finding Lisbon

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Latterly known as the new Barcelona, she stepped from arrivals into Lisbon’s midday heat with eager anticipation, and as her taxi wound its way down into its sprawling suburbs, she wondered if it could possibly live up to that kind of reputation.

Choosing Airbnb was a deliberate attempt to be less of a tourist and more of a local, so home was a tiny apartment in a residential area just east of the Lisbon’s oldest district of Alfama, right on top of a hill.

The hills!  She had been warned about the hills, but these were some serious upward climbs!

Though hills, of course, mean stunning vistas. See from above, Lisbon’s faded beauty is picture postcard, terracotta roofs on careworn tile-clad buildings tumbling towards the sparkling Tagus, famous for sending intrepid explorers out into the big blue. The waterfront, to the east, already redeveloped and achingly cool. Centre stage, the long dining tables in Mercado da Ribeira, the converted food market now revitalised by Time Out, the place to lunch. A noisy, buzzing, anything-you-fancy eating experience, sitting in the middle of the historic food stalls, where market traders have sold local produce since the late 1800s.

Nevertheless, thank goodness for the trams. The famous number 28, clattering through the maze of the narrow cobbled streets of Alfama, inching past parked cars and oblivious tourists, was not for the faint-hearted, but far kinder on the feet and the lungs!  On the other side of town, the “hill” problem is overcome via the Gloria funicular or the slightly bizarre neo-gothic styled Elevador de Santa Justa, rising from the Baixa district to the top of Barrio Alto in seconds, so the views are the only thing to take the breath away!

Lisbon’s hills leave a lasting impression, that’s for sure.

As does the food. In any country, there are certain things that never taste as good as when they are eaten there … in Portugal, it’s sardines. Silver slithers of deliciousness sizzling on market stalls, best enjoyed simply with a fist of crusty bread to soak up all the oil. And of course the famous “nata”, a delicious custard tart, buttery flaky pastry, custard just slightly wobbly, and a dusting of cinnamon.  She could have developed a seriously unhealthy addiction – may be climbing the hills was a good idea after all!

She found herself addicted too to the heart-breakingly beautiful fado music that flowed through the open windows of tiny airless bars in Alfama, as the sun sunk low on those early Summer days.  Fado, from the Latin fatum, and the source of the English word for fate …. so profoundly melancholic, it haunted her still.

They say you have to love yourself before you can be loved. It felt as if Lisbon was just waking up to its potential, quietly hiding away its faded beauty like a secret treasure, still wondering if it could hold its place in the hearts of the tourist droves starting to wander there. She left Lisbon, unsure where this fascinating city sat in her heart, but may be that was because she too was still learning to love herself. She wondered if she had given it enough of a chance to show her all it had to offer …. or perhaps it just wasn’t ready to yet.

 

 

finding Positive Solitude

 

 

“Claim your space. Draw a circle of light around it. Push back against the dark. Don’t just survive. Celebrate.”

(Charles Frazier)

 

She had never heard the expression “positive solitude” until a few days before, but it described perfectly the place she was on her journey.  

When she left her marriage, she knew loneliness would be her achilles heel, so had, of necessity, taught herself to embrace solitude.  The thought of a day on her own still had the capacity to leave a dull thud in her stomach and an uneasiness which she couldn’t quite put her finger on.  But, for the most part, she could get through a day alone, in fact, more than get through….

She found that keeping busy, or at the very least, having a plan, was the key.  Yes, of course, those plans very often displayed all the symptoms of running away, to escape the day-to-day, to break the routine where the silence of no early morning message from him would break her heart again and again. And sometimes, those plans were the end result of anger and defiance standing firm together in a “sod it, I don’t need anyone” kind of way.  Of course, in an ideal world, she would have given anything to be with someone who loved her, simple as that. But there is a difference between wanting and needing.  It took all her strength, but it was that anger, disappointment and hurt that gave her the momentum finally to step out into the world and say “bring it on”.

Holidaying alone, of course, was something else altogether, though she found that fear, when you are brave enough to look it in the eye, has nowhere to go.  

Florence was her first solo trip.  Alone, she spoke less, noticed more … and those moments when it would have been so wonderful, later, to say “Do you remember when …?”, sat in her memory bank alone.  More than anything, she came home with a sense of achievement that made her spirits sour, and still the memory of speeding through the Tuscan hills on a Vespa, that life-affirming rush, that freedom of spirit, left her grinning from ear to ear.

And so to Lisbon. A last minute, need to get on with my life, kind of booking … without any preconceived notions of what to expect.  A deliberate attempt not to be too touristy, to step out of her comfort zone a little further than before. 

And so, she sat typing this story, in a sun dappled courtyard just east of Alfama, the hilly artisan quarter of the town.  A local resident, Jose, popped his head out of his window and offered to put on his favourite fado music to keep her company.  Hauntingly beautiful voices, mending all those lost dreams in a soothing wave of melodies floating through the lemon trees, the delicate blues of heady agapanthus and lavender, across the white washed terrace outside her tiny apartment. For all Lisbon had to offer, she would remember most the magic of that moment. It was perfect.

She realised how far she had come.  So terrified before of even being alone, here she was, in a foreign land without a single soul to turn to. For her, this was being brave beyond her wildest imagination, and she knew she would be fine.  That’s quite a journey!

 

finding Mykonos

It was certainly a bit of a Thelma and Louise moment.  It was probably the pink helmets that did it.

Three days in to their spring break in Mykonos, it became clear that the only way to reach the tiny unspoilt bay on the other side of the island, was to hire some wheels. Whilst a car was the sensible option for two ladies of a certain age, quad bikes looked infinitely more exciting.  And so it was that they edged their way out into the morning traffic, with nothing but a rudimentary map and a vague sense of direction to guide their way.

They had happened upon Mykonos purely because the right travel deal came up at the right time.  Its reputation as a party island preceded it. Party girls they were not … but pictures of the unassuming family-run hotel just outside Mykonos town, low-rise, white-washed and draped in vibrant bougainvillea, lured them to this tiny dot of a Greek island.

Mykonos turned out to be a surprise in every way.

The town itself was a short boat taxi ride across the bay … what a way to arrive! Chugging into the mooring, they got their first glimpse of the iconic paving that winds its way through the narrow streets of the Old Town, inviting them in to explore it’s maze of quirky local bars and high end fashion retailers … this tiny island certainly attracts the money.  Shopping is more about Armani than  trashy souvenirs. Standing proud on the ridge, the time-worn windmills watch the to-ings and fro-ings of this busy harbour, like they have done for centuries past.

The famous party beaches weren’t for them, but the rest of the island remained surprisingly untouched by mass tourism, and the notion of the romantic Greek island idle that Shirley Valentine gave us in the 80s, can still be found in its barren hills, dotted with white-washed rural hamlets and tiny chapels peeping out at every turn.

Giggling with delight at the absurdity of  how they must have looked to the locals, two English woman on a quad bike, pink helmets, old enough to know better,  they jolted their way along the dusty tracks across the island to Fokos, recommended by a friend for its not-to-be-missed taverna.  Just as they arrived,  the locals started to spill in, bearing gifts for the staff on this the first day of opening for the summer season.  They felt they were intruding on a secret party, but were welcomed like long lost friends and beckoned onto the veranda to enjoy their meal lazily sitting in the dappled shade overlooking what can only be described as an island paradise. For the people, for the food, for the place …. it was one of those “do you remember” meals. Total bliss.

Mykonos … one of those places that where time passes so slowly, but a holiday is over so soon.  A definite must-go-back-one-day ….

 

finding that Eating Alone Isn’t Funny!

 

Laughter needs two people.

Laughing alone, tears rolling down her face,

because her book, the one that was meant to make it look

like she hadn’t been stood up

in the restaurant,

that book – well it was

side-splittingly, eye-wateringly hilarious!

And who, in their right mind,  would want to sit

anywhere near the crazy English lady

snorting in the corner!!

finding Florence II

Of course, it wasn’t challenge enough to solo travel for the first time. In a moment of madness, she decided to put something a little crazy in the mix, just to make sure this, for her, was the mother of all challenges!

So she booked a sight seeing tour around the Tuscan hills … on a Vespa!

Sound enough idea for an experienced motorcycle driver who had driven on the wrong side of the road before. She’d done neither the motorcycle or the side … ever!! Crazy or what?

That’s the funny thing about fear. Once she’d looked it in the eye, it had nowhere else to go. She’d realised that only way to find out how to travel alone, was to do it! It was a huge, life-changing life-enhancing decision … the icing on top of the cake that was her new independent grab-every-moment life. Hiring a Vespa? Just the cherry on the icing!

It wasn’t without trepidation however that she presented herself at the allocated time at the hire centre. Ten minutes later, after a quick run through of the essentials (basically how to start and how to stop), she emerged into the madness that is Florence’s mid morning traffic.

In the group of a dozen or so riders, some pillion, she was the only solo woman of a certain age. A object of some curiosity to the youngsters and the couples! She rather liked that … though they did collectively take it upon themselves to keep her in the middle of the pack out of harm’s way. Bless.

They wound their way up and up until Florence disappeared into a valley behind them. Clear of city drivers, with the dusty tracks to themselves, she began to relax, loosen her white knuckle grip on the handlebars and enjoy the Tuscan hills that stretched before them, just like they are in the movies. Cypress trees standing tall and straight on undulating hills, row upon row of vineyards ready to harvest, sprinkled with sun-mellowed terracotta villas.

The locals, intent on their daily tasks, watched bemused as a crazy English woman whizzed through their tiny hamlets, squealing with the freedom of it all.

She couldn’t believe she was actually doing it. She felt like she could fly. And life felt so, so extraordinarily good.

finding Florence I

She caught first sight of the Duomo while she was trundling her luggage along what had now become a rather haphazard route between the station and her hotel. A shock of green and white marble tantalizing her from the end of the street. It, quite literally, stopped her in her tracks.  She was to learn, during the next few days, that Florence has a habit of doing that …

The unpretentious family run hotel situated right at the end of Ponte Vecchio was perfect for a female first time solo traveller. Everything she wanted to see within touching distance, and a friendly face to come back to after a day’s “determined not to miss a thing” sightseeing.

A three night city break, particularly going solo, is more than enough time to get to grips with most cities.  With no-one else to please, she could focus on the things she wanted to see and do …. with the freedom to take, literally, a different path whenever she felt like it. The Florence must do’s – the Uffizi, the Pitti Palace,  the Duomo of course – called to her like presents that are so beautifully wrapped, it goes without saying that what’s inside will be something special.  Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Caravaggio … the names just roll of the tongue, all there, conjuring up a veritable cultural feast for the soul. The highlight for her, seeing the towering presence of the David standing tall at the end of the main gallery at the Accademia, took her breath away.  He’s quite something.

What she hadn’t anticipated was that the whole city feels like an architectural extravaganza, the most stunningly buildings at every turn.

But it doesn’t seem to show off about it. Florence waits to be found,  like a serene and beautiful woman, who is quietly confident in her own skin.

finding Vienna

 

 

 

 

“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”
(Saint Augustine)

The thing about the travel bug is that once you’ve caught it, it becomes a life condition.

He had always teased her that she did not have a list of places she wanted to see. Now that list was so long, she wondered where to start. He had introduced her to places Arabic, and pre-packaged Mediterranean was familiar territory from family holidays. Northern Europe, however, remained uncharted territory. The fashion was for the likes of Budapest, Prague – she was not about to follow the fashion.  So, in Spring 2015, Vienna it was …

She imagined a sophisticated city of imperial palaces, classical music, hearty food, snow and mountains – it was all those things … without the snow and the mountains, for Vienna sits on a plateau to the west of The Danube, the surrounding hills covered not by snow, but vineyards and dense undulating woodland.

A love of the arts, which drew her and her girlfriend together when they worked side-by-side in publishing in the 80’s, became the focus of their trip. So there could only be one place to start. Within hours of unpacking, they entered the magnificent doors of Vienna State Opera for the evening performance. Climbing the vast marble grand staircase to take their seats high in the auditorium, they marvelled at the well-heeled Viennese ensconced in their tiered boxes, classical music running through their veins. Spellbound by Schwanensee (Swan Lake) performed under glittering chandeliers.  Such a privilege to be there.

Vienna oozes the arts through its every pore. Klimt’s “The Kiss” at The Belvedere, took her breathe away … much reproduced on greetings cards, nothing could take away the magic of seeing the real thing. And with immaculate timing, Vienna’s naughty boy, Egon Schiele, had just opened at The Leopold.

A city of imperial palaces – the magnificent complex of buildings that form The Hofburg, Vienna’s former Imperial Palace – the obvious place to start to dip into Austria’s history, with a guided tour of the state apartments, room after room of porcelain and gilded candelabra, and a special exhibition about Sisi, Princess Elisabeth of Bavaria, and wife of Frank Joseph I.  Then to the south, the stunning Schloss Schonbrunn, former summer residence of the Habsburgs – reminiscent of Versailles with its grand mirrored rococo ballroom and formal gardens, laid out in the reign of Empress Maria Theresa.

Vienna, city of cake and chocolate – Demel tearooms, the heady sweetness of chocolate hitting the taste buds,  Sachertorte and a cup of tea sitting at the bar in it’s dark mahogany interior.  And city of a cuisine which exceeded any preconceptions. At Figlmuller, famous for its schnitzel large enough to fill the plate.  Rich beef goulash at Weibel’s Wirthaus and the faded romantic “Kleine’s Cafe”, sitting in the kind of cobbled square so reminiscent of WWII movies, where the Gestapo screech to a halt on a side-cared motorbike.  Tucked into a corner of this tiny cafe, with its smoke-yellowed walls, eavesdropping lovers in earnest conversation, their first taste of apfelstrudel. And Cafe Pruckel to drink late evening coffee, listen to piano recitals and mingle with the locals.

This was the life she imagined …. a culturally rich life.  Her appetite satiated, for now …. she was living that life ….. and she had only just begun.

finding Barcelona

“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” (Henry David Thorea)

A determination to show him, and herself, that she was brave enough travel without him, took her to Barcelona in late 2014.

Always top of her “to do” list, it seemed the obvious place to start. So, accompanied by a well-travelled girlfriend, she dipped an intrepid toe into the “city break” experience.

Enticed by Gaudi, she knew Barcelona would feed her appetite for a culturally rich life, but of course, it was more than that, much more.

The food … still warm enough at the beginning of December to eat seafood paella al fresco at the water’s edge! And delicious tapas accompanied by a full bodied Spanish red, an eating experience at it’s very best in a tiny bar just off The Ramblas, where they put themselves at the mercy of the owner and feasted on what was put in front of them.

The dance …. ah, the dance. An impromptu evening under the breathtaking glass mosaic roof of the Palau de la Musica Catalana … an unexpected chance to see raw, passionate, spine-tingling romany flamenco.

The music …. a candlelit Spanish guitar recital in Iglesia Santa Anna, a 12th century cloistered church, the audience of no more than 30. Such a privilege. Unforgettable.

And the art, of course, courtesy of Gaudi, and his fellow Catalan, Miro. Sagrada Familia remains a dusty building site, and the fact that it will seemingly never be finished is apparently the appeal, though its grotesque facade did little for her. His Park Guell was nevertheless a “must see”, with its crazy mosaic landscaping and breathtaking panoramic views of the city.  Then an nspiring afternoon at Fundacio Joan Miro.  Both artists were self-absorbed, determined visionaries, and both of them were, it would seen, mad – completely and utterly mad!

Barcelona – crazy, elegant, beautiful Barcelona -was everything she imagined it would be, and gave her  a tantalizing glimpse of a life she’d imagined, in all its soul-enriching, thirst-quenching, heart-stopping colours.

finding Happiness

“It’s not the years in your life that count, but the life in your years” (Abraham Lincoln) 

Two countries, one man, and memories that were as much about how they were as where they were.

In late 2013, they flew to Turkey. Theirs hadn’t been the endless summer she’d longed for, as they battled with the emotional see-saw of each other’s insecurities, but as they boarded the plane, it finally felt it was their time.  

Turunc turned out to be the closest she had ever been to paradise.  A tantalising glimpse of its bay teased them as their taxi wound its way through ancient pine forests. Sparkling blue waters beckoning them down, and took their breath away.  “Is it OK to be deliriously happy?” she’d asked.

imageSuch precious times …. when contentment was the Aegean sun on her skin, her man by her side, and tucking life-affirming moments into their memory bank.  Never a strong swimmer, riding pillion on his jet ski was both exhilarating and utterly terrifying – eyes squeezed against the sting of salt water, arms gripped around his waist like her life depended on it, yet total trust that he would keep her safe. Getting plastered, literally, in the mud baths, and afterwards winding a path through the Dalyan reed beds, past Lycian tombs cut high into the cliff and out to Iztuzu beach for turtle-spotting … so wonderfully exotic, another world.  Then … there was the mountain trek … in a jeep. No doubt a tried and tested formula, equipping twenty adults with super-soakers guarantees to break down barriers and find their inner child … an action-packed, dust-ridden, water-drenched, laughter-filled, conquer-the-world kind of day. They would later reminisce, it was their best of times.

The following months were happy enough, though while her feelings grew, it never really felt like he was hers. That dull uneasiness when something doesn’t feel right.  And so the day they would leave for Egypt loomed in her diary like their endgame … at least she would have him, until then.

Sharm El Sheikh was like nowhere she’d ever been – a surreal strip of tourism painted on desert flats between the Sinai mountains and the Red Sea, where fifty years ago, there was little more than a Bedouin fishing village. It stays firmly locked inside hotel security gates, cocooning visitors from the real world, and, for them, from their real feelings for each other.  

Ignorance, they say, is bliss. Lazy sun-kissed days soothed her troubled heart, and they embraced the opportunity of visiting this extraordinary land. Sharm’s appeal, and where the magic happens, lies of course in it’s breath-taking coral reef. With his encouragement, she’d ventured for the first time into a silent underwater world, and marvelled at darting tropical fish weaving between the corals, sunlight showing off a jewellery box of colours, the likes of which she had never seen.  

Not content with staying put, he was determined, despite the dangers of leaving the Sinai peninsula, to visit Cairo. Imagine seeing the Giza Pyramid for the first time as their plane swooped in low to land. The Museum of Antiquities stunned  them with room after room of faded hieroglyphics that spoke in hushed whispers of ancient times … Tutankhamen in his gilded glory and royal mummies lying in silent repose. A trip down the Nile and their first sight of the Sphinx, proud gatekeeper to the pyramids beyond. She’d never imagined in her wildest dreams finding herself there, with him … it would stay with her forever. 

Shortly after their return, he told her it was over, and broke her heart. Time heals, of course, and now it is not the pain, but those extraordinary times she remembers when she thinks of him. Right from the start, she’d asked him to help her spread her wings … and that is what he did.

 

 

finding Marrakech

“Life is either a daring adventure …… or nothing” (Helen Keller)

Their paths crossed, and she knew her world would never be the same again. Right from the start, he’d told her they would have no future together – her means would never stretch to the far-flung corners of the world where his imagination took him … and yet, nearly a year on, his hand wrapped protectively around hers, they weaved their way together through the bustling alleyways of the Marrakech souks.

Just ahead of them, two elders walked in earnest conversation. Dressed in hooded robes, with something of a Jedi knight about them, they might well have talked of the sports results of the night before, but their rapid Berber dialect hinted of mysterious and foreign lands. They strolled the dusty, winding paths of the souks with a familiarity that paid scant regard to the haphazard passing traffic his protective hand sought to shield her from. A sun-wizened market trader sitting lazily side saddle on his trusty donkey. Some two dozen trays of freshly laid eggs balanced precariously on the rack of a rusting push bike, destined for the food stalls in the Kasbah. A spluttering moped, it’s trailer laden with vegetation wilting in the midday sun. A family of four astride another, the youngest, no more than a toddler, secured only by his father’s arms on the handlebars .

The souks opened before them like an Aladdin’s cave. Away from the perpetually busy, tourist saturated Jemaa El Fna. From the hypnotic rhythm of the snake charmers, cajoling the cobra to perform their dance, soporific in the intensity of the heat. Away from the menagerie of tricksters, pick-pockets, herbalists and story-tellers. Away from the water sellers, and the lines of caleches, their horses waiting patiently for their next fare.

Away to the dappled shade, where the true Marrakech artisans plied their wares in cool, darkened inlets built into the ancient ochre walls of the Medina. A soft hammering filled the air as intricate patterns emerged on the delicate lanterns. The heady aroma of pyramids of exotic spices, bubbling tagines, and rows of figs and dates attracting more flies than passing trade. Rows of soft leather babouches, lined up like an untarnished paint pallet with their pointy toes and colourful hues. And rugs hanging from every beam, their weaves steeped in tribal history and tradition.  The souks – all that is Marrakech in their every breath – lulled into an afternoon calm as the call for prayer echoed from the Koutoubia mosque.

The elders paused, looked back. A momentary meeting of eyes, of East meets West. Then they took another path, and were gone.

His protective hand shielded her still, as they emerged into the light of the bustling metropolis. And she wondered if he, like the elders, would one day take another path and leave her to find her own, or if they would follow a path together.

Inshallah …….