Beaches, Buzios and a Brazilian Wedding

the beautiful bride and the next brides to be

Click to see the whole Photo Album

I left the Mediterranean for Brazil and thought I was going from Portugal to something similar, but not even the language seemed familiar when I landed in hot and humid South America. The attitude and energy changed even on the plane ride over, the friendly flirtatiousness slowly oozing out of the beautiful Brazilians on board. I landed in Rio´s international airport at 9pm and thought it would be too late to get to Buzios, a beach town 2 hours away, but the first driver I saw when I walked into the arrivals hall was a guy holding a sign with ‘BUZIOS TRANSFER.’ I walked past him and went outside to feel the warm sticky air again, and parked directly infront of me stood the Buzios bus. I figured it was a sign, so I went straight to Buzios.

I didnt have the address where my friends were staying and my phone conveniently didn´t work, so I arrived at 2:30 am with my backpack and wandered around the streets unsure where to go. There were many people still out partying and my friend in Rio had said to find my friends at Pacha nightclub… but Pacha was closed. I decided to go to the busiest bar with the biggest crowd, and spotted my friend Matt almost immediately, sitting at the bar with a glass of whisky and a Skol beer.

We spent 3 days exploring the beaches around Buzios, one day by means of a sand dune buggy, which would have come in really handy the one day we braved a sandstorm to get some beach time. The day we were on Geriba, we couldn´t really lay our sarongs on the ground because they were buried by blowing sand within minutes, and so were we if we tried to lay on them. We sat in beach chairs that blew over if we stood up, and our umbrella functioned more as a wind shelter than as shade.

We returned to Rio to meet a group of travelers all attending Mara and Rich´s wedding, two friends of mine from New York City. Our first night together, we gorged on caipirinhas and meat at the Porcao churrascaria, while torrential downpours flooded the city streets and drenched us to the bone in the 30 seconds we had to spend outside to get in and out of a taxi. It kept raining the following days, with only glimpses of sun phasing in and out during the day, so you had to time yourself really well to benefit from Ipanema or Copacabana´s near empty beaches.

The bachelorette party was held inside Leblon, a shopping mall full of bikini and lingerie stores of which each and every one we visited. The wedding was held at Villa Riso, a regal mansion located in the rain forest near Sao Conrado. The lack of sunshine was well received by all the guys in suits and tuxedos, who would otherwise have never made it without sweating through all their fine clothes. Mara was the most beautiful bride I´d ever seen, including every cheesy wedding magazine and bridal model you could compare her to, and the lights, cameras and action constantly surrounding her confirmed I wasn´t the only one thinking that.

The wedding ceremony was held in the chapel, and the reception followed in a big atrium, and I´ve never imagined so many white flowers and yellow roses possible in one place. The champagne flowed all night, with caiprinhas and whisky as bountiful as the salmon and sushi being served all night. There was an entire room of candies and deserts, served in roses, and every woman received a pair of Havaiana flip flops half way through the party to ensure she stayed on her feet dancing the rest of the night.

When the energy in the room started to slow down just a little bit, we didn´t even get a chance to notice the emptying dance floor because a band of 20 dummers overtook the room with such sound and rhythm that noone could stay sitting down. Everyone rushed back to the dance floor and let the drum vibrations move their hips, and before we knew it, an hour had passed and we were still jumping up and down to their contagious beats without even remembering how tired, full, or drunk we had just been feeling.

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Portugal, no. 99

I left Morocco and immediately missed the women’s flowing garbs, the way they could flick a finger or shake a shoulder and the layers of colourful cloth would swiftly return to the right places. I missed being surrounded by the sounds of a foreign language, where almost nothing had become familiar enough to consciously process. I missed the intensity of the heat the sun rays gave off during the day, and the number of stars you could see at night in the cold void.

the roof of the monastery

But Portugal welcomed me with other things I had missed: the joy and hype of the holiday season; the cosmopolitan buzz of a busy European city; the familiarity of a language I could almost get away with communicating in; and of course, the free flowing hair of women in all different shapes, sizes and fashions who allowed me to blend in almost anonymously. My touristy goals had changed now too; instead of seeking out markets, deserts, and horses, I wanted museums, castles and restaurants. I had traded mint tea for searches of Porto wine, visits to mosques for catholic churches, and hunting Gnawa music for live Fado.

Torre de Belem, built in the sea

Lisbon is a huge city, larger than I had ever expected, and I still dont have a clear sense of space the city fully occupied. I stayed and visited things only near the centre (Baia Chiado), Parque Eduardo VII, and the notorious Alfama neighbourhood. My last night in Lisbon also deserved a visit to Bairro Alto, the nightlife district, where arriving at 9 pm made you think you were certainly in the wrong place. But it was just the wrong time, and by midnight all the streets were full of dancing people, music and cheap mojitos.

bridge to redemption

My best friend from Iceland came to celebrate New Years with me in Portugal. We rented a car in Lisbon and drove first around to the unwalkable highlights of the city, including Basilica Estrela, Torre de Belem, and the UNESCO world heritage site Mosteiro dos Jeronimos – a Hieronymites Monastery built in an impressive late-Gothic architectural style. We drove south over the ponte 25 de Abril, a bridge which looks a little bit like the Golden Gate bridge taking you from San Francisco to Rio de Janeiro, since a Cristo Redentor statue just like Rio’s Christ the Redeemer stares down at you as you near the other side.

a welcomed countryside view

We spent a few days exploring the way south and the Algarve region, stopping in Sines and Sagres, and driving through the  Alentejo & Vicente Coast Natural Park. The journey of driving along the coast and through small farm towns was a highlight on its own, and the names of all the places we stopped I’ve forgotten, but the general impression of peace and tranquility of all those places combined has stayed with me. We also spent a night in Albufeira where the off-season effects were easily noticed by the empty highrise hotels and resort pools, and paid 15 euros for a family sized hotel room with an 8th floor balcony.

Porto on the Duoro

Finally we retraced our steps north through Lisbon and all the way up to Porto, where the climate changed from Mediterranean coastal sun to a grey rainy environment devoid of leaves on their trees. Porto was more charming that way somehow, since I had started to wonder about the reality of a cold December. We ate at the most delicious restaurant, Restaurante Rito on Rua Antero Quental, where we ate bacalhau and all sorts of pork meat with house wines and fresh olives you could never pay enough money to find in Iceland.

New Years eve was incredible, since we stayed only a 100 metres from the Liberty Plaza where all the events were happening. A concert stage blasted happy Portugese and Dancy brazilian music until midnight, when a champagne shower of hundreds of bottles covered the whole crowd and a 10 minute firework show shrouded Porto’s city hall in smoke. The nightlife street was only a couple blocks away from that so we went in and out of bars who don’t charge a cover but it’s a 5 euro ticket to leave if you can’t prove you spent at least 5 euros at the bar. On New Years day we took a cruise up and down the Duoro river, looking longingly at the Porto factories covering the south bank, but did make it to Calem to wine taste.

 

In transit through Spain

Teatro Romano in Merida

I wanted to go from Morocco directly to Portugal with a ferry but the schedule around Christmas Day only had ferries to Algeciras. You can see Spain from Tanger, where Africa and Europe are only 15 km away at the closest point, and the ferry is only supposed to take 35 minutes. But, the boat leaves half an hour later than its supposed to, and passengers disembark one by one in Tarifa where lonely backpackers are obviously suspected for drug smuggling. So once all our bags have been ripped apart and our bodies patted down, you take a bus from Tarifa to Algeciras, with a view of Gibraltar rock in front of you and Morocco on your right the whole way. Take in the one hour time change, and the trip from Africa to Europe takes about 4 hours… but I didn’t feel I had gotten very far since Algeciras was full of cafes with Arabic speaking men drinking coffee. Not a Spaniard was in sight, probably because it was Christmas day, but the only two things open were the bus staion and an internet café, so I managed to make it to Seville on the only bus.

Filippo, the magnificent panini maker

I couchsurfed with an Italian in Seville, and his Moroccan friend came over, and they were the two strangers I shared Christmas night with. We drank Portugese beer and made paninis on his mini George Forman grill, so it was a very non-religious, international evening. The next day there were no direct buses to Portugal, so I made my way through Merida where I could change buses for a connection to Lisbon. I had 3 hours in Merida which I expected to pass without much excitement, but I found out Merida was a gorgeous town full of ancient Roman ruins. A Roman bridge, a Teatro Romano and a fort overtaken by African Muslims in the 14th Century provided beautiful grounds to wander around and dream about what this city was like 700 years ago. Since it was December 26th, the streets were full of eager shoppers trying taking advantage of the post-Christmas sales, and I started feeling very grateful that there was no direct bus that morning, or else I would have missed seeing this happy little city I hadn’t known existed.

Merida

After 8 days in Portugal and celebrating New Years eve in Porto, I needed to get to Barcelona. I thought it would be easy to bus it all the way across Spain, but again there were no direct buses so I had to connect in Madrid. I decided to take a day bus from Lisbon to Madrid, and an overnight bus from Madrid to Barcelona, but Jan 6 is another big holiday in Spain so there were no seats left on the bus to Barcelona. I didn’t find this out until I was in Madrid, standing at the bus ticket counter, and the next 12 buses were full so I was forced to enjoy a night and half a day in Madrid, unregretfully.

Kings cake

I stayed in the gay neighbourhood and drank beers with my Parisian friend, and the next day we walked through Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor to take in all the festive markets and enjoy traditional cake for the Kings holiday.

Plaza Mayor

In Barcelona, I met up with a British friend I met at Burning Man 3 years ago and hadn’t seen since. He lived in a huge flat with 2 other British guys, a French Guy, and a Spanish girl in the party center of Barcelona, and we joined them for a typical Saturday night out in Las Ramblas. We went to a club called Apollo, and after I walked 5 metres into the bar, I spotted a guy who looked exactly like a friend from Iceland. I thought about how funny it would be if I went up to him, tapped him on the shoulder, and excitedly started telling him in Icelandic how happy I was to see him, when I realized it really actually was him, and he was with 6 other Icelandic people. Small world.