how to do lisbon: eat grilled sardines

The abundance of fresh and expertly prepared fish in Lisbon made me one very happy girl. Grilled sardines is one of Lisbon’s most iconic dishes, so if you’re a fish lover, you have to experience it at least once.

grilled sardines served with typical accompaniments: potato and salad

how to do lisbon: take up residence in pena

Just a few minutes away from the hustle and bustle (and higher prices) of the city center is the Pena neighborhood of Lisbon. It’s accessible by either:

  • a long walk up a steep hill,
  • a long walk up lots of old stairs, or
  • a brief ride on the Lavra funicular.

Either way, it’s worth the trouble. Pena offers lodging options that strike the perfect balance of location, comfort and price. Staying here gives you a break from the busy-ness and lets you experience a more intimate side of the city. Friendly neighbors who smile and say good morning as you pass them on the street, and cheaper, less crowded restaurants are a part of the package.

Where I Stayed: NEW! 2patios&parking; center Lisbon

photo source: AirBnB
Dinner at Restaurant Cerqueira in Pena – All this for a little over 5 euro.
Perfectly prepared caipirinha at Terras Gerais, a cozy Brazilian restaurant in Pena

More About Lisbon Neighborhoods

This post is the first in a series on How To Do Lisbon.

tapa of the week: cafe quijote, ciudad real

After a full morning of window shopping in the commercial district of Ciudad Real, I needed a bite to eat. Cafe Quijote, with its green neon sign, beckoned. The place was pleasantly packed with a mostly older, well-heeled crowd – a good sign, I thought. Plus, if you’re gonna name yourself after the region’s most famous person, you’d better be good, right? Right. I’m goin’ in.

I slide up to the bar, slyly eyeing other people’s plates and the selection of tapas on display under the glass. When the bartender approaches, I point to my neighbor’s half-eaten plate of food.

“What’s that?”
“Champinoñes” he replies.
“Si,” I respond, giving him the go ahead to serve me up some of that.

Moments later, he places a small plate in front of me filled with thick, garlicky slices of ‘shrooms accented with little slivers of bacon and red pepper in an olive oil-based sauce. It’s a lovely few mouthfuls of meaty, savory, umaminess.

Champinones at Cafe El Quijote

Alright, Cafe Quijote, well done. What else ya got? As I order my next caña, I ask the bartender what he thinks their best tapa is. He smiles and nods, and tells me he’ll bring me something he think I’ll like. A short while later, out comes… migas. Uh-oh, I think. Migas can be a hit-or-miss dish for me. It’s so simple, so good ingredients and good seasonings are absolutely necessary. Cafe Quijote obviously knows this. Their version of tapas is well seasoned, and comes with a ‘huevo roto’ on top. The addition of the egg takes this rather pedestrian dish to another level. The egg helps to moisten the otherwise dry breadcrumbs, and the savory, slightly spicy chorizo (which they didn’t skimp on), plus the little bits of sauteed garlic added so much flavor. This is definitely the best version of migas I’ve ever had. 

Migas en estilo Quijote

I didn’t have any room left for other tapas that day, but I was impressed with the ones I saw on display. Each one was artfully presented in a martini-style glass, with elaborate garnishes on top. More than I expected from a place that doesn’t look as fancy as some of the other places in downtown Ciudad Real.

Cafe Quijote

Calle de la Paloma, 2, 13001 Ciudad Real

Average Price : 1.40 for a caña

My Rating:  Cheap beer, better than average tapas. A must-visit for the best migas tapa in Ciudad Real.

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tapa of the week: volapie, ciudad real

I’d been hearing a lot of good things about Volapie from another American friend who lives in Ciudad Real, so I was excited to try out another more upscale tapas bar in town.

On Thursday nights at Volapie, the crowds pack in to hear live flamenco performances from local groups. My first visit was on one such Thursday.

I settled into one of the cozy tables, and ordered a glass of wine, eagerly anticipating what tapa would come out along with it. Since I’d had a long, busy day and hadn’t even had a proper lunch, I also ordered a couple of menu items  – berenjenas con miel and a rabo de toro burger – to line my stomach in preparation for a few rounds of drinks.

The tapas that appeared that evening were quite disappointing. Small in size – even for tapas – and not very inspired. The skimpy size also carried over into my ordered items. The portion of berenjenas was so scant, that I wondered if they’d run out of ingredients before filling my order. And the rabo burger was more like a little slider. While it was very tasty – tender, well seasoned oxtail on a fresh, grilled bun – the 5 euro price tag hardly seemed worth it.

You can’t fool me – that tapa is just Vienna sausages with mayo. No way, Volapie.
Wait. Where’s the rest? [Berenjenas con miel]
Points for creativity – Volapie’s menu is made like a newspaper

Rabo de toro burger – tasty but pricey.

Thankfully, the wine I ordered was a redeeming high point. And the live flamenco? Absolutely amazing! I felt like I was back in Andalucia for a few hours. And the crowd that gathers at Volapie on Thursdays is not just there to sit and watch – they clap, dance, stomp, and sing along with the performers, filling the place with a delightful energy that does my spirit good.

Flamenco Thursdays at Volapie

I’ve been back to Volapie a few more times, and the tapas have been considerably better than on my first visit. Still, they’re not exactly my favorites. But the combination of the quality wine selection, the attentive service, the live entertainment and the energetic Thursday crowd make it one of my favorite places to spend a evening out in Ciudad Real.

Taberna Casa del Volapie

Calle Hernan Perez de Pulgar, 2, 13001 Ciudad Real

Average Price : 1.50 for a cana; 2.20 – 2.50 for most wines. 

My Rating:  Not a place I’d really recommend for tapas, but a sure bet for a lively start to the weekend, and great wines!

7 reasons you shouldn’t couchsurf if you haven’t already

Ok. So you’ve heard about Couchsurfing (CS) from a friend of a friend or an article in a travel magazine or around a campfire that one time when you ran into a band of wandering hippies. You may even be thinking of trying it out for yourself. I’m a big fan of both the concept and the reality of Couchsurfing – I’ve used it at least 4 times in 4 different countries (all while travelling solo), and each of my experiences has been amazing. I’d even go so far as to say that my Couchsurfing experiences have renewed my faith in the kindness and hospitality of my fellow upright bi-pedders.

But I also realize that Couchsurfing is not for everyone. It’s not intended to be. And that’s ok. So, if you’re on the fence about Couchsurfing, here are 7 reasons that may (or may not) convince you to book a hotel instead.

#1: Don’t Couchsurf if you don’t personally know someone who has surfed or hosted.

Couchsurfing sounds strange and scary, especially for us Americans. What if this person kills me? Robs me? Rapes me? Makes me listen to Enya all night long? Having a friend or associate who has Couchsurfed before will give you the chance to ask all the questions you want and have your suspicions and fears put at ease before you ever go looking for a host or guest.  If this person knows you well, they’ll be better equipped to help you figure out if Couchsurfing is something that fits your personal needs and tastes. Plus, an experienced Couchsurfer will be able to school you on all of the unwritten rules and customs that are common among CS’ers.

#2: Don’t Couchsurf if you’re just looking for a free room.

Yes. If you find a Couchsurfing host, you will be able to stay at his/her place without paying a red cent. But this isn’t just about what you get out of the situation, it’s also about what you’re willing to give – namely, some of your time, personality, and life experiences. Couchsurfers are all about meeting and getting to know people from all over the world. Many of them have learned second languages, discovered new music, tried new foods, or planned their next vacation to previously unheard of destinations just from the interactions they’ve had with fellow surfers. The goal is to build relationships, not just freeload at someone’s house. It’s even common to bring a little gift or token of appreciation for your host – a bottle of wine, a fridge magnet from your home country or state, or any little thing that says, ‘thanks for letting this stranger sleep in your house’.

#3: Don’t Couchsurf if you’re not prepared to do some upfront work.

Nothing in life is truly free. This applies even to Couchsurfing. In order to have a quality Couchsurfing experience, you’re going to need to spend a lot of time thoroughly filling out your CS profile. The more thorough, honest, and detailed your profile is, the more likely you’ll be able to find someone with similar interests or a compatible outlook on life. Once you’re ready to look for a host, you’ll also need to put in quite a lot of time perusing potential hosts’ profiles, going over all of the feedback that previous guests have given, sending couch requests, waiting for replies, etc. I liken the whole CS reservation request experience to looking for a match on a dating or friend site. It takes time to get quality results. You should also be prepared to leave detailed and useful feedback about your host after your stay – it’s this contribution that helps the next person decide if they should follow in your footsteps.

#4 – Don’t Couchsurf if you don’t have a Plan B.

At the end of the day, you’re dealing with someone you don’t know. Even if you’ve done all of your pre-work and feel comfy with your host, shit happens. Maybe your host will need to cancel at the last minute. Maybe you won’t like the vibe you get when you get there. Whatever the reason, always have a backup plan – another nearby hotel or hostel you can head to if need be, and enough money to pay for a more traditional living arrangement should the need arise.

#5 – Don’t Couchsurf if you don’t like sharing or if you have an inherent mistrust of strangers or the internet.

By its very nature, CS is more suitable for open-minded, gregarious people who don’t mind sharing a little bit about themselves on the internet (i.e., your CS profile) or with people they’ve never met before. If you already know that’s not your style, don’t stress yourself or other CS’ers out.

#6 – Don’t Couchsurf if you’re just looking to hook up or get laid.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your stance on the issue), some folks out there think that CS is the perfect way to get easy sex with strangers. To each his or her own, I say. But, if that’s all you’re looking for, there are plenty of other sites out there that are more suited for that purpose. If you somehow feel like you MUST use CS to achieve your sex-with-strangers fantasy, at least be upfront about your intent with potential guests / hosts, and be prepared for the other person not being on the same page. Full disclosure: I’ve messaged potential hosts who responded with messages that made it clear that their intent or interest would be to engage in some physical recreation with me. While it creeped me out a bit, I was mostly relieved that they were upfront about their intent. I politely declined their offer, and kept searching for a more suitable host. No harm, no foul.

#7 – Don’t Couchsurf if the little voice tells you not to.

As a frequent solo traveler, I’ve learned that one of the best tools in my nomad toolkit is my intuition, aka, the little voice. If you have even the slightest hint of uneasiness or a feeling that something might not be right with a potential Couchsurfing situation, don’t go into it. At the end of the day, you’re travelling to have a good experience, you are under no obligation to suffer discomfort or weirdness even if you’re staying with someone for free.

Have you Couchsurfed before? What have your experiences been like? Still not sure if Couchsurfing is for you? What are some of your concerns or worries?
Share your feedback in the comments!
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tapa of the week: doña croqueta exprés, ciudad real

When I first arrived in Ciudad Real, I asked around about places that served the best tapas. Several people mentioned Doña Croqueta. Needless to say, my expectations were pretty high when I finally got a chance to visit.

It’s worth noting that there are 2 Doña Croqueta (DC) locations in Ciudad Real (strangely enough, only 1 is listed on their website). The ‘downtown’ location near Calle La Mata is called Doña Croqueta Exprés – which I assume is because it’s much smaller with fewer tables, and even a walk-up window outside. The menu at each location is also a bit different, with the ‘uptown’ location (near Calle Toledo) serving slightly more upscale (and pricier) dishes.

For my first visit, I met some friends at the DC Exprés, and we proceeded to order several rounds of cañas, each of which was accompanied by some truly gourmet tapas. The variety and quality of each dish was impressive and I could clearly see why DC was in the top of many people’s list for best tapas in Ciudad Real. This is not to say that I enjoyed every item that came out, but I chalk that up to more of my personal tastes or dislikes, not necessarily any problem with the food itself.

DC’s namesake: croquetas
Grilled ribs with a raspberry sauce
One of the tapas I wasn’t thrilled with – still pretty to look at though!

Aside from the free tapas, DC Expres offers some delicious and affordable options on their regular menu. Since that first visit, I’ve been several more times, and have tried one of the artfully presented massively large sandwiches, and one of their gourmet tostas. Both are filling, expertly prepared, and a deal at around 5 euros each – especially if you share with a friend.

A simple chicken sandwich gets upscaled with a perfectly cooked egg, crispy bacon, and artisan bread
Tosta featuring caramelized onion, goat cheese, arugula and bacon – riquisimo!
This little lady is going places.

Doña Croqueta Exprés

Calle Hidalgos, 13, 13001 Ciudad Real

Average Price : 1.50 euro for a caña.

My Rating:  Good service, amazing gourmet tapas. Regularly crowded – especially on weekends. Go early. Go often.

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