Sunday, 22 May 2016

MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY 2016|PORTUGAL PART 3| HEAVENLY MADEIRA

Hello my dear readers,

If you are just joining us now, then here is what you have missed so far: Athens, Santorini, Lisbon, Sintra and Cascais.  Those who have been following my narrative about our 2016 European holiday, will recall that our last stop was Lisbon where we spent four exciting, jam-packed with discoveries days and after that we flew to Madeira, an island in the Portuguese archipelago about two hours flight from Lisbon but when we stepped outside the terminal I thought we landed on a different continent altogether.

The first thing we noticed was the warm balmy weather that felt so nice after being subjected to the cold for the last three weeks.  We also noticed how bright, rich and luscious the flora around us was, with the bright sun shining on us and the blue sea sparkling under its rays, it felt like a slice of paradise.

Again, we rented a car but the driving and navigation was so much easier than in Santorini that I was no longer scared to be smashed into a cliff or thrown over the railing into an abyss and for a change I was actually enjoying the ride to the hotel.

All the rooms in our suite of the Cliff Bay Hotel were overlooking the sea and the blue pools and rows of white deck chairs below.  And everywhere I looked, I saw tall and slender palm trees, thick bushes of flowering bougonvelia, emerald green lawns all sparkling and shining under the bright spring sun.  It reminded me a lot of Sydney in summer.  Our hotel was packed with Brits enjoying the warm weather and natural beauty of Madeira.

On our first night we had a scrumptious dinner (that my foodie husband reserved months ago) at Il Gallo D'Oro, a Michelin starred restaurant that happened to be situated on the ground floor of our hotel.

We only had a one full day and a bit, so after a short discussion with the concierge of what the “must see sites” in Madeira are, we got into our rented car and headed in the direction of the town centre.  There we boarded the funicular (Cable Car) that took us up 560 meters to a full view of the breathtaking landscapes of the city.

After the ride, we did some sightseeing around the charming streets of the old part of town, visited the local produce market, walked along narrow alleys with walls adorned by the funky murals and after a short stop at a local coffee house for a cup of delicious cappuccino (it was before 11 am so cappuccino is allowed) we returned to the car and set off to Porto Moniz, situated in northwest corner of Madeira, which has long been famous for its natural swimming pools and its pure, beautiful scenery.

It took us just over an hour to get there.  It was fascinating to watch the change in the landscape, the flat green fields gradually morphing into black rocks soaring high into the sky, away went the thick blooming bushes, replaced by dense jungles of tall trees and thick vines.  The temperature was dropping so fast that by the time we reached Porto Moniz and got out of the car, we needed to put on our jumpers and scarves.  But the place was magnificent and looked rather dramatic and primeval.

The natural lava swimming pools are the highlight of the village of Porto Moniz.  They are made up of volcanic rock, into which the sea flows naturally.  The water is crystal clear and these natural wonders are a delight to swim in during the summer or just watch the sea surge forward to fill them with water and then draw back leaving them quite shallow.
First driving, then walking made us quite hungry and we stopped at the local seafood restaurant for a plate of grilled sardines, a Portuguese delicacy.

We returned to our hotel late in the afternoon.  We were glad to feel the hot sun on our skin and spent the rest of the afternoon sunbathing near the pool overlooking the shimmering sea.

We retreated to our room quite early as the next morning we were flying to Zurich, our last stop before coming home.  But I will tell you about that in my next post.


Until then

Thursday, 12 May 2016

MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - PORTUGAL PART 2|SINTRA & CASCAIS

Hi again, my dear readers

You might recall that my last post was about our time in Lisbon.  Today I would like to tell you about two beautiful places that were part of our Lisbon experience - a day trip to see Sintra and Cascais.
MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY -  SINTRA


MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY -  SINTRA
Recommended among the top 10 day trips destinations, Sintra is only 40 minutes train ride from the centre of Lisbon.  It is regarded as one of the most picturesque, enchanting and romantic European cities. Its collection of fairytale-looking palaces, beautifully designed sprawling gardens and extravagant villas make it a destination not to be missed.


As soon as we alighted from the train and walked toward the main square of Sintra, we noticed two gigantic conical chimneys (the town's most recognisable landmarks) that belong to National Palace.
MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY -  SINTRA
But the most famous and <in my opinion, the most beautiful among them all is Pena Palace. The palace stands on the top of a hill high above Sintra and on a clear day can be seen from Lisbon.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.
PENA PALACE, SINTRA

PENA PALACE, SINTRA
Although getting to Sintra was a very easy affair, getting to Pena Palace was a totally different matter.  As I said before, it stands high on a hill that we definitely were not prepared to climb.  The other option was taking a cab or a local bus that would take you to the foot of the hill and then you either walk the rest of they way up or catch a shuttle bus for an additional fee (of course) to get you to the front gates of the Palace.  We opted for latter, the bus seems like a lot of fun, besides I was fascinated to see how the driver was navigating the narrow winding path, overcoming 90 degree bends without a scratch to the vehicle.
PENA PALACE, SINTRA

PENA PALACE, SINTRA

PENA PALACE, SINTRA

PENA PALACE
After a slow 15 minutes ride, we finally reached the gates of Pena Palace.  It looked like absolute magic.  Build in the early 19th century, the exterior is a fantastic conglomeration of turrets, domes and ramparts all washed in an array of pastel shades.  I have never ever seen anything like it before.  Despite the fact that it was midweek in early April, the grounds were full of visitors.  In fact, it was quite difficult to take a photo without another ten people around you doing exactly the same and another ten posing in front of the lenses.
PENA PALACE

PENA PALACE
Not every tower looked the same.  Pena Palace represents an array of styles reflecting the much loved exotic taste of Romanticism.  The interiors are as lavishly decorated as the interiors.  Sadly, a few rooms were not available for viewing at the time of our visit but what we saw was sublime:  in every room the walls were covered by richly patterned wall paper, thick carpets covered parquetry floors and everywhere the objects of art and decor were the examples of superb craftsmanship.
PENA PALACE, SINTRA

PENA PALACE, SINTRA

After we completed the tour of the castle and gardens nearby, we boarded the same bus to come back to the city centre.  There we caught a train to visit the nearby town of Cascais, recommended by the concierge of our hotel.
MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY -  SASCAIS

MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY -  SASCAIS

MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY -  SASCAIS
It is a coastal town about 30 kilometers from Lisbon and regarded as one of the richest municipalities of Portugal.
MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY -  SASCAIS

MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY -  SASCAIS

MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY -  SASCAIS
Formerly a sleepy fishermen town, it is now a most popular vacation spot for both Portuguese and European tourists.  We spent the whole afternoon strolling along the waterfront admiring the intricate architecture of the houses that line the boardwalk and colourful boats bobbing on the water, then stopped for an early dinner at one of the multitude of restaurants and enjoyed the sumptuous dinner of expertly cooked local seafood. 
MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY -  SASCAIS

MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY -  SASCAIS

MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY -  SASCAIS

Exhausted but energized by what we had seen, we boarded the late train to return to Lisbon.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON

Hi everyone,

In the last few posts I’ve been sharing with you my latest European adventure.  Previously I was telling you about our time in Greece (Athens and Santorini) but now is the time to move to the next place on our itinerary - Portugal.
MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON

Our first stop was Lisbon.  Apart from it being Portugal’s capital, I didn’t know much about this far-Western European capital.  I heard from the lady I work with that it is a beautiful city and we were quite curious to see it for ourselves.

We landed in Lisbon late in the evening and couldn’t see much of the city on the way to our hotel. We stayed at Santiago de Alfama, a small boutique hotel situated in Alfama (the oldest district of Lisbon), that was recently converted from a 15th century castle into a modern, stylish and sophisticated place, situated within a short walk to Castelo de São Jorge.
MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON

MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON

Our first step in exploring a new city has always been on the top of a Red Hop-on Hop-Off bus and this was no exception.  Fortunately, the bus interchange was within ten minutes walk from our hotel so armed with directions and a city map given to us by the concierge, we began our Lisbon adventure.  
MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON

MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON

The first thing we noticed as we stepped outside is how all the streets in the old city are paved with small cobblestones that make walking quite challenging.  Luckily for us, we were forewarned and were properly shod. 
MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON
The district of Alfama is a labyrinth of narrow streets, winding alleys and steep flights of steps.  Lots of buildings are covered by ancient tiles of intricate and colourful design, and others are painted in pink and yellow hues and are a great fun to look at.  
MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON
Some streets bend at a really sharp angle and as you come around a corner, you unexpectedly find a cosy bar, a coffee shop or an art gallery or a shop. We absolutely loved it.  Finally we made it to the bus stop and spent the next couple of hours seeing the city from the top deck of the bus which gives you totally different perspective of the city and its people.
MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON
The next day we boarded the famous 28 yellow tram travelling through Alfama all the way to its last stop next to magnificent Estrela Basilica
MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON
We then walked all the way back to our hotel, making unplanned detours to the right and left off the track into the narrow streets of the surrounding neighbourhoods of Baixa and Chiado taking images of the street murals as we went.
STREET ART, LISBON

STREET ART, LISBON

STREET ART, LISBON

STREET ART, LISBON

STREET ART, LISBON

STREET ART, LISBON

STREET ART, LISBON

STREET ART, LISBON

MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON

MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON

We walked and walked and couldn’t get enough of the charms of Lisbon.  At some point we stopped at a local tavern, went inside and ate the most delicious lunch surrounded purely by locals.
We fell in love with Lisbon.  We admired the architecture of the old buildings, the colours they were painted, the mosaic of wall tiles, the bright hues of front doors, the cobblestoned laneways with their small bars, vinotecas and eateries and the soft Fado music streaming out into the street from the open doors and windows – the numerous charms of Lisbon.
MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON

MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON

MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON
It was almost dark by the time we found our way back to the hotel.

The next day we made a trip to Mercado da Ribeira, main Lisbon’s food market that in 2014 was taken over by TimeOut Lisboa magazine, whose management added stalls offering food and traditional local products.  
MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON
Today Mercado da Ribeira is not only a destination for fresh produce but also a busy hub and a great place to have the most sumptuous lunch chosen from over 50 different food stalls and then eaten at one of the numerous communal table sharing your joy for food and wine with fellow food lovers.
MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON

MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON
There is so much to do in Lisbon that our four days were absolutely full on and yet there was more to go.  We, did, however, found time to visit the majestic town of Sintra but that story is for another post.
MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON

MY EUROPEAN HOLIDAY - ENCHANTING LISBON

Unfortunately, the streak of bad weather that we encountered in Greece, followed us all the way to Portugal and precluded us doing the roof-top bar hopping in Barrio Alto where the good food, wine, Fado music and great views over the city all come together to create a perfect way to end the day but we, however, found a lovely, very cosy restaurant and wine called Espumantaria on a way in out hotel where we had a scrumptious meal and drank absolutely divine wine.
Espumantaria, Lisbong
Add caption

My Steak Tartare at Espumantaria, Lisbon

Espumantaria, Lisbon

I will continue to tell you more about its enchanting city and its surrounding in my next post. 

Until then,