14 May 2012

How was Portugal?

So, sorry about the delay, but Portugal was really tiring! The conference would go from 9 am until after 6, entire days of just sitting there, listening to people talk and discussing work stuff with various other researchers, not to mention having to contend with my supervisor shooting ideas at me so quickly that I can barely comprehend them. I had my talk on the first morning of the conference, so the two nights previous to that I had not gotten anywhere near enough sleep. I mostly knew my talk but when we arrived at the venue the conference room was huge! Enough for about 500 people surely! There were less than a hundred of us, which I think was sort of worse than if it had been full. The screen was really gigantic, it was all on a much larger scale than anything I'd done before. I talked and talked but even while speaking I could not keep track of whether I was saying the right things or not. I got to the end and had no idea if I had really said what I was supposed to say. I had to answer a couple of questions and then it was over and I could relax. Here is me at the podium (photo is way too zoomed in!):

It was definitely the scariest talk that I have done - the room was so big and the audience were all experts in my field and could actually judge my work. However, over the next three days people kept coming up to me and telling me that I gave a good talk so it must have been OK! I was very glad that it was over. After that the conference was mostly talks that were about adhesion but not so much the biological side of things and I found most of them very hard to follow. Unfortunately the one talk I really wanted to hear, by the only other person that really looks at barnacle adhesive, was not so great. He is Japanese and his accent was really strong, plus his English was not that good and the talk itself was not well structured so it was hard to follow. On the up-side, he is really interested in my structural biology because his lab is entirely molecular based, and he gave me a barnacle brooch - it is an acorn barnacle but that's OK because my barnacles are ugly anyway. So here is me (centre right of crowd, white shirt) talking to the foremost researcher in my field (the Japanese guy,  you can even see a white barnacle brooch on his jacket):

Sadly the conference took up most of my time in Portugal. They fed us really well, and listening to talks all day is really tiring so I ate way too much. For the first two evenings I had dinner in the city with various other researchers and students. The weather was gorgeous, it's a shame we had so much of it being stuck indoors all day.

The restaurants serve more fish than anything else and have no idea that cod is an endangered species. The fish is generally fried whole and they serve it to you just like that, with the head and tail and everything. I have never had fish like that before - in fact I think I at more fish in Portugal than I every have before. Some of it was good but it was all very salty - the Portuguese seem to like excessive amounts of salt even more than I do. The hotel was really nice and breakfast each morning was included - they had these little custard tarts which are a Portuguese speciality and they were so amazing! Each morning I had to go back for seconds and thirds, it is lucky such yummy little tarts are not available here! On the Thursday evening was the conference dinner, at which they first plied us with alcohol and tiny little snacks, then plied us with more alcohol as we waited for our dinner. There was a fish course (cod, of course), for which I used the wrong knife - I know that you are supposed to go from the outside in but it was such a big plateful, it seemed to large for the small knife and fork. However, then came a meat course, which I think was suckling pig because they have a lot of that over there, and my big knife and fork were gone so I was left with just the small ones. I was not the only one to make that mistake at least! They kept on topping up our drinks so I have no idea how much I had. Finally there was dessert, which was a buffet, there was so much good stuff and as usual my eyes were bigger than my stomach so I ended up feeling terribly stuffed full. There was lemon meringue pie and pavlova (not as good as a kiwi one) and chocolate tart and chocolate mousse. The best part though was the bowls full of fresh strawberries. They brought out the entertainment then, a traditional Portugues music group, singing Fada songs, which is now recognised as being a part of the cultural heritage of Portugal. It is basically songs full of emotion in which the singers stand with their eyes closed and put as much emotion into every single word as possible. There is guitar in the background and it ends in a big crescendo. It is really strange to see people up there singing with their eyes closed and lots of exaggerated facial expressions.

So, anyway, the conference finally ended on Friday and for the afternoon I joined a tour organised by the travel agency that organised the conference. There were not many of us on it but that was actually quite nice. Unfortunately the conference had run late, so our tour was running late, so some things were cut a little short. It was still really good though and I wish I could have stayed in Portugal for longer. We managed to pack a lot into a single afternoon and I took enough photos to make up for not having had any time earlier. First the bus took us through Lisbon, a suburb of which is called Belem, which is named after Bethlehem, and has a big old monastery, which you can see in the photo below. It also has a famous pastry shop where the traditional little custard tarts are made, the original recipe of which is a well guarded secret. And for good reason too, otherwise we would all be that much fatter.

There is a tower along the river that was to guard against invasion (by the Spanish I think but I'm not sure). We did not have time to get out to see it but the side facing the river is shaped a bit like a ship, so that approaching enemy vessels would see what looked to be a giant ship waiting to chase them off.

The day was very overcast, so the ocean was a greenish-grey colour and just faded into the horizon. The photos don't do it justice because I took them through the bus window. There were a lot of little forts along the coast, you can see one in this photo below, and there were also a lot of fishing boats, which I guess would explain the huge bias for fresh fish on the menu.

We drove and drove and drove - I was getting very hungry. We went though a small town that makes the best ice cream in Portugal (and the world, apparently). They told us all about it but we did not stop to have some! There was a tree with crochet-art wrapped around it, featuring geckos, which are an adhesive-capable animal so I had to take a photo of it.

Finally we left the coast and started driving inland, into the mountais. We passed fields of trees that are subject to such strong wind that the trees are growing along the ground - they were clearly pine trees but they looked like low bushes, only you could see a trunk at one end. I tried to take photos but they really didn't show them in such an impressive way as I saw them so you will have to take my word for it. We finally made it to another small town and stopped for lunch. Again, before we even began eating the alcohol was flowing and they always top up your wine glass without even asking first. Lunch was something that I have never had before - squid! It is roasted on great big metal skewers, which are then hung on chains above your table and you can just slide it off with your knife and fork.

They served it with fries, which were actually really delicious fries, and a spinach puree that was quite awful. The squid itself was very interesting - it was slightly fishy and very chewy. I don't think I liked it very much, it was edible but I would never choose to order it, no matter how traditional it may be.

When lunch was finished it was already late afternoon and we had not yet reached our destination. If only the conference had ended early! We next stopped at a place called Capo da Roca - the most western point of Europe. Despite the overcast day it was still a really beautiful place, largely on account of the impressive rock formations at the base of the cliffs.


The greenery that was all around was not grass but some type of succulant. The flowers were unusual and really pretty so as usual I stopped to take photos of them. We could not stop for too long but really, there was not that much to see other than some impressive cliffs.

However, before we could leave we all had to have our photos take at the pillar signifying the most western point of Europe. So here I am and this means that you cannot complain that I never put up pictures of myself on here.

Finally we continued to our destination, a small town called Sintra. Sintra is a place full of interesting architecture and castles. I think it is where the nobility used to live, plus the Spanish nobility had a holiday home there. The man that would have been King if Portugal had not become a republic lives there still. There is a castle right on top of the mountain that has views of the sea and the plain on the other side, however we did not have time to go up there. I'm not sure how interesting it would have been, however. There is also a convent that looked very nice to visit but if I want to see everything I guess I will just have to go back there one day.

The first stop for me and my room-mate (did I mention that I got paired with a random student at the hotel? Luckily we managed to get along really well!) was the shops! There were not many of them, but both of us had to buy a couple of souvinirs before leaving Portugal. Unfortunately I ran out of money and so did the ATM so my spending was limited! I did buy a cute little handbag (actually I'm still not sure if it's really cute or really ugly but I like it anyway), I brought a silver necklace strung on a cord made of cork (they grow cork trees in Sintra - I never even knew that cork was a specific type of wood!) and we brought shots of cherry liquer in chocolate cups! It is a Portuguese thing and they were only 1 euro. You sip the liquer, then when the cup is still half full you pop the whole thing in your mouth and just bite down on it. It is very strong but the shop-keeper was right - the flavours really do complement each other.

After the shops we made our way to the only palace that was within walking distance, but luckily it was the one that I most wanted to see (I actually had no idea what we would see before getting on the tour bus, but they gave us some brochures and maps to look at before we arrived). It was called the Quinta da Regaleira and includes a small palace, a chapel, a tower and a large area of gardens. The architecture is very gothic and the gardens half wild.

The chapel was Roman Catholic with pictures of saints and carvings of cherubs. I did not go inside; I've seen plenty of churches after all my travels and there was a big puddle in front of the entrance. Besides, we were on the search for the bathrooms and they definitely were not in the chapel so we continued on rather quickly.

Luckily, we found bathrooms easily enough and then could continue our explorations. The tower was next - it was an octagonal tower and you could climb up it. The first spiral staircase was enough enough but they got narrower and narrower until they were all but vertical - the last one was more like a ladder and it was precarious going in my jandals (I very nearly wrote flip-flops there because over here they don't understand the word jandal, I have had to change my vocabulary!).

At the top, after catching my breath, I could take a look around at the panoramic view - you could see across the park and down onto the chapel and castle in one direction, the town centre and the ocean in another and behind us was a mountain.

And look, here is another picture of me! Am I not terribly vain and narcissistic today? Now you really can't say that I never show photos of myself. Here you can also see the cool pillars of the wee tower room that we were in. Then, after the photos were done, we had to make our way down the steep staircases, which was even more precarious than going up!

The next step was a small, artifical lake (personally, I would call it a pond myself). It is called the lake of the waterfall but the waterfall is not turned on until the summer I guess, so it was just a lake. The day was incredibly bright and the area very rocky, so my photos are a little over-exposed. This is also one of those instances where a photo does not do the scene justice - the entire park was like an illustration in a story.

Instead of crossing the bridge we walked over stepping stones because I wanted to find an entrance to the tunnels that cross beneath the park. The tunnel that I found was very dark and it took a lot to convincing my new friend to join me. Luckily my key-ring has a small torch on it and eventually she believed me that it was a very short piece of tunnel so she came along.

After a short walk through a pitch black section of tunnel (it was so dark that even my pathetic key-ring torch was useful) we came upon daylight and could look out at the lake. I think that in the summer time the waterfall would be falling down past this opening.

The rest of the tunnels had lights along the floor, though there were side tunnels that were in complete darkness. I would have like the time to explore further. The map and brochure had showed a structure that they called the Initiation well, so we followed the tunnels to find it.

This well  is not so much a well as a reverse-tower - there is no water in it and there is a spiral staircase running around the egde from the top to the bottom. We did not climb to the top so I only have the photo showing the view up. It was very wet and slippery in the bottom of the well, despite it not being a real well.

We followed yet more tunnels to get out and even though we had not seen anywhere near everything it was time to leave. I would love to go back, to see more of the gardens, the grottoes and the palace. But at least for our short visit it was spring, so there were flowers and the trees were green.  To go back to my habit of taking photos of flowers, here is a flower that I always think looks quite like a bird.

Sadly, the day was pretty much done after seeing the palace. But to look on the bright side, we were all incredibly tired and getting hungry so it was time for dinner. We drove for what seemed like an age, through what seemed to be the middle of nowhere, until we finally came to yet another small town and stopped at a restaurant. This town was far from the ocean so we felt quite safe from being served more seafood. There were pictures of pigs everywhere so it was pretty easy to guess what the main course would be. They brought it out to show it to us before the carved it up - a very young pig (though not quite a baby, really), all de-boned and roasted. Poor baby pig!

I think that might be the first time that I have really eaten a baby animal - I have had lamb of course, but the lamb that we eat is generally a year old, so it is not really a baby. Suckling pig, however, really is a baby animal, because, as the name implies, the animal has not yet been weaned. It doesn't really taste the same as ordinary pork and is far softer. It was much nicer than the squid! However, Portuguese cuisine seems to be awfully heavy on protein compared to how I would normally eat. There is some salad served and some potato, but very little in the way of vegetables! Finally, with the massive overload of protein out of the way, it was time for dessert. So here is the second amazing Portuguese dish that I have discovered, and like the little custard tarts I would like to reproduce if I can be bothered one day. It was called Doce da Casa, which means sweet of the house. So basically, it is the house speciality and should be different every day and between every restaurant. However, it seems that one particular dish has also take on the name and Doce da Casa will generally look like this. It consisted of a very light vanilla custard, topped with soft biscuit that was absolutely drenched in coffe, with some sort of very foamy, uncooked-meringue-like cream on the top. It was delicious! I had two! Luckily, my room-mate also loves food and had a second one so it wasn't just me being piggy!

Now I am back in Ireland. The trip was great and I wish I could have stayed. I was so tired that when I got back to Ireland I left my poster on the plane (I had a poster to present at the conference aswell, you see, which was placed in a big plastic tube for travelling, which I had wedged beneath my seat on the plane, where it was so out of my way that I forgot about it!). I tried to go back but couldn't, and then though maybe I'd just leave it, but my supervisor will probably want it again one day and the plastic tube was not mine so I had to find somebody to help me and wait for them to go find it. I spent the weekend recovering from my very tiring trip and now I have so much work to do. However, some of my lab work may finally be working out so I cannot slack off, though it is so cold and rainy that I would love to just stay in bed all morning with a book or a movie.

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