the oceanarium

Near the end of our trip, we spent a day in Lisbon, the capital and the largest city in Portugal. At Parque Eduardo VII we happened upon the Winter Wonderland festival and holiday markets, and toured the Estufa Fria, a "cool greenhouse" built into what had been a 19th century basalt quarry. Late in the day we had tickets to the Oceanarium, an entire world in and of itself. Tucker asked to write about that part of the trip, below!

There's some stimulation of curiosity that travel provokes, the fascinating work of puzzling out a new place, the long-awaited pleasure of getting away. There's also the chance to drive an SUV on roads built for burros, to make worried faces from high places and to help abstract impressions become realistic paintings. Home again, grateful for clothes dryers and ice cubes, bourbon reserves and our own mattresses, glad that everyday life here is not something any of us are often looking to escape.
guest post, by Tucker (age 13)

The Lisbon Oceanarium was many things for us - an unforgettable and amazing aquarium, an escape from the rain, the place from which Hank’s new Black-Footed Penguin stuffy came. We first entered the saltwater exhibits via a bridge high above the port. I was struck by worry that the whole Oceanario would be crowded when I saw how many people were at the first viewing tank. Fortunately, the visitors dispersed tremendously as we went further into the building. We gazed at and observed the giant octopus; we descried the leafy sea dragons, and we recognized some rays. The Oceanarium formed a ‘+’ shape and in the center was the biggest aquarium, with lots of schooling fish and a few sharks. Without a doubt the most interesting room we came upon had high ceilings and slide-shaped ice blocks - a few seabirds flew about and penguins chilled out under some false rock outcrops. After we were done in the Oceanarium we were planning on visiting a separate wing of the building, holding an exhibit titled ‘Forests Underwater.' Little did we know this was the largest (42,000 gallons) freshwater aquascape in the world. Just before we walked in I took a moment to read the sign saying ‘Aquascaped by Takashi Amano.' “Wow,” I said to dad, “these tanks were scaped by 天野尚, a very famous guy. I've read about him in library books.” But I was wrong, it was not five, not ten fish tanks but ONE giant, U-shaped, fish-and-plant-loaded work of art. Seeing this really nailed into me (and I assume mom and dad as well) that nature truly can be brought indoors. In my eyes, this was the greatest thing I have seen in a long time. I’d call it my happy place if it weren’t 3,848 miles away from home. I am grateful beyond words for our trip to Europe, and I look forward to seeing other parts of the continent. At some point in the near future there may be a blog post regarding an aquarium of my own! 


the windmill

Because the boys are built to be outside and in motion (or bent over studying moss) and because Tolliver in particular is prone to enjoy the delicious freedom of walking barefoot to select an orange to peel for breakfast, we based every accommodation on such criteria - which is how we ended up in a windmill in the Sintra Cascais Natural Park. The GR11 Atlantic path to Magoito passes nearby the property and we tossed down our luggage and took it immediately the evening we arrived. After about an hour through pine forest and along a bamboo-lined creek we were struck by a truly unparalleled stretch of sand and cliff, which we enjoyed until the sunset began to scream goodnight and even then it hadn't occurred to us that we'd be hiking home in the dark. Multiple creek crossings and rock scalings had been an adventure in the daylight, and the return trip (and our first fire salamander spotting!) will likely forever be a dried flower memory, pressed tight between pages of bunless hamburgers and tuna pizza.

Sintra, according to what we'd read, is magical and mysterious and also tricky to navigate without a guide. We spent an entire day with Bruno, who had been a high school geography teacher and provided historical context and cultural details (with lots of mythology and Disney and Broadway references) that captivated the boys' attention. He showed us two stunning palaces (Quinta da Regaleira and Monserrate), introduced us to legendary travesseiro da casa piriquita or "pillow of Sintra" pastries and also to octopus rice and fish eyeballs (he helped the boys order fresh pompano for lunch, overlooking Praia Grande). Our last stop with Bruno was Cabo de Roca, the westernmost point of Europe, and even though we had a far greater understanding of the region's unique mix of fishing heritage, 19th century grandeur and the animation of modern tourism, we felt like we had made a new friend, and wished we had more time with him.

I wonder what the boys will remember most - the bags on their backs, the world at their fingertips, the lush green landscape or the slower pace, the adventurous food tastings or the Aldi picnics. Despite the fact that his focus appeared to be strictly on pigeons plus the next gelato opportunity, Hank's first grade weekend report filled two pages and mentioned nothing more than the lady who delayed takeoff because there was a not a seat on the plane for her dog. Watching the boys stalk reptiles and spin the giant concrete mill mechanism, watching them descend in awe the eighty eighty foot Initiation Well and underestimate every single wave, I felt implicated in their joy. They may not ever face the urge to lunge toward places away from here, but if they do, if they ever set off to find somewhere that might hold more of who they are or how they want to be, their wings will have had some practice.


the rock (and one hard place)

From the Algarve, our family drove through Spain to Gibraltar. The big boys helped plan this part of the trip, having been the ones to request we consider a jaunt to see pickpocket monkeys, researching things like accommodations, restaurants and hiking trails. At one point, about a week before the trip and with a newfound appreciation for the logistics of travel, Tucker asked if we had prepared a Plan B.
We stayed in a seaside apartment along Catalan Bay, and enjoyed collecting shells and sea glass - Hank's pockets filled to treasure chest levels both evenings. We spent an entire day in the upper rock nature reserve, riding the cable car to the top and meandering miles and miles on the descent, through fields of paperwhites and throngs of macaques. Although not aggressive, the monkeys did seem to take advantage of opportunity, so our bags were zipped tight and our eyes alert - we saw several primates lounging with cans of Pringles and plastic water bottles and loaves of bread. We witnessed one macaque steal a tin Pokemon box from a small boy; Tolliver hoped it would pry open the pail and offer a trade! The most impressive attraction for us may have been St. Michael's Cave, the spectacularly massive chamber of ancient limestone formations felt truly cathedral-like. The boys also enjoyed investigating the great siege tunnels, learning about the hollow mountain's centuries-long military defensive role.

After thorough immersion in the riddles of the rock, we spent one day in Seville on our way back to Portugal. We admired the architecture of Plaza de Espana, the island of ducks and shady footpaths and fountains in Maria Luisa park, and devoured seafood paella on a quiet patio near the Cathedral (and the tomb of Christopher Columbus). It was here that we realized Hank had designated himself official photographer of pigeons. And at some point we sensed a crowd gathering, in addition to police presence, as we walked back toward the parking garage to our rental car, and realized that all the roads had been closed.  The city's Epiphany parade, the news later reported, attracted 900,000 people. Our hearts pounded as we tried to sort out what to do, trapped hours from our overnight accommodations. Turns out google translate plus a very festive atmosphere plus tons of parade candy for dinner led us from a really fertile catastrophic imagination and ferociously fragile emotions toward what wound up being a manageable, very memorable situation. 

Turns out, in fact, inconvenience may force attention. It forces effort and it often forces people together. During the two week trip, our family navigated things like missed connections and language fails, food crises and wet clothes, meeting each moment with varied capacities and temperaments, with lots of ice cream and an occasional cuss word. Through traveling, though, we are reminded that things don't actually have to go right to go well.