The Best-Laid Plans of Mice and Men

Black Iberian Pig

This is a travel tale I never expected to write.

A few weeks ago, I embarked on a food adventure of epic proportions, beginning in Lisbon then travelling east and culminating 24 days later in Barcelona.

The evening before my departure my right knee felt a bit sore. I’d never had a problem with it before. There was no trauma. It just started to hurt. I finished my packing, took a Tylenol, then drifted off to sleep. I remember dreaming that night of fat black pigs grazing on acorns and olives.

Black Iberian Pig

DAY 1

After the first of many flights, a 59-minute hop from Kelowna to Calgary, the pain in my knee was worse.  I dreaded the 9-hour flight to Amsterdam with no room to stretch out. Fortune smiled upon me (briefly) when I checked in with KLM and the clerk asked me if I wanted to upgrade to business class. I jumped on the opportunity. From Amsterdam, I flew to Portugal, checked into the Hotel Avenida Palace, ordered room service (not something I would recommend doing when staying in a hotel without a restaurant) and went to sleep. The next morning my knee looked like a big, over-ripe grapefruit.

I popped two Tylenol and, with a slight limp, set off to explore the Castle of São Jorge and the Alfama – the city’s oldest district that tumbles tumultuously down the hillside from the Castle to the Tejo river.

Lisbon, Portugal

Lisbon rooftops

Castle of Sao Jorge, Lisbon

Shrine at the Castle of Sao Jorge, Lisbon

Rooftops of Lisbon

Tuk Tuk in Lisbon, Portugal

By late afternoon the weather had turned to rain, my knee was throbbing, and I needed a ride so I hopped on one of Lisbon’s historic trams.

DAY 2

The following morning when I woke my knee no longer looked like a grapefruit. It looked like a pomelo.  I remembered the R-I-C-E acronym (from who knows where) and called the hotel bar for a bag of ice. I propped my leg on a stack of plush pillows and applied the cold pack, but not for long. Gorgeous Lisbon was right outside my doorstep! I took a few more Tylenol and threw in an Ibuprofen for good measure, then hobbled over to the Praça da Figueira and caught the Yellow Sightseeing Bus north and west to beautiful Belém.

Once there I took a slow stroll through the cloisters and church at Jerónimos Monastery – a UNESCO World Heritage site built in 1501 in the late gothic Manueline style.

Exterior of the cloisters at Jeronimos Monastery

Jerominos Monastery cloisters

The two-story cloisters at Jeronimos Monastery

Then an even slower stroll over to the Padrão dos Descobrimentos – a magnificent monument built in 1958 to celebrate the Portuguese Age of Discoveries during the 15th and 16th centuries.

Monument to the Discoveries and 25 of April Bridge

The 10 minute walk from the Monument to the Discoveries to Lisbon’s icon, the Belém Tower was almost more than I could manageBuilt in 1515 as a fortress to guard the entrance to Lisbon’s harbor, the Belém Tower was the starting point for many of the voyages of discovery. For me, it was the beginning of the end.

I crossed over the little wooden bridge to the island, stepped into the limestone building, peered up the steep, narrow staircase, and felt my heart sink. There was no way my knee could carry me up one flight of those steps let alone all four-storeys. Defeated, I called it a day.

Belem Tower

DAY 3

I spent most of the next day in my hotel room resting my knee while watching an endless stream of Downton Abby; so many episodes that by the time I ventured out in search of sustenance, I’d adopted a British accent. The hostess at the restaurant where I ate dinner would never have guessed I was from the other side of the pond.

I didn’t have far to go to find a meal since I was staying in Baixa – Lisbon’s downtown. I LOVED this district with its cafes, elegant squares, and pedestrianized streets and shops. With vendors selling roasted chestnuts in paper cones, entertaining street performers, and intricate cobblestone pavements, this area has a very special charm.

Rossio Square, Lisbon

Rua Augusta Arch, Lisbon

Rua Augusta Arch, Lisbon

Azulejos displayed in shop window, Lison

DAY 4

I spent my fourth day in Portugal at the British Hospital of Lisbon where I received very good care. I had a consult with an orthopaedic specialist who ordered x-rays, aspirated the fluid from my knee, injected an analgesic to reduce the pain and swelling, and sent the knee fluid to the lab for testing. He told me (via a translator) to rest and see how I felt the next day and promised to email me with the test results.

knee injury

DAY 5

Frustrated, depressed, and tired of lying around in a hotel room, I decided I’d had enough.

The original plan was to check out of the hotel that day and fly to Sevilla but I decided to call it quits. I phoned KLM (they were terrific!) and was able to get on a 6:00 am flight home the following morning. Since the Hotel Avenida Palace was fully booked, I packed up my things and moved a few blocks closer to the river, to the Hotel Santa Justa. Once I settled in there I spent the rest of the day and most of the night rescheduling flights, cancelling hotel reservations, airport transfers and trains, and breaking off plans with food tour operators in Spain.

After many months of careful planning, my epic culinary adventure was over before it even got started. There would be no tapas in Sevilla for me. No paella in Valencia. No wide-eyed walk through Barcelona’s famed La Boqueria market. No buttery Manchego cheese from La Mancha, and no Jamón Ibérico from those fat black pigs I dreamed about the night before I left home.

Not this time. Not this trip.

5 SURPRISING THINGS I LEARNED in LISBON

Portugal played a pioneering role in world exploration, dating back as far as 1279, when people believed in sea monsters, huge whirlpools, a searing sun and boiling waters in the far reaches of the Atlantic, waiting to kill anyone who came close. Much like those brave Portuguese sailors of days gone by, most of us travel to discover something – to learn about a culture or cuisine, or about art, history, language or architecture, and often times we learn something about ourselves along the way.

The Cantino Planisphere

Although I didn’t find a sailing route to India like Vasco de Gama, I did make a few discoveries that I’d like to share with you (besides the obvious importance of travel medical insurance).

  1. Non-refundable doesn’t always mean non-refundableI booked my hotels in Valencia and Barcelona directly on the hotel websites. They both offered a much better rate if you paid in full at the time of booking, and clearly stated that amount was non-refundable. I emailed the Hotel Balneario Las Arenas Valencia and the H10 Port Vell Barcelona to tell them about my situation and both hotels graciously agreed to a full refund.
  2. 5-stars aren’t always better than 4-stars:  The 5-star Hotel Avenida Palace is a classic hotel considered part of the city’s historic heritage. The common rooms are gorgeous, the concierge and front desk staff are excellent, and the breakfast buffet is a lovely way to start the day. The rooms themselves though are quite dated and small (especially the bathrooms). They guaranteed a free-upgrade if you booked on their website but when I asked, they had nothing available. The mini-bar was never replenished during my stay. I left a note for housekeeping along with 5 euro asking them to do so but when I returned to my room later that day it was still empty (although the money was gone). My guess is that the housekeeper didn’t read English. Although they have a breakfast room, they don’t have a restaurant. This turned into a bigger issue than I anticipated, considering my injury. The 4-star Hotel Santa Justa, in comparison, was a wonderful surprise. While the exterior of the building looks as historic as the rest of the street, the interior is modern with the latest technology, in-room Nespresso machines, a complimentary mini-bar stocked with beer, wine, fruit juices, water and soft drinks, free wi-fi, a Juliet balcony, and a fabulous marble bathroom. Although I didn’t eat there, they do have a restaurant with a very nice outdoor seating area. When I returned from dinner, I found a bottle of tawny port and a plate of pasteis de nata on the bedside table – a very nice touch. Sometimes the up-and-coming try just a bit harder, and it shows. The next time I’m in Lisbon (and there will be a next time!) this will be my hotel of choice.
  3. Business class isn’t alway better than economyI know. I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence but hear me out. I flew KLM business class from Calgary to Amsterdam and enjoyed a pleasant enough flight. On the return, I wasn’t able to upgrade so I flew comfort plus. The plane was only about half full with 8 or 9 other guests in the comfort plus section so I had an entire row – all the way across – all to myself. (I also had an entire overhead storage bin all to myself.) I flipped up the armrests, grabbed a half-dozen pillows and blankets from nearby empty seats, and built myself a nice little nest. I was able to sit sideways with my back against the window and my feet up on the seats next to me. Believe it or not, I was more comfortable than I’d been in business class. And here’s the real kicker – the main meal was actually better in economy. Yep. Better. (Not true for the wines.) And because the section was empty, the service was just as good.
  4. International customer support from Air Miles is hard to come by: I used Air Miles to buy my plane ticket between Kelowna and Calgary. When I tried to contact them to reschedule, it shocked me to learn that they don’t have an international toll-free phone number. They don’t even publish an international number on their website, but I did find it eventually by using their Live Chat. I called from my cell phone and, after wasting several minutes navigating their phone system and listening to ads, I received the following recorded message: “It is our goal to answer your call within 106 and 126 minutes”. Seriously. They may want to set the bar a bit higher. Since I wasn’t willing to sit on hold on a cell phone from a hotel room in Europe for two hours, I hung up and sent them an urgent email. They responded 9 hours later, saying “I understand that long distance rates can be expensive, so I’d recommend using a phone card that will help minimize the charges.”
  5. Foodies are incredibly warm, generous people: Okay. I already knew this but my trip to Portugal really reinforced it for me. While planning my adventure, I arranged to meet up with several food tour operators in Portugal and Spain – wonderful people I had corresponded with through email but had never met in person. When I contacted Helena and Maurice of Bom Dia Lisboa to cancel our date they were so unbelievably kind. They even offered to drive me to the hospital in Lisbon!  Shawn Hennessey of Azahar Sevilla also offered to help in any way she could. Amazing! There is a camaraderie amongst foodies, a special bond, that I haven’t come across anywhere else.  I’m planning another post to introduce you to some of these fine folks and the services they offer. Stay tuned.

But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

~ Robert Burns

Laura Goyer is a world traveler and culinary travel professional, on a mission to help busy prime-time women find the best local food when they travel.

15 thoughts on “The Best-Laid Plans of Mice and Men

  1. bellini says:

    I was definitely shocked when we received the e-mail that you were back in Canada, but I think this week long trip has fuelled your passion for another trip in the near future. But I didn’t detect a British accent upon your return;-)

  2. Dina says:

    Laura, I cannot believe this happened after all the planning and organizing you did for this trip. I love your writing, the authenticy and honesty. And you are so funny, you crack me up. I almost feel my own knee hurting when I read your post. I certainly know what it means to look at a long ascending staircase and wondering if you can get to the top. I love your travel site and know I can always get the truth here. That’s exactly what I am looking for. Hopefully you can reschedule sometime and go on that trip again.

    • Laura Leigh Goyer says:

      Dina, thanks for taking the time to read and comment on the post. It was hugely disappointing, of course, but I know there will be more trips (Cabo in 3 months) and I will make it back to Portugal and Spain someday. I can’t imagine my life without travel. 🙂

  3. Sandra @ Tripper says:

    Promise me this will not keep you from coming back to Portugal soon, I have so much to show you! 🙂 This is not a proper way for Lisbon to greet you…

  4. Esther says:

    Oooh, so sorry about this! Better come back when you’re feeling completely well again. Southern Europe, with all its steps and winding streets is no place for sore knees and legs. On the plus side, I can promise you all the loveliness will still be here when you return.

    • Laura Leigh Goyer says:

      Thanks very much Esther. I loved your post (and photos) on day trips from Sevilla. Of all the cities I had on my itinerary, Sevilla (and its days trips) were what I most regretted missing. I had planned to stay for 10 days in a charming little apartment in the Barrio Santa Cruz and explore from there.

      The bright side of my story is that when I do return, it will be a very easy trip to plan 🙂

  5. justinpluslauren says:

    I am so sorry to hear that your trip got canceled like this! I guess these types of medical emergencies do happen…. is your knee feeling better now? I hope you are able to still do this adventure one day!

    • Laura Leigh Goyer says:

      Thanks very much! I’ve heard plenty of horror stories but I never thought I would have one of my own to tell. I just remind myself that it could have been so much worse. My injury isn’t serious, I was insured and I still saw enough of Lisbon to fall in love.

  6. Amanda Jennison says:

    Laura, what an adventure you had even without making it to Sevilla! Anytime you want to go (and your knee wants to cooperate) just let me know and I’ll meet you there for our walking tour 🙂

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