Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Lisbon: Do's and Don'ts!

 

With its warm climate, perfect location next to the sea and relaxed atmosphere, Lisbon is ideal for a short break. Sprawling neighbourhoods are ideal for exploring, there's no shortage of sights, and a day at the beach is only a short train ride away. We thoroughly enjoyed our five days in the Portuguese capital and I hope to return again one day - there's still plenty to see! Here's a few pieces of advice for visiting...

Do's

- Venture outside the central part of the city. Catching a tram or a train into the suburbs or a nearby town is quick and simple, revealing a new aspect to the region. We ventured west to a couple of the quiet little beach towns during our stay, although if I am fortunate enough to visit again I'd definitely stop in Belem to visit the monastery we glimpsed from the train.


- Lose the map. Lisbon's streets are winding and steep, but part of the fun is simply wandering around. Rather than keeping your nose and eyes attached to a map, accept that you will lost and look closely around - and above - you instead. There's so much to see.

- Seek out interesting restaurants to eat at. Fortunately, we knew a number of people who had already visited the city and were able to give us some tips on where to eat. Although most places seemed to serve fresh, delicious food, we found that wandering side and back streets offered the best value for money and more unique locations to re-fuel.


Don'ts

- Just look for hotels or hostels in the very centre of town. We stayed a twenty minutes walk from the main plazas, and not only was our neighbourhood interesting in itself, but the forced daily stroll helped us find some interesting sights (such as the Aqueduct) and a few local restaurants.


- Forget to check opening days and times when planning your visit. Like many other central European countries, shops and restaurants are often closed on Sundays and operate reduced hours on Saturdays. Many museums are closed on Mondays, but are free to visit on Sundays. Fortunately, we stayed from Monday to Friday, so were unaffected by closures, but although Lisbon is ideal for a weekend break, it's worth checking what will be open before travelling.

 

The beauty of Lisbon: A photo-blog

Lisbon has many interesting and grand sights to offer, but the real beauty of the city lies in the small details. During our five days in the Portuguese capital, we were continuously wowed by the many mosaics that could be found hidden away in small plazas or on the sides of buildings, dramatic fountains gushing with water (and soaking me on more than one occasion during an ill-timed photo) and colourful architecture. Here are a few  of the highlights...

Quirky restaurants there for the finding - often situated in beautiful buildings or surroundings

A peacock puts on a display for the tourists at the Castelo de Sao Jorge

Poppies paint a splash of red on a hillside

Numerous churches dot the landscape - towers reaching up into the sky

Streets boast unique pavements, each a different pattern

Fountains make for a refreshing break from the sun - until the wind changes and you receive a soaking instead!

Old painted mosaics dotted around the city

Trams make light work of the steep uphill climbs

Colourful paper garlands accompany bright music in the suburbs

The dramatically beautiful Convento do Carmo

Sitting in a park - there's no shortage of gorgeous city views around
 

5 days in Lisbon


After a friend received some wonderful news, years in the making, we decided to celebrate with a city break to the Portuguese capital of Lisbon.

Built, like Rome, on seven hills, the city is a sprawling collection of distinct districts, each with their own character. In just five days, we tried to see as much as it as possible, soaking up the atmosphere and some early summer sun.


After finding our bearings during the first day, we scrapped the map – it’s difficult to get truly lost, and exploring the meandering streets and alleys is part of the fun, even if your calves will groan by the end of each day. Picking a direction at random revealed to us beautiful mosaics, brightly coloured hanging decorations, buskers throwing hopeful looks at passers-by next to metro stations and quieter narrow cobbled streets. If we became tired or ready for some lunch there was always a simple (lazy) way back - the extensive tram network is an easy way to navigate the city, and saves the long slog up some of the steeper hills. It can work out pricey for very short journeys, but is a real establishment of the city, shared by locals and tourists – particularly outside the centre.

 
As always when visiting a city, I was a little worried that after a few days I’d be ready to leave the bustle, but there was plenty to amuse us during our stay.

We began with the Castelo de Sao Jorge, a hilltop fortification with sweeping views across the city. The castle's many towers are made for exploring and I particularly enjoyed wandering the archaeological site in the grounds as peacocks strutted past. Having taken the tram up, we returned to the centre by foot, passing beautiful churches whilst winding our way down steeply cobbled passages. Back at sea level, we headed towards the heart of the city, Praca do Comercio - a vast square lined with stunning buildings looking out towards the water. Unfortunately, the central statue was undergoing renovation when we visited, with huge amounts of scaffolding somewhat affecting the view, but it was still a lovely place to stop for a snack as the clouds parted and the sun lit up the white stone surrounding us. We even managed to time our visit to coincide with some traditional dancing taking place.

 
 
Resisting being dragged in to participate, we instead nipped across the the other side of the square for some wine tasting - eager to raise the profile of Portuguese wine, free tastings were being offered and we didn't need much persuasion to join a tour. It was an interesting hour during which I actually learnt a few new facts (wine knowledge is not exactly one of my strong points).

 
After spending our first day ticking off some of the main sights Lisbon has to offer, we devoted the rest of our time in the city seeking out some less-visited areas. We climbed high up the Aqueduct das Aguas Livres, close to our hotel, incorporating the slightly eerie experience of entering through a green-lit chamber with deep, crystal clear pools of water with an alternate view over the city from above. We rode the trams at random, hopping off and seeking out pretty churches, colourful streets hung with brightly paper banners, and small cafes to eat at.

 
Although I adored everything Lisbon had to offer, The real highlight of the whole trip for me was the Convento do Carmo. We'd spotted this huge structure sitting perched above the central plazas a number of times during our first few days, thick white walls and a glimpse of arches beyond. It was only as we entered from the other side, however, that its incredible beauty was revealed. Almost destroyed by an earthquake in 1755, the only remaining features of the convent are its Gothic arches standing completely exposed. The ruins are absolutely captivating, as is the small attached museum, and we spent a couple of hours just wandering around.

 

Monday, 11 November 2013

Monday photo - 11th November


Despite wishing the cold evenings and slushy streets away by around February, the onset of true winter each November never fails to excite me. The first crisp, clean snow, coating the trees and fields with icing sugar softness, only vibrant red berries still peering out beneath their white hats. This picture, taken last year close to where I live, is one of my favourites for showing just how magical the UK can look during the dark months.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Monday photo - 4th November


I'd completely underestimated just how hot Buenos Aires could be in early summer, the heat radiating from the pavements and tall buildings. Luckily, the city is full of parks - sheltering trees and cool lakes providing a much-needed respite from the blazing sun.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Monday photo - 28th October


We'd climbed up a series of steep steps to a viewing platform, saw the many moss green mounds stretching into the distance. Hot and sweaty, we found a quieter patch not filled with other tourists, all here to see the same marvel - the much advertised 'chocolate hills' of Bohol.

"Hummm...I think we may have come during the wrong season to see them in their full glory."

"Wait, I think I spot a brown one...see, just past the first two, on the right."

"Got it. Success - we've seen a chocolate hill! The others are still pretty impressive too though."

"Isn't that always the way? Even when something isn't exactly as we imagined it, it's still new and exciting."

"And that is why we travel."

Monday, 21 October 2013

Monday photo - 21st October


The Petronas Towers are the classic picture of modern Kuala Lumpa - shimmering in the darkness, they make for a truly impressive sight, bright white illuminating the surrounding area and reaching up like beacons into the night sky.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Monday photo - 14th October


This week's 'Monday photo' comes from Antigua, a picturesque colonial town which serves as the perfect base for day trips and activities in Guatemala. Even if you do not want to venture too far, wandering the streets is hugely enjoyable in itself - the buildings are colourful and richly detailed, like this pale yellow church. 

Monday, 7 October 2013

Monday photo - 7th October


When I visited Kenya a number of years ago, there were a few animals I was particularly hoping to glimpse lurking in the bush or in the depths of the lakes. High up on my list were hippos - these huge, deadly creatures who at the same time are so graceful and beautiful in their watery environment. We were fortunate enough to see one on land early one morning, but the real highlight was a small boat trip where they surrounded us in large groups, eyes and ears alert.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

An evening at the Eurovision Song Contest

 

One of my earliest memories. Piled into the living room, around our tiny TV. The rare chance to stay up late. The bright colours, elaborate displays and volume up high, occasional comments interrupting the music.

"I like this one - it's quite catchy"

"Too boring - it'll never win"

Sounds of shushing across the room. "I'm trying to listen...".

Finally, hours later and somewhere halfway between dreams and reality, the announcement made and everyone discussing if it was the 'right' choice, we'd move sluggishly up to bed, our favourite song still running through our heads.


The Eurovision Song Contest was always an important yearly event in our house growing up. No matter what else was happening in our lives, we all eagerly anticipated the evening for weeks beforehand. One year, a cry of outrage as our street experienced a power cut halfway through GB's entry. Another saw us laughing until our sides hurt as yet another bizarre German entry hung from scaffolding like a monkey. The outrage of the political voting, finally understood sometime during my early teenage years, eventually falling into humorous acceptance - it doesn't matter if we never win, think about the millions of people all watching the same event at the same time.


For those living outside of Europe, it must seem a bizarre throwback to days long gone. Countries entering some of their best, or possibly worst, but always entertaining, acts for an evening of entertainment. There are those who loathe the whole event - the huge amount of money it costs to host (or even enter), heavily subsidised by the original founding nations. Cringe-worthy singing and a distinctly euro-pop vibe. For the past couple of years there have been calls to end the tradition, mostly connected with the financial crisis - should countries be spending sums of money on such frivolity? I understand all the arguments and why some nations have made the decision to pull out. Personally, I would be sad to see it go. Millions still switch on their TVs to watch the contest, and thousands gather each year in the host country to witness the extravaganza.

This year, I was one of them.


I'd been toying with the idea of booking tickets for a number of years, but just hadn't been able to pull the trigger. Could I justify a trip abroad just for one event? Could I even fit it into a weekend? Finally, the stars aligned and when Malmo in Sweden was announced as the next host city, I couldn't say no. Copenhagen, just a 45 minute train ride from the stadium, was a short and cheap flight away, and I could combine an evening at the concert with exploring a new city. After our day basking under the warm sun, we changed and hopped on a train, packed with hundreds of other revellers.

I knew it was going to be a good night when our carriage filled up with men dressed in wedding dresses and people wrapped in their country's flag, tied like capes - an odd assortment of superheroes. As we stepped onto the platform in Malmo, I felt distinctly under dressed as the crowds swelled around us, a sea of colour and noise. The atmosphere was incredible - more jubilant and excited than any other concert I've ever attended. Strangers were singing and hugging in the queue, sharing distances travelled and fond memories of past events. We joined in, chatting to those sitting around us and swapping cameras to take photos.

The show itself was everything I'd hoped for, the winning act thoroughly deserving of the prize. It's odd - neither F or I are fans of the typical type of music performed, and I'm as far from extroverted as it is possible to get. Yet there is something special about Eurovision - something that was born during my childhood and has never left. Whatever it is, it leaves a smile on my face every time.

We're considering going back again next year...

 

Thursday, 3 October 2013

A spring day in Copenhagen


When we touched down in Denmark in the middle of May for a weekend break, I was prepared for the worst. The rain had barely ceased in the UK for weeks, with low temperatures to match, and although I'd packed my umbrella, I couldn't help feeling a little disappointed that I'd miss the beautiful gardens and parks in full bloom, set against a blue sky.

I needn't have worried. Despite being only a couple of hours from home, Copenhagen was in the middle of a short heatwave, with temperatures soaring and my umbrella happily made redundant. After peeling off my many layers, we set out to explore.


With no fixed plan in place, we wandered along the canals, stopping to marvel at the sand sculpture competition taking place and seeking out the source of loud, thumping music, which led us straight in the middle of a carnival. Disentangling ourselves from the crowds of onlookers, we made our way to a quieter street, where pastel townhouses overlooked the glittering blue of the water and we could cool down with a few scoops of ice-cream.


Filled with parks, gardens and pretty house-lined canals, Copenhagen is a gorgeous city with lots to see, much of it for free. Of course, one of the biggest draws is also, size-wise, one of the smallest - the famous statue of 'The Little Mermaid', inspired by Hans Christian Anderson's tale. The mermaid, being of an easily transportable size, is notoriously a kleptomaniac's dream, and over the years it has been stolen, moved and vandalised. It's hit or miss whether she will actually be there during a visit.


Luckily, when we arrived at her home by the waterside (conveniently situated close to the cruise ship docks), she sat proudly staring across the water, hot sun glancing off her bronze body and tail. I'd come expecting her to be small and surrounded by eager tourists desperate for a photo, but was still impressed - I'd grown up loving the Anderson fairy tales and the mermaid seemed a physical representation of that beloved part of my childhood. Even the obnoxious man shoving children out of the way to clamber up rocks and pose for a seemingly endless set of photos couldn't destroy my mood (although I did suggest, perhaps rather loudly, that maybe it was time to give someone else the chance to have their picture taken...)


After hours just wandering the city, drinking in the atmosphere and the sights, it was time to head back to our hotel to change and excitedly head out once more for the main reason we'd chosen Copenhagen for this short break...

 

Dubrovnik: Do's and Don'ts!


So... it's been a few months since I've published a blog post (in fact, I couldn't believe how long when I checked the date of my last post!). A combination of factors have kept me away from blogging recently, but I'm finally getting back on track and ready to catch up. I've been on a few trips over the past months which I intend to share over the coming weeks, so let's get started!

Continuing on where I left off, it's time for the ever-present tips and advice for visiting the gorgeous city of Dubrovnik. Easily done in a couple of packed days, but better explored over a leisurely week or so, it's high on my list of places to return to one day.

Do's

- Spend a day walking the walls. Boasting the best views over the city and the surrounding sea, these imposing barriers separating the old town from the rest of Dubrovnik are the perfect way to lose a few hours. Dedicate enough time to complete the full circuit, and be prepared - the climb can be a little tough for the unfit.



- Indulge in some of the delicious gelato to be found dotted around the city - a perfect way to cool off after a hot day of exploring!

- Look out for special events taking place during your visit. Whilst we were there, we attended a beautiful concert in a tiny church, and a couple of limited-time museum exhibitions. The tourist information office has plenty of ideas and programs of events, although there are also placards and posters on boards around the old town.

- Choose your dates wisely. We visited in spring, which whilst unpredictable in terms of weather, was quieter and more peaceful. The summer months will guarantee you the (hot!) sun, but also the heaving crowds, and although winter is quietest of all, be prepared for a number of tourist facilities to have closed for the low season.




Don'ts

- Limit yourself to pizza and pasta for dinners. It's easy to be tempted by the cheaper, numerous Italian restaurants along and beside the main streets. However, there are many alternate choices hidden down side alleys which are worth seeking out, and the seafood along the harbour, although pricier, is worth a splurge.

- Underestimate how challenging exploring the Old Town can be. With steep stone staircases surrounding the central streets, there is no way of fully seeing everything the city has to offer without a bit of climbing.

- Think that Dubrovnik doesn't have much to offer. As well as its incredible beauty, the city is historically rich and also at the centre of a rapidly developing country in terms of tourism. Go now before everyone else does!

 

Monday, 27 May 2013

Monday photo - 27th May


As darkness began to fall, the rain finally ceased as we approached the monumental Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon. Gently removing our shoes at the top of the broad entrance stairs, we stepped onto cool marble, wet feet softly slapping. The thin layer of water coating the smooth floor threw sparkling reflections around us, and although I'm sure the pagoda is beautiful at any time, the rain made it seem that we were surrounded with gold in every direction, reaching both into the sky and deep inside the ground. It was an experience that I'll never forget. 

Monday, 20 May 2013

Monday photo - 20th May


One of my favourite excursions during a trip to Turkey a number of years ago was visiting the Lycian rock tombs in Dalyan. Cut high into the rock, their weathered facades still display the soft variety of natural colours found within the cliffs, the placement over the river a testament to the skill of the carvers, over two thousands years ago. 

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Secret gardens, marching bands and steep streets: Dubrovnik's many charms


After a day walking the walls and viewing the town from above, we spent our remaining days in Dubrovnik at ground level. Easter bank holiday was upon us, and with an improvement in the weather, the streets were buzzing with outdoor restaurants, church bells ringing and even a display by the city's marching band.



We often found ourselves drifting towards the harbour, watching the waves lap against the moored boats and enjoying the gentle sea breeze as cats peered out of cracks in the stone and approached visitors, hoping for a snack.


Dubrovnik boasts a number of small museums and old building open for public viewing, including the beautiful and secluded gardens tucked inside a monastery - a peaceful respite from the lively heart of the old town. With only the odd bird and the aromatic smell of a variety of plants for company, it was the ideal location to close my eyes and soak up a little sun.



In the evenings, we climbed steps to softly-lit churches, sought out new viewpoints and stuffed ourselves full with a variety of food. The trip was relaxing and slow-paced, five days the perfect amount of time to explore this beautiful city before heading back home to the rain and snow.