European Summer: Portugal

I can’t believe it’s been a month since we returned from our one-month European trip. It was an experience. This is the second time we have spent that much time in Europe, the first time was in 2009 when I had just lost my job, and we decided to take off to Europe with the kids. More on that in a future post.

My youngest son, my wife, and I left for Portugal on July 14. We decided to fly to Portugal because my wife wanted to visit Our Lady of Fátima located in Fátima, Portugal. It was also the perfect place to spend a few days before starting our pilgrimage on the Camino Portugués, one of the many alternate pilgrimages of the Camino De Santiago. We knew that to the Compostela, you must walk the last 100 kilometers to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, on foot or horseback, or the last 200 km by bicycle. For this reason, we choose to start our walk in Tui, a Spanish right on the border to Portugal. It’s 115 kilometers from Santiago.

Walking around Porto
Porto, Portugal – Photo taken with a Nikon FE2 and Kodak Gold film.

After arriving at Porto via a short flight from Paris, we quickly walked outside after recovering our luggage. The air in Porto outside the airport felt dense, and it looked much warmer than it was. The sky was hazy, and its color was like a faded pink or orange. It wasn’t beautiful. It reminded me of the sky in the States on the West Coast when wildfires are present. Or similar to the sky in Beijing, China, which, if I had to guess, it’s the result of smoke from cars and industry as opposed to wildfires. I remembered very clearly how my eyes were red and itchy while walking in Beijing.

I was worried. Is the sky like that due to wildfires? contamination? I don’t know, but after taking a taxi into the city, just 11 km from Porto Airport, the beautiful historic center, architecture, and monuments distracted me from looking at the sky. Porto was very picturesque.

A view of one of Porto's plazas
The Praça da Liberdade (Liberty Square) in Porto, Portugal – Photo taken with a Nikon FE2 and Kodak Gold film.

The apartment we rented was right in the center of Porto. Everything was within walking distance, big and small restaurants, museums, galleries, shops, churches, monuments, and one of the places I wanted to visit, Livraria Lello. Porto is magical. It looked like one of those old quaint movies, with charming old buildings and impressive architecture, and very inviting to explore it by walking around it. Very vibrant. As I said, Porto is picturesque. I am glad we decided to make a stop there.

We stayed in Porto for 3 nights and four days, but I’m sure we’ll be back. While there, we took a bus to Fátima, just a few hours away, to visit its magnificent cathedral. That day we almost missed the bus to Fatima. It was scheduled for early in the morning, and while the bus stop was just a few blocks from the apartment, having walked for a few hours the day before to absorb as much as we could from the sunset and the amazing views during the gold hour, and then the fact that we almost hadn’t sleep in the past two days since we left Seattle, made it very hard to wake up that morning. We got on the bus, slept most of the two hours on the way to Fatima, and enjoyed walking around this city and visiting its impressive cathedral. It was a good day. We had breakfast in Fatima and then dinner in Porto.

Sampaio, a fishing village
Streets of Sampaio, an old fishing village in Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal. – Photo taken with a Nikon FE2 and Kodak Gold film.

Porto is a special place. Can’t wait to go back and explore it a little more. We didn’t have any problem communicating with the locals. Most of them understood and spoke Spanish, just like we understood most Portuguese – and when we couldn’t communicate with those languages, English was always a good backup plan. I am so grateful to be bilingual.

The city of Porto is extremely walkable, just like most European cities. Full of street merchants, shops, restaurants, bars, gelato places, historical buildings, monuments, and beautiful sights. The food was excellent too. While walking around Vila Nova de Gaia, just across the Douro river from Porto, we met a street merchant who took our picture of us using a large wooden film camera and recommended that we visit the neighborhood of Sampaio and have dinner there.

Grilling fish on Sampaio, a fishing village in Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal
Fish on the grill outside a house in Sampaio – Photo taken with a Nikon FE2 and Kodak Gold film.

Sampaio is an old fishing village where every evening, locals get the grills out on the street and cook fresh seafood outside, and it’s the perfect place to enjoy Porto wine and delicious seafood. The sunsets are also something to enjoy in this area.

On our last day, we took a bus ride to Valenca, a town at the border between Portugal and Spain, and across the river, you’ll find the town of Tui on the Spanish side. Our walk to Santiago was going to start in Tui, so it was the perfect place to stay for one night to begin our 117km walk to Santiago de Compostela the following day. We were very excited about it but sad to leave Portugal. Our four days in Porto weren’t enough for us.

Bus from Porto to Valenca – Photo taken with iPhone 12 Pro

The morning we arrived in Valenca, we got out of the bus and quickly stopped at the bathrooms. The bus station looked like it was still being built or perhaps being renovated. It was close, but the bathrooms were open, and a few cabs were waiting by the parking lot. We made a hand wave to signal the cab drivers that we needed a ride. The youngest driver saw us and walked over to us. I asked if he spoke Spanish or English, but the fact that he seemed confused by what I was saying made me assume he didn’t speak either. I mentioned the name of the hotel we were staying at, I knew it was just outside Valenca, but I was hoping a local cab driver would know where it was. With the hotel’s name memorized, he walked over to the other cab drivers, and one of them gave him instructions, or at least that is what I thought happened. our young driver started walking toward us. My estimation is that he was 18 or 19 years old.

Bus stop, Porto, Portugal – Photo taken with iPhone 12 Pro

After getting our luggage into the trunk, we got into the car, and our driver started driving. The hotel I had chosen was a small place. It was right by the highway and looked like a bed and breakfast. We only spent one night there. The idea was to be close enough to start our walk the next morning. We spent the evening at this hotel’s parking lot, talking, playing, and enjoying the boredom.

While at the hotel, it felt as if we were the only ones at the hotel. When we asked if there was food, the attendant pointed us to the dining area. We walked over there, and he walked behind us. Once we sat at a table, he asked if we just wanted drinks or food. We said we wanted both. Then he took the posture of a restaurant server and said that the food options were a ham sandwich or a grilled cheese. I remember looking at each other with a smile, my wife promptly asked for the grilled cheese, and then my son and I did the same. Orange juice, beer, or soda were the drink options. We got one beer, one orange juice, and water for all three. It’s so nice and simple when you have fewer options!

It was a boring day, but our stay at the hotel outside Valenca was also very different, it felt special to me, and I will remember that day and that place forever. We started our pilgrimage the next morning.

Hasta la vista Porto!

The Mountaineering Club

The Mountaineering Club

You might not realize that you have arrived from the outside, it’s a hotel, and it doesn’t look like the place I’m about to describe below. So give yourself a chance and trust me, go around the block and park in the public parking lot, or drive to the side of the hotel and let the valet service park your car for you.

You have arrived; you are at the Graduate Hotel in Seattle. The name is perfect due to its location. It’s just a few blocks from the University of Washington campus. Once you enter the hotel and walk towards the lobby, you’d be surprised by the tasteful decoration of this place. Its atmosphere is warm and welcoming.

There is a long hallway with a large coffee table across it. There is an oversized couch on both sides with tall bookcases behind it. These bookcases go from floor to ceiling, really. There is a fireplace with chairs for those cold and dark winter days. In the back there are some tables, chairs, and other seating areas for people to study, read, write, or hang out. It’s a beautiful place, and this is the lobby of the Graduate Hotel in Seattle.

Let’s go back to the main topic of this post, the brunch place. You hike up to the 16th floor from the lobby using the elevator, of course. Once you arrive on the 16th floor, the hostess welcomes you, and then all around you, it’s a fantastic panoramic view of the mountain ranges surrounding Seattle. The decoration at this place is lovely. It feels as if you are in a movie about explorers from the 1800s – or perhaps, Indiana Jones.

The decoration of this place is elegant and casual at the same time. There’s lots of leather furniture, a dark color palette, and lots of wood. It’s charming and warm. This place has been open as a club/bar for a while, and serving brunch is a newer offering, and I am so glad for this.

We walked outside to our table, it’s on the patio, with views all around us. Each table has a small heater lamp on top of it, so don’t worry, even when you are outside, you’d feel warm and cozy. Not all the seating arrangements are tables and chairs. I saw a few couches and coffee tables, and there were people having brunch there too.

The brunch menu is simple and short. I like that. The less I have to think about my choices, the better. I like the Cheesecake Factory, but their menu is almost as extensive as the War and Peace book. Yes, it’s an exaggeration.

Inside, they have a self-serving area where you can get coffee and tea. I like this; you can get your coffee whenever you want, and as much as you want. It makes me feel independent because I can serve my own cup of coffee.

We ordered our food, it was skillet-baked eggs for me, and it was delicious. We enjoyed our brunch, the coffee was great, the decoration was lovely, and the views were fantastic. Brunch at this place was a pleasant experience, and we are coming back. At The Graduate Hotel, The Mountaineering Club is a new favorite brunch place in Seattle.

View of Blackcomb mountain

A winter wonderland holiday in Whistler, BC

Last Christmas, we went to Whistler, BC. This is a beautiful place north of Vancouver, popular for skiing, snowboarding, and mountain biking during the summer. It was our first time there, and we loved it.

Last November, my family and I spent Thanksgiving in NYC. This is where my two older kids live now. We took a plane from Seattle, WA, and after six hours and 3 mediocre movies, we arrived in New York’s John F Kennedy airport. During our time in NYC, my family and I talked about the idea of spending Christmas in Germany. My wife and I had been exposed to a few YouTube videos showing the Christmas markets in Germany, and we were enthusiastic about going there.

Thanksgiving parade balloon

Unfortunately, COVID happened, and as with many plans in the past two years, we decided to avoid air travel. The news about the Omicron variant and how some European countries had started to impose rules for travelers again is why we chose to avoid going there.

Whistler was not the first place we thought of. We toyed with the idea of visiting Toronto, Montreal, Quebec City, or staying home in Seattle. But after looking at the cost of plane tickets to go to eastern Canada and the possibility that COVID travel restrictions could arise again, we decided to stay on the West coast and avoid air travel, but for real this time.

After looking at a few places, I ran into some travel videos about Banff in Alberta, Canada. But then again, the distance is the reason we didn’t go there. A bit too far for winter driving. What else could we do? We liked the idea of going to Canada, just not driving for too many hours, and we definitely wanted to avoid air travel. This is where Vancouver comes into the picture.

Since we live in Seattle, WA, visiting Vancouver is a must. It’s a great city, they have great food, and it’s very close to us. Vancouver is a 2.5-3 hours drive from Seattle. That’s close enough for a weekend or even a day trip. We have been to Vancouver many times, so we looked around this city to find out what else we could visit in the area. As soon as I started looking for places to visit near Vancouver in winter, Whistler came up.

Whistler is a town north of Vancouver, home to Whistler Blackcomb, one of the largest ski resorts in North America. I did some research, and after a few days, decided to make a reservation at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler hotel. After reading online reviews and viewing photos of this place, the decision was easy. It looked magical and almost perfect for a Christmas holiday.

View from hotel window in Whistler

Two of my kids had skied before, and the rest of us had not. So I booked a ski lesson for the family… when in Rome. To be honest, not all of us were excited about the idea. In fact, I almost canceled the ski lesson just minutes before it began. The weather wasn’t great that morning, and it felt like a good excuse to cancel the whole thing and instead do something “easier.” Oh, boy, am I glad I didn’t cancel it.

We got to the Fairmont Hotel in Whistler the day before Christmas Eve. Before that, we spent a few days in Vancouver, just eating and doing some last-minute shopping. When we arrived at Whistler, the mountains, the snow, the hotel, everything was exactly how we had imagined it. It is a winter wonderland.

View from hotel window in Whistler

The hotel was tastefully decorated, it felt warm, and everything around it was beautiful. Our rooms were perfect, and the ambiance was what we were looking for. It felt like a Christmas holiday from a movie, but it was real, and we were living it.

After our first day there, we found out about the village. The hub of Whistler is a compact, chalet-style pedestrian village at the base of Whistler and Blackcomb mountains. This place is full of shops, restaurants, and amazing views all around since it’s at the base of two beautiful mountains.

We had a great time, and I think we’ll be back there again. Perhaps in the summer to check out the area without snow. In Whistler, there are many places to stay like hotels, cabins, chalets, etc. But you have to book them with time in the winter season. It’s a popular place for skiers and snowboarders.

If you go there during the winter, I recommend the ski lessons if you are not familiar with this activity. For us, it was a great way to spend the day together, at the mountain, and learning to ski. It was a lot of fun. Also, our instructor was great. He was patient, very present, and a great teacher. It was an enjoyable day.

table inside bubble in Whistler hotel

The cost of staying in Whistler varies, and while it is expensive in general, some places are affordable if you don’t want to spend too much. There’s also the option to make a day trip to Whistler from Vancouver without staying overnight. You can either drive to take a bus from Vancouver. There are many buses between Vancouver to Whistler every day. You can get the bus schedule from here.

We had a great time, got to visit a new place, learned to ski (beginner level), took many photos, and, more importantly, generated new memories. Whenever we travel somewhere, I remember the phrase “collect moments, not things,” and I cannot agree more.

Cannon Beach in Oregon, a must see when visiting Portland.

My family and I moved to Seattle back in January of this year, and about a month ago we made our first visit to this beautiful place called Cannon Beach. This is a lovely beach, there are plenty of places to park and walk around the long strip of sand. Cannon Beach is also the place for Haystack Rock, an unusual rock formation just feet away from the beach. Haystack Rock is a seasonal haven for tufted puffins. On a headland to the north, trails in Ecola State Park offer sweeping views of the ocean, coves, and a lighthouse.

The photos above were taken with a Sony A7III, and a Samyang 35mm, f/2.8 lens.