I've spent most of the last week in Portugal and Sevilla, a city in Andalucia, the southern province of Spain. Easter in Spain is quite the event, and they give you the whole week off from classes.
Portugal is one of the nicest countries that I've been to. The things that I like most about Spain [i.e. the weather] are also in Portugal, but in addition, the people there are very laid back, and at the same time friendly. It's true that it's poorer than Spain, but as a consequence the cost of living is lower.
From Thursday till Sunday, I was in Lisbon, the capital city. I stayed with Fred and Igor, two Brazilians that I met through the couchsurfing website that I used in eastern Europe. They were amazingly nice hosts, and showed me all of the nicest parts of the city. Plus, we were joined by Silvia, one of Igor's friends from Rio de Janeiro, and her German boyfriend, Mark.
Mark was one of the originators of the rave scene, having done his first gig as a DJ in 1988. He met Silvia when he was working in Rio.
On Friday, Marc Olivier [aka Marco], my ex-roommate from Alicante, came to meet me as he backpacked across Spain. Fred, being the amazingly nice guy that he is, didn't mind in the least if Marco crashed at his place as well.
The nicest thing about Lisbon has got to be the architecture. Most of the buildings are covered in ceramic tiles, similar to what you would expect on bathroom walls in most other western countries. It's very pretty, as each building has a different style of decoration. Sometimes a pattern in blue, other times in green or red. For pictures of the city, check out Fred's website at http://www.flickr.com/photos/flopes74/
I met two other 'couchsurfers' while I was there. Filipa, a very friendly native-Portuguese girl who lives in a village just outside of Lisbon, showed us some of the night life, and introduced us to more Brazilians. Since Brazil is one of the only other countries in the world whose native language is Portuguese [and whose population is about 15 times that of Portugal], most of the immigrants tend to come from there.
Also, we met Irina, who, although Austrian, has lived in Lisbon for a few years. She speaks 6 languages, and understand 5 others. This is amazing to me. It's good to know that it's possible...
On the last night, we went to one of the trendiest nightclubs in town, Lux. It was the first time that I've enjoyed a night club in quite some time. I think I'm a bit claustrophobic, and usually clubs aren't my favorite scene. The difference with this one was that the music was very good, as well as the overall atmosphere. They had a giant screen where they played clips from vintage 1920's cartoons, designed so that the characters moved to the beat of the music. Also, space wasn't a problem, as clubs in Portugal don't really fill up until 5 a.m. I have no idea why people come out so late, or what they're doing until then. I was pretty much asleep on my feet by that point, but all of the locals were just getting warmed up.
I'll be adding a few pictures of the people that I met at http://www.couchsurfing.com/image_gallery.html?id=400346, so give it a look if you're curious.
Something that surprised me is how much the Portuguese resent the Spanish. Although the language is quite similar, they refuse to speak it. Yet they're quite happy to speak English, whereas the Spanish hardly speak a word of anything but their own language. It's true that Portugal is at times overshadowed by Spain, and most people expect the culture to be quite similar. I made the same mistake, but in fact, they are very much distinct. The relationship reminded me in many ways of that between the United States and Canada.
After leaving Lisbon, I went south to a town called Lagos. I knew it was going to be a touristic place, but it turned out to much more so than I expected. I only spent one day there, and in all of that time, I heard Portuguese being spoken only a handful of times. Everyone was either British or German. It had that generic tourist trap layout, with the buildings being mostly modern.
After Lagos came Sevilla, a Spanish city close to the border. It's a very beautiful place, but unlike other Spanish towns that I've been to, the efforts to preserve the town's historic feel were much more obvious. For instance, all of the street signs were in a fancy font, which makes it hard to tell the difference between them and the signs of the shops [all street signs in Europe are attached to the walls of the buildings].
Most of the people staying in the hostel were French, as the people in France get at least a week-long holiday for Easter. We visited several gardens, as well as some very impressive cathedrals and on my last night went to a Flamenco dance/concert.
The city really challenges your sense of direction. The map of the city center looks more like a spider's web. The streets tend to be very short, and are hardly ever straight. To make things even more fun, many aren't even labelled. The first time that I went for a walk, it took me half an hour to find my way back, despite having walked less than a kilometer. It's the first time that something like that has happened to me in a very long time.
I've been back in Alicante for a few days now. Most of the people that I knew here have moved on, and almost all of those who are left are Swedish. They're all nice, but being the only person around who doesn't speak Swedish makes things a bit odd. It's impossible to jump into conversations [which are, as you'd expect, in Swedish].
I only have two more weeks left, so it's best to enjoy Spain while I'm here. I'm still making progress in Spanish, and I think that I'll reach my goal of carrying on basic conversations by the time that I leave.