enjoyed it:

Faculdade de Letras
For some reason there was some filming going on of these two people dancing the tango

An auditorium that I think is still in use

Ok so this was the best part. This is the old library from the outside:

This is it from the inside (it was against the rules to take pictures but I took this one before I knew that so I might as well put it up):

This library was absolutely gorgeous. All of the old books were still chained in their original cabinets (chained so that they wouldn't be stolen)... and when I say these books are old I mean REALLY old. As you can see from the picture there were upper balconies with even more bookshelves that you could reach though little doorways with staircases in every corner. The set up was really cool because you could walk underneath the balconies and there would be a tunnel effect where you could look from one end of the library to the other. Something else really unique about this place is that they have a colony of bats that they maintain in the building in order to control moths and other pests. Every night someone comes in and covers all of the long, wooden reading tables with a tarps to protect them from the bat poop. True story. 


This picture is really random but I like the design. It is the ceiling just outside of the university prison. That's right, students could be arrested for skipping class, among other offenses. They would be thrown into prison where they would have to stay in solitary confinement in a little cell. While in prison they were still forced to go to class everyday. It was a different time.  

D. Joao III

Weekend saved!!!

Trip to Edinburgh, Scotland

Ok, so this isn't about Portugal but one of the plus sides of studying/living in Europe is that there are a whole lot of places close by that you can travel to inexpensively. I'm not really one to go to a different country to try to see everything in one weekend (which a lot of people I know do do), so I didn't take any big trips except for one in December, right at the end of the program. We had a 4 day weekend and I took an extra day off so I could travel to Scotland, a place I had been wanting to visit for a long time. I was planning on staying in Edinburgh for all of the days because I didn't want to try to cram too much in, but as it was right before Christmas the city was very crowded and there was a Christmas market on so in order to avoid some of this I ended up taking a few day trips to the places surrounding the city/away from the city center. It was my first sight-seeing trip I had ever taken alone, and I have to say it was a great experience.

Anyways, I took an Air France flight, getting there Thursday evening. I stayed in a hostel called "Castle Rock Hostel" for the entire time. I would definitely recommend it if you want to be in the middle of thing but not pay tons of money. It was pretty quiet, huge, and Edinburgh castle is literally towering over it. I didn't really enjoy being in such a touristy area of town, but because it was so close to all the transport I think it was a good choice. Also, a few blocks away was an amazing little restaurant that I went to for breakfast every single day except one. More on that later.
Also, I rented a 2 day pass for the Edinburgh hop-on hop-off bus. It was also a good idea because it takes you around to every touristy area and you don't have to worry about regular transportation. I do have to say though, the public transportation in Scotland is really amazing and easy to figure out. Plus, there's free wifi on all the buses and trains. Too bad we aren't so lucky in the US.

However, the biggest recommendation I have is for the Sandeman's walking tour company. You can pick them up in the central area. I took two, "The Dark Side of Edinburgh" which is at night, and then the regular daytime walking tour. Both were absolutely amazing and both tour guides were funny and cute and the whole thing was definitely one of the biggest highlights of the trip. Again, I'll talk about it more later.  

Here is a picture of Castle Rock Hostel. As you can see it is literally right next to the castle:

The street outside the hostel
Lights set up for the holidays
 First I'm going to talk about food because it's pretty much the most important thing in my life. Before Scotland, I never could have guessed that I was about to embark on a passionate love affair with black pudding and full Scottish breakfasts. I had been to Ireland so I understood the concept of the large Irish breakfasts, but it wasn't until this trip that I realized how awesome this meal could be. I happily spent 10 pounds every single day to eat a full Scottish breakfast. The restaurant I kept coming back to was called the Edinburgh Larder. It is right in the touristy area and it is amazing. All of their ingredients are locally sourced and of high quality. Here is a picture of what I was eating:

Full Scottish breakfast: egg, sausage, beans, back bacon, mushrooms, black pudding, thick toast, half a fried tomato + breakfast tea
Seriously, go here. I also had lunch/a snack on my last day which consisted of a scone with clotted cream and raspberry jelly, hot chocolate, and a bowl of "cullen skink" soup which is made of haddock, potatoes, and onions and which for some reason I want to describe as a white borscht without beets... if that makes sense:

There was one day I ate at a different place for breakfast (MiMi's Bakery) because I heard it was good and I wanted to try "tattie scones" (potato)... but it couldn't hold a candle to the other place:

Hot chocolate and a scone at Wellington's Coffee. Extremely rich but good.

There is one place that is supposed to have the best hot chocolate ever called Mary's Milk Bar but I didn't find out about it until too late. I also found out too late about a place that makes fresh Scottish shortbread called Pinnies and Poppy seeds that is supposed to be out of this world. Next time.

If you're tired at looking at food, please skip ahead, if not... I also tried cake at a bakery called "Lovecrumbs". I believe what I had was some sort of white cake with poppy seeds and lilac orange frosting. Really good if you like cake, one slice was too much for me though.
Cake at lovecrumbs
Finally, I had to eat the obligatory haggis with neeps and tatties (turnips and potato). It's served with a gravy and a cream whisky sauce and at the particular place I went it was formed into a 3-layered tower. Verdict: loved the haggis part but boy it was a lot of potato and turnip. I ended up just eating the haggis out from underneath and leaving it at that. Anyways, it's not scary at all like people make it out to be and I would try it again.  

Strangely the rest of the time I ate a lot of Nepalese or Malaysian food because it was cheaper. The really bad exchange rate really showed itself at meal times since the pound was worth around 1.5x more than the dollar. I know I spent a lot of money but it was worth it. Who knew Edinburgh would have the insane amount of wonderful food that it does?

Ok done!


The first night I got in Edinburgh the thing I immediately noticed the second I stepped off the bus was that the entire place smelled strongly of stewed oxtails. Seriously. As I said though, there was a Christmas market on so I doubt this is it's normal smell.

The next day one of the first places I went to visit was Arthur's Seat which is a big rock that you can hike up to in the middle of the city. It was a *relatively* nice day, the only one out of the whole trip (actually there was one more, my last night). I just want to take a minute here to say that the weather pretty much the entire time was absolutely atrocious. It rained constantly and was extremely windy, though not terribly cold. I know that that's what Scotland's reputation is but it was funny to experience it for myself. Anyways, DO NOT CLIMB ARTHUR'S SEAT IF IT IS RAINY. I decided to climb it because although it had been raining early it had turned a bit more sunny. It was a nice walk but when I got to the top I seriously almost died. The very top is rocky and uneven and you are pretty much looking out at the city at the edge of a sheer cliff. The wind was so unbelievably strong that everyone that was smaller was literally getting knocked clean over by the wind and there were multiple times that I almost got blown to my death. It is no joke. But either way, it was a beautiful walk and it is hard to believe that you are still in the city when you are walking the trail.

I spent the rest of the day going around and around on the tour bus and then ended the day exhausted.


I was already very tired of dealing with the crowds in the city center so I decided to take a trip to a much lesser known and obscure castle called Craigmiller which was built in the 14th century. In fact, I never even went to see Edinburgh Castle. Anyways, the weather was horrible and getting to this place was a little complicated, as I had to take a bus, then trek through some extremely wet and muddy fields to get there. I was completely lost for a while. When I did finally get there, I was the only one there. The attendant had left for break and not a soul besides myself was visiting. It was an extremely creepy experience to be in a gutted out old castle alone during a storm and I ended up tiptoeing around the entire place and many times stopped and listened to see if I could hear anything. The wind was howling through the rooms and in the cellars and at one point I nearly had a heart attack as a pigeon flew out of one of the rooms. Luckily, I didn't die and it ended up being a good trip.  

From afar
Main entrance
The inner courtyard with old trees

A bad picture I know but I thought the dovecote was pretty cool


 Ok, so this day had nice weather as well but it was very cold. I wanted to get away from the city because it was just way too crowded so the next day I walked to the train station early and took a train to the nearby town of Linlithgow to see Linlithgow palace, which was used as the main residence for royalty in the 15th-16th century, though apparently court was held by King George V in 1914 even though the place was already completely gutted. It wasn't crowded at all and was definitely worth a visit.

Front gate

Inner courtyard

Closeup of the stag on the fountain 

The Great Hall was definitely my favorite room as there was a placard with a recreated image of what the room must have looked like in the past. It was very easy to recreate the image in my mind and I stood there looking for a long time:

View from the roof

 The next thing I was planning to do was go to a military castle called "Blackness Castle" that was nearby on the coast. However, as it was Saturday there were no buses and I had to take a cab. The lady at Linlithgow Palace told me that there was a nature trail that went all the way along the coast to the nearby city of Queensferry where it was possible to catch a bus back to Edinburgh. The trail also goes through a town called Abercorn which has viking carvings. It was already around 2:30 at this point and it got dark at 4 normally so I was too afraid to go and risk the sun setting on me, not knowing exactly how long the walk was and especially deterred by the reaction of the man at Blackness Castle when I told him I was going to attempt the walk. Now I realize that it was not all that far so I am determined to go back and walk the trail in the future.

Either way, Blackness Castle was both extremely grim and beautiful. I say that it was a military castle but actually it was a straight up prison with accommodations for prisoners ranging from quaint apartments to an actual hole in the ground where the worst offenders would be thrown. Whenever the tide came up those people would be half submerged in freezing water. It sounded atrocious. I had packed a lunch of (surprise) a roll filled with 3 fat slices of black pudding so after looking around for a while I stood on the ramparts and ate while looking at the sun going down on and the ocean. It was so peaceful and beautiful, I'll always remember that day.

Last used during WW2

You can see the Highlands in the distance


On this day I decided to just walk around Edinburgh.

Apparently in these graveyards bodies were just sort of thrown in and because there is soil erosion they tell guests that if they find any body parts that have surfaced, to report it so they can be interred somewhere else

Around the campus of University of Edinburgh

I also took a walk along the river walk that cuts through the city along the Water of Leith. It's very secluded in some places and is a great escape from the city:


 Random photos:

Balmoral Hotel
 Christmas market:


On my final night in Edinburgh, I decided to take the "Dark Side" tour offered by Sandeman's Edinburgh walking tours. It started around 8PM and lasted about 2 hours. I would highly recommend it. The tour guide was extremely funny and we got to hear all of Edinburgh's stories about body snatching, murder, robbery, and cannibals.

Here are the main stories I remember:

Two Irish immigrants who start mudering people in order to sell their bodies to the University:

Cabinet/safe maker who begins making strongboxes for the upper class in Edinburgh, then at night turns around and robs those same safes, then gambling away all the money:

There was also a story about a group of body snatchers who dug up a rich woman who was actually still alive (which they realized after they chopped off some of her fingers to get her rings off), they decided to do the right thing and let her live, then she proceeded to turn them into the police and they were hanged.

This story about cannibals:

And finally, this more recent story:

Cage you could buy to protect your grave from body-snatchers

Here are pictures of Calton Hill from the tour (there aren't many and they're all a bit blurry since it was night time):

Nelson monument


It was a bit bittersweet for me, but my flight didn't leave until around 5PM so I had to make the most of my remaining time. The first thing I did was go to the National Museum of Scotland. I have to say, it was probably one of the best museums I have ever been to. Actually though, the exhibit on Scottish history and culture was so insanely extensive that I didn't see anything else and after about three hours there I had only gotten through 3 out of 4 floors. Since everything went chronologically with the bottom floor having the earliest history and the top floor having everything from the 19th and 20th centuries, I only got up the 18th century. I will definitely be back to see the rest. Here are some highlights:


 The last thing I did was go on Sandeman's daytime walking tour since I had liked the last one so much. Again, really cute/funny tour guide, again, very interesting.

Anyways, it was time to get on the bus and go back to the airport. I did one more quick walk-through downtown to make a wish and rub Hume's golden toe:

Then, right before I got on the bus, I saw this:

Double rainbow

I really hope to go visit again soon!