Monday, 31 July 2017

Portugal: Queen of the Sintra Castle

I am 100% certain that in your life, at some point, however briefly, you have wondered just what it would be like to live in a castle or palace. It is also entirely possible that I may have spent more time thinking about this  than the average person.

No, seriously. I have the floor plan worked out and everything.

Anyway, with my dreams of castles firmly in mind, you can see why the day trip we had planned to Sintra was perhaps one of my most highly anticipated days of the trip.

Sintra, only a short train ride outside of Lisbon, is home to Pena Palace which must surely have been the inspiration for just about every Disney fairy tale castle ever imagined. As you walk up the fairly steep path to the palace gates, an eclectic mix of turrets and towers rise up over you. Built in a 'romanticist' style, every bit of the castle is different. You can really see the Moorish influence in the architecture, mixed in with a more European, classical style.

Just look at these archways!

And this turret!

AND this window! It's as if Ariel's dad got immortalised in stone.

I'd really recommend going inside the palace rooms as it's here where you get a feel for the history of the place. Pena Palace was built on top of an old monastery by Kind Ferdinand II and so remnants of this old building remain in the layout of the rooms - a dressing room which used to be a monk's 'cell' or a wine cellar which used to hold misbehaving monastery members. The palace also showcases the changing family values in the mid 1800s - rooms are smaller than expected, much more intimate and closer together, signifying the view that even the royal family had a right to be a closer unit with an element of privacy.

The view from the ramparts is simply spectacular and you suddenly appreciate just how high up the palace is!

Attached to the palace are extensive grounds and suddenly I was very, very glad I had won my trainers. Normally, there's a hop on hop off bus which will wiz you around from place to place, however on the day we visited it was out of service! So Joss and I took it upon ourselves to walk the kilometer and a half across the grounds, up hill and in 30 degree heat, to visit the Queen's chalet.

The walk was rather beautiful in places - we stumbled across bridges, ponds and even vegetable gardens.

However, finally we reached the chalet. The building was based on a Swiss chalet and felt like something out of Hansel and Gretel, all carved out of wood. Inside, it was surprisingly small, with vines and branches carved into the ceiling.

Our next stop was the medieval Moorish Castle which was on top of its own hill, a long walk away. Now, mostly what's left is a collection of stone walls which you can walk along. There's also a cute little market selling local food and drink.

We climbed right to the highest point - it seemed like we could see over the entirety of Portugal from up there!

Sintra was a fantastic day trip - I really enjoyed discovering all of the different places to visit even if the walks between them were long, hot and sweaty! The Pena Palace really is not to be missed - although I wished we'd had a little more time to explore every little nook and cranny!

Friday, 28 July 2017

Portugal: Exploring Belém

Having managed to finally settle down in our hotel and survive our first night, it was time to start exploring what Lisbon had to offer. First stop therefore was the famous area of Belém.

Belém is a little way out of the city center and is home to many of Lisbon's most popular sites. The first of these we came across was Belém Tower, an old military outpost which used to protect the river from pirates and enemy attacks!

Despite it's rather serious purpose, I thought the tower its self was rather beautiful!

A short walk along the river front brought us to the Padrão dos Descobrimentos or 'Monument of Discoveries', a great big sculpture which cut against the sky. The monument represents the 'Age of Discovery' when Portuguese adventurers ventured across the oceans for the first time to discover previously unknown lands.

We opted to go inside the monument, which involved being packed into a surprisingly small lift and then walking up a few steep flights of narrow stairs. The view from the top was quite impressive, however perhaps Lisbon lacks some of the amazing skylines you may have experienced in other cities.

It turned out that there was an unexpected exhibition in the base of the sculpture which depicted how non-Europeans had been depicted throughout Portugal's history which was fascinating but also quite hard hitting, drawing attention to the extreme racism present in Europe's history.

Our next stop was the stunning Jerónimos Monastery and chapel. The monastery used to be home to a brotherhood of monks before the state decided that monks and nuns weren't really contributing anything to society! They were then turfed out and the monastery opened up to the public. 

It was said to be in this monastery that the famous 'Pastel de Nata' (custard tarts) were accidentally created by a young novice monk who had been banished to the kitchen for misbehaving. These tarts were then sold to try and generate an income for the now homeless monks! 

The architecture of the monastery is just simply stunning. Everywhere you look there are sweeping archways and beautiful details carved into the stone. There's even a lion who is rumoured to grant wishes if you rub his paw!

All of this exploring was hard work and so our last stop of the day was a chance to sit down and devour some of the Pastel de Nata at the famous bakery 'Pastéis de Belém. 

Now, I have to admit, despite the hype, I was a little dubious of the egg tarts - to me, they just didn't look all that appealing. However, I was proven wrong the moment I tool a deliciously crumbly first bite. They were seriously tasty.

Tasty enough that Joss and I may have devoured five between the two of us....


The recipe for Pastel de Nata is a closely guarded secret and one which the bakery has followed for over a hundred years! Each day, thousands of the little tarts are baked and sold, but only the master confectioners know the recipe, mixing it up in a 'secret room' within the shop. The line for the bakery was filled with tourists and locals alike, showcasing just how good these little tarts are!

Belém was a great day trip and we left still wanting to explore more - I can't wait for a chance to return and see what else it has to offer!

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Portugal: Arriving in Lisbon

Whilst Jossi was over in the UK, we decided to use the time to see a bit of Europe neither of us had visited before. Therefore, one hasty plane ticket booking session later, we found ourselves on our way to Lisbon...

Travelling with Joss is always a bit of an adventure and this time was no different. This trip, our adventure started virtually the moment we got off the plane and onto the airport bus which, we had been assured by the very nice helpful bus information lady, would drop us no more than 3mins walk from our hotel.

The very nice helpful bus information lady was lying.

When we disembarked (after what had been a very scenic journey) we found ourselves at a busy roundabout with no buildings which looked quite like our hotel in sight.

Now, Lisbon is known as 'the city of seven hills' which, as you can imagine, doesn't make it sound very suitcase friendly. Whilst on the bus, Joss and I had joked among ourselves about how 'thank God we didn't have to walk up any of those hills today' as well as wondering whether we would be staying at the top of any of the giant hills in sight. Well, it turned out we were. And that the bus stop was most definitely at the bottom of said hill.

Needless to say, the next 25mins were not so much fun (3mins my arse!). The hill was definitely as steep as it looked and suddenly the invitingly sunny weather morphed into a blazing inferno. Suddenly I was incredibly glad that we were travelling only with hand luggage, despite the faff of having to fit all of my carefully selected toiletries into one tiny clear plastic bag....

We arrived at the Epic Sana Lisboa hotel finally and were greeted by incredulous looks from the staff ('You walked?! With all of that?!') and thankfully, a selection of small nibbles.

We got ourselves checked in and went to play with our room - I felt like I was in that movie 'The Holiday' when I discovered I could control three different sets of curtains with a switch from beside my bed!

Finally it was time to relax. Travelling with Joss is always an adventure, and a damn good one at that!

Apologies for the lack of photos in this post. Hills + Travelling = One very grumpy Katie

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Exploring Provence: Gordes, Roussillon and the Lavender Fields

Our Provence exploration continued when we signed up to a little day trip which took us out to see the lavender fields and the very different towns of Roussillon and Gordes.

Our day started quite early, with a small group of us piling into the back of a people carrier and being driven out of the walls of Avignon. Our guide was very chatty, telling us all about the history of the region, how the Popes came to be there and what happened to all the lavender being grown, as we drove through the beautiful Provence countryside.

Our first stop was Sénanque Abbey where monks still live today. Here, they tend fields of lavender and keep honey bees for their livelihood, as well as offering tours of the abbey. 

After a quick look around, it was back into the car and on our way to Gordes. 

We turned a bend in the road and suddenly we could see the town in front of us, jutting out of the ground on a great peak of rock, overlooking the plane of the surrounding countryside. It was quite a magnificent sight! 

When we got down into the town, we discovered it was market day! We wandered amongst the stalls, before buying a large tranche of cheese which got demolished by time we'd made it back to the car.... Ooops.  

I popped my head through a hidden wooden door and found a beautiful painted church inside. 

The town was made up of winding pale stone streets and pretty shuttered houses - I wish we'd had more time to explore, but before we knew it it was time to head back to the bus. 

Our third stop was the lavender fields. Our guide explained how all the flowers we saw were actually 'lavandin' which is a specially bread variation of the flower characterised by its stronger colour as well as larger, more plentiful flowers. It turned out that lavandin is often the plant used when a stronger smelling oil is required and that most of the 'lavender' in Provence was in fact 'lavandin - as much as 80%'!

The field smelt absolutely incredible and I had far too much fun trying to photograph the waving stems (while trying to avoid  the million and one honey bees everywhere!). 

Finally, it was off to our last stop: Roussillon. 

The first thing I noticed about Roussillon was the huge contrast it posed to Gordes, Pale stone had given away to a rich red landscape with houses carved out of the same ruddy colour.

'No Filter Needed'

The amazing colour comes from the ochre deposits in the ground - the village was once famed for the quality of ochre which could be mined there. Now, the mining has stopped and the village is left with an incredible quarry landscape which you're able to walk around.  

The colour is so intense you almost feel like you've stepped into an artist's impression of the red planet... 

I loved how the vivid green of the trees stood out against the rich red of the ground. 

Before long, our tour was over and it was time to return to Avignon. The tour had most definitely been whistle-stop  and I wished we'd had more time in each place, but I'd definitely gotten an informative taste of the amazing places available to visit in Provence. Hopefully I'll be able to return soon and explore it further! 

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