Sunday, January 3, 2016

-- 2015 Winter Solstice --

And just as the Earth travels thousands of miles around the Sun, and the days get melancholically shorter in the Emerald Isle, the winter gusty winds finally tear the last leaves off every tree and storms start battering us from the Atlantic in a sequence.

Two weeks after arriving from my last long-haul adventure, I am ready to walk through a crowded ceremony hall flooded with navy blue and yellow robes in order to finally get a grasp of that precious Masters degree, the one that I started back in 2013 and did in between long hours of commutes, compensating hours in the office (I do have a full-time job) and swimming competitively.
An experience which has not also enriched my CV, but also my life with the knowledge brought, as well as the new friends gained.

A few days later, I rush through the long queues of holiday-makers at Dublin Airport and take an evening flight, departing in between strong winds which rock the plane sideways for a dramatic takeoff over the city. Two hours later, a smooth and quiet Cote-d'Azur is reached for the pleasure of most passengers.

I decide to walk the six kilometers that separate the airport from the city of Nice, done following the long and deserted Promenade des Anglais, in between empty holiday apartments and a quiet coast line.
The message of being low season is fully understood when, despite booking a bed in a hostel dorm, I am given a private double room.

In the morning, the constant drizzle threatens with damping every single effort of sightseeing, despite my will of exploring this small yet charming city.
Nice is, well nice!. Long avenues descend from the steep karst hills and collide with a manicured coastline in which the sea turns into a bright tone of light blue (hence the name Cote-d'Azur), and a medieval town that sprawls through a hilly terrain in a combination of streets so narrow, that the impression that buildings are almost about to touch each other from across the road is given.
However, the Promenade is buzzing with the few holiday makers remaining, which gather around a heavily-policed Christmas Wonderland and a giant Ferris wheel, which dominate the horizon of low-rising buildings.

Drenched clothing but intact traveller spirit, I venture to the medieval town in the evening and pick a small tavern (with no-wifi) in which I enjoy a nice glass of French wine and a taste of the Nicoise cuisine: a combination of stuffed artichokes, anchovies, grilled fish, mussels and socca, the typical bread of Nice, served in a warm wooden tray by a friendly and sweaty French waiter.

The next day, just five minutes before 9:00am, the heavy train pulls out of the Gare Central, leaving behind the crowded houses of Nice and entering a tunnel which transforms the previous urban landscape into a series of small fishing villages that seem to be clinging onto tall cliffs, balancing over the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
Only 15 minutes later, my stop is announced and, just as I crossed an imaginary border, I have now reached Monaco, my 76th visited country.

I take a tall lift upwards and I am transported to the heights of one of the richest territories in the planet, in which spacious apartments overlook the yacht-crowded marina through massive Venetian-style windows.
It is a place that exudes wealth through manicured streets, luxurious parked cars, high-end shops and casinos.
A micro-state best explored on foot, whilst the hamstrings are pushed to the limit when rushing through steep sinuous streets to the grounds of the Royal Palace, from where the 'views of extreme wealth' are even more dramatic.

The sunshine turns the Sea into a dramatic shade of blue whilst I leave Monaco on foot, following a trail through the coast to the town of Cap D'Ail, before returning to Nice for a nice cup of coffee with a so-French pain au chocolate, a hike up the Colline du Chateau for a nice view of the Nicoise rooftops surrendering their colours to the wet and dark oceanic night, and a final walk to the airport for my late return journey to Dublin, which is reached almost at midnight.

Only five days later, and just as my 29th birthday happens, a recurrent scene unfolds: a drive through the damp and empty streets of Dublin for a departure out of Dublin Airport in complete darkness, only to see the sunrise whilst we cruise over the Cantabric Sea.
Almost three hours later, the plane descends through Western Iberia, over a sea of red tiles and lands in the Portuguese capital for my delight.

I take the subway this time, which efficiently takes me under the busy streets of Lisbon from the airport to the city centre. My friends are waiting in their apartment nestled in Amoreiras.
But why am I in Lisbon again?. Will the second visit to this capital make it lose its magic?, I ask myself whilst we cruise through a modern system of motorways shortly before lunch time.

We visit the impressive Mafra Palace with its countless palatial rooms, religious theme and marble floors, which shine with the wintry clear skies and tell the story of a small yet powerful colonial empire.

Down the road, the Atlantic Ocean roars against the rocks of Praia das Maças, whilst the cold afternoon sets the mood for a late seafood lunch at Praia Grande, sheltered over the wooden deck of a beautiful seaside restaurant and better enjoyed with a bottle of delicious Portuguese white.
It is indeed the best way to celebrate my birthday, a memory which will forever remain suspended in time thanks to my amazing friends.

Not being enough, we get to enjoy the Lisbon's nightlife starting with a visit to Praça do Comercio for a dazzling show of lights and lasers, followed by indulging on delicious Portuguese delicacies at a picturesque and cozy tasca,  shortly before venturing around the busy Baixa and immersing ourselves in the melancholic and lyrical tones of the fado, a typical feature of Portugal.

The storms seem to have finally caught up with Southern Europe, and a damp Sunday is spent rambling around the Sé cathedral and a seafood lunch at Mercado da Ribeira whilst meeting a friend from my Qatar Airways times who is now living in Lisbon.
The long catch up is completed at Belem, savouring a deliciously crafted Pastel de Belem and sipping on a black coffee.

Indeed, a second visit to Lisbon did not make it lose its magic, but just accentuated my love for this city, which I now long to visit more often (or who knows, maybe move into it in the future).

Ryanair 7329 departs Portela amid heavy downpours, concluding all the travels for this eventful 2016 and, just as we reach the shortest day of the year, storms Desmond and Frank threaten the West of Ireland, Christmas arrives with amazing presents and the New Year sets in, I can only feel grateful for all of the things achieved in 2015, a year of hard work and equally colossal rewards.

Happy New Year!
The race for the final 24 countries has now begun. Stay tuned.