The squares of Lisbon

Lisbon has several spacious public squares. They all tend to have an imposing monument - usually a tall column commemorating a past King or an important historic figure - in their center and beautiful mosaic patterns on their floors made of white and black stones. We crossed Praça Dom Pedro IV (aka Praça do Rossio) several times during our recent visit:

Praça Dom Pedro IVPraça Dom Pedro IV

Praça Dom Pedro IVPraça Dom Pedro IV

Praça Dom Pedro IVPraça Dom Pedro IV

We found ourselves at Praça do Municipio one afternoon while returning from one of our long walks to nowhere in particular. I was stunned at how elaborate the pattern on the floor here was.

Praça Do MunicipioPraça Do Municipio

Today, I brought up the satellite imagery of these squares on Google Earth and their real grandeur and beauty finally sunk in:

Praça Dom Pedro IVPraça Dom Pedro IV

Google Earth Link

We were about three months too early for the jacaranda season - must be quite a sight.

Praça Do MunicipioPraça Do Municipio

Google Earth Link

May 11, 2024

Sightings after the King’s Day in Amsterdam

The municipality of Amsterdam deploys extra cleaning crews at night to clean up the mess people leave after the King’s Day celebrations. While they definitely deployed them this year too, I saw a lot more litter in some of the streets in the canal ring than I remember seeing in recent memory. One could hardly walk on Prinsengracht without shards of glass from broken beer bottles crunching under one’s shoes. And despite the recently introduced deposit scheme1 on aluminium cans, we saw many of them crushed and thrown on the street.

Litter on BrouwersgrachtLitter on Brouwersgracht

Litter on PrinsengrachtLitter on Prinsengracht

Amsterdam was remarkably quiet on Sunday. The whole city was nursing a collective hangover. But just like the cleaning crews of the night before, some people had jobs to do that couldn’t wait. Like this team that was taking down the three-storeyed cut-out of the king and queen that a café in Amsterdam pins to their facade each year. I had written about this tradition of theirs in 2020 and how they had adapted during the pandemic lockdowns. Now even though I am pretty sure this happens every year (of course it does, giant cutouts of the royal family don’t materialise in situ magically), this was the first time I was seeing the cut-out being taken down.

A giant cutout of the Dutch King and Queen outside Cafe De Blaffende Vis being uninstalledA giant cutout of the Dutch King and Queen outside Cafe De Blaffende Vis being uninstalled

A giant cutout of the Dutch King and Queen outside Cafe De Blaffende Vis being uninstalledA giant cutout of the Dutch King and Queen outside Cafe De Blaffende Vis being uninstalled

A lot of King’s Day revelry takes place on the boats on the canals of Amsterdam2. To keep the boats from bumping into houseboats and the walls of the canals, the municipality instals these inflatable, floating, sausage-like protective barriers along the canals. A team of two was hauling them back onto a pontoon docked in a canal near our house, deflating them, folding them and neatly stacking them into rectangular storage cages. These will be stowed away till needed at the next event3.

A string of inflatable cylindrical barriers being reeled backA string of inflatable cylindrical barriers being reeled back

And surely it must also be someone’s job to take away these signs telling people not to urinate in public. But I guess that could wait until the next working day.

A sign telling people not to pee in publicA sign telling people not to pee in public

10 May 2024: Update - Changed the first photo to the version from the phone. I had run it through Lightroom’s new Lens Blur feature. The feature creates a depth map from a plain image (you don’t need depth data from the phone’s sensor) and can mimic the shallow depth of field of a long lens. While the results often look good, it struggles with finer details like those around the lampheads of Amsterdam’s street lamps. It’s in an Early Access” phase so hopefully will get better with time.

  1. Generally after an event like these, you come across a lot of people by the grocery store deposit machine with 2-3 large trash bags full of cans and plastic bottles. As if collecting deposit is all they did for a living. The wife and I were wondering if Albert Heijn - one of the largest grocery store chain here in Amsterdam - would turn off their machines for a couple of days around King’s day to discourage professional scalpers. The one branch we visited on King’s Day had put a defective’ sign on the day itself. And it was a proper mess around the machine too - the floor sticky with stale beer and leftover cola.↩︎

  2. A matter of time before one of them wins Darwin Awards. Exhibit A.↩︎

  3. Probably at the annual Pride canal parade on Aug 3, 2024?↩︎

May 5, 2024

King’s Day 2024

The novelty of King’s Day has completely worn off for us by now. Perhaps it wouldn’t have had spending time in crowded places with loud music and drinking was our idea of having a good time, but it’s not. King’s day is observed on 27th April1 and is a public holiday. This year, 27th April happens to fall on Saturday and the Netherlands doesn’t give a compensatory day off in case a national holiday falls on a weekend. So it was just a normal weekend with the occasional snatches of loud music blaring on someone’s boat drifting into our house.

It was quite cold in the morning (was about 9ºC till noon2), and it even rained. We saw several boats filled with people dressed in orange and huddling under umbrellas go past our house. April weather is always bit of a gamble here in Amsterdam.

Last year, the wife had decreed King’s Day as the day when the curtains in the house will be taken down, washed, dried and put back up. So despite the wife fighting a crushing migraine, and me still not being quite there yet after a long flu, that’s what we did today. Sure does make it easy to remember when the curtains were last cleaned.

  1. A bit more about that in the post I had written during the pandemic.↩︎

  2. It was 18.5ºC inside the house. We haven’t felt the need to turn on the heating for many weeks now, but today we turned it on for a bit.↩︎

April 27, 2024

How the year 2024 is bringing average monthly temperature records into the 21st century

The Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) publish a dataset of average monthly temperatures recorded at various weather station in the Netherlands since 1901. I took the data for the weather station at De Bilt and grouped it into three buckets - 20th century (years 1901-2000), 21st century (years 2001-2023) and 2024. If you average the monthly averages in each bucket and plot them you’ll see that 21st century is trending warmer than the 20th one1.

No surprises here I hope! Now let’s overlay the 2024 monthly averages:

While Jan’24 was your typical January (i.e. typical for 21st century), both Feb’24 and Mar’24 have broken new records. Feb’24 came 5.67ºC above the 20th century average and 3.98ºC above the 21st century average. March 2024 came 3.85ºC and 2.57ºC above the 20th and 21st century averages respectively.

Now let’s change the graph to show the maximum monthly average temperature recorded in 20th and 21st centuries - i.e. the record warmest months in each bucket:

Note how the green line (triangles) is above the blue one (circles) except in a few places.Note how the green line (triangles) is above the blue one (circles) except in a few places.

While most warmest months on record have been in the 21st century, Feb, Mar, Aug and Nov are exceptions. The records for these months were set in the 1990s and so belong to the 20th century. But now let’s throw 2024 monthly averages into the mix:

So 2024 has brought the records for Feb and Mar into the 21st century. Will we see the Aug and Nov records broken this year too?

Post prompted by an unusually warm April day in the Netherlands yesterday - the max temperature at De Bilt2 hit 24.1ºC.

  1. Each month is warmer by a different degree. For example, an average Sep is warmer by 1.06ºC, Nov by 1.82ºC. The average of change over the entire 12 month period is 1.53ºC.↩︎

  2. Why De Bilt is used as a reference weather station when talking about the weather in the Netherlands.↩︎

April 7, 2024

Early Spring

The Netherlands recorded the warmest February on record this year. Here is a boxplot showing the average February temperatures recorded in the Netherlands since 19011.

The average temperature this February was 8.2ºC (46.76ºF) - 0.6ºC (1.08ºF) higher than the previous record of 7.6ºC (45.68ºF) from 1990. It has also been extremely wet here for the past few months. Ideal conditions for an early spring2.

The croci and the narcissi were already blooming by late February, and by middle March the cherry and magnolia trees here had joined the floral choir.

Parakeets are drawn to cherry blossoms like moths to a flame. They sit on the branches and pick at the flowers for hours. Their behaviour looks disturbingly compulsive.

They pluck entire clusters of cherry blossoms at one go, toy with them for barely a second or two and drop them on the ground. Lather, rinse, repeat.

The trees are now sprouting fresh leaves and even though the cherry blossoms won’t be around for more than a couple of weeks (they’ve all but vanished from most parks at the time of this writing), there’ll be plenty other flowering plants and trees that’ll keep the parks and streets in Amsterdam colourful well into June.

  1. Koninklijk Nederlands Meteorologisch Instituut (Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute) - or KNMI for short - publish monthly average temperatures across 10 weather stations distributed across the country here.↩︎

  2. I guess the Netherlands is not unique in recording an early start to spring. I recently came across this paper, that, through a meticulously assembled dataset spanning centuries, chronicles the progressively earlier start of cherry blossom season in Kyoto, Japan.↩︎

March 31, 2024

A ferry ride from Lisbon to Barreiro and back

While we had had a rainy start to our day, by the time we walked to the Terreiro do Paço ferry terminal the sun was looking to come out.

The ferry terminal building looked quite new and a bit bland on the outside - though the facade did seem to have taken some stylistic cues from the Art Deco era. However, it was absolutely regal inside - all columns, marble and granite. The ceiling somehow felt much higher than the exterior had let on. Mosaics of painted tiles depicting coats of arms of various municipalities of Portugal added a splash of colour to the otherwise bare walls.

While looking for a place to buy the tickets we found a room in the terminal building with an interactive diorama of Lisbon encased in glass on a large table. There were buttons you could press to illuminate the various bridges and landmarks of Lisbon and even a tide simulator that’d slowly pump water to show you how far the water reaches during the high tide. All very science fair-y and still amusing to us two forty somethings.

We weren’t looking to go anywhere particular in the ferry and settled for the very next one available - a 20-25 minute ride to Barreiro, a small municipality south of Lisbon. The tickets cost a very reasonable € 6.10 per person for a round trip. It wasn’t exactly rush hour so it was easy to score a window seat in the lower deck of the ferry. Just as we were settling in, two guys reeking of sweat and stale beer and arguing loudly in Portuguese sat in the seats behind us. We tolerated them for a couple of minutes but then found different seats - partly because the argument kept becoming more and more raucous but mostly to get away from their collective stench.

Soon our ferry began to move. The ride was fast and smooth1. The windows were tinted and grimy but with enough sun outside I managed to get a photo or two.

The three distinctive, conical buildings at the shore are old windmills that have been long decommissioned and are now a municipal heritage site2.

The Barreiro ferry terminal led us into a large plot of land which was part bus terminal, part parking lot. The clouds had begun to dissipate, the air was clear like it sometime is just after a rainy spell. The sun shone brightly and everything it touched gleamed. It all somehow felt magical.

While I was wool-gathering, the wife had spotted a paved footpath alongside the river and decided to see where it would take us3.

At the start of our walk was a small beach littered with several small boats. It looked like they had been deposited by the tide as it went out.

There were apartment buildings across from our walking path. They were all painted in different colours - some ochre, other peach, some grey (with a large colourful mural on one side) and some white. Collectively, under that azure sky and the cumulonimbus clouds, illuminated by the bright light of the mid-day sun, they seemed other-worldly.

The tide was really low and there were small puddles and rivulets in which seagulls were foraging for food. We also saw many people in rubber boots, bent over and looking for something in the mudflats - clams? Or was there a gold rush on in these parts of the world that we didn’t know of?

There were also many small cafes along our walk. Usually with facades decorated with colourful murals.

We settled in one of them for lunch. We had a view of a small park from one side of the cafe. There were retiree grandparents playing with their grandchildren while a couple of guys in their local football clubs’ t-shirts were doing their exercise routine. Hard not feel a little guilty when you are gulping your beer and gobbling your food. In our defence, there wasn’t much public transport in sight so we’d be walking all the way back to the ferry station.

There were pine trees planted all along the footpath. They all bore hundreds of soft, pale buds.

We were back at the Barreiro ferry terminal with a few minutes to spare for the next ferry to Lisbon. A couple of stalls inside the terminal that sold coffee and snacks were arranging cups and saucers on the counter for the influx of people that’d arrive on the ferry. I now found myself fascinated by the wave pattern on the terminal’s floor made with thousands of tiny tiles of black and white stones.

The turnstiles that gated the entry to the ferries’ boarding point had screens above them that along with the usual departure information, also showed ferry’s occupancy percentage. It would update as people would swipe their tickets to enter. The wife suggested we try to work out the ferry’s capacity based on how many people it’d take to bump the percentage up by one. Because when we are not trying to go past Genius on Spelling Bee, this is the sort of games we get on to these days. We worked it out to about 600. It seems to check out.

The windows we sat next to this time were somehow even dirtier than the last time. Still, I somehow managed to coax the telephoto lens on the iPhone to get this dreamy shot as we approached the Lisbon ferry terminal.

Once back, we sat down in the outdoor seating area of a café close to the terminal. We were in a mood to try something new. We spotted Mazagran under the coffee menu and ordered it. It turned out to be wonderfully refreshing. With espresso, lemon, ice and sugar as ingredients how could it not be? It was quite windy by now and the large outdoor umbrellas of the café were flapping madly.

Time to do something indoors-y. We settled on visiting the Gulbenkia museum. But that’s for another post. As we walked through the terminal to the metro station, I caught a glimpse of the view outside. I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t inside a dream.

  1. The only time we felt the ride get a little bumpy was when the other ferry from Barreiro to Lisbon crossed us mid-way and our ferry caught its powerful wake. But even that moment had nothing on that gut-churning ride to Capri from Naples back in 2019.↩︎

  2. English translation of the text on this website: In 1852, three windmills were built in Alburrica: The Giant, the West, and the East. The East and West mills, of common typology, have a cylindrical tower with two floors, a movable roof, and two millstones. They were deactivated in 1950 and acquired by the City Council in 1973. The West Mill displays a votive registration in tile dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary. The Giant Mill, of Dutch typology, was deactivated in 1919, and inhabited by fishermen until 1998 when it became Municipal Heritage.↩︎

  3. There was a red bike path along this footpath and it was completely empty. Cycling in Barreiro and Lisbon seemed like an exclusive domain of food delivery couriers.↩︎

March 3, 2024